His and Her Circumstances
Part 3 of 3: Theirs
"...and people are a lot more willing to shelter a strange traveler if he'll help them out with the problems they can't solve. My father's men ride hard on a lot of families to supply the war effort..."
Mai only half-listens as Zuko fills in the gap of his two missing years; a second lifetime he lived under a verity of aliases, but all strung together by the thread of the Blue Spirit. It's a fairly monotonous story, like something out of a children's storybook. The prince wrongly cast out among his people, living a life of crime to support himself and strike back at the powers-that-be.
It's heartening in a stupid way. Despite breaking under the weight of realizing his father's true character, Zuko has gone on being the same dork she remembers from their childhood. Lots of boys give their crush wildflowers, some even go so far as to give freshly picked lava-roses, but few are willing to deal with the bloody fingers from thorn pricks. The fact Zuko never, in all the years they circled around each other, bothered to consider clipping the thorns before he picked her those lava-roses was, in its own stupid way, beyond endearing. Kind of like watching Ty Lee twist herself into such a tangle that she needed a helping hand fixing herself.
He could have found a remote colonial village to start a new life in, or disappeared into the vastness of the Earth Kingdom where no one looks down on burn scars. Instead he put on a mask and started committing crime. She almost laughs, watching him talk animatedly about the problems of daily life for the peasantry like some bedtime champion, but his voice is so earnest that anything but calm acceptance would be insulting.
Few people would have even taken up the challenge of the hopeless quest his father had burdened him with in the first place. She's glad he hasn't changed, not really, even after the hardship he went through during the Agni Kai and his subsequent banishment.
She wonders if General Iroh knew about the roses his nephew had given her once upon a time. Probably not. If he had, he might have spent the last two years hunting for the Blue Spirit and not an angry young prince. She would have realized the same if she'd known he wasn't really...
He breaks off his story and looks to her. Naked anticipation shines in his golden eyes, and Mai doesn't need to guess once, let alone twice, that he's waiting for her judgment. Whatever lax discipline of his features he once possessed has atrophied away under the ease of a rigid wood mask. Mai knows that if she tried to emote so baldly as he now does, she would strain a muscle. "Y-yes?"
After dealing with unschooled peasants for so long, the natural image she projects of cool disinterest in all things must be terrifying to him. When she speaks to him, it is with no inflection in her tone. Let him interpret her meaning as he will, and that interpretation will tell her as much, if not more, than his answer. "Why didn't you tell your uncle you were leaving? He's been searching for you since you disappeared. You should have let him know you were alive, even after the fact."
Question. Hard truth. Rapprochement. The three together should set him off like a windmill sparkler, spraying fire everywhere. Yet they don't.
"I know." He draws in a deep breath, then exhales. "That's why I left him a letter alongside my severed topknot."
Her eyes narrow fractionally. "You left him a letter."
"Yeah. It was the easiest w-"
"You left him a letter."
He pauses, finally realizing that he's been chewing on the foot stuck in his mouth. "...Was I not supposed to?"
"Zuko," she says, and has to make a real effort for it not to come out like a growl, "what exactly did you tell him in that letter?"
I'm sorry you have to find out this way, but we no longer have anything to gain by traveling together. I need to find my own way.
"Ow!" Zuko rubs the spot where he was just slapped upside the head. "What was that for?"
"You are such a jerk." Mai's lips are infinitesimally pursed, and there's only a vague tightness around the skin of her brow, but her eyes smolder. Zuko has battled firebenders, earthbenders, soldiers, mercenaries, pirates, bandits, and irate farmers, but none of them have stirred up as much a sense of danger in him as the young woman staring him down.
He shifts on the bed, suddenly thankful that even if his outfit is formfitting, the black hides a sudden lack of virtue.
"Your uncle watched out for you," she goes on, "nursed you when you were sick. And that's how you repay him? A two line letter? At least tell me you're written him since then!"
Zuko was never good at politicking back at court, but he recognizes a question that shouldn't be answered directly when it barks in his face. "I needed to find myself!"
"And I'm sure that helps him sleep at night, wondering if you're dead in ditch somewhere, or being tortured by the Earth Kingdom." She turns away from him, milky skin and unfocused eyes making her understated discord sharp in profile. "You don't do stuff like that to the people you care about, Zuko."
He reaches for her hand, not fearful of touching her for the first time since their reunion. "Mai..."
She slips from his grasp and stands off the bed. He wonders if she's cognizant of how, in the candlelight, the curve of her hip shows through the thin silk of her sleeping robe. "Don't flatter yourself. I wasn't talking about me."
In two and a half years, he's almost grown use to the dark coal stewing in his stomach where his firebending chi once churned. Now the blackened lump inside him turns to ice. He's been burned in so many ways, but this... this is the worst. And it's all his own damn fault.
He stands, keeping his back to Mai. Calloused fingers slip into the pocket on his outfit's left breast, pulling out the item there kept warm by his skin. He sets it down with a click beside the lantern on Mai's nightstand. After taking a few seconds to collect himself, he puts his Blue Spirit mask back on.
Halfway to her door he pauses, considering. How he chooses to end this things this time... it shouldn't be cruel.
"Thank you for the funeral." He glances over his shoulder, futility studying her unreadable expression for some hint. "It's good to know somebody cared."
Mai is draped across her bed, watching the sun come up. Her guest bedroom opens to the east, another old Fire Nation tradition borrowed by the colonies. As the mythical First Fire rises, her slim, black-tipped fingers run over and over and over the heart-shaped lava rock Zuko left her.
The sky gradually shifts through a range of hues, starting from the unrelenting blackness of night until it ends with the dreary steel-tinged blue sky of the colonies. That final color is so different from the vibrant sapphire of the Fire Nation's daytime, but she thinks it appropriate for the sleepy colonies. Before she'd had her rooftop jaunt, Mai felt like she could have sleepwalked through the rest of her father's fact-finding mission.
She is seventeen years old, born late to parents who never expected to have one child, let alone a second fifteen years later. Her best friend ran off to the circus. Her almost-boyfriend was dead until last night. Only it turns out that he ran away too, just like Ty Lee, except he's a criminal and admitted to treasons acts.
Mai drifts off to sleep, missing boredom a little.
Panlong Colony is too newly established to be known for anything trite like a breed of rat-pigeon or a weapons shop, but their white tea might one day do it. There's a shop inside the fortress town run by an ex-army officer. He sells a new variety of white tea with a curious aftertaste of pine-cherry nuts. Mai has already purchased some in bulk for her mother, because souvenirs from every town visited were 'requested'.
A painting of the Dragon of the West garbed in full general's dress, hanging over the entranceway, gives Mai a hint to the owner's heritage as a tea master. Perhaps because she's operating on only four hours of troubled sleep, Mai doesn't remember the painting's existence until she's sitting at her table, savoring the heat radiating out the teacup and into her hands.
As she stares up into the confident grin of the almost-Fire Lord, smiling from a time when his son was alive and the royal family not hopelessly broken, a lump catches in Mai's throat.
Somehow, her life always revolves back to Zuko's family. If it's not that her father and Fire Lord Ozai were friends back at the Academy, it's that she was born and raised to be Azula's loyal sycophant, one who would never talk back. Even throwing knives at her bedroom walls in an act of apathetic rebellion only merited a new position as the Crown Princess's assassin-to-be.
Even Zuko had never been hers alone. Everything always came back to how what she did concerned her father's career or her own future position in court. Back in another lifetime, when her relationship with Zuko had shifted from Azula's brother to Mai's boy-who-is-a-friend, her mother had whispered hungrily of how Mai would make a proper Fire Lady. When he'd been exiled, her mother had sighed and told Mai that life as a lady-in-waiting was eminently respectable, especially with the prospect of the first female Fire Lord in six generations. "Men may win the empire," her mother would say, "but it will be women who rule the world."
Never mind Zuko or his future. He was gone and supposedly dead. It fell to her and Ty Lee to remember him, and then they'd had to wait until Azula left the capital to visit a reclusive firebending tutor lest the princess catch wind of the little ceremony in Ty Lee's family garden.
Sipping her white tea, Mai tries to forget the bitter taste that General Iroh's portrait inspired. There is no use being upset about reality, she tells herself, or a lack of escape from it. Ty Lee might fool herself into thinking Azula will never track her down to that wandering colonial circus, but Mai knows better. The only place people like them can ever be free is inside their own heads. Getting angry about that truth, or trying to fight it, is a waste of energy.
"Excuse me, miss, do you mind if I join you?"
Mai's baggy eyes dart up from her now-lukewarm teacup. She finds Zuko, dressed in a plain red tunic and matching pants, glaring at her with a completely flesh-toned face. Only the small smile gracing his lips and the lack of heat in his eyes prevents him from coming across as furiously angry.
"Are you wearing make-up?"
"Sit." Curtly gesturing to the free seat, she sips her tea. "We can trade fashion tips. Do some girl-talk."
Zuko grimaces but does as commanded. She wonders if sitting with his back to his uncle's portrait is happenstance. Probably not. The other free seat at their table would put it partially in his line-of-sight, but offer him a vital lookout on the teashop's front door. Facing him head-on does reveal an interesting detail: a livid bruise running up his jaw. That wasn't there last night.
They stare at each other across the small table.
"So," she starts, "you do this a lot?"
He nods. "If you ask witnesses to describe the guy who wasn't supposed to be there, they'll fixate on the first thing they remember. Getting rid of my scar is the first step, but I need something to replace it. Bruises, bandages, an eye-catching hair ordainment, a beard or m- is that a smile?"
"No," she lies, despite the faint upwards curl to her lips. "I can't you imagine you with a beard."
Which is another lie. She'd imagined in the quiet hours what he'd look like if he had lived on, and the unexpected opportunity to compare her guesses against reality is most pleasing. Her imagination has nothing on the reality of his broadened shoulders. Zuko at sixteen is taller and more muscular than at thirteen, the promise of adulthood apparent in his half-matured body. Except for being a notorious criminal and unofficially dead, he even acts the same. Full of swagger and self-confidence until someone punctures his ego and brings him back to Earth.
He huffs, "I'll have you know I grow a great beard."
"What, you want a medal? It's hair on your chin." And then her shoulders loosen, the air running out of her. Quietly, she asks, "Zuko, what are we doing?"
He stares back at her, then slowly raises an index finger and points to his teacup.
Mai is not impressed. "I thought you sweated out all your stupidity during that fever dream."
Zuko hunches forwards. His focused glare melts into a lopsided one. An unpainted eye softens; it regrets. "I..."
...was completely stupid. What had he been thinking? That he could talk with Mai and it'd be like old times? Ducking Azula to steal chaste kisses in the shadow of apple trees, drawing up his courage to hold Mai's hand and smell her hair?
"We're not kids anymore," she says, voice so cold that he knows it hurts her to speak.
Life was so much easier as the Blue Spirit. Things were clear in battle; his steel and his will alone against the world, no worries about the cost of sacrificing green troops he'd never met on the alter of military calculation. Getting 'requisitioned' supplies back to desperate colonists, hunting the bounties on evil men, tracking down rare medicinal plants for healers... it was a cleaner, easier life.
But however much he tries, he can't stop thinking of himself by the name of Zuko. It's painless to think that his father forever branded him a banished prince and nothing more, but his scar didn't make him linger outside Mai's bedroom last night. It doesn't drive him to wonder now, looking across the table, what cutting thing Mai will say next or what her hair looks like hanging plain against her bare back.
Father isn't the one who makes him want to be a prince again.
"No," he agrees. "We're not kids, Mai."
"Are you trying to make me run away with you?"
His heart catches. He hasn't thought that, hasn't even considered it. "Would you... want to?"
"I don't really see the point." She shrugs, mask back in place. More than her curves, her newfound poise, the mask makes her as noblewoman. Mai was always quiet and internal, but this lady - and she is a lady - sitting opposite him is doing more than putting up the natural defenses of the introvert. She can put on with flesh what he needs blue-painted wood to accomplish. He's not sure if that's a good thing or not. He least he knows that when he takes his mask off it's off. "Grand gestures are fine when you're a kid and don't know any better, but we're both old enough to know they never change anything."
His fingers curl into fists. "Deciding what you want in life isn't pointless."
"When did you ever decide anything?" The question strikes him like a slap. She exhales. It isn't quite a sigh. "Your father banished you. If it'd been entirely your choice, you'd still be the Crown Prince right now, probably eagerly serving your first tour of duty in the military that's slaughtering the Earth Kingdom towns you've sheltered in." Mai looks him dead in the eye. "You wouldn't be enjoying the same night life if you'd never gone to that war meeting."
He springs to his feet, knocking his chair to the ground. "Oh yeah? Well at least I don't nod along at whatever other people tell me! Maybe not everything in my life is what I wanted, but I made my own choices with the options I had left!"
The tea shop goes totally quiet.
Zuko looks around. The mix of local patrons stare in shock at him. His back flushes. The alarm in his head, finely tuned after his harrowing early period as a more incompetent Blue Spirit, blares like a riot.
Mai bows her head, hiding her eyes underneath long black bangs. She murmurs, "Good thing they're paying attention to that bruise."
There's only one thing he can do, his cover all but blown.
Zuko turns and stalks out of the shop, the perfect image of the irate boyfriend.
Qiang, body hugging the table, rolls a pai-sho tile on his knuckles. It's a surprisingly dexterous move coming from him. "Have you enjoyed yourself in our humble colony?"
"Of course," she says, keeping to script. "Your father has been most generous in his hospitality to us."
"I'm glad." Qiang pauses, visibly searching for conversational material. It's late at night, just the two of them alone in the mansion's library, but the niceties must be observed. It is one tradition Mai wishes the colonies hadn't continued. They're such a waste of time, and always play out the same way. "Soooo... do you think you'll be visiting again anytime soon, maybe?"
"No." It's the wrong time to feel tired, but Mai does. "I'm not coming back here."
Great job, Mai. Insult your host. Father will love that. So will Mother when she hears about it. "It's not you," she quickly adds. "It's... I have... had this friend. We grew up together, back in the capital, but... she being an acrobat was her destiny. She ran away a few months ago to join a circus, but before she left she said I should go with her." By way of explanation, she threw in, "I'm good with knives."
Qiang blinks slowly. "That," he says, "must have been hard for you. You don't seem the type to win over many friends."
She glares at him. He has the good sense to blush in embarrassment.
"Let me rephrase that so I sound less like an ass," Qiang says, dropping his dancing pai-sho tile to the tabletop. "It must be hard for you to be reminded by this country that your good friend ran off to join the circus here. Especially... when you wanted to go with her? Am I wrong?"
"Running away isn't romantic." Honestly, is she the only person in her generation with any sense? "I can think of better things to do with my time than pitching manure and entertaining squealing brats."
He sits back in his seat, resting clasped hands on his belly. After a moment, he says, "A very wise man once told me that the White Lotus is the most important tile in the game, but I think that's short-sighted. Any piece can win or lose you the game. It's just how you apply what you have."
Unless the game is fixed before you start playing. "Do I get cookie to go with that unwanted advice?"
Qiang's cheeks redden. He stands abruptly, jostling the table and unfinished pai-sho game. "No. I think we're done here." Sketching a curt bow, he adds, "Goodnight, Lady Mai."
Mai pauses in the doorway of her guest bedroom, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. Since Azula isn't around to be showy about her newly acquired lightning-bending skills, she chalks it up to being watched. While she can't see where he's hiding, she does appreciate that getting the drop on him twice has likely instilled a certain respect for her. While relying on people to overestimate you can carry some danger, Mai will let that slide this once.
"Stop fooling around, Zuko." The Blue Spirit drops down from the ceiling, landing right in front of her. Mai cocks an eyebrow. "Taking lessons from Ty Lee?"
The eyes behind the mask roll. "If I had, the whole world would know I was alive."
"True." She leaves the door open a crack. No need to lock it. He won't be staying around for long and no one's around to overhear them. "Steal anything nice lately?"
He pulls open his shirt a little to show off a scroll stuffed inside. "But that's just business. I came back for my heart rock."
"It was a gift!"
"Which you gave back to me this morning, remember?"
Affronted, he replies, "Well, maybe I want something to remember how cold and unfeeling you are. A lump of stone would be perfect."
"Whatever." She stalks over to her nightstand and jerks the topmost drawer open. She pulls out the lava rock and then slaps it into his waiting palm. "Have a fantastic life Zuko, for however little time you have left."
"W-what does that mean?" He pulls off his mask, revealing a one-eyed bewilderment. "You're going to tell people I'm alive?"
"No!" What kind of person did he think she was? "I'm trying to be realistic for you, because you don't seem to be. Sozin's Comet is only a year away. When the war's over, the Fire Nation isn't going to overlook petty criminals anymore."
Time and again over these past weeks, Mai has heard the phrase put our house to order spill from the lips of colonial officials with the practiced ease of a sage's recitation of funeral rites.
"I'll survive," he says with straight-faced confidence. Zuko puts his Blue Spirit back on, its frozen grin at odds with his seriousness. "And while you're playing lackey to Azula, I'll be following my own destiny."
Mai covers her face with her hands so she won't be blinded by such a glaring example of stupidity. "You really haven't changed. You're still the kind of moron who doesn't realize you clip a rose's thorns before picking it with your bare hands."
"No, you shouldn't," he says. "If you clip the thorns, it's not a rose anymore."
Mai lowers her hands. "...What?"
And that's when there's a knock on the ajar door.
"Lady Mai?" Zuko turns around as a heavy-set teen creeps into the bedroom. The boy's eyes are shaded under one hand, face cast downwards to preserve any dignity he might be infringing on. Zuko stuffs the lava rock into his breast pocket and reaches for his dao. Mai stills him with a touch.
"I want to apologize for abusing your familiarity before." The interloper peeks through his fingers. "Your door was open and... and... the B-Blue Spirit? GUAAAARDS! G-!"
Before Zuko can spring forward, the teen's shouting ends as five knives catch him around his clothes and pin him to the open door. The immobilized teen pales; too startled to shut his soundless, flapping lips.
Zuko, equally shocked himself, turns to Mai.
"Why not?" She shrugs. "All the cool kids are doing it."
"But you said-"
The knifed teen squeaks, "Guards?"
"We should go," Zuko says. He pauses, uncertain. "It is 'we', right?"
Mai smiles faintly. "Let's see where you and I find ourselves."
A trio of guards stops her in the hallway. She points for them, quickly explaining, "It's terrible! He attacked Qiang and now he's headed towards the governor's study!"
"Don't worry, Lady Mai," says the captain of the guards. "You're safe now."
It's only when they're gone off hunting their prey that she muses to herself, "I hope not. That'd be boring."
She turns. Halfway down this level of the staircase, her father stands with an apprehensive expression.
"Are you all right?" he asks. "There's an intruder-"
"I'm fine." She pulls back one sleeve to reveal the stiletto launcher and extra knife belts she's strapped to herself. Surplus goodies for the road, now that she won't be able to replace her arms so easily. "I can take care of myself."
"...I know." He sheepishly rubs the back of his head. "But a father worries."
Mai almost flinches from an unexpected spike of guilt, but her parents have trained her well. "I'm going to find a quiet corner to read in while these idiots sort themselves out. Don't wait up for me."
His voice chases after her as she glides past him. "Goodnight, Mai."
(One month later.)
Iroh is glad to see the back of Tidao Naval Station, home base of the Southern Fleet, now that his ship's resupply is finished. The former airbender lands were a stark sight, rendered all-but-inhospitable after a century of industrial exploitation. Worse yet was having to dine with Commander Zhao and his captains every night, if only to keep an ear to the navy's current affairs.
"Sir," says Lt. Jee, saluting as Iroh steps onto the bridge. "The last dozen barrels of your tea leaves are being loaded aboard. We'll be ready to sail shortly."
Jee hands him a slip of paper. "Also, a letter arrived for you this morning. It's from a Captain Mushi."
Iroh frowns, wracking his brain for a face to put with that name. He fails. "Let me see."
Breaking the wax seal, he reads the letter. It is short, unsigned, and to the point:
The jerk found himself all right. I agree with the assessment.
"S-Sir?" asks Lt. Jee, frozen in the bear hug Iroh has scooped him up in. Jee's bewilderment only increases when Iroh pulls back to reveal a tear-streaked face. "Are you feeling well, general?"
"Well? I'm GREAT!" Iroh grins. "Grab your pipa and crack open one of those tea barrels, Jee! We're throwing a party!
(Several hundred miles away, in the Earth Kingdom...)
Zuko inwardly cringes at the expression on Mai's face when Song's Mother sets a plate down in front of her. His friend-who-is-a-girl ("And don't get any other ideas, Mr. Blue Spirit.") has dropped several pounds since she joined him on the road, mostly from a reluctance to sample Earth Kingdom peasant cuisine.
He can tell from the twinge in her lip that all she's seeing is the grease and soggy vegetables, not the love and care put into it by their hosts. Her upbringing helps her at least pick at her meal enough to ward off people noticing her dislike, even if every swallow is pained.
It's only when Song is discussing the treatment of patients with her mother that Mai's look of disgust morphs to one of interest. "Acupuncture? Could you teach me?"
Zuko is dubious. "You're interested in medicine?"
"I am when it involves tiny knives."
Song says helpfully, "We call them needles."
He groans. "Don't give her any ideas."
Mai leans forward. "Tell me more..."