attackfish: Jet and Zuko fighting in the teashop, text "Obviously this is the place to come if you want to get murdered by lunatics" (Jet Juko TDL quote)
[personal profile] attackfish
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender. If I did, there would be a a lot more Mai.

Summary: After escaping Ozai's school for the Gifted and Talented, Mai and Zuko fumble their way to love, trust, recovery, and redemption, and maybe, to learning how to be human. Superhero AU.

Author's Note: Written for May Maiko Week 2017. There is a five headcanons post for ths universe here: [link].


Neither Queen nor Pawn


Spring

This is what it feels like to disappear:

Looking back on it, Mai is pretty sure she always had her powers, even if back then, she didn't know it. When she was six, she filched her mother's lipstick out of her purse and tried to put it on, and it had smeared everywhere. The peachy pink splotches staining her hands looked like some kind of fatal rash. She slipped it back into her mother's purse and hoped she wouldn't notice.

She got up and walked away to find a bathroom, keeping to the darker corners of the room, sliding along the walls. There was this feeling when she was sneaking around, that she thought everyone felt, where she could almost pour herself into the shadows, flatten herself out against the walls and the floor.

She does it all the time now, but now she knows what it is, and what she becomes.

When she found the bathroom, she stopped sneaking and scrubbed herself off, the greasy smears of lipstick lingering on her skin as if they were fighting her, trying to give her away. But the public bathroom soap and brown paper towels finally stripped it all off, and she snuck back to her mother’s side, pink-scrubbed cheeks and all.

Her mother hadn’t even noticed her leaving, which was probably why Mai slid herself back into the shadows, and stayed sitting next to her mother, until the doctor called her mother in. Her mother panicked and called for her. She followed and watched as her mother searched the room for her and begged other people to help, and when Mai lost patience with the game and tugged on her arm, her mother hadn’t believed her when Mai told her she had been right next to her the whole time.

When she was four, she remembers having a dream about getting out of bed, springing through the gaps between the windowpanes, into the backyard, and trying to turn on the hose to play in the water before giving up and going back to bed. She doesn't think it was a dream anymore.

She has no idea how much time she spent disappeared, or if it had anything to do with how easy it was for her parents to ignore her. It doesn't matter. She doesn't care.

She tried to go back, after Ozai’s school, after running away, but her parents didn’t want to hear about how the man they trusted used her. They were busy ignoring a new baby, and didn’t want to admit they had screwed up the last one. It was that feeling again when they just couldn’t see what was right in front of them. It made her wonder how often she had been disappeared, and how often they just couldn’t see.

It made it easy for her to just slip away.

They all would have been in danger if she’d stayed anyway.

This is what it feels like to disappear: It doesn’t feel like anything at all.

Mask

This is what it feels like to wear the mask:

Ozai gave the first one to her when she first came to the school. For the three months since she had first touched her face in front of a mirror, sick with dread as she dissolved into shadow smoke, she’d done her best to forget it, to ignore it, and pretend she wasn’t something out of a horror movie. But then Ozai was there with a white mask and a black catsuit, telling her that she wasn’t a monster; she had super powers. She wasn’t something out of a horror movie, she was something out of a comic book, and she should be proud. She was important. Not as important as Azula maybe, but then who was? Definitely not Zuko.

And that’s how Mai knew Azula really was the best, with the best and most important power, because it wasn’t just about being Ozai’s kid. If it were, Zuko would be exalted too.

She still finds herself thinking that way sometimes, as if Ozai was, and is, right, and it’s only his morals and not his judgment that are warped beyond belief. She still finds herself thinking that the things he values are intrinsically worth more, even when she knows in her bones this isn’t true, even when she can see it every time Zuko smiles at her.

Ozai used to say that Zuko didn’t have a power. He was just an accident who had accidents. Iroh says Zuko needs to learn how to handle stress better. Zuko says it isn’t about stress, it’s about feeling completely helpless, and anyway, he knows how to use his fire now, and he hasn’t had an accidental one in six months. Mai keeps a fire extinguisher in every room anyway.

He burned off part of Ozai’s hair once. Ozai had grabbed Zuko’s wrist and bent it back until his hand, still wreathed in flame, touched his own face. Mai had only been at the school for two months, and she had never forgotten the smell.

But Ozai told her she was special.

Zuko always knew where she was, even when she was just a cloud of vapor and shadow. He always knew which Ty Lee was the real one, and which one was just a duplicate. He still does. Back then she saw it as a sign that her parents should have been able to see her too.

It wasn’t until he left and recruitment stopped that Mai put it together.

She has a new mask now. And a long black hooded robe like something out of one of the fantasy novels she and Zuko trade back and forth. She wears them, like Ozai said, for all the times she can’t disappear. But the mask isn’t blank and faceless. It’s covered in loops and whirls like the shadow smoke she becomes.

This is what it feels like to wear the mask: It feels like it’s hers. She made it. Ozai never touched it.

Sweet

This is what it feels like to leave:

When Zuko left, Azula was the one who told her he was gone. She nodded, said, “Okay,” and walked away. She went to the bathroom, and locked the stall door, and waited for something to happen, to start crying maybe. But it didn’t happen. She opened the door, and walked back to her dorm.

When she put her head down on her pillow, there was a soft crunch and that had been how she found his letter. She slipped it into her notebook and read it to herself in secret, and waited to feel something other than empty.

Mai supposes she should have known he would come back for Aang. She will never forget how fragile he looked under the bright florescent light of the classroom they stuck him in, his hands tied behind his back to a water pipe, or how ridiculous his mask had looked, pushed up onto his sweaty hair.

She remembers his face when she walked in to relieve Professor Zhao as his guard. She remembers the way her face felt.

“Mai,” Zuko whispered.

She doesn’t remember what she said. It probably wasn’t very important. Instead she remembers the way it felt to say it and the stricken look on Zuko’s face, as he stumbled through giving her the why she must have demanded.

She remembers the way his voice shook when he told her that they hadn’t even asked Aang’s grandfather about him coming to the school. They’d just taken him in the night, and then turned on the gas stove, blown out the fire, and left. Azula had stayed behind, and in the morning...

“His grandfather was Buddhist monk. They were at the temple. When Azula sent in the lightning, it was like a bomb. They killed like twenty people to get him. Everyone inside, all of the monks. Aang doesn’t know. I couldn’t tell him.”

Aang cried all the time, frustrated, helpless tears, even though he was one of the special ones. Like Mai. Ozai wanted him because he could take the breath out of people’s lungs.

Mai didn’t say a word. Zuko stared at her as if willing her to speak, until at last, he broke the silence. “He’s going to kill me.”

“No he won’t.” Zuko was too useful to kill. Ozai needed more ‘talented’ kids, and only Zuko could find them for him. It had baffled her once, how Ozai could need Zuko and still call him worthless, but she knows now that special and worthless were just ways Ozai got them all to do what he wanted. “You’re going to have to tell the kid about the monks when you escape.”

She bent down, untied his hands, and left the door open when she walked away.

This is what it feels like to leave: It feels like promising herself she doesn’t care what sweet nothings anybody tries to feed her about being worthy. She makes her own worthiness, and always has.

Thunder

This is what it feels like to get lost:

When she first met Ozai, she called him Mr. Li, but he shook his head and told her to call him Ozai. He told her she shouldn’t be afraid of him, in fact she shouldn’t be afraid of anything at all.

After she untied Zuko’s hands and locked the door, she lurked under the willow tree outside the boys’ dorms, part of the shadows under the leaves, watching as Aang opened the window and Zuko helped him down. She watched as he brushed just past her and dropped something on the ground, then leave through the school’s side gate, and she saw Zuko glance, just once, back at her.

Mai materialized for only a moment to pick up the paper Zuko had dropped and stick it in her pocket before sinking back down into the shadows and floating through the rails of the gate and out, away from the school and Azula and Ozai, just away.

She slid into the backs of cars, and hitched her way west and south, switching from car to car as they unknowingly carried her to her parents’ house.

She stayed just long enough for her parents to call Ozai to come get her, before she got away from them too.

Shadow smoke doesn’t need a bed. It doesn’t need a roof over its head. It doesn’t get cold, or wet, or care about the world around it. The next few months were just a blur of slipping into empty dirty hotel rooms to catch a shower and pee, stealing sandwiches from grocery store deli cases, and sleeping floating in the branches of trees, Zuko’s address burning a hole in her pocket.

Ozai taught her well. The first week, she robbed a bank. Three days later, she unrobbed it. There wasn’t any point, so she just took the money and materialized it back in the vault where she found it.

It was pouring down rain when Mai arrives at Zuko’s place. Massive booms of thunder crashed overhead, so she stayed back, and waited under an awning at the bodega three blocks away. She never asked him what it felt like to feel someone using a talent. With all the thunder, she didn’t want him to feel her and think of Azula.

But when Azula made lightning, her thunder happened on sunny days and cloudless nights. Not that it mattered.

When the thunder stopped, leaving only the clouds and rain, she walked to the address Zuko gave her, climbed two flights of stairs, and knocked on the door.

Zuko wasn’t the one who answered. Mai almost walked away, almost ran because she didn’t know what else to do. She stood in the hall, numb, undecided. “You must be Mai.”

This is what it feels like to get lost: It feels like sitting at the table while Ozai’s own brother makes her tea and tells her she can stop being afraid, and wanting so badly to believe him.

Sun

This is what it feels like to stay:

Mai learned all kinds of things at school, like how to use a knife, how to spot and lose a tail, where to strike to do the most damage, how to tell when somebody’s telling the truth, how to memorize something the first time she hears it, how to hotwire a car and how to drive it once she’s got it. She has many useful skills. But they didn’t teach English there. She never took Biology. She’s seventeen and Zuko is eighteen, and neither of them have. Iroh bought them books and helps them study for their GED. The books cover the coffee table in the apartment’s tiny living room.

Iroh flew with her to California to break into her parents house. She had to, just to get her birth certificate and her social security card. He stopped her from taking her brother while she was there, and on the way back, talked her into sitting on the empty seat next to him instead of slipping into the shadows.

Aang lives there too. He shares a room with Zuko, so most of the time Zuko hangs out with her, in her room. When she moved in, her room was a storage room with a TV where Iroh tried to convince Aang and Zuko too keep their mess instead of the living room. This is why the GED books live on the coffee table now. Either the window or the door always has to be open, because otherwise the room is too stuffy to breathe.

Iroh is working on trying to get Aang declared not dead. He’s also trying to get himself declared his foster parent. Until then, he’s fourteen and stuck, officially dead, no family, no one but them. Iroh teaches him in the evenings after work and Mai and Zuko try to explain math and stuff during the day, which would probably work better if they understood it. They’re two runaways, and a dead kid, and nothing about this is legal, but no one asks questions. Maybe because they’re all Asian. People probably assume they belong together.

Maybe they do.

There are worse things than sitting on the couch, the morning sun banishing the shadows, her own body warm, real and solid, as real and solid as Zuko’s arm brushing against her, as he reaches for his Algebra workbook.

There are worse things than the clawing restlessness that sits under her skin and never lets up, even when Zuko twines his fingers into hers, or when their lips meet.

When the sun goes down, they each leave the apartment. He goes one way, she goes the other, but she kind of thinks they’re both looking for the same thing. Maybe he’ll tell her if he finds it.

She glides out into the night.

This is what it feels like to stay: It feels like waiting, waiting for her eighteenth birthday, for everything to fall apart, waiting for it to be over.

Resemblance

This is what it feels like to leave the mask behind:

Ever since she first saw Tom-Tom, Mai has been dreaming about him. She remembers these same dreams, from when she was little, dreams of a woman, who looks like she does now, or will look like in a few years at least, who sat beside her bed, who waited for her to wake, and then touched her face, disappearing her into shadow smoke. Only now, it’s her brother in her place, and in place of her older self are Azula and Ozai making Tom-Tom disappear.

It’s not really a mystery to her why she keeps dreaming this.

“I killed someone once,” she tells Zuko. “For your father.”

“What?” His eyes go wide. His back goes rigid, the hand resting on her shoulder tightening, and he pulls away from her, the warmth of his skin lingering where it had just been been. “When?”

Mai feels herself hunch over, but she can’t seem to stop it, or face this conversation with anything like dignity. “Couple months before I left. Ozai had me break into a government lab where he thought they had records of people like us. I got caught. I didn’t use my knife, I just... made her disappear.”

Zuko sat there for what seemed like an eternity, not speaking, just staring, until finally he said, “Are you sure she’s dead?”

“People usually don’t survive having all of their atoms dispersed, Zuko!”

“You do.”

“Yeah, but I’m different.”

“Have you ever tried?”

“Okay,” Mai snaps, the word leaving her against her will, anger and morbid curiosity jockeying for position inside her. “Fine.”

She raises her hand, and shadow smoke pours out and solidifies. The girl she had disappeared screams. Mai jerks forward and banishes her back into shadow smoke.

She looks at Zuko. He grabs her hand and they race out the door and down the apartment steps. They burst into the outside world, out of breath and giddy, and they keep running, their feet pounding against the sidewalk, until they can’t run anymore, held up only by each other and a chain link fence.

Mai staggers to her feet. “Come on,” she says, gripping his hand tight. They walk to a park. The sky overhead is gray, heavy with the threat of rain. No one is there but them.

Mai holds her hand up and lets the shadow smoke pour out again. This time, as the girl solidifies, she and Zuko take off running. She yells, but they don’t stop. By the time they make it home, the promised rain has come, driving through the gaps in their clothing, carving icy patterns across their skin. They drop back onto the couch together, soaking wet, exhausted and laughing.

This is what it feels like to leave the mask behind: It feels like maybe she never did anything yet for Ozai that she can’t undo, that the damage is repairable. There’s a chance to get out from under all of this.

Summer

This is what it feels like to just be:

Mai has never just been, not in her entire life. She has always been something, awkward, boring, out of place, waiting, bored, Ozai’s tool, Azula’s toy. There’s nothing for her to be in Iroh’s apartment except herself, whatever that’s even supposed to be.

She leaves at night, and Iroh doesn’t say a word. She bundles up her cloak and her mask, shoves them into a backpack, and puts them on in the stairwell. She calls herself the Kemurikage after a story her mother told her that she got from her mother. She looked it up once, on the library computer, but she couldn’t find a single Japanese legend about kemurikage spirits. She supposes all legends have to start somewhere though. Maybe this one started with her grandmother. Maybe it means her grandmother was like her.

It’s not real superheroing, what she does, not like the comic books or the movies. She never fights anybody. People holding up bodegas suddenly find their guns gone, disappeared out of their hands, only to turn up on the ground when the cops show up. She hangs out in bars and disappears people’s car keys when they get too drunk. None of it’s really exciting. Her life is still pretty boring.

Zuko usually leaves around the same time she does with his Blue Spirit mask. He comes back in the mornings with bruises and cuts, and Iroh fussing over him, and she wonders what in the world he thinks he’s doing.

They never go together, even if they’re both out there trying to do the same thing. They spend their days together, most of the time at least, but not the nights. Whatever it is they’re doing, they both do it alone.

Last week, Mai caught a news report about the Kyoshi Warrior, some kid going around messing with the Mafia. They had a photograph. Even under all the face paint, Mai recognized her. The girl she had disappeared and brought back. She’s like them, the report said, not all human. And she’s a kid. The report didn’t say so, but Mai could tell. She’s a kid like them.

Mai tries not to think about it, not right then. She’s trying to just be, to relax for a little bit. Iroh isn’t home to tell them they need to be studying, and Aang’s watching TV in the living room. They’re alone together, her and Zuko, at least mostly, and safe, and warm. They’re solid. They are whole, visible and solid, not like shadow smoke, nothing like shadow smoke at all. Zuko is half asleep and happy.

This is what it feels like to just be: It feels like lying in bed with the door closed and the window open, listening to the sounds of traffic and the city streets, and the muffled sounds of Aang’s show, her head on Zuko’s chest as he runs his fingers through her hair, the summer sun streaming in around them.


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attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)
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