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Time is an Illusion

Chapter Text

‘Come now, Yia – you can do it. Just breathe in. Breathe out.’

A cool breeze swirled through the clearing, a welcome reprieve from the humidity of the coastal air. However, even in her loose tunic, the young girl could not feel how it affected her body. Not now.

‘Breathe in. Breathe out.’

The wind picked up for a moment, and deep chestnut curls began to bounce and dance around her face. Sunlight filtered through the summer leaves, causing the rich, tawny brown skin of her cheeks to appear almost golden.

‘Breathe in. Breathe out.’

She could practically hear the voice of her mentor urging her out of her own body. Sangok had been training her for barely more than two years since she reached her tenth winter, the firm but fair man determined that she complete her spiritual training before she so much as attempted to touch a sword. It was fair, and Yia understood why he was so strict about it, but she was determined to learn. To learn, she had to succeed.

Yia did not like failing.

And so, her mind pushed away thoughts of the physical. Pushed away from the feelings of grass beneath her, the sound of the wind in the trees, the smell of the flowers that grew by her home... And slipped away. Embraced the spirits. Like sitting still in a pond until the fish forgot to fear her presence, she felt the spirits around her, judging, evaluating – nudging her curiously. Was she enough yet? Could she visit their home and finally understand?

‘Breathe in. Breathe ou-’

“Excuse me?”

A foreign voice cut through her silence like a blade through air. Squeezing her eyes shut tighter than before, Yia fought to maintain her breathing pace. If she just ignored him, maybe he would go away. Regardless of how rare someone passing through these woods was, she couldn’t fail now. She would not have wasted these last hours after feeling so close, so on the edge of something-

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, young lady, but I’m afraid I am in need of some directions.”

Letting out a huff of air that sent some stray curls flying, Yia sighed. She knew she was being rude. ‘It is better to be kind and happy than to achieve,’ as Sangok said. ‘I can always try again tomorrow.’ Still, it was irritating that this man had to interrupt her when she was so close to a breakthrough.

Opening her eyes, she found herself faced with a man she had never met before. He was from the Fire Nation, given his telling amber eyes, which made her stiffen cautiously. She knew about the war, that was why she and Sangok lived so deep in the forest, why the nearest village was so far away. However, she did not feel immediately threatened by him, even in his dark red tunic and Fire Nation robes.

He was old, maybe mid 50’s, with lines around his eyes from many smiles and laughs, and his hair was almost entirely grey save for a few warm brown strands near the ends. He was a large man, clearly acquainted with wealth to be such a weight, or someone who enjoyed more food than perhaps was required. However, he carried a heaviness on his shoulders and a sorrow in his eyes that made her immediately feel pity for him. He was lost in more ways than one, and she didn’t have to be older than her 12 years to recognise it.

“That’s alright, sir. Where are you headed?” she asked politely, brushing off her thighs and rising to her feet.

The elderly gentleman bowed respectfully despite her youth, which made her smile wider. “Thank you, your help is deeply appreciated. I am looking for someone, a young man named Lu Ten. Do you know if he has passed through these lands?”

From his sleeve, the stranger pulled a scroll and handed it to her.

Yia looked at the ink portrait, using only a tender grasp for fear of damaging it. The image seemed worn, though the parchment did not seem old. In fact, it was unusually light for such a material. It was as if it had been studied for hours, or perhaps she supposed, shown to many on his journey. The man in the portrait's eyes and hair were recognisable, and she looked back up to the elderly gentleman.

"He looks like you."

The man gave a sad smile, but nodded slightly.

"My son. I fear he is lost beyond my reach, even in the realm of spirits."

"Oh," she breathed.

Yia was about to say more, but something was nagging her. The parchment was so light, but... so was she. She was still stood on the ground, but her weight felt different, less attached. True, she had been sat for hours meditating, but she had never experienced this with her legs before.

"You are certainly the most accommodating young spirit I have yet met. May I ask your name?"

"Spirit?" Yia repeated in confusion, only half paying attention as she pressed her foot against the grass under her. "I'm not a spirit, I'm a girl. Why would..."

Yia trailed off, her eyes meeting the stranger's and widening slowly. It was as if time froze as she turned around, finally taking in her surroundings. She was still in the clearing of a forest, but it was not that of her home. And yet, it was – but another version. A copy. Because everything seemed to be coated with a pale blue ink, and the old oak that had been to the East was now towards the West. The path that led to her home was no longer behind her, but in front of her. Everything was the same, but inverted, like a confused mirror image.

"I did it..." she breathed.

A short pause passed between them as the information sunk in. Suddenly, a blinding smile burst across her face.

"I did it!" She cried out, jumping in the air with elation, before spinning back around to face the man. "Wow, I didn't expect the Spirit World to look like this. Have you met any spirits yet? Or seen a cat deer? Are you a spirit?"

The stranger looked somewhat bewildered.

"I'm sorry for the confusion, miss. I am Iroh of the Fire Nation, but I am not a spirit. It would seem you are not either."

"No, I'm just Yia."

"Well... it's a great pleasure to meet you Yia.” Iroh placed his fists together and gave her another low bow. “You appear so young to have made your way here."

"I'm not that young, I've reached my 12th winter, now. My mentor wanted me to understand why we honour Raava, so I've been training myself to travel here. I've never done it before though..."

Iroh seemed to study her intently after this declaration. “It is rare for any person outside the spirit temples to hold such knowledge. I’ve spent months researching and I only recognise the name ‘Raava’. None of the library scrolls seemed to hold any great amount of information about the name, either.”

Yia cocked her head to one side, suspicious. “My mentor had inherited the knowledge… I’m sorry, you seem nice, but- I mean, you’re from the Fire Nation. Your people drove my family from their home. If I tell you too much, you might tell someone else, and they might not be as nice as you.”

This seemed to catch Iroh off guard, and a look of what could almost be described as shame washed over him.

“I understand. Maybe one day I will earn the right for such knowledge.”

Yia nodded slightly.

They stood for a moment in silence, the immensity of their differences pressing down on them.

It was a shame, she thought, as Yia did not often get to meet new people. Sangok was adamant that they hide away in the forest, away from the risk of raiders and soldiers and the violence that plagued the world for the last 90-something years. She knew Sangok had not told her everything about her family yet as she was not old enough, but he had been a good friend to Kaina, her mother, when they were younger and still lived in the North. Now she was gone.

Apparently, the resemblance between the two was striking – their skin the same deep shade of brown; wild, untameable curls of hair that would be black if they were any darker; and a button nose rounded so that she almost resembled a pixie from a fairy tale. As for her father, Sangok would never speak a word of him. His mouth would press into a hard line at his mention, and he would become angry if she pushed the topic. Yia only knew one thing about him: he had been from the Fire Nation.

There was no other explanation for her curious golden eyes.

Yia scuffed some grass beneath her feet, unsure of what to say. She did not want to get in trouble for telling Iroh something she shouldn’t. ‘But surely the spirits here would not reveal anything to him that would bring about more unbalance and destruction,’ she thought to herself.

After a moment, the young girl broke the silence. “Well, I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to stay here, and I haven’t seen your son, but… It’s pretty well known that this place is filled with knowledge we can’t access back in the physical world, right?” Yia offered him, softly. “Maybe you can ask something else here about Lu Ten.”

“Hm… I once read that there is water here that can give visions into a person’s history, but also of what has not yet come to pass,” Iroh murmured, raising an eyebrow at Yia as if for confirmation.

“That’s true! Maybe if we go to the river, the water will show you something that helps your search?”

“A wonderful idea. Would you be my guide?”

“It would be an honour,” she answered honestly, and bowed her head respectfully.

Iroh beamed at her, and Yia felt something settle between them. It was a peace, an acknowledgement and understanding. Feeling even lighter on her feet, Yia surveyed the world around them. Usually, to reach the river from here, she would have to travel West to the base of the mountains. However, this world was inverted, twisted around a flipped into something far more difficult to recognise.

Humming softly to herself, Yia closed her eyes. Listening hard, she searched. The rustling of leaves and soft noises of distant creatures clouded her ears, but she could feel it in her blood: the river. The power of surging water was close, and if she could just reach it, find it…

Her head cocked to one side as she picked up the sound of faint splashing.

There.’

Standing straight once more, Yia nodded to the North-East. “This way,” she said, checking the Sun’s position before setting an urgent pace. Sangok had only ever urged her to enter the Spirit World and learn what she could; he would surely be thrilled if she looked into the water as well and was given visions that helped them both learn. What could possibly go wrong?

Sensing that time might not be on their side, she marched on, glancing over her shoulder to check that Iroh could keep pace. She was grateful he was faster than he looked. The river would be a several minute walk away, and even if distance and time did not appear to affect this realm, Yia wasn’t going to put that to the test.

“Hey Iroh, how long have you been looking for your son?”

“I… I am not sure. Time seems to pass differently here.”

“I think it’d mean a lot to him, to know you were working so hard to find him. You two must have been close.”

Iroh let out a soft sigh. “Yes, I would like to think we were. But I still must wonder if I had not grown distracted with power and ambition, if he might have been saved.”

“You shouldn’t think like that, though. The past is unchangeable, and as much as it hurts, we must learn from it and grow bigger than our mistakes.”

The two slowed to a stop, studying each other for a moment.

“You are very wise for someone so young, Yia,” Iroh eventually complimented.

“And you are quite fast for someone so old,” she teased, grinning cheekily at the man who would be her enemy anywhere else.

They settled into comfortable silence, and made their way onwards through the forest.

- - - - -

“We’re here.”

Her voice went almost unheard over the roar of the water before them. It was well and truly breath-taking. Whilst it had been an impressive sight before, the version in the Spirit World was… Majestic.

Something about even the air around them seemed to tremble with the energy in the river.

“Okay, now we just need to look into the water, right?” Yia asked, looking to Iroh to make the first move.

“There is only one way to find out.”

Bouncing on the balls of her feet a little, the young girl tried not to stare too obviously as Iroh knelt at the riverbank. Stepping carefully so she was just behind his side, Yia looked down at the water too, but saw nothing more than his reflection.

Hm, maybe each person can only see visions of their own future,’ she thought, moving her way further upstream to find her own spot. Stopping at a patch of ground that rutted out even further into the waters, Yia knelt down and eagerly looked over the edge. Her reflection stared expectantly back at her.

Then, the water started to ripple.

Shifting down closer, hands grasping the bank’s muddy edge, she found herself being drawn in. In her reflection, the distant silhouette of a woman was approaching her from behind. The face was murky in the water, and a quick glance over her shoulder to check she was actually alone proved that Yia’s vision was spiritual in nature.

Leaning just a little further forward, nose at the lip of the bank, Yia grew tense as she tried to make out the woman’s face.

“Mother?” She whispered, lifting a hand to reach for the shadow.

It was then that the ground gave way beneath her.

With a startled cry, Yia fell face first into the river. She was immediately dragged under by the fierce current, eyes and lungs suddenly burning. A sudden barrage of images sprang forth in her mind.

A flag with a white lotus emblem. A red moon. A monstrous sea serpent.

Her shoulder burst into shooting pains as she hit a large rock, causing her to release what little breath she’d held and sent her spiralling into panic.

Iroh embracing a young man in a tearful hug. Songak laying unnaturally still in the clearing. Yia laughing by a campfire. The sea lapping over her toes.

She began to kick out desperately, hoping to make purchase on the ground but she had lost all sense of direction. By sheer luck, she managed to grab what must have been a tree root, holding on for dear life.

An iceberg split in half. A girl she’d never met forcing an old woman to her knees with her mind. A boy with curved swords smirking at her. Lightning.

Her eyes were burning, her mind overflowing with prophecies.

A meteor shower. Iroh making tea. A Fire Nation ship under attack. A girl with snow white hair. Blue flames. Lightning.

It was too much, she felt like her head was going to explode if her chest didn’t first.

Fire raining from the sky. Raava herself. Her hands covered in blood. Children dancing in firelight. Yia tossing knives at a tree. Lightning.

She barely noticed when her wrist was grasped in a firm hold, her body dragged from the water.

Lightning. Lightning. Lightning.

“Yia!”

Something hit her chest, hard, and water was forced from her mouth. Choking and spluttering, the girl rolled to her side and emptied her throat of water. It took her several minutes to recover, her eyes still burning and body aching all over, and the images still swirling through her mind like someone had emptied a gallery of paintings into her.

When everything seemed to settle enough, she opened her eyes to see Iroh, panting and sleeves soaked, watching her with concern.

“Iroh?” She croaked, resisting the urge to keep dry-heaving. There was nothing left in her now.

“Are you alright? I was worried you might have hit your head,” he muttered softly, surveying her body for any damage.

Yia sat up slowly, wincing at the sharp pains in her shoulder, but otherwise intact.

“You saved me,” she stated, numbly. “I would have died.”

“You are in shock, my dear.”

“No, no I- I could have… You rescued me. I owe you my life, Iroh,” she realised, staring at him with wide eyes.

A boy knelt, begging for forgiveness. Iroh in chains. A dark figure in a blue mask.

“The visions, they won’t stop,” she whimpered, gingerly touching her temples as she shivered. ‘What have I done?

“It’s the water, you must get dry to release the hold over you,” he urged, taking off his outer robes to drape over her shoulders. However, just before he could, Yia’s hand began to fade.

“My body; I’m going back to my body.”

Warm lips pressed to her forehead. A stage filled with silk flames. Warrior paint. The moon shining down on her face.

“It’s alright, Yia. You’ll be safe there,” Iroh encouraged. Yia only returned his gaze more fiercely.

“Did you see your son?” She demanded.

“In the water?”

Dragons. A painted lady floating over a river. A fountain lit by lanterns. Lightning.

“Yes, did you see him too?” She asked, wanting her answer before she was dragged away.

Iroh did not answer though, instead staring at her slowly disappearing form.

“It’s okay, you’ll see him. I saw it. I see it.”

Iroh breathing fire. Yia pouring Iroh tea. Yia jumping in front of Iroh.

“I owe you a debt, Iroh. One day I’ll repay you, I see it. The waters showed me, we will meet again,” Yia promised, smiling widely at the old man.

But Iroh only met her look of enthusiasm with one of sorrow.

“I pray to Agni that the waters can be wrong,” he muttered, so low she almost missed it.

Her arms bound behind her back. Her dancing around a sparkling ballroom. Her body laying lifeless on a red stone courtyard as maniacal laughter filled the air.

‘Oh.’

Before she could utter another word, the final image of Iroh’s grief-stricken face faded with everything else, until all she could see was darkness.

- - - - -

4 years later

A cloaked figure watched from the treeline as the familiar face of an elderly gentleman made his way across the beach front.

The white sand beaches of the Fire Nation colonies were not like the pebbled shores of the Northern Earth Kingdom coast she had been raised on. The distance from the sand’s edge to the sea was barely 50 yards, nowhere near the 500 or so she was used to, and rather than the softer, muted colours the sky would turn, here it was an unapologetically bright and blissful blue.

The large, elderly man beamed as he collected a particularly intricate pink shell from the ground, and a slight smirk tugged at the lips of the hidden observer.

“We meet again, old friend,” she murmured, before turning and disappearing into the wilderness.

Chapter Text

Three years today.

Iroh sighed heavily as he made his way up the path towards their place of stay. The pink blossoms of springtime were falling from their branches with every light breeze; the beauty of his surroundings not lost on him, especially after floating across the sea on a poorly made raft for the last few weeks. However, the weight today carried for his nephew made him wish that Zuko could see past his pain and admire the view with him.

Opening the door into the dark accommodation, Iroh dropped down the bag of shells he had collected with a wide smile. Picking up and examining them, he glanced over at Zuko briefly, lifting one for him to see.

“Look at these magnificent shells!” he exclaimed. “I'll enjoy these keepsakes for years to come.”

Zuko merely grunted with exasperation. “We don't need any more useless things! You forget, we have to carry everything ourselves now.”

But Iroh’s attention was drawn away. Something was different, something had changed since this morning.

Someone was here.

“Hello, brother. Uncle.” The unsettling calm voice caused both men to turn swiftly, faced with the sight of Azula sat at the corner table. Her smirk sent a slight tremble through Iroh’s spine, and a memory from long ago threatened to resurface.

“What are you doing here?” Zuko demanded, eyes narrowing in anger at the sight of his sister.

Unaffected, Azula held up a shell of her own in her hand. “In my country, we exchange a pleasant hello before asking questions,” she commented, rising and walking towards the two of them. “Have you become uncivilized so soon, Zuzu?”

The old nickname clearly prickled the young man, designed to provoke his temper.

“Don’t call me that!”

Iroh regarded her warily, her flawless mask of indifference and innocence unnerving to say the least. Evening his breath, he made little attempt to disguise his own displeasure at the situation. “To what do we owe this honour?”

Azula sighed lightly, toying with the pretty pink shell with her fingernails. “Hmmm... It must be a family trait. Both of you so quick to get to the point.”

Pressing down firmly, Iroh watched as the girl shattered the shell to pieces. His surprise gave way to upset, and he openly glared at his niece.

Unperturbed, the princess carried on. “I've come with a message from home. Father's changed his mind. Family is suddenly very important to him. He's heard rumours of plans to overthrow him; treacherous plots. Family are the only ones you can really trust.”

Iroh’s brow arched at this. He could never tell if Azula was lying, but this information seemed strange to him. This did not sound like the Ozai that Iroh had been raised with.

Pausing briefly, Azula looked down as if saddened. “Father regrets your banishment. He wants you home.”

The silence that passed over the room was so filled with tension that it could have been sliced with a knife.

Zuko stared forward, unseeing, and Iroh felt an uneasiness settle into his bones. The two watched as the banished prince moved to the window.

“Did you hear me? You should be happy. Excited. Grateful! I just gave you great news.”

“I'm sure your brother simply needs a moment,” Iroh excused, looking at his nephew with concern. After the events of the North Pole, he had been sure that his brother would put a bounty on his head. Both their heads.

Suddenly furious, Azula spun to glare at him. “Don't interrupt, Uncle!” Turning back to her brother, now clearly irritated, she pressed on. “I still haven't heard my thank you. I'm not a messenger, I didn't have to come all this way.”

Zuko was clearly struggling to process everything he was hearing. “Father regrets? He... wants me back?”

Sighing once more, Azula turned to leave. “I can see you need time to take this in. I'll come to call on you tomorrow. Good evening.”

And with that, she was gone, and Iroh felt as if he had awoken from a very, very bad dream.

- - - - -

By the time night had fallen, Iroh had not found resolution to his concerns. Zuko, however, seemed to grow happier. Excited, even. It had been so long since his nephew had been so elated, he hated to force him out of it.

“We're going home. After three long years, it's unbelievable!”

Staring out the window thoughtfully, Iroh murmured. “It is unbelievable. I have never known my brother to regret anything...”

Zuko did not seem disturbed by the man’s cautious tone. “Did you listen to Azula? Father's realized how important family is to him. He cares about me.”

“I care about you!” Iroh exclaimed, throwing his arms out to his sides. “And if Ozai wants you back, well, I think it may not be for the reasons you imagine.”

His nephew glowered, biting back defensively. “You don't know how my father feels about me. You don't know anything.”

Softening, the General tried a different approach. “Zuko, I only meant that in our family, things are not always what they seem.”

But the Prince did not want to hear him.

“I think you are exactly what you seem! A lazy, mistrustful, shallow old man who's always been jealous of his brother.”

Zuko stormed away to pack the rest of his things, leaving a crestfallen Iroh to close his eyes and try to leave his sadness behind.

Deciding to leave the subject until the morning, letting the boy cool off and reconsider, Iroh made his way to the small kitchen and started to make some tea. Iroh knew his family were often closed-minded, and once they chose a path, they would rather stick to it than acknowledge their mistake and adjust course. Despite how much he wished Ozai would appreciate the family he had, Iroh was more than a little wary of the prince’s summons home.

As he lit the flame to boil the water, hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle. Not for the first time today, Iroh sensed he was no longer alone.

“Would you care for a cup of jasmine tea?” he offered, gathering leaves for the pot and two cups.

“I would like nothing more,” the stranger replied, but Iroh was struck by the voice.

Turning to face the intruder, his face broke into a wide smile when he saw her.

“Is that you, Yia?”

The young woman removed the black scarf that covered her mouth and dropped the hood of her cloak. She nodded with a soft smile, and he grinned even wider.

 

“Hello, Iroh.”

 

The man looked her over, taking in the sight of her. She had changed so much since they last met, leaving behind her child’s body as she grew into a young woman, but was unmistakably the same person. Her dark curls had grown longer, almost to her waist, those closest to her face braided away into a complex crown that peaked in a high bun, save for some shorter strands that had escaped and hung freely to her chin. Another braid fell from her left temple, threaded with a grey ribbon that tied it off at the end. The baby fat of her youth had mostly fallen away, leaving her with high cheekbones and a squared jaw, softened by the curve of her rounded, full lips. She was blossoming into a startling young beauty.

Perhaps most startling of all, though, were her eyes.

He had remembered them as warm and golden, much like his own, however now they were what he had seen in the visions from the river – a stark, stormy grey colour.

She was much taller now too, maybe three or four inches shorter than his nephew, and he gathered she must have been travelling due to her attire. A grey undershirt fell off her shoulders, her chest protected by steel armour underneath a black leather jerkin, which was held in place by a thick silver coloured belt. Brown breeches and long leather boots covered her legs and feet, and a number of strategically rigged straps covered her thighs, holding at least four daggers from what he could see. Her palms were covered by worn brown gloves that opened at the fingertips, and around her neck was a thick band of metal – for protection or decoration he could not tell.

She seemed to drink in his appearance too, before he chuckled and bowed deeply to her.

“It is so good to see you, my dear. You’ve grown so much!”

Yia paused for a moment before bowing in response.

“I’m sorry I took so long, Iroh.”

“Nonsense, child. I am more than glad to see a friendly face.” Suddenly remembering what he’d been doing, the General turned back to his pot of tea, carefully helping it brew.

Yia moved to the table, unclasping her cloak and laying the fabric over the back of the chair, and placing a small satchel he had not noticed by the foot of the furniture. “I’m afraid I don’t have as much time as I would like…”

“One can always make time for tea,” Iroh replied knowingly, though he was interested to know many things that she probably had no time to answer. How had she been affected after the incident in the spirit world? How had she found him? Had she seen the same visions that he had?

Yia gave him a small smile, nodding in thanks as he poured her a cup.

“It is strange. I feel as if I have known you for many years, yet we shared only a dream in my childhood.”

“You are still a child, my dear.”

Yia clasped her cup in both hands, her palms gratefully soaking up the heat.

Leaving his statement to hang in the air, Yia took a sip of her drink, and smiled widely. “This is delicious, Iroh.”

Touched, the gentleman poured his own cupful, and sat himself down opposite her at the table. “You are very kind.” Taking a sip of his own, he gave the girl an appraising look. “So, why don’t you tell me why you are here?”

Yia let out a breath neither of them seemed to realise she had been holding. She was nervous, but hiding it well. He remembered how she had looked after he had reached into the river and pulled her out – too still, too pale. If he had not been there, he dreaded to think what would have happened… Her soul and body unable to find their way to one another, trapped forever in two places.

Yia seemed to be thinking the same thoughts, as she put down her mug firmly to meet his gaze.

“I owe you a life debt, General Iroh, and I wish to repay it. I would have sought you out sooner after my final training neared completion, but I could not do so in good consciousness whilst you helped to hunt down the Avatar. We both experienced revelations in the Spirit World, so I am sure you understand my delay.”

Iroh nodded slowly, taking in her words as he drank. He would have protested her desire to repay her debt, had he not known it to be almost certain she would anyway. Iroh had experienced many visions from barely touching the water before drying himself, so what knowledge this girl could possess now, after almost drowning in it…

Yia looked out of the window, eyes drawn to where the moon was beginning to climb over the trees.

“I cannot stay here much longer, but I promise to tell you everything soon. Until then, I can only give you this.” Reaching for her satchel, she dug around inside for a moment before pulling out what looked like a small wooden flute the size of his fist. Placing it on the table between them, she carefully raised her gaze to meet his. “Tomorrow, I will be close enough to hear you, should you choose to call for help.”

Loathe to waste such good tea, she downed the rest of her drink quickly, before gathering her things and pulling her cloak back on. Reaching to cover her face with the scarf, she glanced back at the man who had saved her life, and who was present in so many of her visions.

“Will you tell me why I might need your help tomorrow?” He asked her, watching her closely.

Yia met his gaze evenly, before releasing a soft sigh.

“You know I cannot, but…” she paused, silently debating with herself. “I can only advise you this: do not trust those who lie and kill, in the service of liars and killers.”

And with that, she turned and disappeared out the door.

- - - - -

The next morning, Yia watched the Fire Nation ship with a calculating stare. The huge metal beast sent a feeling of sickness through her bones, but she had to cut off that feeling. She had to be more than her feelings if she was to be ready.

A betrayal. Iroh in a prison cell. Lightning.

Movement caught her eye; she turned to see a young man, no older than her, descending the stone staircase that would lead him right to the ship. She had seen him before, of course. He had been present in many of her visions of Iroh. However, when Iroh had been sat in a prison cell, the boy had always been sat on the other side of the bars.

Three weeks without food was visible on him unlike his uncle, despite the loose robes he was wearing. The grey wraps around his forearms and calves told her everything. However, despite the leanness of his form, she could almost feel the strength of his chi from where she was watching. He must have been at least six feet tall, with an unusual ponytail in the middle of a close-shaven head.

The exposure his haircut provided allowed her to clearly see one of the worst burn scars Yia had ever seen. Taking up nearly half his face and the entirety of his left ear, though not the largest mark the Fire Nation had left on a body, it was violent – the angry red flesh seemed to still be burning with a contained fire just under the skin. She wondered how a prince was given such a brand.

“Wait!”

Yia glanced up the staircase and was met with the sight of Iroh, somewhat out of breath, running towards his nephew with a large bag slung over his shoulder. “Don't leave without me!”

The prince visibly perked up as he realised what was happening. “Uncle! You've changed your mind.”

“Family sticks together, right?” was all Iroh said, laying a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

The two looked down at the ship beneath them, and Yia felt the future shift into permanence.

“We're finally going home.”

As the prince started to move on down the steps, Iroh paused and stared down at the ship with suspicion. Slowly, the old man glanced over his shoulder as if he could sense her presence, and met her gaze with his own.

Silently, he patted the pocket of his robes, and she could make out the shape of the flute against the silken pink material. Nodding once, Yia turned and disappeared back into the trees.

Iroh, somewhat comforted by the girl’s presence, felt grateful for a certain ally. He was not certain as to what would happen today, but someone as bright as Yia would not carry weapons she could not use.

As they reached the pier, Iroh paid Azula little attention, instead counting the guards. Sixteen men lined either side of the ground in the run up to the ship’s ramp, the captain, Azula, and the twins. None seemed out of the ordinary as they stood upright and silent, seemingly respectful for the banished prince and the disgraced General. He could feel something was wrong, and steadied his breathing.

Azula stood quietly at the top of the steel ramp, watching on as they reached the ship and bowed; the guards behind them walked forward and closed the aisle behind them.

“Brother, Uncle! Welcome – I’m so glad you decided to come,” Azula greeted pleasantly, her unreadable expression haunting as ever.

The Captain stepped forward between the men and the ramp. “Are we ready to depart, Your Highness?”

Azula’s voice became sickly sweet. “Set our course for home, captain.”

“Home...” Zuko breathed wistfully, stepping onto the ramp as if in a dream.

“You heard the princess, raise the anchors! We're taking the prisoners home!”

 

It was as if time froze still.

 

The captain eyes widened in realization at his mistake, and looked at Azula in sheer panic.

 “Your Highness, I- I-” He stammered.

No one dared to breathe.

Iroh was the first to move. With a spinning backfist, he knocked the first guard off the side of the ramp before he could conjure so much as a spark. The second fell with a firm kick to the chest, and the third had only formed a fist of fire to be spun off the edge with Iroh’s side as he turned and delivered a brutal palm-heel strike to the jugular. As Zuko angrily shoved the Captain off the ramp and into the seas, Iroh grabbed the wrist and elbow of the next guard and spun the two around till the soldier lost his balance and went careening off the edge with the rest.

“You lied to me!”

Azula grinned smugly, and turned her back on her older brother. “Like I've never done that before.”

She strode confidently away as two guards standing near her shot fire blasts at Zuko. The prince raised his arms and spread them outward, deflecting the attacks and shouting in fury as he charged onto the ship.

Iroh half watched as his nephew leaped onto the deck of the ship, and blasted the two guards off the ship to join their crew. As more men charged at him, General Iroh moved faster. They had to get away from the ship.

“Zuko, let's go!”

Sending a kick of fire out to an approaching guard, he realigned himself and sent pulses of flames out from both hands, successfully knocking a further two off the pier. As the fight lulled for a brief moment, Iroh reached into his pocket and spun into a hook kick as he took in the biggest breath he could. Pulling the whistle flute to his lips, he blew.

A piercing note sounded, surprisingly powerful for the small instrument, but he had no time to marvel at the design as he was being approached by the last few guards standing.

From the distance, Yia stood sentinel as the fight broke out. She had not interfered, waiting for the inevitable sound of the whistle. She was waiting for the opportune moment to assist, breathing steadily to keep the visions from clouding her thoughts.

Meanwhile, Iroh ran onto the ship to find his nephew. He was met with the sight of the sibling’s fighting. Azula had managed to grab a hold of Zuko's arm, to which the boy’s eyes widened in alarm. The younger girl did not hesitate to knock him off of his feet with a precise shot of blue fire. Iroh moved towards Zuko as he landed hard at the bottom of the stairwell, vulnerable to his sister’s attacks. It seemed she had the same thought process, because the princess was beginning to move in a stomach-turning set of familiar forms, and the man could feel the energy crackling in the air.

He wasted no time in leaping between the two children and grabbing Azula’s hand. The energy was cold and powerful and so willing in her grasp that it chilled him as he guided it, redirecting the lightning through his own body and out towards the cliff side. Azula was too surprised to see it coming when he continued to bend down and kick the girl off the side of the ship.

“Run!” He ordered his nephew, and the two bolted from the ship.

- - - - -

Yia tailed the two for the better part of an hour, making sure no one who followed kept their trail. When they finally came to a halt, she watched Iroh and the prince fall to the ground, panting from the exertion of their escape.

“I think we’re safe here,” Iroh said, kneeling by the riverside.

But Yia wasn’t watching him. Instead, she regarded the prince with a curious gaze as he pulled something from his pocket. Iroh blocked her view, but the glint of metal in the water made her muscles tense, ready to pounce. He had a dagger.

He didn’t seem to be moving, and Iroh did not seem afraid, but from the visions she had of the prince, she was not about to trust him. She was about to reveal herself and tackle the knife off the boy when he raised it to his scalp. Intrigued, she watched as the boy held the blade under his ponytail and paused for a moment, before decisively cutting the locks of hair free from his scalp.

Yia did not know everything, but she could feel the immense weight of this moment. The prince looked at the blade again, before passing it to his uncle. Iroh proceeded to slice off his top-knot. He seemed different without it, but she couldn’t explain why even if she wanted to. The two stood to their feet, and dropped their severed hairs into the river, watching as it flowed out of sight.

She gave them a moment more to accept their new future, once more feeling the shifting of potential futures adjust into permanence, before stepping out of her hiding space and clearing her throat. The prince and his uncle spun to look at her, and Yia removed her scarf.

“Well, it looks like you two are going to need some new clothes.”

Chapter Text

Iroh was too slow to catch Zuko before he sent a warning shot to the girl’s left.

Yia seemed to expect as much, leaning to her right just far enough to avoid the heat of his blast without moving her feet. Whilst the prince adopted a fighting stance, she simply dropped the hood of her cloak.

“Who are you?” He demanded, still a little out of breath from the run here.

“Prince Zuko, stand down,” Iroh murmured, reaching out a hand to place on his shoulder. He simply flinched away from the touch, to Iroh’s dismay.

“Listen to your uncle, Prince,” Yia warned, opening her arms to show her hands free of weapons despite clearly carrying several. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

Zuko glanced to his uncle, clearly confused and angry at her intrusion. “Answer my question first.”

“She is a friend, Zuko. A friend from long ago.”

Warily, he seemed to loosen his stance only the smallest amount, waiting for further explanation before letting down his guard entirely. ‘Smart kid,’ she thought to herself, despite most likely being his age.

“My name is Yia. Your uncle saved my life when I was young, and now I have come to repay my debt. After that stunt on your sister’s ship, you are officially fugitives wanted by the Fire Nation. Every village for miles around will have desperate people who know about the bounty on your heads – I am here to offer protection.”

Zuko gave her an appraising look. She could see him doubting her, but his eyes lingered on her daggers just long enough to let the comment die on his lips. Instead he settled on giving her a cold look.

“You followed us from the ship?”

Yia nodded. “Your uncle summoned me, so-“ Zuko gave Iroh a fleeting bewildered look. “…I covered your tracks as you ran. Only a shirshu could follow you now, and the princess does not yet have one in her arsenal.”

“Zuko.” Iroh’s voice was firm, and yet barely louder than a whisper. She’d have to get him to teach her how to do that.

There was a tense pause, waiting for Zuko to shatter it or accept her presence. After what felt like an eternity (she really wasn’t in the mood to fight the prince after all that running) he lowered his fists and relaxed his stance.

“Thank you,” Iroh murmured, before turning and bowing politely to Yia. She returned the gesture, her smile small and tight. “There is much to discuss, but first – you mentioned our clothes?”

She nodded, looking over the two. “There is a village just north of here. I should be able to find you some less… conspicuous items,” she murmured, examining the gentle pink shades the two men were dressed in currently, sticking out amongst the green surrounding them like a sore thumb.

Iroh glanced at the sky. “It’s just gone midday. We should have plenty of light to get what we need before nightfall.”

“Good. I’ve covered your tracks well enough for you to rest before we carry on, if you should need it.” Yia glanced at Zuko, who gave her a stony look in response.

“We’re fine,” he ground out, seeking no conference with his uncle – too offended by her statement to check his opinion.

Yia simply shrugged. “Good, then we’d better get going.” Checking the Sun’s position, she began to walk off into the forest.

Iroh followed her first, followed by a wary Zuko. Grabbing his uncle’s arm, he leaned down to mutter under his breath. “Are you sure we can trust her? After what just happened with Azula?”

Iroh smiled at his nephew, which only served to further irritate the young man. “Yia is a friend, and a young lady of… impressive knowledge. Some knowledge we might never be able to understand. I have seen enough good in her character to have faith that she will not betray us. Not blind trust, but faith.”

This did not fully satisfy the prince, but did enough for him to release his uncle’s arm, hanging back a moment as they moved into the forest.

Narrowing his eyes, he watched as the girl led the way. She unsettled him – she looked all too much like that waterbender the Avatar had as a companion, only more vivid. Though her long brown hair and dark skin practically screamed water tribe, she had none of the blue clothing he’d seen in the past. More so, her curls were braided and tied like the wild fairies and savage women in folk tales his mother read to him when he was a child. Her eyes were unnatural too – the steel colour so bright that her gaze held a weight he didn’t understand, and this stranger was already too much of a mystery. No good could come of this, he was surprised his uncle was allowing her to bewitch him like this.

No… Zuko had already made the mistake of falling for Azula’s tricks, he would not be fooled again so easily.

- - - - -

Iroh was unable to help his sigh of relief when, true to her word, Yia led them to the outskirts of a small village. His visions had been few, but in none of them had the young lady betrayed him. It encouraged his faith in the spirits, but also in the girl who had volunteered to protect him. He was grateful for the assistance – not only for himself, but for Zuko. Though the two men could easily fight their way out of situations, with Yia present, she might help bypass fights altogether.

This seemed to prove true now, as the girl came to a sudden halt only a short distance from the road. Turning to her side, Yia opened her satchel and started to dig through its contents.

“What are you doing?” Zuko demanded. He had been silent since the confrontation by the river, and his mood had not improved during the course of the hike.

Yia ignored him for a moment, continuing in her search before letting out a quiet noise of triumph. She pulled out a small pouch that make quiet chiming noises as she moved it. “I’m about to go and buy you some clothes.”

“We don’t need you to buy clothes for us,” he ground out.

“Really?” She asked, turning to face him and raising an eyebrow. “Are you planning to change faces soon? If a single person recognises you or your uncle, tells someone they saw you, not even an army could stand between Azula and capturing you. So, unless you plan on stealing laundry, you’re going to have to wait here.”

“You want us to just wait here for you?!” he spluttered incredulously.

“Yes. And if you’re quiet, no one should find you. Only skilled fighters would brave roads around here.”

“And what if a skilled fighter finds us?” Zuko shot back.

“Well, I’ll just have to be quick, won’t I?” she replied shortly, matching his glare with her own. It had not even been a day and she had grown impatient with the prince’s temperament.

Iroh placed a hand on his nephew’s arm before he could reply, shaking his head sternly. After a pause, he offered something to lighten the atmosphere. “Why don’t I try and shave the rest of your head, Prince Zuko? I hear a close cut has become a growing trend amongst young men in the Earth Kingdom.”

Seemingly unwilling to break first, neither of the teenagers looked away for a long pause. In the end, it was Yia who took a deep breath and tried to turn the other cheek.

“I won’t be long. I don’t have enough money for more than your clothes and a small food supply, so you may as well prepare yourself for sleeping rough tonight.”

Not waiting for further debate, she vanished with surprising speed off into the trees once more.

 

It took only a few minutes for the girl to find her way into the run down, but seemingly cheerful little village.

Her scarf tied securely over her lower face, Yia moved as quickly as she dared past boarded up windows and dirty buildings towards the doorway of a small corner shop. A quiet bell jingled upon her entry, and she looked around curiously.

The dark wood of the walls was not lit by lanterns or candles, just what little light was allowed through a small, but thoroughly cleaned window. Along with clothes and a variety of fruits as she expected, were small glass bottles and containers, saddles for ostrich horses, and even a few herbal remedies and salves. But what was most interesting were the shelves behind the unmanned counter. They were all empty, and yet had stands and supports for a varying number of weapons. She could imagine swords, daggers, even a bow and arrow along this section, but it was all just… bare.

“Oh! Sorry dear, I didn’t hear you come in. My hearing just isn’t what it used to be I’m afraid.”

Yia didn’t flinch at the appearance of an elderly woman who shuffled in from what must have been a backroom. Instead, she just nodded respectfully.

“You have a lovely shop, ma’am.”

A wide smile broke out across her wrinkled cheeks, and she adjusted some stray grey hairs back into her simple bun as she sat behind the counter. “Why thank you, my dear. You aren’t from around here, are you?”

“No, ma’am. I’m a traveller, I was hoping to restock my supplies before my next journey.”

“Oh! Well that’s just lovely. You been travelling along for long?” The shopkeeper asked.

Yia let out a humourless chuckle, collecting several fruits from a basket by the window. “It depends on how you define ‘long’, I suppose. I’m both where I thought I’d be, and nowhere near it.”

“Are you lost, dear?”

She shrugged lightly. “My mentor once said that not all those who wander are lost. Maybe instead we just follow a path which our eyes are not clear enough to see.”

“Well that’s a lovely idea, my dear.”

Yia hummed in response, and left the fruit on the counter for the shopkeeper to count. She then turned to the clothes, pulling out two sets of tunics and breaches she hoped would fit the two firebenders well enough for her to avoid complaints. As an afterthought, Yia also gathered some bindings, and a pair of wide, second-hand boots.

“Do you have any other boots? I’d really appreciate a second pair, not much larger than these,” Yia asked, gesturing to her own.

The shopkeeper nodded enthusiastically. It seemed Yia was the most business the small store had received in a while. “Yes, I should do somewhere. Wait just a moment!”

Yia nodded, waiting patiently but pulling her cloak tighter around herself. The elderly woman still seemed to be talking to her, though her words were muffled somewhat by the distance between them.

“My grandson complained … always better than his own … gave him … but then the war … fewer customers these days … those raiders taking the weapons…”

Yia’s ears perked up, and she turned to study the woman as she hobbled back into the main room, a pair of boots in hand.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that,” Yia pressed lightly.

“Oh, I was just talking about those darn raiders. The something-Rhinos? They came by a couple of weeks ago and stole all the weapons my husband made, after trying to level our little community it seems. He’s a blacksmith, you know?”

Yia’s gaze softened, lips pressed in a firm line from beneath her scarf. “I’m very sorry to hear that, ma’am.”

“Oh please, call me Ajala, my dear. Everyone does in these parts. And it’s no trouble, not with the good news putting everyone in a more generous mood.”

“Oh?” Yia questioned, checking over the supplies once more before counting out coins.

“You don’t know?” Ajala asked, a gleeful grin on her face at the opportunity to tell her it appeared.

“I don’t know, Ajala, do I?” She replied, a little playful from the woman’s infectious excitement.

“The good news, why we have hope once more? Why, there are rumours that the Avatar has returned!”

Yia raised her brows in surprise. The information was not new to her, but she was unaware just how wildly it was known. Still, Ajala seemed satisfied with her response despite all her coverings that hid most of her reaction.

“Spirits…” Yia muttered, straightening her thoughts back to the task at hand. She laid out several silver pieces on the table for the woman, then added her last gold coin for good measure. “I’m sorry about your shop.”

Unable to think of any other responses, Yia deftly scooped the clothes and fruits into her satchel, and hooked the straps of the boots to hips of her silver belt.

“My dear, this is too much…”

“A gift, Ajala. Just promise me you’ll do something good with it. Good day, ma’am.”

With a polite nod, Yia slipped out the door to avoid further protest from the woman. Looking at the village with new eyes, she could see the evidence of raiders clearly. The buildings were not run down and dirty, but scorched. Windows were boarded up and doors loose on hinges because they’d been broken through.

Hurrying back towards her two new companions, she felt a pang of empathy run through her. Whilst she had never lived in a village, never even lived with more than one person before, she could imagine how upsetting the event could be after being raised in a place like this. Everything you’d ever known, the childish illusion of safety, shattered in a few hours. But there was nothing she could do for the people here, not until the war ended.

All she could do was pray to Raava and the Spirits that the hope roused by the Avatar was enough to keep people like these going a little longer.

- - - - -

Zuko was not, by nature, a man of patience.

Whilst his uncle was content to sit and wait passively in a meditative position, the young prince was growing steadily more agitated the longer they waited for the stranger to return. He had begun pacing mere minutes after his uncle shaved the rest of his head. Now the weight of his hair and metal band no longer there, it felt so foreign. Unusual. Wrong. Like his head was no longer weighted down to his neck and could fly off with a particularly strong breeze. Though his hair had been styled as dishonoured nobility, it was practically unheard of to have short hair in the Fire Nation – it was neither deemed attractive or appropriate. He felt wrong.

Now that the girl with the freakish eyes had left them, he was left to mull over today’s events once more. The betrayal of his sister, which he should have known was coming. Azula always lies, and her promises were too good to be true, as ever. He hated feeling weak or hurt, but he was ashamed of how eagerly he had leapt at her promise of returning home, of finally receiving the love he so desperately wanted from his father. He had to prove himself, regain his honour. All he had done was make more of a fool of himself. And now, his own family would hunt him down.

How did it come to this?

Zuko was a prince by blood. He had spent hours of his youth learning history and politics and all manner of important aspects of becoming Fire Lord one day. It was his right and he had worked for it. Now, it seemed he had lost it all. But with his sister hunting him and his uncle? And now some girl with haunting eyes was telling him, him, what to do! He decided she was less like a fairy of old, and more like a witch. A witch and a savage.

“I don’t trust her.”

“I don’t expect you to.”

“She could be leading us into a trap. It’s not just Azula who would like us in a cell.”

“That is true, she could. But I don’t think she will.”

“How do you know her?”

“I told you, a meeting long ago now.”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

The silence to this response shocked him. He and his uncle had a close bond long before his banishment, and he had only had to ask in the past if he wanted to know something. Something had changed, and that witch was the cause. He could feel it.

It was almost a good thing she had appeared, because he had someone to channel all his recent pain and anger at. With all his feelings boiling so close to the surface, Zuko was almost ready to explode when she reappeared at least half an hour later.

“You took your time,” he ground out.

She merely shrugged. “You’re not dead, are you?”

Iroh chose this moment to let out a loud, content sigh, stretching his arms out over his head and loudly cracking his joints, before getting to his feet with a cheerful smile. “I see you found good walking boots. I take it your trip was successful?”

Yia softened her gaze to him, nodding once and unhooking the shoes, tossing each pair to the appropriate Fire Nation royal. “I had to guess sizes, they didn’t have much there, but they should be sturdy enough to last you a few weeks at least. And these should let you blend in better,” she added, retrieving the plain green tunics and breeches, laying them out on a fallen tree trunk.

Zuko eyed them suspiciously, before picking up the fabric and running his fingertips over it.

“If you are hungry, I can start on the fruit whilst you change.”

Iroh’s face lit up at the mention of food, almost pulling a chuckle out of Yia. Zuko’s expression only soured.

“Fruit won’t last us long,” he pointed out, snatching up the rest of the clothes.

“No, but we can’t cook any meat because a fire would signal our location, same for cooking vegetables. Besides…” Yia pulled out a couple of the papayas and luco-fruits from her satchel. “These can be eaten faster if we need to move.” Waving him away towards his uncle, who from what she could hear was changing behind them, she tried to restrain the urge to irritate him more. “I won’t look,” was all she said in the end.

Pulling a curved dagger from one of her many holsters, Yia gave the prince one last challenging look, before slicing one of the papayas in half. Starting to scoop out the seeds, she waited for the sounds of his retreat before properly focusing on the task at hand, content he wasn’t about to blast her head off her shoulders.

She had four fruits deseeded and sliced by the time the two men finished. Passing first to Iroh and then the prince, she sat cross-legged on the ground, munching quietly on the sweet, juicy flesh of her purchases. As bird calls littered the air, she looked up and watched a flock of grey feathered birds soar past overhead. It was beautiful to watch, and for a moment she could pretend she was back at her cottage with Sangok, training out in the garden with no witnesses but the spirits and the birds.

She was brought back to reality when Iroh cleared his throat, drawing her gaze to his own.

“We need to make a plan,” he started simply, licking his lips to catch the last drops of fruit juice. “We may have escaped Azula, but now we need to maintain that distance.”

“How are we going to do that?” Zuko asked, his mood barely improved. “Knowing my sister, she will have word sent out to every last colony for our heads on a pike.”

“Then we avoid the colony towns.”

“Without a map? Or a clue where we’re going?”

Iroh turned to look at Yia again, who sat with as neutral an expression as she could manage.

“What would you suggest?” His tone wasn’t pressing, simply curious. She knew after her hints about Azula that he must have guessed her knowledge extended not only into what had been, but what was yet to happen. And yet – this was not demanded from her. She didn’t expect it to be, now that she thought about it, but nonetheless, she was glad for the gentle tone.

“Well… You would need to find somewhere with both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom citizens nearby, so as not to draw too much suspicion. Most likely somewhere with many returned soldiers, to help you blend in,” she murmured, nodding to Zuko.

“And where would that be?” He retorted, clearly misunderstanding her words.

“Somewhere relatively remote with a history of volunteers for the war,” she replied, tugging the end of her left temple’s braid thoughtfully. “There’s a sparse group of homes North East of here that might be a good place to start until you can decide what you want to do in more detail.”

She gave the two men an equal gaze. 

“You need to go someplace where a burn scar like yours won’t be uncommon.”

Chapter Text

It had been a week since their escape from Azula.

A week.

And in just those seven days, Yia had resolved that if Azula did not kill the prince, she would do it herself.

Spirits knew she was trying to be the peaceful, patient girl she had been around Sangok in her youth, but Sangok had never been this irritating. When he wasn’t complaining about the water she’d found or the fruits they ate, he complained about the pain of sleeping on the ground or the chill in the air or his clothes not being suitable. He fought her every step of the way, leaping at anything vague she said like he expected her to just lead them out of the frying pan and into the fire. The rest of the time, he just glared at her, fuming in silence. Tui and La, they were the same age, and yet he acted like a petulant spoiled child! Seven days might not seem like a long time, but Yia had to spend her every waking moment around him, and she was practically itching to grab her knives sometimes.

Every day she thanked Raava for Iroh. His peaceful nature soothed her when His Royal Highness’ tantrums grated on her too much, and it was purely because of him that she hadn’t slapped the banished prince. She could rise above almost anything, but something about this one boy made her itch to put him in his place, to prove she was worthy to serve Iroh. After the red moon, she’d made her decision. Isolation and hiding, or finally pay her debt.

She did not want to regret abandoning her home.

Yesterday they had finished the last of the fruit. Despite making good progress in their hiking, neither of the men were used to long distance walking just yet, so their frequent breaks and slow pace had impacted their attempt to find an inn until they could decide what they wanted to do long-term. Yia was feeling the effects of the travelling too by now – she only slept four or five hours a night, waking at the slightest sound and reaching for her blades, ready to fight in an instant. Despite being used to sleeping rough and long trips in the wilderness, she was beginning to crave the comforts of a warm home just as much as they were.

Hungry and tired, their little group had stopped in a clearing to rest, the prince deciding to try and forage for food. She warned him against eating any berries in case they were poisonous, to which he glared at her and actual smoke blew from his nostrils. The image was more comical than she figured he’d wanted. “Don’t tell me what to do, Witch,” the prince had growled, before stalking off.  

That was something else – the prince refused to refer to her by name. He’d asked what Nation she was born in, to which she’d asked why it mattered. Iroh had interrupted, suggesting his nephew only meant she had an unusual set of features compared to those of the Earth Kingdom. She shrugged, before joking “maybe I’m just magical.”

Prince Zuko had scoffed. “Witches are magical.”

When she didn’t stoop to responding, shutting down instead, the nickname seemed to stick. She was no better, referring to him as ‘prince’ or ‘Your Royal Highness’ rather than Zuko. However, his name was too personal for her liking. This way, they were on equal ground. He was a prince, and she, a witch. Some part of her thought that the word might be more accurate than any terms she could think of. ‘Could witches feel the potential futures like shifting sand in their lungs?

Enjoying the peace and quiet left between herself and Iroh, she’d settled into a meditative pose and let her mind rest. If she couldn’t sleep, she should at least allow her energy to recover somewhat. Iroh was quietly moving around behind her, but wasn’t disturbing the peace. He seemed to understand what she was doing, and as ever, knew more than he should. They rarely spoke alone, the prince too suspicious of her to leave them together. The one time they did, she received a hushed thank you for her advice, to which she simply nodded politely.

“The river… You still feel the effects, hm?”

“I- Yes.”

“Then may the spirits guide us.”

Yia was thrown back to reality at the sound of someone crashing through the bushes. She reached for her weapons, only to hear the growing familiarity of Prince Zuko’s complaints.

“I didn't find anything to eat. I can't live like this! I wasn't meant to be a fugitive.”

Yia shot him a glance, repressing the urge to smirk when he raised his fists in the air and yelled at the sky.

“This is impossible!”

“If you wanted help finding food, you only had to ask, Prince,” she offered as neutrally as she could.

She could see him ready to retort when his gaze was drawn to Iroh, who was crouching and looking at a delicate flower with what could only be described as childish delight.

“Uncle, what are you doing?”

Intrigued, Yia wandered over to get a closer look. “What is it?” She asked, unfamiliar with the white and red plant. She’d learned of many plants that grew between the mountains and the sea, but they were common compared to this.

“You're looking at the rare white dragon bush. Its leaves make a tea so delicious, it's heart-breaking. That, or it's the white jade, which is poisonous,” Iroh explained, unable to pull his eyes away from the flower.

“You aren’t sure?” Yia raised an eyebrow, concerned by how tempted Iroh seemed to be by the prospect of maybe-not-entirely-deadly tea.

She was vaguely aware of the prince muttering behind her. “We need food, not tea. I'm going fishing.”

Placing a hand on the covered area of Iroh’s shoulder, she gave the man a stern look. “He’s right, we need food. Don’t do anything you’ll regret,” she warned. Though she wasn’t getting any visions, she knew the man liked tea far too much for her to trust his decision making now.

“Hmm ... delectable tea? Or deadly poison?”

“Don’t wander off, Iroh,” she called, before following the prince’s trail towards the stream.

- - - - -

The prince was not thrilled that she was following him, but kept his comments to himself. They were too far from the roads for anyone to just stumble across them, and they were both hungry. It was enough motivation to keep them from killing each other just yet.

He distanced himself from her as they reached the stream, looking to her daggers for a moment before settling on a long, sharp stick instead.

Yia pretended not to notice.

Kneeling by the water’s edge, she peered down curiously at her reflection. The water was not quite clean enough to drink, but it would just about be enough for her to bathe in… Spirits she wanted to wash more than just what her clothing didn’t cover. But she had not yet earned the trust of the royals enough to believe they would not run away with her weapons and satchel. Well, at least not the prince.

“Are you a waterbender?”

The unprompted question caught Yia off guard, mostly because it was the least angry he had ever sounded.

She looked to the prince with widened eyes.

“I’m sorry?”

“Water. Can you bend it?”

“I heard you the first time. Why do you ask?”

“I asked first.”

“So?” She asked, wondering why chronology affected this.

The prince sighed, exasperated. “I just thought if you could waterbend, you might be able to keep one of these fish still enough for me to spear it.”

Yia was a little surprised by his thinking, unsure how to respond. She settled for rising, unclasping her cloak and folding it into a more comfortable surface to kneel on. She pulled away her scarf before she spoke again.

“I’ve never used bending, so probably not,” she answered as simply as she could, hoping she’d said enough to make him drop the subject.

“So that’s why you carry all the knives? You can’t bend?” He asked, gesturing to her outfit.

Yia gave him an appraising look, growing suspicious of his motives. “Are you trying to assess me, Your Highness?”

“I know nearly nothing about you,” he defended.

“I prefer it that way.” 

“Why? What shouldn’t I know about you?”

“What should I know about you?”

“That I don’t trust you!” he finally exclaimed. “Just because you haven’t betrayed us yet doesn’t mean you won’t. That we don’t need your protection or help because I can look after my uncle just fine. That I would kill you and not lose a minute of sleep if he changed his mind about wanting you with us.”

None of this surprised her, but the latter did make her smile somewhat. He underestimated her.

“Kill me, huh?”

“In a heartbeat.”

“Have you killed before?”

“I’ll do it again.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Don’t make me prove you wrong.”

The challenge was in the air now, she couldn’t take it back, and Yia wasn’t so sure she wanted to. A week of tension between them had finally reached tipping point, and as the two faced each other she realised it was time to prove her worth. He was taller than her, and despite his loss of muscle mass, he would be stronger than her. Thinking quickly, she realised she would have to use his own strength against him.

The vision came to her as the prince made his choice.

A ball of fire aimed straight at her head. A sweeping kick causing a wave of flames to race towards her feet.

‘Perfect.’

The second the prince lunged forward into his stance, Yia leapt into action. Glad the weight of her cloak was discarded, she swiftly dove into a forward roll to avoid the predicted headshot. Her momentum carried her back onto her feet wherein she broke into a sprint towards him, closing as much distance as she could. He kicked out the sweeping arc of fire but she had already jumped into the air. His eyes widened as Yia used his upper thigh as a springboard to grab onto his shoulders – realising too late that she had gotten too close to keep her at bay with more powerful fire blasts. He struck out with his elbow, catching her side hard, but unable to land the full extent of the blow due to the armour under her jerkin. Hauling herself around to his back, she swiftly hooked her leg over his right shoulder, crossing her calves to lock herself around his bicep, before throwing her upper body and all of her weight back, using his balance against him.

Startled, the prince fell backwards to the ground with a grunt of pain as she landed crouched on one knee. He was quick to his feet, but Yia was thinking too fast. She couldn’t defend herself from his firebending so she had to weaken it or incapacitate him before he could hurt her too much. If his fire came from the breath, it looked like she had to make it hard to breathe.

Moving back into close quarters, Zuko roaring furiously above her, she ducked under a flaming right hook to send a sharp jab to his throat that left him gasping. He caught her side with a knee-strike just before she punched him hard in the stomach, sending him back to the ground. This time she wouldn’t let him get up. Landing hard on his chest, Yia straddled him, pinning his arms under her legs and grabbing a dagger to hold to his throat.

The fight had lasted mere seconds, but both of them were panting hard. Stray locks of hair had come loose from her braids, a thin sheen of sweat beading across her forehead from the sudden physical exertion and the heat of his bending. Her eyes wide as she stared him down, she looked as wild and dangerous and violent as the ocean itself.

Both stayed in that position, recovering their breath and refusing to break eye contact. When she felt his wrists heat up under her shins, she pressed her dagger harder against his throat.

“If you’re going to kill me, Witch, you might as well hurry up.”

“Don’t push it, Prince,” she growled back, leaning in threateningly.

They both knew the second she moved, he would have a chance to restart the fight. She wasn’t about to let that happen. Yia was a foot from his face now, waiting for a sign of submission.

She had never hated anyone in her life – hardly ever had the opportunity to. She had been angry and blamed people for their actions, but she had never hated someone for being the person they were. But at this moment, she realised just how close she was to loathing the boy beneath her.

“Listen close now,” she muttered so only he could hear, in the most intimidating voice she could manage. “I don’t give a damn about you. You’re irritating and spoiled; if it were up to me, I’d be a thousand miles from here. But I was raised to believe in balance. Until I can repay your uncle, I will be happy to serve him – because unlike you he is delightful company. You don’t have to like me, and you don’t have to like what I’m doing, but you should respect my choice to honour my beliefs. Believe what you will, but I am trying to help.” Sighing, she released some of the pressure from the dagger and sat a little more upright. “So – can I let you go and call a truce, or do you actually want to fight to the death? Because I might not be a bender, but I am more than a match for a hungry prince who is out of practice.”

Zuko seemed to study her for a long moment, weighing out his options.

Yia maintained her best poker face, trying not to let a single thing slip into her expression. The fatigue from the last week was setting in, and she was holding back hisses of pain from the ache in her side caused by every breath, so she did not like how he was drawing this out. The adrenaline was wearing off and she wanted to find some jiyu leaves to relieve her pain as soon as she could.

“Fine – a truce.”

No better words had ever been spoken, even by a bitter Fire Nationer.

“Swear on the spirits.”

“What are you, five?”

“Swear on them. If I release you only to die as I turn my back, it’d bring me peace to know that the spirits would tear you apart for being dishonourable in their name.”

If looks could kill, Yia would have lost this fight and been six feet under in moments. The boy knew how to glare.

“Fine. I swear on the spirits to a truce. But if you are lying, or ever attempt to hurt my uncle, I won’t hold back.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to.”

Slowly, she pulled her hands away from his throat, holding up her dagger to show her retreating. Sliding it back into its sheath, she lifted her leg and swung herself off the boy. Keeping a wary eye on him, she returned to her place at the river bank, looking for fishes once more.

“Damn it,” she sighed to herself. All the bigger fishes had been scared away by the fight, most likely having travelled downstream by now, and only small fishes less than a couple of inches long remained.

Still – it would be amusing to watch the prince try to spear one.

- - - - -

Zuko was angry.

This in itself was nothing new, but he wasn’t just angry at the witch. No, he was angry at himself. He was underfed, still barely recovering from three weeks without food, good water, or any room to move. Of all the stupid things to do, it was to pick a fight with someone when he was so weak. Admittedly his firebending had suffered less than he had first thought, which was a small comfort, but it had been almost useless against her hand-to-hand skill.

Agni, her fighting. In some ways, he was reminded of Ty Lee, one of Azula’s old friends, and how she would leap about and strike you by getting around your guard. However, the witch was far less… flippy. Her moves were only made with purpose, no unnecessary cartwheels or double backflips. She was stronger too – he’d realised that the curves he had previously associated with water tribe women were actually muscle. Her thighs were powerful from what he could only guess was her training and hiking; he could still feel the pain around his arm where she’d crushed the limb and spun on it. No, her fighting vaguely reminded him of another girl he’d fought, the one with all the war paint.

But it didn’t matter – now she thought he was weak because she beat him. He tried to put a positive spin on it for a moment, now she might not see him as such a threat and she would be easier to surprise in a fight. But unfortunately, his damaged pride was getting in the way.

He pretty much accepted defeat in fishing too after twenty minutes of silence and only succeeding in stabbing the tiniest, most pathetic excuse for a fish imaginable. Zuko had felt the girl laughing rather than seen it, too sore to do more than ignore her and grumpily march back to where his uncle was hopefully keeping an eye on their stuff. He did not comment when she followed behind.

Uncle Iroh was in a pretty similar position to when he left, crouched with his back to them.

“Zuko, Yia… remember that plant I thought might be tea?”

“You didn't...” Zuko breathed.

“Oh spirits, Iroh,” Yia muttered in a similar tone.

Iroh sounded slightly sheepish as he confessed. “I did.” The old man turned around, and both teenagers took a moment to process what they were seeing. “…and it wasn't.”

Zuko yelled out in shock as Yia put her head in her hands – Iroh had swollen up and was covered in patches of red, painful looking rashes. He was going to closer resemble a watermelon than a human being soon.

“When the rash spreads to my throat, I will stop breathing,” he commented calmly.

The witch was already digging through her satchel, and Zuko wasn’t quite sure how to respond just yet, especially not when Iroh got more excited and held up a branch of berries.

“But look what I found! These are bacui berries, known to cure the poison of the white jade. That, or maka'ole berries that cause blindness-“

“No!” The girl scolded.

Zuko reached out and grabbed the branch, hurling it off into the bushes somewhere. “We're not taking any more chances with these plants!”

“I don’t have any ointments for something this rare, I don’t want to risk making it worse either,” she explained quickly, glancing over to him as if deciding Iroh shouldn’t make the decisions right now. He was tempted to make a prickling comment, but remembered the truce and figured he wasn’t in a good enough state to fight again just yet.

“We need to get help,” Zuko confirmed.

“But where are we going to go?” His uncle pointed out, kneeling down to scratch at his leg. “We're enemies of the Earth Kingdom and fugitives from the Fire Nation.”

“No more waiting to get to the village,” the witch spoke, looking between the two of them. “Make a long-term plan that isn’t definitive suicide, and get on with it.”

Zuko glared at her but turned to his uncle. “If the Earth Kingdom discovers us, they'll have us killed.”

“But if the Fire Nation discovers us, we'll be turned over to Azula.”

They looked at each other and paused briefly, a silent agreement settling between them.

“Earth Kingdom it is.”

Chapter Text

Yia had convinced them to stay off the road, but they followed it from a safe distance. She occasionally swatted Iroh’s hands away when he moved to scratch his rashes, grateful that her gloves covered almost all of her hands in case he was infectious amongst the other reasons for not wanting to touch him. Luckily, the new motivation to get to a hospital before Iroh’s throat closed up meant they were moving much faster, and they reached the small hospital in no time.

She knew their appearances were suspicious enough without her scarf and cloak, so she took them off and tied the scarf over her hips, subtly hiding the weaponry she carried beneath it as the prince went in ahead of her with his uncle. Now that she had a minute to herself, Yia began to undo her braid crown and comb her fingers through the ringlets she hadn’t given due care and attention to over the last few days. She resolved to bathe at the next possible opportunity, even if she had to wait until the prince and Iroh were asleep.

Sighing, she knew she should get back inside quickly, and she didn’t yet have the time to braid half her hair up again. Settling for a high bun, she scooped the top half of her hair and twisted it with a practiced hand, tying it off with a piece of grey cloth. She didn’t like it when she couldn’t wear the braids she had earned, but right now she had no choice. At least she still had the cloth braid that hung from her left temple, she could redo the rest later.

Slipping into the hospital, she joined the two men as a nurse applied ointment to Iroh’s body. The girl was young, not much older than herself she imagined, and had a kind face. She seemed to be making small talk with the prince, and it was going just as well as one might imagine.

“Thank you again for this, how is he?” She asked, shooting the girl a warm smile and adopting a gentler voice. She could feel the prince turn to look at her with surprise as she displayed this new side of herself, but firmly ignored it. She would not be soft with him.

The nurse mirrored her smile with a tender one of her own. “Improving already. You three must not be from around here. We know better than to touch the White Jade, much less make it into tea and… drink it.” She flicked Iroh’s hand away as he moved to scratch himself again.

“Whoops,” the General replied, having the decency to look a little sheepish. Yia had to wonder if the tea was truly good enough to warrant risking his health like that.

“So where are you traveling from?”

The prince nervously jumped to his feet, and Yia had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes at how badly he was handling himself. “Yes, we're travellers.”

“Do you have names?”

“Names? Of course, we have names.” He looked to Yia then to his uncle in a brief flail of panic as the nurse turned to slap Iroh’s hand away from scratching again. “I'm, uh- Lee and this is my Uncle, uh... Mushi?”

Iroh shot him an irritated look as Yia stifled a laugh.

“Yes, my nephew was named after his father, so we just call him Junior.”

Iroh’s smug grin was met with Prince Zuko drawing his finger across his neck threateningly, and she couldn’t help but cough to cover the laughter that threatened to bubble over.

“Sorry. I’m Ajala,” Yia interjected smoothly, before either of the men came up with a ridiculous name for her too. Somehow she didn’t think the shopkeeper would mind the use of her name.

“Ajala, Mushi and Junior, huh? My name is Song. You three look like you could use a good meal.” Song didn’t even turn as she slapped Iroh’s hand yet again.

Yia liked her.

“Why don't you stay for dinner?”

“Sorry, but we need to be moving on.”

Yia gave the prince an incredulous look. He was going to turn down the offer of food after all his complaining about how hungry he was? ‘I am going to pin him to a tree with my daggers and leave him there,’ she thought, exasperated.

Oblivious, Song started to put away her pot of ointment. “That's too bad. My mom always makes too much roast duck.”

Iroh grinned with excitement, and Yia nodded to him before the prince could say another word.

“Where do you live, exactly?”

- - - - -

It had long grown dark when the trio had been invited into Song’s home. The open wall dining room was quaint and well maintained – Yia could tell the family were grateful for the building. The low table was just big enough for the five of them to squeeze around, with Yia happily sat between Iroh and Song’s mother, a soft-spoken woman called Dhari.

As she set down a platter of roast duck and took a seat, Dhari turned to the guests. “My daughter tells me you are refugees. We were once refugees ourselves.”

Yia stayed quiet, instead politely serving the duck equally among them.

Song nodded in thanks before explaining. “When I was a little girl, the Fire Nation raided our farming village. All the men were taken away.” She glanced down at the bowl of duck noodles before her, quietening at the topic. “That was the last time I saw my father.”

Part of Yia wanted to apologise for her loss, but she resolved to keep quiet – it wouldn’t help. Taking a small bite of her food instead, she almost choked in shock when the prince decided to reply.

“I haven't seen my father in many years.”

“Oh, is he fighting in the War?” Song asked. The amount of sorrow in her eyes could drown a man, Yia was sure. This is why she was kind. The kindest people had always lost something. And now, the heir to the nation who had damaged Song’s family irreparably was sat at her table, eating her food – yet the girl had no idea.

Yia suddenly felt sick.

Prince Zuko hesitated, setting down his dish. “Yeah.”

At least he had the decency to look away.

There was a moment of silence, the sombre tone settled on them all as they ate their meal.

Eventually, Dhari spoke up once more. “What about you, Ajala?”

Yia looked up in surprise, and felt Iroh’s gaze turn to her. Across from her, even though the prince wasn’t looking at anything besides his lap, she could feel him listening.

“Oh… I actually don’t know. I’ve never met my father,” she confessed, honestly.

“Oh my dear, I didn’t mean to assume-“

“No, it’s okay,” Yia interrupted, figuring it was better to control the situation by answering any questions before they were asked. “My mother died shortly after I was born, but I was raised by an old family friend. He mentored me for nearly my whole life, so I suppose he was more of a father to me than anyone else. He’s…” she trailed off, not sure how to finish that sentence.

“You don’t have to tell us anything you don’t want to,” Song promised, giving her a gentle smile.

Yia nodded, realising that the prince and his uncle had been watching her speak the whole time. A small amount of anger threatened to rise within her as she thought about what happened to Sangok, and she was so tempted to tell them, just to make the prince understand the pain his people had caused. But she forced herself to restrain the urge. She would not disrespect Sangok’s memory by using him to hurt someone else. 

“He was a good man,” she settled on. Clearly not wanting to discuss much more, she began to eat her duck again, a little more enthusiastic than perhaps was necessary.

“So, Mushi, I know Junior is your nephew, but how did you come to start travelling with Ajala?” Dhari asked, apparently trying to lighten the mood.

“Ah, well, that quite a tale,” Iroh chuckled, giving her a warm smile and raising an eyebrow, as if asking permission.

Yia simply shrugged, focusing on her food now instead.

“When Yi- uh, Ajala was much younger, no more than twelve winters, I was desperately lost. I’d been travelling for nearly two months after the death of my son, yet I seemed no closer to my destination. She very kindly guided me to a nearby river from which I could continue on my way-“

“Was this the journey you returned from on my thirteenth birthday?” The prince asked suddenly.

“Yes, yes it was.” Implications hung heavy in the air, but Iroh continued. “When we arrived at the river, Ajala had knelt down at the edge of the water a little way off from me. I didn’t notice her fall until there was an almighty splash from beside me. She had been pulled under, and the current was strong. I had to run to keep up with her. Luckily, the water was clear enough for me to see, and I managed to catch Ajala’s arm before she was carried off entirely.”

Dhari and Song were smiling at the two of them, clearly enjoying Iroh’s storytelling. Yia was only listening to hear his perspective of the incident.

“Once I managed to get her out and she was breathing properly again, she promised to repay me. Imagine, a tiny twelve-year-old, soaked to the bone and shaking like a leaf, but with so much hope and determination she wanted to pledge me a life service. I can remember so clearly how much she sounded like you at that age, Lee. She reminded me that just because I had lost my son didn’t mean I had lost my family, and though I couldn’t find my son, I realised I wanted to be there for my nephew.”

The room was speechless. It was apparent that neither Zuko or Yia had known this, and she couldn’t help but feel incredibly touched. She had helped him without even realising.

“It was long in my past, and I had almost forgotten about it until recently, when Ajala appeared to make good on her promise. Though, if I am honest, it is my opinion that that day she had already repaid me tenfold. The experience gave me the insight to understand things, things that I never would have without opening my eyes to the truth.”

Quietly, Yia set down her plate, and unable to do much else, she placed her hand on his upper arm. Iroh paused as he met her gaze, and Yia realised that this was the first time she had nearly cried since the red moon.

“Thank you,” she whispered, forcing down the tears that threatened to blur her gaze.

“You are most welcome.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the rest of the meal passed in silence. 

- - - - -

Zuko was sat on the front porch, lost in thought as he looked out into the night.

The biggest revelation was that his uncle had returned home all those years ago because of the witch. He remembered when he had come back – the last of his hair engulfed by grey, but he seemed a little lighter than before. He had only been thirteen, but the months before his banishment he and his uncle had some of the best times he could remember. Though disgraced by his retreat from Ba Sing Se, Iroh had been happier. He’d played Pai Sho more and more with old men Zuko didn’t recognise, and began making his own tea rather than letting the servants brew it for him.

Then there was how they met in the first place. Of course, his uncle would risk himself to save a young girl from drowning, but he had never mentioned it in the past, nor talked about any great rivers when asked about his travels. And yet from Yia’s response, it must have been somewhat close to the truth. That was more emotion than he’d ever seen out of her – she spent so much of her time trying to be peaceful that the only other time she’d broken aside from bickering with him was when she had threatened to slice his throat.

As for the story about her parents, or lack of, he had no idea if she was lying. He didn’t know her well enough, and he had been raised around master manipulators and liars that could topple empires. He wanted to believe it was a lie, she had played the sweet, innocent girl in the hospital when they met Song a little too well for him to go without feeling uneasy. And yet, there had been a sincerity in her silence that made his gut twist uncomfortably. He needed to know more about her so he could know how to react already. To switch from a week of nothing to her sudden spectrum of wild emotion today…

“Can I join you?” Song’s voice cut through his thoughts, and he glanced over to see her sit down next to him.

His uncle and the girl were inside, Dhari had mentioned bathing and Yia- the witch, had almost jumped for joy. Then when Song’s mother offered Iroh the leftovers to keep with them on their travels, he’d had a similar look of glee.

They were alone out here.

“I know what you've been through. We've all been through it.”

‘You don’t know a single thing,’ he thought bitterly, but stayed silent.

“The Fire Nation has hurt you.”

As Song reached out to touch his scar, his hand shot out and caught her wrist, stopping her halfway. She didn’t want to do that. She meant well, and had probably seen similar scars as a nurse. But it wasn’t just a scar for him – it was a brand. A constant reminder of his failure. Of his banishment. The mottled, damaged skin would bring him no comfort or resolution, no matter her intentions.

Dutifully, she pulled back her hand, and he thought that was the end of it.

“It's okay. They've hurt me, too.”

Zuko’s eyes widened as he looked to where she was rolling up the leg of loose material that covered her calf, only to see the same pattern of damage, mottled skin like a burst of lightning across the flesh there.

Speechless, he looked up Song with no idea how to respond to her revelation.

“This has been a long war, and I don’t think anyone will come out of it without battle scars,” she admitted honestly, dropping the material back down. “But when you’re burned, you don’t just leave it be and hide it in the hopes that the pain will go away. It needs treatment, like any other wound.” Song gave him a gentle smile, and he wanted to run from the optimism and pure hope that shone from her.

“My scar can’t be healed. You’re the nurse, shouldn’t you know that?” He muttered, looking at his feet to avoid acknowledging the way she looked at him.

“I’m not talking about your scar, Lee.”

‘I know.’

Sighing, she got to her feet at the sound of Iroh and her mother drawing closer to the door. “You should talk about it with your uncle. He seems very wise, despite the poisonous tea incident.”

“Yeah,” he answered, trying not to sound as non-committal as he felt towards the idea as Song left him to his thoughts.

- - - - -

Yia felt like she was glowing.

Sure, it hadn’t been a hot bath or a warm river, but after washing off a week’s worth of sweat and grime, the fact that the water came from a bucket and washcloth was irrelevant compared to the bliss she was experiencing. Peeling away the chest plate she wore was nothing compared to yanking the gloves off her hands, the feeling was almost euphoric, as the burns that covered them had been itching incessantly after the impromptu battle with the Fire Prince. Her hair was scrubbed clean and braided once more into a half crown, the lower sections of her hair hanging down her back and almost reaching her hips with the weight of the water. She even washed off her shirt and binding garments, so despite her chest and groin being a little damp as she redressed, it was a small price to pay to finally smell like soap again.

The trio were now ready to set off, with the addition of some anti-inflammatory salves, leftover duck, hats to keep away the sun, and even some green and brown robes for the men to wear over the tunics that Song had managed to find from the hospital.

She had pulled Yia aside, and handed her what she imagined was once a traditional Earth Kingdom dress. The green fabric was in two pieces, more like a vest and skirt than what the original must have been. The ‘skirt’ had two long slits, one up either side to allow for movement, but was torn dreadfully at the bottom leaving the cloth ragged and uneven. Alternatively, the top was completely intact until the navel where it was similarly irregular. It was clear that someone, most likely Dhari or Song, had sown the waistband of the skirt to make it more wearable, but hadn’t had the time to finish the edges.

“It’s not much, I’m sorry I couldn’t find better. I just figured-“

“They’re perfect, this is too much honestly.”

“My mother and I have more than enough. If we had been given better help when we were refugees, maybe we would have built this home sooner.”

Yia nodded, bowing deeply to the girl. “You are invaluable,” she promised, adjusting her satchel with a smile.

She’d adjusted her outfit so that the skirt was now covering her knives, the scarf being used more as a belt than before, and she wore the vest top over her armour but under the leather jerkin. She was protected, but still flexible enough to fight should she need to.

Now, stood outside the kind women’s front door, Yia was able to watch the fireflies as they began to lift into the air, dancing under the light of a beautiful full moon.

“Thank you for the duck, it was excellent,” Iroh complimented.

“You're welcome. It brings me pleasure to see someone eat my cooking with such... gusto,” Dhari replied, smiling in amusement.

Iroh patted his stomach and gave her a jolly grin. “Much practice.”

Behind them, the prince turned to leave.

Catching his movement, Iroh called out to him. “Junior, where are your manners? You need to thank these nice people.”

‘Of course, he would need reminding for basic manners,’ Yia thought, coldly.

The prince turned and bowed politely. “Thank you.”

Yia nodded to them both. “May the spirits bless you for your kindness and generosity, so you may be repaid tenfold.”

This seemed to be the right thing to say, as Dhari lit up.

Song, however, was more focused on the retreating figure of the prince.

As he continued to march away, Song called to him. “I know you don't think there's any hope left in the world, but there is hope. The Avatar has returned.”

There was no masking the bitterness in his voice as he muttered:

“I know.”

Sighing, Yia began to walk next to Iroh, unsure how to ask the question that was plaguing her thoughts.

“What’s on your mind, my dear?” Iroh asked softly, and a little too knowingly.

“I… Did you mean what you said at dinner? When you were talking about- about how I had already saved you?” She asked, her nervousness seeping into her tone.

“Yes. Completely.”

“But then that would mean I owe you nothing. Balance had already been restored between us.”

“That is also true. So why don’t you ask me your real question, hm?”

“I-“

She was cut off before she could begin, as the prince reappeared by their side… On an ostrich horse.

Iroh spoke before she could. “What are you doing? These people just showed you great kindness.”

“They're about to show us a little more kindness. This way we can travel by road at less risk.”

“You would steal from these women? After what your family and nation have taken from them already?” She demanded, a quiet rage building in her gut.

The prince stared her down so fiercely that the vision she had knocked the air out of her.

Prince Zuko alone, riding the ostrich horse along a dusty road. Attaching tiles to a roof. Protecting a child whilst almost engulfed by fire.

“Well?” The present prince challenged, drawing her back to reality.

Disappointed and reluctant, Iroh shared a look with her, before mounting the ostrich horse. He moved back enough that she could fit between the two if she chose to join.

‘I hate him,’ she thought in resolve, swinging herself up onto the beast.

 

“Not that you’ll care,” Yia muttered to the prince, “but Song saw you.”

Chapter Text

Yia had been ignoring the prince for the last couple of days.

Some moments more than others, because as much as she wanted to pretend that he didn’t exist, they did need to communicate if they were going to forage efficiently. She settled for irritating him with snarky comments during that time if he tried to address her. Luckily, the further they got into their travels, the more berries and wild fruits could be found by the roadside. They wouldn’t eat anything they didn’t recognise though – none of them wanted to get a rash like Iroh had experienced.

That was another problem. Yia desperately wanted to talk to Iroh about her question, but was either unable to because the prince was too close for comfort, or because even if she got a moment alone with the wise man, she was too afraid to know the answer.

However, the biggest issue overall was the ostrich horse.

Whilst they managed to travel much further a lot faster, it resulted in her sitting almost pressed up against the prince, no matter who was holding the reigns. The one time she had tried to sit behind Iroh at the back of the three had resulted in her falling off, which had clearly amused the brat; she resolved afterwards not to embarrass herself further by making more attempts.

In Yia’s defence, she had never ridden any creatures as a child, and as helpful as the beast was, it caused her to ache everywhere. She didn’t know how the two men could sit for hours without hurting, and she was beginning to wonder if she could just run alongside them at this point.

The worst part by far was when Iroh led them. When Prince Zuko rode at the front, Iroh would hold her waist politely, helping her balance so she only had to hold onto the saddle and not the prince. However, when Iroh rode and it was clear that Yia couldn’t stay on the damn thing unless she was strapped to it, the prince had to sit behind her. He was so close that she felt his body heat radiating like a fireplace in winter, and he had caught her waist more than once as she felt herself slipping in the saddle, making her flinch every damn time.

“Do you have no balance at all?” he had grumbled after one particularly close call with the ground.

“My balance is fine. This damn saddle isn’t designed for two people, let alone three,” she had retorted.

They both silently agreed to not discuss any further touches between them.

As the trees had eventually thinned out, she became concerned about the lack of cover. At least, she was, until Yia realised that they were heading straight into a farming village. Yia looked over what appeared to be vast, shallow ponds, awed by the expanse of it all. ‘Rice paddies,’ she realised. Birds with long white wings soared over them, birds she didn’t recognise at all. And the town was probably very defensible – you could see Fire Nation armies from a mile away, as there were only three roads in or out of the village. It was definitely impressive – or at least, to her.

The trio had stopped in the village centre, where many people were walking by with carts or going about their business.

Yia was reminded of the small village Sangok had taken her to in her youth when there were metal pots they couldn’t fix or sacks of rice needed for the next few months. He would trade carvings and pelts from their hunts, and she would be overwhelmed by the noise and colours and the sheer number of people walking from stores and stands and whatever else was happening. Once, she had seen a group of children playing with a ball in the street and realised she was like them. They were her age, wore similar clothes… Only, she didn’t have friends in the village. It had been too dangerous.

She realised that Iroh had been talking, but hadn’t heard or recalled a single word he said.

Yia peered around to see what he was discussing but didn’t ask any questions as they stopped the horse at the side of a house, climbing off and letting it rest. She sat and stroked the creature’s head gently, smiling as it made quiet noises of contentment.

Prince Zuko had followed her lead and sat beside her, whilst Iroh removed his sun hat and started to hold it out to people passing by.

The shock of what was happening hit her gradually – a once great General of the Fire Nation, now was humbly begging on the streets. Deemed a traitor for protecting balance, he was asking strangers for kindness.

‘Would wonders never cease?’

His nephew seemed less impressed, glaring at his uncle as he sat joining the two teens, still holding out the hat and asking politely if anyone could spare some change.

“What are you grinning at?” he growled at her, but she just shrugged him off, amused she could so easily get under his skin with next to no effort.

“Spare coins for weary travellers?” Iroh asked, over and over. Gradually, he was filling his straw hat with stray coppers, a silver piece here and there if people felt generous.

Clearly, it was too much for the prince’s pride. “This is humiliating! We're royalty, these people should be giving us whatever we want.”

“They will – if you ask nicely,” he explained calmly, before offering out his hat to a pretty young girl in a pink dress. “Spare change for a hungry old man?”

The girl looked over the three, and Yia caught how her eyes lingered on Zuko for a moment longer than the rest of them. “Aw, here you go,” she offered, and pulling a silver coin from her sleeve she dropped it in politely.

Iroh seemed to catch the look as well, as he had a cheeky glint in his eye. “The coin is appreciated, but not as much as your smile!”

Zuko actually slapped his forehead in frustration as the young girl giggled lightly and walked away.

Yia was almost tempted to tease him about her obvious attraction, when a man with what looked like dual broadswords hung from his back wandered over. She could practically feel his arrogance from the smug look on his face and wondered briefly what he wanted.

Her question was quickly answered.

“How about some entertainment in exchange for... a gold piece?” The stranger pulled the shining promised coin from his pocket with a flourish.

‘That could buy us two bags of rice,’ she thought, her own hunger creeping into her awareness.

“We're not performers,” the prince stated coldly.

“Not professional anyway,” Iroh continued, looking at the coin with a smile as he understood the potential. Yia watched and lifted her scarf back over her mouth to contain her laughter as Iroh put down his hat, and began an enthusiastic warble of an old folk song.

The stranger was not so amused.

“Come on, we're talking a gold piece here! Let's see some action.”

Both Yia and the prince snapped their heads up at the sound of metal ringing, the man pulling his swords out and starting to slice at the ground where Iroh stood.

“Dance!” He demanded.

Yia’s hands flew to her upper thighs, feeling the promise of her weapons just within her grasp as Iroh began hopping around to avoid the attacks. It seemed his nephew had the same idea, clenching his fists so hard they shook against his knees. But she put a hand around the bindings of his forearm in warning – the spectacle was drawing the attention of other citizens passing by. Though the town wasn’t half burned down, she didn’t think they would open their arms to a firebender like the prince, especially not if he murdered one of their people.

Her death grip on the boy relaxed slightly as the stranger ceased his onslaught; she firmly ignored how warm her palm was despite the bindings and her gloves between them.

“Ha, ha! Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner. Here ya go.” The swordsman tossed the gold piece to the ground by their feet, and walked away, still grinning smugly to himself.

“Such a kind man,” Iroh commented unaffected, and pocketed the coin for later use.

As he continued to beg, she watched how the prince glared after the sadist in furious humiliation.

Before she realised that she was doing it, Yia leaned over to whisper softly: “Too many witnesses. Later, I’ll pin him down, you burn his feet and steal his shoes.”

Prince Zuko looked to her in surprise and absolute confusion, and she just gave him a conspiring grin, masking her sympathy. Sure, she was mad at him, but if he was in a bad mood then he would make her day worse later, she reasoned. Besides, Yia would be just as angry if someone had pulled that stunt with Sangok – though he probably would have rather have his feet sliced off first…

When the shock passed, he just scoffed and looked away as Iroh managed to gather a few more coins.

It was only then that she let go of his wrist.

- - - - -

Later, by the time they had enough coins to buy a small metal pot, Yia was undoubtedly excited to go to the market. It was small compared to what the other two had experienced, but for her, it was a whole new world. There were karts selling deep-fried goods, others selling scrolls and jewellery. Even one stall was selling masks. Finding a bright red dragon mask painted in a permanent angry scowl, she grinned and turned to the two trailing behind her.

“Look, Lee. It’s you!” She teased, pulling the mask over her face. The choice made Iroh laugh heartily, and Prince Zuko looked an inch away from challenging her to another fight.

In retaliation, he pulled off a mask of a terrifying, grey-skinned woman covered in warts and wrinkles.

“I found one of you too,” he shot back childishly, before pacing away.

She thought she saw him still at the sight of a blue mask, but quickly forgot about it as she was too distracted by the appearance of street dancers.

“This is it. This is why I want to travel so much,” she confided in Iroh softly, watching the beautiful women twirl and spin in mesmerising patterns. “To see the things that you just can’t find behind four walls.”

Iroh nudged her with his elbow, giving her a fond look. “That is a good reason. But remember, it’s not just about seeing, but understanding. You must learn from what’s around you to truly experience the world around us all.”

After admiring a few more stalls and purchasing a sack of rice, instead of spending their coins on an inn, they made camp in the woods. It turned out that if no one was trying to track you in your immediate area and you had two firebenders around, making a campfire was immensely easier.

They had managed to find a small rock formation that was essentially a shallow cave. It was more defensible that anywhere they’d slept yet, and it was dry. She thanked the spirits twice for that.

After finding some mats left out on the curb, she had managed to make a pleasant hideout for them by the time darkness fell – rather helped by the fullness of their bellies after gorging on rice for the better part of an hour.

“You should rest, Yia,” Iroh cautioned, watching her with a soft gaze she didn’t quite understand.

“I can wait until you do,” she promised.

“No – you have not been sleeping well, it is showing on you. Recover your strength first, I would feel far safer if you slept for the whole night. That way, you’re better energised for if we end up in a fight.”

She gave him a look of suspicion, but dutifully rolled her scarf into a thin makeshift pillow, and pulled her cloak around her like a blanket. Watching him from across the fire, she furrowed her brows.

“One day you should tell me the secret to your persuasion,” she murmured, before laying herself down and sighing softly.

The prince was far closer to the entrance than she was, as her determination to stay away from him and close to Iroh was actually beginning to take effect.

Yia fell asleep will unusual ease…

She was dreaming.

That was the only explanation for why she was stood on the root of a tree, in the middle of a swamp.

Yia had never been to a swamp before in the physical world, so she imagined she was dreaming of the Spirit World. That was the only explanation as to why everything around her felt so… Alive. She felt a memory bubble under the surface of her skin but pushed it away.

Blinking slowly, she realised she wasn’t alone. There was a girl who couldn’t be much younger than herself, dressed in blue, crying on her knees with her face in her palms. Her skin was just a shade darker than her own, and the beads in her hair were very similar to ones she had seen Sangok wear on certain days in the year. Yia felt intrusive watching the girl, moving instead to leave, when the stranger looked up.

“Hello?” she asked. “Who are you?”

“I- I’m sorry, I don’t want to interrupt…”

“What is this place? Where are my friends? Why did I see my mother?” she started demanding, clearly angry and upset by whatever she had just seen.

“I... Don’t know, honestly. But maybe I can help? My name is-“

A pulling at her navel made her look down in confusion, but when she looked up the girl had gone, and she was somewhere else.

“Hello?” she called, confused and a little disorientated. What in the name of Tui and La were the spirits trying to show her?

A young man with a machete came into view, angrily swinging the blade at the vines around him over and over.

“Hello? Where am I?” She asked, calling to him.

But before he could even look up, she was being tugged once again, and found herself being almost run into by a short, bald boy covered in… tattoos.

“The Avatar,” she breathed in surprise.

Yia had only ever seen him in her visions, never in her dreams, and that was only when he spoke to Iroh. He was exactly what she had imagined, and nothing at all alike at the same time. The grace and ease of a spiritual man, but the way his arms hovered at his sides like bird wings, ready to take flight at a moment’s notice… She had never seen that before.

The boy looked equally startled to see her, eyes widening as he took in her appearance. Looking down, she realised she was wearing a plain Earth Kingdom dress, burned along the left of her thigh. Maybe a warning?

“I don’t know how much time I have,” she started, before he could waste seconds that she wasn’t sure were slipping away. “I can never interact with people in my visions. Therefore, the spirits must have guided me here whilst I was dreaming, so it must be important that we meet now. Where are you, and what are you doing?”

“I, uh… In a mysterious, possibly magical swamp, looking for my friends and chasing after a girl in a fancy dress with a flying boar?” He answered, clearly as confused by the situation as she was.

“Okay sure, sounds like the spirits,” she muttered, trying to think it through. “If it’s the girl wearing blue and boy with the machete you’re looking for, I just saw them. They seemed safe. But if you’re looking for friends and the spirits led me to you… Then maybe-“

The tugging was back, and she cut herself off, unable to speak through the mental strain of fighting it.

“Hey, are you okay? What’s wrong?” he asked, panicking a little as she let out a grunt of frustration.

“I think I’m waking up,” she answered, huffing at the sheer pressure she felt to disappear. She forced her feet firmly onto the ground. “Spirits be willing, I have no doubt we will meet soon, Avatar. Until then, protect your friends.”

Unable to hold it anymore, she vanished just as he lunged to grab a hold of her.

- - - - -

The waning moon was the only real source of light over the village that night.

The full moon had only been a few nights ago, so despite the lack of street lanterns or torches, Zuko could see the man wandering down the street easily from his perch. Adjusting the mask over his face, he tried to ignore the unusual feeling of having short tufts of hair under the ties, instead beginning to creep along the rooftop near silently.

A loose tile shifted, his foot slipping from under him. Catching the slate before it could hit the floor and alert too many people, he placed it behind him and kept moving.

However, the man had heard, and drawn his swords threateningly.

“Who’s there?” the peasant called, peering into the darkness suspiciously.

Zuko dropped down onto the street with the elegance of a cat-swan, and drawing from the mistakes he’d made with the witch, he moved in close before the scumbag could force him back. Swiftly knocking aside and twisting the man’s wrists, the stranger fell backwards as his swords hit the ground, useless to him now.

Slowly, Zuko scooped up the broadswords, the weight pleasant and familiar on his palms.

Itching to cause the cretin as much pain as his fury desired, Zuko had to pull himself back from the rage. The Blue Spirit was not a torturer – it was a disguise even from himself at times.

Pulling on every ounce of self-control, he spun the weapons and struck the man hard between the eyes with a swift front kick.

Before the peasant could crumple like parchment to the ground, the masked figure was gone.

Chapter Text

After the first appearance of the Blue Spirit, Zuko hadn’t been able to help himself. The next day he had gone out in search of food that wasn’t rice cooked in a dented tin pot. He returned with two barrels of food, one of various vegetables and the other of some gooey cakes, and a ripe jackfruit.

Dropping them at his uncle’s feet, he cast a glance over to the girl, curled up in her blanket and sleeping soundly, despite the day’s late hour. How tired could she be? They weren’t walking all day anymore, they were riding, and he made sure they camped enough for his uncle to sleep at least. She looked different asleep too. With her eyes closed, she could be just another woman of the water tribe – she even seemed to soften in her sleep. ‘Strange how innocent some people can look when they’re sleeping,’ he thought briefly. ‘Azula was the same.’

Zuko snapped out of his thoughts when Iroh gave him a curious look.

“Where did you get these?”

“What does it matter where they came from?” He asked, turning and stalking away.

Iroh watched him leave, humming thoughtfully, before picking up a cake and taking a bite. He chuckled in delight at the wonderous flavour after weeks of no such food, and jam dripped down his chin.

Beside him, Yia stirred, finally showing some sign of waking.

“Good morning,” he greeted, smiling cheerfully at her as she took in the sight of the food.

“How long was I asleep for? And did you two go shopping without me?” she asked, rubbing her eyes and sitting up slowly.

“Well, as it is almost noon, I believe you have slept for close to eighteen hours.”

Yia’s eyes flew open and her jaw dropped.

Eighteen hours?!

“Yes, about that long I should think. You seemed so peaceful that I loathed to wake you, and it seems you needed the rest.”

She shook her head softly. She never slept so long – it had to be the dream the spirits gave her. The events were still so vivid in her mind’s eye, and she wondered if she should discuss it with Iroh. He could maybe shine some much-needed wisdom on her confusion. 

“As for the food, Prince Zuko returned with it only a few minutes ago.”

“He spent the rest of the coppers on vegetables and… cakes?” she asked, getting to her feet and peering into the barrel.

“You should try one – they are truly delicious.”

Yia raised an eyebrow at him, but took a smaller pink cake from the pile. She noticed he had one of his own he was happily munching on, which settled her nerves somewhat. Taking a bite, she nearly sighed at how light and sweet the baked goods were.

“It’s a shame this probably cost all our money,” she said, looking over their limited resources and wandering over to Iroh, sitting herself down next to him.

He didn’t comment, and the two ate in comfortable kind of silence for a long moment.

This was good, as Yia’s mind was too far away to hold a conversation right now. It was off with the Avatar, and those two other people he had been with. Why didn’t it feel permanent? Was it the Banyan Spirit, showing her what could be, warning her it was possible? Or was it for the Avatar’s benefit and not her own? That would make more sense, admittedly, as the spirits would be far more concerned with ‘the bridge between worlds’ than her.

“I hope you know, you appear to be growing on my nephew,” Iroh commented.

His unprompted statement caused her to choke on the piece of cake she had been eating. “I’m sorry?” She asked, looking at him as if he had grown a second head.

“It’s just something I’ve noticed. Zuko is a… A complicated young man with a difficult past, that he struggles to face at times. It can make him angry at the world, or at the things he doesn’t yet understand, and his beliefs are so conflicted at times it’s as if his very aura is fighting itself. However, yesterday there was growth.”

Yia stared at him, brows furrowed as she tried to think of when the prince had ‘grown’ as a person.

“Do you mean when the man with broadswords publicly mocked you, and he somehow stopped himself from burning him?” She offered up, but Iroh shook his head.

“No. I am talking about when he let you hold him back.”

‘Oh,’ she thought silently. ‘He noticed that then…’

“Even though you were right to stay his hand, Zuko has never easily listened to orders, even from me, even when it was the right thing to do.”

Yia scoffed. “Prince Zuko doesn’t trust me as far as he could throw me.”

“Maybe so,” Iroh agreed. “But he listened to you.”

Letting this new information sink in, the girl sat and contemplated what she’d been told as she finished off the small cake.

“I need to think about this,” she admitted, sighing softly. “I saw a lake nearby that looked clean enough to bathe in. Would you care to join me?”

“Ah, I think I should stay and look after our supplies,” Iroh said, eyeing up another cake from the barrel.

Yia chuckled, rolling her eyes a little. “If you say so. Don’t let the prince leave without me,” she joked, half-serious as she picked up her scarf and wrapped it around her face.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Yia nodded, before pacing off into the woods.

- - - - -

Zuko had returned to their little cave only to find it empty, his uncle and the witch nowhere to be seen. Carefully putting down his bags, he looked over the haul, feeling a small sense of pride at what he had managed to get for his uncle.

They now had more rice, crackers, bread, meat strips, a golden teapot set, about twenty different types of tea leaves, more robes for himself and his uncle, water skins… He’d even bought the witch a proper dress, not one so damaged that it made her look like their slave. He hadn’t looked at it much closer than the size and price tag, but he assumed she wouldn’t complain much considering her current rags.

He had just started a fire and laid out his gifts for his uncle when Iroh appeared by the entrance.

“Where’s the wi- girl?” Zuko corrected, knowing his uncle would admonish him again if he used her nickname.

“She went to bathe and wash her clothes in the lake,” Iroh murmured, sitting down and picking up the teapot to inspect it. “Looks like you did some serious shopping. But where did you get the money?”

Zuko leaned back against the stone wall and ignored the question. “Do you like your new teapot?”

“To be honest with you,” he started, setting the pot down, “the best tea tastes delicious whether it comes in a porcelain pot or a tin cup.”

The prince tried not to tense as Iroh walked over to, squatting down by his side.

“I know we've had some difficult times lately. We've had to struggle just to get by,” he murmured softly, placing a hand on Zuko’s shoulder as the boy squeezed his eyes shut. “But it's nothing to be ashamed of. There is a simple honour in poverty.”

“There's no honour for me without the Avatar.”

“Zuko...” Iroh sighed, bowing his head for a moment. “Even if you did capture the Avatar, I'm not so sure it would solve our problems. Not now.”

The prince wished he hadn’t said that. Now it was in the air, it had been spoken into existence, and he couldn’t ignore it.

“Then there is no hope at all,” he muttered, turning away as he tried not to drown under the weight of the emotions that started coursing through him. He moved to stand and walk away, but was grabbed firmly by his shoulders, sat back down by Iroh’s determined pull.

“No, Zuko! You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road and you surrender to your lowest instincts... In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”

Zuko turned his head to meet his uncle’s gaze. He was wise, but he did not understand. He couldn’t possibly comprehend everything that he was feeling. If even the possibility existed that the Avatar wouldn’t bring him home, then his crown, his throne, his family, everything was gone. Not a chance in the world that he could ever return things to how they were, how they should be.

And the look in Iroh’s eyes just confirmed it.

Abruptly, Zuko pulled free from Iroh's grasp, and headed out into the forest, ignoring the outstretched hand he was leaving behind him.

- - - - -

Yia was pretty sure that this was the best day she had had in weeks. At least, if she ignored the unholy amount of questions she had after talking to General Iroh.

She was incredibly well rested, for one – the energy she felt in her muscles was just calling to her, telling her she could run along the blasted ostrich horse if she wanted to. And that was another thing! Since they had apparently decided not to travel anywhere today, her muscles weren’t aching from trying to stay upright on that poor creature for hours on end. It was… magical. Now, she had a couple of hours she could spend in the lake if she wanted to before she had to worry about it getting dark.

Yia had long stripped away her many, many layers of clothing and armour, laying out the pieces on a nearby boulder after washing them each by hand, having stripped down to her bindings and thoroughly scrubbing each area of skin she could reach. Satisfied by her work, she moved further from the shore, deep enough for the cool water to rise up to her neck.

The afternoon shine of sun made the lake shine like a lantern, reflecting as a pool of gold around her. Certain she was alone, Yia carefully unwound the bindings of her chest and groin, washing them with the last of the soap just over the water. She made quick work of this – fighting off attackers naked was not on her to-do list. With a sense of urgency, she swiftly began binding around her hips again, tying them a little tighter than before. The daily exercise and lack of food were starting to show on her figure; her muscles were as willing and strong as ever, but the roundness of childhood was almost entirely gone from her cheeks now. Her body had begun to curve like bends in a river, just as Sangok had warned would happen. Thinking back to the children she had seen playing with a ball in the village, she knew then that she was leaving her childhood far behind.

But had she ever been a child?

‘Spirits, how depressing.’

She shook the dark thoughts from her head, focusing on securing her bust tight enough so that the ostrich horse wouldn’t leave her crossing her arms uncomfortably for hours on end. Being a girl really wasn’t great when travelling.

Just as she finished tying herself off, Yia heard something. She had been distracted by her thoughts and with her task, so she hadn’t noticed the approaching footsteps. Yia quickly decided it probably wasn’t life threatening as there was no warning vision clouding her sight – but nonetheless, she was a sitting turtle-duck in the clear afternoon light, with no cover and a fair swim away from her weapons.

She relaxed somewhat when Prince Zuko appeared from the brush.

Sighing, she relaxed into the water so it was up to her neck once more, watching him curiously. He didn’t seem to notice her. She couldn’t see the prince clearly at this distance, but his furrowed brow was more thoughtful than his usual anger or stubbornness. At least he wasn’t here to kill her. He stared at the water’s edge and the small waves gently lapping at the mix of pebbles, and began to remove his clothing.

Yia watched startled as he removed his shirt, swiftly realising their situation and blushing furiously. Ignoring the leanness of his startlingly pale skin, she coughed loudly as he went to remove his trousers.

“You know, I was taught that it was customary for noblemen to court a lady before they laid naked with them,” she called, drawing his attention to her presence.

Yia could have sworn she saw his soul leave his body – he was mortified.

She had never seen a person blush so much; even the top of his chest was tinged pink as he scrambled upright, grabbing his shirt and glaring at her viciously. Yia couldn’t help the smile of amusement, but she just about managed to stifle her laugh as he grumbled and muttered to himself.

Moving a little closer to the shore, certain her bindings were in place, Yia wrung out her hair. She had let down her many braids, save that tied with her grey cloth. That was only let down to adjust every season’s end, as fitting with the change around her and within her. She wondered if Prince Zuko’s ridiculous ponytail had some similar meaning.

“It’s fine, Your Highness. Wash your clothes – I was only going to swim,” she consoled with a smirk, gesturing to her clothes that lay drying in the afternoon sun. The water covered up to her clavicle, but she realised just how exposed she truly was. The most exposed she had ever been was when she bathed in the river, and she stopped needing help with that from a very young age, so not even Sangok had been present when she was in such a state of undress. It made her feel unpleasantly vulnerable, so she did not come any closer to the shore, enjoying the slight shielding of the water.

Not that the prince would have looked at her anyway – he was glaring at his shoes, tugging his shirt back on and grumbling bitterly.

“So… cakes, huh?” she asked conversationally, which caused him to look confused for a moment.

“What?”

“The jam ones you bought today. General Iroh was thrilled, but it probably isn’t a great idea to buy foods like that if we’re going to travel any further East.”

“Oh. Right.”

An awkward silence settled over both of them – Yia not wanting to move for fear of revealing an unnecessary amount of skin to the prince, and the prince now apparently lost in thought once more.

“Are you going to swim or not?” He grumbled after an agitating pause, and Yia felt herself relax a little. It was easier when he overtly hated her, he was more predictable. His thoughtful self just left her unsettled.

“Can we make a deal?” She asked, ignoring his bitterness.

“What deal?”

“I’ll leave the lake so you can bathe in peace… If you explain your ponytail.”

Zuko gave her an incredulous look.

“Do all your people act like this or is it just you?” He asked instead.

“What people? And act like what?”

“Savages, witches, take your pick.”

“Just answer the question, Prince.”

“You-“ He started, but cut himself off and pinched his brow like she was giving him a headache.

‘Excellent.’

“The ‘ponytail’ as you call it is symbolic, it showed that I was disgraced nobility. Why do you care?”

Yia shrugged, her left-hand toying with her braid absentmindedly. “It’s interesting to hear about other cultures. I only know my mentor’s teachings, but the world is bigger than the beliefs and traditions of one man, surely?”

The prince looked ready to have an aneurysm; she wasn’t entirely sure why.

“Anyway, a deal’s a deal. Just turn around so I can get out and dressed in peace.”

“You want me to turn around?” Prince Zuko repeated.

“Such a tone of surprise from the boy who turned redder than a bacui berry at a girl seeing him shirtless.”

“You took me by surprise!”

“I was directly in front of you!”

“How should I trust that you won’t stab me with my back turned?”

“Because I’m not about to betray your uncle, as tempting as you make it!”

“Savage code of honour, then?”

Yia let out a grunt of frustration, glaring back at him with equal force. “Whatever, just turn around already, jerk.”

More grumbling followed, to no-one’s surprise at this point, but he slowly turned away from where she and her clothes were.

Swimming to shore, she watched him warily as she climbed from the lake, but he did not move his gaze from wherever it was that he was looking. Running her hands down her skin to push away as much excess water as she could, she began to struggle back into her dry clothes. They clung to her as she tugged them viciously, but her effort paid off as she was dressed no slower than usual – the prince’s presence instilling a whole new reason to be careful.

“You can turn back now,” she muttered, once her breeches and shirt were back in place. She started to strap on her chest plate when she realised he was still staring into the distance.

‘Petty or just bitter?’ she wondered, paying the fleeting thought little attention as she buckled the metal appropriately. Yia laced on her leather jerkin and boots with practiced ease, and scooped up her assorted straps and sheaths for her weapons.

The jangle of the metal snapped His Royal Headache back to reality, and he spun round to see what she was doing.

“Easy, tigerdillo. I’m not going to stab you today,” she teased lightly, buckling and tightening the belts around her thighs and hips.

“That’s comforting. Are you going to the North or something?”

“What?”

“You wear so many layers of clothing, even in this heat.”

“I get cold.”

The Prince scoffed. “Fine, whatever.”

“Mm. What money’s left over? I was thinking of making soup with the vegetables you got today, but if we need to ration it out…”

“It’s fine, there’s plenty of money left.”

“But-“

“It’s fine,” he ground out, his tone so final on the matter that she understood now why he was supposed to be the Firelord. Or at least, he would have been. He was good at being bossy.

“Fine. If we go hungry again, at least you can’t blame me.” Scooping up her scarf, cloak, and bag, she opened her arm and gestured to the beautiful expanse of water. “It’s all yours.”

The prince didn’t respond, and instead left her to march back to their makeshift campsite, far too thoughtful and confused for his own good.

- - - - -

Zuko returned long after nightfall, his decision both freeing and weighing on his conscience as he saw the flickering of a fire in the near distance. His uncle was bending over the supplies, and the girl was sat tensely against the stone wall, arms crossed so tightly he could see the tension in her muscles from this distance.

‘She’s madder than when I took the stupid horse,’ he realised bitterly, knowing she had worked out that he hadn’t bought their supplies. She might be a witch, but she wasn’t dumb.

Luckily, she seemed too angry about his theft to speak and didn’t even acknowledge him as he moved into the light. All he had to do was tell his uncle, and this would be over.

“Uncle... I thought a lot about what you said.”

Iroh lifted his head and smiled at the sight of him. Zuko’s stomach clenched. He ignored it.

“You did? Good, good,” he said pleasantly, turning back to the supplies he was sorting.

‘Why does he have to smile like that? At least he isn’t looking now,’ Zuko thought, gritting his teeth for a moment, before wiping his face clear of emotion. He had to do this. Iroh would hold him back from who he was.

“It's helped me realize something. We no longer have anything to gain by travelling together.”

The girl’s head snapped up in surprise, and he didn’t need to see his uncle’s face to feel how Iroh’s brightened expression fell away.

“She can protect you now, and keep you company. I need to find my own way.”

Swallowing hard, he clenched his fists for a moment. The heaviness he had felt now filled the cave. Yia, or whatever her name was, looked at him like she was trying to pull away his skin and look inside him, work him out. It was unnerving.

“Look after him,” he murmured monotonously, before grabbing his bag and turning to walk away before he could be convinced otherwise.

“Wait!”

The call made him turn.

Iroh was holding out the reins to the ostrich horse to him.

‘No turning back.’

Mounting the horse, he looked back to his uncle one last time, the last family he truly had.

And he left.

 

Zuko didn’t look back. 

Chapter Text

It took until the next morning for Yia to pick up the courage to speak to Iroh.

“Do you blame me? For the prince leaving?” she asked quietly, putting her untouched bowl of soup down in front of her.

Iroh simply shook his head.

“No. Even if you weren’t here, I think this would have happened. He doesn’t want me around right now, not whilst he tries to find who he is. You just gave him an excuse to leave, he must have faith we will get by without him.”

“Should I be flattered?” she half-joked, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer.

Luckily, the General simply chuckled, albeit with less of his usual humour.

“I do not fully understand your gifts or the extents of them, but… Can you see him?” Iroh asked gently.

Yia felt a wave of empathy engulf her, the fragile vulnerability of his request making her gut twist uncomfortably. Biting down on her lower lip, she thought for a moment, trying to word her next utterance as best she could.

“I… I only managed to return to the Spirit World once more, after our encounter. I almost expected you to appear, in all honesty. I was fourteen,” she started.

Iroh was watching her patiently, and with a shuddering breath, she continued.

“I didn’t know what to do. Ever since the water- the visions coming in the day and nightmares about them through the dark, I had no clue what to do. There was… One particular vision, one that I needed answers for but couldn’t tell my mentor about. Not entirely. So, my only solution was to return to the river. Time seemed to go so quickly, I felt as if I’d barely taken three steps before I arrived at the bank. I didn’t dare look into the water, so instead, I followed the river back.”

“You wanted to find the source,” Iroh murmured, watching her with an unidentifiable expression.

Yia nodded, looking down into the soup again. “The travelling should have taken days; it took minutes. When I could no longer go any further, I found the river was springing from a tree – the largest tree I had ever seen. The roots stretched for miles and the water seemed to spring from an opening in the trunk. Everything, even the air out there… It felt alive. It tasted of time and potential and possibilities, like how my visions feel.

“I couldn’t help myself – the pull to the water was so strong it was as if my very blood was called to it. But when I looked, my reflection was not my own. I mean- Well, the reflection was me, but not my own. It had been taken over by a very powerful being: the Banyan Spirit. Whilst Raava is the spirit of light and peace, the Banyan Spirit is the spirit of time and life, and it used my reflection to speak with me.

“The visions are a gift, it said. They are to protect me when I am in danger; they either give me knowledge of how my future will change, or sometimes if I make contact with someone, I am given insight into their past. Important events that changed or will change the path to peace. But this knowledge… With it, I have to help the Spirits. They need balance, and as a student of the spiritual, they chose me. Sometimes other things creep in or are important one moment then irrelevant the next, but I don’t think they would show me your nephew. The Spirits rarely concern themselves with the personal lives of us mortals.”

“Hm… And yet you travel with me, and not the Avatar? The bridge between worlds?” He questioned.

“I’ve never met him,” she explained with a shrug. “I… I’ve had visions, or dreams sometimes where I meet him or see him from afar, but they rarely make sense. But I’m not meant to travel with the Avatar. Not now, at least, though that may change of course. I have a purpose here, with you.”

Iroh raised an eyebrow here. “Ah… but that leads us back to your question.”

Yia sighed, and started to toy with her cloth braid for a moment.

“It does.”

‘Looks like there’s no escaping this, then.’

“Ask. Do not fear your destiny or your own choices.”

Yia bit her lip, releasing her hold on the braid and trying to find her courage. Her visions often determined her actions, so whenever she had to decide something for herself without guidance, it was terrifying.

But nonetheless, she took a deep breath.

And she spoke.

“If I no longer owe you a debt, there was nothing to stop me leaving you and your nephew to fend for yourselves. I could still leave now; we both know you want company more than need a defender. But the visions, I only see things that will happen to me or will happen to those who become important in my life. There are so many things I have yet to see come true where I am by your side… So, I suppose my question, is why? Why do I stay on this same path as you?”

Iroh went quiet, pausing and thinking for a moment.

“Well, I think that regardless of visions, you know that the future can change with each decision you make. You could choose to leave now and never return, and no one would hold it against you. Or, on the other hand, you could stay with me. Not necessarily a protector, but a friend. The real question is what do you want, and who do you want to become?”

‘Spirits,’ Yia thought, the threat of tears emerging suddenly and without warning. ‘He sounds just like Sangok.’

And just like that, she understood. She did not want to solely repay her debt, that would never be enough to keep her in such close quarters with a hot-headed prince for any period of time. No, it was more than that. Some part of her deeply craved community. Family. Human connection that she had been deprived of, even when Sangok was alive. Yia wanted to no longer detach herself entirely from the physical world in the pursuit of spiritual knowledge – she had that in buckets.

She wanted to make herself a home.

Iroh’s patient waiting was never more comforting than in that moment, and she cleared her throat awkwardly, but gave him a warm smile.

“It would be an honour for you to consider me a friend.”

Iroh beamed at her, the first proper smile she had seen on him since Prince Zuko’s abrupt departure last night. He didn’t look right without a grin.

Yia shouldn’t have been so surprised when all the air left her lungs from the General’s bone-crushing hug.

“Then, my friend, I believe it is time we packed up the supplies we intend to keep.”

Yia blinked in surprise pulling out of the embrace to meet his gaze.

“Oh? Where are we going?”

“To find my nephew. After all, we can’t give him too much of a head start.”

Bewildered, Yia gaped at the elderly gentleman as he winked at her, downed his bowl of food, and wandered away to start packing.

‘Okay… Maybe he isn’t entirely like Sangok.’

- - - - -

18 Days Later

She was dreaming again.

Now, rather than a swamp, she was in a beautiful garden. It was dark, and the stars were out and shining brilliantly. The plants around her were neat and orderly and pretty but trimmed within an inch of their lives. Yia wondered what the significance of this was.

Behind her, she heard two voices – one familiar and one she had yet to hear.

“Is that why you became the Blind Bandit?”

“Yeah.”

‘The Avatar,’ she realised, and turned to see the young boy talking to a girl in a fancy dress. ‘Ah, so he found her.’

Unsure if she could be seen, Yia kept her distance, thinking as quickly as she could. If the Avatar had found the girl he’d been chasing after, did that mean he would meet her next? The thought made her feel dizzy. Sick. What if the Spirits wanted her to train him? Teach him how to connect with that other realm so that he could bring about the balance so desperately needed?

“Then why stay here where you're not happy?”

“They're my parents. Where else am I supposed to go?”

“You could come with us.”

Yia swallowed, walking closer to the pair. The girl’s face was still out of her sight, but she could see Aang’s clearly.

“Not long now,” she breathed.

She had been quiet, but it seemed Aang could hear her. The boy met her eyes for a moment, and then, she was gone.

And yet…

She was still asleep.

She was in a large sunflower garden, where a young boy was practicing with a pair of dual broadswords. He jumped around and chopped off several sunflower heads, and Yia smiled gently at his enthusiasm. He was very sweet, despite the violent nature of his activity. He started stabbing a nearby dead tree trunk repeatedly, his tongue lolling out of his mouth and breathing heavily, when she realised that they weren’t alone.

“You're holding them wrong.”

The boy fell backwards in surprise, and Yia felt her breath catch in her throat.

Prince Zuko, arms crossed, was stood a little further back in the patch of sunflowers. He didn’t seem angry though, not like he had been around her. His hair was growing out even longer now – how long had she and Iroh been following after him? Two weeks, maybe three?

Lee got back up, having the sensibility to look a little ashamed, and held out the swords to Zuko.

The prince’s voice was jarring after the time spent apart, despite her never being far behind. It was true that the first thing you forget is how someone’s voice sounds after being apart for long enough. His was more gravelly and rough at the edges than she remembered.

“Keep in mind, these are dual swords. Two halves of a single weapon. Don't think of them as separate, because they're not. They're just two different parts of the same whole.”

Zuko then swung the swords carefully, demonstrating a skill she had not realised he possessed, though the image was familiar. Yia assumed she must’ve had a vision of this before.

The prince cut off some sunflower heads, turned around, and handed the swords back to the boy for him to try. Though not fully certain, the child was a little more careful this time, and a little less awkward. Finishing his mini-demonstration, he turned back to smile at the prince.

Yia felt the pull in her navel, wondering why Aang could see her but not Zuko or the others – she assumed it was a spirit thing – and as hard as she tried to focus, her train of thought was entirely destroyed at the sight of Zuko’s reaction.

He smiled.

- - - - -

Iroh and Yia had fallen into a steady routine over the past few weeks.

They would wake up, Yia would pack away their belongings as Iroh made breakfast, they would eat, and then begin to track. Prince Zuko’s trail wasn’t so hard to follow, the ostrich horse left distinctive patterns and they had a vague idea of where he was headed already. They would walk together, Yia carrying the heavier items (including a tea set Iroh had insisted they had with them) and talking about the world, or just wandering in comfortable silence. They’d take a break for a drink at midmorning, then another for lunch when the sun was at its peak. She was grateful for this, as even she was beginning to sweat uncomfortably under her many layers of clothing. Then they’d carry on as long as they could before Iroh became too weary, and they’d make camp for the night. Yia cooked dinner, Iroh brewed the tea, and they would share folktales or stories before falling asleep.

They rarely mentioned the prince.

She knew Iroh missed the young man but had no idea how to talk about his departure without upsetting her new friend. And that’s what they were – friends. The General was an immensely comforting presence, with a good sense of humour and endless stories and always ready to answer her questions. She felt like a student again, like how Sangok would teach her about the four nations. However, Iroh was so well travelled that he could tell her about cobbled streets of villages and the smell of snow in the North or the festivals the Fire Nation celebrated and what fireworks looked like.

In turn, Yia gradually opened up to the man. Though she wouldn’t speak as much as he would, she told him about how Sangok would take her up the mountains for her birthday, and how she earned her braid crown when she completed her training. She told him stories about hunting trips, and the first time she had fought Sangok and won.

Iroh seemed delighted whenever she would open up, and she realised she had been quite enigmatic around the prince in comparison to now.

Today had been quieter than most, as they realised that they had almost caught up with the prince and her dream preyed on her thoughts. Though consciously, Yia knew this would happen, she didn’t want to think about how things would change again. She had grown used to being able to talk to Iroh, relaxing around him. Sure, she slept with a dagger in hand and woke at the slightest sound still, but in the daytime, she wasn’t constantly irate and forcing herself to be at peace, because she already was. If the prince decided to reunite with them, would she still be willing to stay with Iroh? Or would she break off and try to find her own destiny? Would the spirits allow for it?

Though she was aware the goods they’d had in the caves were stolen, she couldn’t bring herself to sell all of them off. The dress robes Zuko had clearly taken for her were perfect for concealing her armour and weaponry, and lightweight enough to wear better than the clothing Song had given her. Neither commented on it when she started to wear it under her cloak.

In fact, it was lunch before any meaningful words were exchanged between the two of them.

“I… I had a dream last night,” she started, avoiding Iroh’s gaze. It felt wrong to hold back this information from him – the prince was his family after all.

“Oh?” Iroh asked, looking up with a raised brow.

“I saw the Avatar, and then a young boy I didn’t recognise… He was with your nephew.”

The General stilled his movements, blinking in surprise at her confession.

Yia toyed with her braid, waiting for a long moment to gather her courage. “The Avatar was talking to a girl, I guess the spirits are trying to tell me something. I’m still not sure what. And your nephew, he’s okay. He… The prince had these swords and was teaching the boy how to use them properly. I think I saw him smile. I don’t think I'd ever seen him do that before.”

Beside her, she was vaguely aware of Iroh moving to crouch next to her, and she put her hands on her knees to stop them shaking. She wasn’t sure why she was reacting like this.

“Thank you.”

Whatever she had been expecting, it wasn’t that. Maybe him to ask for more information, or for him to press she try and see where he was now. Yia looked up and met his gaze, and was met with only a kind look of understanding.

“I… It was just a dream, I don’t know if-“

“Yia, it’s alright. I would like to think that Zuko is content in finding himself. Even if you dream was just that, it’s nice to think it to be true.”

Yia nodded and closed her eyes to take a breath, centre herself.

If she hadn’t closed her eyes, she might have been able to stop what happened next.

Iroh, meaning well, reached over to her and placed his hand over hers. Though she was wearing her gloves, her fingertips were still exposed, and the second his skin touched hers, she felt the energy pass through her like an electric shock.

“No!” she cried out, but it was too late.

“Let me in!”

Yia looked around, and she was surrounded by red. Red walls, decorations, golden frames of paintings, marble floors… She was in the Fire Nation. She flinched as she realised she was facing two imperial guards. Stepping back, Yia stumbled before she could crash into a familiar figure.

Iroh, dressed in his Fire Nation armour and looking entirely regal placed his hands on the child’s shoulders. “Prince Zuko, what's wrong?”

Startled, Yia took a closer look at the child Iroh was speaking to. The voice was higher and had less of the gruff rasp she had grown used to, but looking at the boy, she saw the resemblance. He could only be twelve or thirteen, but by the spirits, he was different. His hair was long and in a neat ponytail, just as when she had first met him, but it wasn’t shaved as it had been either. Perhaps most obviously, he showed no sign of the violent scar across his eye. But then, there was how he stood, his face. He wasn’t tense, he seemed softer, not as beaten down as she recalled. There was a blazing light inside of him that was startling, as she had never seen anything like that in him.

“I want to go into the war chamber but the guard won't let me pass!” the ghost of Zuko exclaimed, pointing at the guard in question.

Accepting she was seeing Iroh’s past, and therefore she wasn’t visible, Yia wished for this to be over already. She didn’t want to see this, it felt so intrusive and… Just plain wrong.

Iroh was leading the young prince away, hand on his shoulder as he smiled gently. “You're not missing anything, trust me. These meetings are dreadfully boring.”

“If I'm going to rule this nation one day, don't you think I need to start learning as much as I can?”

Yia felt sick. He was so hopeful, so earnest. She didn’t like seeing the prince in this light, it was easier for him to be an angry jerk with a bad temper. This gave him context and made him too real, she just wanted to dislike him and ignore his existence.

Iroh sighed, and it clicked in her mind that this must have been what he did after he returned from the Spirit World.

“Very well. But you must promise not to speak. These old folks are a bit sensitive, you know?”

Young Zuko bowed politely, his grin lighting up the whole of his face. “Thank you, Uncle.”

Zuko and Iroh walked into the war room, and Yia felt herself following though her feet didn’t move. This was Iroh’s memory, and she couldn’t escape it. Yia was vaguely aware of a Fire Nation general speaking but was distracted by the presence of the Fire Lord himself. He made an intimidating figure, sat behind a wall of flame in the most regal attire she had ever seen. The cause of the imbalance in the world… If this wasn’t a memory, she would run. She would not dare attempt to fight this man – even through the old memory she could sense the power of his chi run through her in waves.

“The Earth Kingdom defences are concentrated here. A dangerous battalion of their strongest earthbenders and fiercest warriors. So, I am recommending the forty-first division.”

“But the forty-first is entirely new recruits. How do you expect them to defeat a powerful Earth Kingdom battalion?”

“I don't.”

She watched Iroh’s expression only twitch as he restrained his emotions from displaying, but the prince looked overtly horrified. He wasn’t masking any of what he was feeling right now.

“They'll be used as a distraction while we mount an attack from the rear. What better to use as bait than fresh meat?”

“You can't sacrifice an entire division like that!” Young Zuko shouted, leaping to his feet in a blaze of righteous anger. “Those soldiers love and defend our nation! How can you betray them?”

“Oh, prince…” Yia whispered softly, realising what would happen.

The Fire Lord rose from his throne, and she swallowed hard. Sangok had taught her about the custom of firebending fights, the Agni Kai. She knew where this was going – he had disrespected the general.

“I’m not afraid!” She heard, but the memory was shifting and she was stood next to Iroh, watching Zuko crouched with a ceremonial cloth over his shoulders.

This was some kind of arena, it looked specially designed for settling such matters. How often was it necessary to battle like this that they had a room built for this?

Yia didn’t want to watch, and yet her eyes were drawn to the movement of the two males standing into position. But something was wrong, Zuko looked surprised, slipping out of his stance. Confused, she turned to look at the opponent.

“Raava and Vaatu,” she swore, blinking in disbelief.

It wasn’t the general.

No.

It was the Fire Lord.

Zuko would have to duel his own father.

The young memory of Prince Zuko realised too late that it was his father who had come to duel him, and she struggled to breathe as he begged for mercy.

“Please, Father. I only had the Fire Nation's best interest at heart. I'm sorry I spoke out of turn!”

“You will fight for your honour.”

The boy, a child, was on his knees, tears streaming from both his and Yia’s eyes now.

“I meant you no disrespect. I am your loyal son.”

“Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!”

She felt herself gagging, her hands shaking uncontrollably at her sides.

“I won't fight you.”

‘Please no,’ she thought, but she already knew what was going to happen.

“You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.”

Iroh must have looked away because the memory went dark, and all she could sense was the boy’s cry of pain and the putrid smell of burning flesh.

Yia flinched back violently, gasping and shaking.

Iroh looked equally disturbed, eyes widened as he studied her.

There was a long moment as Yia turned away, and began to retch, dry heaving at the disturbing memory that wasn’t her own.

“What… What was that?” Iroh asked her eventually, voice rough.

“I-I-I’m sorry, I should- I should have stopped you. I cover myself but I could never grip the knives well with full gloves, I-“

She was rambling, and cut herself off to shake her head, curling in on herself and gripping her legs as she tucked in on herself.

“I don’t- I can’t touch people. This is what I meant when I said a-about... If I do, I-I-I… I see their past, and I can’t control it. It, I didn’t mean to, I’m so sorry I-“

“Yia,” Iroh said, voice firm, and she stopped talking, looking up at him fearfully. “What did you see?”

“I… You didn’t see it?” She asked, blinking in confusion. Yia had always assumed both she and the other person could see the memories when they made contact.

“I felt a sudden shift of energy, and… I cannot describe it as anything more than a foreign presence for a moment, but no, I didn’t see anything. Now tell me, what did you see?”

“I…” Yia could still smell the burned flesh, still see the bright, eager child Prince Zuko had been. She put her face in her hands, shuddering as she fought to control herself.

Iroh looked on her with concern. He gathered she had seen into his memory from how she had stammered before, but he had seen many upsetting things in his lifetime. He was a decorated war general, how could he not? Guilt plagued him for the touch, he should have noticed, remembered even. Why else would she cover so much of her skin all the time? And she made hardly any contact even when there was a barrier between them. When she'd confessed about her abilities she'd mentioned this, and now she looked like she'd seen a ghost. 

“I saw… I-I-I saw how… The scar, Zuko-“

Iroh nodded sadly. Of course, with Zuko on his mind so much, it made sense. He only wished she hadn’t had to experience it like this – the poor girl seemed traumatised.

“I’m sorry you had to see that. It was… A very upsetting event,” Iroh acknowledged, making no move to approach her. She clearly needed space.

She pulled her face away from her hands for a moment. “What happened after… After it?” She croaked softly, wanting- needing to know.

“After the duel, the Fire Lord said that by refusing to fight, Zuko had shown shameful weakness. As punishment, he was banished and sent to capture the Avatar. Only then could he return with his honour.”

Yia nodded, going quiet and still shaking slightly. She wasn’t hungry anymore.

The two sat in silence, the aftermath of her vision disturbing them both as it uprooted that which should have been buried long ago.

“We… We should keep moving,” she murmured eventually.

“Yes, we should.”

Not a word more passed between them as they packed up their uneaten lunch, and began to walk again.

Neither commented on how they stayed a few steps further apart than before.

- - - - -

Toph was walking slowly along a pathway up the side of a mountain. The young girl was still angry about all that had happened, stupid Sugar Queen and her prissy attitude. She looked after herself, carried her own weight, and did everything for herself so no one had to do it for her. The others didn’t need her to help them too, they’d managed fine before her arrival after all.

She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts, she wasn’t even aware there were others around until she was almost on top of them.

Halting abruptly, she shifted her feet to get a better sense of the vibrations the ground was showing her. She suddenly twisted her left foot in the opposite direction and turned her head swiftly towards the foreign presences.

Forcing the rock to obey her, Toph sent a stream of earth toward the unknown source, making its way to a large rock ahead. A dust cloud erupted into the air from the impact, not that she could see it.

However, she did hear the grunt of pain from what sounded like an elderly gentleman, and a girl cursing. Toph approached the rock, assuming a fighting stance and gripped the reigns of the ground beneath them, ready to strike if they proved to be trouble.

What felt like an old man was knelt over on the ground, rubbing his rear in pain with a grimace. Then the girl was stood, having managed to jump with the rock, but had landed awkwardly on her ankle.

“Ow... That really hurt my tailbone.”

Chapter Text

Aang landed as gracefully as he could, sleep deprivation weighing heavily on him now. He’d found his way to the abandoned town of Tu Zin, laying out a trail he hoped the scary ladies with the knives and blue fire would follow. He just needed his friends to be safe.

The young monk wandered down the main street, dust kicking up at his feet with every step he took, and he gradually emptied out more and more of Appa’s fur onto the ground as he went. Under the glow of the afternoon light, the dry heat of the day did little to help keep him awake. Limbs heavy, he sighed softly as he emptied out the rest of the bag in what he could only guess was once the centre of the little town. It seemed he had a habit of finding places that were simply ghosts and shadows of what they had been. All he could hear was the crunch of gravel underfoot, and the soft chimes of a storefront bell swinging in the light breeze.

Twirling his staff and opening it, he turned and looked back at the trail he had made, and how it disappeared over the horizon. The sky called to him; the usual blue was painted over with yellow-tinged clouds, and ribbons of pink and orange threaded just enough to give the appearance of a watercolour painting. The beauty of the scene was marred only by the ruins of the town. He prayed to all the old spirits that the Fire Nation had not been here – the idea of seeing another unnatural pile of rock or a burned pair of children’s shoes twisted his gut with guilt.

He wondered not for the first time what would have happened if he’d never run away.

Aang knew he was supposed to catch up with his friends, escape before anyone caught up this time, but… He knew he had to face these people. If he could stop them now, the others would be safe, and he wouldn’t put them in harm’s way. He would hate himself if Katara or Sokka got hurt again because of him.

Decision made, he twirled his staff closed once more and sat at the end of the trail in a meditative position.

And he waited.

- - - - -

Yia was watching the small girl somewhat warily as Iroh brewed the trio some tea.

They’d settled in a rocky outcrop halfway up the hillside, and though she had no visions of the girl attacking them, she wasn’t eager to trust the earthbender after her unprompted attack. Yia wasn’t eager for constant visions, but her ankle was uncomfortably swollen now. Noting the milky sheen of her eyes, she gathered the girl was blind, which was surprising considering their encounter. A young blind girl travelling on her own? There was definitely more to her than was being let on.

Iroh poured the tea into three tin cups. It was odd knowing that the third cup was supposed to be for Zu- the prince, but Yia pushed the memories away as she found herself picking up her cup.

Iroh handed the stranger her own cup. “Here is your tea.”

The girl stared unseeing at the ground, dark bags hanging from under her eyes, and Yia wondered what it was about the girl that was somehow familiar to her. Had she had a vision before? Or was it simply that she had a similar aura to someone else she had known? And why wasn’t she wearing shoes?

“You seem a little too young to be travelling alone,” Iroh commented, still holding out the tea.

The girl, despite her blindness, managed to take the cup of tea from him with the precision of a seeing person. It was unsettling, but rather than comment on it, Yia just rubbed at her ankle instead.

“You seem a little too old to be travelling,” the girl retorted, and Iroh laughed good-naturedly.

“Perhaps I am. But Yia here keeps an eye on me.”

“You’re not too much trouble,” she conceded softly, taking a sip of her own drink.

A moment of quiet passed between them all before the stranger spoke up.

“I know what you're thinking... I look like I can't handle being by myself.”

“I wasn't thinking that,” Iroh countered.

‘I was.’

“You wouldn't even let me pour my own cup of tea!”

“I poured your tea because I wanted to and for no other reason.”

Yia nodded but realised that was pointless since the girl, barely more than twelve she guessed, was unseeing. She settled for humming in agreement, knowing Iroh was simply a polite man.

“People see me and think I'm weak. They want to take care of me, but I can take care of myself, by myself,” the girl stated, and Yia wondered who she was trying to convince. It didn’t seem to be anyone present, maybe a family member?

Iroh’s thoughts seemed to be elsewhere, though.

“You sound like my nephew, always thinking you need to do things on your own, without anyone's support…”

Yia’s head snapped up to look at him, watching his expression carefully. Today had been difficult for him, especially after her vision and the fact that they were probably going to catch up to Zuko before tomorrow night. It could be even sooner if they intercepted him, and neither seemed to want to discuss what that meant.

Iroh gave the stranger a serious look, smiling sadly. “There is nothing wrong with letting the people who love you help you. Not that I love you, I just met you,” he chuckled, and shot Yia a smile.

She returned it tentatively, but returned her focus to her tea.

The stranger laughed at the comment, before sighing lightly. “So where is your nephew?

“We've been tracking him actually,” Iroh confessed.

“Is he lost?”

Iroh looked away, and she could feel his sadness crest for a moment.

“Yes, a little bit. His life has recently changed and he's going through very difficult times. He's trying to figure out who he is and he went away.”

“So now you're following him?”

“Something like that,” Yia murmured.

“I know he doesn't want me around him right now, but if he needs me, I'll be there,” Iroh explained.

“Your nephew is very lucky, even if he doesn't know it.”

“She’s right, Iroh,” Yia agreed, looking over to the General. “I know I would consider myself lucky to be related to you.”

“You’re very kind, Yia.”

Another pause held the conversation briefly before the girl grabbed her bag and swung it over her shoulder, getting to her feet. The sands of time had settled somewhat, and Yia could tell she had made up her mind on something, though what she had no clue.

“Thank you,” she said, nodding her head in their general direction and placing her empty cup at her feet.

“My pleasure. Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life's true delights.”

“No, thank you for what you said. It helped me,” she explained, a soft smile on her lips.

“I'm glad.”

The girl nodded again, before turning more towards Yia. “I’m sorry about your ankle.”

“I’ll live,” Yia promised, her smile in her voice as well as her face now at the sheepish look on her face.

“Oh, and about your nephew, maybe you should tell him that you need him, too.”

The girl turned and left, and Yia silently averted her gaze, finishing her tea.

Iroh didn’t comment either, drinking his own cup as a pensive expression clouded his face.

Yia eased herself to her feet, ankle protesting at the weight it now had to bear, and began to rinse out the tea set with a small amount of water. As she took Iroh’s empty cup, she was careful not to touch him. She let out a gentle sigh as she rinsed his out.

“She’s not wrong, you know.”

“I know.”

Pulling her bag over her shoulder, she destroyed any and all traces of the campfire, spreading the ashes and twigs appropriately.

“You ready, General?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

- - - - -

The only sounds that passed through the streets of Tu Zin were the low growls of the eel hound and the all too familiar tones of smugness in his sister’s voice.

Zuko urged the ostrich horse onwards as he wove through the alleys, wanting to remain as hidden as possible until the last second.

“I’m not running,” he heard the younger boy declare.

“Hm. Do you really want to fight me?” Azula asked, tone mocking as she settled into a subtle stance.

Deciding now was the best time, Zuko kicked himself forward, leaping off and letting the horse run to a safe distance as he landed in a crouch. ‘Always a flair for the dramatic,’ as his old firebending master had mocked him.

“Yes, I really do,” he said, tossing away his hat and glaring at his sibling.

“Zuko!” the monk gasped, clearly more surprised than Azula.

She was the depiction of calmness as she crossed her arms, an amused smile curling at the corner of her lips.

“I was wondering when you'd show up, Zuzu.”

Zuko gritted his teeth at the nickname, glaring at her as the Avatar scoffed.

“Back off, Azula! He's mine,” he growled, hands outstretched between the two opponents as he moved into his basic stance. He had not spent three years in exile for her to take this away from him now. No matter what his father thought of him now – if he returned with the Avatar, he would reclaim his birthright.

His sister seemed in no mood to let him go so easily, as she dropped into a low stance of her own.

“I'm not going anywhere.”

The prince looked between the two of them – Azula, confident as ever, and the Avatar who seemed sluggish, only just realising he too should be prepared to fight. The monk held out his staff towards Zuko, seemingly not realising it was Azula most likely to strike him down first. Adjusting his hand position, Zuko realised too late that he would struggle to keep an eye on both of them. He knew Azula’s tells, but couldn’t let the boy out of his sight for fear of him just flying away.

Suddenly, Azula’s smirk twitched, and Zuko’s eyes widened as he realised what was happening.

The princess threw her arm out towards him, wicked blue bolts of flame flying towards his chest, and he had only a split second to conjure up a shield of fire to block her attack. The force was too much though, and he was thrown back into the wooden front porch behind him, landing with a painful crash as he broke through some of the boards. The prince groaned, knowing the impact would leave him bruised all over his back.

Aang’s jaw dropped in horror. Zuko was powerful enough, but this girl, his sister? Well, whoever she was – she had knocked him back drastically. He realised that fighting both of them on his own would not end well, so he turned and opened his glider, calling the winds to help him soar away as quickly as he could.

Azula wasn’t about to let him go so easily, and sliced through the air by throwing her arm down, a wave of blue flames following her command. Feeling the heat closing in, Aang yelled out, turning over and spinning his glider rapidly, desperately trying to put out the flames. Falling through the air, he landed heavily on his back, winded as he finally deflected the last of the flames.

He realised too late that she had somehow reached the roof of the building next to him, and was now descending onto him with a smirk that terrified him to the core. Rolling out of the way, he forced himself to his feet, grabbing his glider as she landed next to him and kicked out an arc of blue flames. Aang was suddenly faced by Zuko, who was blasting fire at him with a fury he had almost forgotten – how long had it been since the events at the North Pole now?

Spinning and ever-grateful for all Gyatso’s footwork training, he moved and wove his way between Zuko and the princess as they both fired blasts at him. Azula between himself and the scarred prince, he barely had time to think, only moving on instinct as multiple shots were made between the three. Aang only used blasts of air when he couldn’t avoid particularly brutal waves of fire, too tired for much else at this point.

Prince Zuko let out a roar as he leapt into the air with a spin, and Aang’s heart froze as he thought the blast would be directed at him. However, he threw a powerful blow down at his sister, who elegantly dodged it and sent a precise and deadly shot back in retaliation, knocking Zuko to the ground. He quickly recovered, rolling back upright and mimicking her last attack, but she saw it coming and sent him another wave of fire, before shooting behind her right at Aang’s heart without even glancing round to aim.

Barely evading her moves, Aang climbed a staircase nearby, running around corners to escape the blue fire. Heading through a doorway, he found himself mid-air, and quickly crafted a sphere to balance on. He grinned as the princess followed him, and nearly fell to the ground as whatever floor had once been there had long rotted away. She jumped to the edge of the room to get some purchase under her feet, regaining her balance just as her brother ran straight into the room and plummeted with a loud crash.

Azula took this opportunity to attack once more, and Aang jumped out of the way, running past her and knocking her down to the ground floor next to Zuko. Unlike her brother, she landed on her feet as easily as a cat-swan.

The siblings made eye contact, and Zuko couldn’t help but remember how she had been when they were little. Sure, she had still been cruel to people, and manipulative at every corner, but she had played with him on the beach and hugged him on his birthday and had just been a little girl in a palace with too many rooms to fill.

The girl he remembered was very different to the one in front of him now – the girl who lunged and sent him flying through the wall with a vicious ball of flame that slammed him to the ground in the process.

Zuko’s head started pounding, and he couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes as pain coursed through his muscles. He was vaguely reminded of when Zhao had tried to have him killed by pirates – the force of that explosion was not dissimilar. His sister was scarily powerful…

For a minute or so, everything faded to darkness.

But then, a familiar hand was pressed to his shoulder.

Blinking his eyes open slowly, vision still blurry from the blow, he was confused and quietly thrilled to see the familiar face before him. The man’s beard was longer, growing out now, and he had a serious look on his face rather than the jolly appearance he was used to, but it was definitely him. But how was he here?

“Uncle…?”

“Get up!” Iroh ordered, the force in his voice reminding him of when the man had been a general.

Zuko took his hand, struggling to get to his feet as his vision cleared. He realised that the witch was stood next to him, arms crossed and giving him an unreadable look, but her cloak and scarf were discarded, daggers now in hand, and she was wearing the dress he’d bought in the marketplace.

He couldn’t comprehend any of that right now – they had a fight to win.

- - - - -

Yia didn’t speak, unsure what she could even say to the prince now. She knew too much about his past, and he had no idea that she did. Iroh had told her what was happening as soon as the blue flames had erupted in the distance – the girl with blue flames, and the lightning. His sister, of course. The royal family didn’t seem to have a single sane person outside of Iroh, and the idea that Azula could control lightning made her stomach drop to the ground. Shuddering at the thought of old nightmares, she wondered if it was Azula would be the creator at the end of her path.

Shaking herself, Yia simply nodded to the prince and turned to run towards the sounds of fighting, daggers twirling in hand ready to fight.

As they approached the battle, Yia realised that other than the princess who she’d only seen from a distance, she recognised… All of them.

Barring Azula, Yia realised she was facing the Avatar, the two water tribe friends of his that she’d seen in the swamp, and even more strangely, the blind girl she’d had tea with mere hours ago. Was this it? What the spirits had been preparing her for, warning her about? A small voice in the back of her head reminded her of a minor detail she had forgotten from her swamp dream – the fact that she was wearing an Earth Kingdom dress. One not dissimilar from the one she was wearing now.

Shaking the thoughts from her mind and focusing as the princess leapt over a pile of crates in an attempt to escape, Iroh stepped in and slammed into her and knocked her back. Yia moved just afterwards, swiping her leg out at the girl’s feet to force her off-balance as the unlikely group backed her into a corner of what had once been walls and now barely resembled rubble. Standing between Iroh and the prince, the group pressed in on her, stepping ever closer and blocking any chance escape. As the others took their bending stances, Yia held her knives ready to throw at the slightest movement.

Staring her down, she realised that Azula and the prince held an uncanny resemblance; it was clear that they were related. However, she still held herself with such confidence even now that she was trapped, that as she surveyed her opponents, Yia grew tense.

“Well, look at this,” Azula cooed as if she was simply commenting on the weather. “Enemies and traitors, all working together. I'm done.”

The princess raised her hands high into the air, dropping her stance and bowing her head slightly but continuing to look over members of the group.

“I know when I'm beaten. You got me. A princess surrenders with honour.”

‘Liar,’ Yia thought, meeting the girl’s gaze for a second too long.

A sudden wave of visions passed through her mind.

Azula throwing a concealed knife at the blind girl before throwing a deadly wave of fire that burned them all.

The princess summoning lightning and striking down the Avatar before anyone could stop her.

Iroh looking away, her taking the advantage and striking him in the heart.

Yia blinked startled, realising the princess wasn’t surrendering, but rather making up her mind about who to kill.

And the sands of time were settling as she made her decision, out of all of them, on Iroh.

“No!” Yia cried out as Azula smirked briefly and dropped into a striking stance.

Moving as quickly as light itself, Yia turned and jumped.

However, her ankle buckled awkwardly from under her, lessening her momentum. Yia silently cursed at the pain of her earlier injury, forcing her thigh to lift and cover the General’s chest as they moved. Despite the muted force of her leap, she managed to push Iroh to the side as a precise flare of blue flame left the princess’ fingertips and headed straight for them.

 

As the flames burned into her side, all Yia could do was scream.

Chapter Text

She and Iroh cried out at the sudden impact, and from beside them, she thought she could hear Zuko let out a horrified noise of his own.

Falling heavily on her side, the girl grunted as she rolled away from the General, curling in on herself as her left side felt like it had been dropped in acid. Clenching her teeth, she looked over to Iroh, relief flooding her as she realised that she’d taken almost all of the hit, and he just seemed winded from catching the edges of the blow. She, however, could smell the burning of her own flesh, knowing the wound in her side was bad without needing to look down at it.

As an explosion burst from somewhere behind her and smoke filled the air, Yia grit her teeth and let out rapid pants of air as she gingerly touched the edge of the smouldering hole torn in her leather breeches. Hissing at the fresh burst of pain, she pulled back, tears pricking her eyes as she let out a sob followed by a string of expletives under her breath.

She was going to black out if she couldn’t get this pain under control.

“Uncle? Uncle are you okay?”

‘Of course, he’d check on his uncle before me,’ she thought bitterly, though she wasn’t sure why this upset her so much.

“Get away from us!”

Forcing her eyes open and trying to ignore the spots in her vision, Yia looking towards the group who were approaching her.

“Hey, you’re the girl from the swamp, and Toph’s garden!” The familiar monk exclaimed, and the two in blue seemed to recognise her at this statement, but the blind girl was just confused. Actually, the boy in blue was staring at her like he more than knew her from their less-than-brief encounter, but she was too distracted to pay him much attention.

Beside her, she could sense the prince still checking his uncle, which was probably what gave the girl in blue courage to approach her.

“That burn is serious… I can help,” she murmured, opening her water skin on her hip and crouching by her skin.

The prince turned at her presence, fury blazing in his eyes as he blasted a wide arc of fire over all their heads.

“Leave!”

Zuko!” Yia yelled over him, the authority and pain in her tone almost startling him more than the use of his actual name.

The group went quiet as she hissed again, pain in her very veins as she attempted to half-sit upright, but refusing to drop her gaze from his. The boy’s eyes went wide and she knew her own were as wild and fierce as when she had pinned him in their duel and held a blade to his throat.

The heavy tension was only broken as she clenched her eyes shut again and let out another cry of pain, her leg spasming somewhat and the scent of melted flesh made her gag, turning away from him.

“I… I’m a healer, my name’s Katara…” the girl started, looking uncertain.

“Please, just… Help me,” Yia ground out, laying herself back down.

“Okay, okay… Sokka, get the bandages. Toph, can you raise her a little? We have to prevent her from going into shock,” Katara said, taking charge and the others moved into action.

Yia watched warily as the girl coated her palms with water that began to glow. Sangok had told her about the female benders of the North who used their healing abilities to treat the wounded; admittedly, she never thought she’d see it in action. Beneath her, she felt the ground raise up so she was on a platform. The blind girl crouched by her left side with the waterbender.

“My satchel,” Yia croaked. “I have s-some salves...”

“I’m on it,” the Avatar nodded, grabbing his glider and taking to the skies, probably to scan for it faster.

Yia turned her attention back to the waterbender kneeling over her.

“Toph, I need you to hold her down for a moment.”

“Just… Just don’t actually touch my skin,” Yia begged.

Something in her voice must have made them pity her enough to listen, as the girls nodded.

“This is going to hurt badly at first,” Katara warned.

Yia simply gritted her teeth and nodded.

She wasn’t wrong – it hurt worse than ever for the first few seconds.

Crying out, her lips ripping an animalistic roar from her throat, she fought to keep still, though it was mostly the small earthbender who kept her in place as water ran over her thigh and pulled the heat away from the wound. She was vaguely aware of the material of her dress and her breeches that’d burned into the wound being pulled away, so she didn’t dare open her eyes just yet for fear of being sick at the sight. Gradually, the pain ebbed away piece by piece, until she wasn’t afraid to scream if she moved too much.

Panting heavily, she angrily wiped tears from her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” the earthbender girl, Toph, choked out quietly. “It’s my fault, I felt it- Your ankle…”

“No,” Yia breathed, shaking her head as much as she dared. “It’s not. Okay?”

“But I-“

“I’ve got the bandages!”

“And I have the satchel!” Aang called.

“What are you doing to her?” the prince asked, voice cutting and clearly distressed by the brief alliance as he looked up from his uncle, who was gradually sitting himself up.

“They’re throwing me a party, prince. What does it look like?” Yia spat, and she was vaguely aware of the boy in blue (Sokka?) grinning at her comment. So, he wasn’t a big fan of the prince either. Makes sense. At least this was a distraction from the agony in her leg.

‘It’s good that I feel pain, it means the nerves aren’t all destroyed,’ she reminded herself, though it didn’t bring her much comfort now.

She watched as Iroh coughed a little, brushing off his chest and turned to meet her gaze. She gave him a weak smile.

“Looks like you owe me this time,” she half-joked.

“It appears so.”

“After this, can we just stop nearly dying? It’d be-“ She winced, gasping hard as Katara hit a nerve. “It’d be far more convenient, i-if it’s all the same to you.”

The prince was far less willing to joke right now, it seemed.

“Uncle, why are you letti-“

“Prince Zuko, Yia just risked her life and saved me,” Iroh cut in, his tone leaving no room for argument. “She asked these people for help, so we are letting them help her.”

The prince shut up at this to her relief. She didn’t have the energy to slap him, even if she had the willpower.

“Are you… hurt?” she asked Iroh between laboured breaths, looking to him in concern.

“Just light burns and bruises, my dear. I’ll be fine,” he promised her.

Whatever Katara was doing to her leg was swiftly becoming blissful in comparison to before. Propping herself up on her elbows once more, Yia looked down at the burn on her leg. Through the glow, she could see the raised whitened flesh lined with puckered and blistering skin fade into a harsh pink colour in the centre, becoming steadily paler around the edges.

“It’s going to scar,” Katara told her, apologetic.

Yia just nodded.

“In my satchel… There are jiyu leaves,” she murmured.

Aang began to root through the bag, and after a moment or two of searching, he found the bundle of leaves and a small pot of balm for burns. He passed them to Iroh, who placed them by her hand for her to grab.

Yia took a sprig of the dry leaves and put them in her mouth, chewing swiftly, knowing their pain relief would kick in soon. She gestured for Iroh to take some too, which he did appreciatively.

Katara seemed to be finishing up on her leg, the bags under her eyes making it ever-clearer that she was too tired to fully heal anything right now, so Yia sat herself up all the way. Toph quickly moved to earthbend her a sheet of rock to lean back on, and even if she had the words, she wasn’t sure she could adeptly word her appreciation for all this.

“Thank you,” she settled for, before turning to Katara. “Can you help him too, please?” she asked softly, gesturing to the far smaller burn marks across Iroh’s chest.

Her heart clenched at the thought of what would have happened if she hadn’t been there to shield him.

Katara nodded softly, and she and Iroh moved away to clear up the speckle of burns and already darkening bruises.

Yia closed her eyes for a moment, coughing from all the smoke in the air. It seemed the battle had set the remains of the abandoned town ablaze, and though they weren’t near any close wreckages, she wasn’t sure how safe they were here. It was a shame really – the sky was so beautiful like this, painted a muted orange and pink as the sun bade the day farewell. She could hardly open her eyes for how thick the air was becoming. Her throat was so dry it was beginning to sting as she tried to lean over, reaching for her salve. She wasn’t sure if it would do the burn much good aside from protecting it against infection, as all the healing that could be done seemed to be over with, but she figured it couldn’t hurt.

“Here,” a familiar rasping voice muttered, and to her surprise, the prince had appeared next to her and was offering out his waterskin.

Furrowing her brows, she regarded the prince carefully as he knelt down to her level. There didn’t seem to be any malice in his expression, which was somewhat unsettling. Cautious, she took the skin from him, and raised the opening to her lips, taking small, soothing sips.

“That was stupid, you know,” he scolded, quietly.

“Well you know, I always wanted to try being a human shield,” she commented blithely, her smile not quite reaching her eyes.

“You could have just pushed him away.”

“Bad ankle, had to shield him just in case.”

“With your leg?”

“It worked didn’t it?”

“Barely.”

“Shouldn’t you maybe be thanking me right now?” She pointed out with a harsh glare, growing tired of his criticisms. He could pick any time to be his usual irritating self – why did he have to choose now? And she wasn’t sure she liked how easily they fell back into their regular bickering after being reunited mere minutes. He'd been gone almost three weeks, that should have affected this somehow.

However, what she’d said seemed to silence the prince, so she returned to taking small sips of water.

“Fine.”

His utterance drew her attention back, and she wasn’t sure if it was the jiyu leaves or the immense pain she was in, but Yia could have sworn the prince murmured something under his breath.

Beside them, Iroh and Katara seemed to finish up, which luckily for Yia and the prince, drew the attention back to the General. As they approached the rest of the group and Yia gave Katara a grateful smile.

“Can you bandage your leg yourself?” The healer asked concerned.

“I’ll be fine. You’ve probably halved the time it’ll take to heal anyway, and now His Royal Headache over here won’t be the only one with a cool scar,” she joked, which caused the Avatar’s little gang to either smile or in Sokka’s case, burst out laughing.

“His Royal Headache, I’ve got to remember that one…”

Before Zuko could retort, Iroh put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Nephew, it isn’t safe to stay here, not this vulnerable. Will you help me find the ostrich horse?” He asked, shooting Yia a brief glance.

Prince Zuko nodded, shooting a glare at the little group, before following his uncle away down the street.

The Avatar looked ready to speak, but there wasn’t time, so Yia cut him off.

“You need to leave, Iroh will only be able to distract the prince for so long, and this alliance will fall apart quickly if you’re still here when they return.”

Sokka nodded. “She’s right, who knows how long Zuko can go without trying to capture Aang.”

Aang looked conflicted still, but the way he held his glider told her he was ready to leave.

“I know you must have questions about everything you’ve experienced, and I swear I will answer them all as best I can, but not today. I will see you all again, and I will explain everything in detail, I promise,” Yia swore solemnly.

The group nodded collectively and quickly moved to gather their things.

Katara hurried over at the last moment and gave Yia a tired smile. “Change the bandages every other day for the first couple of weeks, and if it starts to ooze, find a hospital – it means there’s an infection beneath the scar and you might need better medication than salve and some leaves. And stay warm, you don’t want hypothermia ruining your immune system.”

“Got it,” Yia nodded.

“And uh… Good luck with Zuko, whatever that is,” she offered awkwardly.

“An annoying side effect of being friends with Iroh,” Yia promised.

This seemed to relax the girl, which probably is what prompted her to start running with the others from the village as the young monk blew a high-pitched whistle.

Aang approached her when he was done, and bowed lowly.

“I hope you’re healed when I next see you.”

“As do I, Aang. Now go,” she urged.

The group tore away from the village, and she saw what she assumed was his flying bison land some way down the path. Even from this distance, it was an impressive sight, seeing the beast take flight.

‘Maybe one day I’ll know how that feels,’ Yia thought.

Movement drew her from her thoughts, and she realised the prince and Iroh were returning from their hunt, horse reigns in hand.

“Where did they go?” Zuko asked, looking around as if he expected an ambush.

“They ran away,” she answered, purposefully simplistic and vague as she looked past her injury and surveyed the damage taken to her clothing. Her breeches were ruined, though she supposed if she wore her bandages under them and the skirt from Song over the top, then maybe she could disguise the damage taken. However, the dress the prince had stolen was completely tattered, with singed edges to a wide hole around her side from where the fabric had kept burning. She would have to throw it away.

Iroh looked to the horizon pensively, before his train of thought was cut off by a round of heavy coughing. “The sun will be setting soon. We need to find somewhere to make camp for the night, and this town will be ashes by sunrise.”

Both Zuko and Yia nodded in agreement, but the latter winced as a small spasm coursed through her leg again and she swore violently under her breath.

“You can’t walk on that,” Zuko stated as if it wasn’t already obvious.

“Then you two had better be ready to carry me,” she grumbled, not realising just how much she would come to regret those words.

- - - - -

Yia propped herself up against the wall of the abandoned hut, trying to ignoring the pain that threatened to engulf her entire body.

Her joking statement had led to her laying sideways across the ostrich horse, Iroh sat behind her to make sure she didn’t fall off, and Zuko walking, leading the beast by the reigns. By the time the leaves were doing nothing, her body was screaming for mercy, and her tears were silently streaming, they had managed to awkwardly carry her off again by some miracle without touching her skin, and she had ordered them out so she could remove her breeches to bind her wound appropriately.

Spirits, it had taken a long time, and by the end she found herself wishing she was a healer, but eventually she had forced the tight leather back up over her hips on top of the gauze and bandages, and had allowed the two back inside.

Iroh had grown weary too, clearly more injured than he was letting on, but had gathered the energy to brew them all some peppermint tea once Zuko had built a small fire. Yia was not sure she had ever been more grateful for such a calming brew.

No one seemed in the mood to talk, and all her energy had been sapped by the effort her body was making to keep her upright, so Yia was the first to give in. Making her scarf into a pillow as her cloak was too far away for her to summon that kind of energy, she lay herself down, watching the fire absentmindedly. Though flames were the cause of her current situation, the way the campfire was dancing in the draft was practically hypnotic and coaxed her into an uneasy, well-deserved rest.

- - - - -

It was long past midnight, but Zuko couldn’t sleep.

He was acting as a self-designated lookout, sat against the  empty doorframe and keeping an eye out for his sister or anyone else who might attack them whilst they were weak. The prince did not like feeling so exposed.

Sighing to himself, he cast a glance over to his uncle. How close had he come to ending up alone today? His sister was ruthless, he’d always known that, but if Yia hadn’t been there, then there was no telling what damage she could have caused.

That was something else, when did he stop thinking of her as the 'witch', and as a girl? A girl with a name? Yia. It sounded familiar, probably some other waterbender he’d run into on his travels. But she wasn’t a waterbender, and after seeing how she interacted with the two water tribe siblings earlier, he realised she didn’t even hold herself like a tribeswoman. Whereas Katara would move and lean on one hip or the other, Yia planted herself as firmly as an earthbender, but with her arms lifted just-so from her side, as if she was about to leap into the air and take flight.

He swallowed hard as he recalled how she had sounded today. It was like listening to a wounded animal, and the sight of her skin only triggered memories of his own burn. He couldn’t even block her out whilst attending to his uncle. If she had been trying to prove her loyalty, it certainly made a point…

As if she knew he was thinking about her, the girl shivered a little, a quiet noise leaving her that seemed too gentle and soft for a girl of her appearance. She was wild and untamed and rough on every edge – girls like that shouldn’t be able to whimper so weakly.

He then noticed her cloak by the sleeping ostrich horse, putting two and two together.

Before he was aware of what he was doing, the prince had got to his feet and scooped up the dark fabric in his arms. Cautious not to make any noise, he draped the cloak over her like a blanket as he had seen her do in the past when she slept.

The prince was about to return to his seat when Yia stirred at his feet. He froze, watching her bleary eyes look between his position, then down at the cloak that now covered her, then back up to meet his passive gaze with her own open, curious expression.

A long silence passed, as neither dared to move for fear of breaking the spell that’d fallen over them both.

Eventually, Yia laid her head back down on her scarf but didn’t look away from him.

“Are we friends now?” She whispered, so as not to wake his uncle.

“No,” he answered, voice cold.

“Do you think we ever will be?”

The prince looked towards the door silently, and Yia knew she wasn’t getting an answer there.

Too sleepy to be much affected by his attitude, she just hummed quietly. “Okay. Are we allies?”

Zuko sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine, we can be allies.”

“Allies who use each other’s names?”

The prince gave her an appraising look. “Don’t push it,” he warned, but was surprised that his voice held no threat or hatred in it.

Yia seemed to realise this too and gave him what could almost be described as a smirk.

“Goodnight Zuko.”

He didn’t reply, but that just made her smile wider as she settled back into her slumber.

- - - - -

Yia woke to the sound of muted conversation.

The sun was just rising, and though she had grown used to Iroh’s sleeping in near sync with the sun, she was too drained to appreciate the spirituality of the behaviour.

“… It was a surprise attack.”

“Somehow, that's not so surprising.”

“It’s too early for talking,” she grumbled, which sparked Iroh’s familiar laughter.

“Come Yia, Prince Zuko has made us some tea. Perhaps it will help you wake up?” Iroh encouraged, taking a tin cup from his nephew and placing it down next to her side, before taking one of his own.

“I hope I made it the way you like it,” Zuko said, watching uneasily as Yia forced herself upright. She was unusually pale and clammy, and it looked like she was masking shivers as she reached for her tea.

Yia felt completely destroyed, but if Prince Zuko had inherited any of his uncle’s skill at tea making, she was sure that would fade away quickly enough.

Taking a sip, she realised that he had not.

Coughing awkwardly, she gave the general a look, before returning her gaze to Zuko’s confused one.

“Down the wrong pipe,” she lied smoothly, coughing a little more for effect, and putting the cup down away from herself, hoping her taste buds would grow back after that traumatic experience.

“Good. That was very, uh... bracing,” Iroh offered.

‘No kidding.’

Luckily, the prince appeared to have his mind on something else, and missed their reactions to his atrocious tea attempt.

“So, Uncle, I've been thinking,” Zuko started, drawing both their attention. “It's only a matter of time before I run into Azula again. I'm going to need to know more advanced firebending and hand to hand combat if I want to stand a chance against her. I know what you're going to say: she's my sister and I should be trying to get along with her.”

“No, she's crazy, and she needs to go down.”

Yia laughed weakly. “I second that.”

Zuko simply nodded, clearly not so humoured by the General’s statement.

Iroh grunted, and forced himself to his feet, cracking his joints as he went, before giving the prince a serious look.

 

“It's time to resume your training.”

Chapter Text

It was late morning by the time Zuko was ready to begin his training.

The prince had travelled back down to the stream to gather more water, whilst Iroh had made a seat of sorts using the mats and spare clothes they had left. He’d positioned it against the outer porch of the run-down hut for Yia to make herself comfortable on and still be in the sunlight. Walking anywhere for better shelter would probably be too strenuous on her thigh right now, and if she ruined the waterbender’s hard work she would risk making the injury open to infection and all sorts of horrible diseases. She would need a few days before they could go anywhere, but luckily for her, that didn’t seem to be such a bad thing considering their current plans.

Despite Prince Zuko reuniting with the two, everything felt pretty similar to the mornings she had grown used to in the last few weeks, only she didn’t have so much physical freedom. Iroh had bundled her in the cloak and half-supported, half-carried her the distance to her makeshift seat. Though they had never been particularly close physically, Yia hated to think that he was afraid of her after their ‘incident’. It was fine if he didn’t touch her – aside from her constantly feeling cold, that’s what her modest clothing was for: covering up. But his urgency to pull away, and caution to even risk contact in the first place… It didn’t help her fear of intrusion after being a major factor in Zuko abandoning his own uncle.

But then, she realised, maybe he was trying to protect her.

She had been every level of disturbed after seeing Zuko’s first duel without warning. Given what she had learned of Iroh so far, it was hard to imagine the man would do anything that he knew would upset her, so maybe acting so carefully was for her benefit. Yia selfishly hoped it was the latter.

Then there was the prince. Zuko. He still clearly wasn’t her biggest fan, but he also seemed to have accepted her more if she could get away with using his name now. He also had yet to call her ‘witch’. Not easily pleased, sure, but her efforts to protect Iroh had not gone unnoticed. It wasn’t that she was trying to please him, but knowing he wouldn’t constantly be fighting her every breath was a nicer thought than their old approach to being around each other so much.

She had just made herself comfortable, legs stretched out in front of her and back leaning back against the hut’s crumbling clay when the prince returned on the ostrich horse. Swinging himself off with practised ease, he led the beast towards her and murmured a command for it to sit. Yia chuckled as the beast obeyed, flopping down next to her and laying its head out on the ground by her right hip, seeking attention.

“Hey there, needy,” she greeted quietly, slowly stroking the horse behind its ears and earning a content grunt in response. The exertion of moving barely twenty feet had hit her, and she just knew she looked dreadful as she was practically laid out like a corpse. Yia was paler than usual, and her light-headedness made her feel frailer than she would like. Though chewing more jiyu leaves would relieve some of the pain she was in, ultimately it wouldn’t do any good now, so Yia decided to save those for later.

“You’re shivering,” Zuko commented, his voice monotonous.

“I get cold,” she said simply, brushing off his comment and turning her gaze back to the sweet horse.

“Are you sure it’s not your wound?”

“I don’t know. As long as I’m in the sun I should be fine, either way.”

The prince’s shadow nodded by her feet, which was all she got as a response.

“Yia,” Iroh called, approaching from beside her with a fresh pot of tea he had brewed himself (which she was silently grateful for after Zuko’s earlier attempt).

“Hm?”

“Before Zuko and I begin training, I believe my nephew wishes to ask something of you.”

Yia turned to the prince, furrowing her brow in suspicion. Ask something of her? What could he want?

Zuko looked suitably awkward about Iroh forcing his hand, going tense with an embarrassed look on his face. Averting his gaze from the two, he scratched the back of his neck and coughed quietly, she guessed in an attempt to stall the inevitable.

“Yes, Prince Zuko?” Yia asked, her lips pressed tight.

“I… Well, uh…”

“Come on, what do you want?”

The prince sighed heavily as if defeated, and sat himself down opposite her.

“My sister is talented. She always has been – firebending and fighting just seemed to come so easily to her. Azula has been a force to be reckoned with her whole life, and if we have to face her again… If I have to fight her, I need every advantage I can get. Iroh can train me to firebend, but I don’t know if that will be enough.”

A dawning realisation washed over her.

“You want me to train you?”

Zuko looked ready to sink into the ground and die.

However, it was a fair request. Even if they were only allies, the stronger they all became, the better they could defend themselves. Yia was not keen on being burned again considering how painful this was already.

“Okay, say I agreed to this, what would I get in return? I’m not exactly a firebender, so you couldn’t teach me anything.”

“I can. Teach you, I mean.”

She gave him an appraising look.

“I have been trained in using dual broadswords. If you teach me your style of hand to hand combat, I will teach you what I know.”

Yia’s mind briefly flew back to her dream of watching him teach the young boy in the sunflower field, but that included Zuko smiling so she quickly shut that thought from her mind.

Despite her concerns about the prince, she knew that widening her weapons arsenal was never a bad idea, and he was telling the truth about his own knowledge. Sangok had trained her first in hand to hand, then with knife throwing and wielding, and had given her some small training with his longsword and a bow and arrow. The latter were not her strengths, but they were handy for hunting and if she had no other options available, could use them in a battle.

Regarding Zuko now, and his clear reluctance to ask her for anything, she wondered if the Spirits had always known she would end up here.

Because despite how she cared for his uncle, and how useful his training could be, there was still the potential future she had to consider. Her visions of the distant future were always less detailed, always confusing, but they showed that there was a side to Zuko that could not always be trusted.

“I’ll consider it,” she finally answered, bowing her head to him. “Firstly, I think my focus should be recovering.”

Zuko looked ready to protest, but Iroh spoke before he could.

“I think that is a wise decision, Yia. When you have your strength back, I’m sure Prince Zuko would be honoured to train under you. Now, why don’t you try a cup of ginseng tea? It’s my favourite.”

She smiled at Iroh, nodding and extending her free hand to take a cup.

“Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure. Now, Prince Zuko, take your cup. Let us begin your training.”

Yia had never witnessed a firebending lesson before, but whatever she was expecting, it wasn’t for Iroh to sit himself down with the two teenagers, forming a neat triangle between them. Pouring a cup for Zuko and himself, he handed his nephew a steaming tin cup before settling into a meditative sitting position, taking a steady breath.

“I gather you still wish to learn the same technique?” He asked, looking to Zuko, who nodded solemnly. “Very well. But first, you must know what it means to create and control lightning.”

Yia’s head snapped up, causing a wave of nausea to pass through her that she did not appreciate in the slightest, as she looked between the two benders.

‘Lightning?’

Ever since she had been pulled from the river, she’d been haunted by the daunting crackle of electricity. The white-hot power that surged at inescapable speed, something she could not defend herself against. Something that even her visions could not save her from. If someone decided to use it against her, there would be no time to run.

It occurred to Yia that this attack, something so out of her control, might just be her biggest fear.

And Zuko was about to learn how to control it.

A shudder passed through her that had nothing to do with how cold she felt.

The two banished royals were completely oblivious to her reaction, however, as Iroh began to teach.

“Lightning is a pure form of firebending, without aggression. It is not fuelled by rage or emotion the way other firebending is. Some call lightning the cold-blooded fire. It is precise and deadly, like Azula. To perform the technique requires peace of mind.”

Zuko nodded lightly. “I see. That's why we're drinking tea, to calm the mind.”

“Oh yeah, good point!” He realised, grinning, before becoming serious once again. “I mean, yes.”

“You should start with teaching Zuko how you brew yours,” Yia commented, innocently taking a sip from her cup when Zuko shot her a glare.

“There is energy all around us,” Iroh pressed on, leaving her comment be. “The energy is both yin and yang. Positive energy and negative energy. Only a select few firebenders can separate these energies. This creates an imbalance. The energy wants to restore balance, and in a moment the positive and negative energy comes crashing back together, you provide release and guidance, creating lightning.”

The man grunted, pushing himself up to his feet and taking several steps back, before taking another deep breath and drawing his arms in an elegant set of circles in the air. Gripping her teacup tightly, Yia watched as the sparks of pale blue formed around him and fired out into the valley as Iroh directed it far away from them all. The resounding crack of thunder shook her bones and left her heart rattling uneasily.

Yia was sure that her face was sickened compared to Zuko’s look of awe and eagerness.

“I'm ready to try it!”

As Zuko joined Iroh on his feet, Yia cringed away. But what could she say without revealing her abilities to the young prince? She didn’t want to let him know what she could see, what she could do just yet. How else could she explain the cause of her paranoia that she would die by lightning? And worst of all, that she knew it to be true? Besides, being afraid of lightning was like admitting she was afraid of storms. It seemed childish and weak, and she was too prideful to let either of the men see her nightmares just yet.

“Remember, once you separate the energy, you do not command it. You are simply its humble guide. Breathe first,” Iroh cautioned, taking a step back of his own.

Zuko took a deep breath, his back to Yia as he settled into his stance.

She was somewhat grateful that he would be directing his attempt away from her, but the tension in her muscles tainted the feeling. She watched as he began circling his arms, and immediately sensed something was wrong. The energy, the yin and yang, it wasn’t being guided. She could almost feel him trying to prise the two forces apart, rather than guide them. More visually, where blue crackling lines had formed around General Iroh’s hands, Zuko’s hands were empty.

As he pulled his hands together, pushing them out before him, a resounding BANG echoed out around them, and a cloud of smoke and embers shrouded the trio.

Coughing into her elbow, Yia blinked the smoke from her eyes and was met with the sight of Zuko having fallen back to the ground. Despite her unnerved state around the practice of lightning control, she could help but stifle a smirk. He needed this now and again, she figured. A reality check.

It didn’t stop the boy from getting back to his feet and taking the position once more, circling his arms and calling out to the energy around him. Pointing his fingertips away from them all once again, he was met with yet another spectacular blast that sent him tumbling backwards.

Iroh’s look of disappointment did little to deter Zuko from his goal, as he got up and tried again.

And again.

And again.

Each time, he seemed to grow angrier, more and more irritated and demanding of the energy to obey.

Each time, he was knocked back down and faced with the reality of the situation – he was not succeeding, or making progress.

Even after they had a break to eat lunch, the stiff silence of chewing on meat strips and the few nuts they had left did not help Zuko cool down, or relieve his declining mood.

Yia was tempted to make a mask over her mouth and nose with her scarf the more he tried – the air was so thickened with the dark haze that she was struggling to breathe properly. Iroh had long sat down next to Yia to watch, needing his own rest as the prince worked.

‘Oh, to be an airbender,’ she thought to herself as the sun reached late afternoon’s angle, and the prince let out a yell of frustration.

“Why can't I do it? Instead of lightning, it keeps exploding in my face, like everything always does.”

Iroh shook his head and got to his feet, approaching his nephew slowly.

“I was afraid this might happen. You will not be able to master lightning until you have dealt with the turmoil inside you.”

“What turmoil?” he demanded, turning and glaring at his elder.

“Zuko, you must let go of your feelings of shame if you want your anger to go away.”

“But I don't feel any shame at all. I'm as proud as ever!”

“And therein lies the problem,” Yia commented, shrugging at him.

“Prince Zuko,” Iroh sighed, “pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”

“Well, my life has been nothing but humbling lately…”

A short moment of quietness followed, and Yia found herself absentmindedly stroking the ostrich horse again as she got lost in her thoughts. She knew that some of his turmoil must stem from the scar she now knew was inflicted by his own father – the same father who let his son beg crying on his knees for forgiveness, but was only shown brutality. That would be enough to disrupt anyone’s chi, especially when they needed to act as a guide for lightning.

“I have another idea,” Iroh said, a smile in his voice as he reached her same conclusion. “I will teach you a firebending move that even Azula doesn't know, because I made it up myself.”

Yia may have been hallucinating a little, because it almost looked as if Zuko had smiled.

Iroh made his way back over to her, and the three were once again sat in a triangle. Iroh picked up a long stick, and turned his focus to the dusty ground they sat by.

“You may have some wisdom to offer into this, Yia,” he commented, gesturing his head down to the ground.

She nodded respectfully and turned her gaze to the ground as well. If Iroh wanted her knowledge, she was happy to give what she trusted them with.

“Fire is the element of power,” the General started, drawing the firebending insignia in the dirt. “The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy to drive and achieve what they want.”

“Firebending is unique among the bending arts, as it is the only element in which the performer can generate it themselves,” Yia nodded, glancing up at Iroh to see his response.

The man simply nodded, allowing her to continue.

“Firebending is known for its intense and aggressive attacking style and general lack of adequate defensive moves, and benders are affected by the Sun. Their peak of power would presumably be midday on the Summer Solstice.”

“Correct.”

He then started to draw the earthbending insignia next to the last symbol.

“Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring.”

“Its key is waiting and listening for the right moment to strike and, when that moment comes, acting decisively. Benders tend to be an immovable force planted heavily in the ground, facing things head-on,” Yia added, trying to recall as much as she could from Sangok’s teachings.

“Air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom. Also, they apparently had pretty good senses of humour!” Iroh chuckled, drawing the next two symbols in quick succession.

“Airbenders continually sought spiritual enlightenment, and, as a result, all children born into the Air Nomads were benders. The art form focuses on flexibility and finding and following the path of least resistance. Airbending is almost purely defensive, as well as the most dynamic of the four bending arts – but because of the pacifist beliefs of the Nomads, what could potentially be powerful, even deadly attacks were superseded by evasive manoeuvres.”

Zuko’s puzzled gaze switched between her and his uncle, but Iroh pressed on.

“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.”

“The moon is the source of power in waterbending, and the original waterbenders learned to bend by observing how the moon pushed and pulled the tides. The Water Tribes are the only people who did not learn bending from an animal, and favour letting their defence become their offence.”

“Why are you telling me these things?” Zuko asked, looking solely now to Iroh.

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements, and the other nations will help you become whole,” he elaborated, as he circled his drawings thoughtfully.

“All this 'four elements' talk is sounding like Avatar stuff.”

“It is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful,” Iroh said.

“If you adopt the forms of an earthbender, you’d be difficult to move, as an example. Same with airbending – their fighting style means it’s near impossible to land a single blow without pinning them down or cornering them,” Yia explained. “Every element surrounds us, it just depends on you which you draw strength from. ‘Air above me, earth below me, water around me, a fire within me’,” she quoted, adjusting her leg a little. The longer she was out here, the better she felt.

“But it can make you more powerful, too,” Iroh picked up, prodding Zuko’s chest with a smile. “You see the technique I'm about to teach you is one I learned by studying the waterbenders.”

“You adapted firebending techniques?” Yia asked, openly impressed. She doubted any firebenders had even attempted to do so in the last hundred years.

“Yes. You see, waterbenders deal with the flow of energy. As you said, a waterbender lets their defence become their offence, turning their opponents' energy against them. I learned a way to do this with lightning.”

“You can teach me to redirect lightning?” The prince asked, enthusiasm returning.

“Wait, on Azula’s ship – you redirected her lightning,” Yia realised, eyes wide as she remembered the odd path the lightning took. “I thought you’d just knocked her off balance.”

Iroh gave her a knowing grin, bowing his head modestly. “If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow it. Come,” he murmured, standing to his feet once more, and gesturing for Zuko to follow after him.

As Iroh faced his student once more, Yia watched as he guided the young prince through the movements. Next to her, the ostrich horse huffed noisily, and she realised that maybe the creature was also afraid of lightning.

“You’re alright,” she promised it under her breath, so the men couldn’t hear.

“You must create a pathway from your fingertips, up your arm to your shoulder, then down into your stomach. The stomach is the source of energy in your body. It is called the sea of chi. Only in my case, it is more like a vast ocean.”

Yia chuckled at his comment, but Zuko was apparently too focused to find the humour in the situation.

“From the stomach, you direct it up again, and out the other arm. The stomach detour is critical. You must not let the lightning pass through your heart, or the damage could be deadly. You may wish to try a physical motion, to get a feel for the pathways' flow, like this.”

Yia watched as the two moved through the positions, letting her thoughts wander slightly back to Iroh’s revelation. If lightning redirection was purely the flow of chi in someone’s body, did that mean that any bender could do it? Or even a non-bender such as herself who had good chi control? Admittedly lightning was a form of fire, even if it was energy… Maybe that was why firebenders like Iroh were capable. If a non-bender tried to redirect it, maybe they could guide it, but then the energy would be trapped in their body, unable to escape. Bending was, after all, the ability to manipulate one's chi to the point where the energy can extend beyond the body and interact with the environment around them. But that begged the question of whether a waterbender could attempt such a feat and survive.

Sighing, Yia ran her fingertips lightly over the bandages on her leg. She was less pale and shaky now that she had rested, but figured she wouldn’t be able to walk for a few more days. The sooner she could be back on her feet, the better. For now, she would settle for watching the sky change colour overhead – another beautiful sunset she wished to paint and keep in her pocket for sad days. The clouds were rolling in slowly, a deep purple hue, and she wondered if there was going to be a storm. The hut wouldn’t provide much shelter if that was the case, but if they could keep a fire going and huddled into the corner with the least damage, they should be okay.

“Now, are you focusing your energy? Can you feel your own chi flowing in, down, up, and out?” Iroh asked, arms outstretched as they continued their movements.

“I think so.”

“Come on, you've got to feel the flow,” Iroh encouraged, demonstrating with a flowing wave of his arms.

Yia yawned softly and stretched out her arms over her head. Laying still all day was causing her back to ache unpleasantly, and she wondered if she should attempt to stretch her muscles out just to keep her blood flowing properly.

She was snapped out of her daydreaming when the General called out to Zuko.

“Excellent, you've got it!”

“Great, I'm ready to try it with real lightning.”

“What, are you crazy? Lightning is very dangerous.”

Zuko was taken aback. “I thought that was the point! You teaching me to protect myself from it!”

“Yeah, but I'm not going to shoot lightning at you!” Iroh exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. He sighed and turned away from his nephew, shaking his head to himself. “If you're lucky, you will never have to use this technique at all.”

Yia furrowed her brow, studying Zuko’s form. Where he had been loosened and flowing moments ago, his royal posture and tension had kicked back in with full force, and his fists were clenched by his sides as he turned his head to the sky, looking up at the clouds.

“Well, if you won't help me, I'll find my own lightning.”

Before she realised what was happening, he had turned his heel and was stomping towards her. No – towards the ostrich horse. Snatching the reins as he grabbed them, she gave him a hard stare.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she hissed.

“What does it look like?”

“You’re purposefully looking to get blasted at now?”

Zuko ignored her and tugged at the reins, but she didn’t release her grip.

“Let go,” he growled, glaring down at her.

“Listen to me first,” she shot back, her tone low as she glanced over to where Iroh stood. “I get that you’re going through a lot right now, but you cannot keep taking it out on him. Iroh puts up with all your temper tantrums and harsh words because he cares deeply about you, you should not take that for granted.”

Loosening her hold of the reins, she kept him pinned with her gaze.

“Go find your lightning if you need this, but it won’t change anything. You know that.”

The two were locked in what looked like a staring competition but was really a battle of will, and Yia was starting to understand that the two were evenly matched. Just as he was not stronger than her, she was not superior either. They were balanced, and therefore, at an impasse.

Sighing, she released the straps of the reins, and Zuko wordlessly mounted the beast, taking off at a brutal pace to get away from herself and Iroh.

“Do you think he will ever settle?” She eventually asked, calling to the General who seemed lost in thought.

“We can only hope.”

- - - - -

Zuko rode for the better part of an hour before he was greeted with a smatter of raindrops across his forehead.

“Finally…” he murmured, urging his horse on.

As lightning always struck the highest points, Zuko searched for the tallest rock formation he could conceivably climb. It didn’t take him long, there was a distinguished peak just ahead that looked just steep enough. As he dismounted, the prince realised the rain was picking up fast, and a distant rumble of thunder shook his bones.

But he was ready.

He would take all the pain and injustice the world had shoved in his face and he would cast it right back. It would wash through him and back out, not stick or burn or weigh him down with an invisible ache. It would be done.

Tying the horse to a somewhat sheltered rock, he rolled up his sleeves and started to walk. It was steep enough that he could use his hands at times, and his muscles protested, but he kept going. He pushed on. What had his uncle been saying earlier? Firebenders had the drive to achieve what they want. He was going to dig into that now if he could.

The sweat he worked up was lost amongst the rainwater that had begun to pound the earth as if it felt as wronged as he did at that moment. But Zuko didn’t care.

Getting to his feet, he turned his head to the sky, breathing heavily to fix the burn in his lungs and clenching his fists hard enough to turn his knuckles white.

“You've always thrown everything you could at me. Well, I can take it, and now I can give it back!” he yelled at the sky, the spirits, at whatever it was that was listening to him. Because someone had to be, something must have been. There was someone to blame for the misfortune and it was someone’s fault that he was forced into exile, poverty, without friends his own age or a place to call home, let alone his rightful place on the throne.

But there came no lightning. No thunder. No response.

If there was something, it didn’t care.

“Come on, strike me! You've never held back before!” he bellowed, eyes searching the rolling clouds.

The world should listen to him, just this once. It had to – he needed this. He needed to prove he could inflict the same pain and that he wasn’t weak and that he was strong enough for this.

But the rain just poured and no lightning came.

Something was building in his gut and he wasn’t sure if he was going to be sick or if he was simply going to burst into flames where he stood. Everything was too much and not enough. He wasn’t sure when he started crying but it made no difference as he was soaked from head to toe regardless.

Falling to his knees, Zuko threw his arms up and roared.

It wasn’t even anger anymore as he screamed at the sky, but rather to let everything out. Everything that had happened these last few months and years that hurt or he didn’t understand, all let out into a sound that no one else would hear and was swallowed by the open air.

When his voice was hoarse and the gravel digging into his knees hurt too much to ignore anymore, Zuko got back up on his feet.

He didn’t feel better or worse.

He just felt empty.

Chapter Text

It took Yia five days before she could put any weight back on her leg without crumpling to the ground. A further three days let her start to walk at least twenty yards, then thirty, then fifty, and within two weeks she had enough movement that the ragtag group could start travelling once more.

It didn’t mean she wasn’t in pain though.

Hardly moving for two weeks had let her muscle mass and training alike suffer from lack of due care and attention. That, paired with Zuko’s time away where she had only walked, meant that any muscles she’d built up to ride the ostrich horse without aching all over were long gone. Iroh had a hand on her waist to keep her on the saddle, and she was practically breathing down Zuko’s back with how close they all had to sit.

‘At least I don’t have to ride side-saddle,’ she thought glumly, looking out down the long stretch of road ahead of them.

As Zuko led the beast over a particularly rough patch, the trio lurched forward. Iroh caught most of her weight, but Yia couldn’t help the hiss of pain that left her at the unexpected pressure. The older gentleman seemed to catch on to her growing discomfort, and let out an exaggerated moan of his own.

Yia turned to look over her shoulder at him, but all he did was slip her a subtle wink, before letting out another groan of pain.

“Maybe we should make camp…” Zuko suggested, unable to see the dramatic performance General Iroh was putting on behind him.

“No please, don't stop just for me!”

“Well stop for me, then,” Yia cut in, wincing as they hit another bump in the road. “We shouldn’t camp here, but I definitely think I need a break.”

“Fine,” Zuko agreed, pulling the horse to a lurching stop.

Iroh happily dismounted, grunting in relief at the chance to move his legs. He offered out his forearm for Yia to help herself down, and she landed less steadily, but upright nonetheless. Stretching her arms out over her head, she moved into a lunge stance to get the blood moving around her legs again. Beside her, Iroh sat on a nearby rock, hand over his wounds, and Yia wondered if he really was playing up his wounds, or if they were worse than he was letting on. He was ageing, no doubt about that, so his health couldn’t be what it once was.

As she stood herself back up, reaching for the waterskin, a vision hit her.

Fire Nation colours. Men aback rhinos. An archer aiming for her head.

“Damn it…” she muttered to herself. Running wasn’t an option, so she would have to fight before making a fast getaway. That meant no throwing knives – she wouldn’t have time to recover them and she only had a limited supply. Blades didn’t come cheap. So, she’d be stuck with close quarter knives and hand to hand, but the men approaching were riding. Great.

“Do you need leaves for your leg?” Zuko asked, shooting her a look she couldn’t read.

“No, it’s not that – we have company,” she explained, leaving the waterskin and reaching for her two largest twin daggers. Spinning them in her palms, refamiliarizing herself with their weight and feel, she slipped into a deep stance. The strain on her leg was unpleasant at best, but she would survive.

“What are you on about? There’s no one in sight,” Zuko said, gesturing to the empty road.

“That’s because they’re not on the roads,” she mumbled.

Next to her, the ostrich horse shuffled around, clearly in growing distress as it sensed the danger too.

“What now?” Iroh grumbled, apparently irate rather than surprised at the turn of events.

Zuko decidedly slipped into a firebending form to her left, and she noticed how he was covering just enough of her left side to defend her weakest front. At least he had a good mind for strategy.

The approaching assailants didn’t take long to appear – thundering in on the backs of massive creatures she assumed to be rhinos, they burst through the thicket at both sides of the road. One rhino was forced to such a sudden stop that the force of its front leg cracked the ground beneath it. Its rider, a man with what looked like red feathers attached to the crown of his head and far more piercings than she cared to could, yanked the reigns and stared down at them.

They were surrounded so quickly that she actually felt grateful to have Zuko at her side. This fight suited his abilities far more than her current ones.

Behind them, Iroh stood back to his feet and placed a hand on Zuko’s left shoulder, the three of them stood in a protective semi-circle that could quickly become a defence formation if needed.

‘Maybe that’s where Zuko got the thinking from,’ Yia figured, as the General called out to the apparent leader.

“Colonel Mongke! What a pleasant surprise.”

“If you're surprised that we're here, then the Dragon of the West has lost a few steps,” the Colonel shot back threateningly. He quickly threw his arms around, sparking the armour covering his forearms before assuming a firebending position. Around them, the various other members of his little gang were readying their weapons, wielding them with such practised ease it began to concern her. They were three against five, and two of them were injured. It was more nerves than intent to threaten that caused her to spin her daggers again.

“You know these guys?” Zuko asked, his tone of surprise the most emotion she’d heard from him all day.

“Sure,” he said, taking his hand away to rub at his left arm. “Colonel Mongke and the Rough Rhinos are legendary: each one is a different kind of weapon specialist. They are also a very capable singing group.”

Mongke, whose fist was raised ready to give her a scar to match Zuko’s, did not look impressed.

“We're not here to give a concert. We're here to apprehend fugitives!”

Iroh was giving off a perfectly calm façade, and she was hit once again with the reminder that he was royalty, and probably would have made an excellent politician had he not been renounced by his younger brother.

“Would you like some tea first? I'd love some,” he offered, shooting a sideways glance at the man wielding a long-bladed spear of sorts. “How about you, Kahchi? I make you as a jasmine man. Am I right?”

“Enough stalling,” Mongke snarled, nodding to the others Rhinos. “Round 'em up!”

Yia got a quick look at the various fighters. There was a dark-skinned, ponytailed man that swung a ball and chain over his head, the bladed spear wielder she assumed was Kahchi, an archer, Mongke, and a figure covered in armour who looked like an explosives expert judging by the candle shaped pieces rigged to his uniform.

“Duck,” Iroh ordered, as the chain thrower launched the weighted ball at her back. She obeyed, crouching as he swung his leg round in a high arching kick that sent the metal over to Kahchi’s rhino and wrapped around its front leg.

Catching on, Yia rolled forward as two flaming arrows crossed over where her head had been. Rising to her feet as she completed the roll, she slammed the handle of her right dagger against Kahchi’s rhino, spurring it into action. The beast ran at the command and ended up yanking the dark-skinned warrior off his rhino, dragging him along.

Iroh waved goodbye as he watched them go.

Yia turned to see the archer fire more flaming arrows, now at Zuko, who batted them away with impressive precision. He shot back a neat fire blast of his own, burning a hole in the surprised archer's bow. Taking the advantage, Yia sprinted and leapt up onto the rhino’s tail, using her momentum to help her jump to the saddle. Slipping down, she sent a hard elbow strike between the man’s eyes which knocked him to the ground, unconscious.

Mongke apparently decided to join the fight now, directing a stream of vicious fire blasts at Iroh. As Iroh deflected each and every one of them, Yia caught Zuko’s attention.

“Get him off the high ground!” she yelled, jumping down from the rhino’s back.

The prince caught on quickly, running towards the Colonel as she made her way over to their ostrich horse. Struggling up on her own, she could hear the grunts of Mongke and the definite thud of a body hitting the ground. Luckily, Iroh managed to swing himself up in front of her, and Yia gladly gave up the reins, just clinging on to the General’s middle as he urged the horse on at speed to where Zuko was waiting on a now empty saddled rhino. Offering her hand out to the prince, he caught her by the forearm and she pulled him on behind her.

Zuko’s chest was pressed flush against her back, and he had an arm around her waist to keep the two on the horse as they travelled at the high pace. Yia did not have time to process how pleasant it felt to actually have some contact with another person – they were still being chased.

The last Ruff Rhino, covered in armour and holding what looked like a small, lit bomb, was chasing after them. She watched in horror as it was thrown right in front of them, and a wave of heat and smoke burst forth as it hit the ground. She didn’t understand why they hadn’t been burned until she realised Iroh was rubbing his left arm again, and she realised he had most likely used firebending to contain the attack.

“It's nice to see old friends,” the old man offered, trying to be cheery about the situation.

“Too bad you don't have any old friends that don't want to attack you,” Zuko bit back.

“If you can think of any, now might be the time. We need somewhere to hide,” Yia added, looking down at her bandages and sighing with relief when she realised that they hadn’t torn. Though her wound had scarred through now, she still had enough pain in her thigh to make her use the bandage pressure to help with support.

In front of her, Iroh seemed to be racking his brain as he hummed thoughtfully.

“Hm... Old friends that don't want to attack me...”

- - - - -

As it turned out, after taking an unnervingly long time to think, Iroh seemed to remember a place they could find help without being ambushed, kidnapped, or handed over to the Fire Nation for a reward. Luckily, it was only a three-day trip, but somehow, they made it there in two. Admittedly, after their encounter with the Rhinos, they’d ridden a lot faster and taken far shorter breaks as the looming threat of being found by Azula pressed back on them all.

This led them to a dingy, not so welcoming tavern at the Misty Palms Oasis.

Despite the heat, Yia had pulled her hood up, scarf over her lower face as they arrived. Zuko gave her a look, but considering how many men and women around them were wrapped up in dirtied cloths from head to toe, she figured she was fitting in. The inside of the tavern was also filled with people in the same garb – the term sandbenders reached her ear from another conversation, and she gathered plenty from there. Earthbenders, thieves, and all kinds of trouble surrounded them, and yet… Yia did not feel like an outsider. Maybe because everyone else in here was on the outside too. This was a hub for the freaks of this corner of the world.

This naturally did not please the prince.

“No one here is going to help us. These people just look like filthy wanderers,” he grumbled, sat opposite herself and Iroh at a small table against the side of the room.

“So do we,” Iroh pointed out, gesturing to the grimy clothing that they still hadn’t washed the soot out of after their battle the other day.

“Looks can be deceiving, Lee,” Yia warned. The use of his fake name felt wrong since she’d started calling him Zuko – but if she so much as mentioned the term ‘prince’ in here, she would be in a world of trouble. With a bounty on both the men’s heads, anyone would fight for the chance to give them over at that kind of price.

“What kind of name is Ajala, anyway?” Zuko retorted quietly.

“An Earth Kingdom name. What kind of name is Mushi?”

“Whatever, I’m just saying you don’t exactly look like an Ajala.”

“And what do I look like?” She asked, raising her brows and crossing her arms appraisingly.

The prince went quiet, seemingly without an answer.

Luckily for him, Iroh chose this moment to point across the tavern to an old man sitting at a Pai Sho table. He was bald as a monk, with a long white moustache and dressed in plain robes. Now she was paying closer attention, she noticed he was not as unclean as the other bar patrons around them. Did Iroh know this man?

“Ah, this is interesting. I think I found our friend.”

Zuko looked over his shoulder to see who Iroh was talking about. “You brought us here to gamble on Pai Sho?”

Iroh smiled wisely, getting to his feet and sliding out from behind their table. “I don't think this is a gamble,” he replied simply.

Yia exchanged a glance with the prince, shrugging slightly.

“I’d just follow his lead,” she muttered, trailing behind as Iroh gave a deep nod to the stranger.

“May I have this game?”

The stranger gestured for Iroh to take a seat, his expression impassive and unreadable.

“The guest has the first move.”

Yia stood at Iroh’s right hand, Zuko to her side, both watching curiously (less so in Zuko’s case) as Iroh swiftly and confidently placed a lotus tile in the very centre of the board.

The stranger’s expression did not change, but she could have sworn the corner of his lip had twitched.

“I see you favour the white lotus gambit. Not many still cling to the ancient ways.” Cupping his hands, the man lowered his head to Iroh in a greeting Yia had never seen before.

Interestingly, Iroh mimicked this movement in response.

‘Who is this?’

“Those who do can always find a friend.”

“Then let us play.”

The old man placed a new tile on the board, quickly followed by a tile placed by Iroh. Seemingly without even looking at what the other person is doing, the two men quickly began to place their tiles on the board in a growing pattern.

Zuko sat down next to the table and watched intently.

Yia bent forward somewhat to peer closer, but if they were making words or tapping a signal to one another, she could not tell. There was no obvious communication outside of the growing spiralling shapes that they were creating on the board.

She almost blinked and missed their synchronous finish, but she quickly realised their tiles formed the shape of… a lotus flower.

“Welcome, brother. The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets,” the stranger greeted, opening his own arms.

This was bizarre.

“Could someone explain what just happened?” Yia asked, furrowing her brows at Iroh.

“Yeah. What are you old gasbags talking about?” Zuko added, his poor mood seeping into his tone.

Iroh simply smiled again, and Yia was forced to wonder how he knew so much – was it just experience, or was this an effect of their Spirit World incident?

“I always tried to tell you that Pai Sho is more than just a game.”

Before Yia could ask anything else, a commotion behind them drew her attention.

“I'm not waiting all night for these geezers to finish yapping!”

A muscular man with long, dark hair was striding towards them, and the look in his eyes made her hands grip a pair of knives as subtly as she could. Kicking Zuko’s side lightly to alert him, the boy turned and saw the approaching figure- no, figures, of two Earth Kingdom men standing over their table.

“It's over – you two fugitives are coming with me!” He demanded, before shooting Yia a challenging glare, looking her over as if assessing her risk level. “You cause us any trouble and we’ll take you too, little missy.”

Before she could hit him in the windpipe, the old stranger quickly placed himself between the bounty hunters and the royals. “I knew it!” he shouted. “You two are wanted criminals with a giant bounty on your heads!”

“I thought you said he would help,” Zuko hissed at Iroh, the situation swiftly spiralling.

“He is, just watch,” Iroh urged softly, placing a hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “Leave the daggers,” he ordered her quietly.

Yia gave him a confused look but loosened her grip on her weapons.

“You think you're going to capture them and collect all that gold?” the stranger continued to exclaim.

The tavern fell silent.

“Gold?” someone muttered, gazes turning to look at Iroh and Zuko.

Multiple people stood to their feet, some holding knives and others grinning with an unsettling gleam in their eyes.

Muscle man’s friend looked appropriately concerned by their situation. “Uh... Maybe we shouldn't-“

He was firmly ignored – the muscle man moved towards Iroh when two vagabonds jumped in the way, blocking his path.

Yia took this as their cue to leave, grabbing Zuko’s upper arm and yanking him towards the door, Iroh and the old man already on their feet. Rocks were flying behind them, but she was too focused on getting out of the bar before the window their distraction was giving them ended.

She let go of the prince as they escaped the building, the humidity of the sweltering night air filling her lungs in a way she’d never experienced, and wasn’t entirely sure she liked. The four of them were running, all following the stranger’s path as they dodged and wove through the sandy streets of the near-empty town.

Despite the ache in her side, she was sure-footed as she covered their rear, keeping an eye out for anyone tailing them. Secret societies and enigmatic strangers were way over her head, but running? Running she knew.

When they reached a dark alleyway, the old man slowed his pace, out of breath at the sudden exertion. But even then, he was maintaining a surprising amount of composure that made her question just who this ‘friend’ really was. They were all a little winded, and Yia was limping again after running on her bad leg, but they didn’t stop moving, simply changing to a swift walking pace.

‘We must be close,’ she realised.

The Pai Sho player was headed straight towards what appeared to be a derelict flower shop. He didn’t knock or announce himself, opening the door as an owner would and holding the door for Iroh who politely held it for Zuko and Yia.

Safely inside, the man bowed deeply to the General, practically ignoring herself and the prince.

“It is an honour to welcome such a high-ranking member of the Order of the White Lotus. Being a Grand Master, you must know so many secrets.”

“Iroh, what’s going on?” Yia asked, her soreness and need for sleep making her sound less patient than intended.

“Now that you played Pai Sho, are you going to do some flower arranging, or is someone in this club going to offer some real help‌?” Zuko demanded.

Iroh sighed, approaching a door to what appeared to be the back of the shop. “You must forgive my nephew and friend. They are not initiates and have little knowledge or appreciation for the cryptic arts.”

Knocking twice on the door with a certainty she wished she felt too, a peephole slid open, and who she assumed was the florist stared with heavy judgement down upon Iroh.

“Who knocks at the guarded gate‌?”

“One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries,” Iroh answered coolly.

Apparently, he had said the magic words, because the door swung open and the Pai Sho player and Iroh entered the back room. Zuko went to follow, but they closed the door in his face.

Yia sighed, sitting herself down on a wooden crate as the prince pouted.

Iroh appeared in the peephole moments later, but Yia could guess what was coming.

“I'm afraid it's members only. Wait out here.”

Annoyed by the turn of events and being left out, Zuko frowned and crossed his arms, leaning back against a tall crate opposite her. Seemingly unsure of what to say, he casually sniffed a nearby flower, crossing his feet over.

She couldn’t blame him for his silence – despite their agreed alliance, neither really spoke alone. They still bickered now and again over the smallest things, but it wasn’t as confrontational as before. Now, they just seemed to try and coexist. Briefly, the thought occurred to her that she might be the closest thing he had to a friend his age. Spirits, he was the closest thing she had to a friend her age. That was sad.

Shrugging it off, Yia let out a huff and began to prod the area around her burn, testing to feel for any breakage.

“You know, as much as she scares me, I’ve got to applaud your sister,” Yia commented blithely, staring down at her leg to avoid his gaze. “She gives a solid hit.”

Zuko scoffed. “You have no idea.”

“Oh?”

“She’s always been powerful. Natural talent trained by the best in the country? Azula was always going to be lethal.”

“You know, you and Iroh never really talk about your home,” she said, her words as delicately placed as she could make them. “You talk about reclaiming the throne, about being welcomed back with honour… But never about what awaits you there.”

“Well you’re no better,” Zuko shot back, his voice unusually quiet for sounding so bristled. “You only trade folk tales or stories with my uncle. The most I know about you is that you claim to be raised by a man who wasn’t your father, and he must have been pretty good with a knife.”

He had a point. They were not close and had remained enigmatic despite their truce. But that was because she didn’t know whether she should tell him about her powers, because if she slipped up there was no way of taking it back if it proved to be a mistake.

“Do you think we keep ourselves private because we don’t trust each other, or that we don’t trust each other because we don’t know anything about the other?” she asked, eyes still glued to the fraying edge of her bandages.

The prince went quiet for a long moment, and she wondered if she’d crossed an invisible line. But the silence must have been too heavy for him, as she heard some shuffling around, and then:

“You’ve spent too long with my uncle – his proverbs are affecting you.”

The joke was humourless, but Yia got the message.

“Okay, I have an idea,” she said, reaching for her satchel. Pulling out a small bag of round nuts she had from a recent forage, she emptied out the contents onto a relatively clean looking shelf surface and beckoned the prince over.

He raised an eyebrow at her but said nothing as he approached.

“Information trade. We each take turns answering each other’s questions: for every question you answer, you get a nut, but if you pass a question, the other gets one. Sound fair?” She asked, finally lifting her eyes to meet his.

Prince Zuko’s stomach rumbled traitorously, giving away his hunger as he looked over the pile of food. They hadn’t had a chance to eat after the drama in the tavern, and their meals had been steadily shrinking these last few weeks. That, along with the fact that he clearly wanted to know more about her, made her offer an appealing one.

He was starting to cave and they both knew it.

“What kind of questions?” he asked.

“Any. Either answer honestly or pass. Don’t try to lie either – you’re dreadful at it. No offence.”

He glared at her but wasn’t turning the idea down.

“How do I know you aren’t lying?”

“You don’t – guess you’ll have to try trusting me.”

“You’re planning on sticking around, aren’t you?” He asked finally, narrowing his eyes at her. “You wouldn’t be so determined otherwise.”

“I guess so. This way, even if we don’t start to trust each other or become friends, we’ll have information that neither will use against the other because we have equal standing. Call it mutually assured destruction.”

He raised an eyebrow at this, but she knew she was winning now.

“You can ask the first question if you’d like, Zuko.”

There was a long stretch of silence.

And then:

“Fine. Are you from a water tribe?”

“Yes and no. My mother was apparently from the Northern Water Tribe, but my father wasn’t, and I wasn’t raised in either of the poles,” she answered honestly, picking up a nut and peeling away the shell, before popping it in her mouth with a shrug. “How long have you been training with dual broadswords?”

“From a young age. I was in training with Master Piandao because they weren’t sure I was a bender, then even when I started bending I kept up the practice ever since.” He took a nut of his own, giving her a scrutinous look once over. “You asked me about my hair before I shaved it. Why?”

“Because I figured it wasn’t just a poor fashion choice,” she half-joked. “My mentor, Sangok, told me about the old traditions and symbolism of hairstyles – like my braids, for example. I was interested, so I asked.”

“So, what do your braids mean?”

“Nuh uh, it’s my turn to ask a question.” Yia thought for a moment, scratching the back of her neck as she considered what she wanted to know. “What’s the deal with you and your sister?”

Zuko was the one avoiding her gaze now. “It’s… complicated. She was my father’s favourite, it made things tense. She was a firebending prodigy, she overtook me so fast it was scary, and her fire is so powerful it turns blue. I guess it stopped mattering that we’re blood, now that our father put a bounty on my head. He always said that Azula was born lucky and that I was lucky to be born.”

Yia felt a pang of sympathy for him as she heard his confession. Even though she’d never had siblings, she had to imagine it hurt being turned on by the family who is meant to love and support you.

“What about your mother?” She asked softly.

Zuko let out a wry laugh. “Nuh uh, my question,” he repeated, teasing her for the earlier comment. Clearly, she still needed to ease her way into this if they were going to open up to one another.

He avoided her gaze, instead choosing to reach over and taking two nuts instead of one.

She didn’t comment on it.

“Go on then – the braids. Explain.”

She sighed and shrugged, leaning back against one of the shelves.

“Well, Sangok was a very spiritual man, so he liked to follow the old Water Sage beliefs and rituals, which included the beliefs about hair and how it could convey important events and achievements. The traditions were not kept by many, but I guess he wanted to give me what little he could of my heritage. The half-crown braid is symbolic of me completing my training as a young warrior. I had to become a master at hand to hand combat, as well as a master of one weapon type, so in my case, I studied knives. I also had to prove I was able to hunt and forage for myself, so I spent a week alone in the wilderness. If I’d mastered more weapons, like the dual broadswords or a bow and arrow, I would be allowed two braids to make up the crown rather than one.”

“Makes sense.”

“Yeah. Usually, you keep your crown braid until you either win your first battle as a leader, are able to defeat a grandmaster, or until you reach your twentieth winter. If you win battles beforehand or defeat a grandmaster, you might just add braids from under the crown to show humility and modesty for your achievements. Once you remove your crown, you earn braids by winning battles. The longer the hair and more complex the braiding, the higher rank you show yourself to be.”

Zuko said nothing, simply looking over her hair with interest now. She wore her half-crown and cloth braid but had no victory braids yet. In fairness, she did not consider the battles she’d experienced to be victorious ones, more like near escapes, and she hadn’t led in any of them. At best was her duel with Zuko, but that was sparring more than anything else.

He was looking at her cloth braid now and was clearly waiting for her to finish.

She toyed with it out of habit, the feeling of his gaze making the skin of her cheeks start to itch from underneath.

“So, uh… The cloth braids that hang from your temples are different from others you might wear. Whilst the crowns and victory braids keep your vision free, the cloths are meant to be visible, never tied back out of the way. It’s because they are a reminder. When the tribesmen of old would make a mistake so dreadful it caused imprisonment or loss of life, they would make a braid bound with a cloth of those who suffered at your hands due to your own errors or careless, foolish nature. That way in a fight, you are reminded not to make the same mistake because of the consequences of your actions. Every three months, with the new season, a braid is either re-tied if you have not yet learned the lesson, or unbound, and the cloth burned.”

“But you have a cloth braid,” Zuko pointed out, his golden eyes piercing her in unpleasant ways that made her stomach twist.

“Well observed.”

She took two nuts.

He didn’t comment either.

“Why haven’t you mentioned your mother?” She asked through a mouthful.

“Pass,” he dismissed.

‘Interesting.’  

“Who is your temple braid for?”

No, that offered up too much. Sangok died because of her fear of the future, and if she admitted that, she’d have to explain about her abilities.

“Pass. Is it true that your father gave you your scar?” Yia countered, wanting to draw attention away from her late mentor.

Zuko hesitated a second too long.

“Pass.”

Yia’s lips curled into a sad smile. She already knew the truth of course, but this would prevent any mistakes later at least. With this in mind, she pushed a nut towards him.

“I passed on the question, though.”

“You’re a bad liar, Zuko. Your eyes give you away.”

The two went quiet for a long moment, and Yia cast her eyes towards the florist back door, yawning quietly. How long would General Iroh take?

“Which side do you support in the war?” Zuko asked eventually, and that actually took her by surprise.

“What?”

“You help me and my uncle, so we are not your enemies, but you don’t seem to support the Fire Nation either.”

Yia only took a moment’s thought to answer, wanting to be as clear as possible.

“That’s because you and Iroh are not the Fire Nation. This war isn’t black and white, Prince Zuko. There are good and bad people on either ‘side’, as you put it, but this war was not started by anyone still living. I want the world to be balanced, but I do not blindly hate the entirety of the Fire Nation for a war they did not ask for. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember and hold true to that of course, but no one’s perfect. So, I am not on any side – I just want the war to be over and for the world to be at peace once more, back in the natural balance of things.”

The answer seemed to surprise the prince like it hadn’t occurred to him that this was an option. It was either Team Avatar or Team Ozai – but that wasn’t true.

Yia let out another yawn, leaning back against the shelf more to prop herself up now. She was tired, dirty, and aching. Maybe she should sleep whilst they waited for Iroh…

“Your question, Yia.”

She was certain Zuko could hear her heart stop.

Was that the first time he’d called her by name? He didn’t call her ‘witch’ anymore, but when had he ever used it before? Did this mean they were making progress or was she just imagining things?

Trying not to overtly react to this, she took a pause to think of a question.

“You said I didn’t look like I should be called Ajala. My guess is you thought it was too Earth Kingdom for how I look, so I guess… What kind of name would suit me as a cover?”

“Really?” He asked, eyes widening at her response. “You could ask me anything, and you go with that?”

“I have my reasons,” she offered vaguely. Sure, the reason was pure curiosity, but that wasn’t exactly a bad motivator, was it?

“Fine, let me think at least…” he muttered, a pensive expression clouding his face.

“Ah yes – wouldn’t want a ‘Mushi’ equivalent,” she joked softly, scoffing and closing her eyes, resting her head against the ageing wood that lined the walls. Yia just needed to rest her eyes for a moment, was all.

The heat of the desert town soaked through the walls, and whilst she wasn’t cold for once, she was certainly drowsy from the heady scents of the flowers around them mixed with the blanket of warmth. She was sure she could smell jasmine, and maybe moonshade or night lilies. She never had been very good at telling them apart…

Minutes later, as she was starting to drop off into a light sleep, Zuko spoke up again.

“Mirai.”

‘Future,’ she thought, recognising the name meaning with amusement.

“Not Kira for the killer? Or Majyo for the witch?” Yia asked, only the slightest note of bitterness in her tone.

Surprisingly, he sounded entirely honest when he replied.

“No, a Kira or Majyo wouldn’t risk their life for my uncle.”

“But a Mirai would?”

“Yeah, I think she would.”

Yia chuckled softly, pulling her hood further over her head to block out some of the light the room was casting over her eyelids.

“You can have the rest of the nuts,” she murmured, letting the quiet settle into her bones as she slipped back into the clutches of a light doze.

“I still don’t trust you,” he muttered, and she could feel his movements as he wandered back over towards the door to Iroh’s secret society.

“That’s okay, I don’t trust you either,” she replied quietly, dropping her head.

Zuko let out a scoff. “Now who’s the bad liar?”

Yia just smirked.

“Maybe both of us.”

Neither spoke again after that, but Yia knew as she fell into the comfort of sleep that something had changed.

Not much, but just enough.

- - - - -

Zuko woke with a start as a door squeaked open, and he immediately moved into a defensive stance, ready to fight off any assailants. Yia seemed to have a similar response, as he could have sworn that she didn’t have those knives in her hands when she’d passed out last night. It also seemed like both of them had slept standing up, which would explain the pain in his neck.

When they realised it was just Iroh returning from his meeting, he relaxed slightly.

“What's going on? Is the club meeting over‌?” he asked, glancing from the stranger to Iroh, then briefly to Yia who was staring at the door of the main entrance.

“Everything is taken care of,” his uncle promised reassuringly. “We're heading to Ba Sing Se.”

Iroh and the other old man bowed to each other in respect, but he was too taken aback by his uncle’s plan.

“Ba Sing Se? ‌Why would we go to the Earth Kingdom capital‌?”

“No… It’s smart,” Yia muttered, turning back to give Iroh a serious gaze.

“The city is filled with refugees,” the stranger explained. “No one will notice a few more.”

Iroh nodded. “We can hide in plain sight there, and it's the safest place in the world from the Fire Nation. Even I couldn't break through to the city.”

“I’ve always wanted to see a city that big,” Yia confessed, shrugging nonchalantly.

Zuko could have thought more into that statement, especially given the looked of excitement that flashed behind her eyes and almost brightened their stormy grey colour, but was distracted by the ringing of a bell. The main entrance opened, and a young man entered the shop holding a handful of papers.

“I have the passports for our guests, but there are two men out on the street looking for you two,” the new stranger warned, gesturing to himself and his uncle.

Yia didn’t seem concerned at all though.

“It’s okay, I have an idea…”

In fairness, it was his own fault for agreeing to her plan.

Trusting her was what led him to tuck himself into a large plant pot, holding a fake lid of flowers over himself as they were pulled on a wooden wagon far away from the village. Whilst uncomfortable, he had to begrudgingly accept that her plan had worked far better than risking a fight with those earthbenders, or any other shady figures from the bar who might now recognise them after the fight last night.

‘Mutually assured destruction,’ he thought to himself, settling in for their long journey ahead.

He didn’t have to like it, but Yia was proving herself to be trustworthy.

 

Or at least, worthy enough to use her name.

Chapter Text

Once they were out of the desert, the supplies Iroh’s mysterious friends had provided made it shockingly easy to make their way to the refugee ferries. All she had needed was an outfit change, and she looked as close as she would probably ever get to ‘ordinary’. Dark arm wraps and loose brown trousers tucked into her boots under simple green dress robes, and her braids hidden under a headwrap she’d tied from her scarf that only let the lower half of her hair show. She still wore her chest armour underneath, along with her silver belt and leather gloves, but her necklace, cloak and jerkin had been folded away for another day. Seeing her reflection had been somewhat unsettling, as Yia realised that actually… she didn’t look mysterious or threatening anymore. She looked almost pretty.

But her jaw was still too harsh and square, and her eyes were slanted like a Fire Nationer even if they were silver in colour. Sangok always said she looked like her mother but was that true? Or was there just enough of her mother to let Sangok forget her father? Besides, the loose robes cinched at the waist gave the illusion of soft curves, and hid her actual muscular physique. The ladies she had seen in the rice paddy town were all slim and willowy, whereas she looked bulkier, curved and rough around the edges. Also, those women probably didn’t have the struggle of working out how to strategically place knives all over their bodies so they were still able to fight in a dress.

Not that it mattered how she looked, it never had before.

Or maybe it did now?

Now, they were surrounded by people. Yia was off to start a new life. Sure, she was still going to protect Iroh as much as she could, but would that be needed now? She had the chance to completely reinvent herself in Ba Sing Se, get a job and a place to live and make her own friends and maybe even meet someone to like as more than a friend.

‘Not that last one,’ she realised, with a slight twinge of disappointment running through her. ‘Even if I met a boy who liked me, we could never be together. I couldn’t even touch him.’

But still, the thought was a nice daydream considering she’d never met a boy she could like.

The only boys she had met that were her age were usually Fire Nation soldiers trying to kill her, or Zuko, who was Fire Nation and had tried to kill her.

After all, this was all assuming that she didn’t get called by the spirits to uproot her life and go help the Avatar defeat the Fire Lord. If that happened, would she ever be able to return to whatever life she made? Or would she stay with the Avatar and his friends? Iroh would probably have to return to the Fire Nation and act as regent until Zuko came of age to take the throne unless he was able to take it straight away. There were bound to be assassination attempts on both of them, so she would have to stay with the two at least for the first year or so until she could find an appropriate and well-trained bodyguard to keep them safe.

Yia snapped out of it as their line moved forward again, and she looked over her documents once more.

She smiled at the name. Mirai. It was a name she would never have chosen for herself, but she couldn’t imagine reinventing herself with any other alias now. Like a secret joke only she understood because Zuko hadn’t known what he was saying as he’d said it.

Zuko was something else that plagued her mind as they approached the ticket stand – the last four days of travelling to get here had been essentially the same as after Azula’s attack, but in the evenings, she and Zuko would ask each other questions.

He had started it, approaching with the remains of her bag of nuts, and they’d ended up talking late into the night.

“Do you have a secret hunch about how you’ll die?”

“No, I haven’t really thought about it. I guess my sister could kill me, but I don’t want to think too much about that. If you could, would you want to bend?”

“I’d like to experience it and know what it was like, but I like being a nonbender. There’s something rewarding about being just as strong as a bender with nothing more than my body. What are you most grateful for?”

“My uncle, I suppose. You?”

“My upbringing. Have you ever wanted revenge for what happened with your father?”

“Pass. Will you ever tell me why you have your cloth braid?”

“Pass.”

And so on, they went.

Questions would start slowly, then it was as quick as their bickering. She was learning all kinds of unusual facts about the prince, and the more they asked about each other, the easier it got. Of course, the most personal questions were often given passes, but that was to be expected really. But they were bonding.

He didn’t want to settle in Ba Sing Se.

She was scared of the sheer number of people there would be.

He could play the tsungi horn.

She could at best play a hand drum.

He had killed three times.

She had killed more.

He was only ever taught one dance as dancing was outlawed, and hated every moment.

She had always wanted to learn cultural dances.

His family vacationed in Ember Island.

She had never left her mountain range until the red moon.

He had no idea what he would do when his uncle passed.

Neither did she.

Eventually one of them would fall asleep, the other shortly after. Yia wasn’t sure if Iroh was paying their game any attention, but every now and again she would catch him looking at them and smiling to himself. She wondered if this was just him being happy that they were bonding, or if he knew something they didn’t.

As a grumpy lady wearing an ornate headpiece stamped their tickets, Yia looked over the crowded cave. So many people had been displaced by the war. Of course, she was aware that the war had spread far and wide, but it was still difficult to comprehend just how many individuals were left homeless or were forced to flee. Mothers wore rags to swaddle infants in enough cloth to stay warm, very few men younger than sixty were present, and everyone looked on the brink of starvation. Yia was grateful for the luck they had had over the last few weeks because even with her injured leg, she looked infinitely better off than most people here.

“It’s sad,” she murmured, mostly to herself.

Iroh seemed to hear her though and placed a hand on her shoulder just as she had seen him do for Zuko several times. She only flinched a little at the touch.

“Maybe so, but this place is one of hope. Everyone here is making a new start in life, somewhere they can be safe and are able to thrive.”

Yia didn’t look at him, her gaze still looking over the tents and the gaunt faces and the crying children. A sad smile tugged at the corner of her lips.

“Will we be safe?” she asked softly.

“Who? Two of the finest young fighters I’ve ever met, with an elderly veteran by their side? I don’t think we could be much sa-”

“Our ferry’s open for boarding,” Zuko interrupted, passing them each a ticket.

Yia took hers, careful not to let their fingertips touch.

The trio turned and made their way to one of the ferries lined up along the concealed dock.

“You know, I can’t remember ever being on a ship bigger than a sailboat,” Yia confessed softly to Zuko.

“You nervous or something?” He asked, voice gruff. The prince’s stiff posture and his permanent frown had returned with a vengeance, and she realised his attitude had soured considerably since last night. Not that he had been smiling and happy then either, but he was softer then – more pensive, rather than his current overt moodiness.

“A bit,” she replied, simple and honest since he didn’t seem too talkative.

As if he read her mind, Zuko just let out a quiet hum in response, and they made the rest of their trip onto the ferry in silence.

Once onboard and having secured a spot by the railings, Yia kept an eye on their belongings whilst the other two waited in line to get food. The ferry was huge to her, big enough to hold at least a couple of hundred passengers at a time, though it was crowded enough to feel like more people than that. Yia knew there would be thousands of people in Ba Sing Se, and that this was barely the tip of the iceberg, but she couldn’t help the tension that crept into her muscles at the sheer number of people around. Being around crowds was new to her, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. If Iroh and Zuko had been able to get tickets and passports to get into the most secure city the world had ever seen, surely other Fire Nationers could do the same? And with so many people, all different and maybe with a mixed heritage like herself, would anyone be able to pick them out in a crowd?

Yia was not pulled from her thoughts until Zuko forcibly shoved a bowl of what she could only guess was some kind of soup into her hands.

She didn’t thank him.

He was being rude, why should she be polite?

With a start – the ferry pulled away from the shore, a faint rumbling underneath her feet. Yia turned to look out towards the mouth of the large cave they were leaving. The pass was calm and mirrored the clear blue of the sky above. It lay without a ripple ahead in the silver-blue water, as if time itself had been frozen, aside from the waves formed by the ship pushing through the surface. The far shore was nothing more than a thin line in the distance, growing into a sheer cliff face that she imagined was actually the wall. Even from here, she was impressed by its sheer size and strength.

“Who would have thought after all these years, I'd return to the scene of my greatest military disgrace…” Iroh murmured from beside her, following her gaze with a heavy sigh.

Yia couldn’t process how painful it must be for him, the memories it must bring to light, before he pulled out a flowery hat and gave her a shining grin.

“…as a tourist!”

Yia couldn’t help but scoff at his attitude. Only he would be able to see the bright side of this.

“Look around. We're not tourists, we're refugees,” Zuko grumbled, the beauty of the view lost on him, lifting his bowl to his lips with a grimace. He practically gagged the second he tasted his dish, spitting the liquid back out over the edge of the ferry.

Yia and Iroh carefully placed their bowls down on the railing, deciding to leave the questionable substance be.

“Ugh! I'm sick of eating rotten food, sleeping in the dirt. I'm tired of living like this!”

Before Yia could respond, a stranger’s voice cut in from behind them.

“Aren't we all?”

Yia spun around, the foreign speaker making her flinch for her knives.

‘No, Yia. You’re safe. It’s just another refugee saying hello.’

The voice belonged to a tall boy, maybe slightly older than herself, with skin almost as dark as her own. However, there was a warmth that closer resembled the copper colouring of a harvest moon at twilight rather than the deep tones of her water tribe heritage. His hair was lighter than hers too, a ruffled mess of rich brown matched with similarly brown eyes. He wore mismatched pieces of armour over navy underclothes and an orange tunic, and a pair of tiger hook swords hung from his belt that drew her gaze briefly. But what kept her attention was his boyish smirk and the single piece of wheat that he was casually chewing on the end of.

He was… something.

She didn’t understand why she suddenly felt conscious of her appearance again, but out of habit more than anything else, she began fiddling with her cloth braid.

“My name's Jet – and these are my Freedom Fighters, Smellerbee and Longshot.”

She turned her attention to his two companions, who were similarly dressed to him. The shorter one wore face paint and a sullen expression, and the more passive looking boy she assumed was Longshot due to the bow and arrow he carried with him.

‘Freedom Fighters. Vigilantes maybe?’ she thought to herself as Smellerbee greeted them and Longshot nodded hello.

“Hello,” Zuko replied monotonously.

“Nice to meet you,” Yia said with a polite smile.

Jet’s gaze was drawn over to her, and she could have sworn she saw the corner of his mouth twitch upwards briefly.

“And you, uh…”

“Mirai,” she supplied, before turning and gesturing to her companions. “This is my friend Mushi, and his nephew, Lee.”

“Mirai? Pretty name. And Lee, the food isn’t just made bad.”

Both she and Zuko raised a brow at this, waiting for him to explain.

“Here's the deal. I hear the captain's eating like a king while the refugees have to feed off his scraps. Doesn't seem fair, does it?”

“What sort of king is he eating like?” Iroh asked, his interest piqued.

“The fat, happy kind,” Jet answered, his bitter tone showing just how thrilled he was about this fact. “You want to help us "liberate" some food?”

Zuko looked at his bowl for only a moment before he made up his mind. Lifting his arm and throwing the dish out into the waters below, he clenched his fists by his side and turned to face Jet and the others.

“I'm in.”

Jet smirked.

Yia sighed a little at the idea of a decent meal. It seemed corruption truly was everywhere if the captain of a refugee boat was stealing the best of the food for himself and his crew when they were meant to be helping.

The noise seemed to draw Zuko’s attention. He turned to Yia and gave her a once over.

“Is your leg good enough to fight on?”

She shrugged and moved through a few stretches to test the injury. Though it still ached, it was healing well. It felt no worse than a collection of bad bruises, and she had to start training again sometime soon.

“It’s good enough – I’ve fought with burn wounds before and I could do with some stealth practice.”

“You were burned?” Jet asked, concern flooding his voice.

She ignored how nice it felt that a stranger cared about her wellbeing.

“Yes. A few weeks back a firebender tried to attack, uh, Mushi; I tried to knock him out of the way but ended up taking most of the blow.”

“Wow, that’s pretty brave.”

“Oh, um… Thanks, I guess?” Yia replied, smiling a little wider.

She didn’t notice Zuko looking between her and the other boy, she was too busy trying to work out why Jet was looking at her the way he was.

“So, see you guys tonight then?” Jet asked, turning his attention back to their group as a whole.

“Sure,” Zuko agreed.

Jet nodded and gave a loose, playful salute to them, turning on his heel and walking away.

Yia watched him leave curiously, until Iroh nudging her side with his elbow drew her back.

“What?” she asked, hiding her embarrassment as best she could. Clearly, it wasn’t quite enough.

“Nothing. He seemed a handsome young man, my dear,” the General answered, giving her a knowing smile.

“Very funny,” she brushed off, sighing to herself and tipping away the contents of her bowl.

But the idea of food wasn’t the only thing that had her looking forward to the night ahead – she was intrigued by this boy and his friends.

Maybe she’d be able to work out what the feeling was when she saw Jet again.

- - - - -

It was just getting dark when Longshot approached their little group. He didn’t say anything, just nodded for them to get up.

Yia cast Zuko a glance and he just shrugged. He got to his feet and offered her a hand up.

“I’m alright, need to start using it again,” she said, playing it off as she pushed herself upright.

“Suit yourself,” he shrugged.

At least he wasn’t offended by her decline.

They followed the silent archer over to where the Freedom Fighters were waiting at the bottom of the stairs up to the guarded higher floor of the ship. Jet and Smellerbee seemed to be caught deep in discussion, both holding large sacks in their hands, but as the others approached, the older boy turned to look them over.

“Great, you made it,” Jet said, smirking and still chewing his wheatgrass.

“Where else would we be?” Zuko pointed out.

The dry response did little to dampen the spirits of the young fighters, however, as Smellerbee’s eyes rolled but nothing was said in response.

“What’s the plan then?” Yia asked, ignoring Zuko’s petty behaviour.

“Simple. The guards rotate every minute. We get up the stairs the second one passes us, then get into the kitchen and swipe as much as we can. Smellerbee will be a lookout, and Longshot will make us a zipline to escape down before the next rotation. Got it?”

The two nodded.

“Great, let’s go. Lee, I’m guessing you can use those swords?” Jet asked, gesturing to the dual broadswords Zuko was wearing on his hip.

“I’m guessing you can use yours?” he shot back, drawing the daos with a turn and nodding curtly to the hooked swords Jet wore in a similar fashion.

“Easy, Lee,” Yia warned under her breath. She’d noticed his hearing was better than most – when he was paying attention anyway. Admittedly with his scarring, she would have imagined him half deaf, but she wouldn’t make the mistake of judging a book by its cover when Zuko was involved. Regardless, she could almost feel the deep breath he took beside her as he backed off.

“Okay, let’s get in position,” Jet called, turning towards the stairs again and drawing his own swords. “Lee, you wanna take point?”

Zuko did not respond, simply crouching as he travelled up the stairs.

She gave Jet an apologetic look for his behaviour, before following after him, keeping low to stay hidden. Yia found herself suddenly wishing for her cloak and thigh straps. They made her feel better concealed, and the straps were far easier than her current arrangement of knives hidden within her arm and leg wraps amongst other places.

Keenly aware of the Freedom Fighters additional presence behind her, Yia realised she’d never fought with a unit like this before. She had always been on her own, aside from their encounter with the Rhinos. It was different and terrifying. She had to trust these strangers to have her back – she’d known Zuko almost two months now and she only just trusted him.

‘Wow, nearly two months?’ she thought to herself. ‘It has to have been fifty… No, fifty-two days now since we’ve met? Though, does his time away count?’

Yia was snapped out of her thoughts as a guard holding a long pole with a yellow lantern atop marched past their hiding place.

She had to hand it to Zuko – the boy wasn’t too bad at sneaking around quietly. He managed to creep over to the kitchen’s wall in moments, and yet all that could be heard was the sound of the ship cutting through the waves. Maybe she would teach him combat, if only to learn how he could tread so lightly.

She, Jet and Smellerbee followed after him, Longshot disappearing off to find his mark, and they all peered in through the windows lining the walls. The room was lined with wood, and a warm glow emitted from inside as her eyes were met with the sight of whole cooked Pickens, pots of fresh vegetables, and what looked like small containers of roast duck noodles.  Her stomach panged fiercely at the sight, and she just hoped it wouldn’t growl loud enough for a guard to hear her.

Ahead of them, Zuko peered around the side of the wall, checking the guard had moved on long enough for them to be in the clear. They were in luck, as the group managed to move forward without a guard in sight. As they reached the door, Zuko tried it once, before shaking his head at her.

‘Locked,’ she gathered.

Yia glanced back over her shoulder to see Jet approaching and offering out his sword. She nodded, stepping back out of the way as he lifted his blade and rammed it between the door and the frame. With the softest click, the metal gave way and she pushed open the entrance with a grin.

This was strangely exhilarating. Sangok had always taught her to do what was right, regardless of sides or teams or anyone else’s approaches. Without him here, she was forging her own path, determining her own morals. Stealing from the greedy to give to the poor was surely doing what was right, even if it meant she had to steal. A neutral good in her, perhaps?

The team of three spread out across the room in seconds. Jet gathered several Pickens into his sack, Zuko piled as many pots of vegetables together as he could, and Yia scooped multiple noodle containers into her arms until she couldn’t carry any more. She saw Jet smirk at her, holding out a sack for her to empty her loot into, which she did gratefully before grabbing a hold of her sack.

Quick, elegant, and silent as the dead, they headed back outside as Smellerbee called to warn them.

“Guard's coming!”

Headed to the nearest railing, Yia looked down to see Longshot at a lower deck, firing an arrow right into the wood of their tier and forming a long rope line for them to slide down. She tossed Zuko her sack to slide down the zip line, rubbing her palms together and glad as ever for her gloves which she hoped would take most of the friction. They still had a little time before the guard appeared, but not long.

“Need a ride?” Jet whispered to her, gesturing to his chest as he hooked his swords over the rope. She realised he was suggesting she should hold onto him, and flushed slightly at the thought.

Shaking the thought from her mind, she rolled her shoulders and gave him a smile.

“I’m good.”

Nimble as a cat-swan, Yia hopped up onto the railing, before jumping off the edge. Swinging her arm around, she caught the rope into one hand and began to slide down it, the leather covering her palm heating up from the friction before she could get the other one to grasp on as well. She felt the strain of her muscles for carrying her whole bodyweight in her arms after so long, but spirits it felt good to show off a little. The wind whipped her face as she swiftly descended back to the lower deck, and she landed in a crouch, rolling on her shoulder and getting to her feet with practised ease. Muscle memory was something she should really thank the spirits more for.

The second Jet and Smellerbee reached the bottom deck again, Longshot yanked on the line, pulling the arrow from the wood with surprising strength.

Not a breath later, the next guard came into view.

Yia couldn’t help her victorious grin that spread across her face.

“Not half bad, guys. Now let’s give these people some real food,” Jet said, his eyes shining with the triumph and adrenaline from their heist. He was almost radiant, and Yia realised this was who Jet was – this was why he was a Freedom Fighter. This was what made him tick. There was something chaotic in his energy now, something untamed in his joy that made her feel drawn in. What would it feel like to be so wildly happy to do good like this?

Yia didn’t realise she and Jet had been grinning at each other for long until Zuko huffed beside her.

“Oh right, uh… We should get back to Mushi, he’ll really appreciate a hot meal,” she explained, turning to the Fighters.

“No problem, Mirai. Smellerbee, Longshot, can you hand out this bag? I’ll take the rest.”

Longshot slightly passed them two large pots of the food to take with them, which Zuko took both of before Yia could say a word.

Yia gave a nod of thanks and a small parting wave, before heading back over to the port side of the ferry where they’d left Iroh only minutes ago.

‘Wow, that only took a few minutes? But it felt so…’

She couldn’t think of the right word. Nothing did it enough justice.

Yia was almost too lost in thought to notice the change in Zuko beside her. Almost.

He’d become tense once more, sheathing his swords and clenching the food in such a tight grip that the skin of his knuckles had whitened even more than its usual ivory colour. The peace he’d exhibited on their mission had been left on the higher decks, it would seem.

“You okay?” she asked him softly, a note of concern in her voice as they pardoned themselves and treaded carefully past the variously scattered refugees who had taken to sitting on the deck of the ship. She silently thanked the spirits that it hadn’t yet rained.

“I’m fine,” he muttered, tone shutting down any hope of a conversation almost immediately.

Yia sighed. But then, she understood on some level.

They’d returned to reality – they were victims of war, stuck with hundreds of strangers on a ship headed straight into a new refugee camp. In fact, the more groups they passed, the more haunted glances and hushed mumbles she heard, she too felt herself growing tense. It wasn’t that it was loud, in fact, the night was relatively quiet for the sheer number of people around them. However, it was the collection of different noises that seemed to be growing in her awareness. Elderly citizens coughing, babies crying, spoons clanking, feet stomping, water splashing, someone whistling… It was all beginning to build into an unpleasant tightness in her chest.

Relief washed over her as Iroh came into view, and his delighted smile at the sight of the food they carried dismissed any sense of unease in her for a moment. Seeing he had laid out their mats in a small circle, Yia took a seat to Zuko’s left. Laying out the dishes before them, her stomach panged once again at the sight and smell of the tasty dishes before them.

“Please tell me you kept some chopsticks,” Yia begged, giving Iroh a hopeful look. She wasn’t above eating with her hands if she had to – but she definitely didn’t want to if there was a choice in the matter.

“You’re in luck,” Iroh answered, producing several sets from his satchel.

She could have cried for joy.

The trio quickly began to dig into their stolen feast. The flavours and meat were so much better than the rotting smell of the soup they’d been served that lunch, it was horrifying to think how the captain was behaving. Briefly, she wondered if there was any long-term solution to the issue, but was distracted by a particularly lovely piece of roasted duck, and returned her attention to wolfing down as much food as she could before her body protested.

A few minutes later, she noticed Smellerbee and Longshot passing out the last of their sack of food, and beside them, Iroh gestured for the Fighters to come and join them.

The two vigilantes exchanged a silent look, before collecting their mats and one she assumed was for Jet, and bringing them over to their little huddle. Adjusting their position, Yia moved closer to Zuko, finishing off what more she could of the pilfered feast.

“Here,” Iroh offered, holding out his chopsticks to the kids. “I only brought enough for three, I’m afraid.”

“That’s okay,” Smellerbee said, voice more nasally now that they were no longer whispering.

If Longshot’s nodding was anything to go by, he agreed.

Feeling her swollen stomach was fully sated, Yia sighed and passed her set of sticks to the archer. Zuko was still quietly eating, much slower than herself and his uncle it seemed. She didn’t comment.

Eventually, it seemed Iroh wanted to attempt conversation with the others.

“So, Smellerbee. That's an unusual name for a young man.”

Smellerbee’s head whipped up at his statement.

“Maybe it's because I'm not a man... I'm a girl!” she declared, jutting out her chin at Iroh with an offended huff. The young girl got to her feet and began to storm off, followed close behind by the archer.

“Oh, now I see. It's a beautiful name for a lovely girl!” Iroh called after them, looking incredibly guilty about his blunder.

“Do you always have to try and befriend everyone, uncle?” Zuko muttered, not particularly amused by the situation.

“You can never do harm by making a true friend, you only gain an ally,” Iroh replied coolly, though his cheeks were tinged pink with embarrassment.

“You can’t really talk, anyway. How many friends have you made with that temper?” Yia pointed out, tugging at the cuff of her sleeve, adjusting the fabric. It didn’t particularly need fixing, she was just growing nervous again and feeling that uneasiness rise in her chest now that the food wasn’t distracting her. The sounds of life were something she was used to, but not the sounds of people.

“I don’t need friends,” Zuko seethed in response.

“Really? Without your uncle’s friends, we never would have been on this ferry. We’d be stuck out in the desert.”

“And what friends do you ha-“

“Enough!”

The deep rumbling command of Iroh’s voice cut them both off, making Yia flinch at the sudden noise. The teens turned to look at him, bowing their heads respectfully.

Perhaps what happened next was due to the tension between herself and the prince, or maybe because they were both in her line of sight when it happened. Regardless, the next few moments felt like days for what happened next.

A warm hand placed itself on her shoulder.

Yia realised that it belonged to neither Zuko or Iroh.

Instinctively, she grabbed the stranger’s wrist with her right hand and rolled her body left.

This pulled the foreign body over her head, slamming it into the deck, and her momentum landing her straddled across their middle.

Her thigh pinned down their right arm, her right hand still gripping the opposing wrist.

Faster than anyone could blink, she’d pulled a knife with her left and held it to the assailant’s throat.

 

Only then did she realise who the stranger was.

Chapter Text

Yia was staring face to face with Jet.

And holding a knife to his throat.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa hey, easy…” the boy coaxed, palms open and up in surrender.

The flash of genuine fear in his eyes made her feel a little sick. Paling in horror at her actions, she crawled back off him and sheathed her knife back up her sleeve.

“Sorry, you startled me,” Yia muttered, looking anywhere but at the boy that she had just tackled.

‘Spirits, what was that? You’re so paranoid that you just attack anyone who lays a hand on you?’ she scolded herself silently.

Beside her, Jet was sitting back upright and regaining his composure, whilst Zuko was repressing a grin with little success.

“She doesn’t like being touched,” the prince elaborated, returning to his food now the spectacle was over with.

Yia turned and gave him a look of mild surprise. So, he’d picked up on that? Was it like how she’d noticed his hearing?

Zuko gave her a noncommittal shrug, adding nothing more to what he’d said, and leaving her appropriately confused.

“Yeah, got that. Loud and clear,” Jet grunted, sitting upright but not flinching away. “Remind me never to get on your bad side. How’d you even pull the knife so fast?”

“Me?” Yia asked, surprised that this was his response, rather than ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’

“Yeah. I didn’t even know you had a weapon on you!”

“You think that’s the only knife I’m carrying right now?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at him.

Rather than a look of fear again, Jet simply looked impressed.

“Damn, there’s a lot more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there?” he asked, his boyish smirk returning with full force.

Yia could practically feel his gaze as it ran over her, and she wondered if he was looking for knives now or if he was just looking at her for the sake of it. Heat rose from her cheeks to her ears, and she was silently thankful for her dark complexion because otherwise, the prince would tease her no end if he realised that she was blushing of all things.

“From what I heard, people eat like this every night in Ba Sing Se. I can't wait to set my eyes on that giant wall,” Jet said, politely changing the subject away from her as if he hadn’t had his life threatened seconds earlier.

“It is a magnificent sight,” Iroh confirmed, wistfully looking down into his bowl.

“So, you've been there before?”

“Once. When I was a... different man.”

Yia looked to Iroh with softened eyes. She knew he was thinking back to before the loss of his son, Lu Ten. General Iroh rarely ever mentioned that time, unless he was describing something he had seen on his travels or telling a story he had heard from back then.

“I've done some things in my past that I'm not proud of,” Jet confessed, bowing his head and sighing heavily.

A part of Yia wanted to know what he’d done. He was young and held that untamed joy inside him that made her feel so utterly captivated. What bad could have already tainted his life? But then, who was she to ask? She was a weapon from birth, called by the spirits to fight for them and help to save the world. Yia had hurt, maimed, stolen, and killed before. They were children of war – Jet could mean anything by his admission. If he had those tiger swords, she guessed it wasn’t just petty theft.

But a bigger part of her wanted to console him. There was a weight that seemed to appear on his shoulders out of nowhere, and it didn’t suit the boy. He was like a leaf in Autumn. All bright colours and spinning whichever way the wind blew, chaotic elegance at its finest. Maybe that’s why the hook swords and random armour pieces suited him so well, he wasn’t some straight-laced one-way thing. He was a mosaic of bright, broken pieces.

“But that's why I'm going to Ba Sing Se: for a new beginning. A second chance.”

Iroh nodded slowly, sitting up a little straighter. “That's very noble of you. I believe people can change their lives if they want to. I believe in second chances.” With this, he turned to give Zuko a meaningful look, and the two fell into an unreadable silent conversation.

“You’re not wrong,” Yia agreed, biting her lower lip for a moment. “The future isn’t determined by the past or the sky you were born under. It changes with every choice you make, in the present. I like to think that a person may change their stars.”

“Wow, that’s… That’s really something,” Jet murmured, a ghost of something passing over his eyes for a moment. “I like the idea of changing my stars, though, with so much to change, I’d probably need a little help.”

Yia gave Jet a half-hearted smile in response. She felt guilty for the warm feeling in her gut when their eyes met. She had to stop romanticising some stranger, as magnetising as he was. It hadn’t even crossed her mind that he might be feeling similar things when he looked at her – instead, she was imagining how it would feel to hold his hand. It was almost pathetic. No normal girl dreams about being able to hold a boy’s hand without being afraid of what she might see, or what lines she might cross. Because what boy would hold hands with a girl who could peer into every corner of his history? To know someone that much, take their privacy? No one would want that. And she wasn’t a normal girl, she didn’t get to like boys or hold their hands. She had to fight. She had to make peace. She had to look into the fabric of ever-changing futures and find the best path to victory.

“I think I need a walk,” she murmured, getting to her feet with only a little trouble, bowing her head to them all. “Just to clear out all this… energy.”

“You want some company?” Jet offered.

“I’m okay, but… Thanks. For tonight. It felt good.”

“It’s no problem, Mirai.”

Yia gave him a small smile, before turning towards the back of the ferry. She needed to think, and needed to be away from all the noise if possible. One foot in front of the other, she forced her mind away from how Jet said her name and the many people around them. Yia just focused on the sound of her feet against the wood and tried to mimic how silently Zuko had moved before.

There were fewer people towards the back of the ferry – you could hardly see the wall from there, after all. But what could be seen, crystal clear against the dark ink of the night sky, was the moon. Ever since the death of Sangok, the night the moon turned red, Yia had felt an inexplicable pull to see the night sky when it was as clear as it was now.

“Push and pull. Tui, and La,” she whispered to herself.

Crossing her arms, and leaning her elbows against the edge of the railing, she stared up at the sky thoughtfully.

“Light in the dark. Dark in the light.”

Not for the first time, Yia wondered which she was: light touched by the dark, or darkness blanketing the light.

- - - - -

Iroh was watching the night sky when it happened.

The Avatar’s bison flew right overhead, and his stomach twisted as a gasp left him.

‘No, I just got him back…’

Zuko must have heard him, as he woke and sat up.

“Uncle? What are you looking at? Is there something out there?”

“Uh, it's nothing,” he lied, trying to hide his nerves. Giving what he hoped was a reassuring smile, he nodded to his nephew. “Go back to sleep.”

The boy must have been tired enough not to notice his odd behaviour, because he just settled back down onto his pillow, dismissing the event entirely.

Iroh couldn’t help his sigh of relief, shooting a quick glance back to make sure the bison was out of sight.

Satisfied it was gone, he shuffled back towards his own mat, when he caught Yia’s eye.

She was awake and had seen the whole thing.

The plea must have been evident in his face, because she gave him just the slightest nod, and placed a single finger to her lips.

Thank you,” he mouthed to her.

Yia did not respond.

They didn’t need to discuss it – Zuko would never know.

- - - - -

Zuko had not slept well.

Despite the faded adrenaline of stealing food from the captain, and sleeping on mats on proper flooring rather than in the dirt somewhere, his mind had been plagued with thoughts he didn’t know how to address.

First had been the imminent pressure of their arrival in Ba Sing Se. He knew his uncle wanted to start over, live their days out peacefully and hiding away from their pasts, making new lives. But every time he was called ‘Lee’, it felt wrong. Something in his chest twisted uncomfortably. He was not a peasant nobody from some backwoods Earth Kingdom village. He was a prince. He was royalty. He was somebody.

‘Lee’ was not.

His uncle could be plenty satisfied by a life working for little pay and making tea and befriending strangers, but Zuko was not. It wasn’t necessarily that he wanted power – it was more accurately that he wanted what was his. His birthright. Without the Avatar, he could not return home, and settling in Ba Sing Se would delay any chances he had of finding the monk and receiving the love and redemption his father would finally give him.

Then there was Yia.

He was learning about her. Sometimes nothing of importance, sometimes whole chunks of her history. The more he learned, the more he understood her idea of mutual destruction, but at the same time, the more of a… person she became. Not just an irritating stone in his shoe, but a person. With feelings, and opinions, and a life. Zuko wasn’t sure how to feel about that. When she was just a fighter with a bad attitude, she was two-dimensional, and he didn’t have to think of her as a girl of all things. Yet he had approached her with questions because he wanted to know more.

She was absolutely hiding something about how she met his uncle, and that braid was beginning to haunt his thoughts. Was it for her mentor? One of her parents, maybe? A friend or sibling she hadn’t told him about? Her hair, in general, was starting to drive him a little insane. Agni, why was it all so wild? The halo of messy curls bounced with the slightest breeze, turn or movement, and it was sometimes so distracting he felt a desperate need to just grip her hair in his hands and hold it still. He’d clenched his fists by his side countless times to refrain from doing so – he didn’t want to be tossed over her shoulder or slammed into the ground as Jet had been earlier.

Zuko wasn’t stupid, he’d seen how Yia reacted. Whenever he passed her anything, she would avoid his fingertips. His theory was further proven when she didn’t take his hand to get to her feet, and her lightning-fast reflexes when Jet laid a hand on her. She flinched when his uncle touched her shoulder, and actually, Iroh seemed to actively avoid touching her even when her skin was covered. He didn’t doubt she had revealed her dislike of contact during his time away from them, his uncle was a proper gentleman who would silently honour that fact.

Zuko wasn’t naïve, he was aware that there were aspects of war that were not as simple as just 'gaining' a town or village. There was death and there was pain, and if Yia would hold a knife to anyone’s throat who touched her, then he wouldn’t touch. Simple.

However, she had held his wrist all those weeks ago to hold him back. If Yia hated contact, why had she put herself through it? A concealed knife against his back could have had the same effect. The same thing had happened when they were in the desert tavern, she’d grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the fight, out the door. Maybe she could touch other people since she knew it was coming? Did that make her feel more comfortable?

Yia as a person was too confusing.

Yia as a girl was utterly infuriating. Seeing her in a dress instead of her armour was bad enough, but then having to watch Jet smile at her and look her over as if she were a pretty flower with some neat tricks up her sleeve made his skin crawl. A part of him wanted her to spar against the boy so he would stop looking at her like that – she was a fighter. Warrior. She was deadly and tough and a worthy opponent, not a maiden. He knew so little about her, but she was not some simpering damsel who would faint at the sight of blood or be engulfed with fine silks and perfume. Jet didn’t look at her warily, but Zuko did. She was not the soft petals but the viper beneath them, and he was both offended, angered, and bewildered as to why he cared so much that she been seen this way.

Sighing heavily, the prince ran a hand over his face, looking out into the distance. The morning had greeted the ferry passengers with a wall of mist and fog, veiling their destination, and only adding to the gnawing feeling of being lost. He wanted to go home, but if his uncle wasn’t there it wouldn’t feel right, and he was considered a traitor for what happened at the North Pole. Would Iroh even be allowed back into the Fire Nation without being encased by chains?

Behind him, light footsteps approached. His uncle was too heavy footed for these, and though he couldn’t pin what made Yia’s distinctive, these were too evenly paced for her recent injury. His deduction was cut short by a growingly familiar voice.

“You know, as soon as I saw your scar, I knew exactly who you were.”

Jet.

Zuko tensed at the words, fists clenched by his side. He couldn’t bend without giving himself away to everyone on board – he needed to use his swords. Damn Yia for not agreeing to train him in hand to hand yet… Then again, Jet used hook swords so-

“You're an outcast, like me.”

‘Oh.’ His posture relaxed a fraction, but he didn’t turn to look at the other boy.

“And us outcasts have to stick together. We have to watch each other's backs. Because no one else will.”

His thoughts fell back to his time alone, fighting off the earthbending soldiers, the real Lee and how eagerly he’d tried to swing a sword. The words ‘I hate you’ rang around his head in a painful melody. Then there was Azula, and how she’d nearly killed her own uncle just to escape capture. How Yia had thrown herself in front of the blast like she’d known it was coming. How the three of them had fought off the Rhinos together.

“I've realized lately that being on your own isn't always the best path,” Zuko conceded.

“Yeah. It’s good you have your uncle, and Mirai seems like she can handle herself.”

Zuko scoffed at that. “You have no idea.”

“Hey, I don’t want to be that guy or anything, but are you two…?”

This made the prince turn his head, giving the other an appraising, challenging look. He didn’t like where this was going.

“Are we what?”

Jet had the decency to scratch the back of his neck, looking somewhat sheepish.

“You know, are you just travelling together, or…? Are you together?”

Zuko’s eyes narrowed at the other.

“No.”

“No to what?”

“No.”

'No, were aren't just travelling together. No we aren't together.'

The prince turned and left without excusing himself, needing to get away from this conversation immediately. He was a prince, and Yia was not just some girl boys asked after, and he certainly wasn’t her keeper.

He didn’t even look at the towering walls that had broken through the clearing fog as he marched away, leaving Jet to draw his own conclusions.

- - - - -

Yia had not felt the sea sickness some complained of during their trip, but she did feel a wash of relief to be back on solid ground.

The Freedom Fighters must have only left the ferry a short time after themselves, but with the mass of the crowds, she’d long lost sight of Jet and his friends. It saddened her that they might have parted ways without at least saying goodbye, but in the masses of green clothes, she was hopeful that the blues and oranges would stand out enough for her to at least wave goodbye.

Their line had managed to move much faster than when boarding and a large woman wearing another ornate hairpiece took their tickets with a bored huff. Yia was quietly wondering about the fashion when the woman caught her staring and gave her a disapproving look that made her duck her head. She wasn’t quite sure of the appropriate behaviour in the Earth Kingdom Capital, but staring seemed to be deemed as rude.

“So, Miss Mirai, Mr Lee and Mr, um... Mushy, is it?”

“It's pronounced Mushi,” Iroh corrected.

This seemed to be a mistake, as the ticket woman frowned in annoyance.

‘Oops.’

“You telling me how to do my job?” she challenged, jutting her chin out as she leaned over the ticket booth.

Iroh’s eyes widened in alarm, and he approached the desk shaking his head politely.

“Uh, no, no. But may I just say, you're like a flower in bloom,” he said, smoothly changing the subject as he smiled widely at her. “Your beauty is intoxicating.”

Yia rolled her eyes as Zuko stifled a gag. Luckily, the ticket lady was apparently seduced by Iroh’s flirting.

“You're pretty easy on the eyes yourself, handsome,” she returned, making a teasing growl in his direction.

“Spirits…” Yia muttered, amused and disturbed by the display of affection between the two.

“Welcome to Ba Sing Se,” she purred, stamping the three tickets and passing them over with a wink.

Zuko looked utterly disgusted by his uncle’s behaviour. “I'm going to forget I saw that.”

He grabbed his ticket and stormed off, leaving Iroh and herself looking bemused by the events.

“Come on, you old fox,” she sighed, beckoning him to follow after Zuko towards the next queue to something called a ‘train’. “We’d better get in line.”

“You going already?”

The voice behind them made her spin, and she beamed when she saw Jet, Smellerbee and Longshot appearing from the crowd.

“Hey! I hoped we’d catch you guys before we left,” she said, adjusting her satchel over her shoulder.

“You are welcome to wait for the next train with us,” Iroh offered, giving Yia a sly sideways glance.

She was going to kill him.

The Fighters, however, seemed to be plentifuly content with this idea and followed them through to the next chamber.

As Iroh caught up to Zuko, she noticed Smellerbee and Longshot were moving ahead, whilst Jet hung back for a moment. He was chewing a little harder on his wheat as if thinking carefully about something.

“You okay?” she asked, slowing to a stop next to him.

He just nodded, looking at her as if puzzled by something he couldn’t quite work out.

“You know, I’ve never seen anyone with eyes like yours before.”

‘Oh no.’ Her pulse began to quicken, as she tried to reason that there was no way he could work out why they were this grey, or know that they used to burn just as golden as Iroh’s.

“Is that a bad thing?” she asked carefully, averting her gaze and trying to play it off as embarrassed rather than scared.

“No, just different. I like it.”

How in the name of Tui and La was she supposed to answer that? Yia wasn’t even sure what he was trying to say by that, so stuck with staying quiet.

Jet seemed to have something on his mind he wanted to discuss though, so she didn’t need to wait long for him to fill the silence between them.

“I’m sorry again about last night. If I’d known how you felt about it, I never would have touched you-“

“No don’t be sorry,” she interrupted, shaking her head at him. “I literally threw you to the ground, I’m pretty sure I’m in the wrong here.”

Jet chuckled and raised his hands in mock surrender.

“You were just protecting yourself, it’s okay.” He paused for a moment, and she could feel the weight of what he wanted to say pressing on them like a heavy cloud. “The Freedom Fighters, back when we lived in the forests, we used to take in a lot of stray kids. Anyone who wanted a family or who wanted to make a difference. There were girls, some boys too… They didn’t want to be touched.”

‘Oh. He thinks someone hurt me.’

“I’m not saying you’re like them or went through the same things but, uh, I just want you to know I respect it,” he continued, his smirk less cheeky and more comforting. “And even with the bruises, it’s pretty badass how you flipped me.”

She couldn’t help the small laugh that bubbled from her lips, and found herself slowly toying with her cloth braid.

“Thanks, Jet. I hope you don’t vanish when we get into the city, Lee and I could do with friends our own age.”

“Oh, I don’t know… Will you tell me how many knives you’re carrying?”

Yia laughed a little more this time.

“Careful. Come on, Lee gets grouchy and I don’t want to make his mood worse if I have to stay on this train with him for an hour.”

“Sure.”

The two wandered over to where Zuko was glowering at the floor, sitting down next to him in the large, open waiting area.

“So, you guys got plans once you're inside the city?” Jet asked conversationally.

Zuko pointedly ignored him, so Yia went to reply when a man with a kart strolled past.

“Get your hot tea here! Finest tea in Ba Sing Se!”

Iroh grinned and waved him over.

“Ooh! Jasmine, please.”

“Make it two, please!” Yia called, pulling her bag onto her lap to pull out a handful of coppers. She slid Iroh two coppers for the drinks, and he paid the man as the seller poured two cups.

Before she could bring her cup to her lips, Iroh grimaced and coughed at the drink.

“Bleugh! Ugh, coldest tea in Ba Sing Se is more like it. What a disgrace…” he grumbled, dismayed.

“Would you like me to get a refund?” Yia asked, looking for where the tea maker had gone.

“No, no my dear,” he dismissed, looking at his cup with a pout.

Jet nudged Zuko’s side beside her, and gestured to an empty space across the hall.

“Hey, can I talk to you two for a second?”

He got to his feet and gestured for them to follow. Yia looked over to Zuko, who seemed to be silently asking her something but she wasn’t sure what.

“Come on, he just wants to talk,” she pointed out, standing slowly and quirking her brow.

Zuko sighed and reluctantly rose next to her. The two walked several feet away from Iroh's spot, joining Jet as he gave them both a serious gaze.

“Look, we all have a much better chance of making it in the city if we stick together as a unit. You guys have some seriously useful skills, so I- We wanted to ask… Do want to join the Freedom Fighters?”

Yia blinked surprised at this request. Join the Fighters? Become a vigilante? She thought back to the rush of liberating that food for the refugees, the bubbling warmth that’d filled her chest. Part of her wondered if she said yes, would she feel whatever it was that Jet clearly did when he helped those who needed it? There was no doubt she was a good enough fighter, and if Zuko joined in, maybe he would have an outlet for all the turmoil and confliction he needed to vent.

Clearly, the prince did not feel the same way, as he answered very bluntly.

“Thanks, but I don't think you want us in your gang.”

“Come on,” Jet coaxed, giving him a convincing look. “We made a great team looting that captain's food. Think of all the good we could do for these refugees.”

Zuko turned his heel.

“I said no.”

“Have it your way…” Jet muttered, just as surprised as she was by his attitude. He turned and looked to Yia now, who was toying with her braid nervously now.

“I’m honoured you would ask, and it did feel good to help the other refugees, but- I can’t.”

“Sure you can,” he urged.

“No, I really can’t,” she emphasised, eyes flooding with guilt. “I owed Mushi and his family a debt. I can’t leave him, not the way you’d want.”

“What kind of debt?” he asked, brows furrowed as he looked over her shoulder towards Iroh.

Before she could answer, she was knocked back by a vision.

Jet in some kind of cavern. Ominous green lighting cast shadows like ghosts. A pillar of rock slammed into the boy’s ribs with a sickening crunch. His wild, bright eyes went dark.

“Mirai?”

She was brought back to reality by the calls of a concerned Jet.

“Huh?”

“What’s wrong?” he asked, arm extended only the slightest. It was like he thought she’d fall but he didn’t want to touch her.

“Hm? Nothing. No, I’m… I’m fine,” she lied, staring at him now.

‘He didn’t look much older. Jet will be killed soon.’

Yia shook her head a little.

‘No. That’s not fair, he can’t. I can’t let that happen. What’s the point of having this power if I can’t do something?’

“You should really look at getting a chest plate,” she told him suddenly, turning her gaze down to the shambles of armour he had on. “You’re vulnerable in this. If you’re going to keep up the fighting, you… You need to get at least a chest plate. I could kill you in fifty different ways like this.”

Jet gave her a funny look, but the intensity in her eyes must have reached him as he dropped the smirk and nodded.

“Yeah, uh… I will. Don’t worry.”

“Promise me,” she demanded.

“I promise. Cross my heart.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, cross my heart,” he agreed, making a small cross shape over his chest. “Means I swear on my life.”

Yia scoffed humourlessly.

“Goodbye, Jet. I hope we’ll meet again.”

“Me too,” he agreed.

Nodding more to herself than anything, she turned to get back in line, unable to shake the dread from her bones.

“Hey Mirai!” she heard him call from behind her.

“Yes, Jet?”

“I’m guessing five knives.”

She gave him a bittersweet smile.

“Close – sixteen.”

With a look of surprise and awe on his face, she left him be.

Iroh passed her back her cup of tea with a smile, and Yia was surprised to see the cup was steaming hot.

“Wait, I thought you said it was…?”

Zuko’s eyes widened, and he slapped Iroh’s cup out of his hand making it spill all across the floor.

“Hey!” Iroh exclaimed, visibly distressed by his nephew’s actions.

Zuko grit his teeth and leaned down to the two to hiss at them. “What are you doing firebending your tea? For a wise, old man, that was a pretty stupid move!”

‘Damn it,’ Yia thought, looking back to where Jet had been before, but he was nowhere to be seen. ‘Please, Spirits, don’t let him have seen the cursed tea.’

“I know you're not supposed to cry over spilt tea, but...” Iroh sniffed, staring at the puddle upset. “It's just so sad!”

“Here,” Yia said with a sigh, passing him back her cup. “Have mine.” Turning to Zuko she pointed at him with a look of warning. “Don’t touch his tea.”

- - - - -

“Last call for Ba Sing Se!” the train conductor called, but Jet barely heard it over the furious rush of blood in his ears.

Longshot and Smellerbee were following close behind him as he marched towards the train, but even their presence couldn’t comfort him. He was stupid, so stupid! How did he not notice? Mirai was scared of being touched, Mushi and Lee were so pale… The two men were obviously Fire Nation. Lee’s scar had thrown him off, and Mirai was so clearly from a water tribe that she could have been Katara’s cousin.

Why was she with them? Did she know? Was she their captive? She could clearly fight and take care of herself, so what were they doing that forced her to stay with them? He’d heard stories of the Fire Nation kidnapping girls and forcing them to be war brides. The idea that either of those scum had laid a hand on her made the blood in his veins practically boil.

“Jet, relax,” Smellerbee begged from beside him, stumbling to keep up with his long strides as he pushed through the crowds. “So, the old guy had some hot tea. Big deal.”

“He heated it himself!” Jet exclaimed, eyes darkening with fury as more images from his past and imagined ones of what had happened to Mirai flooded his vision.

“Those guys are firebenders.”

Chapter Text

The sun had barely started to set, but Zuko was ready for today to be over with.

Yia had clearly never heard of a train before and was far too eager to spend the entire ride looking out the window at the vast fields and colourful rolling clouds. She looked so focused on it that he wondered briefly if she was trying not to think about something else.

‘She’s probably just sad to leave her boyfriend behind,’ he dismissed as his foul mood darkened.

Why he felt so betrayed by her behaviour, he wasn’t sure. Did he just want her to keep bickering with him and fighting him? It made very little sense, but he was mad at her. She was meant to be strong and dangerous and he wanted to work her out – throwing a spanner in the works by having some peasant with swords flirt with her was grinding on him and he didn’t understand why. It wasn’t like he had some kind of claim over her; if anything, his uncle did. It wasn’t that girls couldn’t be warriors either – his sister and Mai and even that circus freak Ty Lee were dangerous opponents. Was it because he’d known them as girls and had come to respect their fighting later? Because with Yia, he’d only ever known her as a combatant, not the reverse.

The second they’d stepped off the train, he felt the presence of the walls around them like a cage. They were tall and imposing, and the thought that he might spend the rest of his life without leaving them made the fire in his chest flare up with indignation. Earth smothered flames till they were little more than embers, there was no way he could thrive in a place like this.

It didn’t help that there were refugees everywhere.

Even at this time of the evening, they could barely walk three feet without bumping into someone, pushing past and hurrying off to wherever they needed to be. Once they’d reached the Lower Ring, even he had struggled to breathe. Gone were the large, open spaces they’d seen billowing out in shades of vibrant greens. Now there was hardly room to move between the clamour of stalls and bustle of tents and the hundreds and hundreds of people who were crashing into one another.

Beside him, Yia was starting to breathe weirdly. He guessed she never usually had to deal with so much noise, let alone all the contact with other people. Even with him and his uncle either side of her, now and again she would brush against a stranger and flinch so violently it was a miracle her soul didn’t leave her body when it happened. Sometimes she would reach for her knives which made his muscles tense in anticipation, but she seemed to think better of it each time because, despite the unpleasant situation, no one was stabbed.

Luckily, Iroh seemed to pick up on her panic and changed their path to slip down more alleyways and avoid the worst of the crowds. Whilst he was quietly grateful, he was still in such a foul mood that the frown on his face alone started to make people duck out of the way.

When his uncle stopped to speak in hushed tones to a man who held a lotus tile, he sighed and shot her a look.

“Stop acting so jumpy,” he growled, earning a glare from the smaller girl.

“Bite me,” she shot back, crossed her arms and turning her back to him.

After another twenty minutes or so of walking, Zuko realised they were headed into a housing district of some kind. Apartments were stacked on top of one another as if they’d been hastily built and hardly maintained, like fish layered over one another in barrels. The streets were narrow and cramped, laundry hung between apartments on what looked like fishing lines, and the ground was made of such uneven cobblestones that his feet felt like they were going to bruise. They ended up outside a large building that seemed to share many flats within it and waited by a rickety staircase made of worn wood and rusting metal bolts. When he shot his uncle a look of concern, the older man just gave a smile of encouragement and ushered them up a flight of stairs to a chipped door with a large bolt across it. The moon was out now, though the light it cast over the dwellings did little to improve their appearance.

“Here we are,” Iroh declared, a wide grin on his face as he unlocked the flat and held the door for them both. “Our new place!”

Zuko was significantly less excited by the sight before them. They had entered what he assumed was some kind of living area, where a kitchen lined the wall to his right and in front was a low table surrounded by four pale, thread-bare cushions on the floor. To the far left, a sofa had been rolled out into what resembled a cot more than anything else. As they walked further into the area, Zuko realised there were two sliding doors that he assumed led off to their rooms, and there was a small, empty set of shelves under one of the windows. Everything was either green or brown, and a draft was softly rattling a loose shutter.

“Great,” Zuko mumbled, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

Yia gave him a scolding look as she walked past him, and dropped her bag on the table. Wordlessly, she opened the sliding doors and disappeared into the other rooms.

“You should give this a chance, Prince Zuko,” Iroh murmured, placing a hand on his shoulder.

He simply shrugged away from the touch.

“We shouldn’t use our bending anymore, not even in here. Spark rocks or lanterns only. If anyone sees, they’ll kill us,” he replied, the bleak reality of his situation settling on him like a heavy cloak.

Iroh said nothing more as Zuko followed after Yia through the double doors.

The space behind was a thin corridor that led to three more rooms – peaking his head inside he found a bathroom on his left, ahead was a room with two beds separated by a screen wall, and on his right, he imagined would be Yia’s room. At least she had her own room, he was going to have to share with his uncle like a baby sleeping in a cot next to its mother. The whole flat was barely bigger than his quarters had been back on the ship before the Siege of the North.

With a shaking breath, the prince clenched his fists and grit his teeth, but knew it was out of his hands. Until they could come up with a new plan, or until he could safely hunt down the Avatar without Azula threatening their existence, they had to lay low. Zuko didn’t need to be happy about how they were laying so low their faces were in the mud, he just needed to accept it and keep fighting.

Noting the pile of new clothes at the foot of each bed, a heap of more greens and browns, he pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to control his urge to breath hot embers from his lips. He felt like a dragon, furious and raging, yet trapped deep in a mountain with no room to stretch his wings.

Unable to stay in the shared space any longer, he decided to see what Yia was doing, because if his uncle told him to ‘make a life’ or ‘start anew’ one more time, he would quite possibly scream. He dropped his bag of few belongings on his pillow before he left, and knocked only once before opening her door anyway.

The girl didn’t even look up at him; she was stood by the open window and removing her scarf from how it was wrapped around her head, quietly revealing her braids to the moonlight. Some part of him settled to see her like this, because despite the green of her dress she looked just like the wild savage women of those old folk tales he’d remembered when they met.

As she dropped the scarf to the floor and began combing her fingers through her curls, he realised she was staring down at the small bed that was pressed up against the corner walls. That, along with a small desk and a dirty mirror by the window, was all that seemed to be in the room.

“You seem better,” he commented, unsure if he was making a dig or just proving he noticed before.

“Mm,” she hummed absent-mindedly.

“You’ve got to get used to the crowds. There are only going to be more people coming to the city.”

“I know.”

An unusual silence settled over the room. Zuko leaned against the doorway with his arms crossed, watching how her nimble fingers worked their way through stray tangles and separated out the tresses. The curls bounced every time she finished with a strand, and he found himself clenching his fists again to stop himself from grabbing them and holding the blasted things still. Forcing his eyes away from them and up to her face, he noticed Yia was still staring into the corner of the room.

“Something on your mind?” he asked, a cold edge to his voice.

“No, I… I’ve just never had one before,” she murmured quietly.

“What? A room to yourself?”

“A bed.”

Zuko’s eyes widened for a moment, and his arms went slack, falling to his side as he stared numbly at her. Blinking in confusion, he followed her gaze back to the tiny single bed on its most likely second-hand frame and the lumpy looking mattress. Back home, he’d had a ridiculously large bed, and it had only downsized to a king-sized mattress when he lived on the ship. On the run he’d slept rough, of course, but whenever he had a place to stay? He’d always had a bed.

“You… You’ve never had a bed? Or at least a mattress?” he asked, trying to hide any trembles in his voice to disguise how shaken he was by her revelation.

Yia shook her head, lowering her gaze to her feet. Her hands abandoned the attempt to comb, fiddling with the cloth braid instead.

“In the cottage, I slept on some pelts by the fire. Sangok had a cot of sorts, and there were hammocks we could use in the rainy seasons when there was flooding... But I- Well, I never had a bed.”

How was he supposed to respond to that?

It didn’t make him any less angry about their living situation, but was he meant to feel guilty for being so upset about the small space? It was as if she’d just stripped him of his right to be upset about it, which only made it worse.

“It shouldn’t be so strange; I should have known we’d have beds. I guess it just didn’t occur to me,” she admitted, turning to meet his gaze now.

Something unpleasant twisted in his stomach as they looked at each other, but he didn’t say anything.

Her eyes were unsettling him.

Fire Nationers had amber or golden eyes. Water Tribesmen were coloured anywhere from navy to icy blue. Earth Kingdom citizens almost always had green or brown irises. He couldn’t speak for the whole of the Air Nation, but he was pretty sure Aang’s were some kind of dark grey. That was the closest he could compare to Yia’s, so perhaps she had Air Nomadic roots? But she wasn’t a bender, and he could have sworn that every child of the wind was born with the ability. Was it still possible if an Airbender had a child with a bender of another element?

But even then, with that as a stretch, the dark grey he remembered in the monk was nothing like hers. Yia’s eyes were what a storm looked like before the first break of rolling thunder; the irises were strobed with flecks of silver so pale they looked white as if someone had erased flecks of colour from where they should be.

Some part of him realised that she was staring back, matching his gaze with the same intensity, as if she was trying to read his mind or see into his heart. The longer they stared, the more afraid of something nameless he became. She was simply standing still, her hands had abandoned her braid and fallen to her sides, but he was noticing how her arms hovered and her fingertips rested outstretched, like a bird ready to take flight. He wasn’t sure how long they stood there for, but he could have sworn something in her eyes physically changed, shifting for a split second. He needed to do something, speak or anything before he could work out what that fear was-

“How long do you think it will last?”

Her question shattered the spell that had been cast over them, and the prince furrowed his brows, taking a half-step backwards.

“What will last?”

“Staying here.”

“I don’t know.”

“It could be good for you, you know.”

“Being trapped behind walls where I can’t bend or use my real name?”

“No, being away from the war.”

He narrowed his eyes at her, head cocked to one side.

“Think about it – you’ve never known a life without war. I was raised in near isolation, and yet the war still pressed on me every day. I had to train and stay in the mountains and keep quiet and hide away in case the wrong person came knocking on our front door. You’ve been practically engulfed and surrounded by it every day for the past sixteen years. Maybe here, where the war can’t reach us, we could know what peace is like.”

Zuko scoffed, rolling his eyes to the ceiling and back.

“If you think the war can’t reach us here, then your naivety will be what gets you killed.”

“I can hope, can’t I?”

“Hope won’t save you in a fight.”

“No, I suppose not… But maybe we can meet halfway.”

“And how do you suggest we do that?”

“You give this place a chance,” she said, a resolve forming in her eyes that he couldn’t place, nor why it reminded him of something. “Get a job, live as a refugee trying to make his way, settle in, and actually attempt to enjoy an opportunity to make a new life and start afresh and all that other stuff your uncle was talking about.”

“I don’t see how this benefits me.”

Yia huffed at him, crossing her arms.

“Let me finish, then.”

He shrugged, gesturing for her to continue.

“In return for you attempting to be optimistic, or spirits forbid actually happy… I will train you.”

This stopped any retort he had in its tracks. She would train him? If he would keep doing what he had to do anyway, which he could easily add a fake smile onto for her benefit and call it a day?

“But I also want to learn. I’ll train you more if you teach me what you can of the Dao broadswords.”

Something was off. Had something changed when he blinked? Why would she agree to train him now, of all times? Was this for his uncle, to make him happy? Or was it simply that she knew something he didn’t, and he would play right into the palm of her hand?

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you change your mind?”

“I didn’t change it, I just decided. You would be surprised how the future could change, even if you just tried to see how things are looking up.”

“So, you’ll train me because you think it will somehow affect the future if I make more of a life here?” he repeated incredulously.

“I can only hope.”

The seriousness of her response rattled him, but he covered it well this time.

“Fine, you have a deal.”

Unsure what else to say, and not wanting to risk her changing her mind about this, he turned back around and opened the door to leave.

“Goodnight Zuko,” he heard from behind him, softly enough that no one beyond her window would hear it.

Yet again, something in his chest twisted at the sound of a name, but it was different from hearing ‘Lee’. He didn’t know why. Briefly, he wondered if she felt the same hearing ‘Mirai’ but quickly dismissed the idea. Still, he felt a need to return the favour.

“Goodnight… Yia.”

 

The door closed behind him too fast to notice her smile.

Chapter Text

Yia hadn’t been able to sleep. At all.

As it turned out, beds were soft. And squishy. And whilst it was sort of comfortable, she felt like she was just sinking into the ground and no matter how much she tossed and turned, she just couldn’t do any more than doze at best. The idea of sleeping on the floor was beginning to tempt her, but she scolded herself immediately.

‘No normal person would rather sleep on the floor than in a bed. You just have to suck it up and adapt.’

By the time the sun began to rise, shining beams of light through the cracks of her window shutters, Yia had given up entirely on any hope of sleep and decided she may as well get on with the start of her day. Rifling through the pile of clothes she had been given, she wondered how many daggers she should carry. She’d had to have all of them on her person at the ferry; they’d had bag searches and only certain weapons were permitted. One either side of her forearms, three tied tightly against each calf, one on each thigh, another two strapped against either side of her waist, and the smallest hidden in her bindings against her shoulder blades.

She was almost proud of herself for getting so many on at once.

Settling on six knives as she was feeling oddly optimistic, she strapped them into her bindings and quickly dressed in some loose trousers tucked into her boots and a dark green dress robe that just covered the outline of the weapons on her hips. Satisfied, she turned to the dirty mirror and gave it a quick rub with her sleeve to see if it helped clean any of the stains off. It didn’t. But she couldn’t bring herself to care, after all, she’d braided her half-crown by touch alone for years now – she didn’t need a mirror to check she’d done it right.

From the corridor, she heard a shuffling of footsteps and figured the others would be getting up too – given their nature to rise with the Sun. Yia found herself thinking back to her lessons with Sangok, and the many scrolls and tomes he’d stored away in one of their little rooms. She’d been taught about every Nation, though admittedly there was very little on the Air Nomads from what he had recovered. Even the handful of scrolls on their traditions had felt like gold dusk, compared to the comparatively larger collection on Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom culture and beliefs.

There had always been one tome, though, that had stuck in her memory. It was a story more than anything else – Love Amongst the Dragons. Apparently, the story was quite popular, as it hadn’t been difficult to acquire a copy of the script when Sangok had gone to the market one month for a birthday gift. A mighty Dragon Emperor cursed and bound to mortal form by the Dark Water Spirit, and forced to adopt the alias of Noren. How he ended up falling in love with a mortal, and through this love, he is able to break free of his curse. How he promised to love his mortal Empress stronger with every moment the Sun was in the sky, so always rose at daybreak.

It was obviously just a fairy tale, and she didn’t like how the Dark Water Spirit was obviously a villain whilst the children of fire were all heroes. But nonetheless, it had been one of her favourites to read when the rain fell heavily on their rooftop, the wind hammered the walls, and the fireplace practically called her to curl up and read her books. The threat of nostalgia weighed heavily on her shoulders as she remembered days like those, and she sighed, focusing back on the sound of footsteps in the other room.

Wrapping her belt around her and pulling on gloves took no time at all, and sunlight was starting to properly stream through the gaps in the blinds by the time she considered herself ready. Yia still wanted to wash her face, but she would have to go to the kitchen for that. Deciding first to make the bed up again as it had been, she got to work tugging the sheets and pillow back into an acceptable state. Lastly, she turned to the window to properly open the shutters and take in the view of their new home.

Below her, the streets were starting to trickle with people rising and starting their days. Bakers and carpenters and blacksmiths and who knows what others were milling around, getting ready for the day ahead. Then, in the distance, she saw the walls that separated the Middle and Upper Rings, high, imposing and intimidating. After years of being trained to see through the illusion of separation, of being different, it was strange to be living in a place where separation defined its people’s very existence.

A soft knock at her door shook Yia from her thoughts.

“Come in,” she called, turning away from the window.

It was Iroh who entered, bowing his head politely.

“I was wondering if you would be awake, yet. I see you are already dressed for the day,” he commented, a pleased expression on his face. A robe not much lighter than she was wearing hugged his rotund belly, and his beard was now trimmed back closer to the style he’d worn it when they’d met so long ago, far neater than the bush-like appearance he’d had during their travels.

“I’m too used to rising with you, old friend,” Yia replied, smiling softly at him. The green colours suited the General, far more than reds or golds. Then again, maybe he just looked happier like this – a jolly man content with his existence rather than a hardened war veteran.

“Ah, the Sun stirs us both then, it would seem,” he chuckled. “My friends have provided us with enough food to start our day, but we will need to go out and shop for supplies soon enough. I wondered if you would join us?”

Something in her chest clenched, and her blood cooled in her veins at the memory of forcing herself through yesterday’s crowds. The number of people she’d barely touched, the confused looks on their faces, and the ache in her bones as she was forced out of herself and into someone else’s past over and over again… Yia was sure the sickness she felt at the thought showed on her face.

Clearly, it did, as Iroh nodded thoughtfully at her.

“Or, of course, if you wouldn’t mind cooking breakfast I could head out with Prince Zuko now and we could return with supplies in time for food?”

Her relief spoke for itself, but that didn’t stop her breath of thanks.

“I’d be happy to make up a few dishes.”

Iroh shot her a wink, turning to leave the room and gesturing for her to follow.

“We have some white rice, and a little honey I saved…” he explained, leading them to the kitchen and opening one of the less rickety looking cupboard doors to show her the few things they had. There were already some pans and pots and bowls they could use, but it looked like they would be eating with their hands as she couldn’t see chopsticks or cutlery of any variety.

“I could always make some extra sticky rice?” she offered, turning to meet his gaze and tucking a loose curl of hair behind her ear.

“Sounds delicious. I’ll leave that in your very capable hands, then.”

Behind them, the screen doors opened and a very grumpy looking Zuko appeared, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his palms.

“Did you sleep alright?” Yia asked politely, taking in his appearance.

Now that he was out of the rough clothes they’d had to wear on the run, he looked… Different. His hair was definitely growing out from its closely cropped style, and now the dark locks seemed to spike up in any direction they could. Though the green of his robes didn’t necessarily suit him as well as it did his uncle, he looked good.

No, more like he doesn’t look bad,’ she corrected mentally as he quirked a brow at her.

“I slept just fine.”

“Good, because we start training tonight. Both of us.”

Something in Zuko’s eyes lit up – dare she say it, but he almost looked excited.

And suddenly she was remembering last night, the way they had looked into each other’s eyes and the sudden vision she’d had of him.

His hair was a few inches longer than it was now, falling around his face like a frame rather than its current messy freedom. He was dressed in far nicer, pale green robes and an apron, sweeping the floor of a fancy looking shop, a genuine smile on his face and something so peaceful about him she had felt magnetised. When you know someone as only sad or angry or just quiet, seeing them happy is so astounding that it can change how you look at them.

So, she had agreed to train him – because maybe if he tried over these next few months, that vision would be a reality.

After all, her visions were dependent on the decisions and choices people made. Maybe it was selfish, but she wanted this future for Zuko because she was sure it would make Iroh happier than he’d been in weeks. But maybe more secretly than that, she wanted Zuko to be that happy. If training him was what it took to make him try to embrace this new chance at life, she would train him every day till it became reality.

“But first, you need to help your uncle do some shopping, okay?” Yia added, gesturing the two men to leave. “The sooner you finish, the sooner breakfast is served.”

Iroh beamed at the two of them, throwing his hands together with a loud clap.

“I’m so glad you have agreed to this, I’m sure you’ll make wonderful teachers,” he praised, picking up an empty sack as well as a smaller bag that jingled softly with the clinking of coins. “Come, Prince Zuko, there is much to do!”

The two teens exchanged an indecipherable look as Zuko’s arm was grabbed, and he was tugged towards the door by his uncle.

“Have fun,” she teased gently, unable to help her smile as Zuko went to reply and was firmly pushed out the door.

Sighing contently to herself, Yia looked out the window to see what she assumed was the community’s common well, and grabbed a large, relatively clean looking water bucket from by the door.

Today is going to be a good day,’ she promised herself and got to work.

- - - - -

Zuko marched through the streets of the Lower Ring, his scowl fierce enough to make men who were twice his size take a step or two out of his way.

They had no food in the apartment, so he could allow his uncle’s determination to make multiple food purchases. They needed new medical supplies, so that was no issue to him. They needed more shoes, because the ones Yia had bought all that time ago were wearing thin from excessive use, and they would last longer if alternated. His uncle wanted tea, and frankly, it had been so long since his uncle had gone a day without the beverage that he wasn’t entirely sure the old man could live without it, so he put up with his fussing over various flavours and blends for a grand total of five minutes before moving on.

All these things he could understand.

Flowers, he did not.

“I just want our place to look nice, in case someone brings home a lady friend!” his uncle teased, nudging his side with his elbow.

Whatever fragment of a good mood he had been in had vanished the second he saw the petals.

Zuko only glared coldly at the vase the other carried, not blind to the fact that Iroh had managed to find a flower the exact shade of orange that the Freedom Fighter’s tunic had been. No doubt, this was for Yia’s benefit in case they ever ran into the gang of kids again. Iroh would, of course, invite them over for tea, and what? Would Jet be seduced by flowers? Or would Yia just see the flowers, then realise she wanted to settle in the city and get married and have kids?

His uncle was so determined to make himself comfortable in these walls that he didn’t see the door had been locked behind them, bolted shut.

 “This city is a prison,” was all he replied with, eyes raising to the gigantic cage of rock surrounding the skyline. “I don't want to make a life here.”

“Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not,” his uncle counselled, his tone still light and optimistic, despite the weight Zuko felt so evidently on his shoulders. “Now come on, I found us some new jobs, and we start this afternoon!”

- - - - -

Jet’s eyes narrowed angrily as he watched the two men walking down the street.

His glare was fuelled by an old burning he had tried to cool over the last few months – since Katara and Aang had forced him to look over the person he was becoming. He’d slipped then, he knew that. But now? What else could he do? He knew what he’d seen, and if they were firebenders, then the whole city was at risk! Not to mention Yia, who he dreaded to think about being in a firebender’s clutches. Someone as mysterious and strong as her? They could be threatening her, blackmailing her, holding her captive. He needed to find this out, for her sake.

“Look at them, firebenders living right under everyone's nose…” he muttered, a bitter taste in his mouth as old, painful memories threatened to surface. He pushed them away, focusing on the now.

Longshot and Smellerbee were behind him, and he could almost sense the look they were giving each other. How they didn’t understand this threat was beyond him. Of all people, the Freedom Fighters were supposed to remember the destruction and havoc the Fire Nation had wreaked across the Earth Kingdom. Orphans and misfits and lost boys all forced from their safe beds, taking refuge in the forest where they hoped no one would hurt them. Where they would hurt their enemies back.

“Jet, you saw a man with a hot cup of tea,” Smellerbee reasoned, the attempted coaxing in her voice doing nothing but irritating him more. “It doesn't prove he's a firebender. And what if he is, are we supposed to attack them‌? I thought we were starting over here, changing our ways.”

“We are,” Jet promised, completely honest as he tore his gaze from the two firebenders. He’d already found where they lived, and there were several ‘vantage points he could utilise to check what he already knew in his heart was true. “When I get the evidence I need, I'll report them to the police and let them handle it. Okay?”

Smellerbee and Longshot exchanged a glance but didn’t dare challenge him.

Admittedly, he’d made a compelling few points. It wasn’t like their old ways to go to the police about anything, and he was presenting as calm a front as he could. Jet wasn’t about to risk losing them. The Freedom Fighters had disbanded almost entirely, they were the remains. A golden trio trying to forge a new history from the mistakes of their pasts.

What better way to reshape history than to start with slaying the enemy, and rescuing a damsel?

- - - - -

By the time the others had returned with all the shopping, Yia had not only cooked some surprisingly successful sticky rice but had laid out bowls around the table so they could all eat together. Getting to her feet, she moved to help them unpack the supplies, when she was almost hit in the face by a large bouquet of orange flowers in a pretty vase.

“Oh, these are lovely! Like leaves in Autumn,” she murmured, and Iroh beamed at her whilst Zuko glowered at his feet. “But I hope you didn’t spend too much on these, they may be pretty but flowers don’t last.”

“That won’t be an issue, I have found us all jobs and we will be starting later today.”

“Oh? Jobs as what?”

 

Looking back as she tied on her apron later that afternoon, Yia scolded herself a little for not having guessed this.

A tea shop.

Of course.

However, it did seem like the perfect plan the more she thought about it. The small building could only hold up to two dozen people at any one time, and if Yia was only on washing up duty rather than serving as a waitress, she would have hardly any contact with people. Plus, the little shop was less than a two-minute walk from their place, so there would be minimal chances of crashing into people in comparison to their walk across the city from the train station. Then there was the owner, a pleasant man named Pao who wore his hair back in a long braid and seemed eager for them to take on the job as he’d been struggling for staff willing to make tea all day. He had a kind smile and had said nothing about the scarf she wore wrapped around her hair to hide her braids, apparently not one to pry.

Glancing behind her to the closed shutters of the windows, she could have sworn she saw a figure pass by, but the thought didn’t linger as she took in the sight of Zuko wearing the uniform. She had seen wailing worm-sloths who looked happier than he did right now.

“Well, you certainly look like official tea servers,” Pao commented, gaze lingering a little on Iroh as he struggled to make the two ends of string meet behind his back. “How do you feel‌?”

“Ridiculous,” Zuko shot back, clearly annoyed at everyone in the room.

Lee,” Yia warned, shooting him a serious look briefly.

“Uh, does this possibly come in a larger size?” Iroh asked, a little oblivious to his nephew’s rudeness as he gave up on forcing his apron to tie.

“I have some extra string in the back. Have some tea while you wait!” Pao offered with a smile and pulled out three lightly steaming cups.

Yia took hers from the counter before he had the chance to offer it out – she still only had her fingerless gloves and didn’t want to risk anything ruining their first day of work by touching him. Lifting it to her lips, she was surprised at how… bland the taste was.

“Well, it’s definitely not your tea, Mushi,” was all she said, just as Iroh’s face contorted into complete disgust.

“Blech, this tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!” he cried out, holding the cup away from his face as if it offended him.

“Uncle, that's what all tea is,” Zuko shot back, not even bothering to drink his cup.

“Not yours, Lee,” she murmured. “Yours is pure bitterness in liquid form.”

Before Zuko could reply, the two spun around as Iroh slammed his cup down. In fact, the older man looked the closest to angry at Zuko that she’d ever seen him.

“How could a member of my own family say something so horrible?! We will have to make some major changes around here.”

Iroh yanked the pot off the side and headed over to the closed window, opening the shutters just enough to dump the offending liquid out onto the street.

However, Yia wasn’t watching him. She was watching the shadow over the shutters that dove to one side as he had approached. Someone was outside.

Silently, she stalked across the room, heading straight for the door.

“Be back in a minute,” she said as she stepped out onto the quiet street.

Turning the corner to look down the nearest alleyway, Yia’s breath caught in her throat when she realised who it was.

 

“Jet?”

Chapter Text

Jet froze as Mirai called to him.

‘Dammit,’ he scolded mentally, turning to face her with a sheepish grin. ‘Quick, think – what excuse do you have for stalking the firebenders?’

Mirai however, looked practically ecstatic to see him as a blinding smile burst out across her face. He was almost taken aback by how she lit up, even Katara hadn’t looked so pleased to see him when they had first met.

“Mirai, hey. Nice dress,” he greeted, with a somewhat sheepish, if distracted grin. His mind was too busy racing to completely hide his expression, but he was a naturally gifted liar when he needed to be. He couldn’t tell Mirai he knew about Lee and Mushi just yet, she might tell the others. He had to gain her trust more, had to get her to believe he was the good guy and get her out of their claws.

“What are you doing here?” she asked breathlessly, her eyes widened like she’d seen a ghost and couldn’t be happier about it.

“Me?” Jet repeated, scratching the back of his neck and glancing behind him. “Oh uh, well I was- I was going to get some tea, but the shop looked closed. Then I thought I heard your voice so I was… Kind of spying on you. Sort of.”

‘Yes, just enough honesty to be believable. You’ve played this game before, just do it again,’ he decided, trying to shoot her a playful smirk.

Mirai furrowed her brow, her smile just becoming amused.

“Well if it’s only sort of stalking then I guess that’s okay,” she joked. “Though I wouldn’t recommend the tea here just yet. Mushi just tried some, and uh… Let’s just say he wasn’t impressed by the standards.”

“Ha, guess I’ll just have to wait a while longer.”

“You could always find another tea shop,” she pointed out.

“But then I wouldn’t be seeing you, would I?”

 Mirai laughed softly, shrugging at him and opening her arms.

“You’re seeing me now, aren’t you?”

“Sure, but I’d like to see you again sometime. For tea, maybe? Or if you just want to hang out.”

“Hang… out?”

Jet nodded, taking the piece of wheat from between his teeth, rolling it between his finger and thumb for a moment as he gave her the ‘hopeful puppy’ look.

Mirai didn’t look seduced. In fact, she didn’t seem to realise he was pretending to hit on her.

“Sure, it’d be cool to see Smellerbee and Longshot again. Though Lee should probably come too, he needs to socialise more with people his own age. I think he could get on well with Longshot actually, might help his temper…”

Jet shook his head, chuckling to himself. It would appear that Mirai was one of the rare few girls immune to his charms, if only due to her oblivious response to his flirting.

“Maybe, something like that,” he settled, deciding to change the subject. Since he had her here, maybe she could give him some information or something useful for his investigation. “So hey, are you settling into the city alright?”

“Yeah, it’s good, I guess. Our place is nice enough, got jobs sorted early on, now all I need is somewhere to train and I’m pretty much set to go. And you?”

“I’m glad to hear it. Me and the others are settled in one of the refugee centres right now, Longshot is working on getting us security detail so we can move into a flat together at some point.” Pausing, he ran a hand through his hair, studying her as he chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. Lifting the wheat back to his teeth, he started to come up with a plan.

“Sounds like your second chance is working out, so far,” she commented.

However, the slight waver of emotion in her voice was lost on him as the cogs in his mind began to turn.

“Yeah, I guess so. But you said something about needing a place to train, huh?”

“Uh, yes. I promised Lee I’d teach him a few tricks, but our flat is too small to do much in…”

A sly grin grew across his cheeks.

“You know, there’s a place nearby I’ve seen that might be perfect for what you’re looking for.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s a storage barn – mainly used to keep cattle in during the rainy season, but since it’s spring it’ll probably be empty most of the time. There’s an old guy who works as a caretaker there, but I’m sure he’d let you use the space if you tossed him a couple of coppers. Or yanno, if you went after dark.”

“You mean break in?” Mirai asked, looking a little unimpressed by the latter suggestion.

“Hey,” he muttered, raising his hands in surrender, “it’s just an idea if you’re short on cash. Then again, who isn’t?”

Mirai went quiet, hand cupping her chin thoughtfully as she looked down at the cobblestones.

Jet really hoped she would agree to this idea – mostly because of all the new advantages and opportunities it presented. If they were going to train, Lee could be lulled into a false sense of security. If he thought no one could see them, he would be far more likely to slip, succumb to his temper and firebend. Sure, it meant putting Mirai at risk, but she wouldn’t spar with him if she thought she couldn’t handle herself, whether she knew his dirty secret or not. Besides, Jet would be there, hidden and watching in case he needed to intervene.

‘No,’ a voice in his head scolded, one that sounded suspiciously like Katara. ‘I can’t use Mirai as a pawn. There are other ways to tempt them into bending – the old man risked discovery for a hot cup of tea after all!’

“If not, I guess you could try clearing some space in your new place?” he suggested, voice a little softer now as he took a small step forward.

This seemed to weaken her resolve.

“You’re sure the caretaker wouldn’t mind us using the space?” she asked.

“He calls himself ‘Old Sweepy’. I don’t think there’s much love lost between him and whoever owns the barn.”

Mirai bit down on her lower lip, drawing his gaze.

He hadn’t realised just how round her mouth was, and maybe it was just because she was thinking, but she almost looked like she was pouting. With most of her hair tied away under her headscarf, it actually opened up her face a lot, as if the rosy flesh between her teeth was circled for him to look at.

A sick feeling gripped his stomach as he wondered if Lee had ever looked at her lips like that.

‘He won’t get the chance to in jail,’ he vowed silently.

As Mirai lifted her head once more, Jet drew himself back to the present and away from the images that plagued his mind of what could happen to her if she stayed with that filth.

“Fine, where is this place, then?”

His grin returned with a tinge of triumph as he began giving her the directions, meanwhile planning his first real attempt at catching these rats.

- - - - -

Yia’s first day had been surprisingly good.

Pao had been very understanding about her wanting to stay firmly behind the scenes, saying she would most likely be on washing up duty and tea-making as her role. Iroh was designated tea-maker though, so she wouldn’t need to do much more than wash cups and sweep the back floor. After Zuko attempted to make a pot of tea, he was banished from ever touching so much as a tea leaf in the shop again until Iroh was satisfied he could do it properly back at the apartment. Instead, he would be a waiter and man the till with his uncle in the front of house, and clean the shop if it got quiet. So aside from Zuko, as normal, everyone was happy.

Then there was seeing Jet.

In the vision, his death had felt so imminent that she was completely bowled over by the waves of feelings that rushed through her when she had realised that he was still alive. In her excitement, she had forgotten to ask or check if he had got the armoured chest plate that she’d begged him to buy, but she forced her mind elsewhere, despite the way her palms itched at the guilt.

Instead, she thought about the barn and her first training session tonight with Zuko.

All her life, Yia had been the pupil, not the teacher. A part of her was worried that she would be awful at helping Zuko with his combat. An even bigger part of her was concerned about how they were going to be able to fight without making any physical contact. Her current plan just hooked on the hope that he had some movable clothing that covered his body, and she would wear additional layers if necessary, to protect herself from revealing her abilities just yet.

As she lost herself in thought, sat neatly at the low rising table on one of the beaten cushions, Iroh began to bustle around the kitchen stove.

“Would either of you like a pot of tea?”

Zuko groaned from behind her, laid out on their couch and throwing his arm over his head.

“We've been working in a tea shop all day – I'm sick of tea!”

“Sick of tea?” Iroh repeated in horror.

“Oh dear…” she murmured to herself, putting her face in her palms at the two of them.

“That's like being sick of breathing!” Iroh declared, shaking his head exasperated by his nephew’s behaviour.

“I’ll take a cup if you’re making a pot,” Yia offered, not removing her head from her hands just yet.

The sound of rummaging from beside her drew her attention, and as more cupboard doors opened and closed, Yia sighed and sat back upright, hands in her lap once more.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Have you seen the spark rocks to heat up the water?”

“They should be under the sink, are they lost?”

Iroh simply hummed to himself, brows furrowed.

When he didn’t respond to her, and instead wandered away without explanation, she sighed and looked over to Zuko.

“Do you have any clothes you can train in?”

This piqued his interest, as the boy turned his head from where he lay to look over to her.

“Yes.”

“Do they cover you well?”

There was a short pause.

“Yes.”

“Good. Wear gloves if you have them.”

“Fine. Any other requests?” he asked, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

“Yeah – when we leave, be ready to sneak around a little. Wouldn’t want to get in trouble for breaking and entering just yet.”

Zuko’s confusion was left forgotten when Iroh reappeared, spark rocks in hand.

“I borrowed our neighbours'. Such kind people.”

The trio went silent as Iroh made up the tea, Yia only moving to take her cup with a grateful smile when she headed towards her room.

“Get dressed soon, we leave in thirty minutes.”

- - - - -

It had only really been a couple of months at most, but Yia had missed her old clothes. The leather was a little looser on her and the laces of her jerkin needed to be tightened in some places, but considering how little they had been able to eat some days, it wasn’t too surprising she’d lost some muscle mass. The sooner she and Zuko could start eating their meats and vegetables rather than just rice and nuts, the sooner she could return to the familiar strength she missed.

Stepping into the corridor, she tugged at the end of her sleeves before tucking them into her gloves, pleased by the sheer amount of skin she’d managed to cover by adding more bindings to her old clothes. Sure, she would have to improvise if anything became dislodged, but she was used to overcoming her obstacles by now.

Ahead of her, the doors to the men’s room opened and Yia was faced with Zuko in… Clothes she’d never seen him wear before.

He was dressed in black, head to toe, his sleeves and trousers loose enough to allow movement, but not so much so that they would get in the way. The long sleeves and high neck meant the only exposed skin was from his chin up, with his dark coloured gloves and shoes covering any skin that might’ve had a chance otherwise. In his hand was another piece of material, what looked like cloth sewn up into a loop – a mask of sorts, she figured.

“You done staring?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at her as he tugged the material over his head, wearing it like a never-ending scarf.

“Where’d you get this kind of gear?” she replied, crossing her arms as she studied him.

“A village, before Azula and… everything else. Why does it matter?”

Yia shrugged and scratched her forehead briefly. “Just curious. You ready to go?”

“Lead the way.”

The two nodded to one another, and after waving a silent goodbye to Iroh who seemed to have fallen asleep on the sofa, they made their way out of the flat and out onto the streets below.

Yia’s footsteps were not loud, but compared to Zuko’s skilled silence, she felt like a tigerdillo on the rampage. His moves were graceful as he followed behind her, darting down alleyways and halting at corners as if he did this every night. It soothed her nerves somehow. Zuko didn’t ask questions either which she appreciated, because though she wasn’t sure of the policing situation in Ba Sing Se, she had gathered they’d be in trouble if they got caught.

The darkness of the night acted as a great cover, and the empty streets felt like a breath of fresh air in comparison to the cramped, busy state it had been in before. Arriving outside the tea shop, she quickly remembered the directions Jet had given her. Signalling to Zuko their direction, they pressed on.

Barely five minutes later, they were outside a large wooden storage barn looking at two heavy doors that seemed to open from the inside, or with a key that she didn't have.

“What now?” Zuko whispered to her, the first words they’d exchanged so far.

Biting her lip as she thought, she looked up at the high, open windows of the building. The nearby rooftops were too far away for a jump, but there was a drain pipe that ran along the upper structure of the barn with thick ridges of wooden stabilisers from where it had been nailed into the wall.

No, they’re too far away for him to get to without a ledge…’ she thought. ‘Then again, I could always let him in afterwards.’

Holding up a finger to him, silently telling him to wait, Yia dropped into a runner’s lunge. Taking a deep breath, she centred her balance and trained her eyes on the lowest ridge of the drain, a solid ten feet off the ground.

Without warning, she burst into a sprint.

Feet pounding against the uneven ground, Yia sped towards her target. When she got close enough to the wall, she squatted lower, maintaining as much momentum as she could before forcing all the strength in her legs to aid in launching herself up into the air. Her outstretched hands caught onto one of the ridges, and a thrill of triumph rushed through her as she found herself hanging from the side of the barn.

The large, heavy screws and bolts were holding under the added weight of her body, but taking no risks, she planted her feet against the wall and began to scurry up the drain like a fire ferret as quickly as she could. Latching on to the window ledge with one hand, the other still firmly attached to the drain, Yia winced at the splinters she felt digging into her fingertips. Pushing her legs out, she boosted herself up so she was sat one leg either side of the wall, and glancing down to the inside of the barn.

Jet was right – the place was empty aside from a few crates and bales of hay.

It was perfect.

Looking more directly downwards, she saw a nearby pile of hay that had not yet been packed into such firm bundles. Hoping it would soften enough of her fall, Yia adjusted her body and swung her leg over so both faced into the barn now. Feet flat against the wall beneath her, she pushed off, and free-fell into the mini mountain of hay.

Almost swallowed by the scratching golden strands, Yia coughed quietly, scrambling off her back and onto her feet as she skidded down to the concrete floor beneath her. Jogging over to the big barn doors, Yia found the wooden latch and lifted it easily, opening the door with a victorious grin to a less-than-impressed looking Zuko.

“You’re covered in hay,” he muttered, slipping past her into the open space.

“Thanks for opening the door for me Yia. Really cool how you scaled the wall like that,” she mocked in a deep voice, a terrible impression of the male, before changing back to her regular tones. “Oh, no problem, Princey. Really, no big deal.”

Zuko rolled his eyes but didn’t respond as she began to brush off the stray hay from where it had caught in her clothes and her hair.

The barn around them was dim and airy, but all the hay and crates lined the edge of the room leaving a large space in the centre for the two to begin their fights. As their eyes had adjusted to the dark, they would barely strain to see each other, and within the walls, it seemed safe enough to talk at a normal volume once more. Dust was barely visible in the streams of moonlight that filtered through the windows, and without the cattle, the only smell was of must and disuse.

“Alright,” she announced, only turning to properly face him once she was satisfied with the state that she was in. “I’m guessing due to your swords and firebending, you’ve never had to learn much about hand to hand aside from the basics. Is that about right?”

“I know a little more than the basics,” he grumbled, but seemed to resign himself to the role of the pupil as they moved to the centre of the room.

“Fine. Then what’s the strongest part of the body?” she asked, tugging at her gloves. Only the very tips of her fingers were exposed, yet somehow hay dust had made its way inside. How irritating.

“The elbow.”

“What’s the easiest counter to a kick?”

“Get closer to your opponent so they can’t put as much force into it.”

“If you get punched in the nose, what will happen even if it doesn’t hurt much?”

“Your eyes will water an-“

Zuko was cut off as Yia lunged forward, and threw a jab straight to his nose.

The prince staggered back, blinking rapidly in shock that she’d hit him out of nowhere.

Yia simply smiled at him – she hadn’t hit hard, she wasn’t aiming to break his nose. If she was, a palm-heel strike from underneath would have been far more effective than a knuckle-based punch, even if it risked skin contact. His face was damaged enough, after all. But hopefully, the move would punctuate her message.

“What was that?!” he exclaimed, a barely controlled temper simmering under the surface of a usually well-maintained look of indifference.

“You know the theory, not the practical side of this. But it’s okay – you’ll improve with time and effort. For now, I’ll be the judge of where you’re at skill wise.”

“By hitting me?”

“Sparring against you. Consider this lesson one: respond to your opponent’s moves the same way you would in a firebending match. You must block, attack, and adapt how they move to your advantage, or you will be forced to concede the fight.”

“I never concede without a fight,” he retorted, eyes blazing now the water had receded from her blow.

“We’ll see about that.”

Yia moved so quickly that he barely had time to react, and he only just caught her fist before it smashed into his cheek. She didn’t need a mirror to know that the look in her eyes was deadly, and the girl who washed up teacups was lost to a warrior ready to fight.

His eyes narrowed as he stood, gripping her fist in his hand. “Yi-”

She slammed her foot into the side of his knee, dropping him to the floor.

Zuko dropped her hand in surprise, blocking blows with his arms, grunting as she kicked her foot out into the centre of his chest and sent him to his back on the dank floor. Though he made a good attempt to sweep her leg in a move suspiciously similar to firebending, he was left watching as she jumped over it with ease.

Yia would have been smiling if she wasn’t so focused on the fight.

Zuko sat up, hands wrapping around her ankle as she moved to kick at his head, pulling her off balance and throwing her over his shoulder. Yia felt her back smack against a hay bale, the sound muffled by their surroundings as she fell to the ground.

Zuko was doing his best from his position on the floor to anticipate the barrage of punches and kicks as she thrust them toward his head. Unfortunately, or impressively depending on how you saw the situation, it seemed like he was assessing her fighting style, meaning he could attempt to predict where she would strike next. Predicting the future was supposed to be her expertise; there was no way she would let him beat her in their first real spar.

As Zuko flipped to his feet, he was forced to dodge out of the way when she directed a swift punch towards his groin.

He glared hard at her.

“Really?”

“Lesson two: the opponent can’t cheat when there aren’t rules to break.”

She smirked up at him, her leg extended toward his knee, the same one she’d kicked earlier, hoping to force him to succumb. He backed away and she used the time to climb to her feet, jumping onto a low-rising nearby crate. Planting her feet on the wood and using the momentum to wrap her arms around his shoulders, she pulled him backwards. He flipped over her shoulder, grunting as his body hit the ground.

Yia turned and stood over him, foot pressed hard against his chest. “Concede,” she commanded, voice echoing faintly off the concrete floor.

Zuko’s hand balled into a fist, ready to launch either a punch or a fireball at her face.

“Control yourself,” she warned, her voice low now as she knelt over him, foot firmly placed in the middle of his torso. “Then concede the fight.”

The two stared hard into each other’s eyes: Yia’s gaze demanding, Zuko’s evaluating.

He had to know he wouldn’t win – she was the trained master, he just had his strength and size over her, and that wasn’t much use from the ground beneath.

She wasn’t sure how long it took, but eventually, Zuko’s fist slackened and he opened his palms in surrender.

Yia didn’t remove her foot.

She waited for his breathing to slow, Zuko’s eyes like a storm as they looked up at her, before finally extending her hand to him.

He took it slowly, seemingly unsure if she was finished with her assault or just wanted him closer to inflict more damage.

They both returned to their feet, and Yia smiled to herself at the familiar feeling of aching in her muscles and sweat on her brow.

This would be good for them. Both of them.

 

“So, firstly – what did you learn?”

Chapter Text

Despite getting back to the apartment at least an hour after midnight, Zuko’s bleary eyes fluttered open as the Sun rose over the horizon.

His muscles ached, he was sore all over, and he was definitely bruised in at least three different places, but this was the happiest he’d been in weeks. Training with Yia had taken away some of the helplessness he’d been feeling since arriving in the city, and since having his sister place a bounty on his head. Sure, he’d been punched, kicked, and slapped more than he would care to admit, but he had fought back. He was learning. He was going to be stronger.

Oddly, Zuko realised that by sparring her for a couple of hours, he’d had more physical contact with her then than during the past two months that they had travelled in each other’s company. Though each area had been fully clothed, they’d been closer than he’d ever seen her let anyone near her.

Not that it mattered how much they touched. Why would it?

Shaking his head of the bizarre train of thought, the young prince sighed, and sat up in his bed. He winced softly at the dull pain around his ribcage, remembering a particularly vicious kick from Yia in their third round. Her teaching style was very practical, very much about the practice and learning required to become a fighter. Something about muscle memory, but he was mostly focused on how it would build his strength back up. He had the advantage of size and was probably only slightly stronger than her physically, but if she began to focus on building back up her strength and muscle, there was no doubt she could floor him in half the time it’d taken last night.

They would get stronger, better to face their enemies.

Better to face Azula.

His own family was his enemy, as his home country wanted him dead. Every other Nation left standing would too. He hated how small it made him feel, how vulnerable. How weak. It was quite literally his uncle and him against the whole world.

Well, maybe not Yia. By now, he had to admit that she hadn’t made any attempt on his life or to lead them astray. The girl – argumentative and confusing and stubborn as she was – had become what felt like a permanent part of his life.

And maybe he had as a part of hers.

After all, though she’d come to help his uncle, she had agreed to train him. More so, she’d been willing to let him not only touch her but actively try to hit her, injure her, take her down. In the five sparring matches they’d had, she had ended every one of them with her foot planted squarely centred on his chest, demanding his concession. But every match she had taught him something new.

Hand to hand combat required just as much focus on blocks as attacking, unlike firebending where attacks were adapted to make defensive movements. When the head is moved, the body follows. Kidney punches hurt – a lot. This was not bending so there were no rules about honour, but no one can cheat as there are no rules to break, and therefore nothing to hold your opponent back from dirty tactics. Finally, don’t fight with the heart, fight with your fists – if you let your anger cloud your judgement, you can be goaded into fights or attacks you cannot beat.

The last one he knew in theory but wasn’t sure how he could apply it if he had to fight Azula. She had an uncanny ability to crawl under his skin and make him dance like a puppet, always getting what she wanted and always, always lying.

Climbing out of bed as quietly as he could, Zuko grabbed a green robe and tugged it over his head, before heading to the bathroom to wash his hands and face. He stopped in the hallway when he realised Yia’s bedroom door was partially open, and he couldn’t help the curiosity that gripped him. Peering through the crack in the door, he saw she’d taken the blanket from the bed and laid it out with the pillow on the floor, with what looked like the bedsheet on top.

It looked like she had slept on the floor right next to her bed, rather than in it.

The image confused him for a moment until the memory of something his uncle told him came to mind.

“Some soldiers struggle when they come back from the war, Prince Zuko,” he had said, hand patting his younger self’s shoulder affectionately. “Some get nightmares, others cannot find peace without violence, and many forgo even a bed to rest in because they haven’t realised that they are safe and that they are not fighting to survive. Their body betrays them even when the mind knows they are home.”

The idea made something twist in his gut.

“It’s too soft.”

The voice from behind him made him jump, spinning around to find Yia staring at him, having apparently appeared from the living room. A different, lighter green dress to yesterday’s hugged her waist and hips before falling loosely to her ankles, and those blasted, cursed curls were completely free of all braids but the cloth binding by her temple, meaning they were falling about her face and fully distracting him for a moment. Even without a hint of wind or an inch of movement from her head, they seemed to hold a life of their own and bounced lightly under his offended gaze.

“I- I wasn’t…”

“I know, but you were wondering. The bed’s too soft, it makes me feel like I’m on a cloud and about to fall right through it. Like it would swallow me if I fell asleep on it.”

Zuko nodded, looking back at her little nest of sheets on the floor. He couldn’t make eye contact as she confessed this weakness, it seemed too personal for her to share when he hadn’t asked, when there wasn’t repayment. Their little game of trade and confessions was safe when it felt like they were on equal ground and there were rules. This was just out of nowhere. He hadn’t asked, he hadn’t paid.

“Did you sleep at all the first night?” was all he could ask in the end.

“No. Did you?”

“Yes.”

A small scoffing noise drew his gaze away from her room and back to her now amused expression.

“What?” he demanded, brows furrowed in annoyance, her little joke clearly lost on him.

“Oh nothing,” she waved off, walking past to her room. “Just about how after being awake for thirty-six hours I still managed to beat you five times straight at sparring.”

Zuko bristled indignantly at her teasing comment, before she turned back to him and shot him a grin.

“Don’t worry, I know I don’t need to go easy on you.”

He had no idea how to respond to any of that interaction, so shaking his head and turning towards the bathroom, he muttered darkly under his breath.

“Girls are crazy…”

- - - - -

It was only their second day working at the tea shop, but the word seemed to have started to spread about Iroh’s wonderous brews because she had barely put on her apron that morning before she had teapots to wash out.

From what she could tell the shop was not full but had at least four or five more tables filled than normal, mainly due to guardsmen and police stopping by on breaks in their shift that she saw briefly from her little back room. It made sense, she guessed. If one or two guards came and enjoyed, they’d tell others they worked with. Whichever way it had happened, it made a near permanent smile on Iroh’s face, so she had very little to complain about.

The two men hardly approached her pot wash unless it was to pile up more teapots and cups or to take the cleaned ones from their place on the drying rack. Her back was to them both, but it was mainly Iroh’s heavier steps she heard behind her. Zuko’s ban from the kitchen meant he was left serving tables and clearing them as customers left.

Yia soon found the distractions slowing her down, so turned her attention back to the soapy water.

It was peaceful, the repetitive nature of washing. It was allowing herself to think of nothing at all; no futures to worry about, or potential threats, or memories that belonged firmly in her past. Unfortunately, she did have to remove her gloves to clean the pots and cups, meaning the angry scarred skin of her hands was exposed, drawing her attention now and again, but she tried to keep them out of sight and under the soapy water.

Instead, she found herself slipping into an old practice of focused movement meditation.

The jumping around between many thoughts and activities leads to a scattered mind and dissatisfaction,’ she recalled Sangok teaching, as she decided to focus solely on her action of washing. ‘Focus your attention exclusively on the action you are completing. If you notice that your mind is wandering, you simply acknowledge that and bring your focus back to what you’re doing.

The fond memory of the man’s warm voice made her smile as she dipped a dirtied cup under the bubbles. Her hands were pruning and wrinkling from the warm water, and the smell of lavender soap mixed wonderfully with the various blends remaining on each cup. She was getting better at identifying the various scents that accompanied each mug: jasmine, ginseng, chamomile, chai…

Yia was so lost in her moment of peace, she did not hear Zuko’s soft footsteps approaching from behind her.

“Mirai? Mirai?” he called, waving a hand in front of her face.

Yia blinked in surprise, looking up to realise it was now well past noon.

“Oh, hello,” she greeted sheepishly, lowering the pot she had back into the water.

“You haven’t taken your lunch break yet,” he stated bluntly, his narrowed eyes the only shift in his usual mask of indifferent irritability (the only description she could conjure aside from an unfortunate resting face).

“I guess I just got carried away,” she replied, shrugging off his suspicions.

“Whatever, just… Uncle made extra stir-fry for you, but it’ll be cold by now.”

“That’s fine, I don’t mind.”

Pulling her hands from the water, she reached for the nearby towel. The pale green cloth was little more than a rag by this point, but hopefully, if Iroh’s brews became more popular, then Pao could get her a nicer one…

Realising Zuko was still stood behind her, she shot him a glance, raising a curious brow his way.

“Is there something else?” she asked.

Then she clocked it – his eyes were trained firmly on her hands. More specifically, she imagined the intensity of his gaze was due to the white and red scarring across her palms and backhand that had not quite faded enough to go ignored. Despite her proximity to the boy over the past couple of months, she realised he had never seen her hands without the cover of her leather gloves, and in her relaxed state hadn’t thought to hide them from prying eyes.

The tranquillity she had experienced until now melted away at the look of confusion and horror in his eyes as his lips pressed into a firm line. Memories threatened to plague her, and Zuko wasn’t moving and suddenly she couldn’t breathe.

Snatching her gloves off the side, she tugged them over the scarred flesh, not meeting his gaze as she hurried out of the back room feeling utterly sick. There was no way she was going to be able to eat feeling like this, but she just had to get away from him.

Zuko couldn’t hide his scars, but she could.

Yia only wished that they could be hidden from herself.

- - - - -

“Jet, we need to talk.”

The boy in question spun around at the sound of Smellerbee’s voice. He’d been surveying the tea shop the firebenders had taken up residence in on his own for the past couple of days, and still hadn’t got the evidence he wanted to go to the police with.

“Hm? Oh great, it's you guys. Where have you been? I could use some help with surveillance here!” he pointed out, gesturing behind him to the doorway of the shop.

“We've been talking,” Smellerbee started, looking a little uneasy which was rare for the brave little warrior. “We think you're becoming obsessed with this... It's not healthy.”

“Oh, really?” Jet scoffed, glancing between her and Longshot. The seriousness he was met with killed his joking mood. “You both think this?”

Longshot placed his arm on Smellerbee's shoulder, his silent movement only showing agreement with her statement.

“We came here to make a fresh start. But you won't let this go. Even though there is no real proof!” she called, a little louder than he wanted her to be if he was going to maintain his cover.

Feeling desperation creeping in, Jet turned to fully face them both, ignoring the sound of the shop door opening behind him.

“Well, maybe if you'd help me-“

“Jet, please, you gotta stop this,” she interrupted, cutting any charms or pleas off before he could start.

But he couldn’t allow this. He knew what he saw, and he knew better than anyone the danger posed by any number of rogue firebenders.

“Maybe you've forgotten why we need to start over,” he spat, causing the two to look down guiltily. They were the only ones he’d given any detail about his parents’ murder to after all. “Maybe you've forgotten about how the Fire Nation left us all homeless? How they wiped out all the people we loved?”

Shaking his head angrily, Jet felt the heat in his blood only grow as indignant fury boiled over inside him. Turning his back on them both, his eyes trained themselves firmly on the entrance to the tea shop.

“If you don't want to help me, I'll get the evidence on my own.”

Drawing his swords, he turned and made his way across the street.

And slammed open the door.

And called out: “I’m tired of waiting!”

And pointed towards Mushi and Lee, who looked very surprised by his entrance.

“These two men-“

And then he was cut off because someone was yanking the back of his tunic with a shocking amount of force and pulling him back out onto the street.

“Let go of me!” he growled, wriggling free and brandishing his swords to face whoever was stopping him.

His eyes widened as he turned.

“Mirai?”

The girl was stood, feet planted firmly and hands gripped in fists by her side like she was trying to control herself, and her eyes so fiercely grey they almost looked strobed with white. Her clenched jaw shook with the strength she was gritting her teeth, and for a moment he truly felt afraid, despite her smaller stature and unassuming state of dress.

“Jet, nothing good will come of you doing what you planned just then,” she murmured, her voice so low he almost hadn’t caught it.

“You have no idea what I was planning.”

“I do, and I’m telling you, it would have signed your death sentence.”

With anyone else, he might have laughed, or rolled his eyes and shrugged off her seriousness, but the severity in her tone and the way her eyes were piercing him like frostbite made his skin prickle uncomfortably.

And then he understood.

“You know. You know what they are,” he accused lowly, before pointing the tip of one of his swords at her. “Why haven’t you told anyone? Handed them in?”

“Because they are not evil, Jet. No one is inherently evil because of where they were born or the skills they have – you should know it’s how a person chooses to use them. They aren’t here to cause harm, they’re refugees like you.”

His nostrils flared, physical repulsion spreading through his at the comparison.

“I am nothing like those filthy firebreathers,” he spat and turned to go back to the shop, finish what he started. He would tell them – tell everyone.

“Did you ever buy a chest plate?” she called from behind him, voice sad and he wasn’t sure why.

He didn’t respond, bursting back into the shop instead.

“Enough! These two men are firebenders.”

- - - - -

Yia couldn’t bring herself to watch.

She knew, in theory, she could interfere, throw a blade and catch him in the leg, incapacitating him to let the guardsmen take him away before he hurt someone. But if she did, he would just be killed. No escaping the inevitable now – whatever his fate was, this was the only way he had a chance of living if he was useful to someone.

“You'll have to defend yourself, then everyone will know. Go ahead, show them what you can do,” Jet goaded from inside.

Yia simply wrapped her arms around herself, sinking to the ground and leaning her back against the outer wall of the shop.

Zuko’s voice pitched up in response.

“You want a show? I'll give you a show!”

She wasn’t sure where he got swords from, but she could hear the metal ringing from her curled up position under the window.

And to think – she was going to go home early and prepare dinner, distract Zuko from her scarred hands to deal with that another day. She’d only been a few steps out the door when the vision had hit her, the two boys battling in the street, and Jet being dragged away, securing his fate. The pieces of the game had been set in motion, and there was no way she could save him now.

He would have his ribcage crushed by a pillar of rock before spring ended.

The not-so-distant sound of swords clashing made her wince as her breath became shallow and rapid. The tips of her fingers felt as if they were being pricked by hundreds of invisible needles, and she was growing dizzy from the helpless panic she was spiralling into.

“I can’t save him. I can’t save him,” she whispered to herself, rocking a little and closing her eyes for longer and longer blinks.

“I can’t save him.”

Beside her, Zuko burst through the door and tumbled out onto the street.

Jet ran after him, striking at Zuko with both hooked swords – the two swiftly locking in place as the Prince’s defence held.

If she had been able to keep her eyes open, she might have seen the twist of Jet’s sinister grin.

“You must be getting tired of using those swords. Why don't you go ahead and firebend at me?”

“Please, son, you're confused! You don't know what you're doing!”

Iroh. That was Iroh’s voice.

“Uncle,” she croaked out, eyes blinking open and searching for the source of his voice. Yia didn’t even realise she never called him that out loud.

Her pleading was just loud enough, as it caught the older man’s attention.

Rushing to her side, he was careful not to touch her.

“Oh child, are you alright?”

She shook her head rapidly.

“Did he do something to you?”

She couldn’t respond. She could not answer that with a yes or a no, and speaking wasn’t an option because she could barely breathe properly.

“You’re breathing too quickly, I need you to try and slow down for me. Can you do that?” he coaxed, voice so soft and gentle amongst all the madness unfolding behind him.

Yia shrugged, uncertain as her gasps became peppered with hiccups.

Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she wasn’t sure when she started crying.

“Yia,” he breathed, so low only she could hear.

“You see that?! The Fire Nation is trying to silence me. It'll never happen,” Jet crowed from somewhere.

“Don’t listen to him, listen to me. Breathe in,” he commanded, his gentle yet firm authority breaking through her panic just enough for her to try and focus. “Good, now breathe out.”

Her heart was pounding in her chest.

“Breathe in.”

Her skin was coated in a thin sheen of sweat.

“Breathe out.”

Jet was going to die.

“Breathe in.”

She couldn’t stop it.

“Breathe out.”

She hadn’t stopped it.

“Breathe in.”

Just like Sangok.

“Breathe out.”

“Drop your weapons.”

The foreign voice drew her attention, and she raised her head from between her knees to see what was happening.

Two men cloaked in dark green and wide-rimmed hats approached the two boys who were dutifully stepping away from one another. Zuko wasn’t hurt, from what she could see, just out of breath. That sent a small wave of relief through her as her breathing began to return to a less volatile pace.

“Arrest them,” Jet called, gesturing from Zuko to Iroh who was still crouched by her side. “They're firebenders!”

Iroh gave the young man a sympathetic look, standing to address the newcomers. “This poor boy is confused, we're just simple refugees.”

“This young man wrecked my tea shop, and assaulted my employees!” she heard Pao cry out, though she wasn’t sure when he had arrived.

“It's true sir, we saw the whole thing,” someone else piped up. “This crazy kid attacked the finest tea maker in the city.”

“Oh, ho, ho. That's very sweet,” Iroh replied, smiling politely before crouching back down next to her. “Can I help you up? I’ll be careful not to touch your skin,” he promised softly.

Yia wasn’t sure she wanted to be touched right now, but her legs had lost any and all strength in them so she couldn’t really protest. Nodding to the General, she offered out her arms for him to take.

He supported her from her elbows, getting her up to her feet at least, before taking a more solid hold around her waist and from her left forearm – all safely covered by her clothing.

“Come with us, son,” one of the men ordered, she assumed he was police, and with a barely concealed sob she watched Jet’s failed attempt to swing a sword swiftly foiled with the police officer’s bending.

As his hands were bound, Yia pressed her face into Iroh’s shoulder, not wanting to witness anything more.

“You don't understand! They're Fire Nation! You have to believe me!” Jet cried out, his protests and scuffling growing fainter and fainter.

Murmurs of the crowd around her quietened too – she’d barely noticed the press of people around her during whatever it was that had just happened to her.

Approaching footsteps made her head snap up.

She was met with the sight of Zuko looking at her dishevelled appearance, and his face cycling through emotions so rapidly she couldn’t even read them.

“Did he…?” the prince began to ask.

Iroh just shook his head. “Later. I’m going to take her back home. Can you help Pao close up?”

Zuko nodded. He gave her one last look, before returning to the shop, passing a pair of broadswords to a man who looked surprised that they’d been returned.

 

“Come now,” Iroh murmured in her ear, the comfort of his voice an anchor in the waves of emotion she was experiencing. “If anyone needed a cup of camomile tea right about now, it would be you, dear.”

Chapter Text

Kairos - It means a perfect, delicate moment; the opportune time for crucial actions or movements.

 

Zuko could have had a thousand different things on his mind as he walked back from the shop towards the flat, but there was only one.

Yia.

He could never have imagined what she looked like crying, let alone the… wreck she had been, clinging to his uncle like a lifeline, shaking like a leaf. All because of that scum who thought it was a bright idea to try and take him out, and ruin his uncle’s shot at a new life. Who had, apparently, left Yia more broken than he cared to remember.

The image was burned into his head now though, and he wasn’t sure how to feel. He’d been so determined to only see her as a warrior, a fighter, not a girl with feelings and her own personality, that the reality that she could be torn down like this shook him to his core. It also made a dark part of him wish he had hurt his opponent much more when he’d had the chance.

Forcing his mind away from her haggard breathing and shivering frame, he remembered their interaction earlier where he’d caught sight of her hands, and the abundant scars across them.

Oddly, he had been reminded of when Song had shown him where she had been burned.

Subconsciously he was aware that the Fire Nation had attacked many places in its attempt to gain enough control for the great plans the Firelord and Sages had in store for the world. That meant that people would have been hurt, burned. Scarred. But consciously, it didn’t seem to process that even someone like Yia could have been damaged by his home country, his fellow firebenders.

From the brief look he’d got, Zuko had to assume that the scars were burns not from a scald or acid, but flames.

It seemed no matter how many questions he asked her, there was still so much that he didn’t know.

In what felt like moments he’d arrived back at their new place, so lost in his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed the time going by. With a heavy sigh, he opened the door, ready to face his uncle.

As expected, Iroh was waiting for him. He sat at the low table with two cups laid out before him, and a pot of tea. Any protests he might have had about more tea died on his lips at the sight of the emotion on his face. Worry was not a frequent expression his uncle wore, nor was such open concern for him, and the prince was a little unnerved by it.

“I’m fine,” he said simply, taking off his shoes and placing them by the doorway.

“Prince Zuko,” his uncle responded, the name said so boldly it was as if he didn’t fear someone hearing from outside. “Please, sit.”

Zuko nodded, and obediently sat on the opposite side, taking a moment to get comfortable on the cushion.

“That was a very brave thing you did, tonight,” the man started, picking up the teapot and pouring out a cup for Zuko. The smell was not familiar to him but was pleasant enough.

“You would have done the same,” he shrugged, bowing his head in thanks and picking up the teacup, wrapping his palms around it and focusing on the pleasant warmth it brought his hands.

“Maybe so, but that doesn’t make it any less an act of courage. You defended me, and Yia.”

This made Zuko’s gut twist again. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if anyone did find out the truth about them, let alone what would happen to Yia. He and his uncle would be killed, but Yia? She’d be deemed a treasonous outlier. She’d end up in prison at least, and probably be tortured for information that she wouldn’t have. A shudder passed through him, and he took a large gulp of scalding tea, ignoring the pain of the heat as he did.

“How is she?” he asked quietly, his indifference wavering slightly.

“Calmer now. I gave her some tea, and she retired to her room not long after. I believe it was an… Emotionally draining experience for her.”

‘Yeah, her boyfriend was just dragged off to an insane asylum most likely,’ he thought bitterly.

Then he realised, ‘He was sent there because of me.’

His breath caught in his throat.

‘She’ll never forgive me for that. How could she forgive me for sending away someone she clearly cared for?’

“I guess so,” Zuko ground out, taking another large swig of his drink that was still too hot to be drunk like this.

Why did he feel so suddenly sick at the idea of her going back to barely tolerating him? They weren’t friends, they were allies – that was what they had both agreed after Azula had attacked. Or at least, that was what he hadn’t denied. But she was bound to be furious with him now, despise him at the very least.

“Yia asked to speak to you.”

Zuko’s head snapped up at the comment.

“She did?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound as nervous as he felt.

His uncle nodded gravely. “She asked me to send you to her before you rest tonight.”

The prince turned his head to look at the sliding doors, apprehension flooding his veins and tensing his muscles.

Maybe she’d yell at him. Maybe she’d beat him up. Maybe she’d stab him and be done with it.

He hadn’t been afraid of fighting Jet, but spirits something was starting to scare him now.

“I’m going to turn in for the night, it’s been a long day,” his uncle murmured, putting down his empty cup that Zuko hadn’t noticed him finish.

“Yes, it has.”

The young man felt glued and stuck to his seat. He didn’t want to know why Yia wanted to see him so soon after what he’d done.

As his uncle reached the doors, he couldn’t help the childish fear of being left on his own to face this.

“Uncle?” he asked abruptly, unable to remove his gaze from the table.

“Yes?”

“Did I make a mistake?”

The fragile words hung in the air as thoughts raced through his mind. Could he have done things differently? Was there a better way that he just hadn’t seen? Had he been too rash and angry? Would he have even cared about his actions if not for Yia?

His uncle hummed thoughtfully, pulling him back to reality and drawing his gaze away from the worn-down wood in front of him.

“I cannot say. But if you did, I do not believe there are ever mistakes so great they cannot be fixed.”

Zuko held back a bitter retort, nodding instead. The words would have comforted him if they weren’t so wrong – after all, he’d experienced exile for a ‘mistake’.

“Goodnight, Prince Zuko.”

“Goodnight, Uncle.”

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there for, but he could not avoid the inevitable, only postpone it. His inner fire burned low now, so it must have been close to midnight when he stumbled to his feet. He let himself regain feeling in his legs only briefly, before starting what felt like his walk to the gallows.

As he opened the sliding doors, he noted how Yia’s door was ajar again like it had been this morning. Still, he knocked softly before entering, bracing himself for whatever she was ready with.

To his partial relief, she was simply stood by the window, watching the night sky. Her figure bathed in moonlight, he noted the same pale green dress she’d worn all day, but now she had found her cloak and wrapped it around herself like a shawl or comfort blanket. Her headscarf lay discarded on her stripped bed, but with her hood up he couldn’t tell if she’d left her hair braided or not.

Upon his entrance, she glanced over her shoulder to meet his gaze.

Her eyes were still a little red from crying, and her cheeks lightly flushed with colour he could just about see in the poor lighting, but rather than looking murderous she gave him a weak smile.

“Hey,” she greeted softly.

“Hi. You, uh… You asked to see me?” he mumbled, nerves gripping him despite her apparent ease.

No, it wasn’t ease. More like she was resigned, accepting defeat.

“Yes, I- I did.” She sighed, and stepped away from the windowsill, approaching him but stopping several feet away, leaving him some space. “How are you?”

The question threw him.

“I’m sorry?” he spluttered, the confusion he felt evident in his expression.

Yia’s eyes widened for a second before her brows furrowed in equal confusion. “The fight? I… I wasn’t in much of a place to see if you were alright, so-“

“Wait, I thought- I thought you were angry with me,” he cut off, looking at her incredulously.

“Angry with you?”

“Yes, angry! I just got your boyf- Jet, your friend, arrested because he somehow found out or guessed about me, my uncle.”

Yia’s features softened at his words, but Zuko was at an utter loss. He didn’t understand, at all.

“That isn’t your fault. His decisions led him there, you didn’t force him to attack you,” she murmured, crossing her arms over herself.

He blinked in surprise.

“So, you aren’t angry with me?”

“No, Zuko – I’m not. Are you angry with me?”

“Why would I be angry with you?”

“Because I couldn’t talk him out of it. You saw him burst in the first time; I pulled him away, I tried to calm him down or make him change his mind. I failed. So, are you angry with me?”

Zuko shook his head. “No, I… You didn’t…”

Then he realised what she was doing.

“Alright, I get it.”

The two fell silent, Zuko looking down uncomfortably and Yia studying him with those eyes that saw too much.

“Why were you worried I’d be angry with you?”

He couldn’t answer.

“Would it help if we traded again?” she asked, her tone so gentle and careful that he felt guilty. She was the one who was upset, not him. Why was she turning this around? And how was she being nice to him after what had happened?

“I think we’re past trading nuts,” he muttered, avoiding her real question.

“Then let’s trade information. Every honest answer to a question earns an honest answer in response.”

Zuko gave her a wary look.

“Any question?”

“I won’t pass if you won’t,” she agreed with a shrug. Moving past him, she wandered over to her bed, sitting down near the head and patting the space next to her, gesturing for him to sit down. Her scarf lay across the middle like a silent boundary, staring at him. If cloth could stare, anyway.

Hesitating, he eyed the bed warily, still not entirely believing she wasn’t at least a little upset with him. However, she never broke her hopeful gaze. Sighing, he shrugged, sitting at the other end of the bed and crossing his legs like a schoolboy as he turned to face her.

Yia did the same, folding her legs up on the mattress, and for a moment despite being almost entirely opposite, he was reminded of when Azula was little and they’d tell stories before bed. That time had been so innocent before Azula started to bend. Even then his father had favoured her, but it meant less to him because he had his mother, his sister. There was something in the air now, a word he was sure his uncle would know, that expressed just how delicate this moment had become.

And they were about to shatter it with confessions.

“Do you want to go first?” she asked when neither spoke.

Zuko found himself shrugging, before nodding a little. This set the tone. This guided their confessions. And her eyes were still rimmed with red… He had to ease into this.

“Why are you wearing your cloak like that?” he settled on, voice rasping more than usual at their hushed tones.

“Oh, this? Well um, when I was very little, I was afraid of storms. Even now, I still flinch when thunder rolls. My mentor, Sangok… He would lend me his cloak every time. Said it was a protection of sorts. He couldn’t stop the lightning but could hold off the rain. It just helps when I can’t stay calm, makes me feel less alone.”

“You aren’t alone,” he replied, a little too fast. “I mean, you have my uncle, and... I uh, I guess me.”

Her smile was bittersweet.

“I guess there’s a difference between alone and lonely.”

Zuko nodded gently, swallowed hard and desperate to change the subject away from those words. They made too much sense, resounded too much with him.

Coughing awkwardly, he gestured to her.

“So, the cloak is…?”

“It was his, yes.”

Zuko had no idea where to put his hands. He felt the urge rather than the need to scratch the back of his neck, and hands on his knees would be too passive, though hands in his lap might cause him to fidget…

“Your turn to ask something,” he reminded, settling for resting his forearms across his thighs.

“Why were you so worried that I’d be angry with you?”

It was a loaded question. On the one hand, he could confess his fears about her resenting him for sending Jet away. On the other, he might have to explain his father’s approach to forgiveness and how that had made him afraid ever since. It left him feeling a little caged.

Picking up her scarf from in front of him, he flattened out the material, smoothing it over before starting to neatly fold it up, just giving his hands something to do, somewhere to look other than her piercing gaze.

“It’d be awkward if you were…” he started. “Not just because we live and train together now, but- I guess I prefer how we are now to what we were… before.”

It didn’t answer the question, and it wasn’t much of an answer, but Yia seemed to accept it.

“You don’t have to answer this if it’s- I mean, if it’s too much but… Why don’t you let people touch you?”

It didn’t seem to be the question she was expecting – maybe she was waiting for him to ask about her hands, but when he glanced up to gauge her response, she was toying with her cloth braid. She only seemed to do that when she was thinking, or when she was nervous.

“It’s… complicated.”

“I’m listening.”

Even he could hear that thing in his tone. The thing that meant more than just wanting information, more than just listening. He pushed the thoughts away before they could drown him.

“It started when I was young, around the time I met your uncle.”

Zuko could tell she was choosing her words carefully from the pauses she was taking between sentences. He found himself breathing quieter, staying still, as if by making a sound she would be frightened off like a wild jackalope.

“I didn’t see many people growing up. I lived almost alone in the woods, after all, so I never really got much physical contact aside from a few hugs, maybe posture adjustments from Sangok when we trained. It was fine through clothes or sheets, but touching skin just began to feel… Invasive.” Yia sighed, dropping her braid and wrapping her arms around herself. “When I had nightmares, I felt like I couldn’t go to Sangok anymore. If it was really bad, I would sleep on top of the sheets as he was under them. I was torn between being desperate for contact and wanting nothing to do with it because of… of how it affected me. So, I cover up as much of my skin as I can and I avoid people being too close. It’s become so foreign to me that when I’m not expecting it, or when it’s from a stranger I just- Well, you saw what happened on the ferry. Your uncle is very understanding about it, though,” she added, the corner of her lip curling up for only a moment before it was gone.

Zuko was trying his hardest not to think. If he thought, he would question himself and talk himself out of this.

“That day, when Uncle was begging and that guy came with the swords…”

“I remember. I held you back,” Yia whispered.

He nodded, not sure where he’d been going with that, and unable to bring himself to speak again.

“I guess it’s my turn,” she sighed, eyes trained on his hands, and how they had started tying her scarf into different knots. “Can- I mean, do you think we could be friends?”

His hands stilled.

“I know you weren’t exactly keen to be friends with the Freedom Fighters, but I think… It wouldn’t be so bad if we were,” she continued as he stared at the cloth in his hands. “You might be stubborn and moody, but you’re not the worst company,” she joked, tone lightening for a second, “and I uh… I wouldn’t mind it so much, I don’t think. Being more than just allies.”

A long silence fell between them.

“I don’t…” he eventually started, trying to work out how to word this. “I’ve never really been- or uh, had friends, as you mean. I mean, my sister had friends, and sometimes I had to be around them, but I…”

“Me neither. Aside from your uncle, maybe.”

He nodded, lifting his eyes to meet hers. It took every fibre of his being to hold her gaze.

“We- We could, if… if you’d…”

For the first time that night, a real smile spread across her lips, and he was surprised to notice just how much difference it made. Her grin was so warm and genuine, and he’d been the cause of it. Something stirred in his chest, but he was distracted by her words.

“I’d really like that, Zuko.”

He didn’t quite smile in response, but the corner of his mouth quirked for a moment or two.

They were doing that dangerous thing again, where he was caught staring into her eyes and couldn’t look away and something inside him was desperate to run away. How could he be magnetised and terrified of something so simple?

As he realised it was his turn, a nagging thought began to tug at his mind, and he wondered if she’d truly meant she would answer anything.

“Who is your cloth braid for?”

He watched the light die from her face as her smile fell.

She turned her head to the window, eyes trained on the moon.

“Sangok.”

He lowered the scarf.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know, but…”

“It was a firebender.”

Zuko closed his eyes with a wince, turning his head away. It was the question he hadn’t asked.

“It was this last winter. Usually, during raids the soldiers would stick to the village below us, but someone must have told them about the cottage. Eight men were on our door by nightfall. They wanted money, but we only ever traded what we hunted, so we had none. Then they saw me, and… They said he could still make a deal. The way they were looking at me…” Yia lowered her gaze to her hands, tugging at the gloves. “Sangok told them to leave and never come back. They didn’t listen, started making threats and pulling up fire. When they attacked, I had to give Sangok some of my blades, and I ran back into the house to get his sword. When one of them chased me, I… I stabbed him in the neck. I saw his blood on my hands, and-“

She stopped, taking a shuddering breath.

Zuko found himself wrapping and unwrapping his hand with the cloth of her scarf.

“I brought him the sword. He’d managed to take down two of the men by that point. I’m better with a knife in hand than throwing them, so I had to get really close to some of them. I managed to take down two more men when it happened – the moon turning red.”

Zuko looked up as he recalled the events of the North Pole, watching her face as she stared out the window. The only trace of emotion was in the way her eyes watered, but she steeled her expression so well that he was reminded of Mai. He’d seen how his childhood crush could wipe away any trace of feeling when an adult appeared, it was a skill he was still struggling to master. His uncle had claimed it was because he had too big a heart, that he felt too much to hide it away from the world.

“Sangok was a very spiritual man, he felt it before he saw it, and turned to the moon to see what was happening. The firebenders weren’t sure what was happening, but that was all it took. I watched him fall… I don’t remember killing the other three, it all happened so fast and it was… like I wasn’t in my own body anymore, just an observer watching through my own eyes. I was at his side when the sky went dark, and when the moon came back- He w-was…”

She didn’t say any more.

“My mother’s gone,” he confessed, bowing his head and voice so quiet he wasn’t sure if she could hear him.

Yia hadn’t asked, but he knew she would listen.

“I don’t know if she’s alive, but… She came into my room one night, I was confused and tired and didn’t know what was happening- she said goodbye, and left. The next day, she had disappeared, and my grandfather had passed away in his sleep. There were rumours, there always are, but I- If I’d known…”

He didn’t know what he would have done.

He stopped talking.

“What was her name?”

“Ursa.”

He could see her shadow nodding against the wall.

“You must miss her.”

He nodded back.

“If it helps, knowing… Knowing doesn’t change everything.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, brows furrowed as he started wrapping his fingers one at a time.

“You said about if you’d known, I just… It doesn’t change how we would react, that’s on us.”

“I don’t understand,” he replied, looking up to her.

She looked torn about something, though what he had no clue.

“If I told you, I don’t think you’d believe me,” she breathed, watching him through her eyelashes.

“Try me,” he challenged back.

Yia went to speak, but it was like the words caught in her throat. He watched as she attempted to start several times before she just shook her head.

“You know Sangok and I were very spiritual people, right?”

Zuko nodded.

“Well, sometimes when we would meditate for an extended period of time, things would… come to us. Like your uncle, he once told me he’d received a vision of how he would one day take Ba Sing Se.”

Zuko’s eyes widened at this link.

“You… you had a vision?” he asked, trying to mask the disbelief in his tone.

“Of sorts. I thought it was just a nightmare at first because I only saw it afterwards in my sleep...”

“What- what was it?”

She was still fiddling with her gloves.

“I saw the moon turn red, and my hands covered in blood. Then I saw Sangok, lifeless in my arms.”

Zuko wasn’t sure he believed her but said nothing as she continued.

“After the vision, it turned into a nightmare. I didn’t know how to tell him what I’d seen, so I kept quiet. One day when he was out hunting, I realised that… That I could change an aspect of the vision. If I did, I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen, that I’d know it wasn’t real. So, I went to the fireplace and forced my hands in between the burning coals.”

Nothing could have hidden the horror he felt from how it burst across his face, and he looked down at her hands, covered by the gloves she wore so often. It was no surprise he’d never noticed the scars when she wore them, there was no way of telling.

‘She did this to herself,’ he realised, a sick twisting in his stomach.

“I… I thought that because my hands hadn’t been scarred in the vision, it would prove it was a lie. But all that happened was my nightmares changed, and Sangok still died because I never told him what I’d seen.”

Zuko felt the weight of her words pressing down on the room like a thick blanket. He had no idea how to make this okay, but he wanted to, even if it was only a little better. Regardless of if her vision had actually been sent from the spirits or whatever else, she had been hurt. She was still hurting.

“Can I see them?” he asked gently, gesturing slightly to her palms.

Yia shrugged, her breath uneven as she began to tug away the leather garment.

Zuko untangled her scarf from his nervous knot-tying and laid the material flat out on his own hands.

As she exposed the pink and white marks, he outstretched his arms, eyes glancing up at her for permission.

She looked a little confused but nodded once.

His hands coated by the scarf, he rested her palms on top of his, before closing his bandaged fingers around her hands.

Her breath caught in her throat.

He was holding both her hands in his own, and he could feel her warmth through the cloth even if he wasn’t touching her skin.

“Is this okay?” he asked, nerves evident in his tone.

“Yes.”

It seemed the two were laying themselves bare and becoming incredibly vulnerable tonight. That word he didn’t know was still in the air – he really should ask his uncle about it...

“Can I ask you one last question?” she whispered.

He nodded.

“Your scar… I know you didn’t tell me, but it was your father, wasn’t it?”

The sickness he felt in his stomach had spread to his chest. And his back. And his head.

“You don’t need to talk about what happened, but- Whatever it was, I doubt you deserved it.”

“There’s no way you could know that,” he pointed out, eyes firmly trained on her hands in his own.

“No, but I’m starting to know you. Whatever you did, he was wrong to hurt you like that.”

Zuko couldn’t take any more. It was far too much, too many secrets and confessions and too much meaning. Spirits, even holding her hands or looking her in the eye felt… felt…

He dropped her hands and rolled up the scarf.

“I think that’s enough for tonight,” he said numbly. He could feel himself shutting down, walls coming back up so fast it made his head spin as he got to his feet and moved towards the door.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-“

“No,” he cut off sharply, before softening a little. “No, it’s… it’s just a lot. We both have a lot to think about.”

“I understand.”

Zuko was stood with his hand on the doorknob, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave on this note.

“Thank you,” Yia murmured from behind him. “For tonight.”

He couldn’t speak – if he opened his mouth, either words he wasn’t expecting would burst forth, or he’d have no words at all.

But he risked a glance over his shoulder.

Their eyes locked, and his mind screamed for him to run but his body refused.

“Goodnight Yia,” he croaked, clamping his mouth shut immediately after.

“Goodnight Zuko,” she replied, before breaking their gaze and moving to the bedroom floor where her small nest was.

As he was freed from her gaze, his hand remembered how to function and opened the door.

He found himself in the hallway a second later.

Apparently, his legs had remembered to work too.

Shaking his head and completely at a loss for what had just happened over the course of their conversation, he gripped his hair between his fists, before letting his hands slide down to cover his face.

 

‘Kairos,’ he realised. ‘That was the word.’

- - - - -

Yia tossed and turned in her sleep that night.

Two Dai Li agents dragged Jet into a dark room, making him sit on a stone chair.

Several square stones from their rock gloves circled Jet's head and clamped down on his skull, holding it in place.

“There is no war in Ba Sing Se.”

“What're you talking about? Where do you think all the refugees come from? You can't hide it!”

Jet watched a lamp that passed by his face over and over.

A circle of stones covered his mouth, muffling his protests.

The lamp passed by his eyes again.

“There is no war within the walls. Here we are safe. Here, we are free.”

Jet's eyes widened and his protests became silent.

Yia couldn’t wake up, she was trapped.

As she struggled under the sheets, tears began to stream down her face and she mumbled incoherently in her sleep.

 

“I’m… sorry.”