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Shortfic: Where the Morning Light Shines

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender. If I did there would have been a lot more boring politics

Summary: More than a hundred years before, when the Avatar disappeared, life began to ebb out of the world, plunging the world into chaos. With his return, hope and vitality returned, and with them, a mad rush for power by clan chieftains, eager to make kingdoms out of the ashes of the old order. In the old Fire Nation, two chieftains remain, Mai in the west, and Zuko in the east. Each awaits the day that the other will seek to claim all of the Fire Islands for themselves.

Author's Note:
Written for Maiko Week 2016. Takes place in the Life Spirit AU. You can find a masterlist of commentfics and some meta about the 'verse here: [link] and some additional meta here: [link].


Where the Morning Light Shines


Smoke

It was Jet, standing sentry, who saw the fires first, glowing on the horizon, a grim foretaste of the coming dawn. With a shout, he roused the warriors and villagers, and by the time he had thrown open the door to Zuko’s hut, Zuko was already tying his belt. “Mai,” was all the chief said.

“Got to be.” Jet ran a hand through his hair. “Not really anybody else out there going to be sailing out this way to raid us.”

“You knew this was coming,” Uncle Iroh observed matter-of-factly. “This is no surprise.”

“I, uh, hoped.” Hoped that she wouldn’t want to tangle with him, that they could leave each other alone, that they were both big enough. Foolish.

He wondered if she’d known this was coming when she had taken over the Caldera Clan and claimed the seat of the old Firelords for her own, if she had always planned to gobble up the rest of the Fire clans, and if after she was done with him, if she planned to pick up where the old Fire Nation had left off.

Steam rose from the cup Uncle Iroh held and curled in the air like the smoke over the signal fires that had sent Jet running there. “You already made tea? How long have you been up?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Zuko told him as his uncle tilted the cup toward Jet so he could see the pale liquid and the packet of herbs that had only just begun to steep inside. “Where is she attacking?”

“Ember Island, chief.”

“Figures,” Zuko grumbled, pulling on his boots and thinking about Ember island’s long stretches of calm beaches that would make for an easy landing for Mai’s boats, the island’s two fishing villages, the fruit trees, and the new glassworks, thinking about how he had more islands, and Mai had more people. Maybe if they had been kids again and this had all been another game, they would have called it even. Maybe it balanced out in some kind of old-style political calculation, like the ones Uncle had tried to explain to him. But all Zuko knew was he had a lot more territory to defend and fewer people to do it with. More weak spots for Mai too sink her knives into.

And now it was just the two of them, Mai and Zuko, with the Fire Islands, the whole of the old Fire Nation, divided between them, with no one else for them to fear but each other.

Jet snorted, yanking Zuko out of his reverie. “Well she isn’t stupid.”

“Okay.” Zuko stood up and squared his shoulders. In the back of his throat, he could already taste the smoke and ashes of the fires he and Mai would start between them. “Let’s go deal with her.”

Jet turned to follow him out onto the beach, down to their small fleet, shrugging his fishhook pikes into a comfortable spot, a grin of full of dark promise stretching across his face.

Shadow

Mai sat ramrod straight in the bow of the boat, peering out at the island in front of her, its shadowed form rising above the waves.

Another shadow fell over her, joining the predawn gloom. “Are you excited?”

Mai stared up at Ty Lee in utter bafflement.

“To see Zuko again,” Ty Lee prompted, her teeth shining white in the last dregs of the moonlight.

“I don’t think excitement is the right word for any of this.”

“Soooo,” Ty Lee plowed on, undeterred. “What do you think he looks like now that he’s all grown up?”

“I think I watched his father burn half his face off,” Mai told her, with no inflection at all in her voice, as she stared straight ahead and watched the island inch closer.

Ty Lee rolled her eyes and didn’t stop smiling. “So what does the other half look like?”

Mai shook her head. The worst part was, she could picture him, see his face in her mind, and trace the borders of the scar he had to have, picture him at thirteen, at ten, as a tiny child. But sometimes, all she could see was a young man, tall and unyielding, with Ozai’s hard mouth and nasty smile, and Azula’s cold amusement in his eyes.

“How do you think he’ll take it?”

“I have no idea, Ty Lee,” Mai muttered. “That’s why I brought a war band.”

“Hopefully that won’t have anything to do with what he decides,” Ty Lee replied, something pointed lying underneath her cheerfulness.

Mai let a small, almost private, painfully sad, smile show for her best, oldest friend. “If it does, it does.”

“Oh Mai.” Ty Lee dropped down beside her, resting a hand on one of the oars. With the currant pulling them straight to the island’s shores, there was no real need to steer, except to avoid the other boats in her small fleet, and no need to row. It was only the impatience sparking just beneath her skin that made Ty Lee’s hands itch for a paddle. It was a strange thing, Mai knew, the need for it to happen now now now, so that it was all decided, one way or another, and the frightened child wish to drag it out, to delay it as long as possible in the hopes it would all disappear.

A shout rang out through the fleet. Mai turned back to see that pinpricks of light dotted the looming island, like sparks off a piece of flint, floating on the air. They had been seen. Waiting for that at least was over.

As the lights spread across the island from watchtower to watchtower, until an enormous bonfire erupted on the island’s highest peak, as if the volcano that had birthed the island had come roaring back to life, Mai stood up. And when her boat sank into the sandy shore, she stepped out onto the beach, her shadow stretching out into the water for what seemed like miles behind her.

Light

Behind Zuko, the sun had just begun to peek over the horizon, spilling light over the water as his fleet landed on the black sands of Ember Island. They lowered their sails and heaved their outrigger canoes up out of the water and carried them under an overhanging cliff, a curtain of vines hiding them from prying eyes.

“Jet,” Zuko called him over. “Pick two people and find Mai’s landing site. Burn her boats.”

“Nephew,” Iroh cut in, warningly.

Zuko narrowed his unscarred eye. “If she leaves this island, I want it on my terms.”

“And what terms are those?” his uncle asked.

Zuko didn’t answer. His uncle wasn’t really expecting one anyway. Instead, he just turned to Jet and nodded once.

o0O0o

Jet beckoned to On Ji and Qin Li to him, crouching behind a rock. “It doesn’t look like they posted any guards,” he muttered doubtfully. “But stay low just in case. Come on.”

The early morning sun cast long shadows over the sands, and slowly, Jet led them across the beach, jumping from shadow to shadow like bull-frogs leaping from rock to rock across a river. When they reached the boats, Jet grinned as he nodded to Qin Li.

Qin Li reached into the closest boat. Suddenly, a terrible shriek left his mouth, splitting the air. Jet glanced down into the boat, and before he could really understand what he was seeing, a hand locked around Qin Li’s wrist, men and women erupted out of the boats, surrounding the three of them. Jet drew his pikes.

Just as soon as they were in his hands, they fell to the sand, and he with them, body numb. Ty Lee, second in command to Mai Steelknives tipped his head up to look at her chief.

o0O0o

Ember island wasn’t large, and the sun hadn’t risen much higher in the sky before Zuko and his warriors climbed to the top of a low ridge, overlooking the village that had lit the first beacon fire. What they saw made Zuko’s hair stand on end.

Instead of the burned out buildings, blood, bodies, and crying Zuko’s mind had conjured up on the trek across the island, the village seemed... completely normal. Untouched.

And also empty. Aside from a lone figure tending the watchtower flame, there was no one to be seen. No children playing outside, no one carrying water from the well, no one.

And it was dead quiet.

“It’s some kind of a trap,” he whispered to his uncle.

“Yes,” Iroh agreed evenly.

“But we still have to go down there,” Zuko finished bleakly. “They’re my people, my responsibility.”

“Yes,” Iroh said again. “They are.”

o0O0o

The door to the village headwoman’s house opened as Zuko stepped into the empty village center. The headwoman herself ran out to them, her sandals slapping against the ground. “Chief.”

“What’s going on, why did you...”

The headwoman pointed to the beach, and the fleet of boats from the Caldera on the sand below. “They’re just... sitting there.”

Distance

Zuko swallowed hard. She hasn’t tried to... do anything?”

The headwoman shook her head, eyes wide while Zuko wracked his brain for her name. “Is this an invasion?”

Somehow Zuko didn’t think it would reassure her if he admitted he had no idea what Mai Steelknives was doing. “We’ll sort this out.”

“Hey look!” one of the warriors shouted. Zuko’s eyes followed the man’s finger, down to the beach where three figures had emerged from the boats and were hobbling up the hillside toward them. Zuko shifted into a fighting stance. Behind him, he heard the sounds of weapons being drawn.

Then, as the figures drew closer and the sunlight hit them, Zuko could make out who they were. “Jet!” He ran down the slope, crossing the distance between them in moments. “What happened?”

Jet shrugged, drawing attention to his shoulders and his absent pikes. A quick glance told him On Ji was missing her staff too. “Ty Lee.”

“I warned you about her,” Zuko told him. He caught Qin Li’s eye. “Don’t worry, you’ll have your bending back in a few hours. She used to practice on me all the time when we were kids.” As Qin Li heaved a sigh of relief, Zuko turned back to Jet and repeated, “What happened?”

“She- Mai Steelknives wants a truce.”

“What?”

“She says she came to talk, and she wants to arrange a, uh permanent peace.” Jet glanced down at the boats and then up at Zuko. “I mean, that’s what she says.”

“Okay,” Zuko said, trying to sound like he wasn’t flabbergasted and left with no idea what to do next. “Okay. I’ll go talk to her. If she wants to talk, I’ll talk.”

Jet snorted. “Yeah, this is a trap, and she’s going to kill you, and then your uncle and I will have to fight about who gets to lead the warriors to avenge you.”

Zuko’s eyes drifted back up to the village where his uncle was talking to the headwoman. “You’ll lose.”

“Don’t count me out,” Jet said, but Zuko wasn’t listening. As he gazed down at Mai’s boats, and at the woman sitting in the prow of the largest one, crossing the distance between them might as well have been leaping across a chasm.

He closed his eyes, and after a long moment, opened them again, and took off down the hill.

The woman in the boat jumped out and started up the hillside toward him, her bare feet sending up little puffs of sand with each step. Zuko slid to a stop as she crossed the ground between them with quick, purposeful strides. When she stood close enough to touch, she stopped and inclined her head with a dignity she had never possessed in childhood. “Zuko.”

The space between them seemed to grow impossibly wide, until he could no more reach across it than he could reach through solid stone. “Mai.”

“I missed you.” And with that she shattered the distance and took his hand.

Forgiveness

“You wanted to talk,” he said flatly. Her palm on his felt...

She rubbed her thumb against his as if she didn’t realize she was doing it. “I want to be able to stop waiting for you to invade.”

“You’re the one who brought your warriors into my territory,” Zuko pointed out, trying for calm.

The thumb rubbed over his again, the pad stiff with calluses. “I wanted you to come.”

“You could have sent a letter.”

The thumb stilled. Zuko looked up, bu her expression didn’t change. “I’m so glad you know how to read.”

“My uncle thought it was important,” Zuko shot back.

“No one thought it was important for me.” She raised one eyebrow. “So who was I going to trust to write a letter?” When he didn’t answer, she continued, “You didn’t come back, after Ozai and Azula died.”

“I’m sorry,” he snapped. “It looked like you had everything under control, Chief Mai.”

“Someone had to step up.” He had forgotten what it was like, talking to Mai when she was afraid, when she wouldn’t show anything at all. Word had spread of Mai Steelknives’ blank face and perpetual calm, and facing her again, it made him wonder. “You’ve done well for yourself. You’re a clan chief yourself now. People tell stories about you.”

“They tell plenty of stories about you too.”

She let out a soft, almost silent snort. “I didn’t sail to the South Pole and help bring back the Avatar. I never went to the great Earth Kingdom forests to build a boat to carry myself back to the Fire Nation and while I was there tamed a wild man.”

“Jet isn’t wild,” Zuko said flatly. “He’s just a jerk.”

“And yet he’s your second in command,” she observed dryly. “Face it, Zuko, you’re becoming a legend, if you’re not one already.”

“What do you want?” he demanded, frustration mounting.

“I told you.” She closed her eyes. “I want peace. Real peace, the kind that lasts, so I can stop waiting.” Her eyes opened. “And the best way to do that is to unite all the Fire clans.”

Zuko felt himself go cold. Her hand suddenly seemed to burn around his. “What do you-”

“I have an offer for you.” She reached into her sleeve, and he caught a glimpse of her knife. He yanked his hand out of hers and jerked away. But when she pulled her hand out again, she wasn’t holding a knife.

She was holding the gold flame crown of the old Firelords.

“If you refuse, I will leave. I will return to my own islands, and I promise you that I will not be the one to attack first. If you want war, you will have to be the one to start it.”

Zuko’s brain skittered to a halt. “What are you...”

She met his eyes. “We can unite the Fire Nation together, right now. Marry me and we will rule the Fire Islands as Firelord and Firelady.”

Steel


“Though maybe we can’t,” she murmured. “If you can’t trust me to at least not stab you.”

“Can you blame me?” he asked defensively. “I haven’t seen you since we were kids. I have no idea who you are now.”

“I don’t know who you are anymore either.” Her lips twitched up in a faint, pensive smile. This time when she reached into her sleeves, it was her knives she pulled out. “But I’m willing to give you these. Without them, I am unarmed, and you will have my knives and your firebending.”

Zuko eyed the pair of knives warily as his brain finally caught up with her words. He shook his head. “Keep them.”

As she slipped them back into their sheaths, he realized he recognized them, from his father’s jealously guarded hoard of treasures from before the disappearance of the Avatar. He wondered if Azula had given them to her before she died, or if Mai had taken them for herself after. Her lips thinned. He remembered how she used to do that when fighting back a smile. “I gave almost everything away,” she told him blandly. “But I kept these.”

He wasn’t sure if he should be bothered that he was that easy for her to read. “I just remember when you used to use a sling.”

She raised her eyebrow again. “I remember teaching you to use a sling.”

“I remember that too.” He remembered her lips thinning just like they were now when he whacked himself in the face with it the first time he tried, and he remembered how she had gasped when she realized his nose was bleeding, and the way she tried to stem the blood with her shirt. “I remember teaching you how to fish.”

“You threw one of the spider-worms at me to gross me out, and I shoved it down the back of your shirt.” She threw him a sly look.

“I missed you too,” he confessed. He didn’t mention how much it had hurt, thinking they were going to see each other again, but only as enemies, across a battlefield, or how the gnawing in the pit of his stomach that had been there since he had woken up to hear she had landed on his island was only just beginning to subside.

“That’s good.” Her eyes went wide and she stopped talking abruptly, her mouth puckering as if her own words tasted sour. “I mean thank you I guess. I’m glad I made enough of an impression for you to miss me.”

He didn’t know what say to that. “Of course you did.”

She gave him a pleased smile, the kind where her nose wrinkled just slightly, and didn’t say anything for a long, yet somehow almost comfortable, companionable, moment. Zuko couldn’t help himself. He smiled too, big and warm, and happy.

“So,” she said at last, retrieving the crown from her sleeve and held it out to him again. “Do you think we can do this?”

Legacy

His brow furrowed. “I just... I kind of what to know why you want to do this now, I mean you took over years ago, and It’s been just the two of us for a while now, so why now?”

“Were you asking that when you thought I was invading?” she asked rhetorically.

“No, because I was too busy getting ready to fight you off.”

“I have a brother.” She looked away and folded her arms. Then she turned back to him. “My parents had another baby, a few months ago. I thought I wasn’t going to care, but now he’s here... Things are different. I want him to be safe.”

“Congratulations,” Zuko told her, and there was part of him still looking for a trap, and he wished it would just stop.

“It’s more than that though,” she whispered. “I want to make things good for him. And now that the Avatar is back, children are being born again. Someday, maybe pretty soon, I’m going to have a kid too, and I’m going to feel this way about them too.”

“That’s-”

But she shook her head and cut him off. “The world is changing. Things can be good. People are starting to catch so much fish that they can salt it and eat it for months, and then they still have fish left over. At the end of the last monsoon season, we had our first rice harvest in eighty years. Not a little bit of wild rice from the old paddies, but rice we actually planted. You helped bring the Avatar back, and now we can start building things that are going to last. But I can’t if I’m constantly waiting for you to invade and and burn our crops and steal our koala-sheep.”

A small, sad, cynical part of Zuko wondered if maybe this wasn’t about trust at all, that she wanted to marry him so that her children would be his, and that way he wouldn’t hurt them, if he had been her dark shadowy figure in the night, just as she had been his. But then again, she'd seen what his father had done to him. She knew there was no magic there. She still had to trust him. He had to trust her. “What are you going to do when you’re done rebuilding?”

“You think we’re going to be anywhere near done by the time we die?”

“We have fruit trees,” he said instead of answering. “And a glassworks and a kiln, and we have yams growing on one of the islands now.”

“Well that settles it,” Mai let show a sardonic smirk. “You have fruit trees, I have rice, now we have to get married.”

“You sure you want to do this together?” he asked hesitantly. “You sure you want it to be ‘us’ instead of ‘you’?”

“I wouldn’t have come if I weren’t sure.”

This time, it was Zuko who took her hand, and they walked down to the water, fingers entwining.