The first time he had became the Blue Spirit, he had done it purely out of necessity. It was only because being Zuko was not enough that he deigned it necessary to cover the face that he had worn all his life with a false one that was not his own. In the end, he supposed that the mask had just been a means to an end, and although the part of him that was royalty scoffed at the idea of hiding his identity, the other (more rational) part of him understood that this momentary charade was needed.
Without the mask, his face was too recognizable. The man who was Zuko was bound by loyalty to his country, and his actions were limited by law. With the mask on, however, he could do anything. He could do everything he wanted to do but couldn't do as his usual self. The Blue Spirit had no country and was bound to no one. There were no rules, no boundaries, no loyalties - just him, and just what needed to be done.
Behind the mask, he felt free for the first time in his life.
But later, he had no use for the mask of the Blue Spirit any longer, and the Blue Spirit could no longer do anything for him anyway. The Avatar knew who he was, Zhao was close to finding out, and it was too dangerous to continue the faÃ§ade that he had, on one day's whim, picked up to do what Zuko alone could not. Now that the consequences of continuing his second life far outweighed the potential benefits, he didn't think twice about hanging up his broadswords, burning the black uniform, and locking the mask away in a chest under his bed. He was glad that his plan had been useful for a time, but he was more than willing to embrace its limitations when the time came, especially since he was so reluctant to continue pretenses unnecessarily.
And now, when he was this close to the Avatar and this close to regaining everything that he had lost and always dreamed of, it would be foolish to make a mistake. He couldn't be the Blue Spirit any longer - he couldn't afford to - not when the stakes were this high.
So that had been that, and he'd wasted no time in forgetting his alternate persona and returning to life as normal.
Time passed, and after the confrontation with Zhao and the ensuing attempt on his life, he was certain that the Blue Spirit had all but ruined his life for him. He cursed at his stupidity for ever putting the mask and uniform on in the first place, and he vowed to never again do something so foolish and so risky. He didn't stop to think about what happened to the mask, or to his swords, in the explosion that had destroyed his ship - the same explosion that could have ended his life.
He didn't miss them. In fact, he'd pretty much forgotten all about them. One tended to do things like that when occupied with more pressing problems.
He was too busy trying to stay alive to give much thought to what he considered to be a past life.
Later, on the Fire Navy ship on the way to the North Pole, he realized that somehow, the capture of the Avatar was no longer the only card on the table that he was betting everything on. Now, his life was the card sitting next to it. In one way or another, over the course of time, the two had become one and the same.
He wasn't sure how he felt about that.
After the fiasco with the Avatar's escape and the Fire Nation's failure to defeat the Northern Water Tribe, with his rival dead and gone and his energy completely spent, he felt for the first time in his life that he was at his breaking point. The Avatar had been in his grasp - helpless and without allies, just lying there for his taking - but the weather of all things had stepped in and stopped him when no one else could. He had been so close - so close! - but it hadn't been close enough, and now he was back where he started: drifting along without his father's love, without his country's acceptance, without his title - drifting along in life with nothing.
He didn't even give the Blue Spirit any second thought. There was no time and no room for him to play the part anymore. He wouldn't - and couldn't - fill the shoes of another identity when he had no energy left to even find his own, and for the first time in a long time, he felt that it was time for him to let go of all the anger, the shadows, and the chasing - it was time to just be himself.
To just be Zuko.
For once, that alone was enough.
He hadn't looked back after making that decision, and after he and his uncle had finally drifted back to civilization, he'd concentrated on nursing himself back to health. For a while he was content to just rest. He was tired of running and chasing and being angry and trying to regain his honor, and he felt that if he wanted to stay sane, he needed to stop fighting. He needed to rest.
It wasn't long before his ambition resurfaced and he wanted to do more than just rest anymore. He was ready to take up the chase once again.
And then his sister had come, and he had tasted unlikely hope for the first time in three years. It had changed him, twisted him, and blinded him to what should have been obvious, and in retrospect, he knew that he ultimately would have been locked up and possibly killed by his own country - his own father, even - if his uncle hadn't been watching over him the whole time and hadn't saved them both from a horrible, underhanded trap.
Afterwards, they'd both done what had been unthinkable before - they'd knelt down in the riverbank, faces somber and unspeaking, and with a ceremonial dagger had cut off their topknots, severing their ties to their country. Together, without saying anything, they had both known that enough was enough. Their country had forsaken them and betrayed them. It was their responsibility - and their own remaining option, really - to return the favor and do the same.
With one swift stroke, he had gone from being a prince to being a homeless, country-less fugitive.
He adjusted quickly to life on the run. The only things he missed, actually, were a warm bed at night and some of the more expensive culinary delicacies that he was particularly fond of. He could bear with it, though, as long as he had his firebending and could warm up a bath for himself whenever he wanted.
That was before they ran out of money and had to resort to begging.
On that fateful, degrading day, when he recognized one of the masks hanging on a street vendor's cart, and when he recognized the swords that the impotent fool on the street had the audacity to swing at his uncle's feet, he realized that he and the Blue Spirit had become the same person.
No country. No rules. Just you, and what needs to be done.
He wasn't going to sit around and take this disrespect, not like some homeless beggar on the street with no goal in life and no reason to better himself. He wasn't going to fade out like this, not him. He was royalty - a warrior prince - and he was going to go out fighting, fists blazing, burning as brightly as he did the day he was born.
He wasn't some beggar. There was no way this was how his life was going to end. There was no way his pride would allow it to end.
Not when there was something he could still do. Not when he could still fight. He would gladly risk his life for something as petty as pride, because at this point, he felt that pride was all he had left.
So he cracked.
He stole the mask and the uniform, and took the swords from the unworthy street urchin by force.
And Blue Spirit was reborn.
He both hated and loved himself for it.
Disclaimer: Any and all characters belonging to Avatar, the Last Airbender are the legal property of Nickelodeon.
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