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A Candle to the Dragon

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The night of his birth is not at all peaceful. It is her first child, and labour stretches for hours and she is alone, with midwives and doctors, but alone all the same. She didn't expect any different, but when when the pain drowns into the unbearable, she does wish it were.

Then he is in her arms, and she is not sure that anything else ever mattered. It is short lived. He enters the room before she had time to do anything but rest and stare enraptured at her son's face.

"Leave. All of you." He says.

Light winks on and off as the group shambles away, then blinks out completely. Her husband steps nearer. With her child cooing in her arms, Ursa can see only through a lens of euphoria, and beckons the man forward.

"Look at him, Ozai. He's perfect."

He looms down, a cloud over her joy, ready to rain or snow or throw down lightning. A hand reaches out coldly, the child leans away, blinks, nestles back into her arms. Ozai's eyes look as if he could burn them both, and her lens starts to fog.

It's barely a whisper. "He doesn't have the spark."

What that means, she's not sure of, but Ursa pulls the child closer.

"Ozai?"

His eyes glow too brightly in the dark. "We can drown him. We can say he was stillborn."

Bile rises in her throat and she almost retches right there. The image of her child struggling, dead, is enough to make her want to claw her heart out, but it is overshadowed by an animalistic urge to protect. She pulls him closer still, the pain of labour now reborn as fire in her eyes.

"No. No, no! Don't say that! How could you even think of it!"

"Look at him. There is no spark in his eyes; there is no fire in him. I cannot have a non-bender as my firstborn." He spits back.

"He's your son."

"That is no son of mine." Rage rolled off him as smoke. He stretched a hand towards them. "Give him to me."

Anger burns away, reason is but ashes. She has left only a frenzy of self preservation, for she knows that if her child dies, she will not survive. She doubts she would have the will.

"There's fire in him, I know there is. He'll be a firebender one day, I promise you. Please."

"Give him to me now, Ursa."

"You're wrong!"

They are still, frozen in place by the outburst. Despite the bravado, Ursa trembles.

"Give him time, Ozai, please. Please." She holds him close to her breast and the child whines, sweet and clear like a canary's song before the mine smoke kisses her to sleep.

Smoke's eyes bore down on them and she can do nothing else but hold him closer. If he takes him, she will fight, she will not win, but she will fight as all mother's must when their children are in danger.

Then Ozai breaks his gaze, and the smoke retreats back down the mine.

"Pray you are right, Ursa." Light reaches for her bed as the door opens and closes.

She is alone now, as she always is in this house of wolves, but it is different. She has her son now, her beautiful son whose amber eyes stare up at her like waning candles in the dark, warm and blameless and all too fragile. There is no spark in them. She is not at all sure what a spark resembles, but it is not there. His eyes are her's, this child is her child, in birth, in body, in ability; and they are alone. Two turtleducks as hawks scream above them.

Light brushes at the floor again as the door is thrown open.

"Ursa." His voice washes tenderly over the silence. "You've gifted me with a nephew."

Tears prick at the sight of a friendly face. Her brother-in-law may be a dragon in battle, but he has a kind heart and a love of peace that is only outweighed by his love of tea. She thinks him two-faced sometimes, but they all have their pitfalls and Ursa will do with any kindred spirit that she finds.

"Iroh." Her arms relax and firelight brushes at her son's face. "Come see him."

He settled by her bedside and hovered over the child.

"Much more peaceful than Lu Ten was, I can tell you that." He chuckled. "Come look at your Uncle Iroh, little one. Lovely. Look at those eyes. So bright and full of… life."

A hand caresses the child's face, Iroh stealing glimpses of the amber behind the heavy-lidded eyes. He looks too long, too intently, and she knows that her brother is searching for something that he will never find, as non-existent as stars at noon. Searching, then waiting, as if gauging her.

Then finally, he says. "He will grow into a fine, honorable man. You have nothing to worry about."

He lays a hand over her trembling one, and the tears that had sprung from relief now fall from despair. The child cries again, and she can't get the image out of her mind of the canary singing to its own death.

He consoles her. "Agni blesses his gift for strange reasons. And sometimes, he withholds it for even stranger."

"He's a lamb in a dragon's den. I've brought him a life of suffering."

"Those are no lamb's eyes." He says. "And you have not brought him suffering. You have brought him life and love, my dear."

"But my husband… Oh, Iroh. He wanted to kill him."

Barely a whisper, but already it felt as if bile were rising from her throat. Her son… so close to death from his own father's hands and still no farther from it.

"I… can believe it. Has he no shame? To say that to you and your child… It's a wretched thing."

"But would he do it?" She asks. An answer is already with her, but she can live only to hope.

"I don't know, dear." He mutters. "But do not fear. I am here for him, and so are you. You have always brought out the better side of my brother, Ursa."

A warm smile plays on his lips, calms her mind, and for once she realizes how badly she shakes. The night's terrors had taxed her body, but that rest can fix. Shocks riddle her mind, but those too will fade. The fate she has given her son though, that will be what haunts her.

"Do you have name for him yet?" Iroh asks.

She allows herself another glimpse of the child swathed in her arms. Skin as thin as rice paper and barely hours old, yet he already has so many enemies; just looking at him makes fresh tears spring in the corners of her eyes.

She cups a shaking hand over his face. "Zuko."

He gives another smile. "A beautiful name for a beautiful child. Rest now. I will be close by. Call for me if you need anything."

Light peaks and ebbs from the hall. They are alone again.

It is her first moment of relative calm, and she rock back and forth on the bed, perhaps to soothe the child, perhaps just a result of fear.

That is no son of mine. His words linger over her mind like buzzard-wasps over the starved. She must protect her son, her Zuko, by whatever way she must.

His eyes blink and she searches the amber orbs again.

He doesn't have the spark.

The amber glimmers and shines and flickers like a dying candle, and she begs to the heavens that that is enough. There is fire in her son. There must be. And she prays to the spirits above, not for an easy life for her son because she knows already that that is out of their grasp, but for the ability to endure it. The chance of ability; that is all that protects him.

She stares down with her golden eyes shining with tears.

"I'm sorry, Zuko."

Little amber eyes stare back.

Chapter Text

Fire. The element of power, ferocity, passion, life. It eats through the greatest forests, spills from the mountainsides…

"...It warms the coldest hearts and lights the starless night. It is the energy within us. In taming fire, we master ourselves." His eyes are closed, but the eleven year old recites the lines as steadily and solemnly as a witness testifying. The Master's Guide to Fire lays besides him, but it has been months since he'd memorized its entirety.

He breathes in, out, the candles flickering in front of him.

"Start from the stomach, the sea of chi. Find fuel in will and anger. Breathe well. Let it flow through, and fire with force."

He opens his eyes. He breathes in, out. The candles do not flicker, save for a shiver from his breath.

It has been long since he could say that he did not expect it, and longer still since any feeling of disappointment had numbed out, but even so he closes his eyes hurriedly and skims through the pages in his mind, searching for something else to distract his thoughts.

He breathes in, out, watches the red dance behind his eyelids.

Heed the flames carefully, for fire is also the element of destruction. A pond undisturbed will not harm you, an untouched stone cannot hurt you and air cannot pull itself from your lungs, but a fire unkept will burn all.

The red starts to fade from his sight, and he's reminded of a scene from years behind him.

He'd spent a summer evening collecting dry twigs and brush on the palace steps, stolen a pair of spark rocks from the kitchen and coaxed the little tinder bird's nest to light. It was a steady, puny flame and it danced gentle long enough in his hands for him to totter his way to where his mother sat. He held the little flame to her, grinning wide, and the fire shone wildly in her eyes in the moments before the rest of the tinder caught, and the child was holding nothing short of a live, blazing fire in his hands.

Heat licked his palms and he screamed. His mother pulled him away to the nearest bath and ran water over his hands until they turned numb.

"Why would you do that Zuko?" She asked.

He watched scar lines start to swell on his hands like little, lumpy mole hills.

"I - I wanted you to be… proud of me."

"Oh, Zuko." She says tearfully. "This isn't for me. This is all for you, Zuko, it's all for you."

The fiasco had lit a fire under his feet, so to speak. From then on, firebending was no longer a daunting hope. His mother's eyes had made it seem as if it were life or death, and he was resigned to believe her.

Breathe in, out. It comes out shaky, but it plants him back in the present.

Fire is overpowering force. It is tempered by unflinching strength.

That line always reminds him of Azula. He didn't like it much.

They might've been close before, at the very least he doesn't remember a time without her, but he can't reach a time where Azula hadn't seemed so... removed.

If they pass each other in the hall now, he would more likely than not step to the side. Prince or not, elder or not; Zuko has his place in the hierarchy.

Those scarce years before she sparked her first flame are just specks on the horizon. Meaningless. Unreachable.

He can't move himself to hate her, though, no matter how many times his teachers shove her achievements in front of him, or how it is nothing short of a mockery when they're made to train together or how Azula looks at him with no more respect than she would give to a weed. No, it wasn't Azula's fault she was a prodigy; it was his fault that he was a failure.

A prodigy, a miracle, she's everything he isn't and in her eyes is power incarnate. Just like... Just like his father.

Breathe in, out. Someone knocks at his door.

"Come in." He says as he starts snuffing out the candles. When he opens the curtain, he sees that the sun has climbed well over the horizon.

It's his mother who opens the door. Her voice rings sanguine in the air. "Good morning, Zuko."

"Good morning." He echoes and leaps into her arms where she plants a kiss on his head and brushes her hands through his hair.

His mother is the one true beautiful thing he knows. She's the torchbearer on his darkest nights and only under her gaze did he ever feel truly safe.

"You have firebending practice today." She says. "With Azula. Your father wants you two to practice before our audience with Firelord Azulon today."

Zuko tries not to hear the words too closely, instead just focuses on the rise and fall of her voice.

"Okay." He says cheerlessly, and his mother tilts his head up to meet her eyes. She gives him a quiet smile, the one that always gave him the fuel to try again, day after day after day, and another kiss on the forehead.

"Come on now."

They walk hand in hand to the courtyard where the teachers already wait. Azula wears a calculated smile, already practicing, with fire blooming on and off as easily and steadily as an oil lamp.

The two rarely trained together, which both of them preferred. Training besides her made everything he did seem frivolous and Azula always did her best to remind him that she was, in fact, superior. That is, if she graced him with her attention at all.

Mother stands to the side, and the masters have them prepare for the drill.

He looks to the verses for confidence.

There is fire in all of us. It is the birthright of the children of Agni. It is the energy that drives us to grasp the unreachable.

Breathe in, out. The sun glowers down from the heavens.

They go through the routine side by side. He stays fiercely focused on every move, every flow of energy and he makes no stumbles, no missteps. The two stay in sync, as if he was her shadow. The only difference is the red flames that augments her every motion, and the prim smile on her face.

His resolve flares. Every step bounds firmer, every blow more bold and at his side, Azula's smile waxes. They play into the game, growing fiercer with every motion.

Unflinching strength. He remembers. Overpowering force.

Her fire casts shadows in the daylight and heat presses against him. Her power is effortless while his is already dipping with fatigue, but they are nearing the end now. Sunlight itches at his skin, heat grazes at his side, Azula's fire flashes spots into his eyes, they take their final stance, and he slips.

Exhaustion leaves the world a dull hum and humiliation bites worse than fire. Azula's not mocking him yet, and it's not until their teachers crowd around her does he realize. Her eyes are wide with amazement in a way that seems almost foreign to her, and she cradles something in her hands.

Blue flames are a sign of boundless power. Those who wield it are destined for greatness.

Zuko stares at the blue laced flame as if he were a starving man, and it a three-course meal.

He stares down at his own hands.

He might have never known true will, or anger, or hatred until this moment. Zuko is exhausted and he hates - everything and nothing and himself and it's just not fair - and he clings on desperation; the barest form of will.

Zuko prays, begs, that the mornings he's spent in meditation, the hours he's dedicated to gainless practice, nights he's poured over candlelit books, have amounted to something. That they've made divots in the mine and he was one strike from gold.

And if it is meant to be, now is the moment. Hope hangs above him like a balloon close to bursting. The air shudders like it does on sultry, summer days. Everything blurs except for the sunlight brushing on his scarred, ashen hands.

And nothing.

"Zuko, are you alright?" His mother kneels down besides him and takes his hands in hers. "You'll get it next time, dear."

Something inside him cracks.

"I'm not a firebender! I'll never be a firebender!"

He's happy for the tears blurring his vision because he doesn't think he could stand to see his mother's eyes. They would be just like they were when he'd burned his hands; wide and gleaming with tears, crying out life or death, except worse because now he's chosen his fate.

And when he finally blinks away the tears, he looks up. Her eyes are not on him.

Zuko follows her gaze and catches the silhouette as it disappears down the hall. The heat of his father's golden eyes lingers in the air.

Zuko bores down on his scarred, fireless hands, and all he can hear in his head is life or death. Life or death.


Mano's forum! Yay! Read author's note if you don't know what this is.


 

Chapter Text

Danger was in the air. It buzzed at the back of her ears like a wasp, unrelenting since that morning in the courtyard. She still remembered the flutter of her heartbeat as her son sobbed the words through his tears. She remembered how her fingers trembled as she trailed her husband, hoping to say something, anything, that may have swayed the thoughts in his mind.

A servant had come to tell her that their audience with Firelord Azulon had been rescinded. Ozai would be meeting him alone. When the news of Lu Ten's death arrived that evening, danger seemed to roar.

Night fell, and she found herself standing vigil at her son's door. There she waited, heart beating steely as if preparing for battle until, like a shark to bloodied waters, his footsteps echoed from the hall.

Despite the grim line of his mouth, Ozai seemed almost amused. "At his side already?"

Her voice is near a hiss, else he would hear the tremble. "Why are you here?"

Silence meets her words, and that is answer enough. His eyes glow too brightly in the dark, just like they had years before in that lightless room. She remembers the feeling of her newborn swathed against her pounding heart. Ursa feels like retching again.

The door is stiff at her back. She repeats. "Why are you here?"

"On orders, Ursa."

"Whose orders?"

"The Firelord's orders." His words are tired and flat, as if he were the sensible one trying to speak reason to poor, crazed Ursa. "You knew this day would come. You can't protect him from his own weakness. I will make it painless, Ursa. Try to understand."

"Understand what? This is lunacy."

"This is the perfect time to strike. Iroh's line had died out. I must show the Firelord that our's is superior."

"By striking against your own. He's your son as well."

A sound like a growl spills from his throat. Ursa knows too well that Ozai has never seen Zuko as his son; the mere thought is a stab through his pride.

His voice takes on a lower note, and Ozai steps closer. "The boy said it himself. He is nothing but an obstacle."

Memory rips her from reality. 11 years Zuko has tried, 11 years she's pleaded the heavens for a gift. She'd known long ago he was no firebender, but the act had to be held. The chance of ability was the only shield he had. The moment he gave up was the moment the canary stops singing, when the gas has reached the mine and the air is death itself.

Could you feel a heart break? If you asked Ursa after that moment, she will say yes. You can feel a heart break and after, you can feel the shards gather again and piece themselves into something stronger, wilder.

Ozai's voice sounds like an echo. "Do you think I find joy in this? If there were another way, I would take it. But a weed must be pulled from its roots."

An obstacle. A weed. Ursa starts to slide down the doorframe, the words he's your son, trying to rip themselves from her throat.

She doesn't understand it. She wants to take his hand and tell him how wonderful his son is, he wants him to know the hours he spends early morning and late at night trying to perfect katas, he wants him to see the stacks of books pilfered in his room, read and reread and memorized, he wants him to understand just how hard Zuko tries to make him proud. She wants him to know how heavy he walks when his efforts fall short, and he wants him to know that he tries again every day despite it.

She wants to tell him, but she knows that it will mean nothing to him. Ozai loves only what he can use and to him, a bird with even the most beautiful feathers is worthless if it can not fly.

She stares into his golden eyes. For all the power they held, they were nothing short of blind.

And just like that night a hundred moons ago, Ursa will fight. "Then I'd rather run with him now."

"You won't make it far." He seethed. "Step aside."

Hands grip at the doorway. A mania overcomes her, a kind that comes to a mother when she is the only thing between her child, and death.

"You won't touch him."

Memory flashes past her eyes. The chance of ability, that is what saved her son that night. That vine has withered and Ursa must hang something else before those blind, golden eyes. The only thing they can see. The chance of power.

"Listen to me Ozai: Azulon's will doesn't matter. You can be Firelord. I can make you Firelord. Just spare him. Banish me, throw me in the prison, make Azula your heir, it doesn't matter; just spare him."

A silent step forward, but his eyes flicker wild like a candle in the wind. "You're throwing glass across my path."

"You will not touch him, Ozai. You will have to step over my corpse to get through this doorway. They'll smell foul play for miles. Azulon won't give you the crown as long as he lives, you know that."

"Whether he does or not, disobeying the Firelord's will is treason." A hand hovers towards the door handle.

She makes her final bid. "You want the throne? I know a poison."

Yes, it is a mirror of that night before because here they are again, frozen still by her voice. And just as before, Ozai's gaze flicks away, he takes a step back, and Ursa's heartbeat grows hushed.

"Come. We'll speak more out of the open." Smoke retreats down the mine, the canaries keep singing.

He backs down the hall, and for a moment, she is alone. Danger hums behind her ears again. She must see her son once more. She must wake him and keep him in her arms and tell him that he has always been enough. She must tell him how bright he is, how his determination leaves her in tears with pride, how if she could she would crown him king for that is what he deserves. Light brushes into his room as she opens the door a sliver, just as it had that night as she store into those amber eyes. Sparkless, but beautiful and doubtlessly worth protecting. She must tell him that.

Then as if from the shadows themselves, Ozai's voice beckons. "Come, Ursa."

Ursa can do nothing else but follow. She allows the door to close. Her heart wails for every step she takes, for somehow she knows she will not have another chance. His last memory of her, forever a wraith.

She will not give to despair. She has always loved him and she has saved him, and that will mean enough.


 

Chapter Text

 

Being a prince was no easy task. There were standards and expectations raised far higher than any child of 13 could be expected to reach, and public life meant a post tied on your back at all times. Power weighed heavily, and so did the knowledge that your father's enemies may see you as a soft target.

Nevertheless, Zuko would beg for that life; for he was a paper prince, and he thinks that is, altogether, worse. A prince had a throne he's destined to fill, a predecessor that called for his ascent and a people that bowed to his will. He had none of that. His crown waved like parchment in the wind. One misplaced spark and he'd be up in flames. He was utterly dispensable; and he wished he wasn't canny enough to realize that.

Don't turn from logic. He reminded himself. Ignorance may be bliss, but it only meant that you would go unknowingly into your doom. Zuko knew his crown was paper thin. He knew that whatever it was that kept the servants bowing to him, whatever it was that kept the title Crown Prince before his name, whatever it was that kept him alive, would run out soon enough. With that knowledge, he fights everyday to keep the crown on his head. No, to earn it's place.

To cover his defects, he learns all he can. Later in the evening, he would study with the tutors his uncle brings in for him. His father hadn't organized his schooling for years now. At night, he'd nestle into the palace library and continue chapter three of The Harmony of Nations, a collection of dusty encyclopedias that his uncle had picked out for him. When he'd brought them down from the shelf, he'd said "While seeking knowledge in any form is worthwhile, finding yourself a good source matters just as much." Zuko's not at all sure how to judge if a source is reliable, but he still had five volumes to leaf through before he had to worry about it.

All of that however, would come later. There was something he had to bridge between then and now.

At the moment, he trained with Uncle. Iroh's lessons spanned a menagerie of things, sometimes consisting of an innocent (albeit boring) game of Pai Sho, or a hands-on study of tea brewing, or sometimes something actually useful like diplomacy. Today, he'd insisted on teaching firebending. It would leave a bitter taste in his mouth, but Zuko never turned down a chance to learn.

"You may think this is useless, Prince Zuko." He said. "But firebending at its base is a martial art. Flexibility, strength, agility; it trains the body and the mind."

Iroh sat in a shaded pavilion, on a platform a few feet above the grass. The palace green they trained in was surrounded on all four sides by pillared, open air walkways that led into the inner halls. The sun fell behind the golden gilded minarets and casted a shadow over the courtyard, a blessing in the Fire Nation summer.

The weather doesn't falter his training. A preoccupation does.

"Alright, Uncle. But I wanted to ask…" He paused. "There's a war council today. I want to go."

Iroh fanned away the evening heat distractedly. "Why would you want to be in the same room as a bunch of dried-up old men? Nothing interesting ever happens in there, I assure you."

"Please, Uncle. I need to go and prove myself. What's the point of learning all this if I never have a chance to show it?"

"You don't need to prove yourself to anybody." He said glumly.

"I'm the prince of the Fire Nation. I should start acting like one."

"You would be coming in uninvited." Iroh mumbles. He folds up his fan and lays it on his lap. "But as you wish. Let's just finish this exercise before we go."

A smile fluttered on Zuko's lips. He'd spent years in study and now here was his chance to sit besides his father, and show him; everything seemed to be falling into place.

That however, would come later.

"Thank you, Uncle." He sat down on the grass and mimicked his uncle, cross-legged with his palms laying on his knees.

He takes in a deep breath. "Breathe, Zuko. Fire comes from the breath, not the muscle. A paced warrior will beat a stronger opponent every time. Can you feel the fire growing stronger?"

Zuko breathed in and out, reminded of the candles he used to meditate by when he was younger. "I don't feel anything."

Iroh continued, eyes shut. "Fire needs three things to burn: fuel, energy and air. Again"

He tried again. Zuko felt nothing except the heaving of his chest. "I don't feel anything. I'm not a firebender."

"Don't doubt yourself." He says with one eye open. "Fire is more than just flames. It is passion, it is determination, it is life. There aren't many people with more of that than you."

From the hallway came the crashing sound of a gong.

A nervousness started to creep into his breath. "The war meeting."

He turned to Iroh for confirmation, who nodded and heaved himself from the pavilion. Zuko walked briskly to the war chamber, stopping only to wait for his uncle when faced with the guards that wouldn't let him in without his word. The chamber was ominous. He remembered from one of his readings about how after Avatar Roku leveled the original palace, Sozin had the new one built with every intention of it being intimidating. He couldn't help but be reminded of how well that had turned out. High ceilings dimly lit kept the overhead foreboding while stark pillars made any person in the room feel insignificant. The edges of the room were kept dark, lit only by braziers of angry red fire. All of it, the arching darkness, the placement of the pillars, the raised platform; it all served to draw attention to the most distinguished seat, the Firelord's seat.

His father was already present, as well as a few generals. To the right of the Firelord, the favored side, sat Azula. The fact that Azula, who was two years his junior, sat in the spot intended for the crown heir made him freeze in his place for a moment. He couldn't be surprised though. He took a seat to the left of the throne, a brazier crackling close at his side.

No one turned to him. No one questioned his attendance. Zuko watched his father from the edge of his vision, hoping for a turn, a nod of the head, anything. An intrusive part of his mind told him it was safer if he wasn't noticed.

A gong signaled the start of the meeting. A general stood, bowed to the Firelord, and began his report. The soldiers of the Earth Kingdom were being pushed back in the center mainland, but they were using scorch earth tactics. If a village was about to be taken by the Fire Nation, they would burn the crop and houses before they retreated, leaving nothing for their force to use. Supplies had to to be lugged across the Earth Kingdom to keep the army alive.

"Round the continent. Take a force to the eastern coast by ship." A shiver ran down Zuko's spine. He hadn't heard his father's voice for longer than he'd thought. The coldness of it struck him every time. "Take what you need, burn the fields and salt the earth so nothing can ever grow there again. Crush them from both sides. They'll have nowhere to run."

The general bowed again, and sat.

Burn the fields and salt the earth. Blackening skies filled his vision, while starving people cloaked in green dotted the ground. The plan would be catastrophic, not only to the Earth King's army but to the civilians. It was a ruthless plan and the Firelord gave it without a second though. The visions flashing before his eyes made ice crawl in his lungs, but he swallowed it down. The well-being of your people came before anything else. The enemy deserved no mercy.

The next general began. "The Earth Kingdom defenses are concentrated here." He pointed at a spot south of Ba Sing Se. "A dangerous battalion of their strongest earthbenders and fiercest warriors. So I am recommending the forty-first division."

An older soldier spoke up. "How do you expect a division of new recruits to defeat a powerful Earth Kingdom battalion?"

"I don't. They'll be used as a distraction. What better bait than fresh meat."

The ice in his chest took hold again, before it raged into a fire. The general had just suggested sacrificing an entire division, a group of new recruits not much older than he was, as bait. Fresh meat, he'd called them. Without really realizing it, he heard his voice break the silence.

Despite the rage boiling in his head, his tone was calm. "Those soldiers love and protect our nation. Leading them to their deaths would be a betrayal to them."

The general turned to him, annoyance plain on his face, and met his eyes. His expression turned stony. He looked away, but Zuko could see a twitch of pain on his face, almost pity. The silence continued. No one had spoken since his outburst, and ice began to return to his lungs.

He shouldn't have spoken out. He wasn't supposed to speak in the war council; he wasn't even supposed to be here. If the Firelord didn't approve of such a disgusting, shameful plan, he would have said it himself. And if he did approve it, then…

Zuko shouldn't of spoken out. He locked his eyes on the hardwood floor but out of the corner of his vision, he could see him turn his head. He imagined the fire from the brazier flowing across the ground to incinerate him - or worse. He caught sight of his Uncle, who had let him into the meeting, in the crowd. Two years ago he'd made an outburst in front of his father that he later regretted. The next day, his mother was gone. Zuko wondered if it was all happening over again.

From his side, his father spoke, face still wreathed in shadows. "It is not your place to speak." Every word was like the crash of a hammer on steel. The Firelord turned back to his council. "Continue."

No one turned to him again that entire meeting. Then again, he wouldn't know. Zuko didn't dare look away from the ground in front of him, and didn't say another word.

Chapter Text

Afterwards, Zuko sat crossed-legged at the bank of the turtleduck pond. He was meant to be having classes at this time, but he wanted to be alone, away from the tutors, away from Uncle. Besides, the pond always made him calm; a sad, sedated sort of calm, but calm nonetheless.

A little way to his side, by the tree overhanging the pond, were Azula's friends. Perhaps they were staying overnight and were waiting for her, or maybe they were waiting to leave. He didn't make it his business to know. Zuko didn't have a problem with them, they'd talked before and waved hi a few times when they passed each other in the halls, and he hoped they didn't have a problem with him. They were Azula's friends though, so that was unlikely.

Ty-lee dangled upside down from the tree, doing flips and jumps as if she were at home in the air just as much as on the ground. A few paces away was Mai, who took something out of her sleeve and, before he could decipher what was happening, embedded a knife into the tree side.

Zuko's interest was piqued. "I didn't know you could throw knives."

She turned to him coldly. "I'm still learning."

"And I'm learning chi-blocking! I think it'll pair well with the acrobatics." Ty-lee did a flip from her tree to punctuate.

He turned back to the blade lodged in the bark. "Can you teach me?"

"No." She deadpanned.

Zuko shriveled his nose and turned away, peeved and a little embarrassed. "You know, they say that if you can't teach it to someone else, you probably haven't mastered it yourself."

Mai whirled around. She marched over to him with a chagrin, and he was sure he was about to get smacked. Instead, she handed him a knife and said, "I told you; I'm still learning. Now do this."

She pulled him to his feet and started pitching out pointers - it's all in the wrist, find the balance, don't point it that way. Every time the blade thumped harmlessly off the tree and landed in the grass, Mai sighed and pulled another knife from her sleeve.

When he finally stuck one, Mai snorted. "Took you long enough."

"You should learn chi-blocking, Zuko! It's just a matter of memorising the 32 major pressure points of the human body and trying over and over and over…" With each over, she prodded her fingers into his shoulder which didn't seem very efficient, but was starting to make his arm numb from the force.

"Maybe another time." Zuko turned back to Mai, about to give his thanks, when a shout came from the palace.

"What are you two doing?" Her voice made his spine shiver just a little less than their father's.

"Nothing, Azula! Just waiting for you." Ty-lee skipped her way to her side, Mai just a step behind her. "How was firebending practice?"

Azula kept her eyes on him, a contented smile on her face. It made even the calm of the pond ripple. "Splendid. Just splendid."

Azula turned heel and left into the palace, Mai and Ty-lee at her tail. Zuko realized that perhaps the greatest skill those two had was knowing how to appease Azula. That however, was a skill he was less keen on learning.

A dozen knives littered the base of the tree and one laid on the palm of his hand. He'd have to give that back to her when he had the chance.


The library was a marvelous place. It shared the high, pillared ceiling and blood red walls that were common to the palace, but shelves of scrolls and books along with ample, steady lighting left the room feeling dignified, yet welcoming. Zuko sat tucked away in the back, a candle on his desk and The Harmony of Nations opened up to chapter three.

After his bubble of quiet at the pond had been popped, he bunkered down in the only other haven he had. It'd been hours since he'd sat down, but he couldn't remember a single word he'd read. His mind kept venturing to earlier that evening.

Chapter three: The Avatar. He read. The Avatar is the embodiment of peace and harmony in our world, it is their role to keep balance among the nations...

Nothing stuck. Nothing made sense. No matter how long he drowned himself in words, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was in danger.

Snap out of it. He told himself. You're just a prince studying in the library, there's nothing to be scared of.

There came a knocking from behind him. His uncle stood there, a lantern in his hand.

"There you are, Prince Zuko." He said. "I can't be surprised. You practically live in this place. Are you busy?"

"No, I'm just reading." His heartbeat thrummed. He hadn't seen his uncle since the meeting, and it reminded him of too many things that could have gone wrong. He tried to focus back on his readings. "I… don't really get this part. It says here that the Avatar represents peace. Wasn't the Avatar a tyrant who stood in the way of world unity?"

His uncle glanced through the page.

"Hmm. People have different perspectives, Prince Zuko. There are millions of eyes in the world, of course they would not all see the same. You must decide yourself whether something is true or false or something in between. But that really wasn't why I came here." He turned to the doorway. "Would you join me for a walk, nephew?"

Iroh lead him outside, where they strolled around the courtyard they had been training in that morning. By then, the moon was high above the towers of the palace.

"I've been thinking, Zuko. And I've been writing some messages." His uncle started. "I think it's time for you to get away from the palace for awhile."

Zuko almost stumbled. "Why? Where?"

"I've talked with one of my old friends, Master Piandao. He said that he'd be willing for you to stay at his estate for the summer."

"Piandao… the swordmaster?"

Iroh smiled softly. "Every man needs his trade. And you must learn how to defend yourself."

For years, Zuko had tried to self teach himself the sword. To learn from the greatest swordsman in the world; the idea enthralled him but the timing of it all made him tense.

"But shouldn't I stay here and keep studying? I should take care of my duties in the palace."

"If the world could be changed over a cup of tea and a conversation, I would keep you here and teach you myself." He sighed. "Sadly, change in our world must be followed by flame tip and sword point. This is for the best."

They walk a few paces in silence. The offer still seemed lined with danger. He asked quietly. "Does my father know?"

"My word is enough, I assure you." Iroh snuck a look at him from the corner of his eye and chuckled. "A boy will always want his father's permission; I understand that. Don't worry about it, nephew."

His uncle laid a hand on his shoulder as they reached the end of the walkway.

"You just get ready and pack. You leave tomorrow, as soon as possible." His tone was ominous, but he turned to him with a smile. "To learn as much as you can of course. A summer flies quicker than you think."

He gave him a wink, and the danger seemed to dissipate. He bowed. "Thank you, Uncle."

Zuko's footsteps receded into the hallways. Alone in the night air, Iroh leaned against the railing and listened to the cat-owls croak. He looked out to the moon and spoke, as if he were hoping it would relay a message for him.

"It's hard for me to be away from him at this time, but it's the safest thing to do. You would understand that best, Ursa." As expected, an answer was unforthcoming. Iroh remembered the meeting that evening fondly. "It doesn't keep him safe, but you raised an amazing son. I hope you'll get to see him one day."

Chapter Text

Piandao’s castle was modest, at least in comparison to the palace. Inside the walls were white stone buildings with gabled red roofs. Lotus motifs were speckled on the architecture; on the doorway, the courtyard tile, the wall edging. From the outside, he noticed large windows and wide archways that opened the inside to the air.

Piandao’s servant, Fat, had let him in with a stiff nod of the head. He led him through to the foyer, an airy, uncluttered room with little else but a few candle racks and a low table to furnish it. At the table,parchment spread and an inked brush in his hand, sat Piandao.

Without command, Zuko knelt. The stories he’d heard of the unmatched swordsman hummed at the back of his mind. The man he saw in front of him, sitting calmly over his calligraphy with soft sunlight slanting in through the open windows behind him, didn’t exactly exude the aura of a warrior, but gave the impression of power nonetheless. And if anything else, his life in the royal court had made sure he stayed humble.

“Welcome, Prince Zuko.” Piandao said without turning from his work, unfazed with his presence. His voice took on a tone a little less than welcoming.“Before anything else, understand this: I have welcomed you here solely under Iroh’s good graces. Whether I teach you or not it something else entirely.” Zuko’s heart sunk at that. “And understand that titles mean nothing to me. I am a deserter from the Firelord’s army, and I have resisted arrest. I do not answer to the crown, Prince Zuko, and I care nothing for yours.” Finally, the swordsman laid down his brush and turned to him, now curious. “So what makes you worthy?”

The question rung through to his core. What makes you worthy? That’s something he still wondered to this day.

If anyone else had asked him what made him worthy, Zuko would have plunged himself into a frenzy trying to prove himself. That’s what he expected he’d do, but in truth, no one had ever asked him; not his father, not his uncle, no one. They all had their own answers made up. But now Piandao had actually asked his worth, and he found that he no reason to struggle. Despite his expectant stare, Zuko felt no reason to lie.

“That’s the thing. I’m not.” He kept his eyes turned to the floor. “I was the first non-bender to be born into the Fire Nation royal family in the last hundred years. I was born a dishonor.”

Zuko might’ve just burned away any chance he’d had of Piandao training him, but he’s not sure he had much of a chance anyway.  

“I see.” Was all Piandao said. He sat at his table in thought for a long time. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. “I was born into a line much like yours, Prince Zuko, in blood and bending strength. And yet I have neither. Bending was never gifted to me, and for that, I was shunted from my home. Yet here I stand, alone, and the last of my line.” He continued, standing from his place. “What I’m trying to say is that what you are born as doesn’t matter. It’s what you make of yourself from there that does. So I will train you, and we’ll find out together how worthy you really are.”

Piandao offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet. Zuko, wrapped in awe, still managed a bow. “Thank you, Master Piandao.” The swordsman gives a smile and an acknowledging nod.

What makes you worthy? A little part of him warmed at the thought that maybe, with some help, he’d find a different answer.

When in a new place, it was Zuko’s natural instinct to explore. You never knew what could come about, and if he ever needed to fight or to escape, he’d like to know the lay of the area beforehand.

He wandered the hall to his room slowly. Zuko could usually remain clandestine enough when studying an area, but he couldn’t help but stumble for a moment in awe. Hung on the simple stone walls of the castle was an array of relics and weaponry, a far larger range than he’d seen even in the palace.


Rustic jians and straight swords shone nobly in the sunlight, hilts embellished with ruby-eyed dragons. Curved blades in ornate sheaths laid further down. A pair of broadswords caught his eye. Interspersed between the weaponry were tapestries that he only skimmed through momentarily. Zuko’s curiosity was baited as he got further down the hall, where the gaudy red and gold hilts began to change into blunt clubs and bright blues and greens. He caught sight of a spear with a jagged white blade, as if made from a massive tooth. Heavy double-wielded axes and hammers hung alongside. Zuko stopped in front of a battle club, with a heavy ball affixed on the end while the shaft was sharpened as a blade. The blues and whites were so unlike any weapon he’d ever seen.

“Curious one, aren’t you?” Piandao’s voice might have sent him up in the air if he’d had any less control of his reactions. As it was, Zuko almost felt guilty, as if he’d tread on forbidden ground. The swordsman was only amused. “You’re free to look. They’re put up on display for a reason.” He ambled behind him, dusting off blades and unsheathing them as he walked. Zuko kept his eyes on the club, a question nagging at the back of his head. “Anything on your mind?”

He was already fairly sure to the answer to his question, but a dozen others began to backlog. “If you don’t mind me asking, but… These aren't from the Fire Nation, are they?”

Piandao took the club off its hook. “No, of course not. This is Water Tribe workmanship. They do like the blunt approach.” He added amusedly.

“Did you win them in battle?” His thoughts went to the pearl dagger his Uncle had given to him, a gift from an Earth Kingdom general when the Fire Nation had broke through the Outer Wall. That seemed like a possible way that Piandao had acquired his armory, but the sheer scale of it…

“Some of them.” He answered. “But most of them are gifts from friends, or old students. You can’t exactly get a tapestry like this through a swordfight.”

Looking at the mentioned drapery, Zuko recognized the scene from the inked drawings he’d seen in his books: The Northern Water Tribe. He’d would never have described the place as beautiful, all the descriptions he’d read told of the frigid cold and the bleak white stare of ice, while the illustrations talked nothing except of the perils of the city and potential ways of invasion. However, weaved into a tapestry, though, the city looked peaceful, and nothing short of beautiful.

“You taught people from the Water Tribe?” His voice sounded tinny.  He began to understand why he’d felt as if he were walking on forbidden ground. He could tell that Piandao’s eyes were set on his back, gauging him.

“I’ve had students from all over the nations, Zuko.”

“But isn’t that…” The word treason lay stuck on his tongue like a bitter taste.

Piandao considered as if he’d said it anyway. “Perhaps. But the way of the sword does not belong to any one nation. Knowledge of the arts belongs to all.”

“That’s not…” He was suddenly breathless. “That’s helping the enemy.”

“And what right does the Fire Nation have to knowledge that the other nations don’t?”

His mind was scrambled. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand, it was that it made too much sense. It was easy to call the other nations barbaric and lowly when all you knew were blocks of text and the words of sour generals. The people in those tapestries, seemed different. He could easily call them equals.

He shook himself from the stupor. Those were traitorous thoughts. Thinking too much, questioning things; it only ever led to danger, for him and everyone around him.

“Fire is the ruler over all the elements. It’s superior. This war is to bring the Fire Nation to its rightful place over the world.” His words weren’t fueled by emotion. He said it all plainly, as if he were reciting text in front of him, just as he’d had a hundred times over.

“How can you be so sure? You’ve never left the palace. No matter how strong your ideals are, they usually bend for flesh and blood humans.” It was true. No matter how many books he’d stuck his head in or how many lectures he’d heard, Zuko had barely ever been past the palace wall. He’d only ever known the world through another person’s eyes. “You’ve met yourself a traitor. What do you make of it?”

That struck Zuko cold. Piandao was, in the barest terms, a traitor. But a traitor in his mind was meant to be ruthless, crude and a danger to the nation. Piandao didn’t fit that. He was refined, wise, and even in a hallway of weapons, Zuko didn’t feel in any danger.

He took a deep breath. His mind had strayed too far, brought too many things into question.

Perspectives. He remembered his uncle saying. People have different perspectives. You must decide yourself whether something is true or false or something in between.

Zuko settled that this was something in between. His exploration had uncovered more than he’d hoped for.


“Now what do you know of the sword, Zuko?”

They stood in the courtyard, castle steps at his back, sun beating down, preparing for a spar. Even with a wooden sword, Piandao was intimidating. He swung, just slow enough for him to block the strike.

Zuko kept his sword in a guarded stance but answered. “I’ve tried to teach myself the basics for a few years now…”

“Self-taught? Good, that shows initiative.” Zuko parried another offhand strike. “Practice is the grindstone to talent. Now show me.”

With that, the pretence dropped. Piandao followed strike after strike, handling him as if he were a skilled enemy, not some ill-taught sword swinger. He couldn’t very well tell him that though, so Zuko’s options were either to block, step back or get clubbed with a wooden blade. He was running out of space to back up and Piandao was not slowing down one bit. To break the rhythm, Zuko leapt for the top of the stairs.

“Good! The terrain is the warrior's greatest ally! Don’t let it box you in; use it to your advantage.”

With the high ground his, Zuko’s confidence rose. Except, Zuko had never fought on uneven ground, had barely fought at all in fact, and having to strike downwards did nothing but unsteady him. The battle ended just as it would; Zuko disarmed and breathing hard, while Piandao sipped a cold drink having barely broken a sweat.

“Again?”

Zuko picked up his sword in answer. The evening wore on with the sound of his sword clattering to the ground over and over and over. They sparred, and Piandao disarmed him in ways he didn’t even understand. He didn’t mind. As long as at the end of the day he could say that the sword felt a little more comfortable in his hands, it was worth it.

Finally, when the sun had dipped low on the horizon, Piandao said. “I think that’s enough for today. Why don’t you join me inside for a game of Pai Sho before dinner?”

Zuko was a little peeved to be back playing Pai Sho (he would’ve stayed with Uncle if he’d wanted to do that) but he didn’t refuse. He was tired, in body, but his persistence would drive him to the ground before being snuffed out. A cold drink from Fat kept him up.

Zuko started the set with a lotus tile in the middle, as his uncle usually did whenever they’d played. Piandao’s eye twinkled, amused.

“Pai Sho can be like a battle.” He began. “You don’t begin a game of Pai Sho without knowing what victory means.” For Zuko, not playing Pai Sho was a victory in Pai Sho, but he kept listening. Piandao slid a tile onto his side of the board. Too tired to do more than listen, Zuko simply mimicked the move.

Piandao continued. “The same goes with any battle. When you find yourself in battle, you must clearly decide what victory means to you. If it is the death of your enemy, kill. If it is to neutralize them, then do so. If it is to escape, do what you must. If you fight with no clear idea of victory, you fight to fail.” The tiles continued to slide. “I didn’t know what victory meant for me when I was younger. I wasted my days fighting the Firelord’s war before I finally realized that all I wanted was peace. I haven’t fought for anything else since. When they sent a battalion to arrest me, I fought, because they tread on my peace; my victory.” Piandao turned to him. “What is victory to you?”

The question caught him by surprise. Victory? He never thought much of victory; it was hard enough just playing the game that was his life. He’d never thought of wanting more, of fighting for a bigger picture. He admitted. “I - I don’t know.”

He placed another tile before meeting his eyes. “Then why learn to fight?” Piandao looked back to the board. “It looks like we’re at a stalemate.”

Zuko glanced at the board he’d paid no attention to and saw that he’d kept up his mimicry the entire game. It definitely wasn’t his best game, but it was his most pleasant to the eye; somehow, the tiles had lined up to form the image of a simple, blooming lotus.

Chapter Text

"Again! Do not pull back! A strike of the sword, like the stroke of a brush, cannot be undone." Piandao's voice echoed from the top of the steps. "Again!"

Zuko took a breath and composed himself. He faced Piandao's partner, Fat, who was as skilled with the sword as he was in the kitchen, and held his wooden blade in wait.

He'd been so close that time. So close.

He'd been steadily improving for some time now but his development had suddenly plateaued, as if he'd reached maximum velocity and could get no greater. Instead, he just became more aware of his missteps. The jian felt unsteady in his hands. Often, in pivotal moments, his movements would become split. Half of him would want to counterattack a strike while the other half would bring the jian in, to block . Sometimes he couldn't decide whether to slash at Fat's left, or aim high. Whenever these schisms happened, the end result was a jumbled up block or a pulled back strike and usually led to his quick defeat.

It drove him up a wall. Effort with no return always pecked away at his temper; it reminded him too much of his childhood firebending classes. Maybe this was as far as he could go. Maybe he couldn't get any better. It was infuriating, but he couldn't be surprised. No matter how hard he trained, his power had always been capped at birth.

There it was, the stumble; a half strike with nothing to follow it. Fat held his wooden blade to his chest, yet again.

Zuko waited for Piandao's insistent bark of "Again!", but it never came.

Instead, he dismissed Fat and rubbed his chin in thought. Zuko walked up the steps to meet him. "You are ready for your own sword."

He was caught by surprise. "I am?" He hadn't exactly done anything to warrant his own blade.

"Yes." Piandao said. "Your blade should be an extension of yourself. Practice with these wooden swords is a must, but now they are stunting your growth."

His morale rose for a moment. Could it be the sword's fault?

He tugged his morale back down. He couldn't be sure. If he couldn't get a wooden sword right, how would be able to do any better with a real blade?

"Will you give me one of yours?" He asked.

"No," Piandao said, "You'll make your own."

Expectations comfortably settled, Zuko followed his sword master to the forge. He'd seen Piandao slip into the place a few times, once followed by the banging of steel, but he'd never had any reason to go there himself. The forge was an open-air pavilion with coal strewn across the floor. A kiln glowed lightly in the middle, with unfinished blades laying across tables and anvils at the side.

"The first step is to decide what sword you plan to make." Piandao turned a sword with an incomplete hilt in his hands. "You've trained with a jian, a straight sword, thus far but now that I've had time to study you, I don't believe it is suited for you." He handed him the sword. Zuko turned the blade in his hand for only a moment before a sinking feeling settled in his stomach. The jian, just like the wooden swords he's practiced with, felt wrong in his hands. Piandao continued. "The jian is meant for fighters whose purpose is as straight and clear as the steel. Every strike is with meaning. You, Zuko, will find yourself unbalanced with such a sword. You battle within yourself. Your loyalties, your passions, your rationale; they clash. You can't forge them into one blade; they must work together and balance each other."

Piandao took another scabbard from the clutter, unsheathed it and split the sword into two separate blades in one fluid motion. Unlike the jian, the blade was slightly curved and single edged. The metal glinted viciously in the sunlight.

"The dual dao. You must not think of these swords as two separate blades, but as two halves of the same whole. They follow each other, they lead each other." He swung into a guarded stance, the two swords circling around each other in unison. "They balance each other."

Zuko took the blades in his hands, intrigued. The canted hilts felt steady in his hands, and the pull on his wrists that he'd felt with every other blade wasn't there, but other than that - nothing. Despite Piandao's words, he didn't feel any more balanced or whole, at best, indifferent. Just as he'd thought, his troubles couldn't be soothed by something as simple as using a different blade.

Piandao didn't notice his inner dialogue, or more likely ignored it, and pulled a casting mold and an iron block from the back. "Let's get started."

Creating a sword was a long, demanding process. The sun crossed the horizon to the sound of metal being picked to pieces, and the moon stared down at the sight of a forge spitting flames. A crucible sat at the heart of the fire, the iron inside it begrudgingly melting, drop by drop. Piandao had retired for the night long ago, leaving Zuko to his own devices.

With nothing else to do but shovel coal, the night gave too much space for thought. Glowing embers threw shadows across the stone, and sparks jumped and bit at his skin. The night air did nothing to ease the pressing heat. He's reminded of why, ever since the mess of his childhood, he'd tried to avoid working with fire. Other than the occasional candle, Zuko tried to stay away; braziers, cooking fires and forges alike.

Fire was uncontrollable and implacable. It flared old memories and gave light to his defects. It was the power Azula held, that his father held, one that he'd never have and would never understand. It was ridiculous, he knew; the Fire Prince trying to run from fire in the Fire Nation. It was like trying to run from the sun. He might be able to escape it for a night, but it'd glare down at him again every morning to remind him of everything he couldn't control.

He shoved metal tongs into the fire, bringing out the crucible. Still grainy, he pushed the metal back in.

Zuko sighed and let himself slide to the ground. He was tired. It had been a long night, and at the end of it all, he's not sure anything would make a difference. His time training had let him feel like he was picking away at the lump of doubt he carried around, but even with a sword at his side, fire still pressed all around him. It was only a matter of time till he got burnt.

After hours of only the sound of fire crackling, Piandao's voice jumped from the shadows.

"You still doubt yourself." He said, as if he'd heard the thoughts that had been plaguing him. "You think that you'll always be less because of your lack of firebending."

He said, defeatedly. "How do you know?" Zuko never could find a reason to lie to Piandao.

"Because I was just like you once." He acknowledged. "I was born to two firebending prodigies; or so I was told. They left me at the doorstep of the orphanage when they learned I wasn't a bender. My parents couldn't stand the fact that their only son was a disgrace." Piandao chuckled deprecatingly, the past so far away it might've been a past life. For Zuko, the words were too much like an echo. "They decided from the very start that I had already failed and I grew up most of my life believing that. It's a horrible feeling, isn't it? Being cast down over something you had no control over, going through your life thinking you'll never amount to anything." Piandao's voice crept closer, until he felt the weight of a hand on his shoulder. "Yet here I am, and I know now that if I was born a firebender, I would have been just another soldier in the army."

Zuko realized why he never could lie to Piandao; they were too much alike. He would see through any lie he told. He was a kindred spirit to him like no one had ever been, not even his uncle.

He stood again, and stared into the ever dancing flames of the forge.

"We can't change how we're born, Zuko. But weakness does not come from what you lack; it comes from not using what you do have. You will never be able to wield these swords if you believe you are weak. So let your doubts melt."

Zuko took a breath, doesn't linger his eyes on the flames, and pulled the crucible from the furnace. The metal poured smooth into the cast. Zuko was tired, and said nothing as the glow of the molten steel began to dim. Piandao ordered him to bed and Zuko, as with most things, obliged.


Zuko knelt in the main room, just as he had when he'd first arrived. His sword master stood before him, Fat to the side with a blade held reverently in his hands. The blade, his dual broadswords, he knew were made of forged iron with a simple canted hilt of wood and leather, while the sheath was a solid, lacquered black capped with gold flourishes at each end. Sunlight peeked in from the windows and a soft wind blew from the open doorway.

He kept his head bowed as Piandao began. "Zuko, over these last few days, I've had the chance to watch you learn and grow. I've watched you try, and fall, but like the sun in the sky, you rose back up every time." From Fat's hands, he unsheathed the blade and let it turn gold in the sunlight. "I saw a passion to learn, a determination that falls almost into stubbornness and a brightness that is still waiting to be uncovered; these are the traits that define you. And it is with great honor that I present to you your sword."

Piandao sheathed the sword, stepped forward, and the blade passed from master to student. A smile played on his lips. "Thank you, Master Piandao."

And if only for that moment, Zuko let himself feel proud.

Chapter Text

Weeks washed away and before he even realized it, the leaves on the trees had started to brown. Zuko would be leaving to the palace in just a few days.

He wouldn’t say he dreaded returning home, but he couldn’t exactly say he wanted to leave. In his short time here, Zuko had changed.

With his sword at his side, Zuko found that he walked straighter, faced the world prouder. He felt valuable, as if he were worth something more; he could even imagine standing equal with Azula. His newly acquired pride, though, was haunted by an ever mounting paranoia. The prouder he walked, the more fear he had of stumbling.

It’ll never be enough. A voice whispered in his head. Not to him.

He quickly shut the gate to those thoughts. They would bring nothing but strife. This was one of the few days he had left to enjoy walking the castle grounds and if the storm clouds on the horizon didn’t pass over, maybe the last. His baseless worries shouldn’t get in the way of that

Breathe, empty your mind, look straight ahead. That was his mantra. He watched sparrowkeets chirp in the bushes, Fat tending his rock garden and Piandao in the hall practicing his calligraphy. The sun was setting and the sky was graying.

On his way to his room, he caught a blur of movement in the corner of his eye, like a tremble of a bush or a flitting shadow. He stopped, looked and found nothing out of the ordinary. He turned around fully; Fat was getting ready to retire for the night and Piandao was looking in his direction, but turned quickly back to his work.

Paranoid, just like he’d said. Hopeful the trend would end once he got back home. Raindrops began to fall and Zuko headed to his room a pace quicker.

Night settled quietly into place, and Zuko followed it to bed as the pattering of rain turned into a roar. The clouds had blown into a thunderstorm. He blew out his candle and hoped that the storm, as well as his worries, would pass by morning.

Sounds bounced around in his head as sleep started to blur his mind. He heard footsteps outside his door, Fat or Piandao were walking the halls. The sound of a door creaking open. A crash of thunder, loud in his ears. Wood bending under heavy footfalls and the familiar scrape of a blade being pulled from its sheath.

Wait.

His eyes shot open and when he saw the unknown silhouette in his doorway, Zuko would’ve liked to say that his instincts kicked in, he rolled out of the way of the knife, grabbed his dao and held his blades to the assassin’s throat; but that would all be a lie.

Zuko seized. His mind shuttered itself from all thought. He was only able to watch as the glistening blade began to descend upon him body.

The blade fell; out of the man’s hand and onto the floor. His body crumpled a moment later.

“Zuko.” Piandao stood in the doorway, jian still gripped in his hands. “Follow me.”

Somehow, his mind still paralyzed, his body shuffled out of bed. His throat didn’t seem to want to make sounds, but Piandao’s pace made sure he kept moving. When he did finally speak, the words were painful, stretched thin by terror and almost breaking.

“He tried to kill me.” Drops of fear leaked from the floodgates as he followed Piandao into the rain soaked courtyard and up the main steps. “An assassin. Why would he… Why would they… Who would send an assassin after me?”

“You know exactly who sent that assassin.” Piandao growled. “Don’t hide from it, Zuko. You cannot keep hiding behind ignorance, you know better that that. Accept the truth; it is horrible and wretched, I know, but it is reality.” He stopped at the top of the stairs to meet his eyes. “You know exactly who sent that assassin.”

Piandao’s eyes whispered the same words as the voices in his head. You can’t hide. Not anymore. He saw the flash of the assassin’s blade in the lightning.

Piandao’s advice had never done him wrong, so he called on every memory, every instinct he’d ever hid from. The whispers of nobles in back rooms saying that a prince without fire was better off dead. The air of danger after the war meeting. Azula’s pitying eyes. The sound of footsteps outside his door the night his mother disappeared.

Breathe. Lightning flashed. You know exactly who sent that assassin.

“My father.” The words sounded like they’d come from another person. He’d spent so long trying to shield the image of his father from wrong, telling himself that the loathing in his father’s eyes was something he could change, that finally admitting it was less of a dawning of truth and more of a wrenching away of an iron curtain of lies. A breeze of quiet seemed to blow through him. His head was clear of shame, of worry, of fear, leaving only a gaping chasm of uncertainty. “But-but why ?”

“Look to your thoughts, Zuko. They will be your greatest virtue.”

Zuko fell back into his head, now unbothered by how it teemed with voices, and asked - Why would his father try to kill him?

Every intrusive thought, every whisper he’d tried to hide from, every reality that had made him squirm came back to him. The thoughts had always brought with them a barrage of shame, but now he was analyzing them, as if they were ants under a magnifying glass, and he had no time to consider feelings.

“I’m weak, I was a disgrace, he hated me.” He blurted. “The Fire Nation would think the Firelord was weak if he gave birth to a non-bender. But that doesn’t make sense.” He caught a flash of lightning in Piandao’s eyes. “Killing me wouldn’t change the fact that I’m his son.”

“No. It wouldn’t.” He stated. “People in power rarely kill out of hate; they kill out of fear .”

The voices went silent, and Zuko said with absolute certainty. “My father never feared me.”

Piandao noticed the steel in his eyes. “Of course you would think that. You’ve never seen…” His sentence faded into a rattling sigh. Then he composed himself and gripped his shoulder in a way that told him he best listen carefully. “Listen to me, Zuko. The people of the Fire Nation know that Ozai wants your sister, Azula, to be his heir. They know that Azula as Firelord would be another generation of Ozai, a generation of war and suffering.

“And then they see you, Zuko. There is something in you that Ozai despises, they may not know what, but for some, that alone is enough. Do you remember what you told me when you first got here? You said that you were the first non-bender to be born into the royal family in the last hundred years. You saw that as a weakness. They see that as the mark of the spirits. They see you as the first chance of peace in a hundred years.

“Something as simple as calling you the crown prince could be a sign of dissent. And Ozai sees this. If he gave the crown to Azula and you objected, if you began a coup, he knows that there is a part of the nation willing to fight for you. And you Zuko, you are loyal to the point of lunacy but already you’ve had your doubts. This is what he fears.”

Zuko’s eyes were as round as saucers. It couldn’t be possible that his father feared him, feared him enough to try and kill him, except all he knew pointed that yes, he did. There was no more time to comfort himself with lies.

“Why here?” His voice came barely above a whisper. “Why now?”

Piandao turned downcast. “Sending your here was a double-edged sword. Having you killed off of palace grounds would leave less of a mess for Ozai. Less people calling foul play. And he’d have someone else to blame for not protecting you.”

Zuko remembered Piandao’s silhouette stark against the doorway. He feared to think of what would have happened if Piandao hadn’t been there in time.

“What do we do?” He asked. In just minutes, the world had unfolded into a dark, veiled plain and he had no map, compass or lantern to guide him. Just Piandao, whose knuckles were still white at the hilt of his sword.

You must leave.” He answered.

Leave. ” He echoed. There were too many unknowns in that one word.

“Yes. You cannot return to the palace. And Ozai will not leave a job unfinished.” There was a tiredness in Piandao’s eyes. All these years he’d stayed away from battle, but now Zuko had roped him into another fight. “You must leave. I will tell them… I will tell them I found the assassin, and you were gone. Ozai will spin that story as your death. Stowaway on a ship and get to the colonies. From there, you must never stay in one place too long.” His sword master gripped his shoulder in warning. “He may tell the world that you are dead but Ozai will know that you escaped. And as long as you are alive, you are a danger to him, and as long as you are a danger to him, he will hunt you.”

The idea of someone hounding him, across the ocean and throughout the world, made his blood run cold. Maybe they were after him at this moment. But that thought was irrational, Ozai didn’t know he was alive yet, and Zuko decided he couldn’t waste energy on irrational thoughts, not anymore.

He steadied his nerves. “How about you then? If Ozai knows you helped me escape...”

“I will stay here. If he tries anything, well, I’ve beaten an army before and I’ll do it again. And this time I have Fat with me.” His attempt at a smile turned more into a grimace. They both knew that Piandao was not young anymore, and even with someone at his side, his fighting days were nearing ever closer to their end. “I can’t come with you. That would be too blatant an escape, to everyone looking. Your death is your cover. Don’t worry about me, there won’t be anything Ozai wants that he can get from me. Once you get to the Earth Kingdom, I won’t know where you are; no one will. When things settle down, I’ll send word to your uncle. Now hurry, get your swords and meet me at the back door.”

He strided into the hall without another word, and Zuko ran back across the rain pelted courtyard to his room. Knowing that he couldn’t ignore it, Zuko allowed himself a glance at the body on the floor as he crossed his room to the bedside table, where his blades laid mockingly. To die with his weapons at his side and without a fight would have been the greatest mockery. He swore he would never let it happen.

Despite the thunderstorm, one little cloud in his mind was completely calm, because now he knew without a shadow of a doubt that his father would never want him; if he ever again thought there was a chance, the assassin’s silhouette would rise to meet him.  No matter what he did, no matter how hard he tried, it would never be enough. Perhaps the future was hazy but at the eye of the storm, at least for the moment, all was calm.

At the back door, Piandao stood waiting for him, a hooded cloak and a burlap bag in his arms.

“Here. This will last you a few weeks. Buy your fare or stowaway on a boat. This storm will give you some cover.”

Zuko donned the cloak and slung the bag across his shoulder as Piandao opened the gate. On the other side, he could see the water sodden path that winded down to the village, and onwards to the docks.

One step from the door, the immensity of his journey flowed over him. He was barely 14, with only a pair of swords and a month’s worth of rations to survive until… until what? There were still too many unknowns.

“I - I…” He couldn’t form any of it into words. Fear left his tongue lead.

Piandao was at his side again, a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know what the world has in store for you. I don’t know what victory means for you, whether it is ending this war, finding the Avatar, defeating your father, becoming Firelord or finding peace, like I did. Perhaps it will be something else entirely. But what I do know is that no one can tell you what victory is, not your father, not the Fire Nation, not me; only you will know. All I hope is that I have given you the ability to fight for it.”

In his eyes were glints of things he’d rarely seen. Respect. Caring. Pride. Everything, he realized, he’d never seen in his father’s.

His hands shook - whether from the thought, the fear or the rain, he didn’t know - but he managed to bring them into a bow.  “Thank you, Master Piandao. I’ll never forget you.”

The callousness of his face softened, and he returned the bow. “Don’t waste your brain space. Remember my lessons, that’s all I ask.”

Chapter Text

The night he leaves is peaceful. Waves bob the colony bound ship as they round the tip of the caldera. It rains and pours like the end of a great tragedy but the heaviness does not seep into his skin. Any other passengers had left for the galley long ago.

In the distance, he sees the palace, solemn against the dark sky. Everything is quiet, yet expectant, like a silent theatre as the lights go off and the curtains begin to draw.

Then in the distance, right below the gold tip of the highest palace tower, a fire is lit. They're too far for the sound to reach, but he thinks he can hear the gongs din at the back of his ears. It is the same flare that was lit when his grandfather had died, when Lu Ten had been killed in battle. It tells of a great tragedy within the royal family. An assassination in the dead of night.

Prince Zuko is dead. How empty the palace halls must be, he thinks.

The fire dulls into a hazy red dot. He doesn't unglue his hands from the railing until the capital fades from view.


Lee is a boy born of lies. He's a patchwork of mumbled stories and half-baked excuses sown together by time and necessity. He comes from an Earth Kingdom village on the fringe of the colonies that had been swallowed whole by raiders. Most people assume some Fire Nation blood in him but he doesn't know, his parents are dead, and he tells them as much. No one expects much from Lee, not knowledge, not strength, not fire.

They raise a brow when they see him read, suspicious almost when they see the wanderer write, in perfect script no less. (My home was not a poor place, and neither were my parents. Is the half truth he concocts. Until I fell on hard times.) It lands him easy work with good pay. Some jobs are good enough that he considers to stay, and Lee would, but he knows it's not possible.

They notice the swords at his belt but most never learn that he can use them. (You need to know how to defend yourself if you're on your own. He tells those that wonder out loud.) They tell him the army needs more like him, and to conscript as soon as he can. If it were only up to Lee, he would; he has no reason not to and protecting these people is righteous enough a cause. Things are not that simple though, and he simply tells them he would think about it.

Lee enjoys the arts, something a prince had never been allowed to indulge in. Watching poorly funded plays written in distant places on the side of the street is one of his few luxuries. He finds himself and loses himself and mumbles lines under his breath once the curtain is drawn:

All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

Lee, he knows, is just an act. Though then again, was his life before any different? Even in his palace days, he was merely playing the part of prince.

Lee wants to settle and live in peace, content enough as clerk or tea maker. He has grown to respect the Earth Kingdom for all the hope they have despite the scars, for their stubbornness to live . Life is not easy, not while teetering on the edge of poverty, but it is simple and he bears it all with that same noble stubbornness.

Prince Zuko is dead and he needs to keep moving. Half his days are spent in a frenzy trying to run from that vague danger chasing him; he hasn't seen it yet, but it's there, and he knows it. He wanders into grimy bookstores to read all he can of the nations, on how to fight, on any knowledge that may help him survive, before the bookkeeper tells him to buy something or leave.

Lee is not Zuko, but somehow Zuko is Lee, and he cannot for the life of him make out where one exits and the other enters. Lee may be born of lies but he is who is here and now, and for all that mattered, Prince Zuko was dead.

The Blue Spirit is neither. He's a little more sure about that.

Because if nothing else, both of them despise this war, for their own reasons. The grains of this hate were seeded in the palace, in his Uncle's literature, in his mother's morals. An open mind makes good soil, and the harsh realities of his new world are the rains that raise it to grow. It is one thing for his father to hate a failure prince, it is another for him to perpetuate an era of slaughter and carnage. Injustice piles on injustice, until resentment builds up to his eyes, threatening to spill. The bitterness grows gnarled, like a great banyan choked between two stone walls, but never seeing light. Neither Lee or Zuko need the attention, and the sword stays at his side.

So it steams and pools beneath his eyelids, till he finds it, and the itch to make his own justice turns into a burn. An old theatre mask from Love Amongst the Dragon, one of his mother's favourites. She thought it cute when Azula would pull him into her re-enactments of the play, and she would give him that very mask.

You're the Dark Water Spirit and I'm the Dragon Emperor. His sister would tell him with a wicked smile. You lose, and I win.

It was another part forced on him, but this time, he tells himself, he chooses the part and he will play it the way he wants to.

He takes the role well enough; the Fire Nation thinks him a menace, the Earth Kingdom is half wary, half charmed, and neither is too sure if they are facing man or spirit or something else entirely.

Life plays like a tragic comedy, without a script, with no intermissions and he could really do with the luxury of stage directions right about now, but at least now he has the privilege to choose the parts he plays. It's not much of a consolation, but it's more than he had before, and all three of his faces can learn to be grateful.

Chapter Text

He spends three long years alone, roaming the Earth Kingdom without rhyme or reason.

Sometime during those years, he shuffles enough money together to buy a weather stained notebook and a grimy stick of charcoal. With meaningless wandering comes the yearning to shout out into the void, and thus the book becomes his abyss, and the charcoal his voice.

Zuko reads and watches and is more observant than others give him credit for, so the pages fill with little trouble. It ends up as a simple guide: how non-benders could hope to face a world ruled by the elements.

Writing whittles away long hours of aimless days. It quiets, if only slightly, the voices in his head that yell ‘Get ready! This fight’s not over yet!’ The book does little to prepare him for whatever lay ahead, but he holds it dear still. Besides , he cajoles himself as he slips the notebook gingerly into his pack, if the book comes to outlive him, perhaps some poor schmuck in even worse straits than himself could put it to good use.


 

In the earliest months of those wandering years, when the papers of his book still lie blank, his mind flits to ideas he hasn’t dared to think of in so long. Outside the palace wall, he’s free to roam, body and mind alike. It’s enthralling, but sometimes, as with this particular thought, which he’d tried to avoid lingering on, stifling.

Because his mother, he knows, is out there.

His heart might have been less heavy if he didn’t know, if he’d accepted the rumors that floated through the palace that his mother was gone for good. But Zuko is not a fool, even if he’d played the part, and the outline of what happened on that fateful night is clear enough in his mind. It does not lead to his mother’s death. She would’ve escaped, and she is out there.

There is no way to find her. They may be oceans apart or mere steps, and they would still be just as far away from each other. Zuko has no directions to go by, no semblance of where she may be, not even able to call out and search for her for the sake of keeping his facade.

So he doesn’t look for her, but he sees her nonetheless. He sees her in the tired mothers with their children pressed against their hearts. He sees the ripple of her gown in the flutter of red curtains, her smile ghosting on the lips of a stranger in the crowd. He sees her in the plays, on the stage and in the cheering audience.

She’s dancing on a different stage, far from here, and he just hopes she’s happy. She always loved the plays.

Even after years though, there is still a bitter taste in his mouth. Why did you go? Why didn’t you take me? Where do I go now?

Zuko still has nowhere to go, and finding his mother is as easy as walking to the moon.

What he is still sure of is that he loves her. She is his amber eyes and fireless hands. The things he despises in himself are the things made great in her, and because of that, he will not follow her.

His mother has escaped the burn of fire. Zuko is still being chased. He will not lead the flames to her.


 

He thinks of fire that night, and many nights after. He pens his first few words under torchlight.

I have dealt with fire all my life. I’ve tried and failed to wield it. Really, my only experience with it is to duck and dodge and not get burned, so hopefully that translates into the ability to counter it.

A non-bender against a firebender is no easy fight. Skirting fire is a dangerous game, but there is little choice in this world.

Break their stance. Aim for the chest in order to unsteady their breathing. Get close, or otherwise threaten something they value. As much as they want to harm you, they do not want themselves to burn either.

A firebender’s power is tied to their emotions; boil them into a rage, and they’ll start to lose control. At the same time, their power grows. Weigh the risk, and hopefully get out with only a burn.


 

A year quickly passed another year, the pages filled, his life became a constant wandering. He tread on a quiet stage, and he had no problem with that, though trouble still managed to find him.

Zuko was no stranger to unwanted attention. Even with the dust brown clothes and sulking stance, he looked as Fire Nation as anyone could get. Looked like a firebender, but couldn’t firebend: he got the downsides with no ups. The common civilian skirted away from him, Earth Kingdom soldiers gave him the stink eye, and on rare occasion, some stirred up trouble.

Trouble was what the two pairs of footsteps behind him wanted. Earthbenders, if their bare feet were anything to go by, and just about his age, maybe older. They’d been following him for a good five minutes, and his hand was starting to hover over his swords. He ducked into an alley, hoping that would shake them off his trail.

Earthbenders were not to be underestimated. So far, his only strategy against them was not getting into fights with them at all. He’d been passing through Gaoling, hoping to catch the annual Earth Rumble and get a look at more bending in action, but it seemed like he was going to be getting a much more personal demonstration.

“What’s an ashmaker doing in our city? Here to destroy another town?” One jeered.

Zuko didn’t answer, and tried to walk on without confrontation. The earthbenders weren’t about leave him be that easily; a stone wall shot up and blocked the other side of the alley.

“Where do you think you’re going?” One of them threw a rock into his back.

Zuko turned around to a blocked alley, with two boulders already hovering in the air.

Well, there wasn’t much of a choice at this point. He doubted he could take an earbender in a sword fight. Two earthbenders in a cramped, poorly lit alley: he’d be lucky to last five minutes.

It might have been a lost cause, but Zuko would never go down without a fight. He let his pack fall on the ground and unsheathed his swords.

He ducked and he dodged, letting the boulders hit the wall that blocked the alleyway, hoping for it to chip away and give him an opening to escape. The stones barely made a dent, but it was the only hope he had.

A boulder ricocheted off his shoulder. Pain shot up his arm, his sword dropped, and he leaned against the stone wall to catch his breath. The earthbenders stopped their onslaught for a moment to creep slowly closer, and enjoy their victory.

Just as Zuko was about to lunge again for a final fight another shadow fell in front of them.

“I’m always up for a good fight, but this is hardly fair,” she said.

The ground shivered and laced up the earthbenders’ ankles. The two slammed into the wall and were thrown to the ground behind the newest arrival.

“Hey! What are you-” He never got a chance to finish the sentence. The girl bent the stone underneath them, catapulting the two earthbenders into the air, and crashing into a nearby tree.

“Scram,” she ordered, and scram they did.

She grinned at him and crossed her arms, pleased with herself. There was something off about her gaze though; it was unfocused and looked out at nothing, her eyes themselves a startling, milky white. Blind, he realized. She was blind.

“You’d be a grease spot on the pavement if it weren’t for me.”

Half of him wanted to say thank you, while the other half wanted to say I could have handled it myself , so he ended up saying nothing. Her grin didn’t waver, but neither did she step aside to let him through.

“What’s a guy like you doing around here?” She shuffled her feet in the dirt. “Got fancy swords but not enough coin for dinner. An extra pair of clothes. A book. Another knife. And…” She looked confused as she kept wiggling her toes in the dirt. It was then that Zuko realized that his pack was still on the ground, and somehow she was guessing what was in it. Before he could pick it up, another stone catapult threw the bag into the air, and into the girl’s hands

She rifled through the contents and pulled out exactly what he’d hoped she wouldn’t. Grinning in her hands was the Blue Spirit mask.

“Hold up. A mask. Double swords. Fancy fighting. Hey, mind telling me if this is blue?”

“Hand it back. It’s none of your business.” He bit out.

“It was none of my business whether those earthbenders pummelled you into the ground, but I made it my business,” she stated, tossing the mask from hand to hand. “So, what’s your name, Masky?”

If he hadn’t just seen this girl beat up two earthbenders without breaking a sweat, Zuko would’ve snatched the mask and ran. It was probably in his best interests to handle this diplomatically, and as much as he despised the idea of the Blue Spirit being tangled up with his other personas, there wasn’t much of a choice.

“Lee,” he finally admitted. Stone laced up his ankles, forcing him in place.

“That doesn’t sound right,” she mused.

Zuko’s heart hammered in his chest. How could she be so sure that Lee wasn’t his name? “Look, if you’re planning on turning me in -”

“Why would I do that? Money’s not exactly a problem for me, and besides, you do some good work. But lay off the Earth guys, would you?”

His heart calmed, but the stone had not softened one bit. “There’s bad people on both sides, you saw those guys before.”

“You have a point. But now, name.”

At this point, Zuko would have much rather faced the two earthbenders from before. They might have dug him halfway to his grave, but at least they wouldn’t have had the brain cells to put two and two together and unearth the identity of the Blue Spirit. He’d never told anyone Lee was the Blue Spirit. Stringing Prince Zuko into the mix was just disaster in the making.

Stone crawled farther up his ankles. “I’m not hearing an answer,” she drawled.

He was getting tired of being toyed around by earthbenders. Besides, how much could a name hurt?

“Zuko,” he said, finally. The name sounded foreign on his tongue. Thankfully, it was new to her as well.

“Zuko.” She weighed the sound of his name. “So now I know who’s under that mask. Sweet.”

The stone crumbled at his feet. A moment later, the wooden mask sailed into his hands.

This girl - this tiny, blind girl - had just ripped away all the masks and curtains he’d so painstakingly put up. His three acts became one, and though it was nothing he took lightly, Zuko could draw a resigned breath. It wasn’t an easy scene, but somehow, it felt more real than any other moment in those last few years.

She just flashed grin, content in what she had learned, though probably not knowing its true weight. Before she turned to leave, she said, “I’m Toph Beifong, by the way.”

“The Beifongs?” He said reflexively, the name bringing up snippets from old scrolls and local gossip. “I didn’t know they had a daughter.”

She gave him a wicked smile as she walked away, “I keep your secret, you keep mine.”


 

Earthbenders are strong-willed, patient and unbreakable, like the Earth they wield. The versatility of their element is overwhelming, being able to be used for offense, defense, and shaping the playing field. To fight them is to try and beat a boulder itself.

An earthbender against a non-bender seems, most of the time, futile. But a boulder can be toppled over its own weight. Be light on your feet, stay far and off the ground if possible, and dodge whatever is thrown your way. Let them tire. Lower their guard. Bait them where you want them. An earthbender’s greatest enemy is themselves, and time weathers all stones.


 

When Zuko is sixteen, there are whispers. The Avatar has returned, they say.

The Avatar is a myth, a legend… nothing more. Believing otherwise is wishful thinking.

‘Wishful thinking’ floods over the Earth Kingdom. Word of the Avatar is never far from their tongues, and despite himself, Zuko can’t help but glance up when they mistake a cloud as a fabled sky bison.

Day in and day out, he hears the whispers.

“He popped up in the South Pole…”

“...I heard he was just in Omashu…”

“...freed a whole prison full of earthbenders.”

Lee is hopeful. Zuko has no business dealing with myths.

Except myths are turning into reality and whispers sound more like shouts.

“He’s been captured,” he hears one day. “In Pohuai Stronghold…the Fire Nation has him.”

Captured. Pohuai Stronghold. With nothing else to fill his mind, the words echo. They haunt him with every step he takes and keeps him awake through the night. The Avatar has been captured As word spreads, he feels the rising wave of hope that surged through the Earth Kingdom in the weeks before, crash along the surf. Morale wilts. It’s all wrong. Very, very wrong.

Zuko, even after all these years, is still no more sure of his destiny as he was when he was back with Piandao. All he knows is that the curtain has dropped, the audience is waiting, and someone has to walk out on that stage.

He remembers the stories his mother told him of past Avatars, the textbooks Uncle had shown him and the tapestries on Piandao’s halls. Zuko has no clue what awaits him, but he takes his cue, and treks west towards Pohuai.


 

Airbenders, from what I can gather through the few scriptures I can find of them, were strictly pacifists. It’s entirely likely that the myth of the breath-stealing Air Army was fabricated by the Fire Nation to sway public opinion on the genocide.

As the Air Nomads are, as far as we know, extinct, there is little reason to seek how to counter them. Should an airbender still exist, there is little else to do but stand your ground and pray that they are on your side.

Chapter Text

 

What in the world was Zuko thinking?

Nothing, apparently, because if he’d been thinking at all he wouldn’t have stepped a single foot towards Pohuai.

It was dark out, dark enough that even the tamest stretch of forest was like a tangle of writhing vipers. A true menace of the night he was. A little light would’ve been helpful. Just a bit of fire at his side to illuminate the way… Zuko gave a wry smile. Fire would’ve given him a lot more than just light. If he’d had fire, he wouldn’t be wandering a Fire Nation colony, setting himself up for what might as well be a suicide mission.

What was he doing anyway? It wasn’t like he could one man army an entire fortress. Why would he willingly put himself in danger of  being caught, having his identity revealed, and then facing whatever consequences that led to? His bouts as the Blue Spirit were one thing, but this was just pure lunacy. He was just… Li, simple shorehand, tea brewer, groundsweeper, and man of a dozen other odd jobs. Nothing more.

Except, of course, he was more, no matter how deep he tried to bury that past. And thoughts of the Avatar, the grand master of the four elements, made his old life stir like it never had in the three years since he’d left the Fire Nation. Piandao’s parting words hummed in the dark air:

“I don’t know what the world has in store for you. I don’t know what victory means for you, whether it is ending this war, finding the Avatar, defeating your father, becoming Firelord or finding peace, like I did. Perhaps it will be something else entirely.”

He wondered if his swordmaster would be disappointed to hear that he still didn’t have an answer for him.

He wandered the ruins of Taku on the way to do s omething - save the Avatar, help somehow, get caught and suffer the consequences? He still wasn’t sure - when he caught sight of the furry backside of one unmistakable sky bison.

Zuko approached slowly. Two figures lay sleeping on the bison, wrapped in blue bedrolls. The beast seemed to be asleep too, until it opened a giant brown eye and growled.

“Easy,” he tried to calm it, but to no avail. He scrambled through his pack for something to save him, and found a too soft moon peach he must of picked up days ago. He rolled the fruit towards the bison, who thankfully accepted the offering after a cautionary sniff. It huffed a warning at him, but shut its eyes again, too tired to care.

Zuko took that as a cue to step closer. This was the Avatar’s bison, no doubt, and if the rumors he’d heard were right, the sleepers must’ve been the Water Tribe siblings he traveled with. They were unconscious, skin paler than could’ve been healthy and so still it made him nervous.

“What’s wrong with them?” Zuko thought out loud.

One of them stirred at his voice. The guy’s face turned to him, eyes half-lidded, sweat, snot and drool sticking against his bedroll.

“Aang, you’re back! Since when did you have such nice hair?” he drawled, before falling back asleep with a resounding snore.

Try as he might, Zuko couldn’t get either of them back up again to try and ask what was wrong, both of them brushing him off and telling ‘Aang’ to leave them alone. Zuko sighed. Nursing two delirious siblings was not what he’d expected when he’d left for Pohuai, but once again the world laid its master plan before him. These two were his best bet to helping the Avatar, and if anyone was going to be saving anyone else, they had to be in working order.

Zuko set himself to work. Their symptoms were familiar: fevers, coughs, hints of deliria. He’d browsed through a handful of books on natural remedies in the last few years, and he scoured his brain for anything useful. Sadly, he doubted he could recognize the ingredients he’d need to make a remedy, and he barely remembered the texts to begin with - except for one memorable page about the healing properties of the frozen wood frog. Zuko hoped that was all he needed.

“I’ll be back,” he assured no one in particular - the bison maybe - before trekking down to the swamp he’d crossed on the way there.

Mud stuck against his legs, staining his beige pants even darker with each step. He could hear wood frogs croaking - the useless, unfrozen ones - as he reached a tree where half a dozen arrows stuck out from the bark. A piece of orange cloth hung on one of the points.

The Avatar had been here. Perhaps he’d come down to the swamp for the same purpose as Zuko.

Zuko waded through the mud, keeping an eye out for the archers that had taken the airbender just hours before. The frogs were easy enough to find. He grabbed the creatures and stuffed them in an old cloth, when suddenly a screech rung through the air. It was some wild animal - loud, angry and nearer than he’d have liked. He didn’t know what it was, and he had no want to find out.The trek back up to the bison was hurried.

He borrowed one of the camp's pots and a pair of spark rocks, and soon enough he had half a dozen frogs thawing out in a pail of lukewarm water. It would be more potent to have them suck on the frogs directly, but the boiling method worked well enough, and he's not sure stuffing amphibians into the Avatar's friends' mouths would make a good first impression.

When the frogs began to fidget, he scooped them out and brought the pot off the fire. He grabbed a bowl and made the two drink the concoction. It didn’t seem to do much, but they slept a little more soundly. At least, he thought they did. Zuko decided to sit back, and hope the frogs did their work.

The sun was rising now, and in the distance he could spot the silhouette of Pohuai’s towers. Zuko’s eyelids drooped. He’s not sure he’d slept since he’d heard the Avatar had been captured. His body decided it was time to rectify that.

He woke up to daylight, a gentle breeze, and a lot of yelling. Instinct took over while he was half asleep and suddenly Zuko was up, swords unsheathed, fronting on the Water Tribe boy who was still wrapped up in a fur roll.

“Who are you!?” he yelled.

Zuko blinked hard, trying to get his bearings. It must’ve been, what, past midday already. Hours must’ve gone by - and he hadn’t spent a single one figuring out how he’d face this confrontation. Uncle was right, he never did plan ahead.

“You better answer the question or I’ll, uh… I’ll sic the bison on you!” The bison gave a tired groan. “I’m warning you, Appa loves the taste of fresh meat. So drop the swords and answer the question!”

Air bison, he knew, were strict herbivores, but Zuko laid his swords on the ground and answered anyway.

“I’m uh… Li.” The fake name stuck on Zuko’s tongue.

“Well, ‘uh’ Li, what are you doing here!”

“I found you two. You were sick, so I tried to help.”

His eyes narrowed. “And why should I believe that? You looked ready to slice my head off two seconds ago.”

“Um… because I didn’t?” Wow, that sounded stupid. Because everyone knew that the only requirement for trusting someone was that they didn’t try to shove a sword in you.

Zuko was stumbling at the beginning of an apology, when the girl stirred awake. “What’s going on?”

“I was trying to figure out the same thing,” her brother answered.

“Who are you?” she asked when she caught sight of Zuko. “And where’s Aang?”

Aang. That name clicked something in Zuko’s head and he blurted out, “The Avatar’s been captured.” This was news to them, if their wide eyes were anything to go by. “It was the night before last, in the swamp below here. The Yu Yan archers found him and took him to Pohuai Stronghold. He’s still there, as far as I know.”

The words were coming to him easier now. News and facts, those always came easier, even if they were hard to swallow.

“He couldn’t have been captured, not by some archers! He’s Aang!” the Water Tribe boy sputtered.

“You’ve never seen the Yu Yan.” Neither had Zuko, but their reputations exceeded them.

“I knew I shouldn’t’ve let him go alone,” the girl muttered. “But who are you then?”

“I’m… Li.” Again, the words were coming out at a stumble. Facts, Zuko. Just give them the facts. “I worked in the town just south of here when I heard what happened to the Avatar. I came up here to see if I could help and I found you and the bison. You two were sick, I knew a remedy so I did what I could and waited for you to wake up.”

“You really did that?”

“I did.”

She furrowed her brows. “Why would you…?”

“I want to help you save the Avatar.” That was the first time he’d said it in such few words. It felt right, even if the other two faces still seemed skeptical.

The girl - he still hadn’t gotten their names -  watched him for a few moments, before she picked up a leather pouch and held it out to him. "Can you get me some water, please?"

Zuko tensed. It was a benign request, but he looked at the waterskin with an eyebrow raised. It was sudden, but then again, the only thing they’d had to drink in the last 24 hours was probably frog water.

"Sure," he told her, snatching up the container and beginning his trek down to the stream. It’d give him time to think, and to mesh together some words that were even the faintest bit convincing.

The two still didn’t completely trust him - spirits know Zuko wouldn’t if he were in their shoes. He’d given scarce information about himself to make them trust him. He’d even lied about his name. That was usually a given though. They might’ve recognized his real name, and then there wouldn’t have even been a chance of them trusting him. Though for some reason, this time, lying didn’t sit well with him.

He kept trekking, until he was at the stream from last night and filling up the waterskin. A part of him told him he could leave right now - the siblings were healed, he’d helped enough. This wasn’t his fight. The two didn’t exactly want him around either.

Another part of him roared no, he couldn’t turn back. This was his fight and he’d made it his fight the second he’d stepped foot away from the city and started combing for signs of the Avatar in Taku. The two Water Tribe siblings were still weak and dazed. Leaving them to the rescue alone was leaving them to be captured right alongside the Avatar. They may not trust him, but they needed him, and he’d just have to work with that. Zuko started the trek back up.

From above, he could hear quick whispers being interchanged. Ah. So that's why she'd sent him to get water.

"...we don't have much of a choice," the girl’s voice muttered.

"I don't like it. We have no idea who this guy is and you expect me to trust him?"

"But what about Aang?"

Zuko made a big deal of walking up the steps. The whispers cut out.

The girl took her waterskin with a thanks, though didn’t drink from it. Waterbender, he suddenly remembered. He’d just armed a waterbender. The boy now had some sort of bent blade at his side, he realized. Against all of Zuko’s battle instincts, he sat down before them, as far away from where he’d dropped his own dao as he could. He needed their trust, so he’d give him his first.

“Alright, let’s get straight to it,” the boy started, “What do you want with Aang?”

“He’s the Avatar. He’s been gone for a hundred years. The world can’t afford to lose him again.”

There came those narrowed eyes again. “But what do you get out of it?”

What did he get out of it? He knew they wouldn’t believe him if he said he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart, and truth be told, neither would Zuko. He wanted the Avatar free because... what? He could take down Ozai? He could help the people in the Earth Kingdom? He had a destiny while Zuko was floating about like a leaf caught in a storm? Those were all complicated, convoluted answers and none of them felt like the complete truth. How the Avatar could help him, he didn’t know, but he did know that he needed to rescue him, and they were wasting daylight.

Zuko met their eyes again. “Look, I know you don’t trust me, but it’s been more than a day since the Avatar was taken. It won’t be long until they ship him off to the Fire Nation, and then you’ve got no chance of getting him back. We need to get to him as soon as possible, and none of us can do it alone. If you want to free the Avatar - Aang - you’re gonna need my help.”

The Water Tribe boy stared him down, before he sighed. “Alright. You got any ideas, then?”

“I was hoping to leave that up to one of you.”

He sighed again, “Of course you did.”

Chapter Text

The first step to a successful infiltration was to get as many eyes away from you as possible. Right now, the guards of the stronghold were primed for an attack - they had the Avatar in their walls, after all - and so they needed something to hold their attention. 

The initial plan was to get Katara, the waterbender, to throw up a fog as cover, but they soon found that she didn’t have the mastery to keep that up. So instead, the had to improvise. Katara would slip through the forest, throwing up columns of steam that hopefully, in the increasing dark, looked like smoke from campfires. Hopefully the fortress would waste some guards to go out and investigate those. A lot of hopefullys, but hey, they were doing the best they could.

While she worked on the distraction, Sokka steered the bison half-way up one of Pohuai’s walls, that, likely thanks to Katara’s handiwork, was empty of guards.

“You sure you want to go in alone?” Sokka asked.

Zuko nodded. Going solo meant less of a trail and a faster pace, and he needed all that and more to pull this off. Before he lost his nerve, Zuko tied the familiar blue-white mask across his face. 

“I feel like I’ve seen that before,” Sokka wondered, then snapped his fingers. “Wanted posters. I’ve seen them around.”

Fire Nation wanted posters,” Zuko explained. “I’ve done a couple of things to get on their bad side.”

Sokka looked uneasily at the mask’s demonic grin. “You’re a weird guy, y’know? But I like your style.” 

A smile twitched under the mask. 

Zuko stared up at the cobbled wall of the stronghold, when in the distance, he heard the shriek of a wild animal, same as the one he’d heard last night. It echoed, closer than before, and he could hear the beating of wings as frightened birds took to the air. He didn’t have time to wonder what it was, just found a foothold on the wall and started the climb up. Hopefully, the sound of the creature had distracted the guards as well.

Sokka yanked on the reins. “Appa, yip yip!” The bison disappeared into the treeline.

The second step to a successful stealth mission was, well, to be stealthy. Zuko slipped silently through the halls, pressing himself into walls or ceilings when he heard footsteps coming by. The Avatar would no doubt be in the heart of the fortress, where most of the guards would be centered. Stealth would only get him so far - to the entrance of the Avatar’s cell, apparently. From there it was a matter of picking off the guards one at a time, a bit of distraction, a bit of baiting. Firebenders, as always, were useless in close quarters - and when you threw a bucket of mop water that you found down the hall on them, as it turned out. 

With the guards dealt with, Zuko unlocked the cell and slipped inside. He held a finger up to the mouth of his mask, which the Avatar completely disregarded and screamed. 

The final step to an infiltration was to be fast. It wasn’t a matter of if your crime was going to be found out, it was a matter of when. The Avatar’s yelling was not helping. 

Zuko sliced off the shackles as fast as he could and dragged him out of the room before he could manage any more words. He underestimated the airbender.

“Woah! Who are you? I mean, thanks for rescuing me and everything, but who are you?”

“Quiet,” Zuko ordered, still dragging the kid along as silently as he could, “Just follow me and hurry, we’ll be meeting your bison at the west wall.”

“Appa? How do you know Appa?”

“Avatar,” he leveled the most withering stare he could at him, which was ineffective given the mask.

“Are Sokka and Katara alright? Did you see them?”

“Quiet.”

”They were sick, I never got the frogs to them, I hope they’re-”

Aang .” This time, Zuko took the moment to grip the kid’s shoulders. “Be quiet .”

The airbender had the decency to look embarrassed, and dragged two fingers across his mouth in a zipping motion. Zuko huffed in relief - and then the horns started blaring. Looks like it was too late for the silent approach.

Zuko took the Avatar’s arm and bolted, brushing past surprised soldiers. It wasn’t long until they bumped into a steelier bunch. Zuko drew his swords. Three in front of him in a confined space, one of whom was weaponless though that was no comfort - he was likely a firebender. There was a swarm of footsteps approaching from behind. No time to strategize. The odds would be getting worse very soon.

Before Zuko lunged out, hoping instincts would get him through, his enemies toppled to the ground, forced down by a rush of wind. Zuko turned to the Avatar, staff held out in the final step of an airbending move, not even having broken a sweat. It was a welcome surprise, but the show of power left Zuko dead in his tracks for a moment. It was bending like he’d never seen before, all circular motion and feathery movement. He’d never seen an airbender in action. There had been scarcely any information on them in the Earth Kingdom and none at all in the Fire Nation, except your typical propaganda. Zuko wanted to note everything he’d seen.

“Let’s go!” the Avatar shouted when Zuko stared for a little too long. Time to study later, they needed to get out now.

Zuko charged forward again. They had to get up to the wall; their plan was to jump down the other side where Sokka and the bison would be there to catch them. Hopes for that plan died when they reached the foot of the stairs and the sound of armored boots thundered from above them. A fireball just missed them as Zuko pulled the Avatar by his collar and sprinted in the other direction. 

“Where do we go now?” Aang asked.

If only Zuko knew. “We can’t go up the wall. We need another way out of here.”

“I remember this hall when they brought me in. Follow me!” 

The Avatar took the lead, turning tight corners until the two burst out through a huge wooden set of double doors and into open air. Horns were blaring from the walls that surrounded them on all sides, braziers of angry fire dotted the grounds, and the entire space was teeming with guards. They’d walked right into the fortress’ courtyard. Zuko found himself back to back with the Avatar in a ring of spears and swords. Well, at least they made it outside.

The soldiers charged first. Zuko ducked past blades, met strikes where he could and cleaved an approaching spear in two. A sweep of air from the Avatar knocked the guards off their feet. They pivoted and switched sides on a whim, working together as if they were a tried and true team. Zuko made quick work of those that got too close, while the Avatar kept those farther back at bay with blasts of air.

They couldn’t keep it up forever though. Aang cried out when a lucky fireball singed his forearm. As Zuko turned to see what happened, another flame was launched towards him, licking at the wood of his mask. It didn’t burn him, but he could imagine that the wood had blackened. The heat bit at his skin, the smoke suffocating, ash burning down his throat and falling into his lungs like pinpricks of glass. Both of them stumbled backwards, back to back once again.

A voice boomed from atop the walls as the circle around them closed in. “Give up Avatar! You’re outmatched!”

Zuko looked up towards the sound, only to meet the cruel grin of Commander Zhao. Somehow, that wasn’t even the worst sight; besides him on the wall was a line of Yu Yan archers, bows drawn taut. 

He needed to get out of this, but the smoke in his lungs wasn’t helping. He needed to think. On his side, he had a pair of swords and an Avatar, injured. Against them were soldiers in every direction and walls they wouldn’t have time to scale before archers picked them off on their first move.

Outmatched. Zuko’s heart sank as his mind repeated its indisputable conclusion. He raised his swords regardless; just like with firebending, he’d fight the truth for as long as he could.

Just as the Yu Yan were about to loose their arrows, a roar rang out from above the wall. The bison, with the Water Tribe siblings on his back, landed on the wall, bringing down guards, archers and Zhao with a swing of his tail. Now that was a variable he hadn’t been expecting. 

Aang took that moment of surprise to his advantage. He swept out his legs to blast away the guards around them. He hooked his unburned arm with Zuko’s and launched them both up into the air. Appa soared low to catch them. By the time the archers were back on their feet, they’d flown too high for arrows to reach.


 “Your arm!” Katara said, taking Aang’s arm into her hands. There was a splash of glossy red on his forearm, swelling fast, and Aang yelped at the contact.

“It’s not too bad…” he said through his grimace. Zuko had to commend the kid for trying to put on a brave face. The waterbender ignored him, calling Sokka to find some bandages before opening up her waterskin and pouring liquid on the burn. The water dripped across the skin, being bent before it could hit the bison’s saddle.

“You can heal him,” Zuko said.

Katara seemed to notice him for the first time since they rescued Aang. “The water will help the swelling, but I don’t have any burn salve.”

“No, I meant with waterbending. You can heal him with waterbending.” That was somewhat common knowledge, he’d read it in plenty of books during his library escapades and even the Fire Nation had taught him about the ‘dark, regenerative power of the Water Tribe barbarians’. 

Katara looked at him as if he’d grown a second head. “How?”

Zuko shrugged. “I read it was instinctual. Just… try, I guess?” 

She looked back down at Aang’s arm, and studied the water encasing it with a creased brow. Nothing happened for a moment. He opened his mouth to spew some trivia about the healing properties of water and how it was meant to direct chi flow, but Katara didn’t need it. The water bloomed with light, until the entirety of Aang’s arm was wrapped in a blue glow. When Katara pulled the water away, the skin had lost most of its redness.

“Wow,” Aang said, studying his arm, “Thanks, Katara. And thanks, uh… I don’t think we’ve really met yet.”

“Li,” Zuko offered. He was too tired to try and sell the story of who he was, so he stared off into the night sky, not meeting the Avatar’s eyes. Even Katara was looking at him like they’d never met before.

When Zuko offered nothing more, Aang turned to Sokka who shrugged.

“That’s pretty much all we could get out of him, too,” he said. 

Aang didn’t pry, thankfully. “Well, thanks Li. I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t been here.”

“And for what it’s worth,” Sokka said, “I’m glad Appa didn’t eat you.”

Zuko smiled, but only for a second. As the adrenaline started to seep from his body, he was left exhausted. Pohuai was quickly fading from view. He gave himself a few minutes to close his eyes and rest, before they reached the ground and he had to figure out what he’d gotten himself into.


 

They flew over the colony and a stretch of forest before they spotted the glint of a stream below, and landed in a clearing close by. The bison flopped onto the grass. 

Aang patted the thing between the horns. “We’ll rest here for the night.” He glanced at Zuko before turning away. “And talk more tomorrow.”

It was past midnight by then and all of them wanted nothing more than to lay down their sleeping bags and rest. Zuko used the other’s sluggishness to dig up a sleeping mat from his bag and set up a little off to the side. The others started unloading supplies from the bison saddle, taking longer than they should have because they’d start whisper-arguing every few minutes about nonsense - ‘It’s your turn to set up camp’ and ‘Where’d you put my boomerang this time?’ and ‘Is now a bad time to roast some chestnuts? I’m hungry’. While they bickered, Zuko drifted into a half-sleep.

He didn’t know how much time passed when the sound of a name made Zuko’s ears prick up.

“So… how’d you guys meet Li?” Aang’s voice was hushed.

Sokka snorted. “Meet is probably too strong a word. He was just there when we woke up.”

Opening his eye a crack, Zuko could see the three fidget in their sleeping bags.

“Really? Were you guys still sick?”

“No, actually he’s the one who healed us,” Katara said.

“How’d he do that?”

“I dunno, some ‘natural remedy’ is what said,” Sokka answered, “Wouldn’t tell us what it was. Wouldn’t tell us anything, really.”

“He said he worked at the town we passed. And… that’s about it,” Katara said.

“Oh… well, he still seems pretty nice, right?”

Zuko could practically hear the shrug in Sokka’s voice. “I’m still testing how much we can trust him. You guys should do the same.”

“I think he’s alright. You said yourself you’re glad Appa didn’t eat him,” Katara said.

“He was good this time around, but we’ve been duped before. Remember Jet?”

“Don’t remind me. Yeah, I guess we should give it some time,” Katara yawned, “For now, let’s get some sleep.”

The three mumbled their goodnights and it was silent again.

Zuko opened his eyes fully and waited till he could hear snores coming from the others before he sat up. Half-rested, in the silence and calm of night, miles away from danger, it was finally time to figure out his next steps. Never something he was good at. Thinking ahead, choosing a direction at a crossroads, neither were his strong suits. He hadn’t had much of a choice in anything for most of his life, everything just laid out or forced onto him. Even leaving the Fire Nation hadn’t been a choice, just a toppling of circumstances that would’ve crushed him unless he ran. And so he ran, on and on and on. 

And that’s what he should do now, right? Move on, keep as he’s always had and stay on the road, far, far away from his past. Safe and content, like he’d been before the Avatar flew into his life.

But a little part of him wondered what could be if he stayed, if he left his old path to join the Avatar. To be part of something bigger. He hadn’t felt that in so, so long. 

But give it time, they’d said. If he stayed, they'd keep him around but at an arm's length. Reasonable. But they’d lose nothing and be free of worrying about his motives if he just… disappeared. Left. They wouldn’t be any worse off for it.

The answer seemed simple. He’d done what he’d done today. The Avatar was free. Now it was time for him to go. As quietly as possible, he rolled up his sleeping mat, stood up and started walking away without turning back. Just as he was reaching the forest’s edge, a voice stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Li?” Aang called from behind, “Where are you going?”

Zuko didn’t face him when he answered. “I’m uh… heading out now.”

“Oh,” he sounded a little disappointed, “I thought you’d want to stay a little longer, I mean, we didn’t really get to talk yet, but um, if you need to go that’s okay, too. I just… I didn’t even get a chance to really thank you for today.”

“You don’t have to. I just need to get going now.”

“Where to?”

“I don’t know. Back to the city, maybe.”

“Oh, right. So what did you say you do there?”

Zuko shrugged. “Whatever comes up.”

It was a pretty poor excuse for why he had to leave but Zuko was never good at lying. He hoped Aang could leave it at that, say his farewells, and then they’d be off on their separate ways. That was apparently too much to ask for. Zuko glanced back to see the Avatar sitting up from his sleeping bag, gray eyes staring straight at him.

“Well… you know, you don’t have to go so soon. I didn’t get the chance to ask before but… I thought maybe you’d want to stay with us. We could really use your help.”

The Avatar’s voice was sincere, but the words themselves felt hollow. “You’re the Avatar. Master of the four elements. You don’t need my help.”

“That’s not true. I mean, what about today?”

“You have your friends to thank for that.”

“And you, too. You didn’t have to come help me but you did and we couldn’t have done it without you. We’re going to the North Pole to find a waterbending teacher, you could come with us.”

He’d started this journey without a plan or a goal, just knowing he had to help the Avatar. Now the Avatar was offering him a purpose. But was it really his to take? Li, the simple worker, was content with a life of wandering, doing the little jobs he could. And Prince Zuko needed to hide. Parading around the globe with the Avatar would not be hiding

Aang spoke up through the silence. “I know you have a life here and it’s a lot to ask for you to leave everything and start something new but… I don’t think it was a coincidence that you were here today. I think we were meant to meet.”

There it was again. Fate. From the day he was born, fate had chosen everything for him and now the world was giving him a choice. He fell back on what the world had told him all his life.

“Maybe. But you don’t need me around,” Zuko hesitated. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

Aang frowned, but nodded. “Okay. If you really want to leave, I won’t stop you. But if you change your mind or need some help or anything, we’ll be here for awhile.”

“Thank you.”

“Bye, Li. Thanks for everything.”

“Bye... Aang.” And then Zuko disappeared into the treeline and didn’t look back.


 Whatever came next, Zuko decided he should head back to the city. It wasn’t a long trek, but between everything that'd happened recently and the bad night’s sleep, he was bone-tired by the time he got to the edge of town. 

The little port city was starting to swing into life, shops opening their doors and fisherman pulling into the dock with their pre-dawn catch. Zuko melted right back into the rhythm. Here he was. One foot after the other, with a pack slung over his shoulder and ratty clothes over his skin, just another unlucky wanderer looking for work. Just Li, making his way to wherever. Everything back to normal. 

His stomach growled. Zuko and the city may be willing to pretend nothing happened last night, but his stomach was keenly aware that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning. A quick check in his pocket brought out a couple copper coins. Breakfast then, to put this all behind him.

Zuko slipped into the first shack he passed, a cramped tavern that smelled of fry oil and not-rotten-but-definitely-not-fresh fish. A couple minutes later he was tucked away in the corner of the joint with a bowl of rice and stir fry.

Other patrons flowed in and out as he ate, and Zuko tried his best to tune them out. Breakfast, just like any other day, that was all this was. But sailors loved to gossip and word traveled fast. A table over from him, a couple men were trading rumors in loud, harsh voices. Someone broke into Pohuai last night. Pandemonium in the Fire Nation. The Avatar was free again.

That was met with roaring laughter, some at the Fire Nation for letting the Avatar slip away but most just outright not believing it happened.

Zuko wasn’t going to correct them. He looked out the window towards the bay, wondering if the Avatar had gone by now. Maybe he’d catch a glimpse of a bison flying off to the north. The image made him tense, but he pressed the feeling away. It was stupid, irrational, he didn’t have time for that kind of thinking, not anymore.

He’d made his choice. He had no reason to stay with the Avatar. He’d done what he had to and now he was done. This… pining, or whatever it was, was stupid. But it was there, and he couldn’t ignore it.

Discovering that the Avatar had been captured set an itch in his mind. Rescuing him got rid of that itch, but he still wasn’t content. Not that he’d ever been content, even as Li he always wanted to move faster, hide better, do something to shake off his past, but things still hadn’t gone back to the way they were before. He was on edge, holding his breath, waiting for… something. What, he didn't know. The path forward was always murky for Zuko and the Avatar passing through had stirred the mud at the bottom of the pond.

With time, things would settle. What else could he hope for?

A crash yanked him out of his thoughts. People jumped out of their seats, shouting at the thing that had just burst through the doorway - a giant, elephant-rat type creature, but with claws the size of his hand and rows of sharp teeth. Screeching. Between the customers yelling and the animal wrecking the front of the shop, Zuko thought that screech sounded familiar. It unsettled him, made his heart race in his chest, but he forced himself to sit back and observe. The creature was blocking the exit anyway.

On top of the monster was a woman, jet black hair and tattoos snaking down her arms. She reigned the beast still.

“Easy, girl,” she said, and then turned to the man behind the counter. “I’m looking for a bounty, bud. You seen anyone here who looks like they pissed off the Fire Nation?”

Zuko stilled. Whatever was going on now had his undivided attention. 

The owner was beet red. “You can’t just come in here and ransack my property, bounty or not! Get out! Now!”

“I want you to remember that I asked nicely first. Nyla!” At that the animal reared up on its hind legs and bared its teeth. A thin, whip-like tongue lashed out of its mouth and wrapped around the owner’s arm. The man wrenched himself away and took a single step backwards before he dropped to the floor. An uproar spread through the room. 

“Quit your whining. He’s just paralyzed, it’ll wear off in a few hours.”

The creature, he realized, was a shirshu. He’d read about them before, but the books couldn’t have described the sharp-toothed, frothing mouth, and the wet, protruding snout that furiously sniffed every surface it could. People were panicking, trying to get out of the shop and some, not surprisingly, used the opportunity to ransack the place. The shirshu and its owner ignored it all, sniffing and scanning everything in the room. Zuko’s blood felt ice cold.

The shirshu stuck its nose in the air, above the crowd and took a deep breath. It’s owner smiled. “Oh, we’re close, aren’t we?”

The beast must have caught the scent of what it was looking for because it snapped its head down and growled. If the thing had eyes, it’d be staring straight at Zuko.

He leapt out of his chair and ran for the back door - at least he hoped there was a back door, dear Agni please let there be a back door. That thing was tracking him. He didn’t know how or why - okay, it was a shirshu so he knew how and he could take a wild guess as to why - but all Zuko could focus on was getting away as fast as he could.

There was a back door, thank Agni, and Zuko crashed right through it into the alley behind the store. Keeping his head down, he jogged towards the bay. Out the way he came.

A blood-curdling screech shot from behind him, the exact same screech he’d heard the last two nights, though this time much, much closer. He spared a look back to see the shirshu’s nose flaring in his direction and its owner’s eyes boring right into his.

No luck hiding now. Zuko made a break for it.

His feet slammed against the ground as he ran and ran and ran, like his life depended on it. He dodged pedestrians, vaulted over crates, slipped under carts but the beast just barreled through it all. The shirshu screeched, each time getting closer. He couldn’t outrun it. Maybe he could in the forest where the foliage was too dense for it to run through, but at this pace they’d reach him before he even got there.

He looked around for anything that could help him. He saw what he was looking for. The bay was lined with fishing boats, some with nets full of fish hoisted in the air above the road, waiting for a cart to drop them in. The throwing knife at his hip pressed against his clothes. If he could time this right...

The shirshu roared and Zuko wrenched himself to the side, avoiding the poison-laced tongue that went flicking past him. Lungs burning, he tacked on a burst of speed to get the distance he needed. He kept running, a fishing boat with its catch closing in ahead. As it passed above him, Zuko turned back and threw the knife towards the net. It sliced through the rope holding it up at the top, dropping the net and crushing the shirshu under a noxious mountain of fish. Zuko bolted for the forest. He could hear the woman yelling and the beast screeching, trying to snort the slime out of its nostrils. 

It’d give him a few minutes, but Zuko didn’t slow down a moment. He needed to get away, fast. No, he needed to do more than that. If what he’d read about that thing was true, no distance would be enough to stop it from finding him. He’d never outrun it. Zuko needed to break its trail. Scramble his scent. And there was no way he was going to be able to do that on foot. 


The three of them were loading the bison when Zuko burst through the treeline, heaving and close to collapse, once more his meagre breakfast having done little to help his already limited energy reserves.

“Li?” Aang said, running out to meet him.

A part of him was curling into a ball because here he was crawling back to the people he flat out rejected a few hours ago, but right now he didn’t have time for shame or doubt or indecision. 

Once Zuko caught his breath, he met Aang’s eyes.

“I need to call in that favor.”