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Chit Sang survives the earthbender ambush by the skin of his teeth. His brothers- and sisters-in-arms aren’t so lucky. He’s not an officer. He’d just been one of the few experienced firebenders detached to work with the new recruits of the 41st Division and show them the ropes.

It was just supposed to be milk runs until the kids got some rust on their armor.

What a shitshow.

What a spirits-damned shitshow.

Rumi, on his back, hasn’t made a sound in a while.

He swallows stiffly and doesn’t let himself think about why.

Branches and vines snag on his armor. He trips over brambles. Stumbles over roots and rocks and tells himself the ground isn’t moving.

His breath is loud and harsh and uncontrolled.

It shouldn’t be this way.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

He wants to beg Rumi to tell him another joke.

Just keep walking. Keep moving. You’ll get back to camp soon. Just don’t let the body-crushers catch up.

He almost bowls over the commander as he stumbles into camp.

Almost throws up on his boots when two lieutenants peel Rumi away from him and he sees her mangled legs and corpse-blue lips.

The commander sits him by a fire with a blanket over his shoulders. Chit Sang doesn’t hear what he says over the rushing in his ears.

“Ambush,” he reports to the commander, who looks away and waves down his personal scribe. 

“We were ambushed,” he repeats numbly, over and over. Stares at the fire and sees a stone spike breaking through Yan’s flames - Moya’s fire blast cutting off as a stone pillar shot out of the earth and sent him flying, his back breaking on the next pillar that met his fall - Omi freezing, sword falling from limp fingers, he’d screamed for her to run -

Spirits, this fire was pathetic.

Why couldn’t he get warm?

He looks around for another log to throw on the fire and notices the few people left at camp are taking down the last of the tents to pack onto the komodo-rhino wagons. Right. They need to move camp. Get away.

Yeah.

That makes sense.

He marvels at how quickly everyone was able to break down the camp. They must’ve been well-trained. Cook, he knows, is more experienced than most of the people here. Makes sense.

It makes sense.

They don’t move camp. There’s not enough soldiers left to even have a camp in the first place. Instead, they’re brought to the nearest base. The old general in charge of it takes one look at their sorry state, shares a solemn nod with the commander, and doesn’t order them back out again with new recruits.

Chit Sang is grateful.

Later, after a few days of rest and feeling like he’s losing his mind with the lack of anything to do, he’s brought before the general. 

Before this, his legs would’ve shaken when facing down a man of such high rank.

Now he can’t stir up anything but apathy as he stares those sharp eyes down.

General Shiu awards him a medal for bravery. There’s a speech. Then a scroll - ordering him back to the capital with honor. A nice cushy job as a capital guard after what he has suffered. He bows deeply, in perfect proper form, and goes.

When he arrives at the capital, there's a memorial service. There's a grand speech about the brutality and inhumanity of the Earth Kingdom. They call Chit Sang a war hero. They honor him for trying to save his young, inexperienced soldiers. They commend him for managing to survive. They do not blame him for their deaths.

That's okay, he supposes. He blames himself enough for all of them.

They give him a nice apartment. He does not leave it for more than groceries until he's supposed to report to work. He’s not terribly interested in his new home. He’s not terribly interested in anything. The Great Gates of Azulon are impressive and he stares out across them impassively. 

He hands over the scroll containing his orders to his new captain. The woman reads over it with a pained grimace and welcomes him quietly. She does not force him to bear any acknowledgment of his loss and he is grateful. She asks him if he would like to take any leave before starting and he says no. His mother - the only family he has left - works as a weaver on the outer islands. She is well-cared for by the pay he sends her. He doesn’t know what he would do with himself if he went home to her. 

The captain accepts this and assigns another soldier to show him the ropes.

It’s boring. Mind-numbingly so.

It’s possibly the easiest assignment he’s ever heard of. To stand and guard a place that no one will ever attack.

He hits a bar that night. He knows it’s a bad choice. Knows plenty of soldiers who’ve fallen into the bottle and couldn’t drag themselves back out.

Still, he picks a spot at the end of the bar where he won’t be bothered and drinks.

And drinks.

A bard sings.

“Hey, did you hear? The prince has been banished!” some drunk idiot a few seats away says to the bartender, who rolls his eyes.

“If that’s news to you, I gotta ask what rock you’ve been living under,” the bartender replies, grimacing like he’s bitten into something particularly distasteful.

“Not - I mean, his ship is leaving tomorrow. It’s official.” The guy doesn’t sound like he believes it, even as he says it. Chit Sang frowns. So does the bartender. The guy keeps talking though. “I didn’t believe it when the rumors started. Sure, the 41st maybe. Could see the War Council doing shit like that. But doing that to his own kid? Didn’t think the Fire Lord could be so -”

“Watch it!” the bartender reprimands, glancing around suspiciously. “You can’t say shit like that about His Majesty. You don’t know who’s listening.”

Chit Sang sits stock-still on his stool, beer halfway to his mouth, eyes wide. Then he clenches his fists, throws back his beer, tosses a few coins on the bar, and leaves.

It doesn’t do to listen to rumors. Especially not in the capital. There’s a new wild story about the royal family every day. He’s not stupid enough to get caught on rumors people are making up.

He’s not stupid enough to get caught up on rumors, he tells himself again as he watches a tiny, outdated cruiser depart the bay.

The prince had looked tiny, leaning heavily on the great Dragon of the West as he was escorted aboard.

The Fire Lord had been nowhere to be seen.

His captain looked like she’d eaten something sour and refused to watch. If it was distaste for the banished prince or for the banishment itself, he didn't know.

He had a feeling it was the latter.

But it's not safe to express those kinds of sentiments. Especially in the capital.

'Sure, the 41st maybe. Could see the War Council doing shit like that. But doing that to his own kid?'

His skin crawls.

He's just being paranoid, he tells himself.

He goes to a different bar that night. A little more disreputable. A little more prone to loose lips.

It's teeming in the excitement of the prince's departure.

He grabs a drink and settles himself around a fire near a gossiping bunch and listens.

The prince was banished -

Spoke out of turn -

Challenged to an Agni Kai by his father -

Refused to fight -

Burned burned burned

Right on his face!

Mark of the damned.

"But what did he do?" Chit Sang asks, feeling ill. "What did he say that was so bad?" 

'So bad his own father would BURN him?' he doesn't ask.

The group sobers eerily, suddenly remembering they are raving about the maiming of a child.

An older gentleman leans forward and beckons him closer. He's got a military bearing to him, but loose enough that no one really notices. Retired, Chit Sang suspects.

"You didn't hear it from me," the man says in a hushed whisper as everyone leans in to hear, "You didn't hear it here. You don't ever tell a soul about this night."

Everyone nods, eyes gleaming in the fire, hungry for secrets.

"Friend of a friend knows someone in the palace," the old man starts, and he pays careful attention to the lack of identifiers, "and they said the massacre of the 41st?" 

The man pauses with a conspiratorial grin.

Chit Sang doesn't breathe.

"They said the generals always planned on it."

His stomach falls away.

He remembers a camp, already packed away when he stumbled back in. They'd planned to move beforehand.

A knowing nod between commander and general. The acknowledgment of a crime buried. 

A cushy position where they could keep an eye on him.

Those honorless bastards.

"And the prince?" someone asks, causing him to tune back in.

Yes, what about the disgraced prince?

What did that tiny banished child have to do with the slaughter of his brethren?

The old man's eyes turn a little bit wild. A little bit manic. A little bit like someone who has witnessed the greatest shame of his lifetime and has been dying to speak out against it.

"He told them no. "

No one breathes.

"He told them they couldn't sacrifice loyal citizens like that."

No one says a spirits-damned word.

"He asked how they could betray their people like that."

Chit Sang burns.

Rumi's crushed legs and corpse-blue lips -

Yan's stunned expression and the blood that poured from his mouth -

Moya's twisted body and the way he'd cried out before going still and silentsilentsilent -

Omi's terrified face over the sword through her gut -

The fire they sit around flares alarmingly.

No one moves.

"Fuck." someone says emphatically.

"The Fire Lord burned him for that?" someone else asks weakly.

Rumbles of discontent begin, but the fire in Chit Sang's veins feels hot for the first time in two weeks. He feels alive in his rage.

With the rage comes the grief.

That night, once he returns to his empty consolation prize, he contemplates joining his brothers and sisters like he was meant to.

The next morning, he requests that leave from his captain. 

Says he needs some time to get his head on straight, after all. Says he misses his mother.

The captain approves his leave with a tight, understanding smile. He wonders if she’s being kept 'out of the way' here too.

He finds his old commander back out on the front. Waits until he's alone.

Leaves a sword in his stomach.

"Commander Zhen couldn't bear the loss of his division," they will say when his death is discovered.

'Honorless coward,' Chit Sang thinks viciously as he leaves the man with this final dignity.

He treks back inland. Hunts down General Shiu.

It's a lot harder to get him alone, but Chit Sang is patient. He's spent years out on the frontlines, hiding in the trees and stalking his enemies. The man has to sleep sometime.

It's almost too easy to stuff a gag into his mouth and haul him over a shoulder and race back into the cover of night.

'Traitor,' he hisses as he presses a burning palm to the general's face. His muffled screams ring out through the starlit forest, not far from the Earth Kingdom's border. He is left there to live or die. Abandoned the way the 41st was.

He doesn't know it, but it is much less severe than what the Fire Lord did to Chit Sang's Crown Prince.

He considers making his way to the body-crushers and taking out as many of them as he can before they kill him. But no. They were just the weapon. They were not complicit in the murder of his people.

He goes home to his mother.

He spends a day with her. Buys her new yarn and fixes a leak in her roof and sweeps the floors and weeds the garden and does half a dozen other things to ensure she is cared for. He tells her he loves her. Gives her all the money he has been given.

Then he returns to the capital.

Sits at the table in his kitchen and waits.

He smiles and says nothing as they drag him off to the Boiling Rock.

Ordinarily, he'd be executed, he knows. Murdering two military officers. One a general.

But it hasn't been very long since they called him a hero to the entirety of the Fire Nation for surviving the massacre of their young sons and daughters. And they have no solid evidence it was him.

But they know it was.

And they cannot allow him to spread dissent.

As he sits in his prison cell, he fantasizes about taking his hands to the Fire Lord as Ozai did to Crown Prince Zuko. Dreams of getting revenge on the only man who could've saved the 41st Division and instead chose to mar the only person in the palace with a conscience.

In the prison, he relearns the spirituality his mother always tried to instill in him. Kneels in the prayer room with a dozen others who go by the old ways. He prays to Agni to take up the souls of the 41st and let them be at peace in his eternal warmth. He prays to Agni to protect Prince Zuko, the one true heir to the eternal flame.

He meets a woman - a former palace worker - who confesses to him that she was arrested for sending extra funding to Prince Zuko. Then she smiles sharply and tells him about how she was not  arrested for sending Prince Zuko coded messages about safe harbors and which naval captains would show him favor, but that she did that too.

The warden passes by and her sharp smile turns sweet and cheerful and innocent.

He's a little in love.

He makes friends. Networks. He's got a guy he trusts to watch his back who was arrested for smuggling food from Admiral Zhao's allotment back to the struggling villages the food came from. Chit Sang had had his back from the moment he'd mentioned how Zhao kept hounding Prince Zuko and called it dishonorable.

Chit Sang is big on honor these days.

And Prince Zuko is the most honorable guy in the world, as far as he's concerned. He doesn't trust anyone who insists Prince Zuko is honorless.

He cheers with his friend when the news comes of Zhao's crushing defeat at the North Pole even as he mourns the soldiers and sailors he knows were lost to yet another foolish plan by an arrogant, honorless officer of Ozai's court.

He bears his time in the cooler afterwards by offering his suffering as a sacrifice to Agni. The cooler hurts, but it is nothing compared to the loss of the 41st or a face full of fire. It is easier still to bear it, knowing the Avatar is alive and that there is hope for Prince Zuko's return.

Months later, he is free again.

The Air Temple is beautiful.

He looks upon his prince. Upon his scar. He catalogues the shape of it. The way it's wrinkled and snarled and stretched. The way melted flesh folded and sagged. 

The way Prince Zuko carries it with quiet grace.

It is an ugly beacon of the ugly crime he tried to prevent.

Chit Sang cannot imagine the strength it took to survive it. He cannot imagine the strength it takes to carry it.

His knees shake again for the first time in years as he stands near someone of such high rank. He wants to be good. He wants to impress. He wants to be worthy.

He doesn’t get the chance to build up the courage to say anything. To express his gratitude or his grief or his admiration.

When Princess Azula attacks, Prince Zuko entrusts the safety of the young recruits to him (and to Chief Hakoda) and Chit Sang swears to himself that he will keep them safe like he couldn't for the 41st. (For Rumi and Yan and Moya and Omi.)

--

The day Fire Lord Zuko appoints him to his guard is, perhaps, the happiest day of his life.

Except every day following is only better somehow.

He watches his Fire Lord remove the war-hungry loyalists with ruthless efficiency, watches the rigid enforcement of peace, watches the quiet happiness on his Fire Lord’s face as the people begin to finally relax and rejoice. They dance and sing and revel in the streets. Kindness prevails over fear and violence at last.

Chit Sang wears his armor with pride once more.