Kurami and Zuko were silent during dinner. It was not an unusual occurrence, but it was a more peaceful silence rather than the forced ignorance that existed during the past few weeks. Iroh decided to enjoy the peace while it lasted.
“Prince Zuko, the crew has reported that we are running low on supplies. We are approaching a trading port and should be able to get there by tomorrow,” he said.
Kurami nearly snapped up upon hearing the word ‘port’. She’d been on the ship for about half a month and dearly missed having solid ground under her feet.
“Well, I can’t just leave her alone!”
“Maybe you should bring her with you. Get her some new clothes. The Shenghuo Festival is tomorrow, if I remember correctly.”
The shadowbender hid a smile at the prince’s responding groan.
“I’m supposed to take you with me.”
Kurami raised an eyebrow in interest, as if she hadn’t overheard the conversation the night before. The coins tied to her wrist jingled as she crossed her arms. Iroh had given them to her earlier that morning, telling her to have fun with whatever she bought.
“I take it you’re not happy with that?” she answered dryly, leaning against one of the wooden poles of the dock. The sun shone brightly overhead, turning the violet of her eyes dark blue. The prince’s face remained blank, but she could see the distrust bubbling underneath the surface.
“Look, if it matters that much to you, I won’t leave your side when we’re out there. Besides, someone has to carry my stuff,” she said, holding up her broken hand. The distrust vanished almost immediately, pushed out of the way by his customary glare.
Kurami walked off before he could decide whether she was kidding or not. Zuko sighed and followed her into the busy market.
Zuko didn’t know what to expect when the assassin started looking around the stalls. He wasn’t surprised when she decided to look at the simple tunics and pants rather than the fancy dresses, but he wasn’t counting on her pausing at the musical instruments. In particular, she seemed quite interested in a wooden flute, but she passed by without buying anything.
Zuko stopped in his tracks when his companion suddenly vanished a few minutes later.
She must have made a run for it, he cursed mentally.
Backtracking to their previous location, he felt strangely relieved to see her standing in front of a stall full of masks. The corner of her mouth turned up when she spotted him.
“Lost something, Your Highness?” she teased.
Zuko scowled back at her. “I thought you had escaped.”
Rolling her eyes, she replied, “I said I wouldn’t, didn’t I?”
“They’re selling these for the festival tonight,” she continued, pointing to the masks. “Do you want to go?”
Zuko crossed his arms. Uncle would probably force him to go anyway, so what point was there in refusing?
Eventually, he picked a blue and white mask depicting a grinning demon that covered his whole face, while Kurami chose a simple black mask with white decorations. After making their payments, they made their way back to the ship to prepare for the festival.
That night, Kurami met Zuko on the deck, dressed in her new clothes and mask. She now wore a long-sleeved top, olive green pants, and a matching tunic. Zuko was not wearing his armor for once, clothed instead in a red shirt, gray pants, and his gauntlets. It was surprising to her, since the only times she had seen him without armor were during sparring matches and the night of the mission.
Her mind began to wander. She tried not to think about it, but at times, she wondered about Ren, Miyu, and Kai. Did they know she was gone? Were they worried?
She mentally smacked herself. Of course they’re worried. I’ve never gone on a mission by myself that took nearly a month. They’re probably looking for me. It was a thin hope, but a good one nonetheless. Kai could be overprotective at times, but Kurami knew it meant that Kai cared about her.
She nodded once to the prince when he appeared, mask in place, and they both set off for the village square.
The village had transformed since they left. There were bright lanterns strung up across the roofs, and people were dressed in colorful masks and costumes. The delicious smell of food filled the air as they passed. Zuko glanced at the masked girl, watching her closely. Her face, or what he could see of it, was calm, but her eyes were bright with awe and curiosity. Suddenly, a thought came to him.
“You’ve never been to a festival before, have you?” he asked.
“W-what?” she stuttered, caught completely off-guard. “Of course I have!”
“Really?” he asked dubiously. “Name one of them.”
Her mouth opened and closed, searching for an answer. After a few minutes, she sighed in defeat, stopping beside an alleyway. Zuko stood in front of her, waiting for an explanation.
“Alright, fine. You got me. I rarely get to see the outside world. This is the longest time I’ve ever been away-” she suddenly stopped, biting her lip.
“Away from what?” Zuko pressed.
“Nothing.” It took a moment for him to figure out what she was talking about.
“Ah, your mysterious ’employer’.”
If Zuko played this right, she could finally tell him something–anything–before she shut herself off again. She seemed to be talkative today anyway. He decided to start simple.
“You know, you haven’t even told me your name. It’s kind of rude, don’t you think?”
“Unless I find a reason to trust you any time soon, which currently isn’t the case,” she said, “I’ll tell you.”
Tension began to fill the air between them. Her eyes were guarded once again, all trace of excitement gone. They began to walk again, both silent.
Finally, Zuko said, “I’m sorry.” The assassin glanced at him in disbelief. “I wasn’t thinking.”
She exhaled, the tightness in her frame disappearing.
“It’s fine. I don’t want to think about it,” she replied.
They passed earthbending demonstrations, performing musicians, and laughing children running around. Kurami tried some of the games and food, offering some of her flower cakes to the prince, as they had both skipped dinner.
Zuko felt strangely relieved when he saw the childish wonder return to violet eyes.
Sometime later, while they watched the fireworks, Kurami gave Zuko a full-out grin, eyes sparking behind her black mask. Her expression soon faded into her usual half-frown, but Zuko noted that her eyes still danced with excitement, bright in the darkness.
“We should probably get back to the ship,” she said, once the last firework had exploded in a bright red bang.
Zuko could only nod, thankful that his mask hid any expression on his face, and tried not to think about her smile.
“Thank you for tonight. It was really fun,” said Kurami, staring out at the calm sea. She held her mask in one hand, leaning against the side of the ship. Zuko stood beside her, his own mask off.
“It was the least I could do,” he replied, not looking at her.
They continued to stand in a somewhat peaceful silence, until the shadowbender declared she was going to go to bed.
“Goodnight,” said Zuko, still standing by the railing.
Kurami walked towards the door, only pausing to say one last thing.
“By the way…about earlier.” She took a deep breath, as if unsure of her next words. “It’s Kurami.”
The prince turned his head towards her in confusion. Kurami let herself smile again–the same smile she had given him at the festival; full of honesty, with no trace of the caution and distrust that was there when they first met.
“My name,” she elaborated. “It’s Kurami. Goodnight.”
With that, she hurried inside, leaving the prince standing on the deck alone.
The Shenghuo (Life) Festival was inspired by one in the Philippines called the Maskara (MAS-kha-rah) Festival celebrated in Bacolod City.