A shadow hurried along the peak of a roof.
The town below slept, mostly quiet. In a few houses, loose shutters tapped against their windowsills whenever the air stirred. The shadow paused, an inky stain against the dappled starlight of the night. It waited.
In the dirt street below, a single torch rounded a corner and bobbed steadily along. The guard walked much the same path, night after night. The torchlight illuminated the wooden eaves of the houses, and reached faint fingers of orange all the way to the rooftops. It stained the white of the shadow’s mask for a moment before the guard continued along their rounds. The light faded and the mask receded back into darkness. Sitting still as stone atop the roof, Zuko knew there was no reason for anyone to look up and see him.
Still, he waited.
A few minutes later, there was movement at the end of the street. The shadow shifted. A figure in a dark robe slipped against the building on the opposite side of the street. It was impossible to see many details in just the starlight, but the figure appeared to be wearing a large sugegasa. The long sleeves of their robe trailed behind them as they darted across the street. Dirt crunched softly beneath their feet before they disappeared out of sight beneath the peaked tsumakazari eave of the building on which the shadow perched.
Only the faintest of clacking heralded Zuko’s leaving, slipping almost soundlessly down the length of the roof to the edge. With a quick, practiced movement, he swung down from the eave and into an open window on the second floor of the house.
Inside, the house was dark. There were no loose shutters to tap against their frames here, and the wooden floors were polished so much that even in the dimmest of lights, they gleamed beneath Zuko’s feet.
Again, he waited.
A moment passed. Two. Then—a sudden chirp of metal joists against wood, followed swiftly by a frustrated hiss. Zuko darted across the smooth wooden floor to the stairs, descending with a surety of step that didn’t appear to alert the robed figure below of his presence.
At the bottom, the shadows were deeper; all the windows on the ground level were shaded from any starlight by the deep eaves of the house. Zuko slid into one of these dark pools and watched the robed figure from a few spans away. They stood frozen at the moment, the sugegasa tilted to indicate they were probably listening to see if the nightsparrow floor had alerted anyone of their presence. The upstairs of the house remained silent, and the figure straightened again.
The movement showed more to the shadow watching—a bare shoulder was revealed, with dark whorls of red staining the skin there, obscured by a veil translucent as gossamer. There was something familiar about this figure, but it was difficult to pinpoint what.
As the figure went to move forward again—more cautiously this time—some small movement must have caught their notice: they looked directly at the pool of darkness that housed Zuko. Despite being confident in his abilities, he felt his heartbeat quicken and leap up to his throat.
“Do not be afraid,” the figure said in a low, calm voice. “I’ve come to your aid.”
Aid? This was the house of a wealthy family that was being blackmailed by one of the town officials. That was why he was even here, to stop any midnight assassins or kidnappers that might try and levy more weight against the family. The father had died of an illness a few months ago, leaving his widow and their three daughters to continue the philanthropic work the family had always been known for.
In response, Zuko stood to its full height—perhaps a head taller than the robed figure—and drew out a dao blade from his back. The family did a lot of good for the poorer parts of this town, and it rankled him to see them threatened to be exploited. There needed to be more people who did good in this world.
With the blade leveled at the robed figure, Zuko finally stepped forward, silently making his own threat to this intruder be known.
Painted hands lifted, dragging long sleeves with them, in a show of peace. “I’m here to help one of the family,” they repeated, and it was clear now that the figure was a woman.
As if to punctuate, a fit of coughing broke the silence on the second floor, followed soon after by a quick shuffling of footsteps. Both the woman and Zuko held their breaths, veiled face and masked alike tilting back to look at the ceiling. A soft voice speaking indiscernible words drifted down, and then more footsteps, louder this time and headed for the stairs.
Before he could think about the wisdom of his actions, Zuko grabbed the veiled woman by the arm and dragged her along with him through a partially open doorway, the shoji leaving just enough space for them to slip through. For a moment, the woman struggled against him, but he wrapped one arm around her tightly, and began lifting his dao to her throat. Both of them froze, however, as the footsteps shuffled closer to the room they were in. He felt the woman tense against him, the angles of her shoulders pressing into his chest, and he swore he could feel her heart pounding. The footsteps continued beyond their room, and she immediately relaxed and let out a soft breath. He must have made some noise as well, because she tensed again and lifted one hand to grab onto the arm that was holding her.
“I will stop you,” she breathed, so quiet he could barely hear her, “if you plan any harm to these people.”
Something about her was very familiar. The cadence of her words, the slopes of her body—he couldn’t shake that he knew who this was. She certainly was no more a spirit than he, but he could not place a name or a face to her.
Despite the softness of her voice, the conviction of what she said convinced him she wasn’t some kidnapper or assassin. He didn’t release her, but, as a show of good faith, slowly and silently sheathed his dao. That seemed to set her as ease; she relaxed again a little, though he could still feel a taut line running through her spine. With the immediate threat of discovery or needing to stop an intruder, Zuko suddenly became acutely aware of the way their bodies were slotted together. Before he could decide what to do about that observation, she spoke again, as another fit of coughing echoed through the house. He had to lean close to hear her, her heat mingling with his own.
“If you’re not here to hurt anyone, then let me help them. I can heal the child coughing if you let me go.”
Her hand gentled on his arm. “Please.”
He hesitated a few moments longer, then stepped back. Her hand ran along his arm as he drew it back, and she turned in a fluid movement to face him. Had he not known better, he would have thought the motion part of a dance it was so well timed. Through the veil, he saw the bottom half of her shadowed face, striped with red paint. She smiled.
Without bothering to say anything more, she turned back to the half-open shoji door and slipped out, the length of her robes drifting behind her like ripples through water. An instant after she left, he heard the footsteps coming back their way. He followed out of the room on her heels, and saw the vague movement of someone walking toward them in the corridor. Sparing only a glance back at the veiled woman, Zuko gritted his teeth and stepped further into the direct path of the head of the house. The last thing he heard was a whispered “Thank you,” as the veiled woman quickly headed up the stairs and the woman approaching him caught sight of the white on his mask. That’s all the distraction he felt the veiled woman deserved from him, and so darted around the corner of the room they were just in, and watched as the mother of the household passed by the deep shadow he’d slipped in to hide.
He was already back up on the roof by the time the mother came back to the stairs, and he listened as two voices exclaimed happiness and surprise. He caught the gist of their conversation—the coughing child was visited by a spirit whose hands glowed, and made the hot pain in her throat go away, and the mother was just flabbergasted that all traces of the fever were gone. Zuko went to the edge of the roof and watched the robe of the veiled woman vanish down the street the way she had come.