Suki runs through form after form in the quiet, humid night. The Fire Lord’s beach house might be dusty and annoyingly ornate with red silks over every surface and beds so soft they tie Suki’s spine into knots, but one thing it does have going for it? Makes for an excellent makeshift obstacle course.
She somersaults in through an open window, makes her way down the hallway without touching the floor by bouncing back and forth between the walls, then does a handspring off the railing of the balcony.
How many balconies does one place even need?
The palm trees on Ember Island couldn’t be more different from the evergreens back home. This makes climbing them a satisfying challenge—she feels familiar tension in her fingers and toes as they find the smallest holds. She misses the satisfaction of old-growth forests, though. The smell of their sap and the bite of snow. Not that the snow would be there, even if she were to go home; the once-dormant plants must be in full greenery by now, being as it is the height of summer. Suki hasn’t seen Kyoshi Island since the first melts of spring, before the ground had begun to thaw.
She hadn’t seen much of anything after Azula attacked her and her warriors. It was one thing to know, intellectually, how much time had passed while imprisoned between grey walls. It was another entirely, a shock to the system, to feel the sun on her face and the earth between her toes and realize she had missed nearly the entire summer.
And her girls are still there. Suki drops to the ground, rounds on the palm, kicks its trunk with her heel, then strikes a falling coconut out of the air with the base of her hand.
It disappears into a cluster of trees. Suki hears a thud that doesn’t sound like wood, followed by a startled “Ow!”
“Who’s there?” she calls, overlapped by a rough voice demanding an answer to the same question.
Zuko emerges from the trees, holding a coconut in one hand and crankily rubbing his head with the other. She giggles, and his irritated expression morphs into a pout that wishes it were a scowl.
“Sorry,” Suki says, still tinged with laughter. “What are you doing out this late?”
“Nothing,” Zuko grouches. “What about you?”
“Training.” She crosses her arms and looks Zuko up and down. He’s barefoot, dressed in the loose tunic and pants she’s seen him wear during lessons with Aang.
Zuko looks from Suki to the coconut she launched at him and back. It’s not the skeptical, sarcastically pointed look Sokka would employ in this situation; he just looks genuinely befuddled.
“Didn’t you know? Coconut warfare is central to the Kyoshi style.”
“But—” Zuko’s grip shifts on the coconut as if he’s afraid it’s about to explode, “I didn’t think they grew on—”
“I’m joking,” she says gently. Teasing Zuko, she’s come to discover, is like rolling a koala-sheep onto its back: funny, but at what cost.
“I didn’t know you were there. Sorry,” she says again.
“It’s okay,” Zuko shrugs, tossing the coconut over his shoulder now that he knows it isn’t a traditional and respected weapon in the Kyoshi Warrior’s arsenal. “You’ve hit me on the head less than anyone else here. It’s only fair.”
“I think you kicked me into a post once,” she says. “Guess we’re even.”
“Oh. I did do that.” He moves the hand in his hair to the back of his neck, a nervous gesture that reminds her of Sokka. “Sorry.”
Silence stretches on so long Suki wishes she had another coconut to punch. The thought gives her an idea.
“Hey,” she says. “Since you’re so busy doing nothing…” She shifts into a fighting stance.
“Do you want to train with me? It’s been awhile since I’ve had a sparring partner. Sokka tries, but we always end up stopping so I can show him some moves.”
Suki can’t be sure, dark as it is, but she thinks Zuko might be blushing. She wonders what on earth could embarrass him about an offer for a friendly sparring session, unless he’s remembering the whole burned down my village thing, or—
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Suki blurts, taking the heavy blow of remembering the last time she and Zuko ran into each other by accident in the middle of the night.
“Right,” he says awkwardly.
They stand in the moonlight, both red-faced and avoiding eye contact.
Suki dares a glance at Zuko. He seems strangely enthralled by a nearby shrub. She sighs, darts forward, and taps him on the shoulder with the side of her hand. He jumps, touches where she struck him, and stares in confusion.
“There,” she says. “My win. Two out of three?”
A nearly invisible smile tugs at Zuko’s mouth. He rolls his neck, then brings his hands up.
“Whazgoinon?” Sokka mumbles, jerking upright while still almost entirely out of it. Suki usually manages to climb back into bed without waking him. It might be the moon, gibbous right outside their window—he gets restless and maudlin on nights when the moon is out.
“Nothing,” she whispers. She strokes his loose hair and tucks a few strands behind his ear. They fall into his face again immediately. “Go back to sleep.”
“Mmokay,” he yawns.
Suki settles in next to him. She stretches an arm over his chest. Her heartbeat steadies to match the gentle rhythm of Sokka’s, strong and sure and familiar by now. This is the longest stretch of time they’ve spent together, after months of unsurety, months of worry, months of hope. Every minute is a reminder that, yet again, it might not last.
Her arms feel soft with the deep satisfaction of a good workout. Her head is full of its usual concerns and calculations: how long until they find us, how long until the comet, how long have my girls been rotting behind bars while I’m free and lying on the beach—
But the clamoring is reduced to a gentle hum, not much louder than the bamboo and badgerfrogs outside. Quieter than Sokka’s heartbeat in her ear.
The moon sinks beneath the window sill with a final flash, like a wink and a smile from someone utterly fond.
“Out late again, huh?”
Zuko freezes with his leg in a high kick. His knee cocks with his focus broken, and Suki immediately sees how she could hook a foot behind the ankle he still has on the ground and pin him in three movements.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Zuko says. He puts his leg down. He glances at her over his shoulder, scar like an inkstain across his pale face in the half-light. “Want to fight?”
Zuko is good. Really good. He fights like he’s spent his whole life doing it. He fights like he’s had no choice. He’s not scrappy, exactly; it’s a clean fight and a fair one. There’s history there—tradition. Utility mixed with beauty mixed with spirit.
Suki knows, because it’s how she fights too.
Though it’s only been a few months since she first fought to survive, rather than honor her people and defend their right to live in peace. She gets the sense that hasn’t been the case for him.
His combat tells a story. It matches well with hers—he gives her a lot of energy to use against him. He’s less linear with it than other firebenders, though. He turns Suki’s blows back in on themselves; he slips into shadows and reappears where she didn’t expect to look; he lets himself partly fall to bring her down all the way.
He loses as often as he wins. It makes Suki curious.
“Why no firebending?” she asks when they take a break. “You don’t have to go easy on me.”
“I’m not,” Zuko laughs, “believe me. I didn’t want to wake anyone up.”
“Is that the only reason?”
Hair falls into his face. Even with her eyes well-adjusted, the dark washes him out into greys and blues. If she hadn’t seen Zuko in the daylight, she wouldn’t know what color his eyes were.
“No,” he admits.
Suki nods. She stands, holds a hand out, and pulls him out of his crouch on the forest floor.
“Where do you go for half the night?” Sokka asks over a cold bowl of sweet soup. “I know you’re not sleeping well. Do you need anything?”
“I’m fine, Sokka,” Suki says gently. She kisses him on the cheek. “I’ve just been training. I get enough sleep.”
“I just feel bad, thinking about you all alone,” he shrugs.
“I haven’t been alone, actually.” Suki steals a spoonful of his soup. “Mm! Katara did a great job.”
“Get used to it, because she made a barrel of this stuff.” Sokka rolls his eyes. “We’ll be eating it until the next comet. Who’s been staying up with you? Is Aang doing that thing again where he freaks out and trains for three days straight until he starts hallucinating Appa and Momo sword fighting?”
“No. When did he do that?” Suki asks, alarmed.
“Before the invasion. He didn’t want therapy or yoga, so we sheared a bunch of koala-sheep and he kept his pants.”
“It’s a long story,” Sokka says.
“Zuko’s been sparring with me,” she says, which is undoubtedly a shorter and simpler story than whatever Sokka is talking about.
“Huh,” Sokka says. He’s silent for a few seconds, staring into his soup. Then, abruptly, he says, “When does he ever sleep?”
“Great question,” Suki shrugs.
“I mean, seriously. He’s always dragging Aang to feel the sun before it’s even out. And you’re telling me he’s also awake on Suki time?”
“Maybe he naps?” she suggests.
“Maybe,” Sokka says in his Idea Voice, “he’s lying about meditating. He learned to sleep sitting up and he’s actually snoozing through half their firebending lessons.”
“Don’t say it so loud,” Suki quips, stealing another slurp of Sokka’s soup. “He’ll know you’re onto him.”
At this moment, Zuko wanders past, shirtless and running a towel through his hair. Sokka stares in exaggerated suspicion, and Suki, delighted by his commitment to the bit, matches the energy.
Zuko freezes, looks at them with something between bafflement and mortification, and snaps, “What?”
Suki feels a little guilty when he storms off. But in her defense, Sokka started laughing first.
“Do you know the story of Chin the Conqueror?” Suki asks, the next time she blocks a blow from Zuko.
“No,” he says. He ducks her arm, sweeps his leg, and lets her foot glance off his shoulder when she flips backwards.
“He was a tyrant, back in the days of Avatar Kyoshi.”
“Her,” Zuko grunts as he catches a tree branch and aims a two-legged kick at Suki’s solar plexus, “I’ve heard of.”
“He wanted to bring the entire Earth Kingdom under his rule,” she explains. Zuko backs off a hair and lets the rhythm of the fight fall into the rhythm of her story. “He marched across the continent, taking money and food and anything else he could from the towns that fell. He showed no mercy to anyone who stood up against him. His army spread. They grew strong in numbers and resources. It looked like no one would be able to touch him before he took over half the world. Until he came to the peninsula where Avatar Kyoshi lived.”
She backs Zuko into a tree. He sidesteps her blow to his shoulder, twists his body around the trunk, and reappears on the other side.
“Go on,” he says. “I’m listening.” She blocks his arm.
“Avatar Kyoshi warned him to leave her people in peace. They wanted to live their lives, free of his cruelty. Chin didn’t listen. His armies stretched to the horizon. He planted his feet and refused to move. Want to take a guess what happened next?”
“Kyoshi moved him?” Zuko catches Suki behind the ankle. She turns her fall into a roll, comes up behind him, and twists his arm up against his back.
“She moved herself,” Suki corrects in his ear.
She marks her win, then pushes Zuko forward. He takes the momentum and rolls with it, literally, back on his feet in a flash.
“What do you mean? She ran away?” he scoffs. Suki smirks; he knows enough about Kyoshi to know how ridiculous the very idea is.
“She took her fans and she cracked open the earth between Chin and her people. Lava lashed the newly-made cliffs. A rush of air more powerful than anyone had ever seen blew away half of Chin’s army and all of his clothes. The sea rushed in, and the peninsula split from the mainland.”
“She made Kyoshi Island,” Zuko breathes with an appropriate level of reverence. She catches his fist in her hand for a moment before he twists out of her grip.
“And when she did,” Suki completes the story she has heard again and again from the women who taught her to paint her face and wield her fans, who gifted her the birthright of a keeper of Kyoshi Island’s oral history, whom she misses every day, “the ground under Chin crumbled. He fell to his death, so the Earth Kingdom could be free again. So my people could be safe from invaders.”
Suki sees an opening as Zuko’s foot flies toward her head. She catches him behind the knee and throws him. His back hits the trunk of a tree as a rough gasp escapes him, all the air in his chest stolen by the blow.
She stands over Zuko as he finds his breath again. She’s waiting for an admission of defeat—two out of three, she has the upper hand tonight—but gets something else instead.
“Sounds like,” Zuko finally says, “he got what was coming to him.”
A thin strand of worry at the back of Suki’s mind snaps with relief. It was far from the biggest, and far from the loudest, but a minor release of tension is still worth smiling over.
“Come on,” she says, pulling Zuko to his feet. “Let’s take a break and raid the kitchen. Whatever Katara was making earlier smelled delicious.”
“Didn’t she chase Sokka out with a spoon for trying to steal some?”
“Sokka,” Suki says with a fond sigh, “is not a master of stealth.”
“Good point. Race you?” He makes the offer hesitantly, like Suki will laugh him off for being childish.
“Suki,” Sokka hisses with glee, “come look at this!”
She sets the tacky blown-glass shell back on its shelf and follows Sokka’s voice through the little maze of the gift shop. Ember Island is a tourist trap—naturally, Sokka loves it.
“Is it another bag that matches your—Oh!”
Sokka gestures expansively at the display that takes up the entire back corner of the shop. Posters and figures and little cloth dolls spill from colorful shelves proclaiming them official merchandise from the critically-acclaimed Ember Island Players production, The Boy in the Iceberg.
Sokka picks up a figurine that Suki thinks is supposed to be him. Its only defining characteristic is its blocky, blue-painted torso, so it could just as easily be Katara.
“Look at this!” he says, delighted.
“So handsome,” she replies indulgently. Then, a gleam in the corner of her eye catches Suki’s attention. “Oh.”
She reaches out and carefully, not quite believing it, picks up one of the intricate iron fans on display.
“You must be a big fan of the Ember Island Players! Uh, no pun intended,” a salesman comments, shuffling nervously into her personal space when he sees her handling what has to be the most expensive thing in the shop. “Those replica Kyoshi Warrior fans are a pretty rare item for someone your age.”
Suki meets the man’s eye. Without looking, she elbows Sokka away from a wood-and-metal model of Combustion Man.
“I’ll take them.”
“Go get your swords,” Suki says without preamble.
Zuko looks up from his stretch, one leg extended with his arm curved over his head. He has no shirt on tonight. Suki sees him shirtless nearly every day: while he trains with Aang, during the awkward morning bathroom shuffle of six people in a house with one working washroom, on the rare occasions they can drag him down to the beach for a bonfire and a water fight that is riddled with injustice by the presence of two waterbenders as well as an earthbender who can’t swim but likes to sink the rest of them calf-deep in sand when they least expect it.
But. There’s something uncomfortable about it every time—the way Zuko’s muscles twist leanly around too-visible bones. The way his ribs cut against his skin and his biceps jut out with no excess flesh to temper them. He makes Suki feel as if she should look away, like staring at a corpse. Like staring at the dry, sun-starved skin of her own arms and legs after the Boiling Rock.
Suki has only just begun to gain back the worrying amount of weight she lost in prison. Zuko, from what she can tell, hasn’t let himself do the same.
She hopes their midnight snack raid helped. She hopes he gets some rest soon. She hopes all this ends and they see the other side of it. She hopes for a lot of things
Zuko gets his swords. Suki pulls out her fans.
It feels good to fight with her hands curled around a pair of fans again. Zuko seems more comfortable with a handle fitted in each palm, too. They don’t talk tonight—not that Zuko usually talks. Not that they have much at all to say when they aren’t knocking one another to the ground. But Suki likes it, that it’s Zuko.
She likes not-talking with him. The story of Kyoshi was repayment for the story he tells every time they spar, the story his mismatched muscle mass and barely-recovered starvation diet tell, the story she sees on his face but doesn’t know yet.
Zuko doesn’t need to talk to tell her things, and Suki is grateful for the quiet.
She’s also grateful when she closes a fan around the blade of his right sword and pulls it from his hand, sending it flying to spear the trunk of a tree five feet away. It’s good to get back in practice.
“Snack time,” she says when they’ve both admitted defeat—not to each other, but to the ache in their arms and the burn in their lungs from a mutual stubborn refusal to call a tie. She makes no move to push up from the tree she leans against, but neither does Zuko.
“It’s almost dawn,” he says. “We’ll be having breakfast soon.”
“Yeah,” Suki replies. “But first, it’s snack time. Come on, we’ve earned it.”
Zuko looks at her. Badgerfrogs peep in the distance. The shadow of a branch, dancing in the wind, passes over the unscarred side of his face. Finally, he nods. He leaves his swords; Suki leaves her fans.
They sneak into the kitchen via the window, because they’re allowed to have a little more fun this morning.
“I forgive you, by the way,” Suki says casually. Zuko chokes on a dessert bun and turns blotchy red.
“For what?” he coughs.
“For burning down my village. I just realized I never said it.”
“Oh.” He swallows. “Thank you.”
Suki nods. She looks down at her own half-eaten bun, picking at the soft dough with her fingers.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you,” she says at last. “Just don’t burn down any more islands, okay?”
A too-long pause stretches between them. Suki looks up and sees Zuko gazing out the window. His eyes are turned toward the beach, but the distance in them tells her he’s trying to look beyond that—to the next dot of land in the archipelago, and the next, on and on to the heart of the Fire Nation.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll try.”
He snaps out of the thousand-yard stare and tries a shaky smile. The joke doesn’t land, but Suki understands.
“Here, you can have the rest of this.” She pushes the rest of her food toward him. “I’m going to bed.”
“I—” he tries to turn her down, but Suki is already up and nearly out the door. “Oh. Sure. Goodnight. Uh, morning? Yeah.”
“Five more minutes,” Sokka grumbles into his pillow. He pulls the blanket over his head to block out the fire-red rays of morning sun.
“Okay,” Suki agrees sleepily as she hits the mattress and effortlessly steals most of the blanket for herself. “Five more minutes.”
When Suki wakes up, it’s nearly midday. She eats lunch-for-breakfast, watches Toph and Aang throw rocks at each other for a little while, and remembers she left her fans in the woods.
In the tree above where they sit, crossed, on the ground, she spots a flash of red. Her senses flare with warning before she takes in the sight of a teenage firebender with shaggy hair and a scar across his face, slung over the branch like a panther-serpent’s hidden prey, fast asleep.
“Mystery solved,” she whispers. “Have a nice nap, Zuko.”
Suki grabs her fans and steals away with all the silence of a warrior. She wouldn’t want to wake him, after all. She wants him rested, or it’ll barely be a victory at all when she kicks his butt later.
And, she thinks, some sleep will do him good.
Another band of worry strung taught in her head becomes a turn or two looser.
The day burns bright and hot; an end is coming fast for them all. But when there’s no stopping it, a nap in the meantime is another form of preparedness. Another handful of people who live in Suki’s head and heart get a little safer.
The waves on the beach, eating up her footprints a moment after she leaves them, are the loudest thing she can hear.