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The Snow Princess [Story for birdsarecalling] [Story by] 
8th-Feb-2007 11:13 pm
A_ficathon
Ficathon Story for birdsarecalling.

Title: The Snow Princess [Part II due to posting limit]
Author:
Prompt: illegal, brocade, walls
Genre Preferred: action-adventure, drama, humor. Adding romantic elements is great but I don't want a purely romantic story.
Ships Preferred:Toph gen, Iroh/The Ladies, Iroh+Zuko (platonic - I cannot stress that enough!), Mai/Blue Spirit
Rating Preferred: G-R
Author's notes: At the end
Appearing Theme:

VII

No one recognized him. That had been something he feared—that he would be recognized and forced back, or that he would be recognized and delayed. But it wasn’t surprising—his father had never been proud of him; he had never taken him out, nor had he ever made an anticipated public appearance. Quite unlike his sister, who appeared alongside her father at every opportunity she had, so much that much of the general public believed that Lord Ozai had only one child, and that that child was a girl.

He gazed out the window. The rolling countryside had long since passed, and the scenery was beginning to change as small houses dotted the green fields, gradually changing into larger and larger buildings until they reached the heavily fortified city of Omashu. He tipped his head back and let it fall against the smooth glass. Trains always went more slowly through the big cities—there were more stops, more people, more delays. He closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep. It would be hours before he reached the end of this line.

His attempt at sleeping, however, was interrupted when he heard a light voice close to him say, “Is this seat taken?”

His eyes snapped open, and he looked up into the face of a young girl, whose dark hair was obscuring her features. He glanced quickly at the seat beside him, then shook his head.

“No,” he replied, and the girl sat down. Zuko sighed and closed his eyes, trying to fall asleep again. There had been something strange about her, he realized, but he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Something about her face… Her hair had been covering most of it, true, but there had been something about her eyes… He opened his eyes again and glanced furtively at her, trying to get a better look at her face without having her notice that he was staring at her.

She turned to face him, and, in an instant, he realized what it was.

“Yes, I’m blind,” she said, as if talking about the weather.

“Sorry, I—” he said, taken aback. She waved him off.

“It’s not like being blind doesn’t mean you can’t see,” she said. “People don’t understand that. You don’t have to see with your eyes. You can see with your ears—you can hear what’s going on around you, and you can see through sounds. Or, you can see with your nose—it’s just that people who rely on their eyes to see the surfaces of things tend to forget that the world is filled with other senses.” She shrugged. “But what would you know about it?”

He frowned, slightly irritated by her insolent tone. “That’s something we have in common,” he murmured, then added, “except for the fact that I’m blind in only one eye.”

She rolled her eyes, which were milky-white. “That’s not the same. You can still see; it doesn’t bother you at all. And don’t tell me your tragic sob story about how you were blinded, either, ‘cause I don’t want to hear it. Go do something to change it rather than sob about it, thank you very much.”

His frown deepened as his entire body went tense; it took most of his power to keep himself from lashing out at her. Who was she to be so insolent and rude? What were her parents teaching her? Even without Ozai’s input, Zuko still knew that he had to be polite and courteous to others.

“Go ahead and hit me,” the girl said, as if reading his thoughts. She grinned sardonically. “I can take you, right here, right now. I may not look like it, but I’m a black belt. In fact, I’m off to a martial arts tournament right now, at this very instant.” Her grin turned into a smug smirk. “So go ahead and hit me. I dare you.”

Zuko let out a long, hissing sigh as the girl laughed. She stood as the train rolled to a stop on the outskirts of Omashu.

“You should’ve hit me; I would’ve had fun,” she said, then shrugged. “You’re blind not in your eyes, you know—you’re blind in your heart, I can tell.” Her smug expression quickly gave way to a more serious one. “Don’t run—turn and face it. The walls and limits are only there if you imagine them to be.”

The doors slid open and she stepped out onto the platform, mingling with the crowd and disappearing from view. Zuko unclenched his fists and grimaced as his fingernails parted from the flesh of his palm. The thin crescents that they left behind welled up with blood, blood that dripped down the lines of his hands and traced out its paths.

*

Days later, he finally arrived in Piaoyi, the capital of the Northern Xue Kingdom. From within the train, the city was beautiful—the drifts of snow on the streets were soft and inviting like pillows, piling up even further as more flakes fell from the gray, overcast sky. The streetlamps cast a warm, orange glow over the white roofs of the houses; more lights were on inside, and the candles within cast flickering silhouettes on the drapes drawn over the windows.

Once he stepped out, however, he suddenly understood why it was nicknamed the Bitter Kingdom. The sub-zero temperatures bit relentlessly into his exposed flesh as the howling winds lashed at his face, stinging him with feathery snowflakes that had turned into daggers. He retreated inside, slipping into the nearest bathroom and breathing a sigh of relief upon seeing that it was almost deserted—it would be hard to explain why he was wearing what he was about to change into.

He quickly slipped out of his clothing and put on the dark, heavy clothing that he had brought with him. Immediately he could feel them begin to shield him from the cold, which had penetrated even into the building. He shoved his previous outfit into his bag.

Then, taking a breath, he carefully pulled the mask on over his face.

VIII

He didn’t want to be here.

Sure, there was free food, but that was about it. He didn’t have any friends here; there were no games; everyone talked in a stiff, boring way.

And it was cold.

Aang pulled his robes closer to himself, teeth chattering, and looked around. The princess looked bored, too, and he couldn’t blame her. He had tried to start a conversation with some of these people, but even people that looked to be around his own age weren’t receptive and frowned upon his childish behavior.

He couldn’t really understand what was so fun about dancing around, anyway. The music wasn’t that great, and the only person who truly seemed to be enjoying it was an old geezer in the corner. And the dancing was boring, too; all they did was go around in circles. He could do that on his own time, and he didn’t understand why he had to waste a perfectly good day (and a couple weeks traveling to and from this place) just for, well, this.

He sighed. Father Gyatso had said something about “diplomatic skills” and “interrelation” and “globalization” and “unity and peace”, but all those terms and phrases had flown over his head. (Then again, he hadn’t been paying much attention, anyway, as they had been setting up a practical joke while discussing it.) In any case, he had no idea why he was here; all he knew was that he was bored out of his mind.

He frowned and looked at the long banquet table. Laid out on the most likely very expensive silk tablecloth were various bowls and platters. He tilted his head. They were placed in agreeable positions—supposing that the ladle in the bowl of punch fell just right into the platter beside it, and supposing that the cakes flew just right and hit the bottles at the exact right position…

A grin spread over his face.

“It could work,” he murmured, then laughed.

IX

The snow crunched beneath his feet as he ran through the forest. It was exhilarating—the cold wind flew past his body, beating against him, but he had long since gone numb. Every breath he took filled his lungs with a burning fire, but he welcomed the pain.

He had never felt more alive than now, basking under the silver moonlight, the ice dangling from the barren tree branches glittering like diamonds. Above him, through the lacework of the canopy, twinkled the stars in the infinite expanse of the night sky. They were so close—so bright—that if he reached up, reached high enough, he might be able to pluck one out of its nest and cradle it back down to earth; he might be able to hold it for a moment, one ephemeral moment, before it burst into stardust that would coat the dark tree trunks with the brightest silver.

Before him, on the snow-covered summit, gleamed the castle—the largest diamond of all. It flickered in and out of sight, and he could barely see the lanterns littering the gardens of snow-flowers, their candlelight wavering orange and illuminating the blue-white castle with a warm, yet eerie, glow. He could almost imagine what was inside: Light. Laughter. Music; warmth.

Hope.

He was almost there. He drew his swords from their scabbard and held them firmly in both hands, dashing up the crest and reaching the low, outer wall, once made of stone, but coated with ice that had accumulated over the years. Without a word, he leapt over it, then blended into the shadows.

He peered into the nearest window. It was difficult to see through the frost, but he could make out distinct figures. He saw Azula—no doubt it was her; no one else stood in that kind of smug stance—talking with a taller figure, unfamiliar to him; he couldn’t make out his face, but he noticed that the figure’s hair was in a long braid that trailed almost to his waist.

He slipped around to the back, noticing that the back gardens were almost empty. He breathed a sigh of relief. With this kind of weather, no one would want to be outside for even a moment—that he had to his advantage, at least. He leaned into the shadow beneath a snow-covered tree, crossing his arms and swords as he paused to think.

How was he supposed to find the boy in this crowd? Provided that he’d brought his formal clothes with him (which he did not), Azula would recognize him straight away. And provided that he snuck in… Well, the walls looked to be dark, but the ballroom was highly illuminated, and its walls had been decorated with white pine trees, and the walls were draped in white, gold, and crimson. A black spot would be all the more noticeable, even if there were shadows.

He closed his eyes, shutting himself out from the cold breeze that was beginning to pick up again. Iroh had always said that he rushed off too quickly to do things… He frowned. He had to do this—he couldn’t return home empty-handed.

If he… No, that was too conspicuous. Assuming that—no, he couldn’t assume anything; he had done that before, and it had led him into a deep pitfall. Or if he—

“What are you doing here?”

Zuko jumped, then whirled around and held his swords out in front of him. He relaxed slightly when he saw that the person was just a girl dressed in elaborate clothing with slightly smudged makeup on her face. He remained silent, his swords glinting in the moonlight.

“I asked you why you’re here.” Her eyes narrowed, glinting coldly and menacingly. He took a step back and felt the cool bark of the tree press against him. Before she could react, he leapt up into the tree, hiding himself among the branches for a moment before leaping off and darting back into the forest.

X

And they say that, when a she falls, she falls fast and hard, and she won’t be able to pull herself up again—never again.

XI

Her heart was thumping loudly against her chest as she watched the snow fall off the tree branches, watched as the light reassembled the fragmented pieces of warmth left in the wake of his shadow.

“Princess Mai?”

The voice drifted out from the castle, shaking her from her thoughts. The faint blush that had coiled across her cheeks vanished almost instantly as she turned to glare at the arched doorway.

“What?”

Dun waved a hand frantically, gesturing for Mai to come inside. “It’s cold out; you’re not wearing enough! You’re going to get sick, Princess Mai. Come on, all the boys are waiting for you!”

Mai shook her head, chapped lips parting and cheeks warming again, melting the frost that cradled her. She turned her back on those infernal, frigid walls, planting herself in the snow.

“He’s here.”

XII

He was breathing heavily, perched lightly on a barren branch. His heart was fluttering in his ribcage, threatening to tear out of him.

There had been something utterly dangerous about her, something that he couldn’t place. She had to be the princess; there was no one else that could have commanded such an icy air, no one else that could have been worthy of commanding this region. He, of course, knew about the peculiar traditions of the Northern Xue Kingdom—they hadn’t had a king in centuries, maybe even millennia. The kingdom was ruled by only the Queen, and by no one else.

They had considered betrothing his father to Queen Xuezhu. But what use would it have served? Two dying nations, separated by hundreds of miles, united through the flimsy alliance of marriage… They would have gained nothing except an icy wasteland, and they would have risked everything.

It wouldn’t have been long before Ozai was the victim of a tragic, tragic accident…

He looked down through the branches, his breath coming up in puffs before him. She was still standing there. If he didn’t know that she was there, he would have mistaken her for just another tree in the courtyard; she stood stock-still, rapt, seemingly unaffected by the cold.

Maybe, if he could get her to cooperate…

He adjusted his grip on his swords.

It could work.

XIII

She didn’t know why she was waiting. It was starting to get cold, and colder than the usual night cold. She sighed and took a few steps toward the nearest tree, gingerly placing a hand on its freezing trunk and leaning against it.

“What’s the purpose of living?” she murmured, gazing at the castle. A light peal of laughter floated over the air, dulled and filtered by the glass that shut her out. She could faintly hear the sound of violins, could faintly hear the rain of notes dropping from a single silver piccolo.

She didn’t know when he arrived again. The shadows had just seemed to accumulate around her, and before she knew it, she could feel the fine edges of precisely sharpened swords pressed against her throat. They drew no blood, but she knew that one sudden move would force those blades deep into her neck.

“Tell me…” murmured a voice from behind her, sending a chill up her spine; at the same time, she felt an unfamiliar heat blossom throughout her body. “Where is His Holiness Aang?”

She frowned. “And I should tell you because…?”

He rattled his blades against her skin, and she winced. One of the blades drew a thin line across the skin of her neck; blood welled up along the cut.

“You will tell me,” hissed the voice, “because you want to tell me. And because you need to tell me.”

She smirked sardonically, and, ignoring the mixed messages her body was sending her, said, “I need to do nothing, and there is no reason why I should want anything. Face me like the man you are, coward. I don’t take lightly to threats.”

He pressed the blades harder to her throat, still taking care not to break the skin. She sighed, then, before he could blink, she pushed his arms apart, ducked when the swords came clanging back together, and drew out from within the folds of her robe a small but sharp knife that she threw in his direction. She smirked, satisfied, when she heard the fabric of his clothing tear and the knife puncture him in the gut; he fell to his knees.

“Still want to demand anything from me?” she said, standing over him. Without a word, he gripped the handle of the knife and wrenched it out of his gut, letting it fall onto the snow, staining it red. A bitterly cold wind blew; the courtyard echoed with the cracking sound of his blood freezing as it met the air. He looked down at the wound with more apprehension and curiosity than pain; he brushed the droplets off his clothing, letting them fall gently onto the drifts of snow, rubies raining onto the flawless clouds.

He pointed a sword toward her. “You’ll tell me, or I’ll have your head.”

She laughed. “You speak loudly for a peasant. Where’d you learn your manners from, the barbarians in the desert?”

He stiffened, and she laughed again.

“Amuse me,” she hissed. “This night has been boring as hell—not my idea of a perfect birthday party.”

She wasn’t sure what was making her taunt him like this. She was normally more reserved, more cautious—she never fought an enemy without knowing precisely how strong he was, without first gauging him and seeing how he fought. This man, however—he just seemed to charge on, unfettered by failure, not accepting ‘no’ as an answer. Spontaneous and thoughtless; careless and reckless. But she—she simply enveloped everything in her cruel embrace, lacking a definite path; she could just as easily concede as she could fight; she was calculating and took her time to wreak her havoc.

And they say that he was fire, and that she was ice.

She threw the next knife harder than she should have. She wanted to quash the internal demons that were causing that hellish heat to bloom up within her; she wanted to destroy the hand that had wrapped itself around her heart, squeezing it and constricting around it; it was threatening to burst; it was beating uncomfortably and fluttering and ready to explode.

And they say that, in her fury to destroy him, she only drew herself deeper into the trap.

Moments later, she found herself pressed against the massive tree in the center of the courtyard, two swords to her neck as she breathed heavily, chest heaving up and down. Each breath brought her neck closer to the blade, and she could feel her skin tightening and tensing every time the blade’s cool edge kissed it.

“Help me lure him out, help me capture him, and I’ll let you live,” he hissed.

She frowned. “Who are you?”

He shoved her up against the tree again, and she winced as she felt the blades cut into her.

“Does it matter?”

She reached up, and she felt him grow tense.

Her hand touched his mask.

*

Only in fairy tales, only in fairy tales—or so they claimed.

It shouldn’t have been possible, that a barren tree like that could bear such beautiful flowers, during the coldest night of winter. It shouldn’t have been possible that she lived, either; it shouldn’t have been possible, any of it.

But beneath the moon, the twisted, gnarled tree unfurled the blossoms on its branches. Enormous blossoms, almost like lotus blossoms, filled with glowing, golden dust that rained down upon the harsh, white snow. Blue petals that pierced the darkness with their light, casting a warm, blue glow that drowned out the icy orange fires.

And the world around them exploded with an eerie blue light.

Maybe he was dazzled by the light, they would later say. Maybe the sight had stunned him. But, in any case, he had done nothing when she reached behind his head and pulled off his mask; maybe he had been blinded by the light. He made no sound, no movement, when the mask hit the snow.

And they say that the cold lines on her face melted away, melted into a look of surprise. She had expected a rugged man that looked like a thug, they say, but what she got was a sixteen-year-old boy who looked just as scared as she felt. And when their eyes met, when she realized with a jolt that he was blind in his left eye, when he realized that the wall of antipathy between them had crumbled—he had lessened the pressure on his swords, released his grip—

But only slightly.

A heart of ice can be melted, but what can you do with a heart of stone?

*

Flustered, he kept one sword at her neck as he reached out and, with one swift movement, hooked the mask onto the tip of his sword.

Moments passed. The golden rain began to lessen, began to dull. The only movement in the courtyard was their breaths rising before their faces, dissipating into the frozen night air.

And that frozen night air shattered into a million glittering pieces with a shriek that rang out and pierced the air. From within the castle came the sound of platters clattering onto the ground, the tinkling sound of glass shattering onto the ground; the sound of water splashing. More screams followed; they heard the sound of the heavy wooden door banging open and hurried, panicking footsteps crunching through the snow.

He turned to look at the figure that had dashed out from the castle, then narrowed his eyes.

“So this is the end, then,” she said, smirking sardonically as she watched His Holiness Aang draw closer and closer to the courtyard.

He leaned in close to her face, marveling again at its cold, perfect beauty.

“The end is the beginning,” he whispered, and disappeared, pulling on his mask as he melted into the darkness.

And they say that he never returned, that he had no more use for her.

But what they say and what actually is are two separate things.

The Snow Queen Reigneth

Author’s Notes: What can I say—school, NaNo, and procrastination bit me in the butt. :( So the ending’s quite rushed. Once we’re free to post this wherever we want, I’ll make the necessary edits and post up a more refined, revised version. (hopes that there are no embarrassing typos)

I hope you enjoyed it! And this is the first time I’ve really written Mai or Zuko seriously, and in this long of a fic, so I’d love feedback about their characterization. :)


If you would like to comment after reading, ALL COMMENTS MUST BE ANONYMOUS, except in the case of birdsarecalling.
Comments 
10th-Feb-2007 04:09 am (UTC)
Oh, wow! I'm so impressed with this story! Have to dash out, but will be back to offer mroe detailed feedback tomorrow.
13th-Feb-2007 05:33 am (UTC)
Anonymous
Hi Mayyyy :D Author here. I'm really glad you liked it ♥ and I'd love detailed feedback; that'd be awesome ♥ ♥ ♥
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