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the firebender’s guide to living life after destiny

Chapter Text

Iroh: Someone new must take the throne. An idealist with a pure heart and unquestionable honour. It has to be you, Prince Zuko.

Zuko: Unquestionable honour? But I've made so many mistakes.

Iroh: Yes, you have. You've struggled; you've suffered, but you have always followed your own path. You restored your own honour, and only you can restore the honour of the Fire Nation.

("Sozin's Comet, Part 2: The Old Masters". Book 3, Episode 19 )


 

 

A year after his diplomatic visit to the actual South Pole, Zuko readied himself to watch a badly-recreated version of the place for the next three hours. Fully capitalising on the new craze for exotic romances sweeping the Fire Nation after the war, the Ember Island Theatre was entering its third month of sold out performances of The Melting of Spring Snow: Or, the Amatory Tale of Neho the Barbarian Waterbender. 

Zuko looked at the play’s programme in his hand. There was a drawing of the moon and sun, and in front, a large, barrel-chest man in striped face paint clutching a voluptuous Fire Nation maiden to his side. For a play set in the Arctic, both were wearing surprisingly skimpy clothing -- the fur tunic on Neho the Barbarian Waterbender had its sleeves cut off, for some reason. 

He crumpled up the paper and lit it on fire inside his fist. By Agni, he wished the evening was over already. He couldn’t see how things could get any worse. 

“Fire Lord Zuko, you must take the issue of marriage more seriously as a ruler,” said the lord sitting next to Zuko.

Zuko made a noncommittal noise. He was saved from answering by the lights dimming, and the fiddlers and tsungi horn players in the orchestra pit striking up the first notes of the opera’s overture. Zuko was no fan of The Melting of Spring Snow, but he would prefer to watch badgerfrogs mating rather than have this conversation with Lord Qyu.

As the expectant hush fell over the audience, he stared at the red curtains and put on his best I’m just a dutiful Fire Lord obeying theatre etiquette expression. It didn’t work.

The man, Lord Qyu, went on talking. “My daughter, Lady Kizia, had recently graduated from the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Her looks are nothing special, but she is an accomplished firebender and a dutiful daughter. Quite clever too, which I’m told appeals to some men. Perhaps you could meet her some time and impart some wisdom about firebending?”

“Mhmm,” said Zuko. It wasn’t the first or even tenth time that a noble family had pushed their eligible daughter in front of him, but usually they made their requests through the court matchmakers. Without the buffer of a matchmaker handling rejections, it left Zuko in a tricky spot -- if he rejected Qyu’s daughter to his face, it could be taken as a sign of disrespect for the whole family.

Zuko’s new policies as part of the Harmony Restoration Project were controversial enough without alienating one of the most powerful lords in his cabinet. Qyu held jurisdiction over the largest and most fertile prefectures in the southern island chain. His family was one of the Fire Nation’s richest clans after the royal line itself.

“A match with Kizia would do very well politically,” said Qyu. “You have many enemies at court, Fire Lord Zuko. A match made with the ancient lineage of Qyu would assure them that you have not strayed too far from the honourable past of our ancestors.”

Zuko gritted his teeth and stared pointedly ahead at the stage, wishing he could shove Qyu out of the royal box and be done with it. But Zuko was the supreme ruler in name only; in practice, his every decision is filtered through the cabinet, composed of the lords and ministers who in turn control local and prefectural governments. Technically, the lords have a place due to their noble birth and the ministers were appointed by a written civil service exam open to all citizens. But despite the nod at meritocracy, the upper crust stuck together like burnt rice to a pan. Everyone knew each other, or else was someone else’s sister’s cousin’s friend’s drinking buddy. Court was one big, interbred, aristocratic cesspool, and Zuko got to sit at the head and soak in the fumes.

Then again, Zuko couldn’t complain. It wasn’t like he passed a test to be born a prince.

Enemies at court . Like Qyu himself wasn’t one of the loudest proponents against Zuko’s new reparation treaties.

“Ah, The Melting of Spring Snow, ” Qyu said, then grunted. “I can’t say that I enjoy this new cultural appetite for exoticism. All these painted barbarians kidnapping maidens are unwholesome.”

He would die rather than admit it, but Zuko agreed. He had the misfortune of seeing The Melting of Spring Snow: Or, the Amatory Tale of Neho the Barbarian Waterbender at its premiere, when the troupe took it to the palace as a special presentation for the court. Zuko had white-knuckled it through the first half, but around the seventh time the lead actor playing Neho ripped off his fur cape to sing about the moon, Zuko flung the customary actors’ tip in a box, made up an excuse about urgent tax documents, and escaped.

He was clearly alone in his opinion, because the rest of the royal box was enraptured. “My cousin wrote me about this play,” murmured one of the agricultural ministers from Ba Sing Se. “She said the ending made her sob for weeks.”

His companion, an Earth admiral with biceps the size of Zuko’s head, shushed her. “Quiet, I don’t want to miss the prologue. My lieutenant told me that’s when the chorus sings about all the tragic details about Neho’s dead parents in the South Pole. It’s the key to understanding the play’s deeper themes.”

Zuko swallowed a sigh. The minister and the admiral were part of an entire retinue of Earth Kingdom delegates on a diplomatic visit to the palace in Caldera. For the past two weeks they had negotiated trade and reparations agreements, and with still a week left to go both sides were desperate to let off steam. Li and Lo, the elderly advisors Zuko had sort of inherited from his father’s reign, suggested decamping to Ember Island for a few days as a sort of mid-conference holiday, since it spanned the day of the summer solstice anyways.

They called it a “cross-national cultural exchange”. Zuko thought it was a waste of time, but there was no use arguing with two elderly ladies who’ve known him since he was in bowl cuts and padded pants.

If only Zuko had known the festivities included a performance of The Melting of Spring Snow – which he’d have to watch while seated next to Lord Qyu, no less -- he would have argued harder.

Part of it was his own fault. To make space for the whole Earth Kingdom retinue as well as his own cabinet, Zuko had told the theatre manager to dismantle the special golden chaise designated for the Fire Lord and put in an extra row of seats, where Zuko can just sit like a normal person. A normal person being hounded by an odious little toad, that is. Zuko almost wished he had the chaise lounge back. Too bad it was a gaudy eyesore from Azulon’s time and, frankly, did murder on Zuko’s lower back.

On stage, Neho the Barbarian Waterbender paddled his fishing boat through the icy seas. Shimmering tones of blue and green bathed the stage, the work of the firebenders hidden offstage, who were manipulating flames over pots of colouring chemicals.

“It’s foolish romanticism,” said Qyu, glowering down at the spectacle as others ooh-ed and ahh-ed. “Any woman who wanders into tribal territories would be lucky to escape with her life. My father had once led raids on the Northern tribes. He said he admired their ferocity in battle, but the people there are foolish and superstitious to the extreme. They think the moon is a fish, and they worship that fish as their god.”

That was pretty rich coming from Qyu, who once cancelled a council meeting because the Fire Sage’s almanac said it was an inauspicious day for gatherings. Zuko made another non-committal sound.

On stage, Neho the Barbarian Waterbender was ripping off the first of many fur tunics.

Zuko had seen the occasional waterbender walking around Caldera’s harbours and the palace city, distinct in their blue and white attire. Most of them were sailors stopping for supplies, or else healers visiting the royal medical college, or engineers working on the new hydraulic projects. He wondered if any of them had ever seen The Melting of Spring Snow . He hoped not.

“Young people need a touch of the romantic, don’t they?” said Qyu. And then, with what must be the worst segue in the world, he said, “If this drivel is correct about anything, it’s that romance can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you were to meet my daughter Kizia –”

Just when Zuko was seriously considering throwing himself out of the theatre box to end it all, he was saved by a hand descending from the darkness to tap Qyu on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” said a cheerful voice, managing to be very loud while still being technically in a whisper. “But my boat to Ember Island got delayed. The theatre attendants let me in, but I missed saying hi to the Fire Lord before the show started. Do you mind?”

“I do mind,” blustered Qyu. “Who do you think you are to interrupt us?”

“No one, really – I’m just the newest ambassador from the Southern Water Tribe. You can call me Sokka, but I’ll answer to Captain Boomerang or even ‘ponytail guy’ if that’s what you prefer.”

“Let him sit, Lord Qyu,” Zuko said, speaking out loud for the first time since the play started. “Ambassador Sokka must have travelled a long way, he’s only eager to pay his proper respects.”

Qyu transferred his glower from the stage to Sokka, upon whom it slid off like water off a turtleduck’s back.

“You heard his fiery majesty,” Sokka said, and made a cutting motion with his hand. “Chop chop, out of the seat.”

There was nothing Qyu could do when faced with that sort of direct order from Zuko. He fumbled out of the seat and gave a bow to Zuko, pointedly ignoring Sokka, and then vanished out the door of the theatre box.

Sokka plopped down in his vacated seat. Zuko reached over and clasped Sokka’s arm in a silent greeting, in the manner of the Water Tribes. Leaning close, Sokka smelled like a boat journey – all salt and wet leather. His hand lingered for a fraction of a second on Zuko’s arm, as if unsure of something, but then he grabbed back and gave Zuko a grin.

“It’s good to see you,” he said to Zuko.

In response, Zuko swept his right hand and heated the air around Sokka, drying the water from his sodden tunic and boots in a puff of steam.

Sokka snuggled into his dry clothes and smiled again. But underneath his sunny expression he looked worn from travel; the coloured lights from the stage illuminated the stubble on his chin and the dark smudges under his eyes.

“So, how’ve you been? It seems like decades since I’ve seen your angry little jerkbending face in person.”

“It’s only been a year and a half since I last visited the Southern Water Tribe,” said Zuko as casually as he could manage. He looked at Sokka, to see if there was any reaction, but Sokka was already transfixed by the stage.

The gist of The Melting of Spring Snow , as Zuko had grasped it, was this: a fisherman’s daughter is swept out to sea in a storm, and when she washes up on shore she’s found and held hostage by Neho the Barbarian Waterbender, who for some reason went around everywhere with a full face of war paint. Against all odds, she develops an irresistible attraction for her captor. Sprinkled in between was a lot of singing about fire and ice and how opposites attract.

On stage, the female lead was hurling herself at her lover’s feet, her well-endowed chest heaving underneath an elaborate bodice that Zuko doubted any real fisherman’s daughter could afford.

“Alas my love, I cannot accept this betrothal necklace. The irreparable chasm of our two disparate nations is too much to cross,” she wailed, one hand pressed to her cheek and the other one thrusting a glinting pendant back at her lover. “If only the shadows of the past were not cast across the present!”

“We don’t really use betrothal necklaces,” Sokka said. “That’s a northern thing.”

No one else cared. The woman sang an aria about her sadness. It went on for a long time, and rhymed ‘fire’ with ‘desire’ more times than Zuko thought possible.

The theatre burst into applause. The Earth Kingdom admiral with the biceps took out a handkerchief the size of a bedsheet and blew his nose, honking loudly like a goosepig. His companion was fanning herself wildly, muttering, “What a masterpiece – a masterpiece.”

Zuko and Sokka exchanged looks.

“There really is no accounting for taste, is there?” Zuko mused.

Sokka looked horrified and fascinated in equal measure. “I dunno, I’m weirdly invested in what happens next. I wonder if she’s going to stay with Neho, or if all that ‘shadows of the past’ stuff too much to overcome? What do you think?”

“I think I hate theatre,” said Zuko.

On stage, to more rapturous applause, there was the sound of another unfortunate fur tunic meeting its tattered demise.

*

When the blessed intermission finally came, Zuko stretched out his legs and signalled to one of the servants for refreshments. Sokka had liked the gummies and fire flakes here, he remembered, but they’ve come a long way from being on-the-run teenage rebels sneaking into the nosebleed seats of the Ember Island Theatre. Zuko wanted to introduce Sokka to the finer cuisine that the Fire Nation could provide.

Around them, the rest of the nobles and ministers were getting up to chat and swipe cups of coconut water and lychee wine off the servants’ trays. There was a lot of whispering, no doubt about Sokka’s arrival.

“I thought you weren’t going to arrive until next week,” Zuko said, after asking for a variety of snacks to show Sokka. At this time of the year, the winds were against ships crossing from the south.

“Bato’s an old seaman who always assumes the worst,” said Sokka -- Bato was the Southern tribe ambassador before Sokka. “We reached the main harbour this morning, and when I heard you were over at Ember Island entertaining a bunch of delegates I thought, why not? Might as well start my official duties with a beach vacation.”

The servant came back with a tray of small bowls. Sokka poked at one of them. “What’s this?”

“Shaved ice with sour plum syrup,” said Zuko. “And roasted sweet beans.”

“Why is it…gluey?”

“That’s the processed seaweed mixed into the ice.”

Sokka poked something else. “And what’s this?”

“Watermelon.”

“But what’s the stuff on top?”

“A chili and salt spice mix.”

Sokka picked up a watermelon cube with his fingers and gave it a lick, a flash of pink tongue darting out. He then dunked it in a cup of coconut juice, rinsing off the spices, and then popped it into his mouth. “Not bad,” he said, and chased it with another one.

“Don’t touch it with your hands,” said Zuko. “Use the utensils before someone notices.”

Sokka picked up a single slim chopstick and used it like a skewer to stab at another piece of watermelon. He ignored Zuko’s sigh. “Dad says hi, by the way. Katara sends her love, but also she reminded me to remind you about replying to her proposal for new environment regulations. And also, our ship stopped by Kyoshi Island on the way here. Suki says hi, and says you should take care of yourself now that you’re bodyguard-less. Oh, and Mai and Ty Lee want to know when you’ll come and visit.”

There were places in the world Zuko preferred to visit over the island where his ex-girlfriend and her current girlfriend lived -- an island whose village he also happened to burn down back when he was a maladjusted fifteen-year-old. He would prefer to jump into the mouth of an active volcano, for one.

Sokka, in a rare show of tact, changed the topic. “So who was the guy I scared off?”

“Lord Qyu,” said Zuko. “And you shouldn’t have done that, by the way.”

“Why?”

“He’s a powerful lord, and you’ve essentially insulted him by making him move his seat.”

“So?”

“So, you’re meant to be representing the Southern Water Tribe. You can’t offend a Fire Nation lord like that. What if you need to negotiate some agreement one day, and he has the deciding vote in the council room? What will you do then?”

“But you’re the Fire Lord. Couldn’t you just -- ” Sokka wiggled his fingers. “Do a little flaming whoosh-whoosh action and make him do what you want?”

Sokka had visited Caldera before, but usually while tagging along with Aang or Toph. Zuko forgot that he had never experienced court life before, not really.

“If you’re talking about threatening him with firebending, then no,” said Zuko. “One of the most important laws of palace decorum is that no noble can lift a hand against the other except in self-defense, or during an Agni Kai.”

“I mean something more like, just telling him to stuff his marriage talk where it belongs. You’re the Fire Lord.”

“You overheard that?”

“He was very loud,” said Sokka. “And you should lighten up a little. How can you be a good little autocrat if you’re always worried about doing something wrong? “

Zuko sighed and stared at the empty stage. Some days it felt like he was always doing something wrong.

“You being the Fire Lord isn’t as fun as I imagined it would be,” Sokka informed him. 

“I should have stayed in Ba Sing Se,” Zuko muttered under his breath. He had only ever held two jobs in his life, and he was starting to wonder if being a tea server wasn’t the better option.

Sokka didn’t hear him. “I’m getting more watermelon,” he said, looking around for the servants. “Maybe if I ask nicely, they’ll give me some without the spices on them. No one needs to put this much ash pepper on everything. Seriously -- you guys have a problem."

After Sokka got up and left, Zuko forced himself up too for a round of obligatory mingling. A few people came by to speak with him, either small talk about the weather or minor affairs of state that apparently could not wait until tomorrow.

When he did see Sokka again, Sokka was leaning against the back wall, chatting with a ring of the Earth Kingdom ministers around him, something about the new air balloon coming out of the Northern Air Temple workshops. Zuko wasn’t the only one looking, he noted. There was no shortage of glances aimed Sokka’s way: a few disapproving, but also a few that were openly curious, even flirtatious.

There were a few whispered comments, “I heard he challenged Qyu to a waterbending duel when he walked in.” “He’s not as muscular as you’d expect compared to Neho, don’t you think?” “If he’s from the Water Tribes, then where’s his face paint?”

It didn’t help the whispering when, halfway through saying something about combustion rates and nacelle systems, Sokka took off the ties of his wolf-tail and shook out his hair, letting it fall loose on his shoulders in a mass of dark hair and beads.

The Earth Kingdom ministers didn’t react, but a few of the Fire Nation delegates nearby flushed and looked away. It was Zuko’s fault. He should have warned him that loosening one’s hair in front of people who were not family or close friends was considered a great social taboo in the Fire Nation upper classes.

Sokka combed his hair back with his fingers and tied it off again, oblivious to their attention.

“Fire Lord Zuko?” said the agricultural minister who was still speaking to him, something about grain taxes, Zuko scrambled to recall.

“Yes,” Zuko said, “I agree. The barley tariffs for Omashu are too low, but in the long run the increased trade will pay off –”

“Your majesty, I was talking about the rice quotas for Ba Sing Se,” said the agricultural minister.

“Ah,” responded Zuko intelligently. “Yes.”

The minister followed Zuko’s gaze over his shoulder, to where Sokka had just challenged the Earth admiral in a game of ‘Who can fit the most rice cakes in their mouth’.

“The arrival of the new ambassador foretells interesting times ahead of us,” said a sour voice to one side – Lord Qyu, looking as irritated as ever.

As if on cue, the admiral turned purple. It seemed that a rice cake had gone down the wrong way. Sokka was trying to dislodge it; he wrapped his arms around the man’s rib cage and pressed hard above his navel. A sticky glob flew out of the man’s windpipe, heading straight towards Qyu’s head. Zuko took a step and swept an arm out, vaporising the glob in a fireball before it could cause an international incident.

“Oops,” said Sokka. “Sorry.”

In the ensuing stunned silence, the cake’s ghostly remains fluttered down on the carpet as a drift of powdery ash.

“Interesting times indeed,” Zuko said wryly. “I’m looking forward to it.”

*

The next day’s evening, after he had returned to the royal palace, Zuko knelt at his desk and went through the correspondence he missed while he was away.

He began with the official ones first: shipping reports; fishery reports; a copy of the new seditious pamphlet from the New Ozai Society (for some reason depicting Zuko with two burn scars, one across each eye. Zuko thought it made him look like an angry panda); a request from a court matchmaker to grant her an audience to choose the new Fire Lady; a note from Li and Lo asking Zuko to please stop ignoring the court matchmakers asking him about the new Fire Lady; complaints that the reparations were too much (from Qyu and his supporters); complaints that the reparations were not enough (from the rest of the world); and also, the far-southern pagoda needed a new roof, the cost of which Zuko felt should be enough to buy a new pagoda entirely. 

There was also a note from the Great Sage, some concern about the catacombs under the temple. Zuko put it aside hurriedly; he'd deal with that — some other time.

He rubbed his temple. A tutor once told him and Azula that being the Fire Lord was the human manifestation of the divine power running through their bloodline. It seemed very impressive at the time.

In reality, it mostly reminded Zuko of the rush hour shift at the tea shop, back in Ba Sing Se. You had one customer who wants ginseng but not too strong, his friend who wanted jasmine but without any stems, another couple two tables over who wanted their tea served hotter but not too hot, and at the same time a baby had knocked over a teapot and his mother expected you to mop it up right away before her darling child could get scalded. It was all just -- putting out one fire after the other, while quite a lot of people shouted at you. 

Zuko ground his inkstone, dipped his brush in the bowl of ink, and faced his true destiny in the exciting world of bureaucracy.

Outside, the chirping of the evening crickets echoed against the garden walls, an odd simulation of Ba Sing Se’s din. A breeze brought in the scent of the fig trees by his window: all milk-sweetness and dark green pungency. 

Zuko breathed in. He should learn how to be grateful for the small things in life, like Uncle Iroh always said. Ruling was stressful and difficult, but at least no one expected the Fire Lord to clean up after a baby.

After the stack of official correspondence was finished, sealed, and stacked for an attendant to pick up tomorrow, Zuko refilled his lantern and turned to the second, much smaller stack on his desk -- his private correspondence.

The first one: “ To his Majesty Fire Lord Zuko, Ruler of the Fire Nation, descendant of the first Fire Sages and my good Sifu Hotman –”

Zuko rolled his eyes.

“Hope you are well and not assassinated, etc. Sokka should have arrived by the time this letter reaches you, but I told him not to spoil anything before I told you. Big news: Katara and I are ENGAGED” – the word was underlined three times – “ and we are planning the wedding for next autumn. Official invitation with details to follow of course, I asked Katara for a penguin-sledding contest to see who gets to write first, but she just said I could do it. Reconstruction at the Southern Air Temple is going well; Katara says whale hunting this year is going well and her new class this year has a surprising number of non-idiots (she’s joking of course, my BETROTHED loves all her students). We hope to swing by on Appa someday and see how Sokka is settling in. Tell us if you heard from Toph! Much love, hugs, and may the cosmic energy of the universe illuminate to us all that the greatest illusion is the illusion of separation, AANG (ie. the Avatar).”

Zuko put it down. Toph updated her friends by choosing one of them at random every month and sending them a note with details of her activities, all of them worrying at best and flagrantly illegal at worst. She relied on the rest of them to then pass on the message between themselves. Toph claimed it was because finding a scribe to transcribe every letter was too much of a security risk, but Zuko suspected it was so the rest of them could never coordinate themselves in time to stop her.

Aang is engaged now. Five years after Sozin’s comet, and a part of Zuko still thought of him as the twelve-year-old child he was when they first met. Well -- met and then tried to kidnap. Aang and Katara’s betrothal was a long-time coming, and their long and happy marriage was as inevitable as summer following spring, but it still came as a shock to learn that someone you still thought of as a child would be getting married.

By Agni, did everyone have their love lives together except for Zuko?

He picked up his brush to write a response, but gave up after a few attempts. He put the letter aside; he’ll draft the correct congratulatory letter tomorrow and send it out on the fastest messenger hawk.

Zuko cracked the seal of the second scroll:  My darling Zuko, Azula and I both give you our thanks for the team of gardeners and engineers you’ve sent us from Caldera. They have done wonders restoring the fountain of the old house, and a new flock of turtleducks have taken home in the ponds. I wish you would come to Crescent Island to see your mother and sister in person, or at least write us a line in your own hand, Azula wouldn’t say so, but I’m sure she misses you –"

He rolled up the scroll and resisted the familiar urge to set it on fire.

Letters from Ursa always inspired the same mix of resentment and nauseating guilt. Zuko didn’t want to write back and he didn’t want to visit. He couldn’t do it.

He stared outside his window, at the swaying movements of the fig trees in the darkness. To have grown up with a mother who had vanished, or, in Zuko’s more fervent imaginings, who had sacrificed her life to save your own – that was one thing. There was solace in that, a kind of grand tragedy. But to have found out that she had been alive all this time and busy chasing the arts career she always wished she had – Zuko found it inhuman.

He had imagined his mother’s fate a million ways, nearly all of them sinister and torturous. He had pictured her suffering. He pictured his mother behind the iron bars of a dark cell in a lonely island, waiting for Zuko to rescue her from her imprisonment. He had imagined a grand, tragic story.  

But reality, unlike stories, could be quite unromantic. Her story had not been a tragedy at all. In fact, it was almost funny -- like a masked comedy, full of comedic moments based on mistaken identities. It was Zuko who had been mistaken. The joke was on him.

When Zuko did find her – alive, quite well, fresh off the starring role of Love Amongst the Dragons – his romantic notions had snuffed out like a candle. He wanted the iron bars and the dark cell back; he needed them to stand as a barrier between him and the truth, that his mother was not imprisoned. She had just chosen to forget.

She came back, of course, once Zuko and his friends found her in Hira’a, and she changed roles into Ursa again. A few years ago she did a nice monologue about repentance and vowed to spend the rest of her days helping Azula, whose character she re-visited and proclaimed to be poor and neglected and sympathetic after all. She had moved with Azula to a lonely island, where she imagined that Zuko would visit and mend bridges. She wanted Zuko to play a part in her big happy family again. It had been a beautiful speech and a beautiful sentiment, but Zuko thought it was too little and too late. He wished for his old story back.

The hour was late; Zuko should be going to bed, but instead he opened the third and final message. This one was a little piece of paper folded against itself and sealed with the familiar ocean wave motif of the Water Tribes. At court, the foreign ambassadors used their nation’s symbol as insignia, with some added minor variation as a personal signature.

This one had a sharp angle underneath the circle. It could be the gable end of a roof, or the flight pattern of a skein of wild geese. Or, most likely, a little boomerang.

Zuko wasn’t sure why a message with an official seal was put in his personal messages, unless it had been hand-delivered to his study earlier in the day. For some reason, the thought made a warm feeling spread through his chest, like he just ate a handful of hot flakes too quickly.

“Settling in nicely,” ran the note. There was no greeting. The calligraphy was untrained, but the handwriting was boldly shaped, each stroke steady and sure. “Food’s actually not too spicy. Would be better if you lot weren’t all awake at dawn and disturbing my beauty sleep, but I’m learning to deal with it. Got a letter from Toph earlier, guess I’m the honoured recipient this time. She picked up another metalbending student. Did you receive a letter from Aang and Katara yet? Big surprise coming your way” – It was followed by a mess of squiggles that could just be two stick figures kissing – “Crazy kids today grow up so fast. Am I the only one who feels ancient and boring now? Please come commiserate as soon as possible, that is, if your royal fire business doesn't take up too much time. Sokka.”

The warm swell of affection in Zuko’s chest spread outwards, like a little candle being lit against the darkness. How could he have nearly forgotten? He already had the family he wanted.