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People like to think war means something

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Sokka was the first to leave.

Somehow that hurt the most.

It had been a month since he had been coronated, everything had happened so fast and all at once. Zuko had barely seen his friends with the little time he had between meetings, events, and everything else being a Firelord included. So when Toph casually mentioned that Sokka was leaving in three days, Zuko felt like he was swept off his feet.

He didn’t even know. He tried not to be annoyed at that.

The worst part was that for the next two days, his schedule was packed. He was in the process of weeding out his father’s supporters from his group of advisors and guards, carefully noting which ones of them were loyal to him and no one else. It was a strenuous job, especially since almost everyone was still loyal to his father. A bunch of rich spoiled men in power, all of them smiling peacefully at him only to turn around and plot his downfall.

The night before Sokka left, he knocked on Zuko’s bedroom door.

Zuko was exhausted. It was a day filled with complaints by those around him, varying views on different issues clashing as he sat there and tried to promise everyone that he would fix things. He wasn’t sure how he could. As soon as he saw Sokka, he simultaneously felt a weight lift off his shoulders and felt something heavier land.

Sokka was leaving tomorrow, and Zuko shouldn’t be surprised. He knew that everyone would leave eventually. They all had obligations and a life outside of him, and it would be selfish to have them stay here for as long as he needed them. They had only really just gotten on good terms before everything happened, so of course they’d feel no obligation to be here with him.

Somehow, he thought it would last longer. Especially with Sokka. The two of them had grown close since the whole Boiling Rock incident. Turns out that breaking a bunch of people out of prison was a good team-building exercise. Out of everyone, he thought Sokka would stay with him the longest. But at the same time, he knew this was the way it had to be.

Zuko tried not to think about how after tomorrow, he wouldn’t be able to see Sokka around the palace. There would be no bad jokes at dinner, no catching him in the halls and demanding him to take a break to spar, no more late-night raids of the kitchen trying to find something to eat because dinner was too spicy for Sokka. There would be none of that. Zuko felt something inside of him ache at the lost he hadn’t even gone through yet.

The two of them sat in silence on his balcony, the normal comfortable silence turned oppressive as they both dances around the topic looming in the air. Neither of them wanted to mention it, neither of them wanted to break the fragile something between them. It would be broken anyways.

“It’s a nice view,” Sokka said, breaking the silence first like always.

“Yeah,” Zuko replied, unsure of what to say. When had he last felt this tongue tied beside his friend? “It is.”

They sat in silence for another minute, both of them wondering how to continue, how to pretend.

“Are you excited to go home?” Zuko asked, because he needed to say something. He knew that Sokka was trying his best to figure out some weird joke to break the tension and Zuko thinks that if he laughs he’ll never stop. The phantom sound of Azula’s crazed laugh echoes in his ear and he tried his best to ignore it.

“Yeah,” Sokka says, and he sounds slightly relieved. Zuko figures he must be homesick. “There’s a lot of work to do, the tribes have long been separated and someone needs to go unite them again now that the big shitshow is over. We have a lot of work to do over there, and I am dying to eat some of GranGran’s food again.”

Zuko let the sides of his lips pull up, something inside him easing somewhat at the familiar rambling. Sokka’s voice was something Zuko found grating at first, but now it acted like a balm, something he could listen to for the rest of his life.

“If anyone can fix it, it will be you,” Zuko meant it too. Sokka may pretend like he didn’t do a lot because he couldn’t bend, but he held Team Avatar together, and Zuko had no doubt that he could do the same back at his home.

“You think so?” Sokka looked over at him, and Zuko nodded at once. A blinding smile blossomed across Sokka’s face and Zuko’s chest tightened at it, at how easily Sokka smiles at him, how easy Sokka displayed his thankfulness in his eyes. Zuko wanted to grab him and do anything to keep that smile there.

Instead, he turns back to the view, taking in his nation, his own home. He loved it, and as he looked out over the streets filled with his people, he knew Sokka had to leave. It was quite a thing to love a place so much you were willing to do anything you can to build it back up from the ashes. Zuko had his duty to his nation, and so did Sokka. That didn’t make it any easier.

“It really is a beautiful town,” Sokka said, and Zuko smiles softly at the warmth that those words brought him, the sense of pride. This town was what he was fighting for, suffering the late nights and grueling meetings to fix. This was his town, his nation. He would do anything for it, even if it meant letting Sokka go. Knowing that didn’t make it any easier.

“Will you miss it?” Will you miss me?

“Of course,” Sokka says softly and without hesitation. He can tell Sokka had turned to look at him again, and he knows that if Zuko looks over at him he will be able to tell if the other boy caught onto the double meaning. If he understood that in those words Zuko was asking him to please just stay, please don’t go, please don’t leave me.

He doesn’t turn, and the next day Sokka is on a ship heading course for halfway across the world. Zuko stands on the dock with the rest of his friends, and deep down he knows that it will be a very long time before he sees Sokka again.

He wishes he turned around.

______________________________

Unsurprisingly, Aang and Katara are next. A month after Sokka left, they announced that they would be going too. Zuko’s only surprised that it took this long. Aang had almost as many obligations in peace as Zuko did, that was probably the only reason they stayed as long as they did. But now, his job as Avatar had to take him a different way, and Zuko understood it.

Peace was now mostly up to Zuko. It was his job to fix a century worth of mistakes, a century filled with pain and suffering that he had to make up for. He tried not to let his shoulders slump, his fathers voice in his ear whispering to appear princely, to show no weakness and to not let everyone know what a pathetic excuse of a human he was.

He pushed those thoughts away and held Katara closer. Her arms were warm, and he was thankful for the way that their friendship grew over the months, the easy was they got along without having to say a word, how her presence was reassuring. He would miss her terribly.

But Aang had to go. They were attempting to find any remains of the Air Nomads at all, anyone who escaped the massacre and was deep in hiding, and remains of a broken culture. Zuko knew it was something he had to do, something Aang would spend the rest of his life trying to accomplish if he had to. And he knew Katara would be by his side the entire way.

A small voice in the back of his head wondered if he had anyone like that. Anyone who would stick by his side no matter what, anyone who would follow him to the ends of earth and hold him up as he fought, anyone who would love him that unconditionally. He thought about Sokka, who left as soon as he could, Aang and Katara, who were leaving now, everyone else who was left who he knew would be gone soon as well.

He thought about the list of suitors his advisers kept throwing his way, their urgency somewhat alarming especially considering he was currently with Mai. He wondered if Mai would be by his side for the rest of his life. He really hoped she would, but he had long ago learned that hoping did nothing to affect reality.

Aang bounced over as soon as he let go o Katara and launched into his arms. One thing Zuko was grateful for was the fact that this war didn’t completely break Aang, that he still had the capacity to be a child, to run and play and smile. Zuko wondered what it was like, he wondered what happened to eleven-year-old Zuko, who had that ability despite everyone trying to take it away. They had seceded in the end.

“Make sure you send us letters,” Katara said once Aang stepped back, the two of them falling in step with each other as naturally as they breathed.

“Of course,” Zuko promised, smiling gently at her. He knew she was worried about leaving, concerned that it was too early, but they all knew it was time.

“I won’t write them, but I’ll make sure Zuko tells you everything I want him too,” Toph put in from her spot beside him. Katara smiled and reached out to pull her into another hug.

“I hope everything goes well,” Zuko told Aang, feeling slightly out of step. He wasn’t used to saying goodbye. Normally stuff like this happened so fast he was never able to find proper words to express everything he wanted.

“I’m sure it will,” Aang said. “I hope running a Nation goes smoothly.”

Zuko let out a huff of a laugh, thinking of his last meeting that ended with three different Generals screaming at each other.

“Does it ever?” Zuko said, and Aang just smiled. The two of them left moments later, and Toph and him stood there for many long moments, watching Appa take off into the sky and fly away without them.

“Want a fruit tart?” Toph asked after a moment.

“More than ever,” Zuko replied, and the two of them turned away.

_______________________________________________

Zuko knew that Uncle hated anything political. They all had past regrets, and Uncle was probably the most well adjusted about them, but Zuko knew the palace was draining him. Still, Zuko didn’t dare tell him to leave. He couldn’t force the words past his mouth, could let Uncle go and do what he always wanted.

He knew it was bound to happen though, everyday spent together on borrowed time. Every odd proverb that Zuko still didn’t understand, every cup of tea, every late-night conversation they had, it was all coming to an end.

Zuko couldn’t tell him to go.

He knew he should, knew he needed to tell Uncle to go back to Ba Sing Sa and re-open his store, to serve his tea and talk to people and live the life he deserved instead of wasting away in this palace beside him, but he couldn’t. He refused to rush the timeline.

Zuko had been ruling the Fire Nation for five months now. He trusts around 90% of his advisers and guards, he knows the name of every servant in his palace and most of them have stopped flinching every time he comes into the room. The meetings and councils are still exhausting, but he doesn’t think that will ever stop. Every day brings a new issue he needs to solve, a new complaint he needs to address. He wonders if the rest of his life will be like this.

Uncle comes to him on a sunny afternoon and with Agni’s light shining down on them, Zuko takes one look at Uncles face and knows its time.

Uncle serves him a cup of tea, Jasmine, and Zuko raises it to his lips immediately, letting his eyes flutter closed as he wonders selfishly what he can do to stop Uncle from speaking. Nothing came.

“My duty pulls me somewhere else,” Uncle says softly, as if it will soften the blow. “I must return to Ba Sing Sa, maybe I’ll reopen the Jasmine Dragon, maybe I’ll do my work and return here. But there are many issues throughout the world that need attention, and we can’t do it all from here.”

“I understand,” Zuko says. He doesn’t.

“I need to know if you’ll be okay nephew,” Uncle says, even softer than before. Zuko can’t meet his eyes. “You won’t be alone. I’ll be back to visit all the time, and anytime you need me, I’ll just be a letter away. I am not leaving you alone.”

But you are Zuko wants to cry. You are leaving and so is everyone else and one day I will be alone running a Nation beside people I only barely trust. You are all leaving.

“I know Uncle,” He says instead, sipping his tea. “I understand.”

Uncle doesn’t say anything else, and they drink their tea in silence.

_______________________

Zuko walks towards Toph’s room with a frown on his face and purpose in his step. Being the head of state, he gets information of almost everything that happens inside the palace, including letters coming and going.

This is the fourth letter from the Earth Kingdom that Toph has gotten in the last week, and he has a sneaking suspicion of who they are from. He isn’t sure if the letters are welcomed or not, there have been no returning letters, but either way Zuko knows that Toph will need a friend.

Other than Suki, who is still insistent on working as his guard, Zuko is really her only friend left.

He knocks on the door, he knows he could just walk right in, but manners were something they were all lacking, and he was more than willing to pick up the slack sometimes.

“You can come in Sparky,” Toph calls out immediately. Zuko opens the door and slips in, his eyes scanning her up and down in search of anything admiss. She’s clutching onto the letter, the paper crumpled under her tight fist. Her face is like a rock, impassive and unreadable.

“Would you like me to read that?” He asks softly, he isn’t quite sure how to deal with this situation, but he is well versed with shitty parents. Their parents were nothing alike, her parents drowned her in love but refused to like her as she was, while his father couldn’t spare him an ounce of either love or general affection. Both situations were fucked up, and he dealt with the fucked up on the daily.

“I want to throw it into the fire and watch it burn,” She hisses and Zuko briefly debated actually doing that, but sometimes running away from your problems created more of them. “I want to be able to read the words and actually believe them.”

Zuko walks closer, gently grabbing her arm and leading her to the couch, sitting them both down and sitting close enough that she doesn’t need to touch him, but if she wants she can bury into his side. She does. He doesn’t comment on it, letting her seek his comfort without him pointing it out. As soon as he did she would leave.

He isn’t Katara, his hugs are probably too stiff and awkward, but she isn’t complaining, so he thinks it’ll do.

“I know they love me,” She whispers, and he lets her talk. Toph isn’t very talkative when it comes to feelings, and he isn’t sure where this spurt of honesty is coming from, but he isn’t going to stop it. He knows she needs to get it out of her. “But I just wish they had a different way of showing it. I wish they’d love me for me instead of loving the idea of a perfect daughter. Cause I’ll never be that, I’ll never be perfect.”

“You shouldn’t have to be,” He says evenly. “They’re fools if they can’t love you the way you are. You’re pretty cool.”

“Thanks,” She says dryly, punching his arm. “I wish they could just see past the blind part and see how badass I am.”

“You are pretty badass,” He tells her seriously, glad that he was able to pull a soft giggle out of her. She rested her head on his shoulder, her hair tickling his neck and cheek.

“I don’t know how to put it all into words to make them understand,” She finally says after a stretch of silence. “I don’t know how to force them to listen.”

Zuko thinks for a minute, a dark feeling seeping out from inside him and gathering in his chest, making it heavy with what he knows he needs to do.

“I think,” He says carefully, trying to keep the sorrow out of his words. She needs him to be the impartial advice giver, to be like Uncle, who knows everything about stuff like this. She doesn’t need his insecurities stopping her from what she must do. “I think you need to go see them. Stand in front of them and force them to listen to you. Tell them everything you told me and more.”

“You think so?” She says, sounding small and unsure.

He knows she has mixed feelings about staying here already. She likes spending time here with him and Uncle, likes to be able to wander around the palace and terrify the staff in a lighthearted amusing way, but she hated the stuffiness. Toph may be the daughter of two nobles, but that is also what she ran away from. He knew she would get restless soon enough, and he knew that this was something she needed to do, something she needed to get out of the way.

“I do,” He says. “Uncle is leaving for Ba Sing Sa in a week. I think you should go with him, meet with your parents and settle this once and for all.”

“What about you?” She asks in that knowing way she always does.

“You’ll have to force people to write me letters,” He says, nudging her slightly. “I’ll be waiting for them. This is something you need to do.”

“I’ll write letters,” She says, sniffing slightly. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

Zuko lets out a laugh, feeling her smile against his shoulder. He squeezes her tighter to his side.

“I wouldn’t dream of it short stack,” He teases, laughing louder when she punches him as hard as she could. Then she launched herself into his arms, hugging him with the ferocity she always had.

“Thank you,” She says gruffly, and he just nods, dropping his head onto her shoulder and taking as much time as he can to remember the feeling of her holding onto him.

A week later Uncle and her are packed and leaving, both of them holding him tight and making him promise to write. He does, and tells them that he’ll come down to visit them soon, maybe put in a shift or two at the Jasmine Dragon. Toph laughs and he lets her hold on tighter.

Somehow, this goodbye was easier than the rest. Uncle would always be there for him, even if he was miles away. And you never got rid of Toph.

That was what he told himself as he watched them ride away, his fists clenched as hard as he could. Mai comes to stand by his side, and she doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t need to. She just wraps her arm through his and gently tugs him away, breaking his gaze on their retreating back. He looks over at her, and she smiles softly at him, her eyes understanding. He simultaneously loved and hated her for that look.

_____________________________________

It was nearing midnight and Zuko couldn’t sleep.

Mai lies beside him, silent and still. He watches as her chest slowly rises and falls, the calm serenity of it a juxtaposition to his jackrabbiting heart beat.

He sits there for a long time, wondering if just watching her breathe would be enough to stop himself from panicking. It doesn’t of course, because nothing would ever be that easy.

He had woken up in a panic, a scream caught in his throat as the remains of the nightmare stuck behind his eyes. His fathers’ hand alight and coming towards him, the cackle of lighting as he jumped in front of it, his friends dead before him, accusing eyes asking why he wasn’t fast enough to stop it.

He stands up as quietly as he could, not wanting to disturb Mai from her sleep. She was a deep sleeper, but this was the first nightmare in weeks that she hasn’t woken up to catch. Normally his startled breath or choked off cry would wake her and she would reach out, pulling him close and clutching him to her chest, whispering soothing words until his heart rate returned to normal and they fell asleep in each others arms.

But not tonight. Tonight he had to deal with this on his own, just like he had for years. He walks towards the door, slipping through it and out into the halls before he starts to walk. Somehow he remembered to put on his robes, although he doesn’t really recall doing so.

He feels a bit like a ghost wandering through his halls, taking in the place he called home. He wasn’t sure that was true yet. He had only been back for just over half a year now, and everything still feels foreign to him. He still feels like a boy pretending to be a man. A peasant masquerading as a king.

He feels someone at his side, looking over to see Suki casually walking beside him. He almost forgot about the fact that he has an entire guard system that wasn’t supposed to leave his side. Suki mostly took the night shift, taking the days to spend with the rest of the Kyoshi warriors.

She looks over at him, a soft smile on her lips. They had grown closer over the months, especially now that everyone else was gone. Zuko was there when she was mourning her loss of relationship with Sokka, the two of them just unable to stand the long distance without the threat of war looming over them. She was there whenever he wandered lost through the halls, ghosts of the past still haunting him.

He nods lightly at her, no words to be exchanged at times like this. He changed course to go outside, thinking the fresh air might help soothe his scattered nerves. She follows without complaint. She’s wearing her casual outfit, her fan still strapped to her side and her makeup on her face. She looks beautiful under the moonlight, her face relaxed but neutral.

They come to rest in the outer courtyard, and she is the first to sit, patting the ground beside her. He follows without complaint. They lay back in the grass, the soft blades ticking the side of Zuko’s face as he stares up at the sky.

“You miss them too don’t you,” Suki says, and he startles slightly at the sound of her voice and the content of the question.

“Of course I do,” He replies, staring at the moon. “They’re my friends.”

“It’s hard being here without them, even though I spent most of the war anywhere but at their side,” She says, and he nods in understanding. Suki was a part of their group, no doubt about it, but she had more loyalties outside of the group than the rest of them had. “It’s odd.”

“They have things they needed to do,” He shrugs. “It’s not like they would have been able to stay here for the rest of their lives.”

“Oh but how wonderful it would be if they did,” She said, a hint of smile in her face.

“We would kill each other at some point,” He says, a soft smile slipping onto his face as he thought of his friends. He ached for them all the time, but the feeling was increased now that he was thinking of them.

“Probably,” She laughed as well, and he hand brushing against his. He knew she knew exactly what he was feeling. She felt the same.

“You should be leaving soon too,” He said softly.

Suki didn’t respond. He wondered if she knew how to. He sure wouldn’t have. The Kyoshi warriors had agreed to work as his guard until he could trust his own people as his guards. Zuko isn’t sure he’s at that point completely, but he’s close enough that he knows Suki and her girls need to go back to where they need to belong.

They were all still kids. Teenagers who had to bear the weight of a horrible war on their shoulders. Now was the time where they could move on, find their purpose and place in this world. Zuko’s place was dictated for him years ago, and he was happy to fill it. He knew Suki couldn’t find her place while staying here watching him.

“You’re still a teenager,” He decided to voice some of his thoughts, because she hasn’t made a move to speak. “You have so many things you need to do. I can’t be the one to stop you from doing that.”

“You need people you can trust by your side,” She says instantly.

“I do,” He says. “Nowhere as close as to how much I trust you, but enough that I know it’s time to go.”

She doesn’t say anything again, but she reached out and grabs his hand, holding it tighter than she ever has before. She knows he’s right.

That doesn’t make any of it easier. It never will.

_____________________________________

Two months after Suki and her girls leave, Zuko starts to hear whispers of a resistance.

It isn’t a shock, as much as he wishes it to be. Over the past months he had suffered through his share of attempts on his life, poisoned food, assassins in the night. He isn’t naïve enough to think that everyone loves him, in fact he knows the opposite is true.

It isn’t easy to pull together a nation torn through years of propaganda poisoning their minds. So many of them still think they have a right to take over the world, to kill and do whatever they can to wreak havoc on the world.

And so many of them think he is weak, a puppet king influenced too much by the Avatar and his friends. They think him incapable, too young and inexperienced to rule a nation. Zuko wishes he could yell at them. To tell them that they were right, he was too young, but no one else was willing to stand up for what was right, so he was the one to do it.

It isn’t hard to figure out that Ozai is somehow behind the resistance that is growing. His name is whispered by servants who fear what is going to happen, of people who are anticipating the day that Zuko falls and his father is back in power.

As soon as he knows about it, he goes to visit his sister.

He had done that every once in a while, despite Azula not seeming to want him there. She alternated between being silent and simply staring at him while he talked, to spitting flames and screaming at him, insults thrown his way. He wonders which one it would be this time.

He sits in her room across from her and she sneers at him, her lips curled up in distaste. Her hair was almost back to normal now, her face void of makeup. It makes her seem as young as she is, and he is painfully aware that she is just a kid. Just a fourteen-year-old girl struggling with her own mind.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” She asks after a minute of him simply sitting there, pouring the two of them tea.

“Can I not just visit my sister?” He asks in return, raising a cup of tea to his face.

“You’ve never brought tea before,” She says, staring down at the drink. “Attempting to poison me brother?”

She spits the word brother like it leaves a bad taste in her mouth. He wonders if it does. Even before all this happened, she only ever addresses him as her brother when she was either angry at him or holding something above him, which was 90% of the time.

“If I was I would have better ways to do so other than drinking from the same pot,” He replied dryly. It seems to calm her enough that she takes half a sip. They sit in silence, and Zuko’s heart sang a bit at how much better she seemed.

He knew better to think that it was all fixed, everything about Azula was hanging on the tip of a mountain, teetering each and every way. Anything could push her off the side, either in a positive or negative way. He was used to walking on eggshells around his sister, but not like this. He wasn’t sure how to deal with such a fragile version of her.

“How are you feeling?” He ends up asking.

“Dandy,” She sneers, but that seems to be her default face, so he doesn’t think much of it.

“The doctors say that you seem to be more stable these days,” He ventured to say, watching her over his teacup.

“Oh I promise I’m cured,” She says innocently. “You can release me as soon as possible.”

He snorts a bit, and Azula even smiles a little bit, the tiniest twist of her lips. It falls as quickly as it came, but he saw it. He counts that as a win.

They talk stiltedly for a couple more minutes, both of them dancing over each other, neither sure of how they should be doing this, neither of them sure how to create a relationship now that everything between them was so broken.

Eventually, he knows he has to leave. He has a meeting in less than an hour that he can’t be late to.

He gathers their now empty cups and packs them away.

“Goodbye Azula,” He says as he stands up, nodding slightly as he turned to leave.

“See you next time,” She says so quietly that he almost doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t respond. He knows that they’re not there yet. But he smiles a little as he leaves.

He orders four more guards to be placed in front of her door. He refuses to let his sister slip back under his fathers’ control.

_______________________________________________

It had been a little under a year since his coronation when the attack comes.

Despite hearing about the movement and carefully plotting the resistance’s movements, the coup comes as a shock.

He thought they had been doing good at squishing everyone who was a traitor to the throne, quickly and efficiently destroying any attempt at an attack or a rally.

But one-night Mai and him wake up to the sound of screams and fighting, and as they look at each other they know what this was.

They didn’t even have time to put on their robes before they’re grabbing their weapons and launching themselves out into the hallway. There were close to five people there, masks pulled over their face to hide their identities. Still half asleep, he takes out two with a swipe of fire and the next with a slash of his swords. Beside him, Mai is quick and efficient in slitting the other two’s throats.

Everywhere he looks, there is death. Lying in the hallway are his guards and attackers in large quantities, and him and Mai don’t have time to mourn as they jump over the dead bodies, slicing down attackers as they come.

They’re both in their sleeping clothes, feet bare as they slip trying to gain traction in the blood covering the floor. Mai’s hair is messy and knotted, hastily tied behind her head so that it won’t get in the way. His own shoulder length locks are matted with smeared blood and gore. Neither of them have time to rest or relax as they fight through every hall of the place he calls home.

It takes a day and a half to clear everyone out. His clothes are covered with both dried and drying blood. He steps over the soft eyed servant girl who brought him his dinner every night, her eyes frozen wide with fear and a hole in her chest spilling her blood down the hall.

They managed to subdue every last usurper; their masks ripped off. Zuko isn’t surprised to see that a few were his own advisers, generals who stared at him with eyes that belayed no ounce of guilt or regret. He looks at what is left of his staff and advisors and wonders how many of them took part in this, how many of them were plotting his death.

He wonders how long they had been planning this, and he knows that he doesn’t really want to find out.

Messengers from all over rush to meet him. A large group had also stormed the prison where his father was kept. Ozai along with multiple other high-risk prisoners were released, most of the guards there slaughtered.

Azula was safe. They sent a team to free her, but the extra guards he stationed there had won. It doesn’t feel like a victory.

He cleans the blood off his swords and changes into clean clothes, scrubbing blood and flesh off his skin and out of his hair. Beside him, Mai does the same. Neither of them know what to say, neither of them can put into words what had just happened.

Peace was an illusion. It always was. He wishes more than anything that his Nation could just rest, could exist and be as beautiful as it used to be without war and violence taking over. But that was a foolish wish. He wonders if his Nation was able to thrive without war. He hopes that one day they can.

But for now, it seems like they have slid headfirst into a civil war. Half of his guard and servants had been slaughtered in the attack, and the remaining group of them were traumatized and scared. He met with everyone, listening to their stories and offering his support. He helped them all count the dead, both on their side and their attacks, and he learned all their names, sent condolences and letters to all of their families, sat and mourned every single one.

Every general that tries to sneak out to join the force growing in the South was met by him, and he remembers all their faces as they either fight, or get arrested and locked away. Majority of his advisors and head generals either lie with the dead, or are led away with shackles.

For the next day and a half, he barely sleeps. Forces are gathering in the south at an old abandoned training ground. The land and towns around it are pillaged and burned to the ground. Townsfolks pour in to multiple villages and towns, running from the Loyalists that move steadily towards the palace.

Zuko throws on his armor and puts up his hair. His own army needed a leader, and it was his job to stand before them and warn them of the danger to come, to prepare them and make sure that they were truly on his side.

Mai stands beside him, steady and silent as he addresses his troops. He doesn’t know what to say, how to reassure them that this won’t be long, that they will not allow the nation to fall back into war so soon after finally being able to retreat from it.

He doesn’t really register the words falling from his mouth, and as he looks into the eyes of his army, he wonders if they can tell how empty they are, how tired he was of constantly fighting and being hunted. He wonders what his life would be without war. He thinks back to the past few months and realizes that maybe he’ll never know.

___________________________________

Every since his friends left; he had kept up a steady correspondence. Sokka has been making huge steps towards uniting the Water Kingdom, and his letters are the least common, since it takes so long for them to get there. But they’re steady and reassuring and he reads every last one multiple times, committing the words to memory.

Katara and Aang’s are more unpredictable. They travel around a lot, searching for various different things at different times. They always send letters, but it’s hard to send them ones back since sometimes they do not know where they’ll be or for how long. Zuko does his best to update them on things best he can.

Toph sends him letters almost weekly, talking about her attempts to salvage her relationship with her parents and her explorations through the earth kingdom, teaching her ways of metal bending to various different students and learning how to Sandbend. Uncle sends letters often too, last Zuko heard he was conferring with the other leaders of the White Lotus to try and find some lost tomes including information to the way the Nations were before the war started.

He can’t send a letter to Sokka. He can’t tell the truth since their civil war means he can’t provide the support he promised. And he’s not a good enough liar to pretend like nothing is wrong. So he simply doesn’t reply to the last letter Sokka sent, instead unfolding the paper ever now and then to simply read through the letters and pretend that he can hear his friends voice.

He refuses to send one to Uncle until he knows he desperately needs help, because Uncle’s work is important and he doesn’t want him to worry. But he knows that Uncle will come running the second Zuko sends for him. He doesn’t mention it to Toph either, because he wants to keep her out of another war. She’s got enough on her plate with her parents.

He doesn’t tell Suki because he knows she’d be here in an instant. He didn’t want her in this, couldn’t risk her and her warriors. They had already fought in enough wars, had been through enough. He could order her not to come, but then she would worry and come anyways. It was better to just say nothing.

He does send one to Aang. He carefully tells the younger boy that his father has escaped from prison, that they have a resistance building up to combat him and his rule. Aang sends back a letter that sounds exactly the same as always. Updating Zuko on their mission, talking about Katara and Appa, rambling about some interesting move he learned.

At the end, he adds a few simple sentences to address the issue. Your father isn’t as strong without his bending, I’m sure you will be able to control the problem. I believe in you. If you need me and Katara to come help, just send word.

He thinks about asking. The attacks from the Loyalists have been getting more and more violent, and Zuko has seen too many battles in the past two months since this started than he had his entire life. The movement was gaining speed, and Zuko had just barely been able to keep pushing them back.

He remembers what he heard them saying about him. How he was a puppet to the Avatar, unable to rule his Nation without bending to every whim the Avatar had. Zuko sent Aang a letter saying he would handle it. This was a battle he needed to fight on his own.

Late at night, when he was able to finally fall into his bed after long days of either strategizing or fighting, Mai and him curled up in each others arms like it would be the last night they were able to. She would run her hands lazily up his arms and he would wrap his arms around her waist.

They lay in silence, their breathing the only sound between them. She never told him it would be okay, that they would get through this. Mai hated lying.

________________________________

“They’re moving further north,” General Zo tells him. Zuko sits and listens with his head bowed, armor heavy on his shoulders as he stares at the ground. Zo sounds as defeated as Zuko feels. The man is barely a couple years older than him, having moved up the ranks fast due to many of the older generals deciding they were more loyal to Ozai than him.

Zuko trusted Zo with his life, he had to. There were so few people he could trust these days, but Zo had proven to be firmly on the side of peace. It was refreshing to know that some people hated fighting as much as he did.

“They’re moving closer to the Capital,” Zuko fills in easily. He knows his father, knows what manipulations he pulls, knows the way his mind works.

The more ground they take and villages they burn. The more people are retreating inland. The Capital had been flooded by people displaced by the war, people seeking a place free of the fighting. Those areas were growing smaller and smaller as time went on. Every victory they made was combatted with another loss, more deaths, more destruction.

On top of it all, demands from the other Nation’s haven’t slowed. The Earth Nation was still pushing for their land back and reparations being made to repair various temples and towns being damaged by war. The Water Nation was still slowly healing, and the people he promised to help rebuild and keep peace couldn’t make their way out there due to the demand this war put on them all.

Even inside his own Nation the demands haven’t stopped. The school curriculum needed altering, families displaced by war needed housing, culture was still being brought back to life. The demands hadn’t slowed a bit, the pressure building day by day until Zuko was sure he would crumble under it all.

“They are,” Zo confirmed, and Zuko sighed, his eyes falling shut and he felt like sobbing. He sent his Uncle a plead for help two weeks ago, but there was still no response. He had written a request for Aang, but scrapped it multiple times.

Mai placed a hand on his shoulder, the familiar weight helping ease a bit of the stress. He wasn’t sure what he’d do without her fighting by his side, a steady presence that never waivered. He would have fallen multiple times if it wasn’t for her.

“Request more troops,” He finally said. “Things are coming to a head; I think we all understand that. We’ll need all the power we have. Track the path they're making and find a middle ground. We need to end this once and for all as swiftly as we can.”

General Zo nodded, bowing his head and hurrying out from the tent. Mai stand by his side, and he stares out at nothing for a long time, mentally preparing himself for what is to come.

“Do you think we’ll be ready for this?” He asks her, and her hand tightens on his shoulder. When he looks down at it there is still blood on the inside of her nails.

“Will we ever be?” She asks, and her voice is as heavy as his is. He reached up to lace his fingers through hers and he squeezes. They stand there together until the next General comes in for briefing.

__________________________________

Azula requests his presence and for the longest time Zuko debates denying her. There had been a few more attempts to break Azula out of the facility she’s in, but Zuko had placed more guards there than he really should have.

If nothing else, he was keeping his sister away from this all. He had promised her a life free of violence and war, he refused to pull her back in.

It was dangerous to go see her, especially since h wasn’t sure whose side she would be on. Maybe this was an assassination attempt, maybe his sister would kill him the second he went in and fight her way out to their fathers’ side.

Or maybe she just wanted to see him, to talk to him and offer support. He wasn’t sure which was more likely. Or maybe he didn’t want to be.

In the end, he knew he had to. Everything was building up to a crescendo, the fighting increasing as time went on. Honestly he didn’t have time to go see Azula, but if he was telling the truth he wasn’t sure how much of him would make it out of this. His arm ached from a stray sword he wasn’t able to deflect, his back aching from when he fell into a dresser when his father sent another assassin to snuff him out.

He wanted to say goodbye to his sister if no one else.

He walked into her facility flanked by three guards. Mai had stayed behind, if this was an attack she needed to be with his troops. She was as much of a leader as he was. Both of them falling here would be the end.

”Please be careful,” She had said before he left, her lips turning into a frown as she helped him climb into his armor. ”If she was to make a grab at power this would be it.”

“Do you think she will?” He had asked, tying his hair securely with a band. She had looked at him and he hated how tired her dark eyes were, how exhausted and torn she looked. He knew she had loved Azula, back when war wasn’t tearing everyone apart and betrayal wasn’t happening around every corner. He thinks a part of Mai still loved her.

”No one ever knows what Azula will do,” She had whispered. ”I can’t predict her. But I’m not going to lose you.”

“You won’t.” He had grabbed her hand and kissed her knuckles, making a promise they both knew he had no control over. She had just nodded, her lips thinning before she told him to go.

He stood in front of his sisters’ door and nodded at his guards. They would come in with him, standing by the door and in the corners. He didn’t want them there, but at times like this the extra precautions were welcomed.

He knocked lightly before stepping in, a part of him expecting a blast of fire to come lashing out at him. It didn’t. Azula was sitting at the table, her hands folded in front of her and a calm expression on her face.

“Hello brother,” She greeted and he came to sit across from her. “Quite the entourage you have.”

“Can never be too careful,” He replied, hating how heavy his voice sounded these days. He swore that sometimes he could hear the screams of the battlefield entwined in his tone, hear the ringing of his blades in every word.

“I heard you have quite the problem on your hands right now,” She said easily. “No tea this time?”

“Didn’t have the time,” He told her. “Like you said, I have a lot on my hands these days.”

“What a way to spend your eighteenth birthday,” She said with a laugh, slightly crazed and condescending like all her laughs were. He barely flinched at the noise. It was weird how very little could rattle him these days while he was still jumping at every shadow expecting someone to come out of attack him.

“It isn’t ideal,” He allows. “What do you want Azula?”

“I want to help,” She says through clenched teeth, leaning forwards. “You can’t do this on your own and it’s clear that your little friends aren’t running to help you. Where’s the Avatar now that you need him brother?”

“I have been doing fairly good so far,” He says, and its only a half lie. He doesn’t address the rest of her statement, unable to talk about his friends without his gut twisting. He’s glad they’re not here, that’s what he keeps telling himself. “You already know I won’t let you Azula.”

“Then you are as stupid as Father always said you were,” She snaps, slamming her hands down on the table. His guards all reach for their weapons, but Zuko holds up a hand. He’s used to his sister’s outburst by now, he knows she isn’t in a position to hurt him. If she wanted to she would have already.

“You have gone through enough,” He says firmly, hating the shake in his voice. “If I can save one of us from this war, I will.”

“You think I’ll run to his side,” She accused. “You think I’ll be loyal to him.”

Zuko said nothing. He doesn’t think she will, but with Azula you can never be sure. The only thing he knows for certain is the fact that he will do everything in his power to keep her out of this.

“First of all, if I wanted to join him I would have,” She snarls, her eyes getting that slightly glazed over look in them. “I’ve been here for every attempt they’ve made to break me out. It would have been so easy to kill the guards myself and leave with them. And I haven’t.”

That was true, Zuko knew that much. If Azula wanted out, then she would be gone.

“And in the end, you would be easier to overthrow,” She says, turning up her nose, her teeth bared as her voice raised into a shout. “I know that if I joined Father he wouldn’t hesitate to put me down if I made a grab for power. You’re too weak to do that, too pathetic to even dream of hurting me. I don’t have the same issue you know; I could kill you right here and not feel a thing.”

His guards were closer now, weapons drawn as if daring her to try. Zuko couldn’t make himself feel afraid.

“If that was true,” He said softly. “Then you would have already.”

Azula stares at him, her chest heaving and hands smoking on the table they were gripping. Zuko stood up, his guards flanking him.

“I will do everything I can to keep every innocent person out of this war,” He says. “That includes you. Goodbye Azula.”

He turned his back and left, and he heard his sister screaming as he left. The nurses rushed in, probably to sedate her and calm her down, and he doesn’t look back as he marches from the building.

He has a war to win, another battle to fight. War doesn’t stop because you want it to. Because you need it to. He wishes it worked like that.
__________________________________

Five months into the fight, and Zuko knows this is it. His father is going by the ridiculous title he gave himself before the Sozin's Comet, The Phoenix King. It’s fitting he guesses; his father had been burnt to ashes, had been taken down and stripped of his powers. Yet here he was, leading an army almost the same size as Zuko’s own.

This is the first time he had faced his father in battle, and he knows that this could be it. If they try hard enough this could be the end. It would end one of two ways.

Either him or his father lying on the ground dead.

Beside him, Mai stands still, her knives drawn at her side and her face pulled into a snarl. The anger he sees is the most emotion he’s seen out of her since this all started.

Zuko himself is just as angry. He looks around him at his people, the people he was told to lead and protect. He had failed that already. No matter how this goes it is his people dead on the ground. All this pointless loss and suffering and for what? A grab at power? His father had to know that even if he gained control of the crown again he would never be able to hold onto it. He had been defeated once and would be again.

Zuko just hoped that defeat would be today. He isn’t ready to lose his crown, he isn’t ready to let his Nation fall back into disarray, he isn’t ready to let his father win.

Ozai snarls at him from across the battlefield and Zuko feels his anger grow, he lets it consume him, lets it guide his actions as they race across the battle field.

He isn’t sure how long he fights. His body is moving on auto pilot, his dao swords clashing with those around him as he twists and turns, blood spraying around him as he fights. Sometimes Mai is by his side, watching his back as he watches hers. Sometimes he can’t see her, the two of them getting lost in the carnage as they fight across the field.

He tried his best to only injure instead of kill, but its hard knowing that everyone he clashes swords with wants to see him dead. He watches as the people around him fall, people both on his side and the other. He watches as friends and family scream in agony as they watch their loved ones fall.

His vision is filled with death and blood, yellow and orange flashing across his eyelids as flames dance around each other. His ears are filled with the ringing of swords, the twang of arrows, and the screams of injured.

He makes his way across the field until he meets his father. He stares into the man’s eyes for the first time in years and he feels nothing but hate. His father seems to feel the same.

The man can’t’ bend, but he could still fight. Luckily, so could Zuko. With the final prize so close to him, he takes down his father’s personal guards easily, his swords cutting through flesh easily. Finally, he lets his blade clash against his fathers.

“I should have killed you a long time ago,” The Phoenix King hisses as they dance around each other.

“I agree,” Zuko says evenly, panting slightly from the fight he had been waging for too long. His arms are tired and aching but he pushes past it. There is time for nursing his wounds and that will come later.

His father is constantly on offense, diving every way as he slashed at Zuko. He blocked every shot, returning his own strikes whenever he found an opening. His father managed to nick his leg, Zuko slashes his arm in retaliation.

His father moves into a fake that Zuko falls for, sending him stumbling onto his bad leg. Ozai darts forwards, eyes alight with glee as he goes for a blow to Zuko’s blind side. Zuko snarls, his foot lashing out and a streak of fire catches his Father's legs, sending the other man reeling back as he hissed in pain.

(A small part deep inside Zuko sang when he realized that burn would scar. He wanted his father to hurt as much as everyone he had ever wronged. He wanted to make that burn larger and more painful. He wanted to engulf his father in flames and hear his screams as he was burned alive. It was a small part of him, but a part either way.)

“You are a pathetic excuse of a ruler,” His father hisses. Zuko doesn’t give him the satisfaction of a response, aware that his father knew he was losing and was falling back to taunts to throw Zuko off. “You were never good enough. Azula was always better and yet she is still just as weak and pathetic as you are. Once I kill you I’ll visit her next. But don’t worry, I’ll make her death as painful as can be, draw it out and hear her beg for you, beg for her mother. Neither of you will come, and all three of you will die pathetic traitors.”

Zuko feels the rage sweep over him and he snarls, diving into offense, taking advantage of his fathers’ injuries.

Minutes later he is sinking his blades into his father’s chest, twisting them as they went deeper. He stared into his father’s face as he died, watched as his father’s body went limp under him. He felt sick as he pulled out his swords, the steel bright red with blood.

He turned back to the battlefield, where the forces still clashed, their dead lying still on the ground.

He sent up a column of fire into the air, his fire burning bright red and flashing different colors as his anger, exhaustion, and grief mixed together. Everyone knows what that means.

Some people continued to fight. Those who knew their families wouldn’t accept them, those who had nothing left for them except a life in prison. They were taken down quick, and those who surrendered were quickly round up and were walking slowly in a line, his fighters guiding them with fire and swords.

Zuko stood at the top of the hill and watched it all, his father’s corpse lay still beside him and he couldn’t stand looking at it. His swords were still held in his hands, his fists refusing to unclench and let them fall.

Mai walked up beside him, and he turned to study her, to make sure she was okay. There was a cut on her cheek, shallow but still bleeding. She was limping slightly and her clothes were covered in blood, but she was alive.

She stared down at his father, her foot reaching out to poke at him.

“He’s dead,” She said, almost like she couldn’t believe it.

“He died quickly,” He said, staring down at his blades. It was the truth; his father didn’t even have time to scream.

“He didn’t deserve it,” She replied, and she turned away from him, coming to stand at his side. Her knives were gone and he let her take his swords from his hand and put them on his back.

Her hand came up and cupped his cheek, he couldn’t help but lean into it. She swiped at the dirt and blood there, her hands calloused from all the fighting but still so soft and gentle.

“We won,” He said emptily. Could they call this a win? All it was was more death and destruction. More people to burn, more families that would grieve, another crack in the structure of his nation.

“We won,” She replied, and she sounded as hollow as he did.

_________________________________________

When they came back to Caldera his people were gathered in the streets. They cheered as they went by, his citizens grabbing at his hands and thanking him for bringing peace once again. He smiled emptily at them, accepted their presents and their love.

He goes into his room for the first time in ages and cleans off the dirt and the blood, changing back into clean clothes before going out and declaring the war won. His people cheer and they celebrate long into the night, candles lit and the sound of music and celebration filling the air.

It still didn’t feel like a win. Zuko doubted it ever would. While soldiers greeted loved ones and danced, he sat in his Palace and made arrangements. Many of the soldiers would burn, no matter what side they were on.

His father would be buried in an unmarked grave. He felt no regret in doing so, felt no obligation to give his father an honorable death, not after all the suffering he had caused.

Late at night he sits in his room and stares at his reflection, wondering if his eyes were this haunted after the first war they fought. He stares at his hands which had killed and injured his own people, which had killed his own father.

Mai comes in and sits next to him, and they stare at the mirror together for almost an hour before he stands up. He needs to get out of here, needs to do something.

He holds out a hand for Mai and she takes it. Together they walk to the balcony and sit, overseeing the city they fought to protect, watching the people he killed to save. They are dancing to music, and he can hear the laughter and singing even from up here. Lanterns burn brightly throughout the night, and not once does the celebration die down. It goes on for hours into dawn.

He has to go inside at one point, and he leaves Mai there without a word. They both have things to do. He makes more arrangements, counts the dead and learns all their names. Once the sun goes down he meets Mai back on the balcony.

The celebration continues.

He reaches over and grabs her hand, pulling her closer until they were pressed together. His fingers press against her pulse and he feels her heart beating. It reminds him that he didn’t lose everything, not yet.

_________________________________

It has been a week since the battle and while everything had been looking brighter, he can’t help but feel like something is still broken.

Maybe it’s because he just attended the burning off all the soldiers, maybe it’s because he can still see the grief filled face of mourning families, maybe it’s him that’s still broken. It doesn’t matter.

It’s late at night and he can’t sleep. Neither can Mai. They walk side by side silently through the halls, guards surrounding them at all sides. Just because the wars over doesn’t mean that they can relax. Assassins can still make attempts, Zuko still doesn’t know who is safe to be around.

They walk through the halls until early morning when they arrive back at their quarters. They enter and lock the door behind them. Mai sits on the bed and Zuko knows that he has to follow her. They sit side by side and try to figure out what to say, try to figure out how to exist now that the war is over.

“I’ve never been this tired,” She says softly, and he almost misses it over the roar inside his own head.

“I know,” He responds, because he feels it too. The exhaustion pulling at every limb, the darkness settling deep inside his chest that never leaves. When he closes his eyes they are still stained red.

“I think I need to leave,” Mai says quietly. “I might visit Azula. Maybe go see Ty Lee. Maybe I’ll even go see my parents, who knows.”

“Anywhere but here,” He says, and he knows the feeling. The feeling of being trapped, of the walls closing in on them. How they both still jump at shadows, their weapons only inches away at all times. He knows she needs to leave and he wishes more than anything that he could go with her. “This is it isn’t it?”

“I think we both know it is,” She replied softly, and he just nods. They haven’t kissed since this whole thing began, and he knows that together they are only grasping onto string. War has a way of bringing you together and tearing you apart at the same time.

“I don’t regret my time with you,” She says again, turning to look at him. He smiles softly at her, reaching up to brush her hair behind her ear.

“I don’t either,” He replied. “I wish we could have worked out.”

“I wish so too,” She replied. “But this is the way it happened. This isn’t goodbye forever.”

Everyone always tells him that, he wasn’t sure how much he believed them.

“I hope you find your happiness,” He says. She reached over and drags him into a hug. The feel of her is familiar and he knows that it always will be.

“I hope you do too,” She says, pulling away and kissing him gently on the cheek. Then she gets up and walks out of the room.

_____________________________________________

She stays by his side while they finish up the last bit of the war. She helps reinforce his guard and helps him deal with grieving families. A week later her time is up and she is heading towards Azula’s facility. After that she’ll head up to Kyoshi island to meet with Ty Lee. After that who knows.

She promises to visit, tells him to be safe and to be happy. He tells her the same and wishes either of them believed the other when they said they’d be fine. Her hugs her tighter than he ever has before and tells her that he’ll write. She just nods and walks onto her ship.

She never turns around and a part of him wishes she did. A bigger part is glad she didn’t.

He walks back into the Palace and signs the last imprisonment order for Ozai’s men. All of them had life in prison. A few of them applied for the death penalty, but he had refused. He wouldn’t allow any more death, even for those who wished it. He thinks that maybe that was the cruelest thing he's done.

He writes a letter to his Uncle, telling him that it was over and that he was okay. He wonders where he is, why he never responded to his last letter begging for help. Zuko hopes that he was just busy or the letter got lost on the way. If he hadn’t heard back in another month or so he would take extra precautions.

He carefully pens out a letter to Toph, telling her about the war that she had probably heard of by now. Zuko had done his best to keep other Nations out of it, but word must have traveled by now. He decides not to write to any of his other friends. Not for a while at least.

He wasn’t sure where Aang and Katara were, and the idea of explaining everything to Sokka made his head ache so instead he just didn’t. He just needed to focus on his work for a while, pretend that he could fix the scars left over from this entire mess.

He does the best he could. His days are filled with either fixing what his father broke or catching up on everything the missed while fighting. When he doesn’t work he gets to know his people better, learning everything about them and trying to learn how to trust them once again.

Late at nights he tosses and turns alone in bed and wakes up with a choked off scream as visions of the final battle play out in his mind. He hears the screams of his people and stays awake for the rest of the night, going over more complaints and orders that he has to fill out.

His people are looking to him more than ever now. They are depending on him to lead them, to guide them through the mess they fought through. Zuko doesn’t know if he can. He can barely get himself through this. He still flinches at shadows, still wakes up at every little noise thinking someone has come to kill him, he still misses everyone he loves and he hopes more than anything that they miss him back.

_______________________________________________

Uncle shows up as soon as he can and Zuko barely hold back a sob when he sees him.

Uncle sweeps him up and holds him tighter than he ever had before, whispering apologies into his hair. Zuko holds him back, unable to say anything over the swell of emotions overtaking him.

“Oh my dear Nephew,” Uncle says, pulling back and swiping the tears running down Zuko’s eyes. “I am so sorry. My way of messaging was compromised, I never got your letter asking for help. I didn’t even hear news of the war until a few days ago. I came as soon as I could.”

Zuko couldn’t respond, only nodded. Uncle helps lead him back inside and they sit in Zuko’s chambers and talk. Zuko tells him everything that happened, the months of fighting, the constant fear of death, the last battle and his father’s downfall. Uncle holds his hand in a death grip and promises not to leave him ever again.

Zuko wants to protest, wants to remind Uncle that his life was not here in the palace but out there in Ba Sing Sa with his shop. He can’t bring himself to say it, instead he just sits there and nods. He falls asleep with Uncle in the room, singing softly to him. He doesn't feel quite safe, but it's the closest he'd been in a while.

_______________________________________

Toph is the next to come, and that also doesn’t surprise him. She comes and finds him while he is in the middle of singing more papers to allow money to fund the recreation of the villages his father burnt down.

“Zuko,” She says, almost like she wasn’t expecting him to be there. He stands up to greet her and is immediately greeted with her flying into his arms, holding him tightly. His guards had tense and went to move forwards before he waved them off, hugging her back.

“It’s good to see you,” He said, and it wasn’t a lie. He had missed her something terrible. Just having her in his arms again helped ease something inside his chest.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She said as she pulled back, punching him in the arm. His guard’s tenses again, but made no move forwards. “I would have come and help.”

“I handled it on my own,” He told her.

“That means nothing,” She sniffed. “I could have helped, any of us would have helped.”

“You’re here now,” Zuko shrugged. “That’s good enough for me.”

Toph looks like she wants to protest, like she wants to say more. Thankfully she doesn’t. Instead, she sits down and tells him everything that she did, all her travels and what she accomplished.

“How did it go with your parents?” He asked, and she shrugged, trying a bit too hard to seem nonchalant about it.

“They’re still coming to terms with who I am, but it’s better than it was before,” She admitted.

“I’m glad,” He said, and she reached out, grabbing at his hand.

“What about you?” She asked softly. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine,” He says, and they both know it’s a lie. She doesn’t press though, just continues to talk. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to tell them the truth. He wonders if it really matters if they know either way.

________________________________

Toph seems determined to stay glued by his side, and he comes up with some bullshit excuse to have her in every meeting. No one argues with him, they know better than to. When she isn’t by his side she’s in town causing trouble and hunting down anyone who even dared to speak bad about him. Multiple advisors complain about her but Zuko just innocently tells them that they must be mistaken. Toph grins innocently at them all and blinks at them as if daring them to say anything else. Zuko tries not to laugh when she intimidates Generals and Nobles twice her age.

Uncle is often around to, constantly providing tea and staring at Zuko with that knowing look in his eye. Every time Zuko tries to over work himself Uncle is there by his side insisting that he has a new tea blend that Zuko must try for him. He also pretends that Toph isn’t terrorizing half of their Nobles, taking their complaints himself and telling them to shove it up their ass in the most diplomatic ways.

He would never admit it but he is beyond grateful for the two of them. Just having people around helped to ground him, to make him feel more human.

It wasn’t easy, it wouldn’t be easy for a long time, but he was doing his best. Every now and then Toph would pull him away from his work for a day and the two of them would dress in their plainest clothes and go out into town. His people would pretend not to recognize them and they would wander around town, eating food and exploring shops.

A part of Zuko glowed with how happy his people seemed. When he was a child the town was dark and gloomy, a mask of calm thrown on to hide the fear their people had whenever their Firelord was in town.

But now? Their culture and people were thriving, and people grinned easily at Zuko when he went by. He never was able to fully relax, still paranoid that anyone around him could still be loyal to his father, even in his death. But it was getting easier to just wander now. Having Toph by his side helped, somehow she was getting better and better at her bending. He was proud of her.

One night she pulled him out into one of the nightly celebrations. They were surrounded by people and singing and he was trying his best to fit in. He hated being in such a large crowd, unable to tell who was around him and what they wanted. Anyone could come out and attack him and he would be unable to fight back without risking those around him.

Toph was instant though, forcing food into his hands and making him eat. She pulled him into a dance, begging him to twirl her and he couldn’t deny her this simple joy.

He laughed for the first time in a long time that night, twisting and dancing with Toph and forgetting about the war he fought through.

It wasn’t enough, it would probably never be enough, but for now it was good.

_______________________________

Sokka had never been happier. The Water Nation was slowly moving forwards. He had never dreamed of progress like this.

He had been nominated as ambassador to the many tribes, working hard to unit them once again and fix the grievances that had come from the war. It wasn’t easy, it never would be, but they had been moving forwards steadily. His own tribe had been growing, thriving under the support from both the Fire Nation and the Northern water tribe.

It had been hard to convince his people that peace truly was here to stay, and even longer to convince them to let Fire Nation volunteers to come help rebuild certain structures that were damaged in the war.

The problem came when the volunteers never showed up. The date came for them to come, but the ship arrived empty, supplies there but troops missing. The captain said that they were ordered to stay back, but he wasn’t around long enough to hear the reason why.

The people were enraged. Sokka tried not to be. He sent letter after letter to Zuko, who had been suspiciously quiet for a long time. No letters were returned.

Sokka tried not to be angry. He helped his people use the materials to rebuild the houses and he wrote a few more letters to Zuko, each one getting angrier and angrier. He had trusted his friend, and for some reason, Zuko went back on his promise and refused to send aid to help them. And then he didn’t even both sending a message as to why.

If Sokka wasn’t s busy he would march down to that Palace and demand an explanation. But he didn’t. There were things to do, and he didn’t have time to think about Zuko’s sudden decision.

It made him unsettled, how silent the Fire Nation had been the past few months. It wasn’t just the lack of troops, no supplies came from there, which wasn’t unusual for most times, but Zuko had been fairly good at letting Water Tribe ships come and get whatever supplies they couldn’t get on their own.

Lately all ports have been either backed up or closed. Sokka was torn between angry and worried.

It had been two months since the troops failed to come in when he finally learned why. It was another merchant ship coming in to deliver supplies for building when he overheard certain members of the crew discussing.

“It’s a relief that they’ve finally been able to open up trade routes through the Fire Nation again,” One sea hand was talking to one of Sokka’s fathers’ friends. “It’s been a pain in the ass to go around them.”

“Why were they closed?” Sokka asked, wandering closer to the conversation. He hadn’t been aware that any part of the Fire Nation had been closed off.

“You don’t know?” The man said, pulling a face. “I guess it’s hard to get news down here. The waterways weren’t safe with the whole civil war they had going down over there. Too much inner fighting for it to be safe to travel through until it ended a couple of weeks ago.”

“A civil war?” Sokka asked, a bolt of panic racing through him. Was that why the volunteers couldn’t come? What had happened?

“Yeah,” The man was nodding. “Bunch of loyalists launched a coup on the current Firelord, whole thing lasted almost half a year. Ended with their leaders death in the final battle. Killed by his own family too. Horrible affair. But everything’s gone mostly back to normal now, thankfully.”

The man moved on, but Sokka was left standing there reeling with the information. It ended with their leaders death? Did he mean Zuko? That had to be wrong right? There was no way that happened. If it did everything would be thrown out of balance again. By his own family? Did Ozai escape? Or was it Azula? What had happened?

The man had to be wrong, there was no other way around it. News would have come if Zuko was somehow unthroned. Who was in power anyways? If Ozai or Azula took the throne than chaos would come again. Or maybe it was Iroh who stepped up? Was that why there was still peace?

This was assuming that Zuko was dead, which wasn’t possible. There was no way that happened without Sokka knowing. Someone would have told him right? But Zuko hadn’t sent him any letters for a very long time, and he hadn’t responded to any of the ones Sokka sent him. But that didn’t mean anything right?

Fuck, he had to go out there. If he took the next couple of months off that would work. Maybe he could go under the guise that he was inquiring about the missing troops and supplies. Either way, he needed to go see for sure.

Zuko couldn’t’ be dead, Sokka refused to believe it. It had been so long since he had seen his friend, a little over a year, and Sokka refused to believe that it was the last he’d have seen of Zuko. They had kept in touch through letters, and their friendship had been stronger than ever.

Why hadn’t he been more concerned when Zuko stopped responding? After almost a year of steady correspondence too. He was such an idiot sometimes. But in his defense he did have a lot on his plate.

The arrangements were made easily, his father stared at him with a look that showed that he knew Sokka was doing something impulsive and stupid, but Sokka couldn’t help it. He just needed to go and make sure that man was lying, he needed to know Zuko was alive.

___________________________________

Admittedly, Zuko could admit that he probably should have sent Sokka a letter.

He had gotten all the letters Sokka sent while he was gone, but something stopped him from reading them. An anxiety he couldn’t shake. He knew his friend was probably mad at the sudden silence and the fact that he hadn’t been able to spare the troops he promised. But he was planning on getting to it!

He just needed to let his men have a break, to let his men and women see their families and mend from what they went through. He had sent the supplies he missed out on sending, and he had already sent out a request for the men to prepare themselves if they still wishes to. He didn’t want to send anyone unwillingly. That would benefit no one.

He was just so tired lately. Now that his civil war was mostly out of the way, the other Nations had started making demands again. Mostly the Earth Kingdom. His days were filled with signing treaties and hashing out arguments over what was owed and what couldn’t be given. He went to bed every night with a headache, wondering who was going to snap at him next.

Toph helped somewhat, her presence terrifying some people enough that they didn’t get into full blown arguments and instead traded passive aggressive comments. Uncle provides them all with tea, easily breaking up arguments with his calm words of advice. Zuko is grateful for them both.

He was signing another treaty when the news of Sokka’s arrival came through.

His personal servant, a young man named Akio, comes to deliver the news.

It caught him off guard, and he wonders how mad Sokka will be about the missing troops and unanswered letters. He dresses in his formal robes and heads out to the harbor, sending Akio to pull Toph from whoever she was currently taunting.

He knew she missed her friends as much as he did, she would be overjoyed that Sokka was back. His guards and him walk down to meet the ship, a smaller one than he was expecting. Seems like this was a last-minute visit. He doesn’t know if that worries him more or less.

Zuko waits for a few minutes until he sees Sokka on the deck. He raises a hand in greeting and watches nervously as Sokka seems to pause and do a double take before launching himself down the plank and running towards him.

His guards tense immediately, stepping forwards as if to stop them and Zuko honestly isn’t sure if he should encourage that or not. Sokka pays them no mind and launches himself at Zuko, grabbing onto him and holding him tight.

He was pretty sure Sokka might be trying to assassinate him by strangling him to death, and Zuko might not mind it that much.

“They told me you were dead,” Sokka whispers and Zuko tries not to startled despite a million questions running through his mind at once. Sokka pulled away, his hands grabbing at Zuko’s clothes like he was about to pull them off and see if he was okay.

“Sokka,” Zuko said, gently pulling his hands away from him before his guards had a heart attack. “I’m okay.”

“What the fuck dude?” Sokka hissed at him, lightly smacking his shoulder. “What happened, what’s going on? Why won’t you ever write to me you asshole?”

“I’ve been a bit busy,” Zuko said, his cheeks blushing red somewhat. He felt like he was being scolded. At least it wasn’t Katara, getting scolded by her was like being scolded by his mother. “Let’s go inside,” He continued looking around at the many people on the ship discretely staring at them.

Sokka agreed, and the two of them walked back inside the palace and away from prying eyes. Zuko was able to relax marginally now that he was away from the public space.

“So what’s with the entourage?” Sokka asked, gesturing to the three guards who trailed after them at a reasonable pace. “You didn’t have this many adoring fans last time I was here.”

“You haven’t been here in a while,” Zuko says airily instead of answering the question. He can practically feel Sokka’s eyes on the side of his head. “Toph should be here anytime soon. She’s missed you.”

“Toph is here?” Sokka sounds surprised. “Last I heard she was wandering around the Earth Kingdom teaching people metal bending.”

“Things came up and she decided to come wreak havoc here instead,” Zuko said, dancing around the true reason Toph came back.

“What happened man?” Sokka said, his voice soft. “I heard all this shit about a coup? People trying to overthrow you?”

“It’s a long story,” Zuko said hesitantly.

“I came here all the way from the Water Nation to hear that story,” Sokka sniffed. “I will be offended if you don’t tell it.”

“Later,” Zuko said, an ache starting to form behind his eyes. “I have a lot to do today still.”

Sokka frowned, gearing up to say something else and Zuko was beyond grateful when Toph flew down the hallway and into Sokka’s arms.

“Sokka!” She cried, grinning widely. “You didn’t say you were coming.”

“It was a bit last minute,” Sokka said, grinning as well.

“Toph can show you around town,” Zuko said, interrupting the two of them. “I have some more meetings to get today.”

“You’re not going to meetings today,” Toph said sounding scandalized. “Sokka just showed up.”

“Which means it’s the perfect time to go to meetings while the two of you explore town,” Zuko said casually. “The towns really nice now, lots of new shops have come up and there’s a really nice market on today, it’ll be good to walk around for a bit.”

“Not without you,” Toph said, crossing her arms once again.

“I can’t miss these meetings Toph,” Zuko said, the headache growing behind his eyes. “I’ll take the day off tomorrow to spend it with you, but this meeting is important and I can’t reschedule.”

“You’re the Fire lord, you can do whatever can’t you?” Sokka threw in.

“That’s not how it works at all,” Zuko sighed. “I’m going to be late.”

He turns and walks away despite both of their protesting, sweeping through the halls as fast as he can and ignoring the protests behind him. He wasn’t lying, he really was late.

______________________________

Later that night, Sokka knocks on his door. He brushes into the room before Zuko can even open the door.

“Come on in,” Zuko says dryly, raising an eyebrow. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Talk to me you dipshit,” Sokka said, throwing himself on the bed. Zuko blinked at him and wondered when his life got to this.

“Talk to you about what?” Zuko said, because he was good at avoiding shit.

“What’s going on?” Sokka asked, his voice gentle. “What happened here? Toph refused to tell me anything, but all I know is that people are talking about a civil war, you have three body guards plastered to you at all times, and you look like you haven’t slept in a year.”

Zuko let his shoulders slump, knowing that he had no choice but to talk to his friend. He got up and gestured for Sokka to follow him out to the balcony. They stood side by side staring out at the city. Zuko remembers the last time they were like this, about the feeling of dread that settled on his shoulders that day and then never left.

“Talk to me,” Sokka ordered softly, and Zuko wondered where to start. When everyone left? When the first attacked happened? The final battle? Everything had been so messed up for so long that he wasn’t sure how to put it all into words.

He closed his eyes, unable to stare out at the town he loved and the boy standing beside him as he talked. Seeing and thinking at the same time was too hard, too much for him to focus on at once.

“There was a coup,” He said, his voice sounding raspier than normal. He remembered a time when his voice was normal, but that was a very long time ago. That was a time before he spent nearly a week screaming his lungs out as his burned face was treated. “People loyal to Ozai raided the palace and the prison he was at. Half of my staff were massacred; a large chunk of my advising staff was in on it. They occupied the south for a very long time, they took whatever land and towns they could, burning them to the ground. We managed to push them back to where their base was located, it took us nearly five months to do so. We fought on a Wednesday.”

His voice failed, and he opened his eyes when images of blood and dead eyes started to flash on the back of his eyelids.

“Somehow that was the worst part,” Zuko admitted. He never told anyone this, had barely given himself time to think about it. “It was a normal day. The sun was high in the sky, there was nothing special about it. It shouldn’t have been special. Why that day of any? I should have been here juggling a bunch of snotty royals spoiled requests. Instead I was fighting in a war once again. The battle lasted the entire day. I killed my father with the sun setting in the background. Thousands of people died Sokka. I killed so many of them that my hands were caked in blood. There were so many dead.”

Sokka was silent beside him, and if Zuko didn’t know any better he’d think that Sokka wasn’t breathing. Then his friend carefully reached out, his hand grasping at Zuko’s own. They were warm, somehow larger and heavier than they were last time. They weren’t the same people that stood here over a year ago. They had both grown and evolved, both of them almost completely new.

“I’m sorry you went through that,” Sokka’s voice was raw, and Zuko could feel tears running down his cheeks. He was barely aware of them. “Fuck Zuko, I’m so sorry.”

“What for?” Zuko said with a bitter laugh. “You didn’t do anything.”

“I should have been there,” Sokka whispered fiercely. “Was anyone here?”

“I had Mai by my side,” Zuko said, and thinking about her didn’t hurt anymore. The last letter she sent was a positive one, he thinks that she’s happy over there. That’s more than he could have ever hoped for her if she stayed here. He will never regret the time they spent together, but he wished a bloody war wasn’t something included in that time.

“That wasn’t enough,” Sokka continued. “Why didn’t you tell anyone? We should have been here by your side; you shouldn’t have been alone.”

“It was something I needed to do on my own,” Zuko insisted.

“Bullshit,” Sokka cut him off, reaching up and grabbing at Zuko’s head to turn it towards him. Sokka had tears in his own eyes, he looked so fucking sad that Zuko couldn’t stand it. “You didn’t need to do anything on your own. Why can’t you just accept that we want to be here for you? That we want to help?”

“You left!” Zuko cries, and his chest is heaving and he’s pulling away because Sokka holds him so tenderly and he shouldn’t. Zuko had hurt people, he had killed his own people he didn’t deserve to be held so softly and so lovingly. There was a reason everyone left, and he knew it wasn’t just because they had their own things to do.

Sokka’s face crumbled and Zuko hated it. Hated how much he wanted to grab onto it and put it back together, to run his fingers over those frown lines and smooth them back into a smile. But he couldn’t, because if he touched anyone right now he knew he would smash into a million pieces.

“You know I had to leave,” Sokka whispered. “I didn’t want to but I had to.”

“Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier,” Zuko admitted. “Knowing that didn’t make the battle any easier.”

“You were the one that chose not to send for us,” Sokka said, and he sounded frsutrated. That was good, Zuko was always good at anger. “I would have dropped everything to come and help but you were the one that chose not to.”

“Maybe there was a reason for that,” Zuko snarled, his lips pulling up into a look he learned from Azula and his father. “I didn’t need any help, I did it all on my own without depending on you or anyone else’s help.”

“Spirits Zuko you don’t have to fight all this shit on your own!” Sokka was flailing with arms, agitated and annoyed and Zuko wanted to scream and yell until his lungs gave out. “Let me help you, let us help you.”

“How?” Zuko said quietly. He wasn’t sure if he knew how to let them care. He wasn’t sure if he could welcome them all back and pretend that they weren’t there as he fought half of his own Nation. He knows it was mostly his fault, but he didn’t care. He didn’t know how to ask them to help, how to ask them to care.

Sokka’s face crumbled and he didn’t look mad anymore, just tired.

“Like this,” Sokka said, before stepping closer and dragging Zuko in for another hug. Zuko tensed for a second, unused to the feeling of someone’s arms around him so unexpectedly. But slowly he relaxed into it, letting the familiar feeling and scent of Sokka replace all the anger and grief he had been holding onto for too long.

“It’s okay,” Sokak whispered into his ear. “It’s okay to not be okay sometimes.”

Zuko couldn’t take it anymore. He reached up and grabbed onto Sokka and he sobbed. He finally broke, letting all the stress and anger out as he held onto his friend, crying and holding onto Sokka like his life depended on it. The two of them crumpled to the ground, limbs tangled together as they sat there under the stars.

An hour later Zuko had no more tears left to cry and Sokka gently lifted him up and they stumbled over to bed. Zuko pulls Sokka in after him, more than a little exhausted and delirious and just needing someone beside him, someone to hold onto and reassure him that he didn’t die, that he was still living and breathing and human.

Sokka doesn’t complain and they spend the night wrapped tightly in each others arms. It’s the first night Zuko slept through in months.

____________________________________

Turn out that Toph sent a letter to Aang and Katara, and the first official Team Avatar reunion is taking place in a week. Sokka gleefully sends for Suki, who promises to bring Ty Lee and Mai along with her. Zuko tries to protest, thinking about all the work that he still needs to do.

Both Sokka and Toph refuse to hear it, talking to his advisors themselves to give him two weeks off. Zuko tries to be mad, but he can’t. He’s more than a little tired of being angry all the time. Maybe just this once he’ll allow himself a break.

Later at night he wonders what the hell he’ll do without his work to keep him afloat, but during the day when he wanders around town with Sokka and Toph he thinks that maybe his friends will be enough to pull him through.

They all eat lunch and dinners together, laughing and joking and being children for the first time in ages. Zuko smiles more in that week than he has in ages. He is accompanied at all times by either Toph, Sokka, or his Uncle, leaving him no time to sneak off and read through some more papers or even attempt to get any work done. Some times it’s annoying, mostly it's relieving.

Suki, Mai, and Ty Lee are the first ones to show up. Ty Lee hugs him tightly and grins as wide as she always does. There’s a spark of understanding in her eyes that Zuko was always glad to see. Suki immediately smacks his shoulder, scolding him for not calling her and asking for help. He turns beat red and apologizes a million times before she’s satisfied.

Mai clutched him tight and whispers in his ear asking if he’s okay. He pulls back and can honestly say that he’s okay. She looks like she believed him. She looks lighter than she did before she left, which probably wasn’t that much harder to do. But she stands closer to Suki and Ty Lee than she needs to and he catches her smiling softly at them all and he thinks that maybe she was okay too.

Her eyes haven’t lost the heaviness that he sees in his own eyes, but she is able to smile and her posture is as relaxed as she allows it to be. He thinks that maybe that is enough.

Aang and Katara arrive soon after, both of them jumping off of Appa to hug everyone with enthusiasm Zuko had missed.

“Did everything work out with your father?” Aang asked, eyes bright and happy and Zuko can’t help but tensing, his eyes meeting Mai’s from where she stands beside Ty Lee. She nods at him slightly, her eyes understanding and posture tense. They’re both thinking back to three months ago, when they stood in a battlefield together covered in blood.

“Yeah,” Zuko finally says. “It did.”

Aang doesn’t look like he believes him, and Zuko knows they’ll talk about it later, but for now everything is light and happy and Zuko is able to laugh and joke around with his friends. He can’t believe they’re all here. Honestly he can’t.

He looks around at all their smiling faces and half thinks that maybe this is a dream. He never thought they’d be here again; thought he would be ruling alone for a very long time. But they’re here and they’re laughing and Zuko might pinch himself just to make sure it’s real.

Sokka stands by his side with a knowing look in his eyes. His hand reaches out and squeezes Zuko’s for just a second, and that’s enough to reassure him that this is very real and that everything was going to be okay.

___________________________________

Aang finds him that night in the sparring room. Zuko had been able to sleep, so pumped full with adrenalin from everyone’s presence that he needed to blow off steam.

“Mind if I join you Sifu Hotman?” Aang says teasingly and Zuko grins back, nodding as they both fall into position, going through their katas and forms easily. It’s second nature to them both now, the easy movements and fire comes to them both.

It had taken Zuko a month after the last battle to feel comfortable with his fire again, to use it without thinking of the scorching heat of the battle field, the way people screamed as they fell to the ground, the smell of burning flesh around him.

They finish all the moves and are taking a short break when Aang breaks the silence.

“What really happened here?” Aang asks quietly. “I have a feeling it was a lot worse than what you told me in your letters.”

Zuko stares at the ground, wondering if he should dance his way around it. He knows Aang would pull it out of him anyways. Maybe Sokka was right, maybe he should get used to actually letting his friends in.

So Zuko does. He tells Aang everything. He tells him about the coup, the attempts to assassinate him, his father's escape, the various battles he went through before the last. Aang sat silently through it all, making no comment.

When Zuko looks over at him Aang was frowning at the ground, jaw clenched and eyes hard.

“Are you mad at me?” Zuko can’t help but blurt out. Aang looks up at him in confusion. “For what I did to my father. For killing him when you fought so hard to keep him alive.”

“I don’t support killing,” Aang said after a moment. “But I’m not mad at you Zuko. You did what you had to do.”

Zuko let his shoulders slump, the reassurance meaning a whole lot coming from Aang.

“Are you mad at me?” Aang asked after a moment, his voice small. “For keeping him alive? None of this would have happened if I just killed him when I was supposed to.”

Zuko had been mad at one point. He used to stay up and wonder why the hell Aang allowed him to leave, why they had to suffer through this when it all could have been over before it started. But that was a long time ago.

“You’re just a kid Aang,” Zuko said softly. “You upheld your morals and I could never fault you for that. I was mad for a little bit, but I think this was something that needed to happen.”

Aang slumped slightly, leaning over to rest his head on Zuko’s shoulder.

“You’re a kid too,” Aang said softly. “You shouldn’t have gone through that.”

“No,” Zuko admits hollowly, slumping further into his friend. “I shouldn’t have.”

______________________________________

They spend the day in town, and Katara pulls him into every shop she sees, telling him about her journey with Aang and everything they had seen. She mothers him a little bit, and by a little bit he means a lot. She makes him eat at almost every stall she sees, and forces water down his throat and holds her hand to his forehead and tells him he’s running hot like he isn’t a firebender.

He lets her, because the worrying is better than her gone. Sokka teases her and tells her that she just needs to have a kid already and she smacks him and Aang goes bright red. Zuko laughs at them and Suki bumps their shoulders together, the two of them grinning at Sokka’s antics together.

Ty Lee pulls Mai around to the brightest stands, buying her multiple bright colored scarfs that Mai ties in her hair, glaring at anyone who looks at her weirdly. Zuko meets her eyes and gives her a thumbs up, she just rolls her eyes and smiles fondly at him.

It’s weirdly nice, and not once did Zuko flinch at someone getting too close to him or a loud noise in the background. They gather food and make their way to a field outside of town. Aang and Toph run through the grass, the two of them laughing with glee and earthbending the area around them to create obstacles for the other to move around. Sokka chases after them, and soon Aang and Toph are focusing solely on making Sokka fall, which seems like a fairly easy task. Sokka never stays down for long though.

Katara grins at the three of them fondly, setting out the food and keeping everything in order as she talks easily with Suki. Ty Lee and Mai sit beside him, and the three of them recall stories from the past.

“Have you been to see her lately?” Mai asks, and he doesn’t need to ask to know she’s talking about Azula.

“I went once after the war,” He tells her. “To tell her about father.”

“How did she react?” Ty Lee asks, her eyes sad as she thinks of her friend. He hopes one day that the three of them could rebuild their relationship back to something close to the friendship they had when they were younger.

“She was sad,” He said, thinking back to how Azula had broken down and cried and yelled, smoke pouring from her mouth. He had held her and promised her everything would be okay. She had fought the grip for a while but eventually relaxed into him, letting him hold her as she mourned the father that never loved her the way she loved him. “But I think she’s getting better. I was going to go visit her again.”

He knows that he should have already, but with everything going on seeing his sister just seemed too hard. He would need to soon though; it was the least she deserved.

“How did your visit with her go?” He asked Mai, who grimaced.

“Not well,” She admitted. “She’s still upset over what happened at the Boiling Rock.”

“One day she’ll understand,” He promised. He honestly thinks she will. Azula needed help, and she needed them to stay by her side no matter what.

“She hurt us a lot,” Mai whispered. “I hope that day comes sooner than later.”

“I hope so too,” Zuko says, leaning over to squeeze her hand. She smiles back at him. Ty Lee leans closer into his side and he lets her, wrapping an arm around his friend. Everyone finally settles down to eat, exchanging jokes and stories, and Zuko memorized the sound of their laughter.

___________________________________

“I have to go back soon,” Sokka tells him late one night. Ever since they fell into bed together that one night, they shared the room. Neither of them addressed it, but it just happened, it was easier to sleep with someone beside him.

Sokka would wake up when he had a nightmare and hold him close just like Mai used to. He would tell Zuko stories about his tribe until Zuko calmed down, and the two of them would talk until Zuko was calm enough to sleep again. They never talked about waking up in each others arms, they never felt the need to address it.

Sokka had been there for almost two months now. Zuko knows they’re living on borrowed time. Peace had been achieved but there was still so much to do. So much to rebuild and fix from over a hundred years of suffering.

Zuko had pretended for as long as he could that this whole thing was permanent, that Sokka would stay and keep him company, that Toph would never leave, that Ty Lee, Mai, and Suki would continue to hang out at the palace.

But reality always had to come crashing in one way or another.

“The group of volunteers I promised the Southern Water Tribe are almost ready to ship out,” Zuko said absently, his head was resting on Sokka’s chest, his fingers carefully tracing circles over Sokka’s chest. “You can sail out with them in a week or two.”

Sokka grunts his affirmation, and his arm tightens from where it was wrapped around Zuko’s shoulder.

“I won’t be gone forever,” He whispers into the dark room. “I just need to do a little more there. Help fix a few more things up. I’m supposed to be meeting with ambassadors from the Southern Tribe soon to discuss them lending more support to us. It’s a very important meetings and I can’t miss it-“

“Sokka,” Zuko cuts him off quickly. “I understand, what you’re doing is important. You can’t just stay here all the time.”

“I will at some point,” Sokka says, his voice hard. “I’ll work as an ambassador here. You need someone here to stop you from doing something stupid, and having a Water Tribe voice in your meetings would probably be a good idea. I just need to make sure everything will be okay without me. Pretty soon you'll never be able to get rid of me.”

Zuko smiles into the dark and he really wishes he believed Sokka. Truly he does. He wishes that Sokka would never have to leave and he could stay here forever by Zuko’s side. But that was unrealistic. He knew this fragile sense of peace had to shatter at some point. And that was okay. Zuko would be okay.

“We’ll figure it out,” Zuko finally says, just because he knows he needs to say something.

“We’ll figure it out,” Sokka replied, and Zuko closes his eyes and lets the steady beat of Sokka’s heart lure him to sleep.

______________________________

Sokka leaves soon and Zuko tries not to think about how empty his bed feels at night. Mai keeps looking at him with knowing eyes and he just stares right back with raised eyebrows.

He’s really glad that she’s still here. They decided to stay here for a bit longer before going and finding something to do. Suki had suggested the three of them opening up a training center in Caldera for young girls. Women had always fought in the Fire Nation, but Suki wanted to help spread her ideas and methods of self defence to those who were taught that they had to be weak and helpless. Zuko very much liked the idea and told them they had his full support.

Really he was just glad the three of them would be close by at all times.

Toph had taken a week to visit her parents, and he missed her more than he thought he would while she was gone. He hadn’t realized how much he had started to depend on her over the months until she was no longer there. She was back before he knew it, and they spent the next couple of weeks glued to each others side.

She was still terrorizing the rich people in his capital, and he scolded her over it sometimes, but he couldn’t hide his laughter when she told him about how they screamed when she dropped out of nowhere to startle them. She always grinned with pride every time she coaxed a laugh out of him.

Sokka sent letters as much as he could, telling Zuko about the meeting and the efforts to rebuild. Zuko sent letters back updating him on everything that was happening. Katara and Aang often sent letters too, documenting everything no matter how pointless it was. Zuko misses them and finds the bravery to tell them that in a letter. Katara sends him a bracelet she made and he wears it everyday, never once taking it off.

Things have mellowed out to a point that Zuko was able to almost relax. His second year of ruling passes without a hitch and he finally passes the new school curriculum after weeks of going through multiple topics and subjects to find appropriate ones free of any propaganda and teaching the truth behind their Nations history.

Maybe things would be okay.

___________________________

He goes to visit Azula again.

She’s sitting at the same table she always is, and her hair is down for the first time in a long while. It makes her look even younger somehow.

“Hello brother,” She greets like usual, and he smiles softly at her and is surprised when she hesitantly smiles back.

“How are you feeling?” He asks, sitting down and pouring her some tea that she takes without complaint.

“Calmer,” She says, frowning down at the tea. “I never realized how loud my mind was before it stopped yelling at me all the time.”

“I’m glad,” He tells her, and honestly he is.

“Mai came to visit me a while ago,” Azula says, her mouth turning into a frown. “Is it okay that I’m still mad at her?”

“I think you’re obligated to any feelings you have,” He says, sipping on his tea. “It’s okay to be angry, but at some point you have to let that anger go.” Bold words coming from him, especially since he still felt so damn angry all the time.

“It isn’t that easy,” She snaps, before taking a deep breath and sipping her tea. “I’m mad at everything these days. I’m mad at Mai, at Ty Lee. I’m mad at Father, I’m mad at Mother. I’m even mad at you.” She’s silent for a long moment before she speaks again. “I think I’m mostly mad at myself.”

Zuko doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing at all. Instead, he lays his hand palm up on the table. She stares at it for a long moment, her eyes narrowed as if she was trying to tell if this was a joke or a manipulation. Zuko keeps his face neutral.

Eventually, she reached out and grabs his hand, holding it tight enough that he’s sure it will bruise. He doesn’t pull away. They sit in silence for the rest of the meeting. Zuko leaves feeling lighter than he ever has before.

___________________________________

Uncle was back in Ba Sing Sa after Zuko practically dragged him there himself. They promised to write to each other and Zuko swore that he would visit as soon as he could. It was just Toph and him in the palace again, everyone else having moved on to complete everything they needed to again.

Suki visited whenever she wasn’t establishing her training facility, and every time she came around she would challenge him to a spar. It was always a toss up to who won, but it always left Zuko sore and aching for days to come. It was nice to be able to fight without fearing for his life.

Ty Lee and Mai almost always come together, Suki often trailing with them. He’s happy for them all, and he can see the weight lifting off of Mai’s shoulder as time goes on. She is happy, and that’s all he ever wanted for her. He thinks that he might be happy too.

When he tells Mai that she holds him tightly and whispers how proud she was of him, and he holds her back and smiles wider than he has since the war happened.

He visits Azula weekly now, and his sister still sometimes screams and snarls and spits fire, but she’s getting better. He thinks that by this time next year she will be stable enough to be released from the facility. He wonders what it would be like with her in the palace. He wonders if she’ll get along with Toph.

The idea of the two of them working together genuinely terrifies him, so he doesn’t think about it for long. He sends a prayer to Angi for the Nobel’s in his town if Toph and Azula ever decide to band together.

_______________________________________

He spirals again one week, throwing himself so hard into his work that even Toph isn't able to pull him out. He barely sleeps an hour every night, nightmares flashing behind his eyes faster than he can handle. He walks the halls at night like a ghost, his guards following him with worried looks. He can’t do anything to relieve their concern. His cook shoves more food at him and it all tastes like nothing but ash. He snaps at Toph and Mai enough that they both storm out at multiple times, and tears always prick his eyes afterwards.

His scar burns whenever he stares in the mirror and he hates how much he looks like his father. He hopes Ozai is rotting in his grave.

He collapses one day, too tired and stressed to keep functioning. He wakes up in his bed with Toph by his side, clutching onto his hand tightly.

“Don’t do this to me,” She whispers. “Spirts be damned Zuko, let us help.”

He pulls her into bed with him and lets her cry with him. He holds her tighter and promises to do better. She hits him says that he better. She stays with him that night and when he wakes up to the smell of some she is clutching onto his tight enough that he calms within minutes.

He takes the next day off and spends it at the Turtleduck pond with her. He promises not to do this to her again. She nods thankfully and he holds her close.

He tries not to throw himself into his work as hard, letting Toph coax him into an outing to the city and relaxing lunches spent having picnics. Suki comes and forces him to spar with her and he works off all the nervous energy he had saved up.

Somehow they make it work.

 

_________________________________________________

On his nineteenth birthday Sokka sends him a letter saying that he was coming in under a month. Zuko spends the entire time grinning, and Toph herself cheers at the news, holding on tightly to Zuko the entire day and grinning widely.

Uncle comes in from Ba Sing Sa and all his friends in thecity gather together to spend the day. Aang and Katara couldn’t make it, and neither could Sokka, but they all send letters and news of Sokka’s visit is enough to have Zuko’s mood soaring.

Outside in the streets his people celebrate him, music and singing filling every inch of the city. His people grin at him as Ty Lee drags him throughout the city, and he is gifted with blessing after blessing. It’s been over two years since he has been Fire Lord and almost a year since the war ended. His people love him. Zuko loves them back.

He drinks Fire Nation whiskey and pretends not to notice Toph stealing a few sips as well. Suki is drunk beside him and he is more than a little tipsy himself. Honestly Mai is the only sober one, and that’s because she swore of drinking when she was a child after watching her father fall victim to it.

He giggles at every joke and feels so light hearted it almost hurts. Toph is clutching onto him with her head thrown back as she forces him to dance with her. He can’t help but think back to almost a year ago when she first forced him out into a festival, where she made him dance and forget all his worries.

Three guards still tail them all with wary eyes, and every time someone yells too loud near him he flinches, but it’s okay. He thinks he’s okay.

He falls into bed that night and dreams about flashes of fire and the screams of people dying. He wakes up the next day feeling tired and a headache forming behind his eyes, but he can’t bring himself to regret a thing.

_______________________________

The anniversary of the end of the war he wakes up screaming loud enough that the guards burst into his room fearing the worst. Zuko has never been more embarrassed. Toph comes stumbling in minutes later, crawling into bed beside him and holding him tight until he stops sobbing.

Mai comes over as soon as she can. She looks as tired as he feels as he knows she got as much sleep as he did. They spend the day wrapped up tightly as their people celebrate outside. It’s just too much for them to join, too much to deal with at once.

Toph, Suki, and Ty Lee join at some point, all of them squishing together in one big pile on Zuko’s bed until they were a large mess of limbs and nothing else. Mai’s hand never leaves his own and it isn’t a good day, but it could have been a lot worse.

________________________________

Sokka shows up three days earlier than he said he would and Zuko holds him tight when he arrives. Somehow Sokka had changed even more. He was taller, more filled out and mature looking than before. His skin was still dark against Zuko’s own and his hair was down from his usual wolfs tail. He grins and walks with confidence that only is gained through years of evolving and leading ones Nation.

Toph, Sokka and him take the day together to sit in the palace and talk. They share stories and jokes and exist together. They lie on the ground despite there being a table literally a couple feet away and talk about everything and nothing at once.

Later that night Sokka follows him to his room without a word. Zuko had prepared Sokka another room just in case, but a part of him was beyond grateful when Sokka went to Zuko’s room without an ounce of hesitation.

Just like before, they don’t talk about it. They make small talk as they get ready for bed and crawl in beside each other. It has been over half a year since they’ve seen each other and there is so much Zuko wants to say.

I’ve missed you. I thought about you every day. This bed was so cold and lonely without you and standing on the balcony without you beside me feels wrong. Going to meetings without hearing your whispered judgments of various Generals feels wrong. Existing without you feels wrong. I am so happy you’re here. Please never leave.

He says none of it, but he thinks that maybe Sokka knows that already in the way he immediately reaches over and pulls Zuko close. They slot together easily, like their bodies were meant to be like this, were meant to be beside each other.

“Suki said she’d come over tomorrow to see you,” Zuko tells him, filling the silence of the room.

“She’s told me about what her and the girls have done,” Sokka replies back, his voice heavy with sleep. It was probably a long journey out here. “I’m proud of her.”

“I am too,” Zuko says, and he marvels at how warm Sokka is beside him. “They’ve all come a long way.”

“You have too,” Sokak whispers. “You seem happy.”

“I think I might be,” Zuko admits. It isn’t a lie. He reaches out and grabs Sokka’s hand, unable to say anything more. Unable to tell Sokka that he was the reason Zuko felt so happy. That just him being here has made everything seem easier.

He falls asleep easily, and when he trashes in the middle of the night Sokka is there to hold onto him and whisper sleepy reassurances that everything would be okay.

___________________________________________________

Everything settles into a routine and Zuko quite likes it. Sokka is the official Water Tribe Ambassador, which means he is in every single meeting with him. Toph shows up when it suits her, but with Sokka around she feels comfortable enough to go out into town more.

Sokka spends almost every meeting scribbling rushed stick figures of the different people in the room, making it his goal to make Zuko laugh in the middle of one. So far he hasn’t been able to, but he’s come close a few times.

When he’s not doodling he’s easily combating with the nastiest of Zuko’s advisors, battling their judgment with logical points. It’s easy to overlook how brilliant Sokka is, and Zuko finds himself in shock over it somehow. Sokka always catches his eyes and winks after a particularly good point.

Every Wednesday all his friends meet up and venture into town. Sometimes they go for dinner, sometimes they shop, sometimes they wander around aimlessly just talking. Either way, those days are dedicated to all of them, and Katara promised that one day Aang and her would fly down to catch one. Aang has expressed his disappointment that they’re the only ones left out of these get togethers. Zuko points out that he could easily change that by actually visiting once in a while. He has a feeling they will.

Toph forces him to take every weekend off. Sometimes they do something, sometimes they spend the day in. Either way, Zuko isn’t allowed to even touch work at those times. Sometimes he’s able to sneak some paper work in, but Toph always finds out somehow. He thinks that most of the servants are spying on him for her. He doesn’t really mind.

He still has nightmares most nights, and some days he works himself so hard he crashes so hard that Mai comes to scold him and Sokka worries pointlessly and pretends he isn’t. Everything isn’t perfect, and he feels like it never will be. But maybe it’s enough. Maybe he wasn’t meant for perfect, and that was perfectly alright.

___________________________________________

“I think we need to talk about this,” Sokka says late one night while they stand outside on the balcony staring out at the city. Zuko wonders why all their serious conversations take place out here. It’s getting kind of repetitive at this point. Maybe they should start having these conversations at the Turtleduck pond so Zuko can hold them for moral support.

It was the unspoken agreement not to talk about it. Zuko didn’t want to talk about it because that meant things had to change. He didn’t want them to change.

“I can arrange for you to move to another room,” Zuko blurts out, and he can hear Sokka’s confusion already.

“I don’t want to leave you idiot,” Sokka says fondly, and Zuko tried to pretend like he isn’t bright red. “Shit Zuko, why would I leave?”

“I don’t know,” Zuko grumbles. “I panicked and that was the first thing that came to mind. Don’t blindside me like that.”

Sokka laughs, loud and carefree and the sound is the most beautiful thing Zuko has ever heard. He looks over and sees Sokka smiles and thinks that maybe he is the most beautiful thing Zuko has ever seen.

“You know, for one of the most powerful people in the world, you are awfully awkward,” Sokka says, bumping their shoulders together light heartedly.

“I am not!” Zuko protested. “I am intimidating and powerful.”

“You have never been intimidating a day in your life,” Sokka snorts. “Even when actively trying to kill us you were only a mild irritation at most. An angry jerk with a ponytail. I’ve watched you trip over air and then apologize to the air.”

Zuko turns even redder and sputters, unable to form a retort. Sokka laughs even louder and rests his head on his shoulder and Zuko wonders when this all became so easy.

“I like this,” He admits after a moment, closing his eyes and relaxing into Sokka’s side.

“I really like this too,” Sokka whispers back. “I don’t want this to end.”

“Me neither,” Zuko said, and Sokka raises his head to look at Zuko. They sit there for a moment, just looking at each other, unable to say anything. “Please never leave me,” Zuko blurts out, and Sokka’s eyes soften.

“I would never dream of it,” He says, uncharacteristically serious. Sokka’s hand reaches towards him and carefully grabs his cheek, his finger gently rubbing over the edge of his scar. Zuko feels no urge to pull back or shy away. “Can I please kiss you?”

Zuko is the one to lean forwards and slot their lips together, and Zuko would have never wished for anything else. Sokka’s lips are soft and inviting, the slight taste of seal jerky leftover from dinner. His hand is warm on Zuko’s face and Zuko leans closer, soaking in Sokka’s warmth.

They pull apart seconds later, their foreheads resting against each other as the panted for a second, sharing each other's breath. It was a bit gross, but Zuko wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

“Wow,” Sokka says after a moment. “I should have done that a long time ago. Wow.”

Zuko throws back his head and laughs, light and carefree and Sokka grins back at the sound of it.

“Shut up and kiss me again,” Zuko ordered, and Sokka was quick to comply.

___________________________________________________

They walk into lunch the next day holding hands and Toph grins at them and whispers “finally” to herself. Zuko blushes red and Sokka brags loud enough that Zuko has to smack him before he traumatizes one of his poor servants. Toph cackles loudly and congratulates them, winking exaggeratedly when she thinks Zuko isn’t looking.

Zuko ends up storming out with bright red cheeks that stay throughout the day. Sokka is in every meeting, reaching under the table to grab at Zuko’s hand and hold it tight. Many of his advisors grin knowingly at him and he kind of hates it. But not really.

Next Wednesday Suki takes one look at them and is cheering, reaching forwards and grabbing Zuko tight and whispering that he was one lucky man. Zuko wants to murder them all. Mai grins at him in that way of hers that shows how proud she is to see him happy, and Ty Lee squeals and asks for all of the details. Sokka is more than happy to share them.

They spend the entire day with their hands clasped together and Zuko marvels at how well their fingers slot together, how comfortable he feels with Sokka by his side.

When Aang and Katara come down to visit Aang practically jumps with joy at the news, talking about how it was about time the two of them got together and how happy he was that they finally worked things out. Katara gives him the most terrifying smack talk he has ever endured but she also hugs him tightly and welcomes him to the family. Zuko tries not to cry.

Zuko is surrounded by his friends, and he thinks back to the time when he thought that all of them would leave. He thinks back to the time they did, the time he spent tired and along and wishing that days would go by faster so he could pretend like he wasn’t crumbling under the weight of his crown.

But now here he is, in the city that he helped bring peace to, surrounded by people he loved and knowing that none of them were going to leave him anytime soon.

Sokka holds his hand and pulls him close at night, the two of them swaying to the music that fills the streets like usual. Toph is off either having the time of her life or ruining someone’s day, Katara and Aang are close by laughing and dancing and being young and in love. Suki and Mai are off getting them all food and Ty Lee is gleefully talking to one of the young girls she was teaching.

“What are you thinking of?” Sokka asks, pulling Zuko’s attention back to him. Sokka’s hands are warm in his and they sway together easily. Zuko smiles warmly at him, leaning forwards to press a soft kiss to his lips as he marvels that this was all his.

“Just thinking about how lucky I am,” Zuko says honestly. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.”

It was the truth. Sokka grins happily at him and leans forwards to kiss him again, and the two of them sway under the starlight, matching grins firmly in place on their faces.