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Relieved, with honors

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“The candles, my Lord,” Uncle said, bowing reverently as he presented the beautifully crafted red candles atop a silver platter. Zuko squirmed a bit in his formal robes, aware of all the eyes on him, both friendly and hostile; even as he was still trying to orient to the bitter cold of the North.

“You don’t have to-,” Zuko began softly but Uncle silently chastened him with a look. Zuko was the Lord of Fire, he was above every Fire Nation citizen, including the uncle who made him into the man he was today. This was a solemn event, long overdue, and he needed to give the moment the ceremony it deserved. Three long difficult years have passed since the War’s end. Peace was here, on shaky lamb-fawn’s legs, but holding steady thanks to the collective efforts of the World. The North Pole was hosting their annual celebration for the sacrifice of Princess Yue to become the Moon Spirit. 

While he mourned and thanked the white haired Princess he’d regretfully only seen in passing; Zuko’s heart couldn’t help but ache for the men and women just miles away; lying cold at the bottom of the ocean with no way to reach Agni’s light. He’d brought it up, hesitantly, during the first celebration and was barely spoken to the following few days. The second he’d managed to get Aang involved and they’d wrestled a bitter acceptance for the following year. Now it was the last night of the celebration, the Moon had received her tributes and, finally, Zuko was allowed to lay his nation’s soldiers to rest.

He untucked his hands from his long, cumbersome sleeves and gripped the sides of the platter as he carefully walked up the steps to the top of the main wall of the North Water Tribe. From there, he could look out into the vast ocean where hundreds of his countrymen had met their watery end at the hands of the Ocean Spirit. Aang’s delicate, barely there footsteps could be heard following him only because the air was so stagnantly silent. They’d both debated if Aang should participate or not, if it was disrespectful for the power that killed them to be present. In the end, they both agreed that Aang was the Avatar, the man who was to bring balance to the whole world, and that included the Fire Nation. 

They reached the top far too quickly and it took all his concentration to keep his hands from shaking and spilling the sacred candles everywhere. In a way, it’d been easy to debate the morality of Aang’s involvement so to distract him from the legitimacy of his. He was the 19 year old Fire Lord who’d betrayed himself and his nation several times throughout his life. He was scarred, he was awkward; still lashed out sometimes when he ought to hold his tongue and still cried when he ought to be strong. Most importantly, he had borne witness to the Ocean Spirit’s rampage, had seen the ships fall victim to the waves and disappear from sight. The Fire Lord was said to be the father and protector of the entire nation, would the restless dead respect his slightly ill-gotten authority? Why should they when he had been unable to save their lives in the first place? The crown had never felt so ill-fitting on his head. He swallowed down bitter, haunting memories that remind him of the lost 41st division and carried on.

Zuko knelt to the ground and gently placed one candle on the cold, hard ice. Each candle bore the name and number of a ship that had gone down, 15 large candles for the Imperial class ships and 9 smaller ones for the battle cruisers. He turned the writing towards the open ocean, his rough fingers lightly ghosting along the wax before moving on to the next candle. 

“Should we help him?” He heard Aang whisper to Uncle off to the side. The three of them were up near the front while 28 Imperial Fire Benders stood at attention behind them. He’s sure the rest of their friends were down below in the crowd somewhere but only fire benders were up on the wall.

“No, this is something Zuko must do alone. The Fire Lord was once the head sage, though we have since forgotten our roots, Zuko still has spiritual blood running through him.” Uncle answered, sounding far more confidant than Zuko felt. “Besides, every Fire Nation citizens answers first to their lord, Only the Fire Lord can properly lay them to rest.” If Zuko weren’t so focused on making sure each candle was perfectly aligned, he’d snap at them to stop gossiping but thankfully they became quiet afterwards. Soon, all the candles were laid out. The last rays of sunlight were sinking into the sea, that magical time of day between light and dark, life and death. 

“Today,” Zuko pronounced loudly with his back to the audience still facing the ocean, “we lay to rest the loyal members of the Fire Nation Navy who lost their lives during the Hundred Years War.” No one said a word, no one shuffled or sighed, all ears on Zuko’s next words. “We cannot condone what they were here to do but we respect the love they had for their country and the loss of their fire in pursuit of what they believed was right.” He took a deep breath and forced his hand still to light the first candle.

“We light these memorial candles not just to honor of their sacrifice but also to tell them their fight is over; with these flames I give my thanks and relieve each of their duty. For them, the war ends today.” At last the final candle was lit and in the fading light of the sun, they cast eerie shadows against the ice and his robes as they twisted in the wind. He gazed one last time at the ocean and bowed at far as was appropriate which still felt so inadequate. Behind him, there was the confused whispering and the quick rustle of the Fire Nation citizens seeking to bow lower than their Lord. 

“I, Fire Lord Zuko, 47th Fire Lord of the Modern Age, Keeper of the Eternal Flame and Agni’s representation on Earth here by release the souls of the dead. May the candles guide them into Angi’s light where they may burn forever in the realm of our ancestors. Go with peace and go with honor, you are relieved.” Still in his half bow, Zuko kept his eyes squeezed shut, hoping that his words (practiced for hours and hours and hours in a mirror because he just had to get them right) were enough. That he was enough. 

“Oh,” he heard Uncle choke out behind him and Zuko hesitantly raised his head. At first he thought he was seeing things but it seemed as if there were dozens of little stars floating above the water. Soon more followed, floating upwards towards the setting sun. Mixed in the unnameable colors of the sky was an immeasurable amount of little lights, little clusters of souls leaving the ocean and flying towards the sun where they belonged.

He pulled his eyes from the sky to turn and see both Uncle and Aang openly weeping with silent awe, even beyond the wall he could see the faceless people below him wiping at their faces. He turned back to the beautiful image of light returning to light, to burn and be reborn into new Fire Benders, this time, who would live in a war without war. The familiar pain in his left eye told him he’d started crying as well but maybe that was alright. They had been sentenced to die by a Fire Lord who hadn’t cared and laid to rest by a Fire Lord who wept for them. Maybe there was hope in this world after all.

Aang approached him from behind and laid a hand on his shoulder. He said nothing to Zuko but the monk was muttering something under his breath, a prayer or perhaps an apology. Either way he thinks his friend’s shoulders will be less tense the next time they come to the North Pole. They stay like that for a long while, past the setting of the sun and the disbursement of most of the crowd. They stay watching the candles burn down to the quick, to the very last light making its way towards the sky. Their leader and balance of the world, watching and blessing their journey the whole way.