It was all very strange.
He was used to the Blue Spirit being unseen, unknown, a rumor. Just glimpsed of some dark entity in the middle of the night, gone as soon as it came. It was better if everyone thought it was an actual spirit, working for reasons of its own.
But, for Zuko, things never worked out the way he wanted.
He staked out a lone house just outside the edge of a village to the north of where the marauder’s hideout was located, intending to swipe some extra soap, if he could find it, and maybe, if he was very lucky, a handful of copper coins. Not enough to bankrupt a family, but enough for him to get by a little more easily. At least to start.
Zuko waited for cover of night, ignoring the hunger pains in his stomach, until he was sure the family was all asleep. He crept up to the wooden engawa and paused there, listening. No sounds came from within. The moon was close to half, and there were clouds in the sky; cover of darkness was not as good as it could have been, but it was decent enough. He wasn’t worried.
As he slipped along, he ran a hand along the door panels, searching for the best place to gain entry. There. His fingers found the barest crack where one of the panels hadn’t been shut quite all the way. Zuko gently worked his fingers in the opening and carefully, slowly, pushed open the panel just enough for him to slip in.
The interior was dark, but once his eyes began to adjust to the deeper shadows he felt sure enough to navigate through. It’d be easy enough for him to produce a small flame to see by, but that might alert someone. Instead, he moved cautiously, keeping one hand outstretched. He moved through the house like a shadow, picking up a few items here and there. Most people weren’t better off than him, so he long ago had taken to only stealing what he needed to get buy. Zuko didn’t have space for luxuries in his single pack, anyway.
The most important thing he found was in the small washroom: a bar of soap. It even looked unused. Zuko wasn’t sure what he’d done recently to grant him such luck (maybe his helping the waterbender was it, but he tried not to think about that much), but he wasn’t about to start questioning it. The soap went into his pack, along with a few handfuls of dried meat and fruit, and a couple of silver pieces. By the size of this house, it was clear the family was slightly better off than most others, so he didn’t feel guilty for taking more than he normally would have.
He crept back out of the washroom, pausing to make sure he didn’t hear a change in the steady breathing of the family sleeping down the corridor, then slowly made his way back toward the window he’d come in. He was nearly out when a growl cut through the quiet. Zuko froze, feeling his heart drop into his gut—which was what had made the noise.
Maybe he was far enough away from the bedrooms that no one would be alerted.
“Are you hungry?”
The voice of a little girl nearly made him drop his pack. He whirled, mind racing to try and come up with some sort of excuse that could keep her quiet and get him out as quickly as possible.
Disarmingly, she smiled up at him.
“We’ve got some extra food from dinner, if you want.” Without waiting for him to reply, she went over to the cooking pot still hanging by the embers of a fire, and spooned him out a bowl of what looked like juk with chopped vegetables in it. She came back over to him and offered it with one hand. “Here you go.”
Tentatively, guiltily, Zuko shook his head. “No, thank you,” he began. “I—”
Before he could finish, a crash came from behind him. Again, Zuko whirled to see another darkly clad person scramble to their feet, the shoji they’d just knocked down lying torn beneath them on the floor. Out of instinct, Zuko put his hand out to create a barrier between this new intruder and the little girl. The other’s face was halfway covered, with a cloth mask tied around their nose and mouth. Unlike with Zuko’s mask, it left their green eyes exposed.
“What, you some kinda house guardian?” the person snarled at him. They lifted their fists, preparing to attack. The glint of moonlight off a blade flashed like a firebug in the night.
Zuko said nothing, but surged into action. He didn’t let the new intruder get the first move, knowing that if he was fast enough he might be able to incapacitate them before they destroyed more of the house. Or, worse, hurt the little girl or someone else.
With his options limited and unwilling to resort to bending, he barreled toward them, then shot forward, knocking them back and grappling with them. The momentum sent both Zuko and the intruder back out the broken wall, tumbling down off the engawa and onto the hard earth. While he was quite a good combatant, Zuko wasn’t truly skilled at the art of grappling, and so simply did his best to try and keep the other’s limbs pinned. He didn’t want them to get up or be able to use that blade against him.
Distantly, the sound of footsteps on wood reached him, but it was unimportant next to subduing his opponent. He felt warmth rise in him, bolstering his will to win. But, while Zuko did not give in to the urge to firebend, he used its energy to gain a moment of overpowering the struggling intruder beneath him and knock them out.
Somewhere off to his left, a voice was calling to him, and growing nearer. Chest heaving from the fight, Zuko lifted his head from staring at the slowly groaning intruder on the ground to the voice. The familiar haze of a quick and unexpected fight slowly dissipated from his senses, and Zuko’s focus widened beyond that of his enemy.
The little girl was running up to him again, before an older kid caught up to her and grabbed hold of her—an older sibling by the look. Beyond them, two adults came into view, staring at Zuko with wide eyes. A quiet scrabbling just beneath him snapped his attention back down, thinking he was about to be stabbed, but the intruder was trying to scramble back away from Zuko.
“You—you fight like a demon!” they said, eyes wide and a bruise forming over one of them. They managed to get to their feet with a bit of stumbling, and Zuko let them run off into the night. It was a waste to try and stop them again.
“He saved me!” the little girl stated firmly, bringing his gaze back to the family. She tried to worm her way out of her sister’s grasp.
“Yeah, that was real lucky he was there,” her sister said, not taking her eyes off Zuko, plainly suspicious of him.
All at once, the younger girl stopped struggling, and looked up at her sister with a very serious expression. “He was just hungry. He probably smelled our tasty dinner from tonight. I heard his stomach.”
As if on cue, it growled again. Zuko was glad for the mask that hid his burning cheeks.
Their father came forward, standing just beside his children. “Listen, friend, times have been tough. We understand that, so we don’t judge you. But you saved Oriya, so…”
His wife stepped in. “We can heat up some food as thanks.”
Guilt clawed at his insides, and his cheeks burned hotter. Silently, he shook his head.
The father frowned, heavy eyebrows drawing together. “We can’t let you go without repaying your kindness. Just… we’ll make you a pack.”
Without waiting for him to reply—much like his youngest daughter had—he vanished back into the darkness of the house. Eyes cast down, Zuko slowly reached into his pack as their mother came over to join her two girls. His fingers closed around the bar of soap he’d stolen from them; his jaw tightened as he hesitated. After a moment and a sigh, he lifted it out of his pack and held it up to them. The mother’s eyes went a little wider with recognition. Then, to his surprise, her face softened.
“Keep it,” she said quietly. “It’s an easy price to pay for a life.”
The father came back out of the house with a small tied cloth. “There’s enough for a few small meals here,” he said. “Thank you again, stranger. Your mask is frightening, but it seems to have been in our favor tonight.”
Zuko left them with a series of conflicting emotions roiling in his chest. He’d stolen from them. They had to have known, or at least guessed, that he wouldn’t have taken just a bar of soap. Yet, still, they’d given him more. His pack, with the bundle of food, weighed heavily on his back as he traveled.
He didn’t stop until much later that night, when exhaustion overtook him and promised quick sleep.
The involuntary good deed he committed seemed to set off a chain reaction of more.
As he traveled, he came across others he ended up helping. An old, nearly blind man’s cart was stuck in a ditch, with his ostrich horse’s leg hurt. Zuko dragged the cart out of the ditch while the man tended to his animal’s injury. As thanks, he got a small sack of rice. A young woman was shouldering far too heavy a pack for her—medical supplies, she told him breathlessly when she spotted him, for the next town. He offered to take it for her, since he was heading in that direction anyway. She nearly cried when she thanked him, and gave him a small bundle stuffed with medical herbs and a small pot of cooling salve. He also got a handful of coins upon delivering it, though he only took half. The rest he left for them to give to the young woman who would have gotten it originally.
On, and on, it went. Sometimes he helped out with the mask on, sometimes without. He started hearing rumors of a benevolent spirit helping strangers when he reached new towns, rumors of a Blue Spirit rising up from the countryside to help those ground down beneath the Fire Nation’s heel.
Of course, Zuko’s luck being what it was—namely, non-existent—those rumors came back to bite him in the ass.
He slipped out of the small town under the cover of dark one night a few weeks after the house intruder incident. There was a small gang in the area that was bullying some of the more vulnerable residents, so he’d donned his mask and given them a scare—and a beating—that would have them thinking twice about continuing. As he made his way out of town into the nearby woods, something prickled the back of his neck. He froze, listening and scanning the area immediately surrounding him. Zuko stood in a small grove of trees, their foliage now thick with summer leaves. It was probably just a passing animal, he told himself. Nothing to worry about. He started walking again when nothing presented itself as the source.
There was a single snap of a branch on the ground behind him. Before he had the chance to spin and face whatever was there, a sharp blow to the back of his head blurred his vision and sent him sprawling. He saw nothing but black after that.
The smell of brine and iron surrounded him, and regular undulations rocked his empty stomach into heaving. His arms ached, and his throat burned as if he’d swallowed mouthfuls of sand. This was a familiar place, the belly of a Fire Nation ship. The difference was that instead of commanding it, as he had years ago in the first few years of his exile, now he was captive.
When he tried to move, his limbs refused to respond. At first, he thought it was because he was weak, but then he realized that it was because he was restrained by shackles. The room he was in was bare, the metal walls undecorated and unforgiving. They didn’t even give him a strange sense of comfort, despite having spent nearly five years on a ship not too dissimilar to this one. Now, it just made his stomach turn.
Regularly, he heard voices around him. He was able to piecemeal together that he’d been a captive on a smaller vessel for about a week, in and out of consciousness, and was the primary talk of the ship. From that, he decided it must be a relatively low-ranked ship in the fleet. None of that explained why he was still wearing his Blue Spirit mask, however.
“I won’t be the one to do it,” one voice said, drawing Zuko out of his thoughts. “Are you crazy? I like my skin unburned and my life intact. The mask stays on until they dock. He’ll want to be the one to do the honors of unmasking before executing this peasant.”
Understanding slapped him like a bucket of icy water. There was only one Admiral he was aware of that took such personal pleasure in interrogating and disposing of people himself: Zhao. It sounded like they were anchored, waiting for Zhao to arrive and decide what to do with Zuko himself. If he waited until Zhao arrived and was discovered to be the Blue Spirit… Death would be the more welcome option, then.
He had to get out of here.
A plan began forming in his head as he scanned the room through the slits of his mask. Zuko shook his wrists a bit, gauging the weight of the metal shackles. They were the standard ones used for non-bending prisoners, which, he happened to know, were more easily softened by heat than the ones reserved for firebending prisoners. He allowed himself a small smile. Now, all he had to do was wait for the right moment. Living among Earth Kingdom citizens the past several years made him feel like he’d acquired the greater patience they could have for biding their time. A younger version of him wanted to strain against his bindings right away, but he knew that would do him no good but burn energy he wanted to reserve. So instead, he deepened his breathing and planned out what he would do once he cut through his chains.
It was probably about an hour after midnight when his chance came.
Zuko only was able to guess at the time from scraping the rust off his memory of ship guard rotations. He wasn’t heavily guarded at all. From what he’d learned from the quiet talk of the guards to one another, though the Blue Spirit was an irritating thorn in the sides of a few particularly ornery Fire Nation commanders, he wasn’t really seen as a threat now captured; they all assumed he was a non-bender. That gave him ample opportunity to take advantage of their underestimation of him.
Quietly, he focused and heated up his wrists and hands. Firebending comes from the breath. Zuko breathed flame and hot steam onto the taught chain binding his shackles together, pushing himself to make it hotter until the metal reddened and then began to soften. Not wasting any time, he tugged his arms sharply apart, snapping the chain in half. He repeated the process on the shackles binding his feet, and soon he was free.
The door wasn’t an obstacle, and he ignored it entirely, instead hauling himself up into the vent in the ceiling. Slipping off the ship and into the water was as easy as waiting for the patrol to pass and timing his movements to that. The ship itself was bigger than his old one had been, but still no fighting cruiser, so he was off it within a few minutes. After that, the tiring swim to shore was a welcome burn to his muscles. The moment he pulled himself up onto a wooden pier, he was free.
By the time the morning guard rotation would be around to give him the tasteless juk and egg bun for breakfast, he would be miles away from the port town the ship waited at. He would be out in the countryside again, and away from the ships under Zhao’s command and, with any kind of luck, any more chance of the Admiral catching him. This had been too close a call for Zuko’s liking.
Weeks passed, and turned into months.
He found himself across the narrow channel of water from where the marauder’s hideout had been, but, as always he made do with what he could. Once again, he began with nothing. The pack the waterbender had left behind was somewhere on the other side of the channel, and he mourned finding his uncle’s cup a second time. But, Zuko couldn’t dwell or dawdle. He had to keep moving. His flight across the channel was too close a call, even if he had eventually escaped. Zuko lifted his hand to trace the scar along his throat that a rope had left, hidden beneath the high collar of a plain tunic. In all his years of evading being caught, he never thought that particular demon of his past would come to haunt him again.
Zuko scowled and returned his focus to the task at hand.
The roughly woven dǒulì he wore shaded his face from the worst of the sun, but he still felt the heat of it against his back. Sweat rolled down his face and beneath his tunic, but he didn’t stop. A family had promised him a square meal if he helped them plough their fields, so here he was, pulling an unwilling and ornery ostrich horse row after row. He was nearly done, thankfully, though it had eaten up most of his afternoon and his energy.
When he finally went back to the farm after finishing and putting the animal back in its stall, he devoured the contents of the bowl set before him. Zuko’s stomach begged for him to ask for seconds—thirds, even—but he kept his mouth shut, instead only nodding thanks when handed a wrapped package of food to keep him going another few days.
The family offered a space in their barn for him, and he debated turning them down. But, as he stood to be on his way, exhaustion washed over him and made him waver on his feet. It wouldn’t hurt, he reasoned, to have a roof over his head and sweet hay to pillow him, for a night. It was better than the dusty ground, anyway.
Zuko thanked them again, and shouldered the pack he’d assembled over the last few months between honest work like this and stealing as the Blue Spirit. The barn wasn’t wholly dark, with plenty of holes in the rafters that birds or weather had made, letting the light of the stars and moon to trickle in. Not bothering to change out of his sweaty tunic, Zuko set his pack down on a thick pile of hay and lay down next to it.
He stared up at the gaps in the roof for a while, suddenly thinking about the waterbender. The moon was nearly full again. Zuko rested a hand over his heart. He wondered if she really was dead, or if she had somehow survived. It wasn’t impossible—he managed, despite the universe seemingly trying to do its best to end him. If anyone else he knew could survive as well, or better, than he, it would have to be her.
Wherever she was, he hoped she was doing better than he was.