A frantic gasp shatters the silence of the fire prince’s bedchamber. Prince Sergei’s arms shake behind him, sweat beading along his brow. His chest rises and falls with every breath, entirely too warm even without a shirt to cover it; his blanket pools around his hips, also entirely too much. Instinct makes him kick his feet over the side of his bed, shoving his covers aside. His eyes dart through the shadows, but in the night, everything is still and calm. Tranquil. His balcony doors are still shut and bolted. The long curtains don’t rustle.
With a withering sigh, he hides his face in his hands.
“Just a dream,” he lies to himself. “Nothing more. No need to lose yourself over this, Sergei.”
The past is meant to remain in the past.
He can still recall with perfect clarity the twist of his stomach at a singular raised hand twelve years ago. Admittedly, the imprint the image had left on him has always struck him as strange. Why does such a thing affect him when he himself had fallen under the shadow of that hand so many times?
Maybe it was his tears, he thinks. Or perhaps it took finally seeing it happen to someone else to awake in me—something like empathy.
Ironic, Sergei thinks, as he uncurls and tilts back his head to his ceiling.
The canopy above his bed is the same as it has always been for so many years.
“I haven’t had that dream in a decade,” Sergei murmurs. Which leaves one more important question, as tangible as the sweat he can feel beading down his temple. It draws a thin line down from his brow to his neck.
“Do I have to?”
Dezel’s stance doesn’t change in the slightest. His extended hand remains pressed against Sorey’s chest, frown firm on his face.
Finally, with a heavy sigh, Sorey caves. He reaches up to his ears. “But I like them.”
“And right now, those feather earrings are one of your biggest identifying factors,” Mikleo huffs. His arms cross over his chest and watches as the earrings pass from Sorey’s hands to Dezel’s. The tension in his shoulders doesn’t fall until Dezel finally pockets the earrings in Gramps’ travel bag. “If we actually want to sneak through the Fire Nation, then we need to make sure there’s no possible way anyone will recognize you. Now, for your hair.”
“First Atakk, then my earrings—now I have to take off my hair, too?!”
Mikleo rolls his eyes and play-punches Sorey’s arm. He fights the smile that wants to crawl on his face at the teasing and all-too-telling grin on Sorey’s face. “No. Idiot. We’re just wrapping your head. Word is spreading about your crazy hair. This scarf should do the trick.”
Sorey grins. “Should I be flattered? Ah, what the heck.” With one final sigh, he bows, head shoved towards Mikleo’s chest. “Might as well get it over with. Want to do me the honors?”
When Lailah hears dusty footsteps behind her, she turns and gasps widely, happily. “Why, Sorey! You’re hardly recognizable!”
“Well, I think you’re being nice, but thanks anyway!” Sorey grins cheekily. For good measure, he gives a spin. The small tail of his yellow scarf, peeking out from where it’s tucked in at the nape of his neck, bounces with the rock of his weight. “How do I look?”
“Like a true citizen of the Fire Nation!” she hums and claps her hands together.
Sorey laughs and scratches the back of his neck. “Oh, uh, you think so…?”
Lailah nods. “All of you do!”
Dezel hums and brings up the rear of their party. When he holds out Zenrus’ bag, Sorey takes it and loops it over his head gratefully. Of all, Dezel seems the most uncomfortable in the reds and deep blacks and browns of the Fire Nation jacket and pants hanging loose around his figure. “Then let us reunite with the Sparrowfeathers as quickly as possible. We should thank them for procuring us these garbs.”
Sorey looks up at Dezel, both hands wrapped around the bag strap. “You think Rose and Eguille made it into the palace okay?”
“They’re professionals, Sorey.”
“Yeah, and I know you said that before, but I still don’t fully get how that’s supposed to make me feel better.”
“It means,” Dezel hums and walks past Sorey and out of the alleyway into the street. “That it should have been obvious to you long ago that selling imports isn’t the only business the Sparrowfeathers partake in.”
Sorey still doesn’t know what to make of that.
Before he can follow his teacher out onto the street, Lailah puts a hand on his shoulder. “Sorey—listen. There’s one last thing we have to take care of before we depart. We need to change our names.”
Sorey’s eyes widen. “Everyone’s names?”
“W-well, most of the others should be fine, actually!” There’s a falter in Lailah’s voice Sorey hasn’t heard before, a hitch in speech that twists Sorey’s stomach and zeroes his attention on her, wondering if there’s something in her words he missed that he should have paid attention to. Something he should understand or know but doesn’t. “Rose and the others are from the Fire Nation already. Their names are fine. Mikleo and Dezel aren’t too obvious detractors. But you and I…well, just to be safe, we should call each other by different names until we’re out of the Fire Nation.”
“Really?” Sorey frowns. “Why? Do so many people know the Avatar’s name already…?”
“W-well—it’s—it’s just in case! You know? A precautionary measure. Yes!”
And there it is again. That wobbly uncertainty.
Sorey watches Lailah for a long moment. Lailah has always been difficult to read, always smiling even in situations when Sorey isn’t entirely certain she should smile. When finally he nods, he doesn’t miss the relieved sigh that slips out of her.
“Okay, so, we’ll go with something simple,” Lailah says, “There are many good names out there, so I’ll let you decide which one you want to use while we’re here…”
Boris doesn’t anticipate finding Sergei staring off into space at the window when he first walks in the crown prince’s quarters. At first, he turns around to duck his head out into the hall to make sure he’s walked into the right room before he turns around and observes his brother’s dazed profile.
Perhaps he can capitalize on this.
“Looks like someone still needs sleep,” Boris begins and clasps his arms behind his back, striding forward with long, lazy steps.
Sergei blinks, jumps, and turns. The instant he sees Boris, however, whatever fright had tensed his figure just as quickly slips away. He pinches the bridge of his nose and makes a sound low in his throat. “Oh. It’s just you.”
“Just me?” Boris scoffs and places a hand over his chest. He staggers back a step. “Ugh! You wound me, brother.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
Boris laughs, but when Sergei doesn’t join in, the smile fades. He strides closer to slap a hand over Sergei’s shoulder. “Wow. You’re out of it. What, did you wake up on the wrong side of bed?”
“You could say that.”
Sergei’s voice is a quiet murmur.
It reminds Boris faintly of a barren desert. Dry and wistful, waiting for the slightest chance of rain. What a morbid comparison, he can’t help but think: to compare his brother to a lifeless ground. Boris shakes his head and squeezes Sergei’s shoulder instead. “Well, I can tell something is troubling you.”
“Of course it is,” Sergei mutters. “There’s always a great many number of things troubling me.”
Boris rolls his eyes. “Now who’s being dramatic?”
It’s not the first time that Boris has seen Sergei’s eyes mist over. Sergei, for all of his stiff manners and rigid posture, has always had the more tender, weepy heart. He cries much more easily than his twin.
But it is the quickness of it, the suddenness of those wet eyes, that draws Boris up short.
“—he’s out there, Boris,” Sergei whispers tightly. “We know this, now. We know he is there. Somewhere. After all this time…and I had every opportunity to hold him again and lost it. How can such a thing make me as happy as much as it hurts me?”
Boris doesn’t need to ask who.
“Do you think he will ever know?”
He squeezes Sergei’s shoulder again. “I can’t say, brother.”
Boris doesn’t know what to make of the silence that follows. Is it mournful? Hopeful? Expectant? Or is it something else entirely?
“S—Daija! Hey! Don’t run ahead so fast!”
Sorey grins and spins around. “Ah-ah-ah! You almost slipped, Mikleo!”
“No thanks to you!” Mikleo scowls. “What are you doing, running around like you own the marketplace?”
“There’s food to eat, Mikleo! I’m starving! Plus, I haven’t had any of this stuff in like, ages, so I’m super excited to eat it again.” Sorey’s hands are tight around the bag strap over his shoulder. He’s practically running in place as he waits for Mikleo, Lailah, and Dezel to catch up. “Besides, what else are we supposed to do while we wait for Rose and Eguille? I remember there used to be these delicious roasted komodo chicken kabobs with lots of different veggies between ‘em—I don’t even remember what they were! But they were so good! I wonder if we can find some…”
Mikleo’s face tightens. “Yeah?”
“Yeah!” Sorey continues breezily. He splays a hand out, looking around at the food stalls they pass by, where fruit of various sizes and shapes sit on display. There’s a salty, savory smell in the air and Sorey breathes his lungs full of it. “Man! I haven’t eaten some of this stuff in ten years! This takes me back!”
Mikleo bites his lip. Idly, he scratches at one arm with the fingers of his opposite hand. “It does, huh…?” He catches sight of the palace walls, further down the marketplace.
Above their heads, giant banners dangle in the air, red and gleaming. Their golden trim catches the light, framing the illustriously painted silhouette of a bearded, fire-crowned man who Mikleo has no doubt is Fire Lord Heldalf himself.
And with that face literally hanging over us, still he smiles?
“Is that…a good thing?” Mikleo hedges.
Sorey jerks around. His green eyes stretch wide. “Huh?”
Suddenly, it’s very hard for Mikleo to meet those eyes. He crosses his arms around his middle. “I mean…you never…”
What am I trying to say here?
“You never talked a lot about what life was like for you in the Fire Nation before you and Gramps came to the South Pole. So I guess I always thought you hated it. Or you didn’t remember it.” And maybe, some part of a very young and impressionable Mikleo had enjoyed being able to be part of a positive change in a friend’s life and took pride, even, in the possibility that his home was the better home for Sorey. “Was I wrong?”
“What?” Sorey blinks and shakes his head quickly. “No! I—”
Sharply, Sorey looks away, too.
Mikleo watches him for a long moment. His chest twinges. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“No, it’s okay. You’re right.” Sorey shrugs but there’s something in his eyes that is far-away as if trying to recall something that he’s long forgotten. “I don’t remember everything, but what I do remember from over ten years ago isn’t…that great. I guess I just didn’t want to think about those parts. Y’know?”
Mikleo steps closer. He squeezes Sorey’s hand. “Yeah.”
Mikleo tilts his head. “So…can I ask…?”
“About what you do remember?”
Sorey hitches a breath and looks away. “Uh—well, I—”
“It’s the Fire Lord!”
“Fire Lord Heldalf!”
Sharply, immediately, a commotion breaks out further down the street. Sorey and Mikleo share one look and jerk back as a procession clears the way, quick to hide behind the thinning edge of the crowd as a palanquin approaches. Mikleo holds tight to Sorey, as an ornate, golden palanquin is carried down the center of the street.
It’s plush, regal. Upholstered with only the finest satin and cotton. The heavy, dark curtains are pulled back with golden ropes, and through the posts, and holes in the honeycomb half-walls, the stern, wide profile of the Fire Lord can be seen, his thick, dark beard curling over his chest.
“Make way for Fire Lord Heldalf!” the attendants ahead of the palanquin shout, their backs straight and rigid, arms extended.
“Daija!” Lailah’s voice calls from far away, a worried note in her pitch.
Time might have stopped.
Maybe it did.
About what you do remember, Mikleo had asked.
The Fire Lord doesn’t glance at them. Nothing in his stern countenance shifts as his palanquin is carried by. The frown on his square face doesn’t budge; his eyes stare at nothing. Perhaps they are nothing to him; all of them.
But for just a moment, he is closer than he has been in ten years.
And it is enough.
Mikleo squeezes his hand. “Daija?”
The palanquin has passed.
Sorey blinks once, twice, and thinks he can remember plenty. “I know that face.”
A raised voice out of an angry face. There were always so many lines digging into the skin high above the man’s brow and around his mouth. It had always looked as if his face had been distorted, every time he would spit, No true son of mine would ever turn out to be a lowly nonbender—and it hurt, it hurt, so much that all Sorey could think of at the time to say over and over again, prostrating himself, was, I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Dad—
Sorey stumbles back.
Mikleo clasps his hands around his arms, eyes wide. A pale moonface flooding his vision. “So—Daija! Are you okay?! What’s wrong?”
Sorey raises his eyes. Immediately, Lailah and Dezel are there, squeezing closer through the massive press of people around them. Her hands flutter towards him first before threading together in front of her stomach, shaking. Her fingers are clutched so tightly, her skin burns a brighter, pallid white.
“I think…” the Fire Sage says quietly and slowly, “…we should find a place to sit.”
The door opens with a creak, loud enough to break Sergei out of his reverie. He lifts his head from his fist as a young soldier strides in and respectfully bows. His eyes dart down to the reports and maps scattered across the table in front of him that he hasn’t been paying attention to all morning.
What will Father say when he knows what little work I’ve managed to finish?
With a tight wince, Sergei rubs his forehead.
The soldier remains bowed even as her voice—unfamiliar to him—rings out: “A message for you, Crown Prince.”
“Oh?” Sergei waves her forward. “I won’t ask who it’s from. It’s undoubtedly Father again with another matter he wants me to address while he’s out. Bring it here, then.”
As she steps forward with the scroll held out, Sergei takes a glance up and takes in the strange, unfitting way the uniform falls over the young woman’s form. She’s short; the armor looks like it would have fit better on someone two sizes taller.
“Are you a new recruit?” he asks as he takes the extended scroll.
The soldier ducks her head. “Yes. I’ve not yet been in the service for two weeks, your highness.”
“Mm.” Sergei nods. That explains it. His fingers catch on the edge of the scroll as he begins to distractedly unroll it. “When you can, inform your superior officer that the Crown Prince approves of you being fitted for more comfortable armor. I’d hate for you to be encumbered thusly by ill-fitting attire and unable to perform your duties.”
“Oh—” The soldier flounders for a second, her mouth flapping uselessly. Not for the first time, Sergei finds he hates the Fire Nation helmets that obscure half of every soldier’s face. A strand of red hair tickles her cheek, peeking out beneath the cover of her helmet. “Thank you, sir.”
Sergei nods and lifts a hand. “Dismissed.”
For a woman wearing armor much too large for her, she does not haste in making her departure.
The scroll unrolls quickly in Sergei’s hands. His eyes fall upon the end first—a habit he has always had since he was a child, eager to see who sent the message before reading its contents—but as soon as he sees the name Sorey in scratchy, misshapen letters, inked at the bottom, he freezes.
He jerks up so fast, his knees catching on the edge of his table, nearly upending it and spilling papers and figures and quills to the floor. With little care for anything that has fallen, Sergei launches himself to the door and opens it wide.
“Wait!” he shouts into the hallway.
Only the men already standing guard jerk to attention.
Even when they search the entire palace, the redheaded soldier with the too-big armor is nowhere to be seen.
Sorey sits on a large wooden shipping box, his back to a stone wall, holding his face in his hands. He hasn’t moved for several moments, bent and silent. Mikleo hovers at his shoulder, violet eyes traveling over the other faces of their small party as they wait. For a moment, he wonders if he’s the only one who missed what had transpired on the street. Lailah and Dezel’s faces both are unreadable: Lailah’s pinched and Dezel’s frowning.
“Are…you all right, Sorey?” Mikleo murmurs.
Sorey sighs tightly.
“You remember now, don’t you?” Lailah says quietly.
Sorey doesn’t answer.
“I must admit, when I first met you, I had thought it strange you acted like you didn’t know at all, but…I don’t know. I figured you were young. Perhaps you forgot. Memory can be a fickle thing.”
“Remember what?” Mikleo asks. “What is it he’s supposed to remember?”
Finally, for the first time in several minutes, he speaks—and when he does, it’s defeated. Quiet. “That I’m a Fire Prince.”
Mikleo freezes. “You…” He spins on Sorey, body numb. “Wait, what?”
Sorey’s fingers press hard into his eyes before his hands fall.
This time, when he says it, he meets Mikleo’s gaze head on. “I’m a Fire Prince, Mikleo. Crown Prince Sergei and Fire Prince Boris, they’re my brothers. And Fire Lord Heldalf…I…he’s…he’s my father.”