Title is from Dylan Thomas: terror will rage apart / before chains break to a hammer flame / and love unbolts the dark.
unbolt the dark
(three games of hide and seek)
Crouching under the low table requires Mai to simulate obesiance, her palms and her legs laid flat against the floor, and for this reason she thinks that perhaps Azula will take longer to find her this time -- she would never choose a hiding space that requires such a position. For herself Mai is still a lady of the Fire Nation, and she keeps her sleeves free of the dust and holds her head erect, and when Azula scoops back the black cloth and dirties her cave-like space with internal light, Mai simply gives a very small smile of acknowledgment.
Azula says neither found you nor your turn: she smiles in return and her eyes describe a deliberate loop, down to Mai's bent knees and back up again. "Don't feel too bad, Mai," she says. "It's good practice."
Mai watches as Azula fills a room with smoke and listens for her brother's cough; as she entices Ty Lee into plain sight with the innocent insistence that it's dinner time and the game has ended. (It isn't, and it hasn't.)
Mai thinks, yes, it's certainly good practice.
Before Mai can suggest that they're a little too old for this game now, Azula has slipped into shadow and Ty Lee is counting aloud. So she sighs and walks with quick deliberation towards the disused wing that used to belong to the Crown Prince: there are enough lies in her life that she has never seen the need to lie to herself as well. And if Azula insists on pulling out their childhoods on occasion so that they can be retrospectively erased and rewritten...well, Mai feels entitled to a few gestures of blatantly treacherous nostalgia.
It's very quiet in the closet, and stiff ceremonial fabric prickles the skin of her face. Mai inhales slowly in full knowledge of how old the air is and how empty her rebellion is and how her future is just this: just games. Politics and pai-sho and playing history against imperial innovation. Polished surfaces with defined spaces into which she can step.
With one of her hands she reaches out and touches another garment, this one more yielding, and before she can stop herself she is playing a silent, aching what-if with herself. The room has not been empty for years. Azula has a real brother and not just the tainted sound of an exiled name. Zuko hates this game but is playing anyway and when he opens the door he looks embarrassed to have found her, and then pleased, and then embarrassed to be pleased.
And then --
"Mai, you're blushing." Ty Lee sounds delighted, either at finding her so quickly or at the blush, and most likely at both.
"Am I?" Mai puts the backs of her fingers to her own cheek and speaks in a tone of mild, indifferent surprise. "Next time I'll hide further from the fire."
"This must be what it's like for Toph, all the time," Zuko whispers, his lips very close to her ear.
Mai's heartbeat seems so damnably loud that she can barely hear her own voice, which is why she says, "You might be right."
"Do you think she --"
"I'm sure she made it there." Mai is not sure at all. But she's far better at pretending than Zuko is; Zuko with tension leaking out of his voice and -- she knows, even though she cannot see him -- his eyes wide open in the darkness. "And I'm sure Katara is where she is supposed to be, and the Avatar is where he's supposed to be, so stop catastrophizing and focus."
"All right." A pause. "Um. Thanks."
Mai rolls her eyes and squeezes his hand in a way that means, you're welcome, moron, and then cold red light breaks into her vision.
"Hello, traitors," Azula says.
Mai condenses her world to the faint tremors building in the earth and the steady pressure of Zuko's fingers around hers, and begins to count to ten.