Chapter 1: Vigilantes
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.
Chapter 2: Hidden Identity
Katara was distracted.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night, about the masked man in the Siagyo household. It wasn’t even because he’d grabbed her and nearly held a blade to her throat, or that she felt his heart pounding against her back as hard as hers. If she were being honest, it wasn’t even completely because someone else had even been in the house before her. The moment he helped her—that’s what her thoughts all snagged on. That, and his mask. Though her glance of it had been brief, she’d clearly seen that it was blue and white. Despite it being the visage of a grinning demon, the colors alone struck a homesick chord in her.
Would she see him again, if she visited another house with an ill family member? Was he trying to do the same as she? It seemed unlikely, armed with that sword like he was. Yet, it was obvious that he’d distracted the mother of the household so that Katara could get upstairs to help the coughing child. So why was he there?
“Hello? Anybody home, Katara?” Toph’s voice brought her out of her reverie.
She shook her head to clear it and smiled vaguely. “Yes, hi. Of course. What is it?”
“Nothing. You just seemed out of it.” Toph hesitated a moment, then leaned in, her voice dropped to a near whisper. “Are you okay? You’re heart’s pounding like crazy.”
Embarrassed, Katara waved her hand a bit, dismissing the notion. “Nope, I’m fine.”
“You know that I can tell when—“
“I’m just fine,” Katara interrupted, standing up from her place at the table and going into the kitchen.
They were staying in a tiny abandoned house beyond the outskirts of the Fire Nation town of Ha It Yai. When they first arrived, Aang thought to find an inn to stay within the town itself to resupply and sleep indoors for a few nights, but not only was that a dangerous idea if they were to be found out, but they quickly learned that a sickness had spread to many people. It hadn’t been quite enough for the town’s officials to call a quarantine, but it was enough for their small group to not want to risk it.
“What if you catch some weird Fire Nation cold?” Sokka had exclaimed to Aang. “You have to be in top shape when you face the Fire Lord.”
“Yeah.” It’d been clear Aang was disappointed. “Wouldn’t want to face him with a runny nose.”
Toph had come to the rescue, though, and sensed the empty house just outside of town, so that was where they set up camp. It wasn’t much, and more than a little ramshackle, but it was a roof over their heads and a safer spot to sleep than in the middle of the jungle. Of course, it’d fallen to Katara to resupply their food stores while the boys investigated for any interesting information or non-essentials they might need (or, in Sokka’s case, want), and Toph relaxed back at their temporary home. It was a far cry from their luxurious house in Ba Sing Se, but Katara suspected Toph actually liked this better.
It was while she was in town that Katara learned more about the sickness that was plaguing the town. People talked, and she was genuinely interested to learn more about it. Many people were worried—though it didn’t seem to spread from person to person very quickly, it took a heavy, rapid toll on the people who did catch it and fell ill. Consumed them from the inside out, one person described in a hushed tone. It’d been an easy decision for her to pick up her Painted Lady persona again and visit as many houses as she could. She’d been more careful this time than at Jang Hui, and she was sure that neither Aang nor Sokka were the wiser about her nightly goings. Toph, she could never be sure of, so she just assumed the other girl knew. But, after their reconciliation, she thought Toph would keep her secret. For at least two nights, she hadn’t been proven wrong.
Last night, the Siagyo house was the third she visited, and finding another disguised person there had been quite the surprise. In the market, she’d heard a few people mention a mysterious woman appearing to heal the sick, but nothing about a masked man. Would it be too suspicious to ask around about him?
“You’re thinking about whatever it is again,” Toph said from behind her.
Katara looked back to see the earthbender leaning against the doorframe. Crossing her arms over her chest, she leveled a glare at Toph, though it had no effect. “So? What does it matter?”
She received a shrug in reply. “I don’t know, but you’re really preoccupied with it today. Must’a been really something to keep distracting you.”
Katara didn’t quite know what to say to that, casting her gaze down at the floor and feeling her cheeks warm. Toph tilted her head. “The boys aren’t back from town yet, so…” A sudden grin split her face. “Is it a boy?”
If Katara’s cheeks had been warm before, they flared like a blaze now. “What? No!”
“I can tell you lying,” Toph sang.
She buried her face in her hands and spoke through her fingers. “Okay, yes. But, not like that!”
Toph’s grin only widened. “I knew it. You’ve been sneaking out every night since we’ve been here, so I knew something was up.” Well, that confirmed Katara’s suspicion, at least. “Is he cute?”
“I actually don’t—I said it wasn’t like that!”
The earthbender chortled. “You don’t know what he looks like? How come? Do you just admire from afar?”
There was no way Katara could see getting out of this, but at least it didn’t seem like Toph knew what she was doing at night, even if she did know she was sneaking out. Then again, she wasn’t sure it’d really matter if Toph knew. It couldn’t hurt, Katara figured, to talk about it a bit more. She lowered her hands and resigned herself to the conversation.
“He was… wearing a mask.”
Toph’s eyes widened beneath her heavy bangs. “A mask?” she echoed. “Why the heck would he be wearing a mask?”
A quiet exhale escaped her. “Probably because he didn’t want people seeing his face.”
Toph rolled her eyes. “You don’t say. Listen, you don’t have to tell me what you’ve been doing at night. I don’t really care, to be honest; it’s your business, and you can take care of yourself. But, something about this guy’s got to you.” Her voice softened a bit. “So, if you want to talk about that… well, I’m here, I guess.”
Katara smiled, touched. “Thanks, Toph. I… really appreciate that.” She drew in a breath and released it. “I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about him,” she began. Toph’s eyebrows lifted, but she didn’t say anything, so Katara continued. “I didn’t expect to meet him, it was a surprise. And—and it wasn’t an ideal situation, so I didn’t know if I could trust him right away. I thought he was going to attack me.” She remembered his arm tight around her, holding her trapped against him, his blade raised close to her neck. Had she absolutely needed to get away, she could have used her bending, but she hadn’t waned to resort to that if she didn’t need to.
“But,” she said, her voice growing subdued, “he didn’t. He actually ended up helping me. It all happened so quick, it was just… surprising.”
“So… you really just want to find him to thank him for helping you?” Toph guessed.
Did she? Katara wondered. She’d said it then, though she wasn’t certain he’d heard her. He moved so quickly and so silently, and his black clothes made him seem more shadow than human. For all that she’d been dressed as a spirit, she might have thought he really was one, had she not felt his solidness firsthand. Her face warmed again at the thought.
“I… guess,” she said finally. “Yeah.”
She moved to lean against a small table in the kitchen. “I don’t know what I would say even if I could find out who he was. It just… it’d be kind of nice to know, you know?”
Toph nodded, and joined Katara at the table, sliding into one of the two chair at it. “It’s not like you can head into town and ask every good-looking guy if they helped you while wearing a mask last night.”
“Hey! Why would it matter if he was good-looking?”
Toph shrugged. “Because it’d make for a better story?” She made a wide sweeping arc with her hand, fingers spread. “Waterbending master helped by handsome young mystery man in a mask,” she declared. “I can hear the crowd oohing and aahing already.”
That made Katara laugh. “It’s hardly anything to make a story out of.” Still, she allowed herself a moment of fantasy, gaze drifting up toward the cobwebbed ceiling. With all of Toph’s talk, now she was wondering if he was handsome or not. He was certainly in excellent shape, that much she’d been able to tell when they were standing flush together in the dark. He also seemed skilled with a blade, perhaps as much as moving unseen and unheard. She wondered if she’d run into him again when she went out again tonight.
“You know what else?” Toph asked after a moment, breaking her wandering thoughts and resting her elbows on the rough wooden table.
“It’s all terribly romantic. I hope you meet him again tonight and tell me all the juicy details.”
Katara reddened and buried her face in her hands again.
Chapter 3: Storm
It was two more nights before he managed to slip out again, mask over his face. Zuko knew he was too distracted by this town, but he couldn’t seem to walk away just yet. He should be out trying to track the Avatar, trying to come up with a good enough reason to convince the kid he’d hunted for a good half of the year that Zuko should be his firebending teacher. Except, he wasn’t exactly sure where the Avatar and his friends had gone; their trail stopped cold a few miles out from this town. He thought it was his best chance to find them here, but so far he hadn’t had any luck locating them.
He crouched at the end of a deep roof eve, looking down over the street. It was searching for the Avatar that had caught him up in the things going on in this town—the sudden wave of sickness and the blackmailing of important families, namely. Despite knowing he needed to search for the Avatar’s trail again, he just couldn’t make himself leave the town. There were good people here who were being taken advantage of by the corrupt official in charge, and that rankled him. Anyone who could have done something about getting the mayor of the town out of his seat was now victim to illness, blackmail, or both. It was all just too coincidental, and there had to be a way to stop it. He just wasn’t sure how yet.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t alone in his efforts. The woman in the hat was a new development, but she’d helped the little Siagyo girl, and even threatened him if he’d intended harm toward them. There was something about her that he still couldn’t shake, and it wasn’t the mysterious way she’d healed the child’s cough—though, he did wonder about that, too. Did she know about the other people who were sick in the town? He imagined she had to. Would he get lucky enough to run into her again if he slipped into another household with an ill child?
A puff of breath escaped him, warm against the wooden inside of his mask. What would he even do if he ran into her again? Apologize for holding a blade to her throat? He should be looking for the Avatar again, not some mysterious woman.
Still, he was curious.
He moved along the rooftops quickly and quietly, heading toward a building on the northern side of town. Another prominent family lived there, the Nasucas, though they were not quite as wealthy as the Siagyos. There were more sick family members there, he knew—but, more importantly, he suspected there was something there that implicated the mayor. There’d been enough attempted break-ins that the family had hired personal guards to try and protect them.
A flash of sudden light illuminated the sky and the entire town, nearly blinding him, and a deep crash of thunder followed almost immediately after. Zuko halted where he was on the middle of a rooftop and blinked away the spots in his eyes. There’d been no indication earlier that evening that a thunderstorm was rolling in, but now the wind was picking up significantly. Lightning flashed again, bright and searing, with thunder chasing at its heels.
Being on a rooftop was suddenly incredibly dangerous, and he needed to get off of it immediately. He’d redirected his father’s lightning, but Zuko now knew why his uncle had given him so many warnings about it; it was a force entirely all its own, and it could easily hurt an unwary bender trying to handle it. Besides, he wasn’t entirely certain if firebender lightning was the same as storm lightning, but now that he’d experienced one, he wasn’t entirely certain he was ready for the other. At least, not in a disguise on the top of a roof in the middle of the night in a town with a corrupt mayor he was trying to figure out how to oust for the good of the people.
He reached the edge of the roof just in time for the sky to open up and pour rain onto the earth. In a matter of seconds, he was nearly soaked through. Lightning flashed again, shining off the now-slick roof. Zuko’s foot slipped, and he nearly fell off the edge of the tsumakazari. As it was, he caught himself just in time. For a moment, he dangled there, heart pounding in his ears in an echo to the thunder that rattled his chest. Controlled as he could, he let himself drop to the ground.
He kept a hand instinctively holding the edge of his mask—the wind was so strong he feared it would tear the wood from his face. He had to get inside.
The door to the building he’d dropped from was locked, with no second story windows like the Siagyo’s house had that he could use to slip through to get inside. Instead, he jimmied the lock until it gave way, and he slipped into the dark building.
It was strangely quiet inside, with echoes of the storm all around. Fortunately, the Fire Nation was used to strong storms and typhoons, and as such, the windows were lashed tight enough that they didn’t rattle or let in more than just moisture and a bit of airflow. Zuko stood there for a moment, dripping quietly on the wooden floor and looking around to get his bearings. From the flashes of lightning outside, he was able to tell that he was in some kind of shop. That was luckier than a house, he figured, since it was much less likely someone was sleeping here.
The flashes helped illuminate the shop, if briefly, so Zuko decided to at least look around at anything interesting while he was waiting for the storm to pass. He wasn’t going to steal anything—those days were behind him. Besides, when he packed up to leave the capitol, he’d also brought along a pouch of money. Living in poverty was not something he particularly wanted to relive again if he could avoid it.
The shop itself seemed to contain wares that he immediately wrote off as highly unusual and something his uncle would probably love. Strange statues rose up out of the darkness: a monkey with wildly carved facial hair wearing a thick string of prayer beads, a four-limbed bear, a gnarled tree with a large hole on one side that he thought contained a face inside it. He didn’t linger at that one long enough to confirm, though.
A rack full of scrolls dominated one wall past the statues, and beyond that displays of armor and jewelry. Zuko had no idea who owned a shop full of such a mishmash of items, or what anyone would actually find here that was of use.
He paused by the scrolls, figuring that perhaps those at least might prove interesting in a slightly less bizarre way than the statues. As he reached for one, the hairs prickled on the back of his neck, and he was struck with the sense that he was not alone in here. Immediately, he spun, eyes searching the dark. Lightning flashed again and he caught the edge of a figure on the other side of the shop. Or maybe it was just another statue? The light faded too quickly to see if the silhouette moved at all. Zuko stood still as stone himself, wincing every time a soft drip of water hit the floor from his clothing.
Another bout of lightning flashed and the figure was no longer there.
Zuko’s nostrils flared a bit, and his pulse quickened. So there was someone else in there with him. Slowly, he sank into a fighting stance, while simultaneously reaching behind to grasp the handle of his dao. When lightning came again, however, he wasn’t prepared for what happened.
The figure moved quickly—he only had time to catch a brief glance from the side before fingers closed around the hand reaching for his dao and twisted his wrist. It wasn’t painful, but it was quick and precise and locked his joint against his back in a way that allowed the other complete control over him. If he were to struggle too much, only a bit of pressure was needed to threaten to break his wrist. Breaking his wrist was also easily done with a bit more force, and his assailant knew that, so he complied.
A stretch of silence ran between them, and Zuko risked turning his head just a bit to try and see who it was. All he saw was the edge of a dark robe. His breath caught. It was her again.
She seemed to come to the same realization as he did at about the same time, because the grip on his wrist tightened, then released.
“It’s you again,” she said, astonished.
He slowly straightened and turned to her, not saying anything.
“I—” she started, then dipped her head a little so the hat she wore covered the top half of her face. It was too dark without the lightning to see her properly, anyway. “Thank you, again. For helping me the other night.”
Her voice wavered a little bit, almost imperceptibly. Zuko only caught it because he was listening intently, trying to place her. He definitely knew her from somewhere. No Fire Nation noble he’d encountered in his life would do what she was doing, though. All the people in the Earth Kingdom he’d ever met wouldn’t be here, either. Where did he know her from? He narrowed his eyes through the slits in the mask, hoping for another flash of lightning so he could see her better.
When he didn’t answer, she lifted her head to look at him. For whatever reason, the universe actually listened to him and granted another zigzag of lightning across the sky outside, lighting up the inside of the shop they were in. She was shorter than him, and wore dark robes in such a fashion that left her shoulders bare. There looked to be the remnants of paint on the skin bared there, but she must have been caught in the storm as well, as most of the color had washed out. The wide brimmed sugegasa she wore had a translucent veil hanging from it, obscuring a clear look at her face even in the light. He saw whorls of red on dark skin, and a face surrounded by long dark hair, but that was it.
She seemed to know he was trying to look at her face clearly, because she tilted her head away, covering it up with the sugegasa again.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she said quietly. “I don’t have to know who you are. But… you helped me before. Maybe you could help me again.”
That, Zuko wasn’t expecting. Had she followed him here? Is that why she was caught in the rain but still was in the same building as him?
He reached out one hand, palm up, motioning for her to continue.
She lifted her head a little—not enough to show her face so fully again—and took his invitation to go on.
“A lot of people are sick here,” she said, and he clung to every word to try and place her voice. “It’s… unlike any illness I’ve seen before. I don’t know what’s causing it, but it needs to be stopped.”
Here, she hesitated, and Zuko watched her worry her bottom lip before lifting her head enough to look him in the eye again. This time, when the lightning flashed, Zuko saw the blue in her eyes.
“Are you willing to help me?”
He just stared at her for a moment, heart in his throat and thankful for the thunder outside that drowned out the way it thundered in his chest. Was his luck truly this good suddenly? Zuko reached out his hand again, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to form words even if he could think of what to say.
This time, the waterbending master he’d fought back in the North Pole and shared grief with in the catacombs beneath Ba Sing Se took his hand, the confirmation of partnership, and smiled at him. If he could help her save the people in this town from a strange illness, maybe she’d accept his willingness to want to help save the world.
Maybe he really did have a chance to teach the Avatar firebending.