This was originally written as a part of The Legend of Insert Name Here. I then submitted it on dA as part of Piandao Week, and now I'm using it to springboard Maikka Fortnight 2011. Never let it be said that I don't like to recycle.
Close Enough (to Make no Difference)
"...So we brought her to you. If we take care, she should be safe here. If you will take her."
The swordsmaster glances for a second towards the balcony. The girl is sitting there, looking at the garden.
Six years old, and already so serious. He can't help but relate.
Is it, he wonders, deliberate? Surely they must know about his own turbulent childhood. Did they bring her to him, knowing he would never dream of turning her away? Six years old and abandoned by her family, how could he?
No, he chides himself. No, he is being too cynical. He simply has a large, safe house, far from any hub of civilisation. She would be as safe with him as anywhere in the world.
She will need to be. Six years old, and a sudden burst of emotion levels a wall. Her family recoils- after all, she has been demonised these past ninety years.
It's hard not to understand why they might be perturbed that their only daughter is the Avatar.
The messenger coughs, demanding attention.
"Will you take her, Master?"
The swordsmaster shifts slightly in his seat.
"If she will consent to stay. Yes." A short sentence, but it sets his mind whirling, calculating all he is going to have to do in light of this, how his life is going to change.
Adoption is always a big decision.
The messenger shifts again.
"She will have to be trained, of course."
The swordsmaster suddenly gives the messenger his complete, undivided attention. It's enough to make the man break out in a cold sweat.
"Certainly. If she wishes to be trained."
The messenger blinks.
"But she must wish to be trained."
The swordsmaster barely moves his hand more than an inch, but it is as good as drawing steel. The messenger backs away hurriedly.
The swordsmaster stands, with a sudden movement.
"I will speak with her."
He turns on his heel, and strides out into the afternoon sun.
"I was speaking to Lee."
She considered this. "I don't like him."
"He smells funny."
The swordsmaster represses the urge to grin into his hand.
"We were talking about you."
"We were wondering what you want to do."
"I wanna go home."
"I know. But I'm afraid you can't, for a while."
"So I was wondering if you wanted to stay here, for a little while?" Lies to children are easy, on one level.
"Do you got melon? I like melon."
He blinks, trying to keep up.
"I think we might just have some melon, yes."
It's an uneasy arrangement, for him. He knows the reasoning the Order has, but it makes him uneasy, and reminds him why he was reluctant to join the Order in the first place. But still, what else could be done?
And if need be, he could guard the young Avatar from the machinations of the Order as well as the more overt dangers of the Fire Nation.
He blinks, as something occurs to him.
"What is your name, child?"
Golden, solemn eyes survey him.
"Mai. My name is Piandao, and I would like to welcome you to my home."
The years pass, as they must. There are rumours that Mai is some illicit daughter of his, taken under his wing out of duty, or an overly strong sense of paternal affection. He had told the Order that he would prefer people to think she was a niece, but he supposed there could be worse stories told about him.
She is a serious child. She hides whenever there are students come to train, and seems resentful of them invading her home. And it is her home, now, although she is not his daughter. She is ten years old. Her days are mostly spent in the garden or down in the village- a few of the locals take a shine to her, possibly mistaking her sullen silence for shyness. She does not try to avoid her lessons, though, and Piandao finds her a capable, if quiet, student. Once, in a fit of concern that he was not providing a broad enough education for her, he hires a tutor, but it ends badly- she barely speaks to the poor woman, and simply sits and scowls until Piandao relents and decides that teaching her himself is the only sensible solution. Still, his concern for her mental growth leads him to procure book after book on mathematics and geography and poetry and sit up poring over them late into the night, taking notes that become her lessons for the next day. It's a strangely invigorating experience for him.
And one day she asks to be taught sword fighting.
He doubts anyone in the Order expected that, and that tickles him, in a mean way. So of course he begins teaching her.
She's pretty good. Not overtly enthusiastic- Mai is never overtly anything- but she grasps the forms quickly and has the tenacity required to keep practicing day after day, long after the novelty has worn off.
Piandao thinks that in about ten years, she might be a quite respectable fighter.
She is not his daughter.
She throws that in his face on her twelfth birthday, and he's surprised how much it stings. He has never tried to be a father to the girl- he is convinced he wouldn't be any good at it- but he had always tried to be there if she needed it.
But on her twelfth birthday, she reminds him that she is not his daughter. Afterwards, neither of them can even remember what the argument had been about- something about how far beyond the bounds of the mansion she was allowed to roam unsupervised.
She is not his daughter. It's true, of course, but privately, he wonders if she said that just to hurt his feelings. If so, it worked. They spend the next three days
Three days later, he is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of crying.
It takes him approximately twelve seconds to reach Mai's room.
In a sleep-addled state, she says something about fire and dragons, and he offers to get her a sleeping draught. She takes it without hesitation, and drinks it without complaint.
Just as he is about to close the door on her, she sits up in bed.
"Thank you," she says, fiercely.
"Sleep well," he replies, and closes the door.
One morning, when Mai is thirteen years old, she comes to him while he is practicing his calligraphy and asks the worst possible question she could.
"What's Sozin's Comet?"
He closes his eyes, breify, and sets his brush aside.
And it all comes out. Every scrap of information the Order of the White Lotus has seen fit to provide him with, and every educated guess and conclusion he has come to on his own. The telling takes almost an hour, and by the end Mai is sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring at the patterns in the carpet.
"Oh," is the only thing she says, when he is done.
"Was there anything else?" he asks, after a while.
"Just one thing. I'm the Avatar, aren't I."
It wasn't a question, but he answered it anyway.
"The Avatar. The most vilified person in the entire Fire Nation. Is me."
"Fuck." She says it with the barest flicker of emotion, but he can see the light of her burning future reflected in her eyes, and the way she's stoically watching her hopes and dreams crumble into nothing is tearing him to shreds.
And her jaw sets, and she glares at him, possibly as a substitute for glaring at the entire world.
"So. What happens now?"
Ignore it, he thinks, desperately. Grow in your own time, find happiness, find love, carve your own place in the world. Do anything but shoulder this terrible burden. It's a selfish thought, he knows- the world needs her, more than ever- but he has seen the fires of war, and more than anything else he wants her childhood to be as unlike his as possible.
But he cannot say it. He cannot command her to fetter herself, and it is not just because of the chilly hand of the greater good.
"You must live in the manner you choose. Nothing has changed. You are who you always were."
Her frown deepens. "Is this why I'm here? Is this why my parents abandoned me?"
He inhales, and closes his eyes. In truth, this conversation has been long overdue.
"Yes. When you were six years old, you were admitted to the Royal Academy for Girls. I am told someone made fun of you, and provoked you into a fight. In response, you knocked down a wall. You were effectively arrested, and your mother had ceded control of you over to the Fire Lord when agents of the Order of the White Lotus broke you out of custody, and put it about that you had died."
"The Order of the White Lotus? Who are they?"
"A group that opposes the Fire Lord and his plans for conquest, and who would see you stand up and destroy him. They wanted to send you to someone who would ...mould you into into someone who would do this without hesitation." He permits himself a small smile. "They sent you to me, instead."
She isn't placated. "So what do you want from me?"
He inhales slowly, and closes his eyes for a moment.
"I told you. I want you to live as you see fit. If you want to remain in seclusion, then this place will always be a home for you. If you wish to reintegrate with Fire Nation society, then I will do all I can- my name still carries some weight, though I will likely end up bending the knee to Ozai in that case. And if you decide to shoulder the burden thrust upon you, then I will do everything in my power to help you. What happens next is entirely up to you."
It takes a week, but one morning, over breakfast, Mai looks up with steel in her eyes.
"I want to learn firebending."
He simply nods, and promises to make the arrangements, crushing the dread and disappointment in his heart.
In the end, it is her role as Avatar that undoes him, as he always knew it would. One morning, a few weeks after her fifteenth birthday, she announces that she has to go to Crescent Island, and she must be there before the Winter Solstice. He doesn't question it, and makes the necessary arrangements. He cannot go himself, of course- his continued existence is controversial enough, without him flaunting it. Fat goes in his stead.
She returns taciturn and closed-lipped. He does not pry. If she wishes to confide in him, she will.
But there is no time.
He stands on the wall, and stares at the sea of flickering torches. A snake of small fires, winding its way towards Shu Jing village.
"How many, do you think?" Fat moves noiselessly, and you would never know he was there if he said nothing.
"Considerably more than a hundred, I would say."
"You know what to do."
"Of course." They've been over this a thousand times. "I will make preparations. Perhaps you should go and wake Mai."
A flash of pain crosses Piandao's face. "Perhaps it would be best if-"
"If I may be so bold, it would be better for you to do it."
Piandao closes his eyes, briefly. "You are right, of course."
"Mai. Mai, wake up."
"Hnn... wass... wassappening?"
He's pressing a sword into her hand as she wakes- that alone is enough to have her up and alert.
"Pack," he says, his throat constricting. "Take whatever you can carry and cannot leave behind."
Her eyes are hollow. In a dull voice, she says "They found me, didn't they."
"Why?" she asks, and sounds genuinely confused. "It must have been when I went to Crescent Island. Someone saw me. Someone talked."
"Consider this your final lesson," he says, voice harsh so he stays in control. "Someone always talks. Remember that."
"What do you-"
"Mai, you have to go. Now. They will be here by dawn. I can delay them, but if you are within a hundred miles they will find you. Fat can set you on your way. There is no time for argument."
"But-" and he can see the fight rise in her, frustrated energy and wild, careless anger and it's like a punch in the gut. He's proud of her, so proud it hurts, but now is not the time for her to show her hand.
"Mai," I am sorry. A thousand times sorry. You have not lived the life you deserved, and I have proved a woefully inadequate guardian. All I could give you was the choice, and you chose to take the burden of the world. I promised to help you, but in the end all it seems I can give you is time. I am sorry. "... live well, and always remember that you have a choice."
He leaves her to pack.
He never sees her again.
Dawn has broken. The gates are straining under the weight of a battering ram. In moments, they will give, and the army meant to capture the Avatar will instead find only him.
It is a sacrifice he makes with a lighter heart than he ever remembers.
She is not his daughter. But she might as well be, he tells himself, as he draws his blade for the last time.
It is almost a year before she returns to Shi Jing.
The manor is a ruin. Twisted and blackened rubble. The bodies have been removed, but the scars on the land remain.
"Give me a minute," she says, roughly. Her two Water Tribe companions tactfully retreat, leaving her to wander the ruin of her childhood home.
Here and there, broken blades and spears remain among the blackened skeletons of the cherry trees. She walks as though through a dream until, at the steps to the house, she sees it, and almost laughs, almost cries.
Bright and shining steel- a jian, lodged blade-first between the flagstones, improbably balanced after all this time. Someone must have placed it there, though either in mockery or tribute she could not say.
She drops into a sudden stance, and the stone beneath the sword begins to shift and rise. Slowly, inch by inch, detail by detail the column of earth she raises morphs and sloughs excess rock until the figure of a man appears. Slightly more than six feet tall, elegantly but conservatively dressed in robes- no armour, not any more-, his face puts his age at perhaps forty, his beard clipped and manageable, his face clean of the sideburns so fashionable amongst the Fire Nation military, his hair tied back in a topknot. His left hand is held loosely behind his back, and his right rests gently upon the hilt of that flashing sword- his stance is relaxed, and although the sword is so much a part of him that leaving it out is almost sacrilege, he stands at ease. His battles are over now.
She stands there for some time, and the stone tribute to the man that was her father looks at her with that slight, knowing smile of his.
Eventually, the sun goes down, and as the moon reflects in the light of his sword, Mai turns. Her eyes are dry, and her tread is perfectly composed.
Not once does she look back.
The Water Tribe siblings look up as they hear her approach the camp. She looks concerned, but he just nods, and places a hand on Mai's shoulder.
She stares into the fire.
"We leave in the morning. We've got a job to do."