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what is it that flings these innocent souls at us? (look, they are so exhausted).

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i.


Anger and fire are inherently similar— this is a thing that Zuko learns every day, as he rises and falls. He is seventeen, and he is beginning to realise that he may never fully outgrow the anger that brews beneath the surface.

He may not use it as fuel, but that does not mean it can no longer light a flame— after all, gasoline is not the source of fire, but that doesn’t mean it’s inflammable

And many days, Zuko finds himself wondering if there’s a reason flame and life conjure together in some mortals— he finds himself wondering if there’s a reason he didn’t spark until he was a toddler— if there’s a reason that Agni had forsaken him, from his family, as a child.

Iroh tells him that it was a sign he was to trod a  different path— a better path— a well earned and deserved path. But Zuko knows that everything he’s ever fought for was earned, and never deserved.

Because fire builds upon fire until nothing is left— and even the ashes of a royal are not enough to create a Phoenix— his ashes are nothing, and he is even less.

He is not Aang— he is corruptable, and he has proven that time and time again. His employees never meet his eyes, and he feels like he’s drowning in the palace of memories.

Every room he walks into brings a new burn from somewhere within him, and with every decision he makes— his father and uncle each whisper into his ears.

It’s okay, though he supposed, because his father whispers into the ear he’d mutilated on an Agni Kai platform all those years ago— and it reminds him of the atrocities that he’s committed because of it.

Because every meeting, his advisors wrap their claws around his neck, and more than once a week, he has to lay down on the cool wooden floor of his office, and pray to Agni that no one finds him— that no one sees him for what he truly is.

Because he is a weak, pitiful, child trying to be something he’s not— something he’s incapable of ever becoming. He’s scared they’ll see him unable to be the leader they need.

Because he has grown, and he has seen a world beyond destruction— but that does not erase the things he’s done.

He is not a good person, and every day he breathes— with every inhale and exhale he comes to realise that he is just pretending. He is morphing into something that people will see as good, when in his soul, he is a horrible person, with mouldable morals, and a low tolerance for adversity.

And he thinks, just maybe, that that is the odd thing about himself- that it is an odd homage to humanity. An uncomfortable thing to acknowledge.

It is not until he rules a country, that he realises, that humans all have an affinity for destruction. He realises that it presents itself differently in every host it can find— because the thing about parasites, is that they are nothing without a host. Viruses take differently to every individual they overtake.

Not dissimilar to cells, some self destruct— he self destructs. The raw skin on the inside of his cheeks and surrounding his cuticles is a testament to this— the way his stomach growls, and the way he wakes up wishing he’d never had the chance to— it echos throughout the cavernous halls, and every morning Zuko realises that he is many things.

And human is not one of them— because Zuko is more mistakes than he is man— and he does not deserve the redemption that his friends have given him.

Because Zuko is darkness— just barely getting by disguising himself with a mask of light. Nothing is forever, and even the harshest stones can be eroded by the rain— Zuko is not forever, and the walls he’s built around himself are threatens by rain clouds every day.

Because the darkness is seeping out through the cracks— and Zuko, who only fears enough to convince the world he is more human than he is anxiety, is slipping into the chasm that he teeters precariously over every single day.

Because fire burns until the fuel runs out— and eventually, only embers are left in its wake.

Zuko is seventeen, and he knows that ashes are what lie in wake for him— that the fire has long since burnt out— and he struggles to cling to the ashes that keep him alive.

In a few weeks time, Mai will ask him if he’s okay— if he’s been sleeping, if he is alive— and he will tell her he is fine.

He will let lies swirl around those he loves until he cannot separate truth from reality, and in the end— they will leave him.

In the end, everyone does.

 

ii.


Zuko’s hands are covered in blood, and while this phrase rings loudly in his head with metaphors— the deep crimson smears across his face— the acrid tang of iron fills his nostrils and everything but air fills his lungs.

He’s drowning in doubt, and drowning in regret— because Zuko is seventeen and he’s just killed a man for the first time. Zuko is seventeen and he’s killed hundreds of thousands, and somehow this assassin lies dead beneath his hands and he can’t process the monster he’s become.

He is his father, and he is disgusting— and suddenly he wishes that Azula had killed him in their Agni Kai.

His back is pressed to the wall— and he doesn’t remember scrambling his way over, but he knows he must’ve. He can’t breathe and his brain is buried under fog so thick that he chokes on it— never once processing that it’s not his thoughts that choke him, but the tears that accompany them.

When he comes back to himself, he realises he hadn’t used his fire— but his sword. He is not his father— and as his hand traces the left side of his face, the crusted blood falls to the floor.

He is bleeding, and the world is on fire and he can’t breathe— and he thinks that if Suki doesn’t fine him soon, if no one finds him soon he’ll never breathe again.

Zuko thinks he is bleeding, and there is a body without a soul beside me and he is the culpable one— and the boy who had stared at him with the eyes of an earth bender is dead.

He doesn’t realise that he was nearly assassinated, he does not consider that a member of another nation had tried to assassinate him— he instead thinks, that he has killed another innocent human.

He is not inconsolable, he is irredeemable— and then something deep inside him begins to hope that he does forget how to breathe— that no one ever finds him.

Because if no one finds him, he will never move— and he is skin and bone, and Zuko knows better than anyone that his body can rot just as well as his soul. He knows that his tangible flesh is not far behind, and soon enough he, like a tree, will decompose just as his spirit has.

Zuko is not a saviour— he is the embodiment of his fathers animosity, and the child of his atrocities behind closed doors.

Because Zuko was never human, and he was never fire— Zuko has always been an accident waiting to happen.

And now, an accident has been left behind, and in its wake— blood matts his shirt to his chest, coagulating in a way that makes him reek of despair. In the wake, he prays for the soul of the body before him— he drops his head to his curled knees, and he heaves in and out gasping breaths that make him feel like his lungs have never moved at all.

Because Zuko is sixteen, and he has not known who he is since he was young— and not even then.

He doesn’t hear the door break open, he doesn’t consider that he is worthy of safety as the blood on his hands mingles with the tears he’s sheds— not until crimson streaks onto the dark wood below.

Because he is a killer, and he must suffer the wrath of whatever spirits still watch over him— even if they just wait for him to fuck up.

Because Zuko is a mobile tempest, waiting to destroy everything in his wake— with the thunders of his anger, the storm of his tears, and the flurry of his emotions that follow him like a bloodhound sent from some monotheistic hell.

Familiar hands paw at him, pulling him into their chest as the smell of charred skin fills his nostrils and he screams.

He does not yet realise he’s burned himself and not the body that lies on the floor— he does not yet realise that he punishes himself in the way that he is most familiar with.

He screams until he chokes on the feeling of his raw throat, and he screams until he can only sob into the eucalyptus coloured fabric beneath his head.

He does not see the glances that the Kyoshi Warriors who had teetered on the fence throw to him— like a desperate lifesaver to a drowning man. He does not see Emiko’s face as brine emotion threatens to smudge the white makeup she so carefully traces onto her skin every morning.

He does not realise that this is the moment that he becomes more than a cold-hearted ashmaker to them— he does not realise that the way he reacts is what makes him human.

Just as he cannot hear himself croak out, “I killed him. I killed him. I killed him.” Just as he does not realise that as he becomes human, he also becomes a broken record— he does not realise that he is not perceived in the way he thinks his is.

Suki pulls a soft hand down his back, eyebrows creasing as she struggles to maintain the detached façade of someone who is not watching one of their closest friends fall apart right before their very eyes.

“I know.” She consoles him, squeezing her eyes shut as the eyes of the girls who have to come to know her to be emotionally impervious watch her break along with the boy in her arms. “Oh, Zuko. Fuck. I know. It’s okay.”

He tighten his grip, another body-wracking cri de cœur of a sob managing to claw its way out of his chest. “I can’t stop destroying. I can’t stop. Everything I touch burns to ash.”

“He’s never killed anyone before.” Akemi states suddenly, eyebrows coming together as she looks between the Fire Lord in shambles and the body on the floor. “He’s never— oh. Oh.”

“We need to get this blood off of you.”

But Suki doesn’t move, still holding tight to him as he faces his own fear— he drowns in his own tears with every new breath and Emiko can’t help but think that everything she’d ever thought about him may not be as true as she’d once thought.

It feels like hours before they set into motion— and it very well may have been. The darkness that has fallen over Caldera is replaced with sun, and Zuko is a heavy weight against her shoulder and chest.

Her hands are threading through his raven hair, scratching his scalp in a way that she hopes will keep him in the peaceful reality he faces until they can scrub the blood from the floor.

Sometime later, Daisuke and Aiko approach— their eyes crestfallen as they take in Zuko’s rumpled appearance.

“Is he—“ Aiko takes the inside of his cheek between his molars anxiously as he takes in Zuko’s appearance. Daisuke sucks in a deep breath, pushing on, “is he... should we take him to his quarters, Suki?”

“I...” she trails, pulling back enough to catch a glimpse of the Fire Lord— of Zuko— of her close friend. “Yeah, that might be... yeah. Zuko?”

There’s something so painfully cathartic about the next few moments as he drifts awake— he doesn’t snap himself awake, lost somewhere in a haze as he blinks confusedly at Suki in the first moments of consciousness.

Oh.” he states simply, though his cheeks don’t flush like they normally would had he allowed someone to take care of him for once in his fucking life. “Do you need me to move?” 

There’s something so very wrong with the image laid before her— something so drastically different than the hysteria she’d witnessed the night before.

After a moment, she realises he’s dazed— but even in his disoriented state, he’s put those fortified walls right back up around him.

She realises that even when he is not himself, he never lets anyone close enough to see the person he is consistently trying to become.

He pushes himself back, eyes still swollen and a deep crimson set around them— only overshadowed by the deep crescents of exhaustion beneath.

He rises to his feet, head held high— and its in this moment thay Suki begins to understand why the rest of the world still struggles to believe he’s a better man that his father.

He hides everything until it buries him— and she knows it will bury him in the end. After a look from the others, she realises that they all do.

One step, and he crumples— but Daisuke and Aiko catch him before Suki can fully rise from the floor.

“I’m okay.” His words are confident, but the cracks in his voice betray him— and for the first time, his employees are brave enough to defy him. They are intelligent, and they know enough to recognise that he is worth saving. “I’m— I can do this myself—“

“No, Zuko.” Aiko whispers, unsure of when he decided he was on a first name basis with the ruler of his country— with the Motherfucking Fire Lord. “Just because you can— doesn’t mean you have to— it doesn’t even mean you should.”

“You’ve helped us.” Daisuke adds, as they take slow, deliberate steps together— a regal arm slung heavily over each of their shoulders. “It’s our turn to help you.”

Suki expects him to fight— to run, to yell— she expects Zuko’s anger to burn just as bright as it had when he’d chased them around the world.

There is blood on his clothes, and an empty space where is soul should be— and so he lets these two teenagers guide him to his room, he lets them wash the blood from his hair and from under his nails and he lets them close the curtains and tell him to sleep.

He knows they stay, watching as his eyes flutter open and shut until he can no longer open them— until he can no longer bring himself to look at the world around him.

And as he falls asleep, he wonders if they’ll leave him alone— just as he has been since his friends left— since his family left.

Because everyone always leaves— and if they don’t, he pushes them away. Because he is anger, and he is upset— and fire will burn on fire until there is nothing left.

 

iii.


It is on this day, that he wakes up in a mood he can’t really place. In fact, he knows something is dreadfully, irrevocably wrong. So much so, that he doesn’t leave his bed at dawn— nor does he even begin to consider meditating.

Instead, he stares at the golden canopy that hangs above his bed, and begins to pray to the Gods that he hasn’t believed in since the vision in his left eye was only ever marred by exhaustion.

Sometimes, when he’s lucky, he wakes to find that his days are decent, and most days he wakes to a time where not even the midnight sun of the poles feels like it could pry him from the shade that shrouds him—  that threatens to swallow a him while.

Zuko knows that he is not the boy he was a year ago, a month ago, a week ago— even a day ago. He grows with every step he takes and he clings to the realisation that this is more than his father can say. He clings to this— and prays for the day when he can say he is the man his uncle is— he grapples in know he will never get there.... and sometimes, he hopes he runs out of time before he can begin to regret more than that.

Because he was lucky to be born, and everyday he prays that whatever luck clings to his spirit like an unwanted bruise— every single day, he hopes it finally slips away so he can follow in suit.

He musters the strength to roll— no, for his head to lull towards the wide balcony windows— the one he doesn’t bother locking anymore.

Amber meets gloom in a clashing array, and he realises at once that it is pouring rain outside— he realises that he can hear the rain shaking the castle, and he realises that all of his ministers will cancel on him for the day.

He doesn’t bother getting out of bed, not even when he knows that his guards will begin to worry.

It’s been years since he’s lied in bed— no, a lifetime perhaps. He nearly died the last two times, and he thinks maybe that’s fitting. Maybe it’s fitting that just as the rain begets a new era, he is killed and born again as he lies in bed.

The rain is baptismal, and he craves a new beginning— one that he cannot create for himself.

His thoughts crawl around him, threatening to choke him as he lies there— utterly inconsolable. How does he begin to explain what burdens him to his guards, to his employees, to the people that rely on him? How does he begin to tell them that he is just one man? That the horrors and bloodshed he have seen have finally broken him.

How does he tell them that is a child of Agni, and sometimes it feels like even the spirits have orphaned him? How does he begin to explain that he cannot begin to even consider sharing his burdens with anyone?

Because everyone has left him, and he is alone in this great big palace as his father rots somewhere deep in the dungeons beneath the posts of his bed. Because in time, everyone leaves him and those who don’t die— and now, there’s blood on his hands, and he is left alone long enough to think that maybe, just maybe, the blood on his hands should be his.

Eventually, he rises to his feet— halting in front of the mirror. A man he does not recognize stares back at him— the boyish look gone from his face and in its place, rest hollow cheeks and empty eyes. He is a ghost, and sometimes he thinks that it is a miracle no one has seen him yet.

Zuko has lived so many lives, and often times they’re worst than the last— he dies the first time his father let him know how worthless he was at six, again at eleven— at thirteen, at sixteen— and now, at seventeen he’s starting all over.

He stares at the pale skin of his torso, marred by the ugly crimson scar that beget from his sisters manic ill-will, and traces the curves of his ribs. He follows the troughs and crests, the valleys and peaks until he comes to the conclusion that every piece of his body is a by product of someone’s urge to control him.

He is thin, and he is lithe and broken— but he’s no longer the boy he was im Ba Sing Se. That doesn’t he does not mean he has done anything to deserve a better life than him— because Zuko has always had to struggle and fight.

And that fight with the world, is not mutually exclusive to the fight in his mind— he will earn his right to eat, and sleep, and exist because he is nothing but infinitesimal matter in an endless wasteland.

He breathes fire, but flame burns— and eventually, something has to give. It is better to burn out than to fade, and Zuko is a match— struck at his conception in the chambers of pain and suffering.

“My Lord?” Aiya calls softly, rapping her knuckles softly against the door. “Are you awake?”

Her head pokes through the door, cheeks flushing red when he realises she’s staring at his bare torso— she snaps her eyes shut, out of embarrassment or respect he’s not quite sure.

“I...” his voice breaks from disuse, and he clears his throat, settling on a quiet nod. “Yes.”

“Kaito— well, Lieutenant Jee is in the kitchen. He brought some moon peach danishes from his travels. The recipe was recovered from the Western Air Temple, and Kaito though you may enjoy something to remind you of your friends.”

Aiya still acts timidly around him, as though afraid he’ll snap and morph into his father.

He doesn’t realise he’s just staring at her, his eyebrows furrowed until she calls his attention again. “My Lord, I can always take them back if you— I’m sorry for making an assumption—“

“No, I—“ Zuko finds his voice suddenly, breaking out of his rigid form as he throws a glance at himself in the mirror. He is growing, he is new— and he deserves more than he was given less than two years ago. “Would you like to have one with me? I...”

He hesitates, debating whether he should open up or not— and then Suki pokes her head in the crack in the door, half expecting to see Aiya gawking at how human Zuko looks asleep when she sees the turmoil in his eyes.

“Zuko, what’s going on up there?”

The question is enough to startle his thought out of him— feeling exposed and vulnerable is enough to get him to elaborate. “Would you all— eat with me? I— wouldn’t mind the company.”

It’s not entirely truthful, but it’s enough to get Suki and Emiko to agree. Together, they sit on the floor— trading quiet stories that coerce a quiet, reserved smile from Zuko— and in the end, they begin to realise, unbeknownst to him- that maybe, he just needs a little rain amongst all the sunshine.

After all, too much sunshine— will always cause a drought.

 

iv.


Zuko has screamed himself awake from nightmares since the fall of his father— since the fall of Azula, and since the fall of who he’d been before he taken the right path.

It doesn’t become a problem, until people begin to care about him— because when he was alone, he couldn’t hurt anyone.

Because when he’s lone, no one can become broken in their attempt to help him piece himself together again.

When he is seventeen, he wakes with a scream dying in his throat and with a careful hand pressing against his face.

He wakes to Sokka clutching his arm in his right hand, his left enveloping the right side of his face. The moment amber meets cerulean, he breathes an exhale— tears clinging to his cheeks and hair matted to his face with sweat.

His eyes close again, and for a moment— everything is safe, he is safe, and Sokka—

Is clutching to his arm, and Zuko is reaching out to pry his friend’s protective fingers away.

He knows what he’s done before Sokka can say a word about it.

“Nothing’s there—“

“I burnt you, didn’t I?” He chokes on the words as they come out, and Sokka nods as if it pains him to admit.

The burn isn’t bad— hardly enough to scar, and Zuko has plenty of balm in his nightstand to heal it in a matter of days.

“You were asleep.” Sokka soothes him, watching as Zuko silently smoothed the minty coloured ointment over his seared flesh. “I know you would never do that to me. It’s okay, Zuko.”

The Fire Lord doesn’t say a word, skilfully wrapping the clean cloth around Sokka’s forearm— he’s carefully emotionless, and that’s something that terrifies Sokka.

Because when Zuko is silent, a tempest brews beneath. It brews and builds until it tears Zuko to pieces.

“Zuko—“

“Never wake me again.” He commands simply, and the voice he uses is one Sokka has only ever heard in council meetings of the cruel and undesirable nature. “I don’t care if I’m screaming, or crying— or calling your name. I don’t care if there is an assassin. Never wake me again.”

“Zuko, you didn’t even— the candle on the table was moving with you and I was reaching over it to shake you. It was my fault.”

“I could hurt you.” There’s something more in his tone, and Sokka sighs lying down on the empty space on the other half of Zuko’s bed.

“You wouldn’t though.” Sokka murmurs simply, as of Zuko hadn’t dedicated an entire year of his life to hating Sokka. “Y’know, I think about our first meeting sometimes.”

“The one where I held your grandmother hostage?” Sokka grimaces, and Zuko begins to think he’s won.

“Yeah, that one.” Sokka sighs, and Zuko can feel blue irises burning into the side of his face— but he can’t look at him— not now, maybe not ever again (in true melodramatic style). “You told us that if we gave you Aang, you would leave the South Pole alone. And you did.”

“So?” Zuko isn’t fully following, but he hates when Sokka tries to prove that he’s human— that he is more than fire and flame. That he’s human— he more than just a vessel containing an empty soul.

“Any other Fire Nation solider would’ve burnt us to the ground. Regardless. It would’ve been a lesson.” Sokka sighs, swallowing as he looks back up at the canopy that hovers over the bed. “Iroh told me about your Agni Kai with Zhao once. Zuko, I don’t think you were ever looking for your honour.”

Zuko finally looks at him, “what do you mean?”

“You weren’t looking for your honour,” Sokka repeats, and water quells fire as their eyes meet. He tells him, “you were always trying to do what was right— and some part of you always knew that what was honourable and what was right aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“I hate when you use your stupid fucking brain cells.” He’s mostly joking. Mostly.

“My stupid fucking brain cells know you,” Sokka quips easily, “all three of them. Look at me.”

Zuko slowly returns his eyes to Sokka, who sits up and stares at the former in a way that makes him feel uncomfortably seen. “Iroh is a great guy. He was born into the same family you are. You are more like Iroh than you are anyone else from your family. You are more us than you are Fire Nation, and we know you.”

Zuko can’t find any words speak, and Sokka continues, “you’re the same stupid turtle-duck-fuck who has a stupid sweet tooth, and eats way too much spicy food because you love it. The same idiot who hates his birthday, and who brings new books for Azula to read every Sunday. You’re scared of loud noises and hate the colour red. We know who you are, and we will get to know whoever you continue to become.”

Zuko can’t breathe, and for a long time he can’t think of anything to say— so as Sokka’s breaths even out, he calls, “Sokka?”

“Yeah, shit-face?” Zuko is positive there’s a shit eating grin on the fucker’s face.

“I’m really sorry.”

“I know.” Sokka breathes on a slow exhale, because they both know he’s already forgiven Zuko. “Don’t disappear on me. I’m right here, okay?”

Zuko agrees quietly, and spends the rest of the night staring at the the ceiling as quiet snores lapse beside him like the waves outside.

v.


He spends the last day of his seventeenth year restless and empty, chasing the dreams of moments he’ll never relive— one once that will never fully bring him relief.

He’s spends the last day of his seventeenth year dreads the following day, the meetings that stack and the awkward well wishes that he doesn’t really deserve.

He dreads waking up to an empty room, and an empty palace— he dreads waking up, dreads going through the motions only to repeat them the following day.

But then it happens, he can’t avoid the daybreak just as he can’t avoid the call of sleep any longer— and when Zuko wakes on his eighteenth birthday, he is alone and he is still carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders once again.

He’s just hit another milestone— he’s stayed alive for longer than he was ever meant to— and somehow, he’s still so alone.

Because he does not wake up with his uncle lying across from him on their apartment in Ba Sing Se, nor does he wake to Sokka shaking him awake and changing topics so quickly Zuko gets mild whiplash.

He wakes up at eighteen, and takes a little extra time mediating as a gift to himself— he gets dressed in a simple tunic and slips the pin through his crown.

Because Zuko is eighteen, and nothing is any easier— but he tries, and sometimes, especially on days like to day, that has to be enough.

He glances at the sun dial in the gardens, realising that he still had some free time to spend before his meetings with his hellish council.

He lowers himself beside the turtle-duck ponds, allowing a small runt of a duckling clamber into his palm.

He breathes in, and he breathes out— and he suddenly realises, that for the first time in a long time, he feels like he can breathe.

And then a pair of arms wind around his throat, and Zuko realises that they are not the hands of an assassin, but the ones of a certain seven year old who is absolutely intent on scaring the living daylights out of him.

“Zuzu!” Kai beams, throwing himself into Zuko’s lap, which subsequently makes the bird nip at his friends hands. “Happy Birthday! You’re old as dirt!”

“Kai!” Zuko greets him warmly, a soft smile on his lips. “What are you doing here?”

“Dai said it was your birthday.” He answers easily, as if it were the most obvious thing the the world. “And you sent me a really cool sword for my birthday, so I wanted to give you this.”

Zuko’s brown furrow as he picks up the broken up scroll. He doesn’t even mourn the lost of woodwork at the ends— too caught up in the brightly coloured ink marks that cover the first page.

It first reads, Happy Birthday Zuko!

Then, he unfolds it to appreciate the second page, a quiet snicker tumbling out of his lips when he sees the ink smeared between the pages.

Because inside, is a poorly drawn picture of Zuko and Kai on the day he caught him trying to play with Zuko’s dual dao blades— and it is the most important present Zuko has ever received.

“Thank you so much, Kai,” he mumbles, letting out a grunt when the kid nearly squeezes the air out of his lungs from the force of his hug.

Kai pushes back, searching his face to see if Zuko is just being a nice old person™, or if he genuinely appreciates the kid’s handiwork.

“Did you...” his eyes narrow in suspicion. “Do you like it?”

Zuko does not a miss a single beat, ruffling the child’s hair. “I love it, Kid.”

Because sometimes, it’s the little things that often remind him that fire is light. That remind him that he is a child trying to fill shoes that havent been worn correctly in hundreds of years.

Eventually, Kai finds his way back to Daisuke— and some of the people who pass wish him a happy birthday. He thanks them, trying to pretend like he’s not empty— pretending like he doesn’t wish his family was with him.

Wishing that he wasn’t alone again.

But then his scribe comes, and tells him the meetings have been pushed— he asks if there’s something he should worry about, if anything has happened while he’s taken five minutes to himself.

Because if anything had happened, he knows it’s his fault.

The scribe just sends him a beaming smile, shaking her head with a knowing look that Zuko doesn’t really like.

And for a moment, everything is scary.

And then, Sokka is sitting beside him— then Toph, Kiyi, Aang, Katara, Ty Lee, and Suki— and then, Iroh sets a plate of ash banana pancakes in front of him.

He is eighteen, and he hasn’t slept properly in weeks, and he is trapped in a constant war with his council, with his nation, with the world.

But for the first time in a year, his family sits with him— and for the first time in a long time, he thinks he’s not so alone.

He waits for the day they’ll leave him— but for now they’ve come back, and they’ll stay— and maybe, that’s enough for now.