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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.

Chapter Text

 

On the last full day of the negotiations, the thought of a day’s rest was all that was sustaining Zuko as the meeting dragged on in the long hours of the afternoon. According to the official schedule, there would be a banquet once the documents had been signed and sealed. Then the delegates would get one day’s reprieve before the official ball the next night, and then the diplomatic visit would finally - finally – be over. Zuko was counting down the seconds.

The afternoon meeting was for war reparations. The Earth delegation was there, as well as nearly all the Fire Nation’s lords and ministers. The body of the reparation fund came from Zuko’s new taxes, which made it into an issue where everyone seemed to think they deserved a say.

Zuko hated reparations negotiations. Not because of what they accomplished, but because they always exposed the worst of human behaviour. Grown men and women became selfish children when they had to give up part of their wealth. Scholars and generals alike had quarrelled with Zuko and his advisors, arguing that the Fire Nation had actually brought order and prosperity to its colonies. By their logic, the Fire Nation had removed bandits, struck new coal mines, and brought a system of modern law and peacekeeping into areas that had been long stricken by warring tribes. The implication was that if anything, other nations should be thanking them for spreading Fire Nation civilization to the rest of the world.

Zuko usually finished those meetings with a formal thank you to the minister for bringing such matters to his attention, and then going out to the sparring grounds to set as many things on fire as possible.

Today, the reparations council was going through a list of coastal towns that had been marked out for additional steel and money shipments, cross-checking the names and amounts against both sides’ own lists before readying the orders for the official signatures.

One of the Earth ministers was reading out loud: “Four mid-sized Capsizer vessels to travel to the northwest region,” he intoned in a dry voice. “Carrying one hundred tons each refined steel and two teams of royal steam engineers for the reconstruction efforts, to return after the harvest period with dry bulk grains and coal purchased by the Fire Merchants’ trade at the favourable price of twenty copper pieces per –”

It was important information, but undeniably tedious, and Zuko could feel the beginning of a migraine building behind his left eye. He rubbed his temple, hoping that no one was paying attention to his small act of weakness.

The man was still speaking. “In addition to the towns we have originally agreed on, after much consideration the Earth Kingdom delegation are also putting forward the townships of the Kolau Mountains as another candidate for reparation payments.”

Zuko stopped rubbing his temple and straightened up. They were asking for last minute changes. He hated last minute changes. Everyone hated last minute changes.

“May you elaborate on the reason for putting forward the Kolau Mountains?” asked Zuko. “I don’t recall seeing it before.”

An Earth Kingdom minister stood up -- her name was Luan, Zuko remembered. Her voice was as high-pitched as a little girl’s. “Fire Lord Zuko, we ask for payments for the Kolau Mountains because eighty years years ago, before the Avatar’s return, a group of Fire Nation soldiers had marched in and razed entire villages to seize control of its iron ore deposits. The survivors fled and joined villages in the surrounding area, and only now in peacetime have they organised themselves to make demands. I only received their letter  yesterday. They say since the ore has been mined to depletion, they ask for repayments in gold and silver pieces to compensate for losing their homes.”

“Excuse me,” said a new voice. It was Qyu. “You say that the survivors fled eighty years ago. Those were the crimes of our grandfathers, who are dead now. It’s one thing to compensate people who have lost parents or children in the war, but why should we pay people we’ve never seen, for the lives of a few poor, squabbling mountain peasants eighty years ago? Their bones and ashes have long been scattered to the four winds.”  

In Ozai’s time, Qyu had been just another provincial noble, loathsome and imperious to people below him, but still toeing the line in fear of the Fire Lord’s retribution. But since Zuko has taken the throne, Qyu has grown bolder, more openly critical of Zuko’s reforms. People called Qyu a staunch remnant of the good old days. Zuko called him -- in the privacy of his own mind -- a pain in the neck.

“Lord Qyu,” said Zuko quietly. “Do not speak ill of the dead.”

Qyu was too well-bred to spit on the ground, but Zuko thought he would have if he could. His thick, heavyset features were locked in an even more intense form of his usual glower.

“I question if your displays of meaningless charity to the other nations is to our best interests, Fire Lord Zuko,” said Qyu. His gold eyes were two burning pits when he looked into Zuko’s. “I wonder if you are  forgetting that your duty lies first and foremost to your own people.”

There was a silence. Some of Zuko’s ministers, who had been nodding approvingly at the speech until the last line, froze and sat still; others had their mouths open at the extraordinary display of insolence. On the other side of the council table, the Earth ministers sat, stony-faced. They were all waiting for Zuko to say something.

Zuko felt the familiar spark of anger threatening to ignite him like an oil-soaked rag. He tried to focus on his breath moving in and out his nose, the way Iroh had taught him. He couldn’t rebuke Qyu publicly – it might signal that the Fire Lord had no control over his own government. He couldn’t say something vague or appeasing, or the Earth ministers might walk away from such a show of disrespect. What could he do?

When he had himself under control, Zuko stood up from his kneeling position. “Thank you for your input, Lord Qyu,” he said. He did not raise his voice.

Only a child or a tyrant tries to make others listen , his uncle had told him once. A wise man knows they will.

“I remember visiting the Qyu’s manor house as a child, before my father was named the crown prince. You have a beautiful home -- built by your grandfather, as I recall, using marble mined near Taku. It was mined by earthbenders kidnapped from their home villages and put into work camps, ran by Fire Nation military.”

Zuko turned to address the room. “So much of our wealth came from other nations: even the gold in this very throne room was originally from the Earth Kingdom. When we give the wealth back, these are not acts of charity. As the Fire Lord, I’m putting my people first by considering our honour. While it seems a great sacrifice, I would ask you all to consider our reparations as the honouring of a debt.”

Zuko kneeled back down. He was breathing hard; his head throbbed. The room burst out in frantic whispering, good or bad he wasn’t sure. He had made the same arguments a thousand times before to most of them already, though never to this impassioned degree.

Luan looked unmoved. She was a thin woman with pale, watery eyes that darted about the room; she wore a thick robe sewn over with jade beads and seed pearls despite the heat, and when she moved her head the loops of her heavy gold earrings clacked against each other.

“Fire Lord, thank you for your speech. Are you stating that the payments are your duty? Would you take responsibility for your people?

“Yes,” said Zuko after a pause.

“Then on behalf of the Earth Kingdom, I demand both the payment for Kolau and a doubled amount of steel shipments to the rest of the villages, to compensate for the insult to the dead made by Lord Qyu.” Her watery eyes met Zuko’s. “We shall count it against your honour as the leader of the Fire Nation.”

When she sat down, a brief smattering of applause broke out among the rest of her delegation. “Hear, hear,” muttered a few out loud. The rest were still tense and brooding. The admiral in front of Zuko at the theatre had his arms crossed, the vein of his arms popping out like little snakes readying to strike.

“I…” started Zuko, and stopped. It was his own fault. He had just publicly declared that paying back his nation’s debt was his duty. To backtrack on his words now, when the mood in the room had turned so ugly, would diminish his standing in the eyes of the Earth Kingdom and, more crucially, but to his own people as well. The Fire Nation could abide a ruler who raised taxes, but they could never abide one who showed weakness or dishonour by going back on his word.

He addressed one of his advisors instead. “Is it possible?” he asked in a low voice.

The man flicked the beads on his abacus and consulted the records piled up next to him. “Yes, my lord,” he said, after a few moments’ calculation. “Though I would not advise it. The funds are stretched thin enough as it is.”

“That’s all I needed to know,” said Zuko. He raised his voice. “I hear your request, Minister Luan, and I understand your anger. As the Fire Lord, I will honour my words to send money to Kolau’s former villagers–” he waited for the protests and outcries in the room to die down, “— but I ask you and your party to wait until tomorrow before we finalise the agreement. My scribes will need time to draw up a new treaty, and I think we all need time to let our cooler heads prevail. I will see you at the banquet tonight.”

Zuko sat down again, trying not to let his sudden burst of anxiety overwhelm him. What the fuck was all that about?

*

The throne room was empty except for Zuko. He dismissed the guards and servants so they could get some rest before any extra banquet duties, and now he was alone, pacing back and forth along the red pillars, trying to ignore his headache while racking his brain for what it was that was troubling him so. Qyu had sat in a thousand meetings before, but he had never challenged Zuko as openly as he did today. The imperial court usually obeyed a strict sense of decorum: complaints were aired in private audiences, or in public only implied slyly in the slippery language of courtiers. Qyu’s outburst today should have been enough for Zuko to challenge him to an Agni Kai.

Zuko took a series of deep breaths, an old meditation exercise, and let the flames in the bolted sconces wax and wane in time to his breathing.

Maybe that was it. He has not challenged anyone since that match with Azula – and  the day was bringing back old memories. Zuko knew what a five-year dry stretch signified to others in court though, that the new Fire Lord was soft, that he was afraid of losing his other eye in case of a defeat. But they were right. He had lost his stomach for that kind of violence

He massaged his temples again. The pins of his royal headpiece were digging into his scalp. With care, he plucked it off and raked his fingers through his scalp. The absence of the heavy weight was a relief. How was that for an obvious metaphor? Uncle Iroh would be proud.

“Careful, I just learned today that it was taboo to do that around here,” said someone in front of the curtained doorway.

“Argh!”

Sokka laughed and walked up the throne room. “Did I startle you? Your little jump was adorable.”

“You didn’t startle me,” said Zuko, startled, “and that was a high-level defensive maneuver to protect myself against assassination attempts.”

“I’m sure it’s very effective.”

“You’re speaking to a man who’s survived six of them so far.” Zuko should put his headpiece back on in the presence of an ambassador, but he slipped it into a pocket instead. Sokka had seen him in far worse. “How did you know I was here?”

“You mean, how did I guess that the Fire Lord was in the Fire Lord’s throne room? Just a hunch.” Sokka looked around the throne room with interest. “I always wondered what the world was like from up here -- must be nice looking out at your adoring subjects.”

Zuko tried to imagine Lord Qyu’s reaction if someone called him an adoring subject to his face. He doubted that any of his lords and ministers adored him so much as grudgingly tolerated Zuko as the only alternative to a civil war.

He climbed up as well and sat down, letting his feet dangle off the side of the dais. “Being the Fire Lord is pretty dull,” Zuko told him, "unless you enjoy hearing people bicker about taxes. I consider thwarting the occasional assassination basically a form of stress relief."

Sokka laughed again and sat down next to Zuko on the edge of the platform. He gave him a companionable knock with his knees. “What are you still doing here?”

Zuko didn’t answer right away. He was staring at the spot where once, a thirteen-year-old boy had defended the lives of a few hundred new recruits. It had made no difference in the end; the platoon was slaughtered at the front the week following that Agni Kai anyways. Sozin had built the throne room near the end of his rule, and Zuko’s little drop of defiance was nothing in the ocean of a century’s worth of  war and death. It wasn’t just Zuko’s memories haunting the room, but the ghosts of all that came before him.

“I hate this room,” said Zuko. He breathed out again and sensed the flames quiver on their torches, but the tiny pools of light could not drive back the cavernous darkness.

He thought Sokka was going to say something about the non sequitur, but he was just quiet, waiting for Zuko to put his thoughts in order.

“I’m worried,” Zuko admittedadmited finally. “Something happened during the Earth Kingdom meeting this afternoon.” He summarised the past weeks of reparation agreements, and then recounted Qyu and Luan’s speeches and his own promise.

Sokka listened with his hands steepled on his knees. “Where did you say the shipments were headed?” he asked when Zuko was finished.

“The Kolau Mountains.”

“And Luan said it was eighty years ago that a massacre happened?”

“Yes.”

“Can you or her prove it did happenedhappen?”

Zuko thought for a moment. “No,” he said. “There were a couple of iron mines there that were shut down in Azulon’s era. But in terms of war crimes -- our records are patchy. Ozai destroyed a lot of it when he crowned himself the Phoenix King. And even if he didn’t, there’s often a gap between what gets reported to Caldera and what actually happened. Commanders have their own interpretation of official orders when they’re out in the field. So even if we had no record, it doesn’t prove it didn’t happen. Besides,” he added bitterly, “even if it didn’t happen there, something like it would have happened somewhere else.”

Sokka rubbed his chin. “But it wasn’t originally part of the reparation plans.”

“No.”

“And it’s being snuck on you in some sort of suspicious sneak attack , giving you no time to ask any questions.”

“I suppose.”

“Hmm.” Sokka gave a dramatic sniff. “Do you smell that?”

“What?”

“The fishy smell? Am I the only one who smells something fishy?”

“This city’s next to the ocean,” said Zuko.

Sokka jumped to his feet and started pacing. “Point one,” he said, and put up his index finger, “Someone insisted on paying villagers of a place that you’ve never heard of before.”

“I know where Kolau is,” said Zuko, but Sokka went on.

“Point two,” he said, holding up another finger, “They could have done it any time this past week, but waited for the final day of the talks when everyone’s under pressure to wrap it up and go home.”

Sokka put up another finger. “Point three: all of a sudden, not only are you paying money to a township you’ve never heard of before, but you’re paying double any normal amount. I think you’re right to be suspicious.”

One more finger: “And point four, you need to get out of here.”

Zuko blinked. “What?”

“You look worse than Aang did the day before the Day of Black Sun. How are you supposed to untangle a conspiracy if you can barely walk straight?”

“I can walk straight,” said Zuko. “And I was busy thinking here.”

Sokka clapped him on the shoulder. “Buddy, you weren’t thinking, you were brooding.” He bent down to peer at Zuko’s face, so close that Zuko could see the dark rings around the blue of his irises.

“The bags under your eyes have bags,” said Sokka. “Well, that eye has bags at least. Your other one would if it could.”

It had been a long time since someone had insulted him so casually. Zuko found he missed it. He huffed out an amused breath and took Sokka’s proffered arm, hauling himself up and letting himself be led out the doorway.

“I’ll see you at the banquet,” said Sokka when they stopped at the turning. “If you can’t see me, I’ll be the devastatingly handsome one in the blue shirt.”

“I’ll know where you are,” said Zuko. And because he was really very exhausted, he added, “Don’t stand me up this time.”

If that comment made any impression on Sokka, he didn’t show it. “You better fix that before you go,” he said after a beat, pointing at Zuko’s head. 

As Zuko scrambled to plaster his hair back into some semblance of order, Sokka turned down the corridor to where the gate was closest to the foreign dignitary quarters.

“Get some rest before the banquet,” Sokka called over his shoulder.

“I hate banquets,” mumbled Zuko at Sokka’s disappearing silhouette, and yawned. Sokka was right though. Everything will look better after a nap. Zuko will just close his eye for an hour or two, and when he’s less tired the world will make sense again and he’ll figure it all out somehow, conspiracy or no conspiracy.

*

Zuko overslept.

He had given orders to not be disturbed until the hour before the banquet. Or at least, he thought he had given orders. It was possible that he had mumbled a vague dismissal at the royal attendants and then fell on top of his bed, and then merely dreamed that he had given clear instructions to be woken up at the correct time, and then fell into another strange dream where he was flying on Appa, and Appa could talk, and he was testing Zuko on his knowledge of zeppelin mechanics, except Zuko couldn’t hear a word he was saying, because the rain was falling down and there was thunder booming all around him, and the thunder sounded like –

Zuko opened his eyes to the sound of synchronised pounding on the door. He got up, tripped over the boots he had kicked off on the floor, and then stumbled forwards, flinging open the door to the sight of Li and Lo standing outside, dressed in identical robes of gold and black and with identical smirks on their faces.

“Greetings, Fire Lord Zuko,” said either Li or Lo.

Zuko genuinely had no idea which one was Li and which one was Lo, and he had passed the point when he could have just asked them ten years and three coronations ago. It was a secret he’d just have to take to the grave.

It took him a few bleary seconds before his brain began working again. “The banquet!” he said dumbly.

Li and Lo nodded. “The meal will begin in a quarter of an hour,” said the sister who hadn’t spoken yet.

Zuko dove behind his dressing screen and grabbed the first layer of his embroidered formal robes. At least there were fewer of them than normal: in the month past midsummer, the royal court’s fastidious rules about seasonal dress finally relaxed enough for only two layers of raw silk. “Why didn’t anyone send for me earlier?” he wailed, trying to tug his head through the neck hole.

“Were we supposed to?” Li and Lo asked at the same time, to creepy effect.

His outer robe in place, Zuko shoved his arms through the holes of the ceremonial shoulder plates – only took him three tries to fasten them on his own-- and fumbled for his royal headpiece.

“Out of my way,” he roared, and shoved his way past Li and Lo, who were still crowding the doorway. He made it to the end of the antechamber before an attack of conscience overtook him, making him sprint back. “Sorry,” he said, embarrassed. He thought he had outgrown his teenage fits of temper. “That was rude of me.”

The twins clucked their tongues. “What are you still dilly-dallying for?” said Li. Or it could be Lo.

“You’re almost late!” Lo added – or was it Li?

By Agni, Zuko really was a terrible person. He gave a short bow of apology in their direction, spun on his heels, and ran.

Chapter Text

The banquet was held outside in the palace’s largest pleasure garden, in a square pavilion that abutted the garden’s lotus pond. The Pond of Two Lovers got its name for the two types of trees surrounding the water: there were pines to the north and lychee nut trees to the south, the end closest to the pavilion. In summer the trees’ branches, laden down with fruit, dipped close enough to skim the water like a lady’s finger. It also attracted crowds of ornamental koi and dragonflies to congregate in its patches of dappled shade.

The exquisite tableau had served as inspiration for several generations of poets. That night, they served as cover while Zuko collected his breathing and adjusted his clothing. I’m the Fire Lord, he told himself, trying to ignore the inquisitive stares of the passing servants. He can go for a jog in his own palace if he wanted to. He straightened his sleeves a final time and stepped out.

If the steward by the entrance was perturbed by his late arrival, he gave no sign. He blasted his horn and waited for the playing musicians fell silent.

“His Majesty, Fire Lord Zuko, has arrived,” the steward announced.

By custom it should have been “Fire Lord Zuko, son of Ozai”, but convincing the stewards to leave it off had been Zuko’s first act as ruler.

The other guests, who were already seated, stood up and made their gestures of respect towards the entrance. Sokka was at the head table, in a fine-woven blue tunic and with his hair braided back. Zuko walked to his seat at the head of the table, bowed in respect to the Earth Kingdom dignitaries to his right, to his own ministers to his left, and finally to Sokka as the evening’s honoured guest, who received it with a playful wink.

Then the musicians struck up the music again, and the servants hurried to the table with bowls of perfumed water for the guests to wash their hands.

“You’re a bit late,” said Sokka. As the new ambassador he was seated right next to Zuko. “What kept you?”

“Important Fire Nation business,” said Zuko haughtily.

“You still have a pillow crease on your cheek,” said Sokka, right as a servant presented them with their bowls.

Zuko gaped, and after the servant retreated he hissed, “Tell me you’re joking.”

Sokka clicked his tongue. “I would never joke about anything so serious.” Then, in an undertone, he said, “I have some information about Luan, we need to talk in private after this.”

*

Zuko had very little recollection of what he did during the banquet. He ate what was in front of him, made the appropriate toasts to the good health of his guests, nodded along to the small talk -- all the while counting down the minutes until the last dish was cleared. He hoped that no one noticed his mind was elsewhere, but Sokka drew most of the attention anyways. Being seated next to him made it easy for Zuko to stay quiet. Unlike Bato, whose easy and reserved manner made him an unobtrusive dinner guest, Sokka was loud. He drew attention to himself, in the best way possible. He had a knack for asking questions and listening to people’s answers. When he talked, he was quick to smile and quick to make jokes. He was funny without being cutting; his confidence obvious even though most of his stories were self-deprecating in some way.

Zuko felt that even the most jaundiced of guests wouldn’t be able to resist Sokka’s charm. Even so, halfway through one of his anecdotes, one of the Fire Nation provincial lords chuckled and said, “I didn’t know that you Water Tribe types could have such a fine gift for expression. The last one before you was nowhere so articulate.”

Zuko’s fist tightened inside his sleeve.

Sokka said nothing for a moment. Then he said, lightly, “Thank you, my lord. I think you’ll find that us Water Tribe types always reflect the level of conversation we’re shown.” And before the man had time to process the insult, Sokka launched back into his story. “Anyways, when my sister Katara and I reached the end of the canyon, we discovered that both of the tribes we were traveling with had been hiding food in their packs. So you can imagine we felt pretty silly just then. Luckily, Aang thought of an idea to defeat the canyon crawlers…”

Zuko poked a hibiscus root on his plate with a chopstick. The talk about sibling squabbles reminded him of Azula, who had the same quality as Sokka did: a natural charisma that was as innate as bending. He snorted, imagining Azula’s face if he finally wrote to her just to say he thought she was like Sokka. Or Sokka’s face, if he told him he was like Azula.

He looked around. Every member of the Earth Kingdom delegation was present except for Luan, who was nowhere to be seen. Where was she? Did it have something to do with what Sokka had to tell him?

Finally, the servants cleared away the remnants of the table and made their last rounds with hot towels on a salver. The night wasn’t over yet -- the guests were expected to stay for a while to mingle and enjoy the landscape of the garden.

“Meet me in the pine grove in a few minutes,” Sokka whispered once the musicians started up again. He rose to his feet, made a show of asking for the direction to the outhouses, and then vanished into the darkness outside.

Zuko didn’t respond. For a moment he was not in the pavilion but somewhere else – somewhere brighter and colder, where instead of the scent of plum liquor and burning wood resin, there was the salty tang of the sea breeze, the smell of damp fur and frozen soil. 

He counted to three hundred in his head, then strode casually towards the exit as well, purposefully not catching anyone’s eye. Heading first eastwards, he made his way towards the gate that connected the garden to the outer courtyards, then doubled back to throw off any follower before sneaking off again in the darkness.

He found Sokka leaning against the far northern wall, half-hidden behind a few ancient black pines.

“What did you find out about Luan?” Zuko hissed, and felt a glow of satisfaction when Sokka started.

“You are way too creepy sneaking up like that,” said Sokka, relaxing his shoulders.

“What did you find out?”

Sokka glanced around. They were alone, Zuko was sure of it, but Sokka dropped his voice anyways. “I’ve been asking around. The Luan woman is considered a bit of a weirdo by the rest of the delegation. She has a reputation for being greedy back home -- taking bribes for favours, a few accusations of corruption, that sort of stuff. No one could prove anything officially, but the rest of the party were a bit shocked when she stood up to you this afternoon. The other ministers didn’t think she could be so selfless.”

“Being selfless isn’t a crime,” said Zuko. “Maybe she’s changed.”

“Sure, maybe her entire personality flipped in the last two weeks. But get this: she’s been getting secret messages delivered from a messenger hawk.”

“How do you know this?”

Sokka grinned. “Let’s just say this articulate Water Tribe barbarian has his ways. On that topic, why does everyone expect me to have my face painted like the guy in the play? I’m pretty sure Bato didn’t, and anyways the design was all wrong.”

“People are morons,” said Zuko. “And I’ll speak to Lord Anbin and tell him it was--”

Sokka waved an arm. “He’s not the first rude nobleman I’ve encountered. And anyways, about Luan -- I think she must have something up her sleeve.”

They were leaning close and whispering. Sokka’s breath was warm and smelled like the plum liquor from dinner. A year ago, when Zuko visited the Southern tribes, there was a night when Sokka had leaned in like this too, to make himself heard over the din of the feast.

Zuko rubbed his palms, trying to keep his attention on the present.

“Is that why she wasn’t here tonight?” he asked.

“Maybe,” said Sokka. “It’s possible she had noticed someone snooping around her rooms.”

Zuko took a breath to make sure he wouldn’t yell out his next question. “You broke into her room?”

“No, no,” said Sokka. “I found this out by talking to Tian. She’s a big airbending fan.”

“Excuse me?”

“Tian is the name of Luan’s personal maid. She thinks that her mistress has a secret admirer, which baffles her because she says Luan is a pain to work for. I got her talking by promising that Aang will give her a ride on Appa next time he’s in town. She loves airbender stuff.”

Talking with Sokka was sometimes like making his way blindfolded through a maze. The key, Zuko found, was to keep an arm outstretched and feel his way along. “Her maid’s an airbender?” 

“She’s one of those airbending enthusiasts, you know, people who like to collect little artefacts and sew their own recreation costumes. She just joined a mail fan club based in Yu Dao. Big time fan. She edits the monthly newsletter.”

“I see,” said Zuko, who’d caught about half of what Sokka just said.

“You really have no idea what hobbies are, do you?”

“I practice my firebending all the time,” said Zuko, which made Sokka laugh for some reason. Maybe there was something in the liquor.

“But seriously,” Sokka said. He straightened up a little. “I think there’s a conspiracy going on. I tried to get into Luan’s room through her window, but it was triple-locked from the inside.”

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. Was his migraine coming back? “You said you didn’t break in!”

“And I didn’t, because it was locked. But it’s possible that someone has seen me trying to break in or talking with her maid. We’ll have to be careful, she’s probably warned her co-conspirators by now.”

“You didn’t plan for a minister’s window being locked?” asked Zuko.

“We broke into the Boiling Rock with less of a plan than the one I had this afternoon,” said Sokka. “And I brought a lockpick, I just didn’t account for the three extra locks she put on from the inside.”

Zuko’s migraine was definitely coming back. “Forget it. What did you mean by her co-conspirators?”

“Tian said they usually leave the windows ajar because of the heat. So why did Luan suddenly lock it? And who’s sending her the messages?”

“Did Tian describe the hawk?” Zuko asked.

“She said the colour of the beam feathers were brownish-red, it had a gold plume on its head.”

“Those are the markings of birds from the imperial mewes,” said Zuko, his mouth dry. “Only the nobles are allowed to purchase them from the palace falconers. It’s someone from the Fire Nation court.”

Sokka frowned. “And whoever it is, they know that I’m on their trail.”

*

They walked back together in the darkness, weaving between tree groves to avoid the main paths. Zuko kept an ear out for anyone lurking off the cobbled paths, but other than a tipsy couple giggling from behind a rhododendron bush, most of the servants and guests were still occupied at the other end of the garden.

“What’s that flowery smell?” Sokka asked suddenly.

“Night jasmine,” Zuko said. “There’s a few vines growing over the wall over there.”

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” said Sokka.

Zuko shrugged. “If you like jasmine.”

“No,” said Sokka. “I mean – the world." He jerked his chin, indicating the whole garden surrounding them. “The world’s so…big. And we’re lucky, you know, that we’ve seen so much of it. And oh, look over there!” Zuko looked around the garden, baffled, before Sokka grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him to his right. “Fireflies!”

There was indeed a swarm of fireflies thronging the low grasses to their right, and Sokka, glassy-eyed, gazed at them with wonder.

“When I was a kid,” he said dreamily, “I couldn’t have imagined something like fireflies. Baby Sokka would have thought they were pieces of the Southern Lights that broke off and flew away.”

“When I was a kid I used to catch fireflies and put them inside lanterns I made out of rice paper,” Zuko told him.

Sokka eyes flicked over, amused. “And thus, a lifetime of evil began with animal cruelty?”

“I wasn’t trying to be cruel, I just didn’t think that far.” Zuko kicked a small pebble in front of him. “I was afraid of the dark, but it was before I began firebending. A royal prince wasn’t supposed to keep a real lantern lit after bedtime. Everyone said I must learn how to conquer my fears.”

“Oh,” Sokka said softly, and put a hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “That’s really –"

“Don’t laugh,” Zuko said, hunching over and shrugging Sokka’s hand off. They continued walking. The awkward silence stretched on until Zuko, casting around for a change in topic, said, “There’s a lot of poems written about fireflies, by the poets who came to the Garden of the Humble Pair for inspiration. I used to memorise them in my lessons.”

“Amazing,” said Sokka with sincerity. “I love poetry.” And when Zuko said nothing, Sokka gave him a hard nudge. “Go on then, give us one.”

A memory flashed into Zuko’s mind – a year ago, at the Southern Water Tribe, sitting around a fire in that odd, everlasting summer twilight, Hakoda and Bato getting up to recite a piece of an old legend: a song about sea serpents, and how their roars create the white sea foam on top of waves. Sokka had been next to him then too.

“I’m not good at recitation,” said Zuko. “Not like your dad and the elders in your tribe.”

“Who’s around to judge?” Sokka asked. “Give it a go. And I won’t even force you to dance this time.”

Zuko racked his brain and dredged up the last mouldering remnant of his largely wasted classical education. “As brass bell tones fade, fireflies take up the ringing – evening breeze.” Sokka didn’t respond for a second, and Zuko felt like a child again, waiting for a tutor to give a nod or a shake of their head. “It’s a haiku,” he said lamely.“It’s –”

“I know,” said Sokka. “Five, seven, then five, syllables mark a haiku. Condescending oaf.” He gave Zuko a punch on the arm – a much gentler one than Toph or Suki’s usual efforts, and Zuko was glad of the darkness that hid his blush. “ Squish squash, sling that slang! I’m always right back at you, like my boomerang,” Sokka recited, and grinned. “That’s an old one of mine.”

“I’ll be sure to jolt that down for posterity,” Zuko said drily.

“You should,” said Sokka, and then he looked distracted again. “But seriously, bioluminescence is an interesting idea.” Zuko hummed vaguely in agreement. “The Mechanist lights the tunnels under the Northern Air Temple in a similar way – did you know that your royal engineers are experimenting with lightning bug slime for airships? So in an outage even non-firebenders can find the exits. The problem is making them on an industrial scale, in fact—"

As Sokka chatted about airship designs, Zuko thoughts drifted away from insects and poetry to what he’d just learned: Luan is conspiring with someone in the court. He wondered what their aim was – derailing the reparations in some way? Or staging a coup against Zuko himself? He could list a few likely suspects off the top of his head: Qyu, for starters.

Despite their complaining, most of Zuko’s lords and ministers were relieved that the Hundred Year War was over. Wars were difficult and expensive. But there were always people stubbornly clinging to the past. People like Qyu, who hated the Harmonic Restoration Movement and believed that conquest was strength and strength was all that mattered.

Zuko was the oldest son of Ozai and the winner by forfeit of that Agni Kai against Azula. By all laws he deserved the throne twice-over. But he knew what people write on anonymous pamphlets and what they whisper behind the closed doors in the great manors: the new Fire Lord is a crazy upstart; he’s a pawn of the Avatar; he is stripping the nation of its hard-won glory, and someone should stop him before it is too late.

They rounded a decorative chunk of volcanic rock, and the glow of the pavilion lanterns ahead jolted Zuko back from his reverie.

“What’s the plan?” he asked. “And this time for real we better have one.”

“Let’s divide and conquer,” said Sokka. “I’ll try talking with the Earth Kingdom delegates directly. They’re less likely to be involved, so I’ll ask them if they know anything about Luan and her plans. You do the same with your people -- try to find out if any of them is acting suspiciously.”

They’re courtiers, Zuko almost told him. They’re always acting suspiciously. “How are we going to meet again to share what we find?” he asked instead. “I can’t keep disappearing from my own functions, and you can’t seem too suspicious if someone might be onto you already.”

Sokka deliberated, chewing his lip. “Do you still train at sunrise like you did with Aang?” At Zuko’s nod he said, “Then I’ll meet you at a sparring ground. If someone sees me, it’ll look like I’m just practicing with an old friend.”

There was a smaller practice yard reserved for the royal family, nestled deep in the heart of the palace. Zuko gave him the directions.

 “Got it,” said Sokka. “Northwestern door from the outer courtyard, up the steps and through the garden to the third sun gate, two left turns past the royal chambers, keep going until I see a gate with old paint and then it’s the bit with all the sand and stone tiles.”

Under the light of the lanterns, Sokka’s brown cheeks were flushed red, making his eyes even bluer than normal. He had drunk his fair share of toasts at dinner and it added up to a not insubstantial amount of alcohol. Yet Sokka was still sharper than any normal man at his stone cold sober. It was impressive as well as disheartening – a fatal blow to one theory of Zuko’s that he’d been clinging onto for a long time.

“Let’s go,” said Sokka, only to collide with Zuko’s outstretched arm.

“We have to stagger our entrances.” said Zuko. Maybe Sokka wasn’t so sharp after all.  “It’ll look suspicious if we re-appear together after being absent for so long.”

Sokka said nothing, and then he lifted his chin and addressed the night sky. “Thank you, universe. So this is what it feels like to be the reckless one in a scheme for once.” He stretched his arms upwards. “Universe, you can be good to me sometimes.”

There was a faint stubble on the line of Sokka’s throat, Zuko noticed, above the white line of his necklace. The skin there was slightly damp with sweat from the warm evening.

A burst of music carried over on the breeze snapped Sokka out of his mood. “Relax,” he said cheerfully, coming back to himself. He slapped Zuko on the back. “They’ll probably just assume we were out for a tryst in the woods.” He ignored Zuko’s choking sounds. “Speaking of which, our torrid love affair will be my cover story’s cover story in case anyone gets too suspicious. Looking forward to tomorrow’s sparring , buddy,”— and with that he winked and strode off, leaving Zuko to splutter behind him.

Chapter Text

Zuko sighed and tried to surreptitiously lean against a pillar. Try to find out if any of them are acting suspiciously – to be honest, political subterfuge was never Zuko’s forte. The teenage years he could have spent at court, mastering the sort of slippery, double-sided conversation that came so naturally to everyone else, he actually spent onboard a military ship with his uncle for company. And if Zuko was really honest with himself, most of his time on the ship was spent sulking alone in his cabin or practicing firebending, which had just been his slightly more productive way of sulking. When he did leave his room, few conversations reached a level of complexity higher than “have you seen the Avatar?”, or, “where is the Avatar?”, or, “stop right there, Avatar!”.

Predictably, as an adult Zuko was a decent firebender with atrocious conversational skills. He sometimes wondered if it wasn’t the wrong order of skills for a ruler of a nation to have.

He was still trying to figure out who to approach first when a man in a gaudy set of ceremonial armour stopped in front of Zuko to catch his attention.

“Lord Qyu,” Zuko said.

Qyu gave him a shallow bow. “Good evening, Fire Lord Zuko, may the rays of Agni guard you from the night.”

“And may they greet you tomorrow along the dawn,” Zuko said, giving the standard reply.

He took a surreptitious step back to avoid the gold spikes on Qyu’s pauldron. He recognised the material and the expensive craftsmanship: the armour was decorated with bits of scale and bone taken from a slaughtered dragon. It was an old-fashioned choice; Azulon had commissioned several sets back in his day, which he had passed on to Ozai. They belonged to Zuko now, and he had ordered them to be put in storage and tried his best to forget about them. The sight of all that embalmed viscera made him queasy.

“I wanted to formally apologise for any offense caused by my behaviour today,” said Qyu. “I had disrespected your authority and challenged your honour. I had been blinded by concern for my nation and spoke without thinking.” He cleared his throat, as if the words had itched coming out.

It wasn’t an apology so much as an excuse with a coat on, but Zuko let it pass. “I understand your position, Lord Qyu,” he said, trying to edge away.

Qyu inclined his head, and then beckoned a servant over who was carrying cups of wine on a tray. He took one for himself and gestured for Zuko to take the other, and clinked their cups together.

“A toast,” he said. “To the Fire Nation.”

“A toast,” repeated Zuko. He scanned the room over his cup. Sokka was talking to the secretary of an agricultural minister on one of the stone benches by the water. There was a lot of wild gesturing; both men seemed to be laughing. Clearly, he was having a better time than Zuko was.

“You are very close with Ambassador Sokka,” said Qyu.

Zuko started, nearly dropping the cup. He had been bracing himself for a passive-aggressive barb about his leadership, not some cryptic statement about Sokka .

“He is an ambassador, and the brother-in-law of the Avatar,” he said carefully, making sure his gaze has shifted to focus on a decorative eave instead. “It would be in the Fire Nation’s best interest to keep relationships cordial.”

There, that sounded nice and diplomatic. Qyu gave him a long look.

“Even before I met him, I’ve heard about Ambassador Sokka’s behaviour on many occasions,” said Qyu. “He has a reputation for being a dissolute, feckless mess, and I believe it is inappropriate for the Fire Lord to be too close to him. In any case he’s a foreign representative. There’s bound to be a conflict of interest.”

“Ambassador Sokka arrived only a few days ago,” Zuko said stiffly. “That’s not much time to get a reputation. What occasions are you referring to?”

“This and that,” said Qyu. “A tree is but made of a thousand leaves.”

What is it, wondered Zuko, that made Fire Nation men over a certain age give proverbs instead of answers? Before he could probe any farther, Qyu was beckoning over someone else to join them.

“Allow me to present my daughter, Fire Lord Zuko,” said Qyu. “This is Lady Kizia. I had asked her to join us here after the meal to enjoy the summer evening.”

With everything else that had been going on Zuko had completely forgotten about Qyu’s comments about introducing his daughter. It was too late to beat a hasty retreat now. The young woman – no, girl -- bowed deeply and said, “It is my great honour to meet you, your Majesty.”

Zuko had noticed her staring at them across the room earlier, but he had chalked it up to the normal staring he gets for his scar. The story of his banishment was common knowledge, though the amount of damage his father had inflicted changed with each telling. Some people got the side wrong, which wasn’t too bad; others seemed surprised he had a face at all. 

Presented to him up close, Kizia did the normal thing that everyone did, which was to gawk subtly at first and then look very carefully at everywhere else on his face except for the scar. Zuko’s nose itched from the attention it received by default.

“Kizia graduated at the top of her class in the practical lessons,” said Qyu. “She is also a great enthusiast for firebending history. At the academy she wrote her graduating thesis on the achievements of your great-grandfather Sozin during the first comet.” At the sight of Zuko’s blanched face, he added, “All about the scientific principles behind the comet’s effect on bending, of course, my Kizia is not at all political . I hoped that as a master bender yourself, Fire Lord Zuko, you could have some advice to share.”

“It would be my pleasure to hear,” said Kizia. “Your ancestors are an inspiration to every firebender in the nation.” 

Unlike her father’s dragonscale armour, Kizia’s own formal robes were loose and shapeless, tied with a maroon sash bustle that nearly blended into the rest of the black fabric. A pair of spectacles hang around her neck on a chain, glinting against its silk background. Although her face was rounder and more delicate, she shared Qyu’s reddish hair and heavy brows. Both father and daughter had the pale skin and yellow eyes of the old aristocratic bloodline – same as Zuko. He could see how a match with her might appeal to the traditionalists in the country. 

Side-by-side, they’d look like a matching set of clay dolls: the Fire Lord and the matching Fire Lady. Though the Fire Lord would need some fresh paint on his left side before he could be displayed.

“I’ll leave you to it then,” said Qyu in a jovial tone. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” he added, and then melted away into the crowd, or as much as a man of his height in that sort of eye-watering armour could melt.

By now, Sokka had moved inside the pavilion and was standing by a pillar, chatting with two Earth Kingdom women with gigantic hairstyles that rivaled Toph’s at her bushiest. He was doing the work they had agreed on, while Zuko was stuck making polite conversation with a schoolgirl.

The most important thing, Zuko decided, was to end the conversation as quickly as possible and start interrogating the ministers thronging the room.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said to Kizia, “but I’m afraid I need to speak with some of the other people at the banquet.”

“Oh,” said Kizia. “I was hoping to hear more about firebending. You must be a true master if you’ve taught the Avatar.”

“Graduating at the top of your class is no small feat,” Zuko said tightly. “I’m sure you don't want me to tell you anything.”

“But you know the Avatar! He must have so much wisdom to share.”

Zuko stared at the pond in the distance and racked his brain.. “Both Aang and my uncle Iroh would say to remember to meditate and focus on your breath. Uncle Iroh always told me that by controlling the breath I can control my fire. And Aang’s always big on breathing, being an airbender first.” 

The last airbender, seeing what my inspirational great-grandfather did with his comet , he almost added, but he reined himself in.

Kizia nodded serenely. Zuko tried to step away, but she followed him with a step forward. “Excellent advice, Fire Lord,” she said. “I’ll be sure to heed it. Anything else?”

“In a real fight, expect the unexpected,” said Zuko. “The instructors at the academy are good, but real life isn’t the same as school.”

He tried to step away again, but Kizia was clinging to him like glue.

“Anything else?”

By Agni’s name, was she going to demand Zuko teach her how to shoot lightning in the middle of the pavilion?  Zuko thought for a second. “No matter what Sozin has taught us, you must take care not to let your bending be fueled by rage or hatred,” he said. “We draw our power from the sun, and the true purpose of firebending should be connected to the ideals of life and energy.”

For the first time, something perturbed Kizia’s serene exterior. “Sozin taught us that firebending is the manifestation of force through unflinching will.” Kizia said, giving Zuko a small frown that was bordering on a scowl. In that moment the resemblance to her father was uncanny. “You would disregard your ancestor’s words on the basis of our discipline and our nation?”

“Um, yes,” said Zuko.

“My father was right about you,” said Kizia. Her gold eyes met Zuko’s, her pleasant expression firmly back in place. “He says you won’t last a decade as the Fire Lord if you keep alienating the court the way that you do. People are unsettled by the Harmony Restoration Movement and by rumours of your soft tendencies.”

Out of sight, the musicians have struck up a new piece; distant tones of the two-stringed fiddles and the pipas filled the silence between them. Servants crept around the pavilion, swapping the resin in the braziers with clay chips soaked in lemongrass oil, which were meant to purify the air and drive away insects.

“Soft tendencies?” asked Zuko, his throat dry. He felt his heart rattle around his chest like a bead inside an empty box.

“Your friendship with the Avatar, for one thing. And your conspicuous silence towards the matchmakers. It makes people talk.”

“If Qyu has such a low opinion of me, why does he want you to marry me?” said Zuko at last.

“What a very blunt question,” said Kizia. “And isn’t it obvious?”

“What’s obvious?”

“He wants to exert influence over you and avoid the collapse of the Fire Nation as he sees it. Through me.”

“Ah,” said Zuko.

“I hate the idea, of course. Just because I’m a woman, I don’t plan to be used and spent like a copper piece. I don’t care about what my father says.”

“Ah,” said Zuko again.

Kizia ran a finger down the chain that held her spectacles. They were round and sleek, with rims made from steel instead of gold. “How long have you known Ambassador Sokka?” she asked suddenly.

 “For quite some time,” Zuko said. He was tired and sick of this conversation. “Why do you ask?”

“Do you think you could introduce us? I want to meet him, and my father couldn’t interrupt if you’re introducing me to your old friend.”

If anything could inspire Qyu to break decorum, it would be his imperisalist daughter meeting the dissolute, feckless Water Tribe barbarian, but Zuko decided not to mention it. Sokka’s plan for him to work the room wasn’t working, but Zuko was better at improvisation anyway. If anyone was planning a conspiracy against him, Lord Qyu was more likely than not to be involved. Maybe Sokka will learn something from talking with Qyu’s daughter.

He took Kizia’s arm and led her next to where Sokka was still speaking to the Earth Kingdom ministers. He waited for the two women to take their parting and wander off, then he gestured at Kizia. “Ambassador Sokka, I want to introduce Lady Kizia, daughter of Lord Qyu.”

He tried to keep his tone formal. Just a Fire Lord speaking to another dignitary, nothing to see here.

Sokka gave a bland smile and a bow in Kizia’s direction. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” said Kizia. Something’s changed in her tone, making her sound much more girlish. “I’m so glad to meet another newcomer to Caldera City, Ambassador. I imagine it must come as a shock to you compared to your villages of ice and snow.”

Sokka increased the blandness of his smile. “If you ask me, every city in the world is a let-down after you’ve been inside Ba Sing Se’s inner walls. But how are you finding Caldera City?”

Kizia murmured something about finding it fine, and the two of them launched into a conversation about the labyrinthian layout of the palace city and how difficult it was to navigate. Zuko stood there for a polite amount of time, then wandered away and left them to it.

That night, Zuko laid in bed and stared at his silk canopy for a long while before going to sleep.

It was a lot to take in for one day: Luan’s speech, the reparations negotiations, Qyu and his daughter -- Kizia, whom he definitely did not trust, especially not when she was clinging onto Sokka’s arm like a sea barnacle, with no trace of the coolly dismissive young woman she had been earlier in front of Zuko…

Zuko threw off his light blanket and rolled over. He breathed in through his nose and tried to clear his mind like he did for meditation. But in the dark, old memories crept out and encircled him like insects. He thought about the way his heart had leapt when he came to the pine grove and saw Sokka standing there. The flush that crept up his neck when Sokka strode off into the pavilion. He thought about Sokka the last time he saw him. Not his arrival to the Ember Island Theatre, but before that, a year ago, when Zuko visited the Southern Water Tribe’s territory. That had been a strange and wonderful two weeks.

What does it all mean? The question ran through his head, over and over again.

“What does it all mean?” Zuko whispered out loud into the darkness. He wasn’t sure what he was asking about, Kizia or the conspiracy with Luan or everything to do with Sokka, but either way, the rustling curtains and the chirping crickets outside didn’t give him an answer.

*

That night Zuko dreamed about the polar tundra in summer. When he finally visited the Southern Water Tribes as Fire Lord Zuko, as part of the Harmonic Restoration Movement, it came as a shock to see the landscape looking so different to his memories. When Zuko crashed his warship through the walls of Katara and Sokka’s village, six years and a lifetime ago, he had seen nothing but barren stretches of empty land, a ragged group of savages standing in a barren stretch of snow and ice.

Some of his ministers, along with the ship’s crew, were disappointed that they would not see the famous ice houses of the Water Tribes, but Zuko liked the new landscape. He took it as a good omen. Just as the seasons turned, so did people. It was like Zuko himself -- for a long time after his banishment a part of him had been frozen over as well, buried under. But now it was different. Like the vast plains he felt greened all over, alive with hope. 

When he came down the walkway, Katara and Sokka were there to greet him; Hakoda and a few other chieftains standing a few paces back. Katara ran up to greet Zuko with a hug; Sokka and Hakoda clasped his forearm like old friends. Which they were, Zuko realised with a sense of faint surprise, after they drew back and let go. 

“I’ll show you around,” Sokka had said, and led the way into camp.

The hunting settlement they were meeting in was a large gathering of tents and sod houses, located by a large bay rich in arctic seal colonies and whales. Bato told him that before Fire Nation raids drove the Water Tribe villages further south and inland, the people of the tribes gathered once yearly to hunt the arctic whales and seal-walruses by the coast. It was Zuko’s chance to meet the other chieftains at the largest gathering of the Water Tribes other than the winter solstice.

Even with his diplomatic business, Zuko had large stretches of empty free time during the day. Hakoda and the other village leaders were busy during the day, occupied with hunting and dealing with their own people’s needs, and held meetings in the bright twilights. Zuko had been invited on his second day to join the other men in hunting and fishing, but he was no good at it. The other men moved gracefully in coordination with each other, and they paddled through the waves and threw their fishing nets with practised ease. Zuko, sitting on their skin boats, was clumsy and got in the way. 

Zuko was not issued an invitation the next day, which he thought was fair. He spent a while hovering around Katara, marvelling at how busy she was, but after the fifth or sixth time her youngest waterbending students abandoned their own practicing to make Zuko shoot sparks out his nose while they cheered, Katara shoo-ed him away for being a “royal show-off” and a “distracting menace”.

Zuko protested; he always found it hard to say no to children.

“Sort out your childhood abandonment issues somewhere where my pupils are not holding two-ton jagged chunks of ice above each others’ heads,” Katara retorted, one hand on her hip.  “Like the middle of the ocean. Or a nice underground cave somewhere.”

That was when Sokka took him under his wing. 

“Come with me,” he told Zuko. He tossed Zuko a paddle and a set of his own spare parka and trousers, and that was that. 

The official explanation Sokka gave was that they were going off fishing, which they did – or at least, Sokka did and Zuko kept out of the way. And thus began a very strange week-and-a-half of Zuko’s life.

Most of the time their long excursions served no clear purpose at all: the two of them would paddle out and Sokka would spear a few snow halibut, but when one of them got hungry they abandoned the trip to go ashore and eat their catch. Sokka cleaned and gutted the fish; Zuko roasted them in his hands. They ate with their fingers, quick and messy, and washed their faces afterwards in the shallow tide pools on the shore.

Sometimes they left the canoe entirely and went walking in the tundra. Those were Zuko’s favourite days. In summer, the tundra was a gold-green plain of grass and lichen and moss, rustling with small strange animals darting about living their small strange lives. When the wind blew, bird flocks in their thousands scattered upwards like dust, calling unfamiliar songs.

There were long stretches of time when they did nothing much at all: they dug around the shore for mussels and prickly sea urchins, which Sokka ate and Zuko refused; they tossed around a grass ball and played Pai Sho using pebbles and wild berries as the pieces, scratching out a rough board on the frosted soil. 

In the beginning Zuko tried to keep a conversation going -- Suki had told him back in Caldera that she and Sokka had parted on amicable terms -- but Sokka didn’t want to talk about Suki at all, nor did he answer when Zuko asked about the reconstruction efforts, or his future plans, or any sort of politics at all. Zuko gave up asking; he knew what it was like to not want to talk.

But unlike Zuko in his own lowest fits, Sokka cycled between moody silences and rambunctious chatter. In his talkative moods, he kept up a rambling commentary about every variety of bird or lemur or berry that they saw. He had nothing to say about the future, but he had endless stories about his childhood – some were light-hearted, like the time he got two fish hooks stuck inside his thumb, and some were darker, stories about hard times and deprivation. In the first lean winter after all the hunting men had left for war, he told Zuko, he and Katara boiled lichen and pieces of their old seal hide boots, for the lack of anything else to eat. 

That day, near the end of Zuko’s visit, they were crouched down in the grass playing a game Sokka had explained. They were imitating bird calls, competing to see who could lure one of the small brown sandpipers over with their whistling.

“The winter when we ate black lichen to stay alive,” Sokka said suddenly. “That was when I brought down my first seal. I paddled out alone to look for them, and I didn’t come back for days. It’s dangerous to go out alone on the ice -- even for seasoned hunters, but I had to, or else Gran Gran and every elder in the village would have starved. When I came back, Katara cried. She thought I died, and it was my ghost coming to say goodbye.”

Zuko listened, because he didn’t know what to say in return. He always thought his own royal childhood was miserable, but at least he’d never gone hungry, not really. After the failed siege in the North Pole, when Zuko and his uncle were on the run from Azula, they lasted barely a week of foraging before Zuko put on the Blue Spirit mask and began committing armed robbery instead. 

He hadn’t been a good person in the past, not by a long shot, but in comparison to Sokka’s childhood that particular memory brought Zuko a hot flush of shame.

Sokka was still talking, looking dreamily up at the sky. “After that day Katara made me promise to always take her along for hunting trips. I thought we were being so daring -- women aren’t supposed to go hunting, and especially not when they’re waterbenders. But with so many of the men gone we had our own world, just the two of us. We played bird-whistling in the summers when we went trapping for hares. Katara is so good she can call a bird to her finger. We were out fishing when we found Aang, and then--” he wiggled his fingers in the air. “Now everything’s... I mean, it’s --”

“Different,” Zuko finished for him. “More complicated.” 

He understood. When Hakoda wasn’t around, people automatically turned to Katara. There was always someone who needed her for something -- healing, freezing the game for storage, teaching waterbending, dispensing advice and instructions, planning the re-construction of the great Southern Water Tribe city. And Aang wasn’t even here during the summer hunting season, or she’d be even busier in her remaining snatches of free time. 

Katara was growing up. She was leaving the world of birds and ghosts and silly childhood games behind. 

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Sokka said, “but I sometimes miss the war. When we were just a couple of kids on a flying bison.”

“I miss it sometimes too,” Zuko blurted out. He hadn’t realised it was true until he said it. 

He thought about him and Iroh on the run in the Earth Kingdom; he didn’t miss the fear, the nights of rough sleeping, the constant and gnawing worry of people discovering their secret. But he missed his uncle.

What had happened to those kids? Zuko had very little experience on how to make friends, and even less on how to keep them. Since the war it was like cupping a palmful of water between his hands, fighting a slow and constant leak. They’ve gathered since then, wrote each other letters by messenger hawk, but the easy closeness had never been quite  the same. 

Zuko had accepted it by then. He prized each and every letter, though he always meant to write more in return -- check up on Iroh’s new tea shop and Toph’s metalbending students and Aang’s attempts to find the wild sky bisons -- but there was always so much to do, and it was so easy to put off writing for another day, and then another. In the adult world, his terrible slowness overtook his haste.

“I’m glad I’m here,” Zuko said. They were both lying down on the soft moss, hands pillowed underneath their heads, side by side in identical poses.

“I’m glad you’re here too,” Sokka said back. “It means a lot to my family. My dad really likes you, and Katara would never admit it, but she’s been dying for a decent opponent to bully.”

Zuko wanted to ask how Sokka himself felt about him coming, but they had lapsed into a comfortable silence, and the moment felt as fragile and iridescent as a soap bubble. Lying on his back , Zuko could see the flock of sandpipers taking flight above their heads. The birds rose up in a unified black mass, but then they turned, wheeled, and scattered, before diving down again as a flurry of black shapes against the lime-green sky.

“What are you thinking?” Sokka asked.

Zuko looked at the sun, which had become a flat golden disc on the horizon. “I think the reason none of our whistling worked is because I’m scaring away exactly as many birds as you’re calling down,” he said, finally. 

It made Sokka burst out laughing, and then Zuko gave in, laughed too. At the sound of their voices the whole flock chirped and flew away, which only made them laugh harder. Two weeks’ worth of long summer days, so close to the South Pole, had made Zuko sun-drunk and loopy. He wasn’t used to being happy, didn’t trust it very much, but there was a lightness inside of his chest that warmed him more thoroughly than fire. 

He propped himself up on his elbow; he wanted to ask Sokka to explain why the twilights were so bright here, even after the sun itself had dipped below the horizon. Sokka would know, he knew everything. Except when Zuko turned his head to look at Sokka’s smiling face, the thought that came into his mind wasn’t about astronomy or suns or polar geography at all. 

I wonder what it’d be like to kiss him , Zuko thought, and the world tilted on its axis.

The impulse came and went in a sharp, tender second. But after that, everything started to go wrong.

 

Chapter Text

Zuko arrived at the practice yard early. He liked mornings, always had, but since becoming Fire Lord the dawn training hours had become his favourite part of the day. 

This yard was older and shabbier than the new ones in the eastern wing, next to the imperial firebenders’ quarters. Its stone tiles were cracked; one wall was entirely engulfed by kudzu vines that had to be constantly burned back to prevent it spreading, but Zuko liked it. 

It was a place untouched by memories, or at least by Zuko’s memories. In his childhood the yard had been reserved for Iroh and Lu Ten as the crown prince and his heir. After Lu Ten’s death and the construction of the new practice yards, this one had been locked up. It had languished, half-forgotten, until Zuko passed by one day and opened it out of curiosity, his new footsteps disturbing old ghosts in the stone.

The palace was like this sometimes: full of secrets and hidden corners. In the odd period between his betrayal in Ba Sing Se and his confrontation with Ozai on the day of the eclipse, Zuko had been haunted by the notion that the palace itself was wrong somehow. Everything had looked skewed: the columns too low, his rooms too large, reality out of proportion to Zuko’s memory. He kept taking the wrong turns, blundering into tearooms when he was looking for the council chamber, the armoury when he was looking for the kitchens. Once he asked the servants if they had renovated since he was away – he couldn’t make himself say the word banished – and the servants reassured him that no, nothing was changed.

It had all been in Zuko’s head. It was Zuko who had changed.

Zuko shook his head and cleared his thoughts. He was trying to stop dwelling on the past.

Breathing in, he let his hands rise to face his shoulders; breathing out, he turned his palms downwards and pushed them down to thigh level. He repeated the cycle for a couple of minutes, trying to reach a level of calm that refused to come. He kept trying, but then he heard footsteps approaching from beyond the gate and his concentration broke entirely. For appearance’s sake, he finished one last round of breathing before turning around.

Sokka, tousled and sleepy-looking, staggered in with a creak of the gates. He gave a groan in response to Zuko’s greeting and flopped onto one of the stone benches by the side of the ring. “Don’t you dare be so chipper at this time in the morning,” he said, his voice muffled by the arm he threw across his face.

No one had ever called Zuko chipper before. “Are you alright?” Zuko asked, and then, seeing the sallow tinge of Sokka’s face up close, added, “Was it the plum liquor at dinner or the wine afterwards?”

Sokka gave another groan. “Both. Were you just practicing? Throw a fireball at me and let me be incinerated in peace.”

“Katara might finally keep her old promise to end me,” said Zuko wryly. “Find another firebender.”

“But you’re the only one around,” Sokka said. He rolled over on one side and propped his head up. “Please? Pretty please? Just one teeny, tiny fireball –”

“I’ll get you some tea,” Zuko said, and got up. “Try not to throw up. The decorative stone frieze here is four centuries old.”

Despite the years of neglect, a fountain in the far corner of the yard still bubbled with cold, clear water. There were no servants around – Zuko had long-standing instructions for no one to bother him during the mornings, so he ran and fetched the simple tea set he kept in his own chambers, a gift from Iroh. He filled the teapot with water from the fountain, and then, holding the handle in one hand, he lifted the pot to his mouth and breathed out a controlled burst of heat that brought the water to an instant roiling boil.

His uncle would shudder at the sight: he always insisted that water tastes different when it was heated with bending. But Uncle Iroh wasn’t here and Zuko doubted Sokka would notice, or care.

He brought two steaming cups and a jug of cold water from the fountain back to the bench. “Here,” he told Sokka. “Drink this.”

“I’m not getting up again,” said Sokka. He let one of his arms flop dramatically to one side. “Pour it into my mouth and then let me choke in peace.”

“It’s hot.”

“So pour it slowly.”

Zuko blew on the surface of the liquid, a normal breath this time to cool it down. “Here it comes.”

Sokka cracked an eye open. “What are you – argh! what are you doing?”

“Giving you tea,” said Zuko, his hand pausing over Sokka’s head, the cup in its half-tilted position.

Sokka bolted upright and snatched the cup away from Zuko. “You’re a menace,” he said, and drained the contents in one go.

Zuko watched him carefully. The tea was one of Iroh’s special blends and a bestseller on mornings after festival nights. The only thing more powerful than its effect was its taste, which can only be charitably described as ‘pungent’. It didn’t take first-time drinkers by surprise so much as take them hostage until their body gave up its hangover as ransom.

Sokka’s face was a sight to behold. “Bleurgh,” he spluttered once he recovered. “What did you put in this?”

Zuko took a small sip from his own cup. “It’s Uncle’s secret mix. My best guess is dried ginger and fermented soybeans.”

Sokka looked stunned. “It’s spicy.”

“That might be red chilies on top of the ginger. And you’re not even experiencing the authentic version. Uncle usually cracks a raw egg in the cup before serving.”

Sokka shuddered. “Just when I thought the man couldn’t possibly surprise me anymore,” he said. He swished his mouth out with water from the jug and drank the rest in long gulps. “What else did I expect from a guy who’s part of a top secret Pai Sho cult? Where do you think he got this recipe from? White Lotus secret recipe or his wild playboy past?”

“I don’t know,” said Zuko. He’d never thought about it before. “I guess I never asked.”

Zuko turned his face up to the weak morning sunlight. The air was sticky with humidity; the sky above a mottled oyster shell, hung thick with clouds. He took another sip and looked over to see Sokka squinting at him suspiciously.

“Wait a minute,” Sokka said slowly. “You’ve barely had any of the tea.”

“So?”

“You were sitting next to me all night! There’s no way you’ve drank any less than I did. How are you so… so – normal?”

“Probably my superior and manlier constitution at work,” Zuko said, deadpan.

Sokka squinted at him even harder. “Nice try. What’s the secret?”

“What secret?”

“If you want me to tell you about a secret plot unfolding at the heart of your nation’s government, then you better have something to offer in return,” said Sokka. “What’s your secret?” He punctuated his question with a poke to the ribs, almost making Zuko drop his cup.

Zuko ducked out of his reach, stood up, and crossed his arms. “What did you find out last night? Tell me that first.”

“You tell first.”

“No, you.”

“I asked first,” said Sokka, crossing his arms too and pouting up at Zuko, his blue eyes wide. It was such a stupid and immature argument for the leader of the Fire Nation to be having that Zuko could feel himself crumpling like wet paper. 

“This stays between us, understand?” Sokka nodded, and Zuko said, reluctantly, “It’s all firebending.”

“What?”

“I use the breath of fire.” It was easier to demonstrate than to explain. “Watch.”

He showed Sokka his cup, still half-filled with tea, and raised it to his mouth like he had done the teapot. Exhaling, he huffed out a little shoot of flame, making it more visible than normal so Sokka could see. He tiled the cup towards him and increased the heat, taking care to keep it low and direct. The liquid inside bubbled and turned to foul-smelling steam, which Zuko would normally hide by pressing the cup to his mouth, but he lifted it away and showed Sokka, before flipping the empty cup upside down. “It works better with alcohol because it burns quicker.”

Sokka gaped. “That’s brilliant,” he said, voice hushed with awe. “Did Iroh teach you that too?”

Zuko shook his head. “I invented it myself for formal dinners. I needed a way to keep my head clear without offending anyone by refusing a toast.”

“Wouldn’t someone see the fire?”

“There are ways to control heat without making a flame,” said Zuko. “That was just to show you.”

Sokka picked up the cup and inspected it. “Wow. That’s seriously the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen a firebender do.”

“You saw the Avatar defeat my father -- the Fire Lord -- on the day of Sozin’s comet,” said Zuko.

Sokka waved a hand and dropped the cup back on its tray. “Once you’ve spent a year with Aang, that kind of once-in-a-lifetime Avatar stuff gets old pretty fast.”

That seemed fair. Zuko once devoted one day to poking around some temple ruins with Aang, and the next thing he knew they had discovered a secret civilization and danced an ancient firebending form with two members of a previously thought extinct species. Even chasing Aang at a distance for a year had been exhausting.

“Now your turn,” said Zuko. “Tell me about what you learned last night.”

Sokka’s expression turned serious. “Luan is in serious debt,” he said. “She acts like she’s from a long line of aristocrats, but her family are merchants who made their fortune in trade and bought a title. Their business has been hemorrhaging money since the war ended. She’s got a long trail of creditors after her, including the Bei Fongs, believe it or not.”

“How do you know?”

“I pieced it together from various sources,” said Sokka. “The agricultural minister of the grain commission is particularly chatty once he gets going.”

That must be the man Sokka was laughing with last night. Zuko frowned, turning the new information over in his mind. “What did Luan’s family trade in?”

“Food and military supplies,” Sokka said grimly. “They took contracts from the Fire Navy and acted as the middle man for Earth Kingdom suppliers who refused to sell directly to colonialists.”

“No wonder trade has dropped off.”

“Exactly,” said Sokka. “A lot of their income vanished overnight when you called the warships back home. But also -- it makes her a pretty unlikely person to be giving a patriotic speech like that, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe she had a change of heart,” Zuko said.

“Maybe. Stranger things have happened. But it looks suspicious. Even if the villagers are real, why would they ask Luan? She doesn’t strike me as the Blue Spirit type.”

Zuko didn’t choke on air, but it was close. “ The what ?”

“The Blue Spirit type, you know, the outlaw character that steals from the rich and gives to the poor. I’ve seen him in a few puppet shows and masked operas the last time I was in the Fire Nation with Toph. He’s based off of this wanted poster that was around a few years back. I think he was even shoehorned into that Ember Island play about us.”

“Oh?” Zuko managed. He really should be paying more attention to the arts under his reign.

Sokka rubbed his chin. He hadn’t shaved yet, and the faint shadow from last night had turned into full-out stubble. Zuko had an odd impulse to rub a fingertip along Sokka’s cheek and find out what the rough texture feels like. “I like him. The mask is very cool.”

“You know that theatre isn’t reality, right?” Zuko said faintly.

“Sure,” said Sokka. “But anyways, that’s not the point. If Luan’s sending messages with someone in the Fire Nation court, why are they asking for more reparations to the Earth Kingdom?”

“Ruin the treasury financially?” suggested Zuko.

Sokka’s hair was also a mess. There were strands escaping from his hasty wolf-tail, turning wavy in the humidity. He looked like he rolled straight out of bed, which he probably had. Zuko hoped Sokka didn’t bump into too many people on his way here; his reputation seemed bad enough without adding his scandalous appearance to the list.

“Or it could be a plot against you,” Sokka mused, and Zuko’s attention snapped back to the matter at hand.

“What?” Zuko said, for what seemed the hundredth time that morning.

“Could be a plot to make you look bad,” said Sokka grimly. “Ask for something on the last official day of negotiations, pin it on your honour, and then watch you try to please everyone and fail. It’s like trying to navigate between a rock and a glacier.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a Water Tribe expression, it means to choose –”

“—choose between two difficult things, I can guess,” said Zuko. “We say ‘like being stuck between the hammer and the anvil’.”

Sokka smiled again, his grim expression vanishing. “That’s the baby. Anyway, that’s all we know for now until I ask around some more today.”

He got up from the bench, leaving Zuko lost in thought. He once told Ozai that they needed to end the era of war and replace it with an era of peace and kindness. Looking back, Zuko wished he had made a more concrete action plan. Iroh told him that being the Fire Lord was his destiny, but destiny hadn’t been much of a guide for things like how to navigate bizarre international conspiracies, or how to salvage his shambling failure of a sex life, or even if Zuko should raise or lower the Omashu grain tariffs, which, shamefully, he would appreciate some guidance on the most. Zuko did not have a head for numbers, all the trade reports made his head spin.

Was this what it was like for every Fire Lord? Did Azulon or Ozai secretly spend most of his time putting out one fire after another, feeling like an imposter making things up as he went along? Zuko couldn’t imagine it.

Zuko was shaken out of his reverie by Sokka clearing his throat. “We better train for a while, or else it’ll look suspicious for me to leave our sparring session without a scratch on me.” He poked Zuko’s ribs again, but gentler this time. “Whatever you’re brooding about again, it’ll seem better after hitting a few things with sticks.”

*

To Sokka’s disappointment, Zuko didn’t want to hit things with sticks. And in any case, the yard was set up for firebending, not swordplay, and there were no practice swords around.

Instead, they went through a few loosening and warming stretches together and then ran a few laps around the yard. They did strengthening exercises that benders and non-benders could do alike: knee bends and press-ups and leg presses mostly. Zuko found a padded straw mat and they refreshed a few basic grappling holds and hand-to-hand patterns, adjusting each other’s technique. It turned out to be a weak spot for Zuko, who couldn’t remember the last time he fought without relying on firebending or his dual broadswords.

Sokka, of course, was annoyingly competent and in practice. It must have come with dating a Kyoshi Warrior.

“This is one of the basic tackles Suki taught me,” Sokka said. “Hope I’m remembering it right.” 

He was standing a few feet away from Zuko. Coming towards him at a run, Sokka hooked one arm into Zuko’s and shifted his torso, moving towards the same side as his arm. At the same time, he grabbed Zuko’s other elbow and used it to flip Zuko around in mid-air, forcing him to the ground with his arms pinned.  

“Did you get it?” he panted. He had Zuko’s arm tucked into the crook of his own and his other hand on Zuko’s elbow. “The trick is to keep your centre of balance low and your opponent pinned. Suki says it works the best against benders, because they only expect more bending. The dumbest way is the best way.”

Zuko wondered why Suki never gave him useful advice like this when she was actually his bodyguard, instead of doing funny impressions of particularly rude nobles at court and teasing Zuko over that one time he tried to grow a beard.

He could still feel Sokka’s breath puffing warmly on his neck; he could only nod. Sokka let go of his hold and tried to stand up, but the sticky heat made their bare skin catch together for a brief second. Zuko closed his eyes and tried to think about something appropriate. Grain tariffs. Council meetings. His crushing duty to atone for a century of colonialism and war. Something that wasn’t Sokka and his beautiful ex-girlfriend tussling on the floor.

“Okay, try to pin me now,” said Sokka. “Suki and I alternated the offensive and defensive role each time when we practiced.”

He extended Zuko a hand to help him up. When did Sokka get so tall and so broad across the chest? While Zuko had only grown lankier since adolescence, Sokka had shot up a head and filled out his shoulders. The added bulk suited him. Everything suited him, even his mussed hair and his unshaven cheeks. Up close, Sokka in general was...nice. Good. Zuko didn’t have the right words to describe it, but it was just – good.

Zuko should have stayed at the Jasmine Dragon and became a waiter.

“You can attack any time now,” said Sokka.

“Right,” said Zuko, flustered. “Just trying to catch you off guard.”

He rushed Sokka, trying to mimic the clinching hold that Sokka just demonstrated. The two of them tumbled to the ground.

“Good attempt,” Sokka said, and spat a strand of hair out of his mouth. “But make sure your knee is locked and you’re using your full weight. This way it’s too easy for your opponent to break the hold.” With a brisk move, he shrugged free from Zuko’s grip; rolling both of them over so he was pinning Zuko again. “Let me show you it one more—”

He broke off, a puzzled look on his face. Zuko followed his gaze. A small hole had appeared on the left side of Sokka’s chest – a rapidly expanding burn that was ripping through the fabric of his shirt, its edges a charred black ring. Beneath it Sokka’s bare flesh sizzled. It was turning red and raw --

Moving without thinking, Zuko shrugged off Sokka’s weight and spun around in a crouch, shielding Sokka with his own body, and simultaneously punching a hand in the opposite direction to send out a jet of flame, interrupting the attack on Sokka.

Zuko scanned the yard. There, on one of the tiled roofs -- a flash of something shining in the weak sunshine, and then a streak of movement as a black figure ducked down to the other side of the sloped roof. It looked like they were alone.

He could hear Sokka’s gasps of pain on the ground, but Zuko couldn’t spare his attention, not yet.

Sprinting, he made his way across the yard and jumped on a stone balustrade by the wall, using it to spring up and grab the underside of the outer eave. He flipped himself over; then, scrambling on all fours like a cat, climbed up the roof’s diagonal ridge, just in time to see the black figure about to rappel down to the ground on a length of rope.

Zuko angled his palm and sent out a slicing wave of fire, breaking off the rope. He steadied himself and kicked out one foot, sending a second jet of fire towards the assailant. They were too fast; Zuko’s shot went wide. Whoever it was let go of the limp rope and disappeared off the edge.

Panting, Zuko ran along the top crest of the roof towards where the assailant had been a moment ago. He looked wildly at the adjacent courtyard below. Nothing. Either they had turned invisible, or, most likely, they were on the underside of the roof, clinging to one of the transverse beams. Without hesitation, Zuko jumped down the full height of the building to the stone tiles below, breaking his fall with a roll and a wide jet of fire already arcing out from his open palm as he sprung up. The assailant was exactly where he guessed they would be, a shapeless black shadow crouched in the painted beams above the building’s doors.

At the sight of Zuko they leapt out of the way to a secondary beam, narrowly avoiding his jet of fire.

They swung to another bean, but not before Zuko caught his first clear glimpse of the assailant: a figure in black, the pommels of twin broadswords visible over one shoulder, and a face that was a theatre mask frozen in a blue and white rictus.

“Who are you?” Zuko yelled, but the Blue Spirit was silent behind the mask’s leering grin.

It raised an arm in an unfamiliar gesture. For a second Zuko could not understand what was happening, but then a sudden flash of heat surrounded him, making him grunt in surprise. The attacker had just conjured heat without flame, and they were using it as an invisible attack.

Zuko could feel the hair on his arms crisping, but he stood his ground. The first thing all firebenders learned as children was how to protect themselves from burning. Zuko had left himself undefended only once in his life, when he was thirteen, and he had vowed to himself to never do it again. The heat and pain might have incapacitated another bender, but Zuko had once been struck by lightning, been caught in the middle of an exploding steel ship. He had gone beyond other people’s limits of pain and had come out the other side.

He used a move he learned from Toph, raising a thin wall of flame to absorb the energy of the attack, and then pushing the wall up and towards his opponent, giving them nowhere to hide. The assailant jumped down, somersaulting through the wall of fire, but they didn’t hit the ground smoothly and crashed against the plinth of a stone lionturtle by the steps.

Zuko lunged forward and came within a hand’s reach, but an ominous creaking sound rang out from above, freezing him mid-step.

The wall of fire had destroyed that section of the lower roof. In the space between one heartbeat and the next, the tops of the supporting columns and side pilaster gave way, a second creak echoed through the courtyard -- Zuko rolled over and threw his arms above his head -- and then the outer eave of the roof collapsed down over him in a thundering heap.

There was the moment of pure shock that usually followed destruction, when the silence itself felt deafening.

Zuko staggered up, spitting out a mouthful of dust and ash. He had rolled out of the way just in time from the main body of the collapse – a foot to his left there was a chunk of timber where his head would have been.

He looked around, dizzy from the ringing in his ears. The assailant had landed further from the building than where Zuko was, which left them unscathed by the destruction. The assailant was already running towards the far wall of the empty courtyard. Zuko shot a series of fireballs, but with their head start and Zuko’s disorientation, the flames fizzled out well before they reached their target. By the time his vision cleared completely, the assailant was already straddling the top of the wall.

The Blue Spirit turned and gave Zuko a little wave, the mask still grinning as though laughing at its own secret joke. Then whoever it was hopped down from the wall, and disappeared out of sight.

And just because it was Zuko’s luck, the rainclouds chose that minute to break open. A torrent of rain came down, wiping away any tracks the attacker could have left behind.

Zuko lunged forward to give chase, but then he stopped himself, reconsidering.

Sokka .

Chapter Text

Although it was mid-morning, the sheets of water crashing down outside had wiped out all sunlight, and the palace infirmary was lit by lanterns as if it were evening. The window shutters were shut to keep out the rain, and the stuffy, bitter-smelling air did nothing to assuage Zuko’s temper.

He had been poked and prodded, bandaged and salved, by a platoon of healers. He should probably be sitting down now and resting, but instead he was pacing around a corner of the infirmary, wearing out the floorboards as if he could hurry up time by marching it along.

“Where is the healer I sent for?” he snapped when a servant approached.

The man put on a soothing tone, like someone speaking to a child, “Fire Lord Zuko, I’m sure with the weather, the royal guards are experiencing an unavoidable delay. Won’t you sit down to have some breakfast?” He held up his burden, a tray laden with bowls.

Zuko hadn’t knocked over a tray in anger since he was an actual child, but he was sorely tempted in the moment. Fortunately for the tray, the servant, and Zuko’s dignity, the infirmary doors flew open, and the Water Tribe healer and her escort of guards barrelled through.

The effect was like boiling water poured into a teapot: the hushed atmosphere of the infirmary vanished in a snap, people leaping to their feet like tea leaves bobbing up to brew. Without missing a beat, one nurse collected the guards’ oiled cloaks, and another fetched a rag to mop up the water they had dripped on the floor. Someone knocked over a small ceramic pot of ointment, immediately precipitating an argument between the head guard and the head healer. Zuko ignored them all and pushed his way to the healer.

He had issued orders for a waterbender to be fetched immediately from Caldera’s royal medical academy, where there were usually a few visiting on a scholar’s exchange. The healer who arrived today was a stocky Northern Water Tribe woman whom Zuko didn’t recognise. She carried a large leather bag under one arm, and under the hood of her cloak she had a mass of braids and a fierce scowl. “Someone better be dying here,” she was complaining. “Or else there was no reason why I had to be marched here by armed guards. And in this rain, no less.”

Despite her grumbling, she looked perfectly dry from the tip of her braids to the toes of her wooden sandals. From what Zuko had seen of Katara, he doubted any waterbender had ever spent a second being wetter than they wanted to be.

“I was the one who sent for you,” Zuko said.

The royal guards next to the healer bowed to Zuko; she pointedly did not. She only gave him an exasperated look down her nose – she was a tall woman – and scanned Zuko up and down, taking in the cuts on his brow and the bruising on his hands.

“I see,” she said after a beat. “Bit of a delicate lily flower, are we? Not exactly worth a trip in this kind of weather, but I’ll take a closer look.” She plucked at Zuko’s collar, pulling it to one side. He flailed and pushed her hands away.

“Not me,” Zuko said, high-pitched, and re-wrapped his robe more tightly around himself before he caused some sort of incident. His training clothes had been damaged by the roof collapse. The infirmary healers had given him a simple patient’s gown, but nothing else to put on underneath. “I summoned you here for someone else – his name’s Sokka, he’s from the Southern tribes. He was injured by some sort of heat attack this morning.”

The healer sniffed. “Why didn’t you say so before?” she said, as if it was Zuko’s fault she had assaulted him without warning. “Lead me to him. And someone better bring me a few basins of clean water. Big ones.”

Sokka’s sickroom was towards the back of the infirmary, down a corridor where there was a row of small private rooms for the patients who couldn’t be kept in the main chamber. On his small bed, Sokka looked wan and vulnerable. There was a neat white square of dressing over his chest, where the palace healers had done their best with their traditional ointments and bandaging. 

His eyes were closed as if he was dozing, but Zuko could tell by the clench of his jaw that he was awake and in pain.

“Everyone out,” said the healer. She made a shooing motion at the retinue of nurses and servants who had followed them in. “Leave those water basins and go. My patient needs privacy. And I need some space to work.”

A sphere of glowing water flew up from the basin to envelope her hands.  She scrubbed her fingers in midair, and when she noticed Zuko still lingering by the door, shooed him again with a spray of droplets. Zuko lifted one hand and vaporised the water in a burst of steam.

“I’m staying,” he insisted.

The healer rolled her eyes. Zuko was prepared to argue, but Sokka groaned from the bed. “Hey jerkbender,” he said, his voice dulled by pain. “Don’t worry about me. I’m in good hands.”

Zuko took one last look at Sokka’s face, beaded with sweat. “Please help him,” he said quietly to the healer.

“I will, if someone would just let me concentrate,” she snapped, already leaning down to lift the bandage for inspection.  

Zuko left, but he didn’t go far. He found a wooden stool, planted it by the door, and sat down, not caring about the impropriety of the situation. He was making the infirmary staff nervous, but he didn’t care.

He settled in for the wait. Someone brought in the tray of breakfast again, which Zuko ate without tasting. More servants swarmed by, offering him plates of almonds and ground cherries, a more royal chair, extra salve for his cuts. Zuko dismissed them all with a wave. Behind the panels of the latticed door he could see the healer’s silhouette as she moved around. After a while he heard snatches of low conversation, even Sokka’s distinct laugh. After far too much time for Zuko’s liking, the door slid open again and the healer stepped out.

“How is he?” Zuko blurted out.

The healer raised an eyebrow.She had nearly tripped over Zuko on his stool. “He’s fine. I put him in a mild sleep so he could rest after our session.”

“How deep was the burn?” Zuko pressed her. “Will there be any lasting damage? The burn site was right next to the heart, do you think there’ll be any underlying –”

The healer raised her other eyebrow.  “By custom, these details are only discussed with family members of the patient. No one else.”

“Please,” Zuko pleaded. “Just tell me if he’s alright.”

Something in his expression must have changed her mind, because she sighed and beckoned him closer. “He’ll be fine,” she said. “Although bending injuries on non-benders are always the worst -- Sokka suffered a full-thickness flash burn, which destroyed the top two layers of skin and damaged the muscle underneath. I managed to halt the damage there and reverse it. I’ve re-applied some burn salve and bandaged the wound, but the dressing will have to be changed every half-day for the next few days. The biggest worry now is infection.”

“Is he – is he in pain?” 

“The nerve-endings under the skin were destroyed, so in a way, no,” said the healer. “But the healing process itself can be painful. He’s fortunate I’m good at this – he’ll be out of the bed and moving around by this afternoon, though he’ll have to take it easy for the next while.”

Zuko’s shoulders sagged in relief.

“Thank you,” he said. He gave her a deep bow with his hands clasped in front of him, the most formal gesture of gratitude. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” said the healer. She busied herself with adjusting the straps of her healer’s bag. “I don’t want your thanks.”

“You’ll be generously compensated –” Zuko began, but the healer interrupted.

“I want to say something to you, Fire Lord,” she said, and her blue eyes locked onto Zuko’s own. “I was thinking about it while I was healing Sokka. If you think he’s in bad shape, after the Siege of the North -- after Zhao captured and killed the old Moon Spirit -- there were many of us in Agna Qel'a who suffered far worse than Sokka is doing now.

“There were people who suffered even after their injuries were gone. People who woke up in the middle of the night with convulsions, nightmares so real they lost control of themselves. People went mad and refused to believe the moon ever came back, even when they saw her in the sky with their own eyes. There were waterbenders who stopped sleeping or eating until they faded away. Those were the worst cases of all. I healed Sokka. I’ll take my compensation. I’ll even heal you if you ever need it, but you can keep your thanks. ”

She fell silent, coming to the end of her speech like a road off a precipice. The expression on her face made Zuko look away.

“I am sorry, truly,” he said into the long silence between them. “It was wrong. I know that, and I’m sorry. I wish I could change the past, but I can’t.”

The healer rubbed one knuckle into her eye. She leaned her back against the wall and slid down until she was crouched on her heels. “It wasn’t as satisfying as I pictured it would be, saying that to you.” 

She twirled a braid around a finger and tapped the beads at the end against her teeth. Like Sokka, she wore part of her hair shaved: one side was cropped, and tbut the strands on the other side were twisted back into an elaborate coil with a few small braids hanging loose.

“I could take you to the cell where my father is kept,” Zuko offered. “Though talking to a maniacal madman also won’t be as satisfying as you imagine. That’s from personal experience.”

The healer tugged at her braid, so hard that one of the beads nearly flew off.  “People tell me that Zhao is probably dead and the war is over,” she said, and scowled. “They say I should leave the past where it’s supposed to be.”

“As if it was that easy,” said Zuko. He was thinking about blue spirits and moons; a red night sky and the blinding snow. Today of all days the boundary between past and present felt as thin as a sheet, the distinction between them melting like ice against his hand. The past was never over and done.

He looked at the healer’s scowl and wondered -- what would Aang say in his place? Aang would say, let your anger out, then let it go. Forgive, as if anger was a candle that you could light and burn out, a fire that could consume itself.

“Zhao is dead,” Zuko said flatly. He wasn’t Aang, never could be. “The man who killed the Moon Spirit. He died in absolute agony. I was there on the night of the siege, and I saw the Ocean Spirit take him away. I don’t know what he did to him, but whatever it was, I think the Ocean Spirit purposefully waited until the Avatar left him, so no human could see what he'd done. Zhao’s death was a hundred times worse than anyone in your tribe had ever suffered.”

He thought it would provide some sort of comfort, knowing the justice was delivered, but the healer did not respond. After a long instant she dug the heels of her palms into her eyes and rubbed them.

“I wasn’t always a healer,” she said abruptly. “Before the siege I was put into warrior training, but I hated it. I left home because I don’t like fighting and I don’t like violence. I’m glad that Zhao’s dead, but his death doesn’t give me much comfort.” She looked up at Zuko and frowned, in a way that made her look very tired and very young. “Sokka should be awake now. You can go in and see him if you want.”

Zuko understood. He knew a dismissal when he heard one.

*

The conversation with the healer rattled Zuko, so when he entered the room and saw Sokka -- sitting up, his face free from pain – the feeling of relief came like a punch to the stomach.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t his royal fieriness himself,” Sokka said with a grin. “We must stop meeting like this.” He was peeling a lychee-nut into a bowl in his lap. He shuffled to one side of the bed and gestured for Zuko to sit down.

Zuko stayed where he was across the room. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I could kiss Mina if only she wasn’t too good for me,” said Sokka. Mina must be the name of the healer – Zuko had neglected to ask. “I think she’s even fixed the ingrown toenail on my left foot while she was at it. I swear, if my crusty old step-grandfather ever says a word against her, I’m fighting him barehanded. I don’t even care if Grand-Pakku could turn my eyeballs into ice popsicles.”

“I guess you’re feeling better,” said Zuko.

Sokka stretched. “I feel like I could do with some breakfast. Or is it lunchtime now?”

“It’s almost noon,” said Zuko. “I’ll call for the servants to bring something—”

“No, wait.” Sokka waved him down. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there are things in life more important than food. Catch me up on what’s happening. Did we get the attacker?”

The reminder of yet another failure made Zuko’s chest squeeze painfully. “I’m sorry,” he said, for the second time that morning. “I let them get away.”

“Ah well -- but you tried your best,” Sokka said. “I know you did.”

“I dropped a roof over my own head,” said Zuko.

Sokka waved a hand. “Okay, so your best wasn’t that good.”

It was meant as a playful barb, but today the words cut Zuko to the quick. He winced. Sokka snapped his mouth shut.

“Hey, jerkbender.” he said after a few beats. “Relax. My best isn’t that good either, remember? You faced a crazy attack that took us both by surprise. Who cares if you didn’t catch them today? We’ll get them eventually. You’re the most determined person I know. You’re literally incapable of giving up.”

Zuko said nothing.

“It’s enough that you saved my life today,” Sokk said softly, and beckoned Zuko closer. When Zuko approached he grabbed Zuko’s hand and guided it to the bare skin of his chest, over the new bandage. “Look. Feel it for yourself. I might have died if you haven’t stopped the burn in time. Mina saved me. You saved me.” He brushed a fingertip over Zuko’s chest, where the lightning scar from Azula was covered by the fabric of his robe. “And we match now.”

Sokka’s chest was warm to the touch, the skin around the bandage still greasy from burn ointment. Zuko could feel thumping under his fingertips: the familiar soft roar of a living heart.

For a second Zuko was back in the Southern Water Tribe territory again, on a rocky beach where the scent of whale meat and blood carried over on the breeze, circling seabirds crying out wildly above his head. Katara’s relieved smile as she looked up at Zuko’s footsteps. Just a sprain and a nasty knock on the head, Zuko. We got him out pretty quickly.

He had to sit down. He felt Sokka’s hand squeezing his own. He squeezed back, and the past receded, the present solidified, and Zuko got a hold of himself again. He had not known he was afraid until the fear left him. “I’m alright,” he said. “I just – I hate infirmaries. I hate them. It’s the smell.” He wiped his eyes and gestured at the pots of salves and balms on the table next to the bed. It was the truth. They reminded him of being thirteen again, spending weeks with a pad of stinking bandages taped over his eye, wondering if he was going to keep his sight or not.

Sokka’s eyes flicked to his face. “A little thing like this? Wasn’t expecting the Fire Lord to be worrying his little headpiece off over me.”

“You’re my friend,” Zuko rasped out. “I care about my friends.”

Something flickered across Sokka’s face. “Good to know, buddy,” he said. 

“You’re alright though?” Zuko asked again, hoping Sokka would catch his meaning.

Sokka’s face softened. “I’m a different person than I was last year,” he said. “Honestly. I’m sorry you saw me like that -- I’m working on it. I’m trying to be a good person again.”

“You were always a good person,” Zuko said staunchly.

“Sure,” said Sokka, but in a tone that made it clear he was humouring Zuko. “Now, could you let go so I can have another lychee-nut?” He looked down pointedly. 

Zuko followed his gaze and flushed; he was still clutching Sokka’s hand in his own. He let go and then too late, realised that Sokka’s hands were sticky with lychee-nut juice. “Ugh,” he said and got up, casting around for a towel. “You’re worse than a toddler. Let me peel them.”

“Are you going to feed them to me too?” asked Sokka, back to his breezy self again. “Or else my hands will just get dirty again.”

“No.”

Sokka leaned back and surrendered the bowl. “Have it your way. So back to business: did you see who the attacker was?”

Zuko dug a fingernail into the lychee-nut’s skin and unpeeled it in a single, long strip. He breathed in, letting the tart scent cut through the medicinal haze of the infirmary.

“I didn’t see their face. They had a mask on.” He didn’t elaborate further.

If Sokka noticed his reticence, he didn’t mention it. “Did you see if they were holding a special weapon of some sort?” Sokka asked instead. “Mina said she’s never seen a burn like this before. The shape is too regular. She thought whoever did it used some sort of special method to direct their firebending.”

“They had twin broadswords, but they didn’t use them,” said Zuko. “Only firebending. I think it’s someone with a formal education too,” said Zuko. He held up a small handful of peeled lychee-nuts for Sokka to take, but Sokka dived in face-first and ate them off his hand. “Hey!”

“It’s neater for everyone this way,” said Sokka, chewing. “But wait, what do you mean?”

“We didn’t fight for long, but whoever it is, their style was too precise for a self-taught amateur or even a regular soldier. I recognised the classical katas in the footwork.” Zuko thought back to the attacker’s botched landing. His hands stilled. “It’s someone experienced in duelling, but new to assassin’s work.”

Something in the back of his mind was calling for his attention, but then Sokka threw another lychee-nut at him, jerking him out of his train of thought. Zuko dutifully resumed peeling.

“It means we were right,” said Sokka. “Luan was working with someone on the inside of the royal court. Either she or her conspirator thought I was getting too close, so they hired someone to take me out.”

“Or her conspirator is doing it directly,” said Zuko. “Every noble who was born a firebender will have gone through an academy training at some point. Why not cut out the middleman?” He stuffed the lychee-nut into Sokka’s mouth before he could steal it again.

A tap sounded at the door, and both of them startled, Sokka nearly spitting out his lychee-nut.

“I’ve stationed guards around the infirmary,” said Zuko. “You should be safe here.”

“Wait,” said Sokka. “Don’t open the door just yet. Pretend like I’m still injured.” He laid back down on the bed and covered himself with the thin blanket, closing his eyes as if he was asleep.

Zuko slid the door open with caution, primed for an attack, but it was only Li and Lo with a servant behind them carrying an armload of robes. They bowed and then looked up, and Zuko followed the direction of their gaze as it bounced between him and the bed, then at the bowl of lychee-nuts in his hands, then back to bed again, at which point the twins’ expressions became totally unreadable.

“Are we disturbing you?” said both twins at the same time.

“Uh,” said Zuko. “No?”

Li-or-Lo gave a light cough. “The royal guards have finished their search, Fire Lord Zuko. They found no trace of an assassin. The reparations council will convene in half an hour.”

“We have brought you your formal attire so you can prepare here,” added Lo-or-Li.

Zuko nodded his thanks and tried to close the door, but one of the twins stuck her foot into the crack.

“How is Ambassador Sokka?” she asked. 

Was Zuko imagining it, or was there a twinkle in her rheumy eyes? He glanced back. On cue, Sokka gave a theatrical moan of pain.

“I think he still needs time to recover,” Zuko said cautiously.

“You are not working our Water Tribe ambassador too hard?” inquired the other twin. 

There was definitely something suspicious about her expression. Zuko stared at both of them. How did they know that he was investigating something with Sokka? Could Li and Lo be the secret conspirators working with Luan? Was a lifetime of service to Zuko’s family not enough to ward against treason breeding in the inner circle of the royal court?

“No,” Zuko said finally, and closed the door the remaining inch.

He watched the silhouettes of the two women leave.  “I think they’re onto something,” he said to Sokka in a whisper. “That was too weird.”

Sokka poked his head out from under the blanket. “Yeah, they’re onto something.” He looked like he was trying not to laugh. “They think they’ve interrupted our private re-enactment of The Melting of Spring Snow .”

“What?” Zuko hissed. 

“They’re onto the fact that you just locked yourself up with your secret barbarian lover to nurse him with your own tender, lychee-nut stained hands. Any moment now I’m about to be clasped to your loving bosom and have my mortal wound showered with burning kisses.”

Zuko made a noise of disgust. “‘Loving bosom’? When do they say that in the play?”

“They don’t. It's from Wager for the Water Maiden -- Toph and I have a book club going,” said Sokka, as if that was an explanation for anything. “But you see? My cover story’s cover story is working.”

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. “How exactly does Toph--” He held up a hand when Sokka opened his mouth to explain. “Never mind, I don’t have time right now. We’re re-starting negotiations in the afternoon and secret conspiracy or not, there are villages in the Earth Kingdom that need these shipments before winter. I want to have the ship orders ready before storm season starts. You stay here and peel your own lychee-nuts. Shower your own burning kisses or whatever.”

“A-ha! Lychee-nuts!”

Sokka was undeterred by Zuko’s blank stare. “When we were travelling through the Earth Kingdom, years back, Momo got caught in a trap when he was trying to eat a pile of lychee nuts. I have an idea just now, about how we can set up our own trap.” 

“Go on,” Zuko said. 

Sokka smiled smugly. “I’m going to send you a messenger halfway through the meeting, when Luan is stuck inside the room. You’ll open it and tell everyone that the guards have caught the assassin and they’re being interrogated as you speak. Then after the meeting we’ll follow Luan.”

“Why?”

“Because what’s the first thing that you do if you think your plot’s about to be blown wide open? You’ll try to confirm if we captured the right guy or not. We’ll see who Luan tries to contact. She’ll take us right to the heart of the conspiracy. Then bing bang boom, mystery solved.”

“Wait,” Zuko said. “What do you mean, we? You’re on bed rest.”

Sokka grinned. “Mina said I can be up and moving around by the afternoon. She’s the healer, not you. But that brings me to the second part of my masterplan: don’t tell anyone that I’m recovered. If everyone thinks I’m still deathly injured, we’ll have a secret weapon – me.”

*

On his way out of the infirmary, Zuko turned a corner and nearly collided face-first with a bouquet of flowers. It was a bunch of lilies, so enormous that it seemed to be carrying the vase and the person underneath it like a gondola of a hot-air balloon.

“My apologies,” said Zuko, after he side-stepped the imminent catastrophe. He recognised the dark eyebrows and the delicate cheekbones behind the eye-watering arrangement of orange and pink hues. “Lady Kizia?”

“Fire Lord Zuko, I should be the one apologising,” said Kizia. She set the vase on the ground and gave him a formal bow, making the pair of spectacles looped around her neck dangle wildly.

“Let me call for someone to help you with that,” Zuko said. He looked around for a servant, but the corridor was deserted. 

Kizia gave him a demure smile. “I’d like to deliver these personally. I picked the flowers myself from our garden, and I’d like to present them with my own hands as well.”

“Whoever it is would be fortunate for such a gift,” Zuko said politely, trying not to sneeze from the drifts of pollen. In truth he thought the bouquet was a bit of a social faux-pas: lilies were associated with funerals and condolence offerings, an inauspicious present for a living person. But maybe trends had changed among young people -- Zuko wouldn’t know, it wasn’t like he had the occasion to choose any flowers lately. And besides, the sheer quantity of the flowers in Kizia’s vase had to count for something. “Who are they meant for?”

“They’re for Ambassador Sokka’s bedside,” said Kizia. She smiled wider, showing a row of small, pearly teeth. “Everyone in the palace is talking about his miraculous escape this morning. I wanted to cheer him up with something while he’s healing. What do you think? Do you think a Water Tribesman would like these?”

She lifted the horrible display up for Zuko’s inspection.

Only a blind one, Zuko thought, and then corrected himself on his closer look -- the vase was decorated with obvious imitation gold leaf. Toph would be the first one to turn up her nose.

He searched for something else polite to say. “Ambassador Sokka appreciates all presents. But I’m sure he’ll appreciate your thoughtfulness even more.”

Kizia’s pearly teeth flashed again. “I hope to leave him with a deep impression. Though I should hurry with these – I’m sure you’re busy enough without stopping to chat with silly girls like me.”  Just as Zuko was about to bow in return, she darted forwards into his personal space and startled him by swiping two light fingertips across his front, over the heart. “There’s a bit of pollen on your robe,” she chirped, and held up a finger. “Look, all gone now.”

Zuko watched her disappear down the corridor. From the back, Kizia’s ominous gift looked like a sunset-coloured halo around her head. He was wondering something: a girl who can spot a speck of orange pollen on a red robe in the dim light – why would she need a pair of spectacles around her neck?

And why did the thought of Sokka receiving a bouquet of flowers from an admirer – surely not the first time it had ever happened – disquiet Zuko so much all of a sudden?

Chapter Text

There was a knack to keeping his attention focused during long, boring negotiations. Zuko only wished he knew what it was.

The scribes had completed copying out the new agreements: reparation shipments and teams of engineers for the original agreed-upon colonies, plus a doubled amount of refined steel and money for Kolau, as Luan requested. Considering that they had just gone over the exact same thing yesterday, Zuko had hoped everyone present would play nice and nod along.

But the note that Sokka said he would send was nowhere to be seen, so Zuko, against every natural instinct, had to stall for as long as he could. It was depressingly easy. Just when he thought the last, laborious technicality to be debated to its slow, gruesome death, one of his own admirals stood up – unprompted – and began a long speech about the harbour fees in Chameleon Bay.

Zuko sighed, and he could feel the room privately sighing along with him. Admiral Chan wanted the Earth King to waive the fees for Fire Nation ships on diplomatic business, even the ones in privately-controlled ports. In his opinion, since the Fire Nation was there in the country to hand out free charity anyway, paying any additional fees was an outrage.

One of the Ba Sing Se ministers stood up to give a rebuttal about free market pitfalls and ended it with a pointed remark about centralised economy planning; Admiral Chan sniffed and made the remark that people whose agricultural supply were in dire need of mechanisation had no place to judge, and ended it with veiled insult about the Ba Sing Se minister’s halitosis.

Zuko drummed his fingers. Whoever had tried to kill Sokka was still at large, and here he was, stuck listening to grown men squabbling like schoolboys.

In front of him, the squabbling had turned into a quarrel, and the quarrel was showing signs of becoming a formal dispute. Zuko hated formal disputes. They tended to generate more paperwork.

He motioned for both sides to be quiet and then addressed the Ba Sing Se minister. “My lord, Admiral Chan is ardent about his duties, and I’m sure the heat of passion just blinded him to how his words might be misconstrued as an offense,” he said, trying not to make it too obvious he was lying through his teeth. “But if I can suggest a solution: at the earliest opportunity we will negotiate directly with the merchant’s association who controls the ports. Perhaps we can waive fees at Fire Nation ports in exchange for a similar favour.”

The Earth Kingdom minister looked mollified. Admiral Chan looked less happy, but then again, Zuko and his sister once interrupted his son’s deplorable vacation party by burning the Chan family’s beach house to the ground. Zuko was no longer a maladjusted teenager, but his working relationship with Chan never did get off the ground.

Luan stood up in a jingle of pearls necklaces and gold chains. “Well said, Fire Lord Zuko. But let’s not be distracted by the purpose of us meeting today. If this issue has been settled, then I am ready to sign on behalf of Kolau.” She blinked around the room with her watery eyes.

A chorus of ayes followed, from both sides of the throne room. Everyone was sick of looking at each other’s faces. Zuko glanced over at Qyu – it’d be just like him to toss in the final word, but the man was quiet.

“I’m sure you are eager to honour your promise, Fire Lord,” Luan added, and sat down.

When he visited the Southern Water Tribe last year, Zuko saw how the hunters worked together to chase down a whale. They made floats out of sealskin and strung on lines attached to their spears. After the spears were loosened, the skin discs dragging in the water, gradually exhausted the whale to the point where the hunters could move in for the kill. 

Zuko was beginning to understand how the whale felt. There was only so much he could do to stall proceedings, conspiracy or no conspiracy.

“I’ll call for a brief recess for everyone to collect their thoughts and prepare,” he said wearily. He spotted a messenger boy hovering at the entrance of the room. Was it the message from Sokka? “We will conclude the negotiations after we return.”

The room relaxed, people breaking off in knots for refreshments and to make conversation in small groups. The messenger approached Zuko: he had two messages on his salver: one for Zuko, and the other for Lord Qyu.

Whatever Qyu’s news was, he was taking it badly. The edge of the paper where he was holding it was charring to a black crisp under his fingers.

Maybe someone just informed him of his daughter’s awful taste in flowers. It wasn’t Zuko’s problem. He unfolded his own message: “ Here’s the note as agreed. Make sure Luan thinks what we need her to think. I’ll be outside to tail her and see who she contacts. Destroy this after reading.” Instead of a signature, there was a messy drawing of a boomerang.

Zuko rubbed a thumb over the boomerang and hid a small smile. He folded the paper up in his fist, setting it ablaze. He opened the hand and let go of a pale stream of ash, watching the message’s secret dissipate into the air with the smoke.

He waited for the room to ready itself before he made his announcement: “My lords and ministers, before we sign the agreements, I have some good news to share. I just received word from my private guards that they have apprehended the assassin who attacked Ambassador Sokka this morning. I can’t say more now, but we’re questioning the attacker right now. Whoever else is conspiring against him, we will catch them. Rest assured justice will be served and the rest of us can go about in safety.”

A wave of whispers swept the room; a few people clapped. Zuko sneaked a glance at Luan. While the ministers next to her look relieved at the news, Luan’s face was pale from tension, her nervous blinking quickened to the point where it was becoming a twitch.

“That’s excellent news,” said one of the men from the Earth Kingdom. “I’ve met Sokka when he was travelling with the Avatar – still just a boy then. Nice lad. Shame if we had let a common murderer get away with it.”

“I believe it’s a shame they didn’t succeed,” said another voice. It was Qyu, and he crossed his arms when people turned to stare. “That man’s a barbarian and a viperous low-life. I only wished the attacker had finished the job.”

“Calm yourself, Qyu,” said Zuko, a little astonished.

Qyu’s face was red, hatred twisting his features into bone and gristle. “I’ve just received a message,” Qyu said, every word a ringing bell. “That Water Tribe barbarian just attacked my daughter in the infirmary. She’s been wounded.”

“Sokka?” said Zuko, truly astonished. “What are you talking about?”

“He lifted a hand against a noblewoman! He has broken the first law of our court, and he did it against my own Kizia!”

The throne room exploded into furious whispering.

“This doesn’t sound like the Ambassador Sokka I know,” Zuko said. “Are you sure?”

Qyu twitched at Zuko’s question, every sinew straining to keep himself from bursting from his seat. He looked like a tiger monkey locked in a cage too small for its size. “Of course I’m sure Here is a note from the royal guards, signed by the head healers. My daughter took him flowers this afternoon, and then that ungrateful scoundrel smashed the vase and attacked her with a shard, cutting open her leg. Only by Agni’s providence it happened in the infirmary and the healers staunched the bleeding.”

Either Qyu or the guards had to be lying. But supposed they were not, then if Sokka did draw blood, and there were witnesses to prove it–

“Fire Lord, I demand retribution on my family’s honour,” said Qyu. “The hand that was raised in attack must be taken as compensation.”

One of the Earth Kingdom ministers gasped and pressed her sleeve to her mouth, like she was watching a particular juicy development in a play. Admiral Chan and his enemy, the Ba Sing Se minister, have even put aside their political differences in favour of gossip, Chan leaning across the table to explain what was happening to his fellow dignitary. Of course gossip was the true uniting bridge across the chasm ideological difference, Zuko noted in a small part of his mind.

The whispering was reaching a feverish crescendo. Most of the Earth Kingdom ministers seemed to be in disbelief; but a few, like the Fire Nation’s lords and ministers, were speculating out loud. “ Who would have thought?” “ …and yet he seemed so civilised at dinner the other day.” “Ambassador Sokka? The one whose practically related to the Avatar?” “…what else did one expect from a painted tribal barbarian?”

“Quiet,” said Zuko. When that had no effect, he brought his arms up and ignited the wall of flame behind him on the dais. He held it to a count of seven, when he judged that the fire was bordering on unbearable even for the firebenders in the room, extinguished it by pressing his palms down flat. The blinding wave of light and heat died down, replaced with silence.

Zuko cleared his throat. “Lord Qyu, whatever grievance you have with Ambassador Sokka, it can wait until after we have concluded the matter at hand. Once the agreements are signed, I will personally make sure that justice is served.”

Qyu took it in with a grunt. He made a bow of apology, but when he looked up at Zuko his eyes were like two fiery pits. “Your unnatural friendship with the Water Tribe barbarian blinds you, Fire Lord.” A few more gasps broke out at this insinuation, and Qyu went on, “By my right as the patriarch of the Qyu family, I have already sent a note demanding that he be arrested and punished for the dishonour. The guards should already be on their way now to put him in the prison tower.”

*

If ever there was a less climatic end to three weeks’ worth of complicated decision-making, Zuko would have liked to see it. The official documents were being passed down the table, so each dignitary present may ink their name and add their seal, but the attention of the room was divided between the task at hand and Zuko himself. Every now and then someone would peek up at Zuko under the guise of ordering more ink or another wet towel for their face and hands.

Zuko had the sense they were waiting for him to do something else dramatic. Challenge Qyu to an Agni Kai, maybe. Dissolve into tears over his secret gay lover. Perhaps even fly into another temper and make something else explode.

What he did do was keep his face blank. When the steward brought him the ink bowl and the gold-handled brush as the final signature, Zuko thanked him politely. He signed and stamped, and watched the ink of his name dry from iridescent to flat, the wax of the royal insignia dry from a glistening blood drop to a dull red dot. Then he rolled up the scroll, fastened the jade and gold buckles of the silk tags, and used his own flame to melt the second sealing wax to secure the ribbon.

He thanked everyone for their time. He reminded them that the ball tonight will go on as usual. He bowed to each of the foreign dignitaries and accepted their bow in return.

When it was Luan’s turn he watched her face with attention. Luan seemed to have recovered somewhat; colour has come back into her cheeks. “My gratitude for your generosity, Fire Lord Zuko,” she said. The beads on her robes tinkled as she bowed her head.

“It was my honour to do so,” Zuko said flatly.

Then at long last the meeting was dismissed. Zuko watched the dignitaries filter out. When he was alone except for the servants clearing up, Zuko beckoned one of the stewards over.

 “Did you see Minister Luan?” he asked. “She’s the one in an embroidered gratitude robe with the pearls. Run after her and stall her for me. Ask her about her dressmaker or something. Say it’s for a noble lady too shy to approach her directly.”

The man nodded, and then Zuko dismissed the rest of the servants as well. When he was finally alone in the throne room, he pulled off his outer layer of ceremonial armour and formal robes, leaving only a simple tunic underneath.

There was no time to waste. He knew there was a small door to the back of the throne room concealed behind curtains, a secret escape route designed for a quick evacuation in case of attacks. As children, Azula had shown it to him when they were playing Fire Lords and Dragons. Zuko took it now, sprinting down the passageway to the third turning, where he headed for the door leading to the main courtyard directly outside the throne room.

The door opened behind a stone planter of gingko trees, which gave him cover from the main entrance. Zuko hopped on the rim of the planter, then jumped again onto the roof. From there he could see the inside of the ancient planter. Even darkened by rain he could see the scorch mark on the inside of the rim – a souvenir from Azula and Zuko’s last game of Fire Lords and Dragons, and also the reason they had been banned from playing it since.

He could also see Luan on the wide steps in front of the hall’s entrance, frowning at the steward speaking to her. There was a young maid standing next to her with an umbrella. Tian the airbending fan, most likely.

The late afternoon air was humid, blood-temperatured, saturated with the smell of wet dust and hot rain hitting marble. But even as Zuko moved he could sense the rain from earlier slowing down, the wet splatters on the exterior steps shrinking from pine needles to fine fur. His clothes were drenched through, but at least the rain kept the people below ducking their head down, their umbrellas shielding them from noticing him on the roof.

It was stupid to tail Luan himself, Zuko knew. If Azula were here, she’d smirk at little Zuzu sneaking around like a thief in his own palace. And then she would just explain the entire conspiracy to him in that bored, superior drawl. Azula would have sussed out the whole thing from the beginning from a quirk of Luan’s eyebrow or a passing glance, and by now she would have worked out a way to turn it to her own advantage.

Zuko felt himself smiling, and then shook his head. If Azula was here she would probably shove Zuko off the roof, he reminded himself. She didn’t deserve his nostalgia.

Luan has managed to shake off the steward, and now she was walking through the quadrangle towards the outer east side of the palace, where the foreign dignitaries lived closer to the rest of the city.  Zuko followed them over the rooftops, scrambling over the other side of the rain-slick ridges whenever he saw a royal guard approaching. He followed her through the palace to her residence, a two-storey building tucked away in a traditional-style courtyard with a veranda in the back grown over with wisteria, on the northern side of the palace that ran adjacent to the commercial quarters of the caldera city.

The rain had stopped entirely, but lucky for Zuko, the lingering dampness kept everyone out of the courtyard. Luan’s house faced an identical one across a small grassy yard, and was boxed in by the two parallel covered walkways connecting the two buildings. From his vantage point on a nearby roof, Zuko watched as Luan and her maid hurried into the house. When the door closed he darted across and climbed on top of the wooden veranda, grown over with vines. Balancing carefully, he pressed his ears against the outside wall: the sound of faint footsteps going up the stairs. Luan must be in a second-floor room then.

If Luan didn’t meet anyone on the way from her rooms, she was either expecting a visitor, or she was about to send out a messenger hawk to find out what was going on. Zuko walked across the narrow wooden beams to crouch under the windows of the second storey, the wisteria blossoms under his boots releasing purple stains on the wood. He hoped it was a visitor; he had no net or raven eagle with him, and he didn’t want to barbecue some poor messenger hawk just to intercept its message.

Zuko settled in to wait: after the stuffy atmosphere of the throne room he was glad to be outside, where the scent of the crushed wisteria beneath him was as clear as a sung note in the newly-washed air. The sweetness of the afternoon was incongruous to the dark questions running through his head. What had happened in the infirmary? Was Sokka locked up by now, annoyed at Zuko for not coming to his aid? But if Zuko had dropped everything, rushed to his side, then their trap for Luan would have been for nothing. If Qyu wasn’t lying, then what was Kizia up to when she brought him some flowers? And not just any flower – lilies. Funeral lilies.

A sudden burst of fire jolted Zuko out of his reverie. He threw up one arm, deflecting it away from instinct. He readied himself to counterattack, scanning the yard for his opponent. There – on top of the building across the yard: a figure dressed in black, a pair of dual broadswords over one shoulder, their familiar blue and white face tilted down to grin at Zuko, mocking him for their shared, secret joke.

It made no sense to Zuko: how did the assassin find him?

But there was no time to ponder more questions. Zuko curled his fists and jabbed them out, sending two quick bursts of fire at his opponent’s chest. The Blue Spirit leapt across the ridge, avoiding both. Zuko sent out an arc of fire, but his position on top of the veranda gave him a poor vantage point to the opposite roof, and his attack met with nothing but air.

Something bright was flashing around the yard: spots of light danced across the walkways to his left and right, leaving trails of smoke behind with no visible flame. Zuko heard sizzling. The body of the royal palace was built from stone and tile, but the roof beams and benches that lined the outside walkways were made of elm and cedar. The soaked wood should be slow to kindle, but Zuko could feel the waves from heat from up high. Some invisible heat source was drying out the moisture fast enough for the timber to ignite.

His attacker must be using the same weapon they used on Sokka, Zuko realised, coupled with the heating technique he saw that morning.

Zuko jumped off the veranda’s narrow beams and took cover under the roofed wall next to the building. He coughed. He didn’t mind the heat, but the heavy, acrid smoke beginning to rise from the wood hurt his lungs. What was the Blue Spirit doing?  

In the distance, he could hear frightened cries for help; servants and other nobles were running out of the surrounding courtyards, looking for the royal brigade to control the blaze. A few went by the gates, but no one noticed Zuko, pressed up against the wall close to the source of the conflagration. From Luan’s building, he heard sounds of an argument behind the window, then running footsteps as someone left through the front door, to the street on the other side of the house from the courtyard. From the light footsteps it sounded like Luan’s maid.

More and more flames appeared on the sides of the building. Zuko ran out to the grassy verge of the courtyard garden. He looked up, checking the lower eaves of the parts of the walkway closest to him, the parts that were still untouched by fire. If the Blue Spirit was still nearby, maybe they were re-using their old hiding place at they did that morning.

At first Zuko saw nothing, but a faint thump behind him alerted him to the Blue Spirit moving from their hiding place – they must have taken refuge in the other walkway then. Without turning around, Zuko lunged on one knee and kicked his other leg out behind him, holding his body parallel on one leg and sending out a jet of fire from the flat of his foot. He used the forward momentum to flip onto his hands, in time to see the Blue Spirit duck to one side and counterattack with a retaliatory stream of fire.

Still balancing on his hands, Zuko twisted in mid-air, kicking out another two bursts of fire before landing with a roll over one shoulder. His opponent nimbly ducked both by springing off an ornamental rock, and then they sent more thin streams of fire Zuko’s way. Zuko crossed his arms, blocking it, but in that fraction of a second left himself open to a low arc of fire sweeping across the ground at his feet. He jumped up, but the flame still scorched one heel of his boot, and he stumbled on landing. Without hesitation, the Blue Spirit sent a bust of fire so strong that even the force from Zuko’s own deflection knocked him to the ground.

“Why are you doing this?” he yelled, scrambling up again. The Blue Spirit gave no answer.

The two of them were circling each other in the courtyard in mirrored positions: both prowling, both with their arms raised in the classical offensive stance. Study your opponent, Iroh had told him time and time again. Up close, Zuko could see the rapid rise and fall of his attacker’s chest, the way they slightly favoured their right leg. That’ll be why they haven’t run away yet: they might not beat him in a run. He noted the stance too. Despite the leg injury, the balance was perfect. Academically precise.

And like that, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. He could have kicked himself for not putting it together sooner.

The Blue Spirit, sensing Zuko’s moment of distraction, moved first and pushed a palm full of fire towards his lower ribs. Inside of blocking it, Zuko pivoted away, letting the palm meet nothing but air, In the moment the Blue Spirit was caught off-balance, Zuko stepped forwards and aimed an elbow at the back of their head. The blow didn’t land; the Blue Spirit weaved away. They retreated a few steps with their hands raised in the familiar heat attack gesture.

Zuko was ready. The person he was fighting was fast, vicious, at the top of their academy class. Other than Iroh’s tutoring, Zuko’s own formal education had ended with his banishment. While private lessons from the Dragon of the West were a formidable privilege, even more valuable than those were the many times in Zuko’s formative years where he got the shit kicked out of him again and again. He had fought and lost against the Avatar and his friends, plus all the pirates, mercenaries, prison guards, master benders from every walk of life, and plus Azula, who deserved her own category.  Zuko had come out the other side with one important lesson. In real life, there were no rules.

“You think Sozin was so great?” he yelled. “Take your lilies there then. Only he’s not worth the time it takes to piss on his grave.”

The crude taunt worked. In the moment that the Blue Spirit faltered, caught off guard, Zuko put aside every bit of firebending training he’s ever had. He took a run and leaped in with a flying tackle.

They went down tumbling, a jumble of indistinct knees and elbows. The two of them fought blindly, grappling like children or alley cats. Zuko didn’t know which way was up or down, whose hand was where. Something knocked him in the chin – it might have been his own knee – and sent a jolt of pain through his mouth, white hot and jagged like broken porcelain. But when they rolled to a stop it was Zuko who had his opponent pinned beneath him, Zuko’s weight restraining them on their weaker side.

He tugged on the mask and pulled it away. For a moment, panting, dazed by smoke and the coppery taste of blood in his mouth, he half expected to see his own face underneath him, the returning ghost of his past mistakes.

It wasn’t. But it was the sort of face Zuko might have had in another life: pale and haughty, aristocratic, a pair of gold eyes glaring up with fierce hatred.

“Fuck off,” spat Kizia.

“You don’t have to do this,” said Zuko. “I don’t want to hurt you.” The statement would have had a better effect if he wasn’t dribbling blood down his chin.

“Let me go!”

“I’ve made mistakes too,” said Zuko. “I don’t know your reasons for doing this, but believe me, I still understand. Whatever you’ve done, you can still restore your honour. Let me help you. You don’t exactly have a lot of options right now.”

Kizia struggled and tried to throw him off, but without success. At last she gave him a single nod.

Zuko stood up and extended a hand. It’s going to be alright –” he began saying, but then Kizia launched a fireball at his hand, cutting off the rest of his sentence. Only his reflexes saved him. Zuko stepped away from the brunt of the blast, but the force of the attack knocked him off his feet and into the trunk of a nearby willow tree. His back connected with a painful crack.

Zuko stumbled up and blinked, hard; the stinging smoke that covered the yard was beginning to blur his vision. Kizia was already up and running towards the courtyard gate, stumbling on despite the limp on her left side. He sent a blast in her direction, but in the confusing miasma they went wide and missed. Zuko ran, scaled the wall next to the gate, and surveyed the scene, but all he saw was the smoking wreckage of the garden walkway and veranda. There was no sign of Kizia. Sokka’s attacker had managed to escape him – again.

*

There were no bruises forming yet, but Zuko’s jaw and knees sent out dull rings of pain with every step. He forced himself to climb the stairs anyway while the adrenaline still shielded him from the worst of the injuries. Outside, servants were clearing away debris, and imperial firebenders were moving in their collective katas, suppressing the flames. Zuko didn’t envy their task. The old paradox of their discipline was that it was much harder to destroy a fire than creating one.

No one knew that Zuko was inside the house yet, and he intended to keep it that way. He climbed the final step and pushed open a door.

For some reason, Luan had not escaped earlier with her maid. She was sitting by a low tea table, staring down at her hands. But whether she was frozen from fear or guilt, Zuko could not tell.

“Minister Luan, I know that you’re working with Lady Kizia,” he said, too tired for greetings. “I know that Kizia tried to kill Sokka this morning because she knew he was on your trail. I know you two are plotting something. Kizia may have escaped for now, but she can’t run forever. Either I’ll find her, or Sokka will. It’s in your best interest to tell me the truth right now.”

Luan lifted her head, and Zuko, still roused for a fight, shifted into a fighting stance, guard up.

But Luan only blinked with her usual nervousness, and Zuko dropped his arms; it was like confronting a small meadow vole with an airship.

He stepped into the room and knelt down besides Luan. “Minister,” he tried in a different tone of voice. “It’s going to be alright. Tell me now what you know, and I promise you I’ll be lenient. It’s not too late to undo what you’ve done, there’s no dishonour in fixing your mistakes.”

Still nothing. “Luan, look at me,” Zuko said, changing tacks again. “Think about the poor villagers who had to abandon their home. They’re about to be cheated out of their dues.”

“No,” Luan said finally. Her voice was a dry croak. “You’re wrong. No one was supposed to starve. There wouldn’t be any victims. We made the whole thing up. There was a Fire Nation battalion there, decades ago, but there’s no survivors’ group. We made up the letter.”

Zuko winced, half from the reveal and half from the stabbing pain in his mouth. “How did you two start working together?” he asked.

“She approached me first,” Luan said dully. “On my first day in Caldera City, I received a messenger hawk asking me for a private audience. On the day, a figure in a blue mask came in through my window. She congratulated me on my new government post, and then she said she knew that my family was in debt, and our impending bankruptcy was common knowledge. She said she had an idea to make us both a lot of money – the new Fire Lord was sending ship after ship to the middle of nowhere with coins and steel. Who would notice if one gets diverted?”

Zuko excused himself, took a stray teacup from the table, and spat. A shard of tooth clinked as it hit the teacup’s side, surfacing in a foaming mess of blood and drool. He ran a tongue over the jagged edge where it chipped off from the rest of his tooth. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Go on.”

Luan hunched over her shoulders. “I didn’t even know who was behind the mask until now. I didn’t know things would get so violent. I didn’t think people would get hurt.”

“How did she find me outside?” Zuko asked.

“I don’t know. But we were supposed to meet this afternoon. Possibly you just surprised her.” Luan looked towards the window at the back of the room, where streaks of smoke still painted the sky. She looked frightened. “I really didn’t know things could get so violent.”

Zuko snapped his fingers in front of her face. “Did you keep any proof? The letters that you exchanged?”

A shake of the head. “I destroyed everything after reading.”

“That’s fine,” said Zuko, “Your word’s enough to convince my cabinet and the rest of your delegation to void today’s agreement.”

“But you’re the Fire Lord,” said Luan, her gaze snapping back towards Zuko. “Couldn’t you just fix it? Order that clause void and replace it with another one?”

“Not unless I want to spend the rest of my year dealing with the political backlash,” said Zuko. He stifled an odd urge to giggle: the pain and the adrenaline come down was making him giddy. “You are new to government, aren’t you?”

Luan was about to say something, but then she paused as if confused, or stunned. A red hole was appearing in the middle of her forehead; something sizzled, and the hole turned bigger. There was blood boiling in the middle of the crater, the flesh around it searing brown.

Below the awful, gaping hole Luan opened her mouth to scream, but the sound died coming out of her throat.

“No!” Zuko cried, looking around wildly. He ran to the window and slammed the shutter shut, but it was too late, the burn had made its way to the brain. Even before Zuko’s eyes acknowledged the gruesome sight in front of him, some other part of his brain, some animal instinct for death, knew that Luan was gone. Not even Katara and her Spirit Oasis water could help her now. Luan’s corpse slumped over, knocking the teacup on the table to the ground.

It made no sense. How was Kizia doing it? Luan was sitting far away from the window, on the other side of the room. There shouldn’t be a clear line of sight from the outside. How could Zuko have missed an attack right in front of him?

Someone shrieked from the doorway – Zuko turned, as if in a dream, and saw Tian, the maid, framed by the doorway. Her round eyes fixed on the sight of Luan’s dead body on the floor.

“Get away from here!” yelled Zuko.

Tian didn’t move, immobilised with shock. Zuko ran and pushed her out the room and into the corridor, and the rough gesture finally snapped her out of her daze.

“Fire Lord Zuko?” she said. “What’s happening? What did you do to Minister Luan?”

Zuko didn’t answer, he was still scanning the room, his heart pounding.

“Someone told me to come back for my mistress,” Tian said. “What happened to her?”

“Shut up,” Zuko hissed. Was Kizia hiding in the ceiling? The closets? He couldn’t understand. Fear reared up in the back of his throat, black and bitter, annihilating his frantic attempt at rational thought.

“Help!” screamed Tian behind him. “Help, there’s been a murder! Help me!”

Zuko prowled the room, desperately searching for a secret doorway or place of concealment. There was a paper folding screen by the dressing area – nothing. Under the bed and inside the cedar closet – still nothing. There was a vanity mirror by the window, but with no one lurking behind.

All the while, Tian was still screaming.

There were footsteps coming, imperial firebenders and guards attracted by the noise. Zuko looked around again, forcing his scattered mind to concentrate: in the room there was a firebender, a dead body with a burn mark, and a wailing maid who just saw the firebender bent over her mistress’s dead body.

Even if that firebender is the ruler of the nation – or, precisely because the firebender is the ruler of the nation – the murder of an Earth Kingdom diplomat isn’t something they could sweep under the rug. Not if Zuko wanted to maintain the fragile sense of peace between their nations and his place on the throne.

What defense did he have? He had an ally locked up in prison and a crazy conspiracy theory with no evidence, where one of the two parties involved is already dead.

He didn’t stop to think any longer. When the doors burst open and the royal guards stormed in, the only thing moving in the room was the shutter swinging on its hinges. Zuko was a black shape on the rooftops, already in motion.

Chapter Text

Despite the brief respite after the rainstorm, the sticky heat and humidity had swelled back with its old vengeance. The few people still out on the streets, lulled into a half-daze by the weather, could not bother to look up. If they had, they might have seen a thin figure leaping over the rooftops on his urgent errand. Zuko chanced on a good time to be moving incognito.

According to the infirmary’s register, Mina the healer lived on the third floor above a spice shop, not far from the medical college. It was close to the sea-facing edge of the volcanic crater. Near sundown, the fishermen down in the harbour must be hauling in their day’s catch. Zuko couldn’t see them, but when the breeze stirred the air, he could catch drifts of cloves and turmeric, salt and fish.

No one noticed him. The spice shop and its neighbours have shuttered for the day, their owners probably back in their homes tucking into their suppers. A few food vendors meandered by, pushing their packed wooden carts - roasted sweet beans and seafood skewers, Zuko guessed - in front of them, but they were only passing through, heading towards the public squares where people will gather later on in the evening, after the last vestiges of the afternoon heat has faded. Their bare bronzed chests gleamed with sweat, and despite the rolled towels tied around their foreheads, every few steps they had to stop their journey to shake the sweat out of their eyes. Otherwise, a few elderly women sat on a front stoop near the street corner, shelling peas and gutting fish, one of them waving her straw fan in lazy circles over her companions.

It wasn’t a bad neighbourhood, but shabbier than Zuko was expecting. The rickety buildings, crammed very close and strung all over with washing lines, looked like they were tired from the heat too: their wooden awnings were cracked and sagging, stray animals scurried around in the garbage heaps. There was a poster tacked up on one of the buildings across the street : FIRE NATION FOR FIRE CITIZENS, screamed the red type. 

Below was a drawing of Zuko – they drew his scar over the wrong eye again – perishing horribly in a fire that came out of his own hands.

Other than his sinister inked twin, no one else was looking at Zuko when he scaled the walls to swung himself up onto the windowsill. He raised a hand to knock on the painted shutters, but they swung open with a bang and a tendril of water snaked out to drag him in by the shirtfront. He fell on the floor with a crash, rolled over, and looked up to see a blade of ice hovering over his forehead.

“Whoever you are,” said Mina from above, “you’re lucky I’m not in the mood to stab first, ask questions later.”

Zuko pulled down the strip of cloth covering his face. “It’s me,” he said. “Zuko. I mean, the Fire Lord. We met at the infirmary today –”

The ice blade above him turned back into water, but instead of bending it away, Mina dropped her hand, letting the water fall with a splash on Zuko’s face. “You needed it,” she said when Zuko made a noise of protest. “You’re covered in soot. What happened? Someone tried to make your face more symmetrical?”

“I thought you didn’t like violence!”

Mina waved a dismissive hand. “I wasn’t going to actually stab you,” she said. “I hate fights. I was trying to scare you off in case you were one of those crazy Fire nationalist freaks.”

“Who?”

“People who don’t like waterbenders living on their streets and taking away their healers’ jobs.”

“Oh,” said Zuko. The New Ozai Society and other groups of its ilk were flea-roaches that refused to die, no matter how many times anyone stomped on them. "Have you seen one of them around? Did you report them to the city guards?”

Mina shot him a look that suggested Zuko had asked an extremely stupid question. “If you’re not here to commit a hate crime, why are you here?”

“I need your help,” said Zuko. “Sokka’s locked up in the prison tower and he might have his hand cut off at dawn unless I can prove his innocence. And also, the same person who attacked him this morning might be on my tail, so we could both be under a lot of danger right now.”

“Well,” said Mina. “If that’s everything-”

“She just killed somebody else and I’m being framed for that murder,” said Zuko, desperate. “At this point I don’t know who’s after me. You have to help me, please.” He found her gaze and held it.

Mina sighed. “Sit down,” she said, and gestured at a chair.

It was covered with a precarious stack of glass plates containing strips of dried seaweed. Zuko hovered, unsure what to do with them, until Mina picked them up and crammed them onto a shelf that was already bulging with other glass plates and beakers. The whole room was very small, and the absolute volume of random objects crammed inside made it seem even smaller. There were scrolls, glassware, pots and jars overflowing with mysterious goop, a ceremonial Water Tribe helmet, a fan-shaped knife used by women of the Water Tribes as well as the straight-edged one used by the men. Above their heads were hanged heaps of complicated looking knotted string, bundles of dried plants dangling in every corner – more seaweed, Zuko realised on a closer look.

Mina weaved her way through the jumble and uncorked a waterskin on a hook on the wall. “First of all, you need some medical attention.”

“I think I cracked my tooth,” Zuko admitted. Mina peered into his open mouth and made a noise.

“Do you have the shard with you? No? Pity. I could have reattached it.” She moved a tendril of water over Zuko’s bruised chin and into his mouth, taking away some of the sharp pain from his gums. She splashed the bloodied water into a waste basin, and uncorked another waterskin. “Something’s wrong with your back too.

She gestured for Zuko to lift up his shirt. It was nice to be asked this time, instead of being assaulted in the middle of a crowded infirmary. Zuko turned around and rested his arms on the chair’s back. “How did you know?” he asked.

“I can use water as a medium to sense the circulation of your lymph and blood flow as well as your chi ,” said Mina, her hands moving. “Pain and injury show up pretty easily.”

“My friend Katara could heal injuries," Zuko said, interested. "But she never said anything about diagnosing them.” 

Mina gave a haughty sniff. “Raw power versus years of specialised training,” she said, and withdrew her hands. “That’s all I can do for now without putting you in a sleep. I’ve taken away some of the inflammation, but ideally you should have a real healing session, and soon.”

“I need your help," Zuko said again. "Sokka’s been taken to the prison tower-”

Mina interrupted him. "What you need is a few good nights of sleep and an eye exam for your migraines. Have you been under a lot of stress and anxiety lately?”

If by lately she meant the last twenty years of Zuko’s existence, then yes. “What I need is Sokka,” Zuko said out loud. At Mina’s raised eyebrow he corrected himself. “I mean - I need to figure out how to catch the person who’s behind all of this. Sokka would know.”

“If you need him, why did you try to break into my room?”

Zuko made a wild gesture with his arms. “I told you, I need your help.” He didn't have a lot of space to maneuver, and he accidentally toppled a precarious stack of glass slides and paper folios on the table next to him. The tower wobbled like a drunkard standing up, and Zuko tried to steady it with one hand, only for the top-most layer of glass and loose paper to tumble over. Mina dove to catch a glass slide before it hit the floor; it bounced off the tip of her fingers, and Zuko - one hand still holding up the rest of the pile - made a lunge for it as well. He caught it, but in the process upset another stack of glass slides next to him on a chair.

Both of them grabbed for them at the same time, and their heads banged together with a crack. The enormous pile wobbled again, as if it were alive and laughing at them, and then, mercifully, reached some sort of equilibrium and stilled.

“Ow!" Mina said beside him. "Watch it! These are my experiments!” She moved some of the slides onto another chair, which seemed to have one of its legs propped up with an unidentifiable animal skull. “And why should I help you anyways?" 

Zuko eyed the whole room warily. When he was sure nothing else was going to fall on top of him, he turned to Mian. “I know you hate the Fire Nation, but wouldn’t you help Sokka? He’s one of your own.”

Mina gave a shrug. “I like Sokka, but he’s still Southern Water Tribe. Just because our respective cultures are linked by shared cultural and ideological markers doesn’t mean I’m bound by communal obligation to come to his aid.”

“What about the – honour of helping someone in need?” Zuko attempted, but only half-heartedly; he was beginning to suspect this line of argument had no effect on stubborn women. He racked his brain. “I'll pay you. Assuming I’m still Fire Lord by tomorrow and we’re not at war over my presumed murder of a diplomat."

Mina perked up. "How much?"

Throwing money at problems was one of the few perks of being royalty. “Name your sum,” said Zuko, and then immediately regretted it at the gleam in her eyes. 

“I want a fully equipped medical laboratory for my research,” said Mina. “And a bigger apartment. No, wait, an actual house. Do you have any idea how much rent is inside the caldera city limits?”

Zuko gave her a blank stare. Even when they were traveling in disguise, Uncle Iroh had always handled the money. Rent was an abstract concept to him, though he had a vague idea it was expensive. "What do you want a lab for?”

“I’m studying the effects of different marine plants on burn and trauma injuries,” said Mina, gesturing at the bundles of seaweed all over the place. “There are fascinating varieties growing here in the warmer climate.” Her eyes lit up. “If you’re interested, you can trial-test a new ointment I’ve been developing myself. It could increase your bruises’ healing rate by half. The side effects include possible blindness, but – ”

“Maybe next assassination attempt,” Zuko said drily. An old memory of Iroh and an unfortunate tea bush in the Eastern Earth Kingdom floated up from the back of his mind. Spirits save him from amateur herbalists.  

"Those are my terms. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Zuko.

Mina held out her forearm in a familiar gesture. Zuko clasped her arm beneath the elbow, but then yelped when she reeled him in and touched her cheek to his own, taking a loud sniff.

“Don’t squeal,” she said, letting him go. “Haven’t you ever taken a breath of the soul before?” She took in Zuko’s wide-eyed look. “It’s a private gesture we use for occasions too important for the normal greeting. It means different things in different contexts: it’s how warriors greet their spear-brothers, or how two people who just made a deal show they trust each other.”

“Did you just smell me?”

“I took a breath of your soul,” Mina corrected. “It reeks like burnt hair, by the way. You can smell mine if you want.”

Zuko wrinkled his nose. “I’ll save that for the next assassination attempt too."

“Suit yourself. So what’s the plan for your little jail break? You want me to cut the prison bars with waterbending? Freeze the guards? I have to warn you – I’m not great at those things. My old teacher used to say I couldn’t defeat a sea sponge.”

“There’s no waterbending involved,” Zuko said.

Mina put a hand on her hips. “So what is your plan?”

“You’re not going to like it,” Zuko warned her, and he was right. She didn’t like it.

*

“I hate it,” said Mina.

“I’m not enjoying this either,” Zuko retorted. He increased the power of the fireball so he could check over his handiwork. The black stripes were a bit wobbly on the left side, but the overall effect was right. Even in the bright light Mina’s features looked swallowed up by the geometric grey and white designs; in the flicker of the prison torches Zuko doubted anyone could make out her face at all. He added one more dab of white on her cheekbone. “There, I’m done.”

Mina uncorked her waterskin and made a sheet of ice, using it as a mirror to look at her face. She frowned. Zuko held up his hand so she could get a closer look, but she swatted him back. “You’re melting it! Couldn’t you just make a normal light?”

“That’s not how fire works,” said Zuko with exasperation. “But what do you think? Could you two recreate it in the cell?”

“A blind tiger-seal could recreate it, given the quality of your artistry,” Mina said. “But That’s not the problem. I’m telling you, these are Southern Water Tribe colours.” She touched a cheek and examined the black smudge on her finger. “My accent is clearly northern.”

“You’re overestimating the intelligence of prison guards,” Zuko told her.

Mina ignored him. “Why am I painting my face at this time of day? No one uses ceremonial paints for a healing session, not even in an uncivilised backwater like the south.”

Zuko startled, almost dropping the kohl pot. He had spent so long dealing with Fire Nation prejudices that he’d forgotten a condescending sense of superiority towards foreigners existed everywhere else too.

“Believe me,” he said after a beat. “The average prison guard is not going to think about these things. Have you ever seen The Melting of Spring Snow ?”

“The melting of what?” Mina looked blank.

“Forget it,” Zuko said quickly. “Let’s get going, we’ve wasted enough time.”

Mina checked her reflection one last time, and then sighed and bended the water back into her waterskin. She followed Zuko out of the rock overhang they used as their temporary hide-out, and the two of them made their way to the path that led up to the royal prison tower. Their footsteps squelched in the mud left over from the rain.

Zuko took a running start and hopped over one large patch in his way, wishing he wasn’t wearing such a long cloak. He had sneaked back into his chambers to grab the necessary supplies and fresh clothes to replace his ragged one. One of them was a long cloak that he wore now with the hood drawn up to hide his face

Mina watched Zuko make his jump, and then simply froze over the mud with a wave of her hand and walked straight over it. “You’re not even the one in danger,” she said.

“For now,” said Zuko. As he predicted, the court was in an uproar over Luan’s death. The evening’s ball was canceled; every palace guard available was put on duty and sent to patrol the corridors and courtyards. From what he’d overheard of the servants’ gossip while creeping around the palace, it sounded like most people believed it was the work of the same assassin who attacked Sokka that morning. But there was a worrying faction of people, mostly Luan’s fellow dignitaries from the Earth Kingdom, who were taking Tian’s accusation seriously and were talking about issuing a public challenge. Coupled with the mysterious fire outside Luan’s rooms, and the fact that the Fire Lord has been missing since the council meeting that afternoon, it was not looking good for Zuko.

Zuko wondered if he should just show himself and try to defend his case in public. But while a single eyewitness wouldn’t be enough to ensure his guilt, the amount of distrust it stirred up could not be settled by anything less producing the actual murderer. Who, incidentally, was still out there.

“What’s stopping them from blasting my face off on the spot?” said Mina. “I can’t heal my own face back on.” Her tone was as facetious as ever, but Zuko could hear how the trembling of her hands on top of her bag strap was making the jars inside rattle.

“I’m very good at breaking into prisons,” Zuko said. “Trust me. It’ll be fine”

The moon was a thin fingernail sitting on the horizon; they carried no torch or lantern to avoid drawing attention, but through the darkness Zuko could feel the sheer force of her eye roll. “Really? Did it a lot during your time as Fire Lord, have you?”

“Mostly before.”

“And with your illustrious criminal career, could you guarantee that you’ll come back for me tomorrow?

Zuko reached on top of his head and pulled out the pin to his gold headpiece. It wasn’t the flame-shaped one he used for formal occasions, but the one he wore the most day to day. He held it out. “Here. Take this.”

“Your hair accessory?” Mina turned it over in her hands. “The scrollwork is a bit tarnished.”

It was Zuko’s turn to roll his eyes. Mina, he was beginning to realise, was an instinctive snob. “It’s an antique,” he said. “It was passed down through generations of the royal family before it was given to Avatar Roku, and a hundred years after his death my uncle passed it back to me. Keep it in your bag and then hide it inside the cell. If you do get stopped, or if things don’t work out by tomorrow, show the prison warden the headpiece and tell him you’re under the Fire Lord’s protection.”

“Worth a try,” said Mina without enthusiasm. “Though I still think you should just order him to be released and be done with it.”

“I told you, he was accused of harming a noblewoman. Her father would openly revolt if I insulted him that way.”

“Even if she is a murderer, why is this an insult to her father? She’s not a child or a pet.” Mina scoffed, and then spat when a cloud of gnats floated their way into her mouth. “Even putting the war aside, this whole country is so stupid sometimes.”

Zuko had the same thought himself many times, but still, he bristled hearing it from someone else’s mouth.

He wanted to argue, but he remembered the poster on Mina’s street, where none of them – the street vendors or the old women or Zuko himself – had batted an eyelid, so accustomed they were to the sight. FIRE NATION FOR FIRE CITIZENS. Zuko’s people were responsible for a century of war and colonialism, but they were still that - his people. Zuko wanted to believe in them. He had to. He needed something to stand between him and despair. There must be something good, something redeemable, even when he held it up against their century of violence, a genocide. What about their fireflies and their fig trees? The painted fishing boats in the harbour? the grandmothers sitting on their front stoops, shelling peas?

Still, a horrible wave of guilt rolled over him.

“When I visited the Southern tribes last year,” Zuko said, more to distract himself than anything, “a man was ostracised from the tribe just because he used waterbending during a whale hunt. He did it to save someone’s life and he was punished for it. Some might call that stupid.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes longer. From this direction, the rising slope of the land blocked the breezes rolling off the sea, and Zuko was sweating under his cloak’s hood. It didn’t help that Mina was a tall woman with long legs, and every so often Zuko had to jog to keep up.

“You don’t understand,” Mina said over her shoulder. “You lot use firebending like it’s just a weapon. But for us, waterbending is a way of life. What that waterbender did wrong. Even in the backwater south they would respect the sanctity of the discipline.”

“He saved Sokka’s life,” Zuko said peevishly. He kicked a pebble, sending it rattling off the path and into the scrubby grass.

Mina gave a long sigh. “Look, don’t get touchy with me. I’m just trying to explain why it happened. People are stupid a lot of the time. And if you think the Southern tribes rules were unreasonable, come to Agna Qel'a. We have ten times their rules back home.”

If Mina had forgotten Zuko had already entered the city during the Siege of the North, he didn’t want to remind her. “I thought you’re here for the variety of our aquatic plant life,” Zuko said instead.

Mina’s lips twitched in what could almost have been a smile. “Better to be judged by strangers for your appearance than by your own family for your unnatural deviancy,” she said. “When my neighbours here call me the freaky waterbending lady, at least they call me a lady. And most of them don’t bother with the freaky part anymore.” She looked thoughtful. "At least not to my face in public, anyways."

“Oh,” Zuko said. And then, “I thought you missed your home.”

“I do. But you can miss something and hate it at the same time.”

Ursa’s letter flashed across Zuko’s mind again. He had thought he was the only one. 

“Why do you think I made a fresh start here?” Mina said. “For the weather? You think just because I’m a waterbender I enjoy the humidity? I never thought anywhere could rain this much.”

“At the poles, I never thought the sun could stay in the sky for so long either,” Zuko offered. Mina laughed for real this time, although it was probably more at Zuko than with him.

They finished the remainder of their walk in silence, stopping at the foot of the prison tower. Zuko stared at it from behind the gates. The structure loomed, a foreboding stone block in the dark evening.

“Thank you for this,” he said to Mina. “I won’t let you down.”

“You better not.”

“I won’t,” said Zuko. He touched the spot on his head where his topknot usually sat. “Giving away something worn against the head is an intimate gesture of respect. It’s a promise that I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Mina patted her bag. “Better not let your boyfriend see it then, I would hate to let some petty jealousy get in the way of a prison escape.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Zuko said shortly.

“Alright.”

He fiddled with his cloak hood. “Sokka has someone waiting for him back home. His name is Noroq. He was the one who saved his life.”

“Alright.”

“I’m the Fire Lord. A relationship with a foreign ambassador would be a deeply inappropriate conflict of interest.” A distant bugle call for the guards’ shift change interrupted Zuko, mercifully putting him out of his misery. 

“You know what?” said Mina. “Let’s save this for another time. There isn’t a house or a laboratory big enough to make me your relationship counselor as well as your partner-in-crime.”

She adjusted the collar of her heavy overshirt, which was stiff with blue embroidery on the collar and sleeves, and re-slung her leather healer’s bag filled with jars and vials over one shoulder. She tossed the blue cloak in her other hand at Zuko, who hastened to unfasten the clasp and drape it across her shoulders. 

Zuko checked over the costume and the face paint one last time. “Mina,” he said, awkwardly, when there was no more reason to delay her setting off. “I’m sorry about what the Fire Nation has done to you and your tribe. People are horrible, but they are still capable of change.” Mina said nothing, and Zuko added, awkwardly, “Even if you don’t believe in me, at least have some hope in my people. Please.”

Mina sighed. She patted the pocket in her bag where Zuko’s headpiece was stowed, and took one last glance over her shoulder - at Zuko, but also at the thin fingernail moon behind him, climbing up the yellow and blue horizon. “You better be telling the truth about being good at prison breaks, Fire Lord. Or at least better at that than you are at talking.”

With that parting remark, she turned and lifted the metal knockers by the gates. Zuko hurried out of sight, hiding himself in a copse of gnarled trees farther back along the road. He watched her blue cloaked figure disappear inside the prison compound, and hoped that he wasn't making another mistake.

Chapter Text

Zuko paced the stony clearing, trying to guess the passage of time based on the position of the moon. If his plan worked, this should have happened by now: Mina would have gone in, shown the guards an official slip stamped with the Fire Lord’s personal seal, and explained how she was given royal permission to treat her seriously injured patient in his cell. 

Mina, her face obscured by the grey and white face paint, would be escorted into the cell. She would insist on some privacy to work her foreign waterbending magic. If the guards objected, she could show them the part of Zuko’s written slip that stressed the status of a foreign ambassador, even an incarcerated one.

After a while, a Water Tribe healer would leave the cell, wearing the same face paint, with almost, but not quite, the same blue eyes and tall stature. And in the cell, there would be a sleeping prisoner with their face turned to the wall, with almost – but not quite – the same brown skin, the same dark hair brushed loose to hide the difference in the cut. 

There should be no alarm raised, no outcry, nothing to alert Qyu or Kizia that Sokka was free again.

Zuko clicked his fingers a few times, lighting up sparks and then extinguishing them, a nervous habit that he had been scolded for in childhood. How was Mina doing? What if the guards did a surprise check halfway through, and noticed Mina and Sokka exchanging clothes? What if someone stopped Sokka while he’s walking out, or asked Mina a question in the cell, and noticed that their voices are different? He hadn’t accounted for that.

He tried to turn his mind away from his worries, made himself think about something else. He snapped a finger again, agitated and restless. A small spark lit up and died away.

All he could think of were the old memories of Sokka at the whale hunt. The boats. The shape of the whale. What happened between him and Noroq, later that evening. He had tried to forget all about it, actually. Over the past year the events of that day had settled in the back of his mind; he had sunk them down like tossed rocks or coins at the bottom of a pond. 

But talking to Mina tonight was like poking a stick through the water, stirring up old memories like cloudy sediment. It muddied the water, disturbed the copper minnows of his thoughts darting above.

*

A year ago, on the last day of Zuko’s visit to the South Pole, the whale hunt happened.

Zuko had no idea how it was decided, whether by a turn of the weather or some auspicious omen that he couldn’t read, but on that morning, a few of the men took their boats down to a specific spot on the shore. News spread, and the rest of the hunting camp – the rest of the men, the women, children, elders, even the crew of Zuko’s ship – gathered to watch them from the rocky beach.

Unlike the Fire Nation whalers, whose ships went seafaring for the huge lion-whales armed with harpoons, the Southern tribes hunted the smaller polar whales that visited the coast every summer. Zuko had his misgivings about how canoes and spears could bring down even a small whale, but still, he watched. It was an important part of his diplomatic duties.

Most of the village chiefs, Hakoda included, were out on the water that day. It seemed like the role wasn’t handed down through lineage, but through some mysterious combination of personal charisma and skill, which included hunting as well. The chiefs who stayed behind were mostly women – none of the women hunted, Zuko had learned – and elderly or infirm men. They stood towards the front of the crowd. Zuko made his way there, offering them his polite greetings. 

A few congratulated Zuko on his luck, to have caught the most important day of the year before he left. Catching the first whale was something of a sport as well as a hunt, Zuko gathered. It seemed like every village provided only one light skin-boat, rowed and manned by the best hunters they had. From the way that everyone spoke about it, there was some great honour attached to the whole thing.

Zuko liked talking to the chiefs, most of the time. Before he came he had been afraid they would hate him - a lot of people in the hunting camp still gave Zuko unfriendly looks when he walked around - but there had been others who had been more generous towards Zuko and his delegates than he had expected. Than he thought they deserved.

A few people ignored Zuko completely. One of them, a woman about Hakoda’s age, made him especially uncomfortable. Zuko knew a little about her: she wasn’t one of the chiefs, though she sat with them during meetings, and she held some great positions among them. She refused to speak directly to Zuko, but when she did speak to other members of the Southern Water Tribe, they listened gravely. 

“Analuq is what you might call a poet,” Bato had said during Zuko’s first days there, when Zuko asked who she was. Being a poet must have meant something different to the tribes, because Analuq had been one of the few women who sailed off to war along with the men. Zuko didn’t know the details, but he saw how Analuq was missing one of her hands, and how one of her ears was badly burned. She also had some form of inner-ear damage, so she had trouble with her balance and carried around a walking stick made of ivory.

Analuq was leaning on her ivory stick now, planted into the beach, a look of yearning on her face as she stared out at the sea.

When the first sight of a skin boat appeared, the background hum of chatter and activity cut out in an instant. Even the youngest children fell quiet, hushed in their mothers’ arms. One by one, Zuko’s motley group of Fire Nation sailors and nobles joined in the silence too. As one, they all turned towards the sea.

Through the quiet came the sound of shouting and singing from the hunters across the water, mingled with the cries of seabirds wheeling overhead. Zuko squinted into the distance. Some of the men were paddling, but others were drumming the sides of their boat with their oars. He couldn’t tell which one belonged to Hakoda’s village.

Sokka once said that the curling designs worked onto the sides of each boat were as distinct from one another as human faces, but from what Zuko could see from the beach, the speeding boats all looked the same, their blue-painted sides a blur that blended them into the churning waves.

He detached himself from the group and weaved his way through the crowd, searching until he saw a pair of familiar hair loops. He moved as quietly as he could on the pebbles of the beach.

“Are they out there?” he whispered from behind.

Katara jumped, and then clapped her hand over her mouth to muffle a gasp. “Zuko!” she whispered back. “I didn’t see you coming in that parka, I thought you were one of us from a distance.” She turned to get a proper look, and then pinched one embroidered plait between her fingers. “Is this Sokka’s? Where did you get it from?”

It was the same jacket that Sokka had lent him, two weeks ago, right before they went out fishing for the first time. Zuko didn’t wear it much, afraid he would damage the beautiful material of the hide, but on that morning, something had made him grab it on a whim.

He was about to explain, but then the crowd around them drew in a collective breath. He looked closer; he could just about make out a shape in the water being driven towards the shallower depths by the small fleet of canoes. From the distance it might as well be the shadow of a cloud or a skimming black kite in the water, but energy thrumming through the people around him told him it wasn’t.

Behind the shape – behind the whale – one of the canoes was closer than the others. One of the hunters stood up on his knees. He hoisted his barbed spear, drew it back, and then let it fly in one smooth, clean motion. The sounds of shouting surged from that direction, and moving collectively like a shoal of fish, the other boats were circling around from other sides, drawing closer too for the kill.

The spear that had just landed had a line attached with a greyish round shape at the end, which trailed in the water in the whale’s wake. Other hunters also aimed and let loose. Some of their spears fell into the water and were reeled back. The ones that flew true attached more of the same bobbing round objects to the whale’s body.

“They drive the whale closer to shore first with noise, and now they’re slowing it down,” Katara whispered to Zuko. “Those are floats made of sealskin on the lines.”

“But which one’s Sokka and your dad?” he whispered back. He couldn’t see very well.

“That was my dad who just landed the first spear, couldn’t you tell?” Katara’s grin widened. “Could you imagine if Sokka lands the final throw?”

“Would they get some reward?”

Silent laughter shook her shoulders. “You’ll find out if my nut-brained brother manages it. There’s no physical prize, but the poets would sing praise-songs of my family for the rest of the summer. That’s the greatest thing a hunter can hope for.”

Zuko wanted to ask Katara what were praise-songs exactly, but something diverted his attention. On the water, another hunter stood up in Hakoda’s boat. His face was a blurry dot, his body a black silhouette against the sun, but Zuko knew who it was; he could read the set of the shoulders and the tilt of the head as clearly as he could read a calligraphy character written on the wide paper sky, against the pages of the shimmering grey sea.

Sokka was standing with one foot balanced on the prow of the canoe, his spear at the ready. The whale, worn out by now, bewildered by the noise and the spears, was making its last desperate struggle for freedom. It veered away from Hakoda’s canoe and towards the headland of the bay, searching for more space to maneuver. Moving as one, the paddlers banked hard to the right, giving chase. But through the hard swerve, Sokka didn’t move. He kept his spear up, remaining braced against the top of the prow.

“The idiot should sit down before he’s thrown off,” Katara muttered.

Zuko swallowed. “He’s taking a risk.”

Despite the skin floats and the furious churn of the men’s oars slicing in and out of the spray – the gap between the hunters and their quarry was widening. The other canoes fanned out behind them. There were a few close to the bay’s mouth; they would stop the whale if it headed back for open water. But if Sokka wanted the glory of the hunt, he had precious few chances to spare.

Hakoda and his men picked up their pace; Sokka rocked back slightly, adjusting his weight. On the shore, Zuko grabbed Katara’s shoulder – she grabbed his in return – and the two of them watched, tense with nerves, as Sokka got ready to make his attempt. While the canoe surged forwards through the slapping waves, Zuko could almost sense the complex set of balances and compensations coiled inside Sokka’s body. He empathized with the sense of motion encompassed in Sokka’s living form.

In that moment, Soka was a delicate object balanced on the intersection between the ocean and the horizon, between the forward drive of the boat and the backwards push of the water.

And then the whale leaped up.

Its huge body only partially cleared the water – in one fleeting moment, Zuko caught an impression of a huge, twisting black mass. Sprays of sun-lit droplets scattered off its sides like a palmful of diamonds.

Hakoda’s canoe, too close now, rocked back on the large wave created by the whale’s leap. Water slapped the prow, making the boat pitch dangerously over to one side.

On the shore, Katara realised what was happening a split second before Zuko did. “No!” she cried, and her voice was a bird soaring over the silence of the beach.

There was nothing she could have done. Sokka stumbled, pitched off balance by the force. For a moment he looked as if he was going to right himself, but then the whale twisted, changing directions again, and behind it the lines attached to the sealskin floats slapped horizontally across the water’s surface, flung sideways by the momentum of the turn. The tangled lines caught the keel of the boat in its wake, and hurled Sokka –unsteadied, one hand still holding his spear – head-first down into the water.

It was a bad fall.

Sokka’s left foot was caught against the long poles fixed on the canoe’s side, the ones that the hunters used to dry their wet boots on longer trips. It made him twist awkwardly on the way down. The man behind him was lifting his paddle to steady the canoe, and the flat of the blade connected with Sokka’s head in a way that could not be good. The man moved his paddle back, out of the way, but it was too late, Sokka had already disappeared into the waves.

It all happened in a moment. Zuko watched, heart pounding, at that spot in the silvery water.

The men in Hakoda’s canoe stopped paddling. They were craning their necks to look over the sides. One of them was shouting something – Hakoda, Zuko thought – and fear made his voice audible even from a distance.

Beside Zuko, on the beach, Katara was running towards the water’s edge, her hands raised, already shifting the waves aside.

The other hunters in their canoes were still chasing the whale, who was farther away now. But one of them slowed. Something else was happening: one of the men on the other canoes had dropped his paddle. He was yelling something and waving his arms. An ice float appeared by the canoe’s side – so he was a waterbender – and the man clambered out of the boat and stepped on it. He moved his arms again, propelling himself towards the spot where Sokka had fallen in.

His fellow hunters were yelling after him. They seemed angry for some reason.

Maybe they were upset their friend was abandoning them, or maybe because the man was taking a risk - he was clumsier in his movements than Katara, slower than her as well, his stance a clear novice effort to Zuko’s eye. But he was closer than Katara was on the shore, and he reached the spot where Sokka went down way ahead of her. With a shrug, he pulled off his light parka and left it on the ice float, and dived into the sea without a ripple

Zuko counted each second, his mouth dry, until the man bobbed up again. There was a sodden human shape in his arms. Carrying his load, he swam a few strokes over to Hakoda’s canoe, and then lifted his hands, depositing Sokka’s body back into the boat on a swell of water. He hauled himself up as well – it was strange that no one on Hakoda’s canoe lent him a hand – and then leaned over Sokka. A stream of water rose upwards, directed from his hands.

By then Katara had reached the canoe, and kneeling on a platform she created out of ice, she too was bent over Sokka, a shining orb of water in her hands as she tended to his head.

Zuko, preoccupied with watching the two waterbenders, only caught glimpses of the final kill. Looking back afterwards, he only remembered the stream of water rising out of Sokka’s lungs, the glare of the sun glinting off the sea.

His clearest sense-memory was the great burst of noise when the body of the whale slowed, then floated to the surface; when the spell of silence broke, and as one, the crowd ran towards the point on the beach to tow the whale ashore.

He did remember a long rope being passed around, even to the children and the Fire Nation visitors, until people formed a long line to haul the whale ashore. The mood was wild and joyous, people singing and cheering as they worked. “Heave!” someone kept shouting, and everyone heaved.

It was as busy as any summer festival back home: children running about yelping with excitement, the adults chattering and laughing around them. There were a lot of women working: knotting bits of rope, taking out their fan-shaped knives for carving the meat. A few of Katara’s students were shaking out great pieces of hide on the ground and then freezing them to make sleds to carry the whale meat. Above their heads, seabirds circled in the air and cried out, waiting for their chance at the meat and blood below.

Someone had passed Zuko a part of the rope too, but he had let it drop from his hands. He had ignored most of the festivities. He only wanted to see Sokka.

*

He found Hakoda’s canoe farther down the shoreline, a distance away from the commotion surrounding the whale. There was a ring of men standing beside the canoe, looking at something. One of them – Bato - heard his approach and turned to wave him over.

“He’s alright,” said Katara when Zuko reached them, before he even opened his mouth. “Just a sprain and a nasty knock on the head, Zuko. We got him out pretty quickly.”

Sokka was a collapsed shape on the pebbly beach, Hakoda’s parka under him as a makeshift blanket. The left leg of sealskin trousers was rolled up above his knee, where Katara was pressing a shimmering pool of water. Sokka was awake but disoriented looking, half-lying and half-sitting up, leaning against his father.

Besides her, with his arm around his son, Hakoda’s face had such a raw expression of unguarded relief that it made Zuko look away, uncomfortable.

“I think he tore something in his knee,” Katara said. She pulled her hands away. “How does it feel now, Sokka?”

“Fine,” Sokka said.

“That’s the same leg you broke during Sozin’s comet, isn’t it?” Katara said over her shoulder. She had missed the flicker of pain passing across his face when her healing water drew away, busy redirecting the water away to splash on the rocks. She ignored Sokka’s annoyed huff. “Do you think you injured the same spot in your knee?”

“Did I reinjure the same spot in my knee?” Sokka parroted back, a parody of her concerned tone. “Just admit you didn’t heal my knee right the last time.”

“My sincere apologies,” Katara said brusquely. “Right after the comet I was a little busy doing – what was it again, Zuko?” Zuko up his hands helplessly and said nothing, and Katara turned back to Sokka. “Oh right, I was saving Zuko’s life and trying to find dad again, and not to mention all the other people who needed healing once they were out of the prison camps. Sorry I wasn’t your personal servant. And besides, your leg turned out fine.”

“My knee never felt the same after,” Sokka insisted.

“So maybe you should have thought of that before you fell in the water, you brash, thick-headed moron!”

“You were the one who kept going on about how amazing it’d be if our family got the whale! Sorry I disappointed you – yet again – when I actually tried to do something.”

Zuko wondered if he should speak up or something, but he had no idea what to say. He and Azula also had plenty of sibling antagonism to go around, but they never argued like this. Azula considered open arguments beneath her. If Katara and Sokka were hissing sly insinuations of future back-stabbing attempts at each other, he would have had a better grip on the situation. But now Zuko was lost.

“Sokka,” Hakoda said, and both siblings stopped yelling to glare at each other. “Your sister did the best she could, don’t lash out at her. And Katara, what happened today was an accident - ignore your brother’s words, he’s still in shock.”

Sokka and Katara both crossed their arms and looked away, in such perfect but unintentional synchronicity that Zuko almost laughed.

“He’s been in shock for the last five years then,” Katara muttered, but Zuko could tell by unfurrowing of her brows that she was softening already. “Okay, let me make it up to you now, Sokka. Let me heal your knee for a bit longer this time. And let me have another look at your head.”

Sokka batted her away. “Get away from my head!” he said, the sour edge of genuine fear in his voice. Zuko opened his mouth to ask what was going on -  but they were interrupted by a couple of children racing up the shoreline towards them, crying out Katara’s name.

Someone was trailing behind them – Analuq, moving slowly with her walking stick. 

“It’s fine,” Sokka forced out, as the kids approached. “Like you said, it’s just a sprain and a knock on the head. And I have a pretty thick skull.”

Katara hesitated, but the youngest child – a little girl with a tuft of brownish hair and bright hazel eyes – was already dragging her away by her hems, chattering in her lisping child’s voice. 

“Okay, Maeda, I’ll go, I’ll go –” Katara said, and she couldn’t help but laugh a little as the girl tugged her along. She gave her father a parting hug, then flicked Sokka on the head. “Don’t ever scare us like that again.”

She turned to go, but the little girl spied something that made her hop with excitement, and she scrambled past the circle of people around Sokka to approach a man sitting a little way away. Zuko hadn’t noticed him there before. 

“What about you, Noroq?” the girl asked loudly. “Aren’t you coming too?”

When the man looked up, Zuko recognised him: it was the hunter who just saved Sokka. He had seen him around before at Katara’s waterbending classes.

Behind her, Analuq struck the ground with her stick. “Noroq won’t be coming,” she said sharply. “Go away now with Katara.”

At her brusque tone, the little girl blinked a few times. It was the first time that Zuko had heard an adult from the Water Tribes raise their voice at a child, something he had found radically different from his own childhood.

But while a young Zuko would have bowed and scampered in an instant, the girl stayed rooted to the spot, baffled.

“Maeda, I think I heard your friends calling,” Sokka called from his spot on the ground. It cut through the awkward moment like a knife. “Why don’t you go find them and see what they want? You’ll see Katara and Noroq soon.”

The girl nodded and raced off again, but not before casting one last confused look at the tense faces of the adults before her.

Analuq raised a hand; the sleeve where her other hand should have been was pinned tightly with a bone clip. “Against our traditions, Noroq had disturbed the balance between the Spirit World and our own by using waterbending on the hunt,” she said to the circle of people. “I declare him excluded from for the rest of the season.”

Zuko blinked. He felt like he was the one thrown off a canoe, and now he was waking up in a world where everything was topsy-turvy and nothing made sense: first Sokka’s strange moodiness, now Noroq’s punishment for a deed that seemed rather heroic to Zuko. 

“That’s not fair!” Katara cried. “He just saved my brother’s life!” She seemed ready for a fight, but Hakoda laid a hand on her shoulder, and she closed her mouth, still fuming.

“You may be a waterbending master,” Analuq said to Katara. “But you’re still young, and you have spent much of your time away from this land. You do not understand the wisdom passed down through the elders. This is part of our customs that we must respect, or else how can we call ourselves Water Tribe? So much has already been taken from us, we must guard what we have left.” She didn’t look at Zuko, but he could feel everyone’s attention shift over to him with that last sentence. He held himself very still.

Katara gave a loud scoff, but she turned around and left without another word. Analqu angled her head.

They were only a circle of people standing on a pebbly beach, but Zuko recognised the mood from his own council meetings: here was a decision being made, and Analuq was silently daring anyone else to speak up against it. Hakoda frowned, but the rest of his men nodded. Noroq, listening in from the edge of the circle, hung his head.

After a while, Hakoda spoke. “The spirits are your domain, Analuq. I won’t argue, even if I am  grateful to him for my son’s life. I’m taking Sokka back to his tent to rest.”

“We’ll all see each other at the feast tonight,” Analuq said. 

There was no bow or formal parting like there was back home, but it was clear the talk was over. By some invisible consensus every one drifted back towards the crowd next to the whale carcass, the men carrying the canoe away with them. Noroq returned to his rock and sat down again, his knees drawn up.

Zuko stayed, and so did Hakoda and Bato, standing next to each other. 

“I want to stay with Sokka, if that’s alright,” Zuko told them both.

Sokka sighed. “I already said I was fine.”

“Can you stand up, son?” asked Hakoda, dropping to one knee to examine the injury again.

Despite Sokka’s protests that he was fine and he didn’t need his dad’s help, his knee looked painfully red and swollen. Zuko had seen these types of sprains before on the sparring ground, usually as the result of a bad fall or an over-extension of the knee. Even if there was no obvious blood or broken bone, Sokka would be lucky if he only took a few weeks to heal, assuming there was no further damage to the joint.

“You need to keep weight off that leg,” said Zuko. He could hear the sounds of singing and drumming on the breeze, from the direction of the whale carcass “Chief Hakoda, you should go with the rest of your men. I’m sure your people will miss you more than anyone will miss me. I can help Sokka back to his tent.”

He thought Sokka was going to protest again, but instead he said, “You should go, Dad. You landed the first spear of the whale hunt, there’ll be loads of people who want to congratulate you.”

“It’s more important to me to see you well,” Hakoda said.

Zuko thought it was a lovely sentiment, but Sokka only looked more irritated. “Just leave, Dad.”

Hakoda rocked back on his heels. He took his hand away from Sokka’s knee. 

In the few years that Zuko had known Hakoda, he had never seen the man look unsure. Hakoda gave off calm self-assurance the same way the sea air gave off salt. But he looked uncharacteristically troubled as he gently raised Sokka up to a stand.

Bato picked up the parka that Sokka was sitting on and shook out the dirt; Zuko darted over and put his shoulder under Sokka’s arm, supporting his weight. He was lighter than expected. When the two of them were steady on their feet, Hakoda finally took his parka from Bato and put it on. He gave the two of them a final nod, and then he and Bato left, arm in arm, to join the crowd.

They made it a few steps, but even with Zuko half-carrying him, Sokka had to hop on one foot over the uneven terrain. Despite his claim that he was fine, he was leaning very close to Zuko, his arm a warm weight across Zuko’s neck. Zuko stopped. “I think we’re jostling your injured knee too much.”

“Will everyone stop acting like they know better than me?” Sokka snapped, but Zuko held firm.

“It’s crucial to not put any weight there, in case you make the damage to the joints and ligaments worse,” he said. He turned to call out the only other person left in the vicinity. “Noroq? Help me out here.”

Noroq’s back was to them. At first Zuko thought he hadn’t heard him, so he repeated himself. Still, no response. And then, with the deliberate motions of someone making his mind up, Noroq looked over and stood up. He walked slowly towards them, then propped his shoulder under Sokka’s other arm.

“Could you also use your waterbending to heal?” Zuko asked.

Noroq shook his head shyly. “It’s too hard for a beginner.”

Noroq had manifested his bending late, Zuko remembered, one of the rare cases where the ability didn’t show until well after adulthood. He was the oldest of Katara’s students by far – a few years older than Zuko himself, which made learning much more difficult, even for someone with an enthusiasm for it. He was from a different village than Katara and Sokka, towards the southwestern shore, and he only attended Katara’s lessons during the hunting season when the villages gathered. His attention was mostly taken up by the hunt, and when he did come to lessons, he spent more time playing with the younger children than he did learning. Kids adored him especially, perhaps because his round face and sweet smile made them accept him as one of their own.

His usual sweet smile was not on his face now; in fact, Noroq seemed very miserable.

“I really don’t need two people carrying me like I’m an invalid,” Sokka cut in, acerbic. There was plenty of misery going around for whatever reason.

“Uncle Iroh would say that safety is better than regret,” Zuko said. A thought occurred to him. “Maybe one of us should carry you on our backs to make sure you don’t tear anything. You can climb on me.”

Sokka looked up at the sky for a long moment, his jaw muscles working. “No thanks,” he said finally. “Let’s just keep going this way.”

The three of them made their slow way back to the settlement. Down the shore, Zuko saw Katara and her waterbenders moving in unison next to the shore. They were raising waves in spiraling patterns and sending them back into the ocean. The youngest benders couldn’t do more than raise a small wave, but Katara, at their head, collected and worked their efforts together in crashes of glittering spray.

“What are they doing?” he asked.

“Magical spirit stuff,” Sokka said.

Zuko waited for one of his usual rambling explanations, but there was none.

“Noroq,” he tried instead. Now the waterbenders were weaving their steps around each other, moving through an intricate dance that spun them around and around like eddys of fast-moving water. “What is that? Are they going to bring up another whale?”

The other man shifted – making Sokka stumble and yelp – as though surprised that Zuko was asking him a question. “They’re giving thanks for the hunt, Fire Lord Zuko,” he said. “We may keep the meat and bone of the whale, but the waterbenders send its spirit back to Tui and La.”

Sokka made a motion like he wanted to keep walking, but Zuko was stuck fast, transfixed by the beauty of the moving sea. As he watched; the foam and spray took on a distinct form. Its pattern coalesced - became familiar. He remembered the way the whale’s body had broken free of the water, twisting up into the air.

“They’re sending back whales,” Zuko breathed. “Of water.”

“Well done, Fire Lord Obvious. That’s literally what Noroq just said,” Sokka said. “Let’s go already.”

Zuko ignored him. “But if all the waterbenders are there, why aren’t you also with them?” he asked Noroq.

It was the wrong thing to ask. Noroq looked even more glum than before, and Sokka grimaced as if he had just bitten into a very sour kumquat. Zuko let himself be tugged into walking again.

“We just have a little further to go,” he said inanely, trying to smooth things over. It wasn’t often that he was the most cheerful person in a group. It took some adjusting to. “How are we all doing?” he tried.

“I just fell off a boat and embarrassed my family in front of all the tribes, and Noroq here was ostracised for the rest of the summer because he saved my life,” Sokka bit out. “Now we’re both stuck answering dumb questions about our culture from an outsider. I think we’re all doing fine – thanks for asking.”

“I don’t mind,” said Noroq, which only made Sokka frown.

Zuko gritted his teeth. He had no idea being cheerful was so difficult. Was this what Uncle Iroh put up with for three whole years from Zuko? He was beginning to understand his uncle’s obsession with calming tea.

They finished the rest of the walk in silence. At Sokka’s tent, Zuko hovered for a while around the entrance, feeling helpless. He fetched him a waterskin of clean water, and then found another blanket in case Sokka got cold, and he was about to offer to get some food when Sokka threw a mitten at him and told him to stop being such a mother arctic hen. After that, Zuko took the hint and beat a hasty retreat.

He found Noroq sitting a fair distance away from the tent, towards the perimeter of the cluster of the camp. He was in the same knees-to-chest position he was in earlier, looking as glum as ever. He looked cold in just his tunic. The jacket that he took off before diving into the water had been lost in the flurry of activity that was happening. “We don’t need two people keeping watch,” he told Noroq. “I know there’s a lot of festivities going on. I can stay here if you want to find one of the fires.”

“I can stay, Fire Lord Zuko,” Noroq said. “There’s no point in me going.”

His face was as round as a chickpea, and the look of moroseness on it gave Zuko a. rush of pity. He sat down beside him. “Just call me Zuko. Why can’t you go? I thought it was only hunting you’re not allowed to do?”

“I did wrong,” Noroq said simply. “Analuq said I was ostracised, that’s what it means.”

“You mean you’ll be punished?”

“No,” said Noroq, and drew his knees in even closer. He looked at Zuko’s expression and gave him a small smile. “Not like what you’re imagining. I’ve been in your Fire Nation prisons, and we would never do something like that. Being ostracised means no hunting, but also no feasts and no songs. I’m like a living ghost for the summer.”

Zuko understood: it sounded like a form of banishment without the physical exile. “At least it’s not forever,” he said sympathetically.

“It doesn’t matter, I’ll still miss the rest of the whaling season.”

The unfairness did seem galling, that someone could be punished for saving Sokka’s life. At a loss for what to do, Zuko shrugged off his own parka and handed it to Noroq. “Here, it’s getting cold.”

Noroq gave him an odd look. “Isn’t this Sokka’s?”

Zuko nodded. He had no idea why Sokka gave it to him so casually, on that morning two weeks ago. He assumed it was a cast-off, though Sokka’s own jacket didn’t seem finer than this one: it was made of sealskin, plusher and warmer than the finest silk quilts back home, and the metallic silver-blue hues of the hide shimmered under sunlight like the sea. Zuko had meant to return it sooner, but every time he picked it up, its sheer blue loveliness made him pause. Some small selfish instinct had made him keep it until now.

He didn’t want to give it up, but it seemed right to give the parka to the person who just saved Sokka’s life. Besides, best to hand it over now before Zuko accidentally sailed off with it still hung up next to his cabin bunk.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Zuko said. 

Noroq hesitated, but although the polar sun was still bright overhead, the winds were picking up this late in the day, and the warmth of the parka was too much to resist. “Won’t you need it?” he asked Zuko, even as his hand reached out to take it.

“Not while the sun is still overhead,” said Zuko, and nodded up at the sky. “We firebenders have our own ways of warming ourselves.”

He leaned back and breathed out a jet of fire into the sky, making it bigger than demonstration strictly required. Normally, it took concentration and effort to keep his temperature up this way, through heating his own breath, but the long days of sun had fizzed up his blood with energy. Zuko had been secretly dying for some sort of opportunity to do firebending, something other than shooting sparks out his nose to entertain children.

But given it had felt disrespectful to practice while there was a chance someone might see him, given what firebenders had done before on Southern Water Tribe territory...

The settlement was empty except for the two of them, with everyone else down by the shore, but Zuko reined himself in just in case. He breathed again, softer and on his hands this time, and felt the creeping cold disappear.

Even with another layer on, Noroq’s fingers looked reddened and raw from the long hours exposed to the elements. Without thinking, Zuko grabbed Noroq’s hands too and brought them to his mouth, blowing out a warm puff of fire to warm the skin and bring the circulation back.

Noroq leaned in to watch, fascinated, before drawing back. He rubbed his hands and gave Zuko one of his old sweet smiles. “Thank you, Zuko.”

“Not a problem,” said Zuko, buoyed up from the rush of power. It was a trick he used on himself before, years ago during his disastrous break-in at the Northern Water Tribe. It felt right to use it to help a waterbender now, like he was making secret amends. “Next year will come before you know it,” he told Noroq. “You’ll have a second chance soon.”

Then Zuko’s neck stiffened – the sixth sense he’d developed over the years told him when someone was watching him.

He spun around, but it was only Sokka, leaning on his sheathed meteorite sword like a walking stick. Zuko hadn’t heard him approach. “If you two are done here,” he said flatly. “I need some help changing before the feast.” Zuko scrambled up, only for Sokka to shake his head. “I was talking to Noroq.”

“I can help,” Zuko insisted, but Sokka wasn’t listening. He was staring at Noroq.

Noroq ducked his round face down, but not before Zuko caught his look of embarrassment. With a shrug, he pulled the jacket off and tried to hand it back to Zuko.

Reflexively, out of a sense of decorum bred into him at bone-level, Zuko held up his palms and refused it. It would be unforgivably rude to accept a gift’s return once it had already been given. “Keep it for now,” he said stupidly, and Sokka’s face darkened even further.

Maybe there were Water Tribes customs Zuko had not known about regifting a present, especially clothing, and he had offended Sokka somehow. He looked wildly between the two men, feeling lost again.

“Sokka, calm down,” Noroq said softly. “It’s not good to be angry.” He stepped forward and took one of Sokka’s arms over his shoulder. Sokka frowned, but Noroq only laughed and pinched his cheek like a toddler. “You look like my polar bear-dog after he fell through an ice sheet. Cheer up a little, eh?”

It seemed a bit ironic to Zuko that Noroq, of all people, could tell someone else to cheer up, but the earnestness of his good nature seemed to have an effect on Sokka, who looked more mollified. He nodded, and with Noroq supporting him, turned to go.

“What am I supposed to do, just wait here?” Zuko called out behind them.

Sokka looked over his shoulder, his expression impossible to make out.  “Go ahead without us,” he called back. “I want to talk to Noroq anyways - it’s a Water Tribe thing. You wouldn’t understand.” 

*

Zuko stayed where he was for a long time, looking at the sky, studying the miraculous little tundra flowers growing through patches of frosted ground, making sparks appear and disappear from his fingers. 

After a while, he left.

He spent his walk back down to the shore feeling irritated. His own country may be a fascist nightmare sometimes, but there was something at least comforting about a precisely delineated etiquette system that prescribed one’s correct behaviour at every turn. Zuko didn’t enjoy worrying about the right thing to do all the time, but at least there was a right thing to do – or, at least, there was a sense of what’s right and wrong that he could understand.

It was his final day with the Southern Water Tribe, and Zuko felt like he knew less about them than ever.  

*

At the feast, Zuko searched first for his own delegates in the crowd. The Whaling Feast wasn’t like the banquets back home, where the seating arrangements were formalised with respect to rank and the architecture of the room. People sat in a loose circle around a big fire, with a few smaller fires spread out around it. Zuko’s ministers were there too, though most had excused themselves early in the evening to retire to the ship, where the warming pipes helped ease the cold. The few who remained looked disgruntled at having to kneel on the ground.

It was weird, but weirder still was how the captain and crew of Zuko’s ship seemed to be having a grand time. Zuko could barely understand it. Some of the lower-ranked crew were also too young for the war – and didn’t that make Zuko feel ancient – but the captain and the first mate were men in their middle age. Not even ten years ago, the same sailors might have steered the same ship to raid the same people they were now sitting with, laughing and eating together like their painful history did not exist.

Zuko could see the first mate with one of the Southern Water Tribe’s paddle-like drums, trying to lead a group of young children in a rendition of “The Girls from Ba Sing Se” – only the non-dirty bits at the beginning, Zuko hoped. A midshipman was daring her friend to try the whale blubber, but her fellow sailor was too busy making eyes at a knot of giggling girls to pay attention to the food. Both of them, now that they were off duty, were wearing warm rabbit-skin shoes that they must have bought or bartered here, from the tribes.

Satisfied nothing disastrously undiplomatic was going to occur, he found Katara and Hakoda and sat down next to them. They were eating pieces of whale skin and fat from the bowls being passed around.

Katara smiled at him. “You must be starving, want to try some?” She offered him the bowl on her lap.

Zuko hesitated.

He had seen people eat raw meat in the last two weeks, along with bowls of seaweed stew and roasted fish. But Zuko had never tried. As a child, he had been taught that barbarians came two categories: the cooked people and the raw people. Both were bad, but the raw eaters were the worst, barely more than savages. Without fire, people had nothing to guide them towards enlightenment, one of Zuko’s tutors told him once. Civilization began at the hearth.

Then again, the same people also said the war was the Fire Nation’s way of spreading civilization to the rest of the world, and that killing off a dragon was the greatest glory a firebender could achieve.

He took the bowl.

He put a piece of whale in his mouth; chewed with trepidation.The grey and striated chunk of skin and blubber didn’t look appetising, but the taste wasn’t too bad. It was oily and rubbery in a way that was similar to squid, but it also had a rich taste that reminded him disconcertingly of green hazelnuts more than anything else.

“It’s good,” he said, surprised and relieved.

“To be Water Tribe is to eat the food that the ocean and the moon give us,” said Hakoda, smiling. “We depend on our animals to keep us strong.”

Zuko ate another piece. The taste was unusual, but he thought he understood Hakoda’s meaning. Even a few mouthfuls satiated his hunger and warmed him through in a way that any amount of ginseng tea or hot rice could not. He could see why everyone around him was laughing and chewing with gusto.

Katara stuck her elbows into Zuko’s ribs and motioned for him to hand the bowl over. In addition to the waterbending ritual, she must have spent all afternoon freezing and preparing the whale meat to be divided between the villages. Her hair was mussed and her boots were filthy, but by the firelight, under the green and blue and yellow sky, Katara looked the happiest that Zuko had ever seen her.

“What my dad means is that our hunting, our land, and our lives are spiritually connected, you can’t have one without the other.” A flicker of something dimmed her happiness for a second. “I thought that when Sokka agreed to join the whale hunt this year he was back to his old self again.”

“Katara,” Zuko said slowly, meeting her eyes. “What’s going on with your brother? What’s gotten into him today?”

“You mean, what’s gotten into him the past few years?” Katara said. She stopped eating and started fiddling with the ends of her hair, smoothing it down before starting to braid and re-braid the ends. “My brother’s going through a tough phase. We all did, after Gran Gran died, but it hit Sokka the hardest. He just needs time to find himself again.”

“Oh,” said Zuko. He knew that Katara and Sokka’s grandmother had passed away some time after the war ended, peacefully and in her sleep, but he never knew it affected them so much. He didn’t know much about their lives at all, he realised. There was so much taking up his time in Caldera. “I express my regards. You must be grieving terribly,” he said, and then flushed at how stilted the formal expression of condolence must sound to Katara.

“It sounds rough,” he tried again, and flushed even more.

Katara patted his arm. “Thanks, Zuko.” She propped her chin on one hand and slumped down. “I was sad too, and I mourned her along with Dad. But it was like something snapped with Sokka since then. He’s angry all the time, he avoids everyone – I didn’t think he was even interested in the whale hunt this year, and then all of a sudden, he decides he’s obsessed.

“He won’t talk to me or Suki about anything. Not about Gran Gran, not about the war. Suki told me once that he still has nightmares about Sozin’s comet, about falling off the airship, but she only knew because she felt him waking up in the middle of the night. When I asked him about it he blew up and said I need to stop invading his privacy. So now he won’t talk to me at all. When he does talk to other people it’s with the other men, during big gatherings like these.”

“Like Noroq?” Zuko asked.

“I suppose,” Katara said, puzzled. “Noroq’s friendly with everyone. He did save Sokka’s life today, so who knows? I really have no idea what my brother does all day.” Katara stared across the fire, towards where Sokka was sitting, out of reach from the fire’s light and warmth. “I just want my old brother back. I miss him.”

Zuko patted her shoulder. “Give him time.” But Katara only groaned and buried her face in her hands. He patted her shoulder one more time. “Don’t you get nightmares too? What do you do?”

“I talk to Dad, or I talk to Aang if he’s here visiting. I write letters to you. I check how my students are doing. I mean, unlike someone , I’m capable of working out my past traumas out in a healthy and mindful way.” 

Zuko said nothing. 

“...and sometimes I find a big boulder and shoot icicles at it until it explodes.” Katara admitted. “But in a healthy and mindful way.”

“I’m not judging.”

Katara fiddled with her braid again, threw it back over her shoulder. “Look at me, complaining about my sibling problems when you have your own family to think about.” Her eyes turned serious. “I can’t imagine how painful it must be sometimes, still. Do you want to talk about it? ”

He shrugged, then shook his head no. Out of everyone in their friend group, Katara knew the most about him, even more than Aang did. She had been the first person he told about his mother, back when the two of them were still enemies trapped together in Ba Sing Se. They’ve gone through more together since then: hunting down her mother’s killer, facing down Azula in that last Agni Kai. There was something about seeing each other at their worst that turned the two of you into unlikely confidantes. 

But sometimes there was more to people than their worst.

“Take it from someone who’s been through it all before,” he told her. “Some things are better off left alone. Sokka just needs time to figure things out for himself. You can’t force people to change when they don’t want to.” 

Katara huffed. “Sometimes people just need help and don’t realise they need it. Are you sure you don’t want to talk about your mom? Or Azula? It must be paining you.”

Zuko shrugged again. Katara was the type of person who could make anything happen; she moved through life with such an intensity of purpose that people had no choice but to buckle under the sheer force of her attention. She was just so wonderfully and terribly good , so wonderfully and terribly helpful. Katara couldn’t stand to see something left unfixed: not Zuko’s family, not Zuko’s scar, definitely not her own brother.

A wave of fuzzy fondness washed over Zuko, mixed with exasperation. She really was trying hard - albeit in her own, overbearing, Katara-ish sort of way. 

“I’m fine,” he told her. It pained him to say it, but he thought Katara deserved some reassurance. “Stop worrying about your brother. I have a good feeling about him and Noroq. I’m sure Sokka’s not as alone as you think.”

They looked at each other. Katara’s lip quirked upwards; Zuko assumed that his feeling of fuzzy fondness was being returned – and too late, noticed the mocking glint in Katara’s eye. 

He barely had time to brace himself before she gave him a playful shove that knocked him forward. The bowl of whale blubber flew out of his lap, arced through the air, and upended itself over his head.

“You men are so stupid sometimes. It’s unbelievable,” she said, and giggled as Zuko reeled, frantically brushing bits of whale out of his hair. She shushed his protests. “Shut up, I see Sokka coming over now, and he’ll kill me if he knew I was talking about him behind his back. This conversation? Never happened.”

Zuko looked up: Sokka was stumbling over, using his sheathed sword to hobble along.

It would be a cliché for Zuko to say his heart leaped at the sight, but it did. Even after all that had happened, his treacherous heart leaped up like a whale breaking through the surface of the water.

 

Chapter Text

The gates opened and someone stepped out, wearing a blue cloak.

The hood was drawn up, and the only illumination came from the torches by the prison walls and the weak moonlight overhead, but even if Zuko didn’t recognise the rhythm of the footsteps and the length of the stride, the lack of alarm coming from the prison tower told him all he needed to know.

He waited until Sokka came closer to the tree copse where he was hiding, whistled softly, and called, “Over here!”

Sokka glanced behind him at the empty road, and then looked around at the trees. “Who’s there?” he demanded.

Zuko stepped out to beckon him over, and Sokka ducked behind the branches to join him.

“Everything alright?” he asked as Sokka drew back his hood.

“Fine,” Sokka said tersely. He grabbed Zuko’s forearm in a quick greeting, and Zuko, surprised by the magnitude of his own relief, clasped it back. On an impulse, he leaned in to tuck his cheek close to Sokka’s own, drawing a breath from the spot behind his ear, just as Mina had done to him earlier.

Sokka smelled like prison sheets and the vegetable oils in the face paint, but underneath that was the smell of his sweat and skin, something earthy that reminded Zuko of the blue sealskin parka he had borrowed a year ago. If it was the breath of the soul like Mina had said, then it was pretty nice.

“What are you doing?” Sokka hissed.

Zuko drew back and let go. The whole thing had lasted less than a second. “Mina said this was how friends in the Water Tribes greet each other in private. She said it was for special occasions. Did I do it wrong?”

“Oh,” said Sokka. It was hard to tell his expression under the paint. “Maybe in the north, but not for us. It’s…a complicated gesture.”

Breaches of cultural etiquette seemed to be Zuko’s forte when it came to the Water Tribes.

Come to think of it, he never noticed anyone doing this while he was actually visiting the Southern tribes. For all he knew, he just insulted Sokka by hitting on him, or worse, insinuating they were business partners. “Forget about it,” he said. “Tell me about what happened in the prison. How did it go?”

Sokka cracked a smile. “The smoothest jailbreak I’ve ever done. Though I nearly had a heart attack when Mina walked in with the getup and the face paint, I thought she was one of those seal spirits you hear about in legends, here to take me to the afterlife.”

“Is she okay?”

“Fine,” said Sokka, shrugging off his heavy cloak. “Obviously not too happy to be stuck there. She said you promised her a laboratory and a house and the use of one of our submarines so she can do something with seaweed. Is that true?”

Zuko gave a helpless shrug. It was what he deserved for not making a deal in writing. “Tell me what happened in the infirmary today. I only heard Qyu’s version.”

“Kizia happened,” Sokka said, the earlier smile disappearing. He sighed and leaned against one of the tree’s gnarled trunks. “Figured out who the assassin was this morning, by the way.”

“I know that already,” Zuko said, and shrugged again when Sokka’s eyes widened. “I’ll tell you about it after. Go on.”

“She came into my room and pulled a knife out of a vase of flowers. Tried to finish me off, but I managed to roll out of the way. There weren’t any weapons around, but I managed to smash the vase on the floor and fought back with one of the jagged pieces. Took her by surprise and got her on the leg before the healers came running in and restrained me.”

“Why didn’t you explain what happened?”

“I did,” Sokka said quietly. The broad line of his shoulders hunched forward. “But then she started crying and making all sorts of accusations. She said that I was trying to force myself on her, that I was attacking her because she rejected me. I mean, as far as they knew, I was recovering from a deadly burn wound, I don’t see why anyone would believe her. But next thing I know, I was being carried off by the guards to the prison tower. I asked to see you, by the way – but nothing happened.”

“I was busy,” Zuko said, and regretted his choice of words when Sokka shot him a flat look. A flush of guilt rose up in him again. “Sokka, I’m so sorry about this.”

“Being sorry doesn’t help much.”

“Those guards will be disciplined, I assure you –” Zuko began.

“But that’s not going to change how you’ll see us as second-class savages, will it?” Sokka said abruptly. He rose up from where he was leaning against the tree, and pushed his way past the branches to the dirt road again. “I’m going now.”

Zuko gave chase, put a hand on his shoulder. “Sokka, wait—”

“Forget it,” Sokka said, and scrubbed a knuckle over his eyes, smudging the black lines. He looked upwards at the sky for a long moment. “Look, it's been a long day. I’m just taking out my anger on the closest person, you don’t deserve this.”

Since he’d arrived in Caldera, Sokka had been so confident, so easy-going, that Zuko had never asked how being thrown in the hothouse atmosphere of the royal court was affecting him. He was so much like his old self again that Zuko had forgotten about this side of him, the new Sokka: someone angrier than before, vulnerable in a way that made Zuko feel a little uncomfortable.

They were walking back the same way Zuko came, in the direction of the palace city. Neither of them said anything for the next stretch of path.

Rounding a corner, they saw the city buildings rising in the distance. “Let’s start this conversation over again,” Sokka said, breaking the silence. “Where do we go now?”

Zuko stopped. “What?”

Sokka stopped too. Without Zuko noticing, their footsteps had fallen into rhythm with one another. “Where should we go now? I’m going to need to change out of these clothes and take off this makeup before I draw attention to myself, seeing as I am technically on the run. And I assume you broke me out of jail because something has gone seriously wrong, or else you’d come visit like a normal person.”

“Uh,” said Zuko.

Sokka smacked his forehead with a palm. “Let me guess: you didn’t plan that far.”

He sounded annoyed, but was Zuko imagining it, or was there some fondness mixed in as well? Either way, it was a good question. Zuko’s own chambers – or anywhere else in the palace – were out; there were guards everywhere. They could go back to Mina’s room, but that was a long way away in another district of the city. He thought hard. What was somewhere that was safe, discreet, and close by?

“I think I have an idea,” Zuko said. “But it has to stay a secret between you and me, understand?”

“Who am I going to tell while I’m on the run?”

“It’s stays a secret,” Zuko repeated. Sokka nodded, pressed his mouth shut, and mimed turning an invisible key in a lock. Then he opened his mouth again to mime eating the key, and winked.

Zuko swallowed, already doubting himself. Was there a name for pre-emptive regret?

Foresight, that was it.

*

He led Sokka down a smaller dirt road back towards the palace city, cutting through the dense underbrush. Branches scratched across his face in the paltry moonlight, so Zuko lit a small fire in one hand to guide their way. With the other hand, he grabbed Sokka’s hand to make sure he wouldn’t stumble on the loose rocks.

They went through the maze of alleyways at the outskirts of the city, then cut across a residential complex to reach a small side-street, where they approached the edge of the city’s red-light district.

 Zuko slowed his steps and looked around. He’d only been to the establishment once before, but every excruciating detail was vivid in his memory. He stopped in front of a set of nondescript outer gates that guarded the courtyard of the building. There was no sign in front, only a lonely lantern in its brass holder, the double door was painted a shade of dull red. The only feature that distinguished it from the other gates on the same sleepy street was the door knockers in front, golden and shaped like delicate plum blossoms.

He made sure his cloak’s hood was lifted up, then he swung the knockers and knocked once, twice. They haven’t let go of each other’s hands yet, Zuko noticed. Well, it’ll just add credence to their cover story. The door swung open before he could add the third knock.

The doorman behind it took in Zuko’s plain, coarsely woven cloak, and gave its owner an unimpressed look.

“My friend and I need a room here for the night,” Zuko said.

“Names?” drawled the man.

“Lee,” Zuko and Sokka both said at the same time.

The man looked even more unimpressed. “Same name for the both of you?”

“Uh,” Zuko said, mind blank. Why didn’t he think of a back-up pseudonym beforehand?

Sokka elbowed him. “You can call me Wang Fire,” he chipped in, sounding amused for some reason.

The man surveyed Sokka up and down, taking in his painted face, his blue beaded cloak, the sealskin boots. According to Mina, they were her best festival clothes, and she made Zuko promise to return them on pain of death. “Not Neho?” said the man. “Big fans of The Melting of Spring Snow, are we?”

“Sure,” said Zuko at the same time that Sokka said, the disgust evident in his voice, “Absolutely not.”

The man peered under Zuko’s hood. “Your Fire Lord Zuko costume is pretty good, but you got the scar on the wrong side.”

Beside him, Sokka gave a loud cough that Zuko tried to tell himself wasn’t a muffled laugh.

“Listen,” he snapped, letting a touch of royal haughtiness seep through. “Are we going to stand here chatting or are you going to let us in? Whatever happened to customer service around here?”

The doorman’s spine straightened up in a snap, the smirk flying from his face like dust being beaten out of a rug. “Of course, sir,” he said, and then looked startled by his own meekness. He gave Zuko a short bow. “Step this way please.”

They crossed the small front yard and entered the main building.

“How do you do that?” Sokka whispered.

“Do what?” Zuko whispered back.

Sokka gave another cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. “Nevermind.”

Unusual for most establishments, there was no front hall on the first floor, just room after room with their panelled doors slid shut. The man took them through the twisting corridors and stopped in front of one. He slid it open, the room inside was decorated with pots of orchids and tasteful ink calligraphy scrolls.

There was a woman sitting by a cherry wood table. She rose to greet them with a deep bow.

“Welcome to my humble establishment,” she said. “Call me Madame Su.” 

She was a middle-aged woman with a placid face, her neck and collarbones heavily powdered against prickly heat. Although she wore twin armbands and a shoulderless top in the style of a working woman,  Zuko could see how her armbands were made of solid gold, and her shirt had the subtle shine of raw silk. He could sense Su giving him and Sokka the similar up-and-down scan, no doubt noting how badly the two of them stood out against the luxurious surroundings. 

“Discretion is guaranteed here, gentlemen,” Su said after a delicate pause. “You can remove your hood if you’d like.”

“I’ll keep it on,” Zuko said.

“Of course,” Su said. “And will you and your friend be requesting separate rooms or the same one?”

“The same one, and for the rest of the night.”

“Of course, and—” she paused delicately. “Your method of payment?”

He forgot he didn’t have any money with him , Zuko realised with a jolt. He never needed to carry any in his daily life. Has it really been that long since he’d lived in the world as a normal person?

“I have some,” Sokka said. He rummaged around Mina’s leather bag that he was still carrying as part of his disguise, and took out a money pouch. “Will this be enough?”

The mistress opened the pouch and counted out a pile of gold pieces. She nodded, then returned the pouch – much lighter now – back to Sokka. She opened one drawer of the cherry wood table and took out a lacquered stick. On top of the table was a large box with several long rows of holes drilled on top, a few were filled with lit incense sticks, wafting trails of smoke into the air. Su inserted the wooden stick into the row at the top.

“Right this way, please,” she said when she was done, and lead them into the corridor again.

“What are those sticks?” whispered Sokka.

“It’s a way to keep time,” Zuko whispered back, but Sokka only looked more confused. “Anyway, where did you get the money?”

“It’s Mina’s fee for healing me this morning. She forgot to take it out of her bag and I felt it jangling around.” Sokka smirked. “You better replace it before getting her out.”

“Why don’t I just hand her the treasury keys at this point?” Zuko hissed.

They were climbing flights of wooden stairs up to the highest floor. Madame Su turned down the hall and stopped in front of a door. Unlike the lattice paper doors downstairs, this one was made of solid wood.

“Could I provide anything to make your stay more comfortable?” Su asked. “We have a wide range of amenities at the Plum Blossom.”

“Yes,” Zuko said. “Send up a tray of dinner—”

“Two trays,” Sokka butted in.

“—and some water and towels for washing. And some clean bandages and burn ointment, if you have any. And could you also get a change of clothes in my friend’s size?”

If this assortment of miscellaneous demands sounded strange, Su gave no sign. “Of course,” she said for the hundredth time that night. Her mild gaze surveyed Sokka. “For the clothes, would you prefer a male or female set? We have a selection of costumes at our disposal – though the Kyoshi Warrior sets have to be booked in advance, they’re in very high demand.”

“A set of men’s clothes is fine,” Zuko managed. He dared not look over at whatever expression Sokka must be pulling right now. “And something – normal is fine.”

Su nodded. “Of course. Anything else?”

“Could you get a jar of oil?” Sokka piped up. “Either rice bran or sunflower, but anything from a kitchen would do. As long as it’ll take off makeup.”

“We have a wide selection of oils of every kind,” said Su, without a change in her smooth expression. “I’ll send a maid up shortly.” She glided off back down the corridor.

“A wide selection—” Sokka repeated after her, and before the final dots could connect, Zuko unlocked the door and pushed him inside. The room was dark except for the city lights coming through the thin cracks between the curtains. Zuko busied himself by lighting the room’s lanterns; the oil inside was infused with dried petals, and with each pool of warm, homely light that appeared, the musky scent of jasmine intensified, filling the air.

Sokka was still standing next to the doorway.

Zuko followed his gaze as Sokka took in the lanterns, the ink scrolls depicting nude figures hanging above the ornamental vase, the wide bed in the center of the room.

“Wait a minute,” Sokka said slowly. “A secretive doorman? A sultry and sophisticated proprietor? Costumes? Oils ? This isn’t just an expensive inn, is it?”

“Uh,” said Zuko intelligently. He was standing on the other side of the room. Their gazes met in the middle, over the absurdly-sized bed with its lush spread of satin sheets.

“Am I… are we – did you—” Sokka looked like he was going to choke on his own tongue. “Are we in a brothel ?”

*

In the end, a maid knocked on their door with the ordered food and supplies, and Sokka announced he was postponing his breakdown in favour of eating first.

Gruesome details didn’t seem to diminish his appetite. As Zuko wrapped up his recounting of what happened to Luan, Sokka shoved another chopstick-full of rice in his mouth.

“Okay,” he said around the food, “So summing up the day so far: I was nearly murdered by Kizia, who then got me imprisoned; Luan was actually working with her to embezzle reparation funds, and then Kizia murdered her to cover it all up and to frame you. Then you and Mina put aside your differences to break me out of jail, and now we’re in a brothel. A real brothel.”

They were sitting on the room’s straw matted floor, the low table of food between them. Sokka shifted forward, tried to spear the last piece of grilled eel, only for Zuko to knock his chopstick aside at the last minute and pluck the piece of eel into his own bowl.

“The polite euphemism is ‘teahouse’,” he told Sokka. “And the day’s not over yet. We have to catch Kizia and find proof that she’s done all of this. And how is she doing all of this? I’ve never seen this kind of invisible attack before. And how did she kill Luan? She couldn’t be hiding in the room.”

Sokka thought for a while. “She could be using a similar technique to Combustion Man. I wish I had a better look of her in action – you said she was wearing a theatre mask over her whole face?”

“Yeah,” said Zuko. “No tattoos or third eyes showing.”

They continued eating, both of them lost in thought.

Zuko’s grilled eel was halfway to his mouth when he glanced up to see Sokka staring at him. “Stop looking at me like that,” he said. “I already let you have all the seared tuna and the fried eggplant, plus all the stuffed jam buns. I need to eat too.”

“It’s not the eel I’m preoccupied with,” said Sokka. “Or at least, not that kind of eel.” He waggled his eyebrows.

Zuko pretended not to notice. Maybe if he ignored the elephant-koi in the room long enough, it would go away.

“Hey, where did this face paint come from?” asked Sokka suddenly. He swiped a finger across his forehead and sniffed it. “Smells rancid. I think the oils inside have gone off.”

“...probably,” Zuko admitted. “I was in a hurry, so I went for the first thing I thought of. It’s the makeup from Azula’s old vanity table. They’ll be a few years old by now.”

 “I have Azula’s remnants on me right now?”

“I was in a hurry,” Zuko said defensively. “And if they had truly gone off I wouldn’t have grabbed them.”

Sokka grimaced and scrubbed at his face with his knuckles. He only succeeded in creating more greyish smears across his face. “It’s more the Azula part I’m repulsed by,” he said, flapping the hand with the smear at Zuko. “Ugh. Though I guess she’d be equally grossed out by the idea of me sticking a finger in her kohl pot, no innuendo intended.”

It startled a laugh out of Zuko, who probably shouldn’t have found it as funny as he did. 

Sokka set his bowl down and got up to fetch one of the washbasins. With practised motions, he massaged a few drops of oil over his face and dampened a rag.

“So,” Sokka said as he scrubbed at his cheek. “We’re in a teahouse . Where people have sex. With other people. Here. And they probably had sex – in this room. Oh no.” He jumped up abruptly. “Did you ever have sex in this room? Did I just eat dinner over somewhere your bodily fluids have touched? Be honest.”

Zuko kept chewing.

“You know, you not saying anything just makes my imagination worse,” Sokka told him. “I’m picturing you and a courtesan dressed up in a Fire Sage Maiden outfit. Wait, no. A whole orgy of courtesans in Fire Sage Maiden outfits. No...even better, you’re wearing one as well, and there’s probably leather whips and chains and things involved, you sexy little deviant –”

“It was only the one time,” said Zuko quietly. He put his bowl and utensils down, wiped his hands on a napkin, stared at his nails. Sometimes the only way out was through. “I’ve only been here once before. An admiral’s son got drunk at a function and started boasting about this place. He said they cater to the highest order of clientele in Caldera, and you can ask for anything because they guarantee absolute secrecy.

“I came here about a year back. They didn’t give me this room, but it was similar enough. Chan’s son was right about secrecy: I was terrified it could end up as gossip or blackmail - the Fire Lord, visiting a brothel - but nothing happened. That’s how I knew we would be safe here.”

“Don’t worry,” Sokka said lightly. “I doubt you’re the first person in Caldera to visit a lady of the night.”

“No,” said Zuko, “But without speculating too much about my family, I could be the first one in a while to visit a gentleman.”

He didn’t know what he was expecting– a double take, maybe, or another joke, but Sokka only went on scrubbing at his eyelids. He took the rag off and gave Zuko a mild look with his head tilted.

“This stays between us,” Zuko said, and cleared his throat. “Please.”

The rag went on to scrub the other eye. “So it’s not accepted here? Two men?”

“No and yes.” Zuko stared at a corner of the ceiling, not sure how to explain it. “As long as the two are discreet about it in public.”

“What if they don’t want to be discreet?”

“Huh?”

“What if, y’know-” Sokka snapped his washcloth out, dunked it in the basin of water, “-  what if they’re like my dad and Bato? What if they want to make it more official than that?”

“What's the point?” Zuko asked, confused. “It’s not like they can have children.”

 And now it was Sokka shooting him a baffled look from behind the wet cloth, so Zuko went on. “The rules are different for me: if I was married and I have an heir, it wouldn’t matter what I did in private. But I don’t, and it makes my position more precarious than you’d think. People would take it as another sign that I’m a weak ruler.”

Sokka still looked baffled as he wrung out the rag. “Okay, but why come here?”

“It’s about keeping the lineage going and about keeping face,” Zuko said. “It’s how everything around here works –” 

Sokka waved a hand, cutting him off. “I’m not asking for a lecture on honour,” he said, and quirked a clean eyebrow. “I mean, why did you have to…well-” there was some vague gesturing that Zuko didn’t understand. “You could have anyone, female or male, that you want! Surely one of them wouldn’t mind keeping it a secret. Why did you – I don’t know, go to all this bother?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Zuko said drily. “But I have this massive scar on my face. It makes dating harder than you think.”

Without warning, Sokka strided over and bent down to grab Zuko’s hair, pivoting his head left and right under his examining eye. “Come on! Your left eye’s barely visible from this side, you can just stay on the good side of the bed if you’re bothered about it.” 

“It’s more the instant recognisability part that I’m concerned with,” Zuko said drily, but Sokka wasn’t listening. His gaze was unfocused into the middle distance.

“Oh! Eyes! That’s it!”

“What?”

“Hang on,” said Sokka, coming back to the conversation again. He plopped to the ground next to Zuko and crossed his legs. “So does it bother you? The scar?”

Zuko touched his left eye, more out of surprise than anything else. It was the first time anyone had ever asked him about it so directly, and he had to think before answering. “To be honest – no. Not the way it used to.”

He’d come a long way from wanting or needing Katara’s Spirit Oasis water – though he could do without the vision problems and the recognisability. He only wished that more people could look at it without either repulsion or fascination, could joke about it without assuming Zuko would crack open like a lychee nut just from pointing it out.  It was just part of his face at this point; Zuko wouldn’t recognise himself without it. 

“It’s the memory that’s painful,” he said, hoping that Sokka would understand what he was trying to say. “The scar itself is just dead skin. The two aren’t the same thing.”

He looked at Sokka, who gazed back, steady. Zuko liked this about him: the way Sokka looked into his eyes, not at them. 

Then Sokka coughed, and the moment melted away. “Alright, so answer the question: why did you come here? To a teahouse ? You could just – snap a finger, and any man with a cock would be at your bedchamber in minutes.”

Zuko revised his opinion about eye contact. 

He felt his face flush red. It was absurd. He had spent three years of his life on a ship with sailors, and thus had already heard every single piece of slang and filthy epithet ever invented. He blamed the lingering sensation of Sokka’s hand on his head. He should have explained that in addition to not touching your own hair in public, there was an even bigger taboo against touching other people’s hair in the Fire Nation. Too late now.

“That would be a gross misuse of my authority,” he said, trying to distract from his embarrassment. He picked up one of the ceramic chopstick stands and fiddled with it. “I’m not going to force someone.”

“You don’t have to force them,” said Sokka patiently. “You’re a master firebender with a naturally husky voice. That makes you, like, the second-sexiest man I know – and I know a lot of people. What’s the point of this whole tortured and brooding exterior if you’re not going to use it?”

Zuko opened his mouth to point out that, a year ago, Sokka had seemed pretty tortured and broody himself. But then again, it clearly worked for him. 

“Who’s the first sexiest?” he asked instead, and then flashed back to the brief time he spent at the Western Air Temple. “Oh no, don’t even tell me, I bet it’s–”

Haru ,” the two of them chorused together.

“…it’s the eyes,” Sokka said after a second. “They’re like limpid twin pools of mossy green.”  A dreamy expression came over his face, and then he shook his head. “Sorry, Wager for the Water Maiden is really getting to me."

“What is with you and cheap romances?” Zuko asked in exasperation.

Sokka shifted, resting an elbow on his knee to prop up his chin. “Not all cheap romances. Turns out Neho the Barbarian isn’t so funny when you find out what it’s like to be him in real life.” 

His tone was just as breezy and teasing as before, but there was that tension in his jaw again.

“I—" Zuko began. He was still kneeling in the formal posture, but he could feel his spine slumping. He felt the exhaustion of the day catching up with him.  “Those guards will be disciplined, I assure you –”

“Forget about it,” Sokka said. “And anyways, Toph and I agree that Wager for the Water Maiden is a progressive gem that celebrates the special love that exists between women.” He took his own ceramic chopstick stand off the tray, tossed it up in the air and then caught it again. “Please don’t class it in the same category as that play.”

He threw it at Zuko, who didn’t move. The stand bounced off him and fell back on the tray with a clatter. 

“Sokka, what you went through today was fucked up,” Zuko said slowly. “We can - talk about it, you know, uh - if you want.”

“I’ll pass this time,” Sokka said lightly. “Katara told me you hate these kinds of conversations. And honestly? So do I.”

“It’s...something I’m working on,” Zuko grounded out. He didn’t know that Katara had told her brother about - about that. “You can talk to me if you want. Really.”

“I’d rather talk about if you agree Haru has limpid pools for eyes,” Sokka countered. 

They stared at each other over the table.

“A year ago-” Zuko started saying, but Sokka interrupted.

“Don’t bother mentioning it, okay? It’s water under the bridge, remember?”

At the look on his face Zuko gave up; he searched for something else to say. “I think Haru would look better if he shaved the moustache.”

Sokka nodded. “I agree absolutely. But while he still had it, you guys were practically neck-and-neck. But hey, you can definitely take him in a fight. That counts for something.”

“You really think it’s me after Haru and not – uh, Noroq? Shouldn’t he be second?”

Sokka shot him a strange look. There were still smudges of kohl left in his lashes, Zuko noticed. It made his blue eyes even bluer. “I can’t speak for your own list.”

Chasing this topic was like probing for a missing tooth with his tongue. He couldn’t stop himself from poking the wound. “You don’t think you should rate Noroq higher up than me?”

“I’m only talking about the objective list I created with my scientific rubric of attractiveness.” Sokka looked disgruntled. “No way is Noroq beating you or Haru for the top spot. But if we’re talking subjectively – I can’t account for personal taste.”

There was something horribly fascinating about their airship crash of a conversation so far. Maybe this whole evening wasn’t real, and Zuko was passed out somewhere, having another one of his fever hallucinations. Any second now, the room was going to fade to black, and a talking dragon was going to slither in to offer him some life advice. Zuko could use some.

Instead of trying to parse whatever was going on, Zuko got up and fetched one of the other basins of water. “If you’re done eating, we should actually change the burn dressing. Mina said it needs to be done twice a day.”

Sokka shrugged off his heavy blue tunic and folded it with care. “I can’t believe Mina agreed to give you her clothes like this, by the way,” he said with wonder. “You must have really persuaded her.”

“I think it was the thought of gold pieces that really persuaded her,” Zuko said wryly. 

An old memory of a sealskin parka floated up, but before he could chase it any further, Sokka casually poked a finger under the edge of the dressing around his chest, and Zuko darted forward to slap it away.

“I can do it,” he said, before Sokka could do any more damage by spreading infection. “Just tell me what you figured out earlier about eyes.”

“It’s the spectacles she’s wearing around her neck. She’s using glass lenses to focus her firebending energy. It has a weaker effect than Combustion Man’s tattoo, but hey, no extreme body modification required.”

“She’s shooting heat from her glasses?” asked Zuko. He had fetched the new bandages and ointment from in front of the door, and he was washing his hands in the basin.

“All you benders are the same,” Sokka said mournfully. “You think you just wave your hands and the magic stuff makes itself go ‘whoosh’. They’re not real spectacles. The focal length between them and a real pair of glasses would be completely different. But the principle’s the same –  just, instead of using glasses to focus light into her eyes, she’s probably using double convex lenses to concentrate beams towards a single point.”

“I see,” said Zuko, who definitely didn’t.

Sokka pouted. “Was that a pun? I call dibs on being the pun-maker in this duo.”

“No,” said Zuko. “I’m just saying I understand the gist. She’s shooting heat from her glasses.” He ignored Sokka’s groan. “I’m peeling off the dressing now, hold still.”

Between his scarred eye from his father, his uncle’s lightning wound from his sister, and his own lightning wound from his sister – Zuko’s deranged family had given him plenty of hands-on experience in dressing injuries. Sokka’s wound looked much better than Zuko was expecting: the inflammation around the edge was already gone, and although the burn itself was a fixed pale colour and covered in brown leathery splotches, there was no sign of early infection. Mina had done an excellent job debriding the damaged skin under the blister. Zuko had already boiled the water when it arrived, and by now it was lukewarm to the touch. He wiped cleaned the burn site, smeared on the seaweed ointment, and then bound it again with fresh bandages.

Zuko ran the flat of his hand against the bandages, checking his handiwork one last time. Sokka was holding himself oddly still; Zuko was about to ask if the bandages were too constricting, but suddenly it became Sokka’s turn to slap Zuko’s hands away from his ribs.

“That’s enough for now,” he squeaked. He scrambled away backwards on all fours, looking agitated. “You can get your tender hands off now before this mortal wound gets showered with kisses.”

So that was how it was.

“Alright,” Zuko said tersely, and stood up. Without looking around, he threw the bundle of new clothes in Sokka’s direction. “I’m not going to molest you,” he said, and scrubbed at his fingers with more force than necessary. “Just because I came here once doesn’t mean I’m sort of – some sort of sex-fiend. And to actually answer your question, I came because I wanted to find out if…if I was attracted to men. I thought the best way to find out was by paying a man to sleep with me. That’s it.”

The rustling noise of Sokka dressing stilled. “And what did you find out?”

“I found out I hated it,” Zuko said. He looked down at the basin, wondering if there was enough water to drown himself. “Here’s to another stupid idea in a long line of stupid ideas.”

“Ah,” Sokka said, and nothing else for a long while.

Zuko turned – Sokka must be fully dressed by now – to see Sokka holding one of the room’s lanterns. He was standing in front of the full-length mirror in the corner. For some reason, Sokka was tilting the mirror around on its stand, examining the bright spots of light that it threw against the walls and floor.

As it skated by, Zuko caught a glimpse of his own reflection and winced. 

He was reaching the age when a few bad nights of sleep didn’t just make him look more tired. It made him look older as well. It made him look like his father.

Putting aside the issue of the scar, Zuko had never found himself very appealing. He had Ursa’s pointy chin – at least, the pointy chin from her original face – and Ozai’s long nose and colouring. Zuko thought it made a terrible combination: aristocratic, yes, but in an unfortunate mongoose-lizardy way, all yellow eyes and narrow angles. A lifetime ago, he had been self-conscious about his single eyelids, the only one in the family not to have the double fold. But then Ozai solved that problem when he gave Zuko much bigger eye problems to worry about, and Zuko tried hard not to care too much about his appearance since then. It felt like he might jinx himself.

Did Sokka really think he could compete with someone like Haru?

Sokka swiveled the mirror back to its original position, directly in front of himself. His handsome face – an annoyingly defined jawline and a pair of excellent cheekbones – was creased in thought.

“Was there a mirror in the room where Luan died?”

Zuko searched his memory. “Yes, by the window. A big vanity mirror about the size of this one.” He stared at the spot Sokka was aiming at the opposite wall. “You think she’s made heat beams bounce off the mirror’s surface? That’s how she did it?”

“Again, magic stuff going ‘whoosh’,” said Sokka, flapping a hand “That’s not the scientific way to describe it, but yes, that’s the idea. If she’s good at calculating angles, and she knows where Luan usually sits in the room –“

“Oh,” Zuko breathed. “Sokka, you’re a genius.”

Sokka patted his shoulder. “Save the compliments for later, because I got another idea. I think I know how Kizia’s been sneaking around as well.” He grabbed Zuko’s hand. “Hope you’re ready for another life-changing field-trip, because we’re going to break into the Fire Sages’ High Temple.”

“Why?”

Sokka’s blue eyes were wide with excitement, his hand warm against Zuko’s. “Uh, the catacombs? I’ll explain on the way.”  

Zuko had been up since dawn; his mouth and back were aching; he was running on nothing more than the fumes of adrenaline and sheer determination. And yet -

“I’m glad you’re here in Caldera,” he blurted out. 

What he wanted to say without having to say it was, I’m glad things are alright between us again. 

“Me too,” said Sokka, and returned Zuko’s small smile with one of his own.

 

Chapter Text

They picked their way through a black pine grove, the bed of needles under their feet, mattress-soft, muffled all the sound so that they moved as quietly as two shadows.

The High Temple sat north of the palace, its back gardens protected by the steep cliff of the caldera’s edge. It was a squat and imposing building, built centuries ago with enormous planks of elm shipped in from the outer provinces, laid on squat foundational blocks of stone.

Every night, the sages lit torches on the winding climb leading up to its bronze, double-roofed gateway. In the main temple court, the sages kept Agni’s fire burning through the night inside their large copper censer, and novices tasked with feeding the flame took turns patrolling the high walls in front, so no intruder can reach the main gate unnoticed.

Which was why Zuko suggested they retrace his old method for breaking in: sneak through one of the palace’s side gates, cut through its labyrinthine gardens, and then climb over the garden’s northernmost wall. By some quirk of architecture, it was parallel to the High Temple’s kitchen yard, separated only by a grove of pine trees in between.

But it wasn’t the temple itself they were interested in.

“Kizia is using the tunnels in the Dragonbone Catacombs,” Sokka said as they winded their way back through the city streets. “It all makes sense: she has some secret way of appearing and disappearing from the palace grounds somehow, why not secret tunnels? And plus, when I spoke to her, she sounded obsessed with your great-grandfather.” 

When Zuko made a doubtful noise, he added, “I had a look at a map of the palace, there’s no way for her to disappear from the practice yard this morning without cutting across one of the main corridors. Either she flew away – unlikely but not impossible – or, she hid somewhere that no one noticed, or, secret tunnel . The catacombs under Ba Sing Se run for miles under the city, are the Caldera ones any different?”

It was a stretch, but it was also the only lead they had.

Zuko glanced around the quiet grove, trying to estimate where the kitchen yard was on the other side of the white-washed wall. “I think it’s over here, I’ll give you a hand climbing up.”

Sokka scoffed, but when he hoisted himself up to scale the wall, he winced and jumped down again. He pressed a hand over the spot where he strained his still-healing muscles.

“Just accept some help,” Zuko hissed. He laced his hands together, boosted Sokka up with a shove, and clambered after him.

They landed directly in the temple’s kitchen yard, unnoticed except for a few pig-chickens in their coop. They squawked at the intrusion, but at this time of night no one was around to hear.

Something squelched under Sokka’s foot. “What did I just step in?” he asked, lifting one foot to examine the sole.

“Better not to know,” said Zuko, pulling him along by the back of the collar. “Hurry up.”

He led Sokka the same way he took last time, when Iroh told him to seek out Sozin’s last testaments. Winding their way through the exterior paved temple courts, they headed towards the center of the temple, where the flagstones concealed the secret entrance of the catacombs.

They reached the central courtyard and ducked behind one of the pillars of the portico. Zuko checked their surroundings. Still no one around, though the bronze shrines and enormous dragon sculptures looked surprisingly sinister in the dark.

“Let’s wait for a while,” he told Sokka. “At this time of night, the last sage should be finishing his rounds any time now.”

Sokka melted even closer into the shadows and leaned against one of the pillars. “Do you come here a lot? You know the layout pretty well.”

“When I was young,” Zuko whispered. “But not in the last few years.”

“Why not? Bad memories?”

Zuko shrugged. When he was a child, the royal family used to come here for the special festival days of the almanac. Despite the itchy collars of his formal clothes, the hazy heat in summer made worse by the smoke of the burning incense – those were good memories. Nostalgic memories. He and Azula used to sneak in bags of candied nuts and dried figs in their pockets, and passed them back and forth while the sages droned on and burned their paper offerings and prayed for a good fishing season.

Once, when Zuko was still very young and Azula was a toddler in their mother’s arms, they spent a very long afternoon kneeling on the cushions in front of Sozin’s wooden statue. Zuko nodded off halfway through. He woke up with his cheek pressed against a man’s shoulder. His drowsy eyes took in the man’s gold headpiece shining in the light, the flashes of bright silk of his long hems, kicked up by the back of his heels as he walked.

Someone – his mother – had said in a low voice, “Wake him up and let him walk, the sages might find it disrespectful if you carry him.”

The man laughed a little in response. And then, keeping his voice quiet to not disturb Zuko, cradling with one hand his son’s sleepy head where it rested against him, Ozai said, “So what if it does? Before long he’ll be getting too big for picking up. Let him rest this last time.”

Ursa murmured something too soft to catch, but Ozai only hoisted Zuko higher up his shoulder. "You know, at his age I found these ceremonies tedious too. I still do.”

His voice rumbled when he spoke, and Zuko felt the reverberations against his own chest, where it was pressed closely against his father’s. All he wanted then was to stay small forever, so his father would never stop picking him up when he was tired.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. By the time the Ba Sing Se siege began, Azulon ordered an end to most of the sages’ sacred days and the associated ceremonies. They were diverting attention away from the war effort, apparently. After the war ended, Zuko – older and infinitely more tired – allowed the sages to re-establish the rites but didn’t take part in them.

Zuko cited ideological reasons: for one thing, Sozin’s cenotaph was still in the temple. 

He suggested taking it down, but the Great Sage dug his heels in and maintained that altering any part of the temple would count as desecration. They didn’t even get to the prickly issue of what was in the Dragonbone Catacombs before Zuko gave up. Some things were too painful to be disturbed.

“You know what?” Sokka said suddenly, breaking into Zuko’s thoughts. He nodded at the courtyard around them. “I kinda like this place. Very dragon-y, very fiery. I’ll say this for you guys: you really know how to keep an established aesthetic going.” 

Zuko looked around him with a dubious eye. It would have been nice enough during the day – visitors could make their offerings to Agni in the holy bowls of fire the sages kept lit on pewter pedestals, which were shielded from wind and rain by elegant awnings shaped into scalloped edges. People could admire the great bronze sculptures in the yard, the lacquered beams of the temple walls, painted with scenes of great battles and Agni Kai’s of the past.

But in the nighttime, after the sun has set and the bowls of fire extinguished, the whole place seemed a lot less impressive and a lot more banal. Even the famous golden roof tiles were a dull grey in the gloom.

“I liked it a lot better as a kid,” he told Sokka, who hummed in response.

“Did you ever want to climb these bronze statues?”

Zuko’s lip twitched despite himself. “I have climbed all of them. You see that big dragon there? Azula and I used to hide on top and spit candied nuts at the passing sages.”

Sokka laughed quietly, and after a second Zuko did too. That was another good memory he nearly forgot about until now.

If all of Zuko’s childhood was just – pain and fire, Agni Kai’s and punishment and suffering – then that would be easier for him, actually. It would be a simpler story with a simpler ending. It was what Katara imagined for him, which was Zuko’s own fault: it was the story he told her because it was the story he told himself for a long time. Those grains of happiness ruined the story like a spoonful of salt stirred into tea.

Besides, he didn’t know how to explain that he was happier back then than he was now, not without sounding like he was defending his family or the war.

A creaking noise echoed through the night, catching Zuko’s attention: it was one of the Fire Sages, activating the stone staircase out of the catacombs. The man climbed out, and Zuko held his breath as he swept away in the corridors on the opposite side of the yard.

“Come on,” he whispered after a few minutes, when he judged the sage was far away enough to not hear the door opening again. He pulled Sokka to the middle of the courtyard and activated the stone mechanism again.

Sokka whistled as the staircase spiraled open. “I wonder where the force to open it is coming from.” He surveyed the entrance, then rapped a knuckle against the stone lever. “Do you think there’s a pulley system with a hidden counterweight somewhere?”

“…just get inside.”

“Of course,” Sokka said, and sauntered in. “Who doesn’t enjoy a good secret tunnel?”

Zuko followed him, but with a lot less enthusiasm. He hadn’t been back down there in years, and coming back now consumed him with dread. Walking down the staircase felt like being swallowed whole by a dark, gaping maw.

Inside the catacombs the air was dank and musty, and the stone walls had the texture of rough sandpaper. The rows of dragon skulls along the corridors were just as Zuko remembered: yellowed with age and gruesome under the light of the flaming torches.

“How did you know about the catacombs anyways?” he asked Sokka. He didn’t have to whisper, but some part of his brain that was moulded in childhood found the instinctive sense of reverence hard to shake off.

“Suki told me,” said Sokka. He was speaking quietly but not whispering like Zuko was. “The Kyoshi Warriors did a sweep around the palace around your fourth or fifth assassination attempt. She thought it was a major security lapse, but when she suggested stationing guards here the Great Sage at the temple got very huffy. Said he wasn’t taking orders from a painted woman.”

This was the first time Zuko was hearing about this. “Why didn’t Suki just tell me?”

“She did,” Sokka said, and shot him a look. “She said she wrote you an urgent memo about it.”

Zuko had a guilty vision of the baskets of unread scrolls next to his desk; he’d been meaning to go through them all one of these days. Although in his defense, Suki marked all her memos ‘urgent’ and ‘must read’, even the ones that were just her funny doodles of rude dignitaries with animal ears.

“Why didn’t she tell me this face-to-face?”

Sokka shrugged. “That was right before you sent them back to Kyoshi. When she came to visit me after, Suki mentioned that there were probably more pathways in and out of the catacombs than the main one the Sages know about. She already knows about the bunkers that you guys used during the eclipse invasion, and she figured, hey, if people are crazy enough to dig tunnels through a volcano, then why wouldn’t they dig tunnels underneath the palace?”

Zuko added ‘having a stern word with the Great Sage’ to his mental list of Fire Lord tasks. It was a long one, and it banked on the assumption he’d still be the Fire Lord by tomorrow.

They turned down the corridors in the direction for Sozin’s tomb. “What’s over there?” asked Sokka. He pointed to a thick steel door that was chained over and padlocked.

“Archival vaults,” Zuko said tightly. “Nothing too interesting.”

“What are they archiving?”

Zuko rubbed his temples. “Artefacts, old scrolls, stuff like that. Why are you asking so many questions?”

“You guys keep your history locked up in a secret cave?”

“These are technically museums and libraries,” Zuko said. “And some of the really old stuff would perish under contact with sunlight.”

“You know,” Sokka said, sounding thoughtful, “back home we sing our histories. We pass on stories instead of burying them.”

Zuko was about to remind Sokka that he’d heard some of the songs and recitations already, at the Whaling Feast last year, but he wasn’t sure if bringing that up again was a good idea. This new conciliatory mood between them felt too fragile to be disturbed.

He said nothing, and Sokka, misreading his reticence, held up his hands. “Hey, relax. I’m not criticizing, I love my secret libraries, me.”

“You wouldn’t love this one,” Zuko said, and nothing else.

“What’s so bad about it?” Sokka asked, and then pulled a face when they passed another row of yellowed dragon skulls, this time with a pile of giant talons and femurs stacked next to them like a children’s construction puzzle. “Ugh, forget I asked. You guys really take this dragon aesthetic way too far.”

*

“Is it just me, or do the eyes follow you around?” Sokka asked.

They were in front of the metal door to Sozin’s tomb, staring up at the stone relief of Sozin’s likeness.

“Don’t be crazy,” Zuko said half-heartedly.

In truth, the eyes were pretty creepy. It reminded him of the twenty-foot tall wooden statue in the temple above them, the one in the cenotaph for Sozin. Both the door and the statue had been commissioned by the man before he died, but the mania for putting their faces on things lived on in the family, along with the urge for sons to upstage their fathers. Azulon had put that massive two hundred-foot tall statue of himself in the middle of the harbour gate, and while Ozai was defeated before he could do much damage, no doubt plans for an even larger and uglier statue of the Phoenix King were in the pipeline somewhere.

It really was all so tacky, Zuko decided.

Sokka ran a hand along the stone mechanism. “This lock looks like the one in Roku’s temple, the one to the inner sanctum that we couldn’t open. Remember that? You, me, the whole gang, we were all there? And Zhao too, may he rest in agony.”

It actually took him a moment to remember; he hadn’t thought about it for a long time. In a lifetime of bad moments, Crescent Island didn’t even make Zuko’s personal top ten.

“You had a smart idea,” he said now, “trying to activate the mechanism with explosives. The pitfall was that these types of doors need sustained bursts of fire. Your lamps flared out too quickly.”

He didn’t mention that he only witnessed that moment because he was lurking behind a pillar getting ready to kidnap Aang. He hoped Sokka wouldn’t either. They were already doing a lot of not mentioning things tonight, him and Sokka.

But Sokka only looked interested at what Zuko was saying. “I thought my plan didn’t work because firebending creates an inherently different kind of flame.”

“Common misconception. Fire’s just fire.”

“Huh.”

Zuko lifted a hand to the lock’s trigger point. “Alright, if you’re done reminiscing, then stand back.”

“Wait!” Sokka hissed, grabbing his arm. “What are you doing?”

“Making the magic stuff go whoosh,” Zuko said. He dropped his hand anyways. “What’s wrong?”

“What if Kizia’s in there right now? We need a plan.”

“We get in, watch out for mirrors and reflective surfaces, smash her spectacles at the first chance. We take her down, bring her to face justice, clear your name, and get Mina out of prison. Then I go yell at the Great Sage for an hour about security breaches and treating women with more respect.” Zuko really hoped it would all work. Yelling at someone would be so cathartic right now.

Sokka chewed his lip and thought it over. “Sounds good to me. I just wish I have my sword with me though. I feel defenseless.”

“You’re supposed to be taking it easy,” Zuko told him. “Healer’s orders.”

He pressed his palm to the center of the stone relief, summoning fire into the sunken stone hollow. Firebending locks were expensive and only done by a few artisans over their lifetime. None of the other tombs in the catacombs had the same locking mechanism on the door, but then again, leave it to Sozin to go the extra mile.

The stone eyes and mouth lit up as if in agreement. The iron doors slid open.

They looked inside.

There was no one inside -- at least, no one alive.

“Wow,” Sokka said after a minute. “Much less fancy than what I was expecting.”

Zuko rolled his eyes and continued checking the chamber. When he was certain it was empty, he relaxed his guard and said, “The big statue and decorations are above us in the temple. That’s where people go to lay their offerings, this is just where the ashes are kept.”

“People still celebrate your great-grandad?” Sokka asked.

“Kizia’s hardly his first fan,” Zuko said. “He’s a national hero, remember?”

 He lit up a fireball in his palm and stepped inside. The layout of the tomb had not changed since the last time he was here: urns holding the ashes of lesser nobility lined the sides of the round room, and at its head, a carved dragon coiled around Sozin’s own ashes, its sharp teeth bared in stony eternity.

But the tomb itself looked different: there were unmistakable traces that someone had been here since then. He remembered the altar table as a dusty old thing, covered with cobwebs and dust. Now, someone had wiped it clean. A pile of ripe peaches was laid next to a vase of lilies, their orange and pink stripes gaudy even in the dim light of Zuko’s sole fireball. There were even lit incense sticks in a small bowl of sand, their faint scent suggesting that they had been lit in the last few hours.

Zuko looked closer. Even the urn for Sozin’s ashes looked newly polished. Sokka was right. A nationalist fanatic would put her hideout next to the literal dead body of her hero.

“Where’s Kizia now?” Sokka asked. He looked up at the stone dragon. “What do you say, big guy? Seen her around lately?”

The dragon said nothing.

Zuko wondered if it was meant to represent Sozin’s own companion, the fierce blue dragon that the history scrolls said he used as a mount. Roku’s dragon had perished with him on the volcano, but Sozin died in his bed. What happened to his dragon? The scrolls only said that it died shortly after Sozin did, but they neglected to explain how or why. Did it die of grief after its master’s passing? Or did it fly away, to become one of the unfortunate beasts hunted down in the century afterwards? History was silent on that matter.

Maybe the Fire Nation should pass on their history through songs. It would give people the chance to ask questions.

“Give me a light here!” Sokka called from the other side of the tomb. Zuko shook himself, then joined him to check it out. Sokka was kneeling by a few wooden crates pushed against the wall; there was a set of broadswords lying on top. Zuko didn’t remember these being here last time.

“Don’t strain yourself.” He gestured for Sokka to step back, and eased off one of the lids with the hand that was not holding the fireball. They looked down: inside the first crate was a jumble of black clothes and gloves. Sokka rummaged through them, pulling out a handful of theatre masks.

A stack of Blue Spirits grinned upwards at Zuko, as much of a remainder of the dead as the urns of ashes and stacks of dragon bones around them. Zuko dropped them back into the crate, closed the lid like it was a coffin. Hopefully the past will stay dead this time.

“Ding ding ding,” Sokka said. “Looks like we have a winner.” He was pushing the lid off the second crate. “A-ha! Mysterious papers in this one. Now we’re talking.” He pulled out an armful of scrolls and letters and rifled through them.

Zuko increased the size of the fireball, flooding the room with light, and took one of the scrolls as well. He struggled a little to undo the silk tag with one hand, finally pulling it apart with his teeth. He read the contents: To the Blue Spirit from Capt. Jin-Soo of the Flying Koala-Otter, the proposed meeting date for pickup on Whaletail Island must be delayed an additional two weeks to allow for hull repairs, the inclement weather between the solstice and the late summer season will likely – “

He didn’t get any further before Sokka rolled up his own scroll with a snap. “She’s planning to divert the Kolau shipment to Whaletail Island,” he told Zuko. “These papers must be her correspondence with the captains and harbourmasters. Her plan with Luan must have been to receive the reparations shipments as normal at their destination, take the money and supplies, and then load it into another ship before the original one even left the dock. And there’s more—” Sokka waved a piece of paper in the air, “—this looks like notes for the fake letter that Luan said she received from Kolau villagers. We just found proof that the two of them were embezzling.”

Zuko snatched the paper away and scanned it. “You couldn’t possibly have read all of them so quickly.”

“It’s called skimming,” Sokka said. At Zuko’s disbelieving gaze he rubbed the back of his neck and said, in a defensive tone, “The last time I had to pore through a bunch of reading in a weird underground room, a giant spirit owl and his fox librarians were trying to kill us. It was either learn to speed read or die.”

Zuko scoffed. “Why do none of your anecdotes ever sound like anything that has ever happened to a real person?”

“So what do you do?” Sokka asked. “Read through every word of every document that ever gets handed to you as the Fire Lord?”

“Of course not,” Zuko said in a hurry. He would rather face a spirit owl than admit that was exactly what he did.

Sokka, smirking now, put the scrolls back inside the crate. “Pick that up and let’s get going,” he said. “Let’s find Kizia while our luck’s still holding out.” He picked up the pair of broadswords for himself and nudged the crate towards Zuko with a foot.

He was out the tomb’s door and halfway down the corridor towards the recesses of the catacombs before he realised Zuko wasn’t behind him.

Zuko stepped out the tomb door, the crate was in his hands, but he made no move to follow down the hall. “We should just leave the catacombs now,” he said.

After so long, it was finally Sokka’s turn to be the one giving Zuko the baffled looks. “What?”

“We found what we were looking for. This is enough for me to at least argue that Kizia was Luan’s killer, and probably enough for me to order Mina out of the prison. Let’s just leave now.”

“That still leaves a psychopath killer on the loose!” Sokka hurled back. “Who knows what she’ll try next if we don’t stop her?”

“That’s what guards are for,” Zuko countered. “At this point Kizia’s probably on the next ship out of Caldera. And maybe it’s a good thing she wasn’t here –you think either of us is in the shape for a fight right now? against someone like her? Suki and Mai aren’t around to save us this time.”

Sokka stomped back to where Zuko was standing. He jabbed a finger at Zuko’s chest. “But what if she is still here? The longer we leave her on the loose, the higher the chances are someone else might get hurt. And the more likely it is that she’s gonna get away with it.”

Zuko pushed the finger away. “Be realistic, Sokka.”

“Why did you even agree to come here then?” Sokka asked with exasperation.

“It was the best lead we had,” Zuko said. “And it paid off. So let’s get out and quit while we’re ahead.”

Sokka was beginning to look angry. “Why is this your decision? Remember what you said to me once at the Boiling Rock – you said ‘Don’t quit because you're afraid you might fail’. What happened to that guy?”

“At the Boiling Rock we all nearly died!”

Sokka made a noise that was half-groan and half-sigh, so Zuko added, staunchly:

“We can’t keep running into dumb situations, hoping that luck will save us at the last second. We’re not kids anymore.”

“When did you get so scared of everything?”

“I’m not scared,” Zuko said, trying to hold on to his calm. “It’s called thinking before acting.”

Sokka gave him a shove by the shoulders. “Alright, here’s a piece of thinking: why don’t we stop the murdering psycho who put me in jail?”

“Don’t be selfish,” Zuko said, and watched Sokka’s forehead crease in annoyance. “I’m just doing what’s right for people who need me.” He stumbled backwards a step – Sokka shoved him again. His fists clenched, and he breathed deeply, forcing himself to relax.

“You’re starting to sound like Katara,” Sokka said bitterly. “Both of you think you’re the only person who knows what’s right.”

It was such a blatently false statement that Zuko laughed out loud.

Five years ago, when he announced to Ozai that he was joining the Avatar, Zuko had felt an overwhelming sense of relief: that had been the first and last time in his life he had really thought he knew what was right. For once he had not doubted his sense of right and wrong. When Ozai’s lightning passed through him, he felt like something inside of him – his old guilt, his old uncertainties – was burning away, transfiguring into grace. But that moment wasn’t enough to sustain him for the rest of his life.

“I don’t know anything,” Zuko said. All he really knew was that he was very angry and very tired, which was why he said the thing he said next: “I don’t know what’s right. All I can do is try to do is be a responsible leader to the people who need me. Everyone else in your family would know how that feels, Sokka, except for you.”

Sokka’s mouth gaped open.

Zuko, regret already building in his stomach, opened his mouth to apologise, but Sokka got there first.

“Fuck you, Zuko,” he spat, and shoved him a third time. Zuko stumbled a step backwards, nearly falling over. It was the first time in a long while that Sokka had called him by his name like this: not as part of his title, not you jerk or his fiery majesty or some other playful nickname, just plain Zuko.

He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t think of anything to say.

Sokka dropped the sword in his hand with a clatter and, still advancing, slammed Zuko back and pinned him to the wall of the corridor. The stone poked his back, and the cold leeched instantly into his skin. “You know what I’ve noticed?” Sokka said quietly. “How self-absorbed you are. The way you’re always apologising instead of doing something real. I thought your uncle said you’re supposed to restore the honour of the Fire Nation, but what’s honourable about that?”

This close, Zuko could feel the puffs of air on his face coming out of Sokka’s mouth. He tried to keep breathing; his old, familiar anger was boiling upwards like hot oil, making something in his chest seethe and sizzle. He grabbed the front of Sokka’s tunic, about to push him off.  “I don’t want a fight, Sokka,” he forced out.

Sokka put a hand over his and leaned in, his face close to Zuko’s. For a dizzying, white-hot moment he thought Sokka was going to – they were going to –

He closed his eyes.

But Sokka only put his nose in the spot behind Zuko’s ear and took a sniff. “You know what I smell?” he said softly. “Self-delusion and guilt. It rolls off you in waves.”

Zuko stopped breathing. He opened his eyes. Something was burning: the front of Sokka’s tunic, where Zuko was clutching the fabric. He let go, horrified, and saw how the fabric was scorched through under his fingers.

Sokka let go and stepped away. Zuko remained where he was, pressed to the cold stone wall. 

“Nothing really changes, does it?” Sokka asked, looking down at his ruined collar. His tone made it clear it wasn’t a question that wanted an answer. He knelt down and picked up the swords again; took one of the torches off the walls.

There was a meditation trick that Aang taught him once, when Zuko asked him how the monks detached themselves from violent emotions. Aang had told him to picture a landscape. “Pick somewhere you felt at peace, then focus on the details in your mind. Then you can let your anger go.” For the past year, Zuko had pictured – white ice shelves, crisp like starched sheets in the distance. The sun that hung like a golden disc in the sky. A wide plain made up of grass and lichen: vast splotches of green, a little red, golden yellow where those tiny poppies grew in abundance.

It made no sense for him to feel at peace there, but he did. Zuko went there in his mind, and it worked – even now, after everything.

“…we can split up,” he finally said, when he gained control again. “I’ll take the letters and the masks back to the palace, and you stay and carry out your revenge quest. Happy?”

Sokka was already halfway down the corridors, heading deeper towards the recesses of the catacombs. He stopped. “Are either of us ever truly happy?” he called over his shoulder.

Zuko had no answer, so he stood still, watching Sokka’s silhouette disappear into the darkness. So strange to think that only a short while ago, the two of them were talking and laughing together like two friends on an adventure. Things shifted between them so suddenly, Zuko couldn’t understand why.

Or—maybe he did. It was like Sokka said, nothing really changes. Zuko had a suspicion that this was what unhappy people did to each other and to themselves. And now he was unhappier than ever, standing alone in the darkness with only the crimes of the past and the dead for company.

Chapter Text

“You should have seen the first whale hunt after the war ended,” Sokka had said once, a year ago and in a different country. “I think that was the happiest we’ve all ever been.”

“Even more than when the war ended?” Zuko asked.

Sokka shrugged. He was sitting on Katara’s left; Zuko was to her right, so Katara, in the middle, was listening in as part of the conversation. “It’s a different type of happiness,” she said. “It’s the joy of coming home. Really feeling like you’re coming home.”

Zuko hummed and looked up at the sky. It was late in the evening by Fire Nation clocks, but here the sky was just as bright as it was in the afternoon, only even softer and more splendid than before, spread out overhead like an enormous silk sash dyed with the colours of the sun.

“Gran Gran cried, because it was the first whale we had in years. There were elders who cried because they thought they were going to die before eating whale again, and men who cried because they had thought they would die in a Fire Nation prison and never see another hunt again. You should have seen it.” Sokka’s mouth twisted. “Actually, on second thought, maybe it was a good thing the new Fire Lord wasn’t here.”

“Sokka!” Katara hissed, but Zuko waved it off with a loose gesture.

“It died for something useful,” he said, and looked at the bowl of whale blubber and skin in his lap. “We used to hunt dragons back home, but pretty much just to prove we can.”

Dragon flesh was toxic to humans, and though their scales were beautiful, they tarnished easily and became brittle once they dried out, making them only suitable for decoration. There were some dubious claims that their organs are miracle cures for diseases, so even now there was a black market for tinctures of dragon spleen and powdered fang, but only quacks and the truly desperate wasted their money. The firebenders who killed them became legends, but legends and a catacomb full of bones didn’t give him the taste of rich oil in his mouth, a warmth spreading through his belly.

Hakoda, nearby, had overheard this part of the conversation. He gave Zuko a reassuring smile and said, “Younger hunters sometimes forget this, but the joy of the hunt isn’t in the killing or the glory, but the knowledge that we’re giving our people food for the winter.”

“We cremated them or dumped them in pits,” Zuko said in a quiet voice, looking down at the ground. He was too quiet; no one else heard.

“I wish Gran Gran was here,” Katara said. She wrapped her arms around her knees and pulled them close.

“What about Aang?” Sokka asked. “Dad, you should be giving Aang this speech, not Zuko. It’s funny how his duties always coincide with hunting season here, isn’t it? But it’s easy to miss a few summers here and there when you’re gone most of the time already.”

He sounded increasingly belligerent, even more unlike himself than he had earlier that day. There was a whiff of sorghum spirits on his breath when he spoke, and Zuko realised with a start that Sokka had been drinking.

“Aang’s busy,” Katara said tightly. “There’s a whole world that needs him.”

Sokka looked like he was about to argue, but Hakoda cut in. “Son,” he said, in a tone of voice Zuko hadn’t heard before. “Leave your sister alone.”

Thankfully, before Zuko had to witness another awkward family blow-up, someone began banging on the drums and the chatter of the crowd fell away. A woman got up, wearing a headdress decorated with seashells and long strings of knotted bones. Zuko recognised the staff in her hands – it was Analuq, the poet.

Pacing around the fire, she began a long poem, half-reciting, half-singing, her deep voice rising and falling with the rhythm of her words.

Half-stupefied with the splendor of the sun-lit sky, it took a long time for Zuko to understand her winding language. Nothing was referred to by its real name: the ocean was a whale-road; the sky was a fish scale; the earth was a lionturtle’s back. But after a while Zuko understood that it was a story that began with the Spirit World and the first lionturtles that moved through the history of the Southern Water Tribe until the present, when at last she sang about the hunt that day.

He leaned forward, enraptured.

“It’s beautiful,” he breathed, and Katara gave him a sideways glance.

“Have you been drinking too?” she asked. “You seemed a bit unlike yourself all day –maybe even the last few days.”

“It’s not alcohol,” Zuko admitted sheepishly. “It’s the sun.”

That made Katara giggle. “This happens to me sometimes too, during the long winter nights. Up north they called it winter moon fever.”

It was like a type of madness, now that Zuko thought about it. He felt light and fizzy all over, his blood all shook up like sea foam.

“What do you call it here? In the south?”

Katara’s grin fell away. “I wouldn’t really know, would I?” she said. “I’d have to ask the elders and see if any of them remember a waterbender talking about it, before all the – you know.”

“Oh,” said Zuko, and his happiness fizzled away.

Analuq was still singing her account of the hunt. pointed first to Hakoda, and then to another man on the other side of the fire, the one who had landed the killing spear, and praised them both. She thanked them for their bravery and valor, which was similar to the war poetry from back home, the ones that praised great generals and firebenders who died. But Analuq kept singing after Zuko thought she might stop. She praised everyone: the women who scraped the hides to make the skin-boats, who sewed the floats, who carved the flesh afterwards so they can all eat. She also thanked the waterbenders who returned the whale to the sea.

“Where did you learn how to do the thing earlier?” Zuko asked. “The whale made from water, I mean.”

“I only had stories to go on,” Katara said softly. “Like what people remember from watching the old dances a long time ago. But even if I had another Southern waterbender to teach me, it wouldn’t work for us today. They all needed too many experienced benders. What you saw today is something I made up.”

“A new tradition,” said Zuko and Katara shot him a smile.

Sokka scoffed. “We get it, no one else in the world could match you, O great master waterbender. Quit bragging, Katara.”

Something about his tone made Zuko bristle. “She has a right to brag, no one else could,” he said without thinking.

Katara could move warships and stop the rain. She could re-knit bones, heal old scars, force a man to his knees by changing the flow of blood inside his veins. She brought the Avatar back from the brink of death, Zuko too. Before she even reached adulthood, she had the power to shape the world to her will. It was fearsome to watch sometimes.

Sokka frowned, and then went back to staring, glassy-eyed, off into space. Zuko watched him; he understood what it was like to have a prodigy as a sibling. Azula also moved through life with such intensity of purpose that Zuko too felt like a failure sometimes for just existing.

In front of them, Analuq was still singing in her beautiful, deep voice. Wrapped up by the music, her expression lost its usual harsh lines. There was a luminosity to her face as she sang the concluding part of her song, a message of gratitude to the whale itself.

Zuko closed his eyes, moved by something he couldn’t name.

When she was done, people cheered and clapped. But not Sokka. Zuko followed the direction of his gaze. Sokka was looking at someone on the outskirts of the camp, sitting alone. It must be Noroq. While everyone else was sitting together, enjoying food and company, he was squatting next to his own little driftwood fire, alone.

Back at the big fire, as the first spearer of the whale, Hakoda had some special place after Analuq. He brought Bato with him next to the fire, and the two men began another poem, this time something about sea serpents and the sea waves. They danced, moving swiftly and lightly together, first on their hands and knees, then rising up and becoming even lighter on their feet, circling around the clearing with quick steps.

They were good, but Zuko’s mind wasn’t on the singing anymore.

“Isn’t there something we can do for Noroq?” he whispered to Katara.

“Like what?”

“Could you talk to Analuq? Ask her to reconsider?”

“Maybe,” Katara said, and looked thoughtful.

“Don’t do it,” Sokka cut in abruptly. Zuko looked up sharply; he didn’t think Sokka was even listening to them. “Analuq isn’t the type to change her mind.”

Katara crossed her arms. “Neither was Pakku until I made him.”

“So what – you’re going to challenge Analuq to a duel?” Sokka scoffed. “Beat her up until she does what you want?”

“You seem to forget that Noroq saved your life!” Katara hissed. She had that tilt of the chin now that meant she was spoiling for a fight. “Why are you being so ungrateful?”

“Uh,” said Zuko, and coughed. “Forget it. It was just an idea—"

Both of them ignored him.

“The world isn’t a puppet stage, Katara,” Sokka bit out. “You can’t make people dance to your tune by jerking their strings. You’re not the only person who gets to decide what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Katara scowled; Sokka scowled back. The mood got so ugly for a moment that Zuko had to give another cough to break the tension.

“I’m going to go use the latrine,” he said, intensely uncomfortable. He had never seen either sibling so antagonistic before; it was all hitting a bit too close to home. “Uh, be back in a bit.”

He got up to scamper, but Sokka pushed himself up as well using his sheathed sword. “I’m leaving too. I’m going to go find Noroq and sit with him for a bit.”

Zuko extended an arm to help him up. “I’ll help.”

Sokka ignored him again. “No, it’s fine. It’s private stuff anyways. Go piss, or stay here with Katara and plot about the best way to rule the world, I don’t care.”

“Let me just help you over,” Zuko insisted. “What if you fall over?”

Sokka flung his hands into the air, nearly knocked a nearby man on the head with his sword. “How many times do I have to say I’m fine before you two believe me? Is anyone at all listening to me around here?”

“We’re all just concerned, Sokka,” Katara said in a small voice.

“Okay, you know what?” Sokka scrubbed a hand over his face, gave a groan. “Forget it, I’m going back to my tent. I’m ready for this day to be over.”

“But it’s Zuko’s last night here,” Katara protested. “You’re not going to pass up our last chance to see him for months, are you? Who knows when he might come back down south again?”

“It’s up to his royal majesty to decide when he wants to visit, and it’s up to me to decide what I’m going to do with my own evening.”

Sokka hobbled off, limping heavily on the injured knee. Zuko hesitated, caught in a rare moment of conflicting impulses, not sure if he should go after him or give him some space. 

He was about to sit down again when Katara gave him a shove. “Go check on him! At least make sure Sokka hasn’t damaged his knee any further.”

“I don’t think—” Zuko began. He had just concluded that, if it were him who just stormed off, he would prefer to have some time to clear his head before anyone came chasing after him.

Katara poked him in the sides. “Just go after him!”

Being caught by the full force of Katara’s will was terrifying. Zuko shut up and went.

He couldn’t find Sokka at first, but eventually caught up with him halfway on the path towards a collection of tents and sod houses, far enough that the fires were just bright dots in the distance. Sokka was right, he didn’t need any help to walk, though up close Zuko noticed the damp sheen of sweat on his face from the effort.

Sokka must have heard his footsteps, but he didn’t say anything or make any attempt to avoid Zuko. They walked together silently for a while.

A cheer carried over on the breeze: closer to shore there was a crowd of people gathered around a large circular blanket or tarp of some kind, pulling it taut between them. Zuko had seen something similar before, makeshift stretchers to catch people trapped in a burning building who had to jump out the windows. Except, nothing was on fire; it was some sort of game. A girl climbed onto the centre of the blanket; the people around her flung it up, and she squealed with laughter as she was thrown up into the sky and caught again.

“Those kids will be missing Noroq right about now,” Sokka said abruptly. “He’s the best at blanket tosses.”

A stab of jealousy went through him, but Zuko tried to not let it show. “Noroq seems like a good man,” he said. “It’s a shame about what Analuq did.”

Sokka glanced over. “Why did you give him my parka earlier?”

“He was cold,” Zuko said, not sure he was understanding the look Sokka was giving him. He had seen people in the hunting camp freely help themselves to each other’s materials and tools without asking first. He assumed it wasn’t in the Water Tribe’s way to be fussy about sharing.

“Do you know why Analuq was so harsh on him?”  Sokka asked, another non-sequitur.

Zuko shook his head.

“She lost her right hand during the war, in a Fire Nation work camp in a coal mine. She tried to escape, and when the guards caught her, they burned her hand so badly that it had to be amputated. That’s how she damaged her ear too.”

“Oh,” said Zuko.

“Analuq used to be a great hunter when she was young, a hunter as well as a singer. She was one of the few women who went out with the men. Now she’ll never hold a spear or an oar again. It made her bitter, and now she’s obsessed with keeping the purity of our traditions going – in hunting most of all.”

“Oh,” said Zuko again.

“See, now you pity her,” Sokka said. “Don’t. Katara pities her, and that’s why she hates Katara.” He whacked at a patch of tiny poppies with the tip of his sword. “I know how it feels. You can probably tell that Katara pities me too.”

“Does that mean you hate her too? Katara?” Zuko asked. He intended it to be a joke – the idea was ridiculous – but it came out too seriously, and Sokka screwed his face up in concentration like he was actually pondering over the question.

“Maybe,” he said after a while. “I love her more, but it’s all twisted up together. In here.” He touched his chest.

It was so honest that it made Zuko stop in his tracks. It was the sort of confession people only made when they were drunk and talking to a stranger. Which, in a way, he was to Sokka.

The truth was, until this visit, he and Sokka didn’t know each other very well. They were friends, of course – no one could have gone through what they had in the Boiling Rock without becoming friends. But they weren’t close friends, and for all that Sokka had rambled on at him during the last two weeks, he had never been like this: honest and vulnerable, a shell that was cracked open.

Zuko looked away into the distance. The sun was descending. Its red light, growing redder by the moment, sank into the colour of the grasses around them, made them look even greener Everything was too real, too intense.

He could handle this kind of conversation with Katara or Suki, maybe even Toph if she got mopey enough, but it was different when he was talking to women. Zuko suspected he didn’t have the capacity to deal with this type of thing, this raw vulnerability, with another man. It frightened him. It wasn’t how he was raised. Other than Sokka, Zuko’s closest male friend - his only other male friend, was a one hundred-something pacifist surrounded at all times by his own sunny bubble of spiritual self-composure. Aang must be troubled too, but he kept that side of himself closed away.

Aang had certainly never inspired this odd mix of jealousy and intense longing and total fear that Zuko was experiencing right now. He looked back at Sokka, who was still staring at him.

Zuko ,” Sokka began, and a small horrible part of Zuko was repulsed by the open softness he found in Sokka’s expression.

He was standing too close; Zuko took a step back. “Get over yourself,” he said harshly. “It’s hard for her too, you know. Katara is running herself ragged doing everything around here, and she still finds the energy to worry about you all the time.”

Zuko had never been scared of a fight in his life, but he was scared now.

“I don’t need a lecture,” Sokka said tersely, but his eyes were still soft.

Words poured out of Zuko’s mouth now, unstoppable. “You have so many people who want to help you and want the best for you, but all you do is – waste it.”

“It’s my family,” Sokka said. He frowned. “Not yours. Don’t tell me how to act with them.”

“It’s not fair – your sister and your dad love you so much, and you don’t even seem to care. They work so hard for their people, and you just – fuck around half the time. Why don’t you listen to your family for once? You barely deserve them.” He punctuated this with a shove.

Sokka flailed, then rallied himself. He punched Zuko on the nose.

Zuko’s head spun, but he also felt a gush of relief. Violence was a language he understood. Reflexively, he punched back, aiming low for Sokka’s exposed ribs. He really was dizzy now; it felt like he was watching his own limbs move from a long way off. Sokka ducked to one side, but the motion made him trip. He scrambled up on his hands and knees, his sheathed sword still in hand, and swung the flat of the blade at Zuko’s feet. Zuko lost his balance, falling down as Sokka swung again, and in the chaos of the moment the tip of the sword caught Zuko on the left side of his head, on his damaged ear.

He rolled away, blinking away the stars in his vision.

By this point of the sunset the sky had gone from red to an unearthly shade of green and orange. Both of their shadows stretched out on the tundra in spindly distortions: two grotesque caricatures of the people who were casting them.

Sokka got to his feet first. “ Zuko ,” he repeated, and reached out a hand. “Oh fuck, I’m so –"

Whether the hand was to help him up or to push him down, Zuko never found out. In that moment, kneeling down, looking up at a black silhouette of a man with his hand outstretched – towards him, towards his face – Zuko tasted the acrid tang of panic in his mouth. Something inside of him went very quiet.

“No!” he said, and raised a hand blindly.

If things were normal, nothing would have happened. Zuko had spent years mastering control over himself. But things weren’t normal, and he wasn’t his normal self: he was sun-drunk and strung out, reeling with fear and pain. The weeks of relentless sunlight had soaked into him like oil dousing a rag.

A wide arc of fire shot out of his palm, the sudden light and heat startling a flock of sandpipers nearby.

Sokka yelped and fell backwards. And at that sound Zuko’s panic snapped like a string, and he came back to himself again.

“Sokka!” he cried. “Are you hurt?” 

Zuko hurried forwards, but Sokka waved him off from where he was sprawled on the ground. He didn't have any visible injuries, but his blue eyes were wide with shock. “You know what? You need to calm down. Just leave me alone. Leave us alone.”

Around them, the birds were taking to the sky, screaming.

"I don't know what —"

"Just go away," Sokka said. "Please."

Heart pounding, Zuko did. He went away and walked back down to the shore, back to where the ship was anchored, paced around his cabin for the rest of the short night. When morning came again, they set sail and went northwards again.

And that was that.

*

On the voyage back to Caldera, Zuko spent his time reading reports and catching up on the endless memoranda and petitions he had been neglecting until then. To rest his eyes, he spent his free time standing on the deck, staring out at the grey waves. A few times he saw pods of whales splashing in the distance, and the sight brought him as much pleasure as it did pain.

In the end he wrote a letter.

"I apologise for how I acted that night,” he wrote . “It brings me such guilt to think of what I have done, and I’m sorry. I hope that we are still friends. It would mean a great deal to me -”

He paused his brush. Outside the porthole, the shining waves glimmered like sealskin.

It means a great deal to me to be friends. I hope we can put it behind us. In fact, I wish we can both forget about it forever.”

Before he could agonise over it any further, Zuko signed his name and sealed it. He ordered it sent out on one of the merchant ships at the next port.

He didn’t hear back for weeks and weeks. Not until one day, when he received a letter from Katara delivered to the palace at Caldera. She had written pages and pages about the city reconstruction project, about the new canal designs and seaweed farms (Aang visited; Appa loved the seaweed). She also added her thoughts on the new steel mill environmental regulations on Whaletail Island (Aang had thoughts too), an odd passage with Toph’s newest update (Aang just saw her win a title in what sounded like an extremely illegal underground bending tournament), and then, finally, Katara wrote:

…about what you asked me in your last letter: I think the only thing you can say or think, when you’re confronted with the Fire Nation’s crimes during the war, is to acknowledge that you can’t change the past. All you can focus on is undoing the damage for the future.

Speaking of past and future, my brother wants me to pass on a message to you. I told Sokka to just write to you himself, but he says he’s not ready yet, but he will do it one day. What a ninny. Anyways, he wants me to tell you two things: one, don’t worry and it’s all water under the bridge (I hope you have the same saying over there!). And two, he wants me to tell you that you’re right about family. I have no idea what the nut-brain is trying to convey, but in case he’s a moron about it, I want you to know that, after everything we’ve all been through together, Zuko, you are part of our family. Blood doesn’t matter. Keep that in mind.

With all our love and affection, Katara.

Zuko saved that letter. He never re-read it. He wanted to focus on the future, not the past, but just knowing it was there brought him a great deal of comfort.  He wrote back to Katara but not to Sokka; he thought he should wait for Sokka to be ready first. But i f Sokka had put it behind him, then so could Zuko. They could go back, back to their earlier rapport, their friends-but-not-close-friends dynamic, two people who had never hurt the other person where it counted.

A year passed without a letter from Sokka, which was kind of a relief: Zuko had been afraid he might hear about how happy Noroq was making Sokka. It was bad enough reading about Katara and Aang’s own saintly, luminous happiness, Zuko couldn’t handle that as well. And plus, it made it easier to move on. Back in Caldera, surrounded by the usual headaches of bureaucracy and petty complaints and scheming nobles, the whole incident had begun to seem like a dream: like a funny story that happened to someone else, or a cheap play that he watched from the safety of the audience.

Zuko was a selfish person, like his father. He was a cowardly one, like his mother. He wanted to forget the whole thing had ever happened at all.

He hoped that time would erase the past. Lots of things could change in a year. Take Zuko himself: a month after his return, in a discreet room of a Caldera teahouse, he tried to have sex with another man for the first time. He went from being mildly curious to definitely repulsed. The man he hired was good-looking and perfectly cordial; he even did a decent job pretending not to notice Zuko’s scar. But having a stranger touch him made him anxious; it gave him that queasy feeling again, of watching his own limbs move from a long way off. Afterwards, shaking, he went outside to the yard and threw up into the hydrangeas.

It was a new experience, Zuko told himself, wiping off his mouth and hoping no one saw him. He was learning something about himself. Yes. He was — moving forward in some way. 

A few months afterwards, Bato told Zuko that he was giving up his post as ambassador, but he already had a replacement in mind. And then after that, the Ember Island Players put on their newest production, some melodramatic twaddle set in the South Pole, which Zuko had no wish to see but was forced to go anyways. And then after that — 

Well.

*

Zuko winded his way towards the catacomb exit, the wooden crate of scrolls and letters in his hands. It was occurring to him now, walking through the dark and dismal corridors of the Dragonbone Catacombs, that he really should have known better.

There was no such thing as water under the bridge. If the past was any type of water, then it was a burst pipe, leaking a slow flood that he couldn’t trace. It was dampness that seeped into foundations and rotted them from the inside out. Nothing stayed buried forever.

The stifling passages hadn’t seemed so dismal when there were two of them, but alone, the low ceilings stifling, he felt every bit of the thousand tons of rock and dirt pressing down on him like a threatening palm.

Absorbed by his own thoughts, he didn’t notice the fine wire strung across the corridor until it was too late.

Zuko walked right into it and tripped over, falling over his wooden crate in a painful crash. Out of the corner of his good eye, he saw a black-clothed figure unpeel itself from one of the vaulted doorways and leap over, carrying something in its hands. Zuko rolled and tried to defend himself with a jet of fire, but he missed. The figure was moving too quickly, moving behind Zuko and slamming him down again on the floor with the flat of a boot.

Groping alone on the floor, Zuko grabbed one of the scrolls that fell out of the crate and swung it behind him like a bludgeon. The rod connected weakly, without much of an effect. He tried to scramble up, but he caught another kick on the side of his ribs, and instead doubled over with agony.

Something heavy and metallic draped over Zuko’s back and went click.

His attacker finally backed off, and Zuko pushed himself up to something like a stand. Panting, he raised a fist and —

“I wouldn’t try bending right now, Fire Lord,” said Kizia. She had a pair of broadswords in her hands that Zuko hadn’t noticed before.

He was noticing them now, while Kizia brandished them in his face. “What do you mean?” Zuko demanded.

Kizia smirked. “Right now, one stray spark from you and you’ll go boom. Well – I’m standing quite close to you right now, so maybe we’ll both go boom. But you’ll definitely bear the brunt of the damage.” Despite her words, she had the relaxed and superior tone of a lecturing scholar.

Zuko lowered his hands. “You’re bluffing,” he said, but the heavy weight around his torso and the sweet smell of crude oil made his words hesitant.

“Oh no,” Kizia said. “These are chemical explosives locked around your chest right now. Highly volatile and highly explosive. It’s a very clever design, actually. Each pellet is packed with plant fibers soaked in petroleum, which are left in contact with the air. One stray spark anywhere near you and the whole vest ignites.”

Now that he was examining it, Zuko could see how the metal vest around him was covered with tufts of fluffy material, it was like being locked in an insane textile arts and crafts project.

“Let’s make an agreement right now, Fire Lord. I don’t firebend, you don’t firebend, and this way you don’t die. Deal?”

“This is insane.”

“No,” said Kizia, and a hurt expression appeared on her delicate, girlish face. “I like to think of it as a form of equilibrium. I don’t want to explode either, Zuko, so neither party has an incentive to initiate conflict. This way we keep things nice and peaceful. You were always an advocate for balance in your speeches.”

Zuko was trying to think. He believed her about the explosives. The question was, could he take Kizia in a surprise attack again? Grab her before she has time to react?

But the catacombs were covered with flaming torches. He could protect himself from explosions to some extent, but not at this range, not when the bomb is strapped to him like this. One wrong move and he wouldn’t even have time to react before he gets scattered into a million little charred Fire Lord pieces.

“What do you want?” he croaked.

“I need the two of you out of the way for the night,” said Kizia. “I’m not a violent person –” Zuko gave a scoff of disbelief, “—and I don’t want to kill a royal, even one as traitorous to the country as you are. Start walking.”

Kizia was watching him closely, so she saw the exact moment Zuko processed the meaning of her words.

“Yes, the two of you,” she said, her golden eyes glinting, “I know Sokka is here too, but I’ve already dealt with him .”

Chapter Text

Kizia gestured down the corridor, in the direction Zuko just came from. “I told you to start walking.”

“There are torches all over there,” Zuko protested.

“So put them out,” said Kizia. She picked up a lamp behind her with the tip of her left broadsword. “I thought you were a master firebender?”

Zuko hesitated, and then raised his hands. The paradox of their discipline was that snuffing out a fire was much more gruelling than summoning one. Only the best of the imperial firebenders are selected to be part of the fire brigade, and the training was famously difficult. Most people found it unnatural. Fire came from the breath, from the inside, and firebenders were taught to look within themselves to control it at the source. There was an old maxim repeated in schools everywhere in the country: firebending is the most superior form of bending, because they are the sole to create something out of nothing. It was the justification for why fire was the supreme element, why their civilisation was the highest form of civilisation.

It was nonsense, Zuko knew that now, but it didn’t mean he found it any easier to manipulate pre-existing fires the way an earthbender or waterbender could shift rock and water. He could make a few candles or wall sconces brighten and then dim, but always by adding more force to the flame, not by taking it away.

Zuko took a deep breath – learning quickly was a matter of life and death now – and lowered his hands, palm-side down. He focused on the flames in the distance and reached out, trying to conquer them through his will.

The torches flickered, but didn’t extinguish. Zuko gritted his teeth. He could feel sweat beading in the back of his collar. He got the feeling that Kizia was laughing inside her head at him. He tried again. What he didn’t have in ability or intuition, he’d just have to make up for in determination.

It took too much effort, but the torches ahead of them finally snuffed out, leaving thin tendrils of smoke coiling upwards. The only light came from Kizia’s lamp.

Zuko glanced over. The thing was smaller than a regular lamp, with mesh screens nailed around the outside. Kizia didn’t seem concerned about the fire igniting Zuko’s vest in front of her, said a small part of Zuko’s brain that sounded surprisingly like Sokka. Maybe the mesh screen was an arrestor to stop the fire from propagating, in case Kizia accidentally ignited the vest before she put it on her victim.

“Start moving,” Kizia said, and prodded Zuko on the back with a sword tip, startling him out of his thoughts. The sword made a clinking sound when it tapped the metal of his bomb vest. Zuko swallowed hard, and started moving.

The two of them made their way back slowly. It was like some bizarre version of the sages’ holy rituals: Zuko pausing every hundred feet or so to put out the next section of flaming torches, Kizia behind him swinging her lamp, whose dim but serviceable light slowly became the only light in this section of the catacombs.

Zuko rubbed his face. He could feel throbbing behind the bridge of his nose: the effort of concentration was making his old migraines return. Intentional or not, this odd procession was working out well in Kizia’s favour. It was almost impossible to plot an escape and put out fires at the same time. What an apt metaphor for his entire reign so far as Fire Lord.

When they were a few feet away from Sozin’s tomb, Kizia prodded him again to stop.

“Stay over there while I open the doors,” she commanded.

Zuko stayed where he was. Could he run away now? But it was a straight stretch of corridor here, and there was no way that he could dodge a bolt of fire if Kizia attacked. What if he tackled her again, threatened her that he’d take her with him if she ignited the bombs? But Kizia seemed unpredictable enough that she might just decide to take him with her . Maybe he should just make a break for it. He survived worse things before, like that time when Zhao planted bombs inside Zuko’s own ship. How much different could it be?

“Don’t even try anything,” said Kizia, as if reading his thoughts. “These bombs are ignited by fire, but the explosion comes from a chemical reaction that Agni himself couldn’t control. At this kind of range, you wouldn’t have time to even try.”

Zuko growled in frustration, but Kizia barely blinked. She set her lantern down on the ground next to her, pressed the broadswords together so she could hold them in one hand. “You know, you should blame the Southern Water Tribe for these. I heard one of their chiefs invented the tangle mines they used in Chameleon Bay. I found a few old ones in the palace workshops, and I experimented with the same seaweed mix they used. This vest is really just my version of their original design.”

He really hated amateur herbalism so much, Zuko reflected.

Kizia pressed a hand to the relief on the door, and Sozin’s eyes and mouth lit up again. The steel doors slid open.  

“Lady Kizia,” Zuko tried one last time. “Don’t do this. There’s still time to change your mind, and no one else has to get hurt. I promise that if you let me go now, I’ll give you a fair trial.”

Kizia’s response was to haul Zuko over and push him into the doorway. It looked dark and menacing, like the mouth of a beast waiting to swallow its prey. He made one last, desperate struggle for freedom, but Kizia slashed the broadswords in his face, forcing him to take a step back, into the tomb again.

He gave a last cry of frustration, and Kizia actually giggled.

“Don’t look so angry,” she said, as the last sliver of light disappeared, along with Zuko’s last chance for freedom. “Think of it as spending quality time with family.”

*

The dark overwhelmed him. 

Zuko wasn’t a child anymore, catching fireflies to guard against his fear of the dark, but this kind of darkness, this cave darkness inside an underground tomb, was beyond anything that he had experienced before. Not a single flicker of light penetrated, and the darkness was so complete that it weighed on him like a shroud or a heavy stone.

“… Zuko ?” someone said. 

Zuko spun around, not that it made any difference. 

“Sokka?” he asked, astonished. “Is that you?”

“I’m here,” Sokka’s voice said. “Where are you?”

The darkness was really getting to Zuko now. Bitter panic was rising up in his mouth. Blindly, he groped his way towards the sound of Sokka’s voice. He could feel his heart’s rhythmic clenching, his lungs pumping air, but it was like his outline had dissolved, and those organs had escaped their proper place. It felt like there was no delineation between the outside and the inside, what was Zuko and what was the tomb around him.

Then he stumbled against the mass of Sokka’s body – Sokka was sitting on the floor for some reason – and a sense of reality blossomed again. He dropped to his knees as well, leaning his head forward, and he felt Sokka’s forehead touch his own. Sokka was breathing hard too – Zuko found it reassuring, he wasn’t the only one afraid.

“I was really hoping you escaped and were coming back with reinforcements,” Sokka said after a while.

“How did you get in here?” Zuko managed to get out.

“Wait, untie my hands and feet first.”

Zuko fumbled in the darkness, but he managed to feel the ropes wrapped around Sokka’s wrists. It was hard without seeing, but he managed to loosen one knot with his fingernails, and from there he began picking at the rest of the binding.

“What happened?” he asked again.

“Kizia got me by surprise,” Sokka said ruefully. “Again. Tripped me with a wire and then knocked me out. When I woke up again I realised she’d tied me up and left me in here.” Zuko undid the last knot, and he could feel a whoosh of air as Sokka shook his hands to get the circulation back. He started on the ropes around Sokka’s feet.

“She got me too,” Zuko said, when he finished untying those too.

“I know. I saw her at the door.”

They sat in the dark for a while. Zuko cleared his throat, opened his mouth, but stopped when he realised he didn’t know what to say. Without an immediate problem to occupy their attention, it was becoming a very awkward moment.

Sokka spoke first. “I’m sorry about earlier,” he said softly. “About everything I said. I didn’t mean to lash out, I was being an idiot and I lost my temper at you. It wasn’t fair, what I said about you. And it wasn’t true.”

It was strange being on the receiving end of this sort of apology – someone apologising to him for losing their temper, instead of the other way around. It was too new; Zuko had no idea what to do in this circumstance.

Instead of answering, he crawled towards where he thought the door was. He reached up, casting around for the steel of the frame.

He snatched a hand away. “Ow!”

“What happened?” Sokka asked urgently.

“Kizia must have ripped out the locking mechanism on the inside,” Zuko said, probing around with a gentler touch. “I caught my finger on one of the jagged edges, that’s all.”

“Old metal’s very dangerous,” Sokka said primly. “You should get it cleaned and seen too. What if you get infected with lockjaw?”

“Thanks, Healer Sokka,” Zuko said, and stuck the finger inside his mouth. It was the best cleaning and seeing-to he could provide at the moment. “I’m sure that’s what’s going to kill me, not the fact that we’re trapped in a tomb or the explosives I have locked around my chest.”

A second of absolute silence, and then: “ What explosives ?”

Zuko filled him in.

Sokka made a squawking sound when Zuko was done explaining the details. His voice jumped an octave higher than normal. “So if you make a fire right now, we both die ?”

“Right, so I’m not going to firebend,” Zuko told him. “You’ll need to come up with an escape plan using something else, Sokka.”

“You’re very calm for someone with a bomb strapped to him,” Sokka said. “Why are you so relaxed about this? I’d be freaking out if I were you. I’m freaking out right now .”

“Uncle Iroh always said that a calm head –” Zuko began, only for Sokka to give him a shove. In the darkness he missed Zuko’s shoulder and hit the soft tissue around Zuko’s windpipe instead, making him squawk too. “Watch it!” Zuko hissed.

“How can I watch it when there’s nothing to watch?” Sokka retorted, and then he added contemplatively, “Wow, this must be how Toph feels all the time.”

“I wish Toph was here right now.”

“Too bad she’s still in that swamp,” Sokka said, and before Zuko could ask ‘ What swamp?’ , he went on talking. “Stop telling me about what Uncle Iroh would say in a situation. I want to hear what you say. How are you so calm? And don’t say it’s because of your manlier constitution this time.”

Zuko thought it over. He wasn’t quite sure why himself.

“I guess it’s something I’ve accepted already,” he answered. “There are only so many times I can avoid assassination attempts before one of them succeeds.”

There was another long moment of silence. In the total darkness, Zuko felt like he was floating.

“That’s…that is—the most fucked up thing I’ve ever heard,” Sokka said, voice hushed. “And you’re such a liar. If you’re worried about people murdering you, why did you send Suki away?”

Zuko shrugged before he remembered that Sokka couldn’t see him. “That much time apart wasn’t good for your relationship. I thought I was doing you two a favour.”

“Don’t use me as an excuse. Suki and I agreed it wasn’t working months before that. And what about the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors? Why’d you send them away too?”

“Look,” Zuko said, caught off guard by the sudden cross-examination of his life choices. “I didn’t predict the bit where I’m trapped in the catacombs, but in general I always thought this is the way I’d go. Maybe not today, like this, but sooner or later some maniac would get me. What’s the point in delaying the inevitable?” He rubbed his fingertips together, wishing he could fidget somehow.

Sokka’s voice went even quieter. “Do you want to die?”

“No!” Zuko said with a vehemence that surprised himself. “Of course not! I don’t want to die. If I die, my horrible family wins.”

“So why?”

“Maybe sometimes I don’t want to live,” Zuko said. “I’m tired .”

And he was surprised again, this time by the relief of admitting it out loud. It seemed like every day, more tiredness crept up along the little knobs and bumps of his spine to settle inside his chest, where it became a dull ache surrounded by sharp bones. It had been rattling around him for a long time now, this tiredness, like a ghost tucked away in the little nooks and corners of his body. Some days it was bad and some days it wasn’t; mostly he just ignored it.

“I wish you weren’t trapped here with me too,” Zuko said.

Sokka’s voice was buoyed with a forced lightness. “Okay, firstly, you’re an idiot. Secondly, wow – really that desperate to get rid of me, huh?”

Zuko wrenched his head up, even though they couldn’t see each other. “Of course not!” he said again.

“It’s alright.”

“Look, Sokka, I’m sorry too, about what I said earlier.” The darkness made talking easier. Zuko went on, before he lost his nerve. “And I’m sorry about what happened a year ago, at the Whaling Feast. I – I lost my temper too.”

“Apology accepted,” Sokka said. There was a rustling sound as he moved closer. Zuko reached out, seeking some reassurance that Sokka was real, that Zuko wasn’t imagining a voice in the darkness.

Their hands found each other on the cold stone floor.

“I shouldn’t have asked you to never bring that up,” Zuko said. “I’m an idiot.”

Sokka snorted, and then he said, abruptly, “I get it. Sometimes I don’t want to live either. Like when you saw me last year. It’s not how I would put it, but it’s sort of true. This is actually something I wanted to tell you for a long time, and now this could be my last chance.”

“We’ll be rescued somehow,” Zuko reassured him. “I’m still the Fire Lord. Sooner or later people will come looking.”

But he thought about how dusty the tomb looked the last time he was here, how long Kizia used the place as her base of operations without being caught. With a sinking feeling, he realised that the sages never opened the actual tomb itself. Sokka was smarter than he was; he would have reached the same conclusion long before now.

“Just – shut up and listen,” Sokka said. “I want to get this off my chest. After the war, I thought – it’s stupid, you don’t have to tell me – but I thought things would go back to normal. I thought I could just go home. But then I realised I didn’t know what normal was, and there was no more home to go back to.”

“I get it.”

Sokka went on. “I’m glad the men came back from the war, and that the tribes are strong again, but I – I think I missed it. I miss the feeling of being needed, by Katara, by the whole village. But now Katara is stronger than I am, and the tribes need her far more than they need me.

“And when my grandmother died, I just lost it. It was too much like losing my mother again, except it wasn’t. People thought I was just grieving Gran Gran, and I was, but really I felt guilty for not mourning my own mother nearly as much. It’s been years, but Dad and Katara still miss her so much. They talk about her all the time, and meanwhile, I…I could barely remember her face. I don’t know why it bothers me more now than before, it doesn’t make any sense. She’s been dead for years.”

Zuko couldn’t speak, he could only keep holding onto Sokka’s hand.

Strange, the different ways that grief manifested itself: Katara had been angry too, but she took that anger and turned it outwards, towards their mother’s killer. He and Sokka even talked at the time about this, but Zuko never saw how the death affected Sokka too. He had kept his anger inside him all this time, where it had festered like a weeping sore.

When Sokka spoke again, his voice was stripped bare by anguish. “What kind of a person forgets like that? How could a son just forget his own mother?”

“Memory’s a funny thing,” Zuko said softly. “You didn’t choose to do it. Forgetting doesn’t mean you love her any less.”

“I wanted to go back,” Sokka said again as if he didn’t hear. “To my family. To when it was just me and Katara and Gran Gran. But that doesn’t exist anymore – which is good , because Dad’s back and the war’s over, but still, it’s so – I felt so—”

“Angry and guilty at your own good fortune?”

Sokka gave his hand a silent squeeze.

“I know,” Zuko said. “The guilt makes you angry and the anger makes you guiltier. Believe me, I know.”

Zuko didn’t offer any advice or any platitudes. He got the feeling that Sokka just wanted him to listen, not to comment. They huddled together on the floor, doing nothing except for breathing together, holding on to each other in the dark.

Ending the war didn’t make anything normal again. It only made things more complicated, the future more startling. Peace hadn’t been a solution, only the beginning of more problems. Restorations and reparations, the Harmony Restoration Movement – they were all good and important, but they couldn’t reach into the past and fix it. The end of the war didn’t bring the dead back; it didn’t bring the dragons or the Southern waterbenders or the Air Nomads back. It didn’t bring either of their childhoods back. Those things were gone.

The things the war did bring back, Zuko wished it hadn’t.

“I should have seen it earlier,” Zuko said, finally. His own voice had become very small too. “We should have just – talked to each other, instead of pretending everything was alright.” He wiped his eyes with his other hand; he could feel Sokka doing the same.

“How very mature,” Sokka said thickly, and sniffled. “Thanks for being here.”

Zuko stretched a leg out on the floor. “I’d rather not be here, but sure.”

Sokka laughed, even though what Zuko said wasn’t funny. “Your turn? Do you want to talk about you? Katara told me what she thought happened that day, when you lost control.”

“I think I’m a little fucked up, but I’m working on it,” Zuko said. It was the most succinct explanation he had for most of his life choices. He cleared his throat. “Okay, that’s it. Sharing time’s over. Enough emotional honesty for one night.”

“You’re not getting away that easily,” Sokka said, but he didn’t press it.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence, or as comfortable as they could get for two people locked in a tomb. In the absence of sight, every other sense sharpened: Zuko listened to Sokka’s breathing, still rattling with emotion. He could almost hear their heartbeats too, beating in time together.  He should let go, move farther away for safety, but Sokka’s hand was warm and callused, a comforting anchor in the dark.

“You know what?” Sokka said. “Let’s not die here. Let’s get out of this place.”

He crawled off; Zuko followed. It was hard to orient themselves in the room after sitting for so long, but they managed to feel their way against the walls towards the door. They felt for any weak points on the frame, but the sliding door had no hinges and no latches. They debated using the table in the room as a battering ram, but it was too heavy for two people to pick up, and Sokka said he doubted it would make a difference against a steel door anyways, even if they could aim right. He also veto-ed Zuko’s offer to melt the steel door: 

“Even if you have enough control to produce heat without flame, the risk of spontaneous combustion is too high.”

“I wish we could see,” Zuko said in frustration. “How can we find an escape route if we can’t find anything?”

“Make a light then,” Sokka told him.

Zuko groaned. “I’m a walking fire hazard, remember?”

“Don’t make a fire. Make a light,” Sokka said. “Why not? Fireflies and glow worms can do it. If Kizia can create heat without light, you can create light without heat. It should just be manipulating different energies.”

The return of Sokka’s bossy, exasperated voice was reassuring. It meant that he was thinking hard.

“I’ve never attempted this before.”

“So? Do something new. Take a chance.”

“How? It’ll be stupid for us to both die just because we can’t handle a bit of darkness.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Sokka said stubbornly. “We need light to escape. We might die in an explosion now, or we might die of hunger and thirst in a few days. At least this way we’re doing something.”

Trying to argue with either Katara and Sokka when they were in the mood was like trying to run through a brick wall. Zuko had never met their mother, obviously, but he suspected that she must have been a formidable woman. Hakoda was so genial all the time; their children must have gotten it from somewhere.

“I’ll try only if you get as far from me as possible,” he told Sokka.

“Deal,” Sokka said. There was a scuffling sound as he crawled off, then something fell over and broke with a loud crash – one of the ceramic urns. Sokka’s voice floated over after it. “Oops, I think I just knocked over one of your ancestors.”

“Just watch out for the shards,” Zuko said. He should be more careful about the dead, but then again, everyone entombed here was a warmongering fascist. He only hoped it was one of his more odious great-uncles.

He waited until Sokka settled down, and forced his tired mind to concentrate. “What do I do?” he asked. “Make lightning? Just so you know, I can’t do it.”

“We don’t want lightning anyway,” Sokka said. “But explain to me how someone might do it, as scientifically as you can.”

“My uncle said it’s the separation of two energies – yin and yang. A firebender creates an imbalance by splitting them, and when they crash back together, we guide it outwards with our fingertips.”

Sokka whistled. “We’re edging into magic-whoosh territory here, but can you hold the two energies apart in your hands?”

“No,” Zuko said. Iroh had taught him to never hold lightning in his body, only use himself as a channel to provide release and guidance. “It’s not a static process. The separation happens in the windup.”

“Okay, let’s think about it another way,” Sokka said thoughtfully. “Fire is just heat and light, and both Kizia and Combustion Man can create heat without light. Why isn’t the opposite possible? Have you ever tried?”

“You are the most curious person I’ve ever met,” Zuko grumbled, but he was charmed despite himself.

He was also doubtful, but he gave it a try anyways. He pictured the dragons’ fire, at the Sun Warriors’ temple. He waved his arms and imitated fireflies and glow-worms, grateful that Sokka couldn’t see him flail. He even started the process of creating lightning, but didn’t dare go more than halfway in case he started shooting out sparks. Lightning never worked for him. It reminded him too much of Ozai, of Azula and that last Agni Kai. Trying to do it made the old scar on his chest ache, and something always ended up blowing up in his face.

Sokka’s patience never unwavered. “Relax and don’t stress out,” he kept saying, when Zuko was ready to tear his own hair out. “Let’s try another way.”

Time was impossible to measure inside the dark room, but eventually Sokka broke out in a huge yawn. “I think we should take a break,” he told Zuko. “We’re both exhausted. We need some sleep to get a fresh perspective.”

Zuko dropped his arms and sighed. The problem wasn’t physical exhaustion. The problem was that he was a dogged learner, not an original one. He always tried to run through the brick wall, never around it. He didn’t have that inner spark that made haikus and airship designs and escape plans erupt out of nowhere. Iroh used to say as much, when Zuko inevitably lost during their Pai Sho games together: that he wasn’t a great thinker but a great feeler, a creature of emotion and impulse rather than logic.

“I wish I was more like you,” Zuko said.

“If you were more like me, then you’d be less like you,” Sokka said cryptically, and broke off with another yawn. “Don’t deprive the world like that.”

Zuko was getting better at navigating through the darkness, and he groped around until he found the silk shroud that was draped over the altar table. He cleared the items on top, pulled it off, and handed it over. “You get some rest first. I’ll keep watch in case something happens.”

He sat down on the floor again; Sokka did as well. There was a rustling sound, and then Zuko nearly jumped when a head plopped down on his lap.

“This thing smells like dead people,” Sokka mumbled, from down where he was using Zuko’s leg as a pillow.

“Just go to sleep.”

“You need to sleep too, sleep’s important," Sokka said, his words already slurring with exhaustion. “Gran Gran used to say the world reveals itself in dreams.” He wiggled into his makeshift blanket. Almost immediately, his breathing evened out into slumber.

*

Zuko tried to stay awake, but he was worn out too, and it was hard when he couldn’t tell the difference between his closed eyelids and the room around him. Sokka’s head was a warm weight on his thigh, and without meaning to, Zuko slipped into a doze that was half-dream and half-memory.

He was back at the Whaling Feast, under that splendid silk-sash sky, listening to Analuq. She was reciting the final part of her poem – the story of the whale itself: how it swam through the water as a young calf, how it has spent its life feeding on the small plankton in the water, how its final act was to give humans the strength it had gathered from the earth and sea, how eventually it will, as all living things do, go back into the sea.

It had given Zuko a strange, shivery feeling to know about the beginning of the whale, to have the taste of its blubber in his mouth, to have seen the final moment of its death. Something living had moved through him, just as he too, living, moved through the world.

Then he was back on the beach, watching the water-whale as it was created by the waterbenders, another turn on the endless wheel. A new tradition.

Zuko was becoming more awake, but his thoughts remained dreamlike and hazy, coming to him blurred like light shining through water.

Firebenders were the only ones who could create their element inside themselves, rather than move something that already exists in the outside world. Zuko had been taught from an early age to look inwards, focus on his own breath, his own chi . But if firebenders drew their energy from the sun, then fire too was something that moved through the world. The sun passed through them all the same way that water rose from the sea and became rain, became rivers that flowed through living beings.

He was back on the tundra, marveling at the birds, the wide carpet of lichen and moss, the shadowy sky where clouds pulsed like a net crammed with fish.

There was more to the world than what was inside of him, and Sokka had been right earlier when he said Zuko was self-absorbed. For a long time Zuko had been blinded by his own pain, and despite his guilt he couldn’t connect with the people around him: not his own family, not Mina, not Sokka, for all that he thought he had tried. He couldn’t reach out, couldn’t find a way to let his anger go. But now he was learning.

He was learning how to see outwards, past himself.

Iroh learned to redirect lightning from studying waterbenders, and the waterbenders learned by watching the moon. Why couldn’t Zuko learn by following the sun? They weren’t so different, after all. Fire was life too, that was something else the dragons Ran and Shaw tried to show him. What was it that Aang wrote him once? The greatest illusion is the illusion of separation.

Maybe he should listen to Aang more.

Zuko concentrated, but this time he did not focus inwards. Instead he pictured – dragons and whales. Sunlight piercing through the clouds, making the sea spray glitter like diamonds. He reached outwards, and thought of the people around him, the energy that flowed through them .

He moved his hands, but didn’t create lightning.

A light shone.

“Sokka!” he exclaimed. After so long in the total blackness, the silvery white glow between his palms was blinding. It didn’t pulsate, like a normal flame, but maintained a steady light. “It’s incredible! We did it!”

Sokka’s eyes fluttered open. “What? What’s happening?” He winced when the light hit his eyes, and scrambled up. His mouth dropped open with shock. “How did you do it? How does it feel?”

The light went out when Zuko tried to reply. He pressed his palms together and opened them, calling up the feeling of connection again. It came easier the second time, a bright clear light with no heat.

“Like I’m keeping a top spinning with my mind,” said Zuko. He wiggled a finger, but the light didn’t change. Now that his eyes were adjusting, the gloomy masses of funeral urns behind them were the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. “You know what this means?”

“That we might just escape and not die in the same room as your great-grandfather’s ashes?”

Zuko looked at the smile on Sokka’s face. He was revising his earlier opinion about the funeral urns.

“Yeah, of course,” Zuko said, thrown. “I was also thinking – you realise this could revolutionise our current scientific understanding of the properties of light –”

He never got to finish what he was saying, because at that moment, Sokka kissed him.

Chapter Text

Zuko stiffened at the touch of a mouth against his own; his concentration broke, and the light between his hands went out. Sokka, sensing his reaction, broke off and drew back.

“What’s wrong?”

“What was that? What are you doing?” Zuko touched a hand to his mouth.

No one had kissed him since Mai. He’d nearly forgotten what it felt like.

Ah ,” Sokka said, in a tone loaded with meaning. He gave a sigh. “Oops, I think I miscalculated.”

“What did you miscalculate?”

“This whole situation,” Sokka said cryptically. “Let’s chalk this up to a man who’s very happy about the idea of possibly escaping, and let’s quickly move on to actually escaping.”

Zuko made the light appear again – it was getting easier with practice – and held it up to Sokka’s face. Sokka blinked at the brightness, and then met Zuko’s eyes square on. He had a familiar wry smile on, and that old insouciant expression that managed to convey a sense of ‘ who, me? ’ with the power of his eyebrows alone.

“Would you believe it if I tell you this is how we express, uh, brotherly and platonic affection between men in the Southern Water Tribe?”

Zuko stared. Despite the grin, Sokka’s eyes were soft.

There it was, the same look that Sokka had in the teahouse room. The same look he had a year ago, when he stepped closer towards Zuko on their way back to his tent. It had been written all over his face for a long time. Zuko just couldn’t decipher the language.

“What about Noroq?” he blurted out.

“Ah,” Sokka said again, looking glum. “He really made an impression on you, didn’t he?”

“Well – yes,” Zuko said. “He’s a good man. He saved your life. Does he know about this? Doesn’t he deserve to?”

Sokka gaped at him, then scrunched up his face like he was trying to solve a very complicated arithmetic question inside his head. “Okay, no more being delicate about this,” he said after a moment, un-scrunching his nose. “Are you in love with Noroq?”

The question was so random that Zuko gave the first reply that came to mind. “How’s that possible? I’ve only known him for a day.”

“Maybe that was too deep a question. Are you in… like with Noroq? Do you adore his perfect dimples? Have you ever wondered what it’ll be like to paddle out under the moonlight and see the stars reflected in the crystalline blue of his eyes?”

“No,” Zuko said, and then: “Uh, do you?”

“No,” Sokka echoed. “And you know that stars can’t be reflected like that anyways, right?”

“Right,” Zuko said faintly. He raked a hand through his scalp. He also felt like he was solving a complicated equation in his head, and as usual, two steps behind Sokka the entire time. “I thought you two were…” he said, and did a half-hearted wave with his hand.

“I mean, I’m not going to deny that Noroq and I have, y’know,—” Sokka parroted his wave. “—once or twice.”

Zuko’s mouth twisted.

“But that was ages ago and it was never anything serious, we both knew it. It was just something fun between friends.”

“…something fun between friends,” Zuko repeated, incredulously.

“It helps, you know,” Sokka said. “It helps to spend time with people who’ve been through similar things as you and survived it. Noroq was at war too. He was in the same prison camp as Analue, but he never let it destroy him on the inside. I liked him for that.”

“And now?”

“I still like him, of course,” Sokka said. “But it was never something serious.”

Zuko was still turning Sokka’s earlier phrase over in his mind. Something fun. Incredible to think that having sex with someone could be described like – he tried to think of something fun – like going for a stroll in the garden, maybe, or playing a game of Pai Sho. This was a bad example: Zuko was terrible at Pai Sho.

“This isn’t something fun for me,” he said.

Sokka tilted his head. “What isn’t?”

Instead of answering, Zuko leaned closer towards Sokka. He put his other hand, the one that wasn’t holding the light, on the back of Sokka’s head, where it rested against his nape. It was thrilling, feeling the rough texture of the shaved hair against his palm, having someone let him touch them in such a vulnerable spot. He pressed their foreheads together, and felt Sokka draw in a sharp breath through his nose. The movement of air tickled Zuko’s cheek.

“I’m serious about this,” Zuko whispered, and closed the last inch of distance between them.

He only meant it to be a light press of the lips, a way to say what he couldn’t say in words. But Sokka moaned and grabbed Zuko back. He threaded his fingers into Zuko’s hair, and when Zuko gasped in surprise he felt Sokka’s tongue swipe against his lower lip and into his half-open mouth, deepening the kiss. Sokka’s hand was firm against his head, holding him in place.

What could he do? Zuko closed his eyes, gave in.

“Okay,” Sokka panted, when he finally let Zuko go. “Turn around.”

Zuko blinked. This all seemed to be moving rather fast. “Excuse me?”

“There are literally bombs strapped to you right now,” Sokka said. “Our first priority now that we can see should be either defusing them or getting the vest off.”

That made much more sense.

“Right, the deadly bombs,” Zuko managed. He wiped his sleeve against his mouth – his lips were tingling from the sensation – and then turned to let Sokka take a look at the lock that was keeping the vest chained on him.

He felt like they should talk about what just happened, but what did just happen?

“I can’t undo the lock at all,” Sokka said from behind him. “The design is pretty ingenious though, the way that she woven in wicks soaked in liquid fuel. It smells like petroleum, but I’m sure there’s something else too. Wonder what kind of explosive she’s using. It smells familiar somehow.”

“No idea,” Zuko said quickly.

He lifted his hand and made the light brighter. It was beginning to come naturally now, this calm connected feeling. It wasn’t the same as shooting sparks or making a fireball: something about the way he interacted with fire felt different. He could perceive the distinction between heat and light in a way that he never considered before. He had some faint sense that energy was circulating through his body, starting from the intake of breath and making its way to the light in his hands. It was all connected.

Sokka fiddled with the vest, but no luck. “I think we need a key,” he said finally. “I can’t get it off.”

“Okay,” Zuko said.

Neither of them said anything else. Just when Zuko was beginning to question if he had only vividly hallucinated the last few minutes, Sokka cleared his throat. “You know that I’m serious about this, right? Because I am, Zuko.”

“I don’t doubt your opinion on locks,” he said. The sound of his name coming out of Sokka’s mouth was sending loose shivers rolling down his spine.

Sokka gave him a shove. “Jerk.”

“Soon,” Zuko said, “when our lives aren’t in danger and my great-grandfather’s ashes aren’t in the same room, the two of us should have a talk about this.” They would, he knew it. He wasn’t afraid of that idea anymore.

“The only other person I made a parka for was Suki,” Sokka said softly, and before Zuko could ask what that meant, Sokka gave him a clap on the shoulder, over the metal of the vest. “Anyways, escape time! Come over and light up the door, I want to take a look.”

The door looked like an impenetrable barrier to Zuko, but Sokka spent a long time examining every section. Zuko made the light as bright as he could, and after a while Sokka squinted and pointed at a spot surrounded by jagged metal. “Here!” he said, “Do you see this tiny gap? Kizia must have left it when she pried off the lock. Try flashing a light near it, maybe someone passing by would see.”

“The sages aren’t here this time of night,” Zuko reminded him.

“Just give it a shot,” Sokka said. He bent down closer to the tiny pinhole. “Help! Anyone out there? We’re trapped!” He pulled a face at Zuko’s sigh. “I’m practising for later.”

“Save your voice,” Zuko said, and Sokka backed off. He pressed his other hand to the door and focused. A pulse of light beamed out; he concentrated, and narrowed it to a beam that he aimed through the little gap in the metal. The gap was maybe the size of a mung bean, no bigger, but it should be visible from outside. Kizia had made him extinguish all the torches in this corridor. If anyone did happen to pass by, at least it would be obvious in the dark.  

“I can keep it going,” Zuko said, crouching down to a more comfortable position by the gap. It was easier than he expected, keeping two different lights going at once. “It doesn’t take too much effort. And at least light is silent.”

Sokka sat down too, his hands propping himself up behind him. “If we get out of here,” he said fervently, “I’ll give up drinking. I’ll even write to Katara and tell her she was right all along, it’s a filthy habit and it’s bad for me. And what about you?” He nudged Zuko with a foot.

Zuko pushed the foot away, making the light move and the shadows in the room sway erratically. “What?”

“Your turn to barter with the universe. In return for something important, you have to give up something you enjoy. What is it?”

“I don’t think the universe likes me enough to barter,” Zuko said.

That earned him a little pout. “Play along.”

Zuko tried to play along. It was a surprisingly hard question. What did he enjoy? Firebending? But that was just a part of who he was; he didn’t enjoy it in the sense that he didn’t enjoy keeping his lungs moving or keeping his heart beating. The luxuries of a life in the royal palace? He thought about the servants and banquets, the embroidered formal robes, the hot towels on silver salvers, fruit tarts with rose petals.

He liked them all fine, but it was all just – stuff. He didn’t enjoy them so much as take it for granted that they were there.

“Talking with my uncle,” Zuko said after a minute. “I’ll give up talking with my uncle.”

Sokka kicked him again. “Really? That’s the only thing you enjoy in life? Should have known you’d take a fun question and turn it into a depressing answer. I take my question back, not even the universe should take that away from you.”

“What else do I have?” Zuko asked. “Unless you want me to give up the throne?”

“No,” Sokka said, and crossed his arms. “It has to be something you like, remember?”

“Of course I like it!” Zuko protested, but it rang hollow even to his own ears.

He was getting another uncomfortable revelation: did he really enjoy nothing in his life other than spending time with his uncle, who lived in a different country? Well, there was one thing else he could think of, but whatever was between him and Sokka felt too fragile to even jokingly offer up, still more promise and idea than reality.

 

“Why isn’t Iroh here? In Caldera?” Sokka asked, as if he could read Zuko’s mind. “No offense, but you seem like you could use some help.”

“Being the Fire Lord is my destiny, not his. He’s enjoying his retirement in Ba Sing Se.”

 

Sokka hummed in response. “You ever wonder why, of all the cities in the world, your uncle went back to the site of his greatest military defeat? The place where his son died?”

 

“No,” Zuko admitted. That never crossed his mind before; he always assumed that Iroh just loved running the Jasmine Dragon. “Should I have?”

 

Sokka opened his mouth – Zuko braced himself for some cutting observation about how no one in the royal family was good at finding emotional closure – but a grinding sound from the door interrupted him. “Wait, what’s that?”

Zuko stared at the moving doors in astonishment. “It’s the lock! Someone’s coming in!”

*

The doors opened.

The person on the other side stared at Zuko.

Zuko stared back. In an evening of weird twists, somehow this was the weirdest so far.

“Lord Qyu,” he said awkwardly. “What are you doing here?”

“I was looking for my daughter when I saw a light coming through the door,” Qyu said. He looked about as shocked as Zuko. “What a surprise to see you here, Fire Lord.”

Neither of them bowed. An unexpected meeting in the catacombs in the middle of the night seemed to have pushed them into the uncharted territories beyond the rules of etiquette.

“Put out your lanteen, Qyu!” Sokka piped up from behind Zuko. “There are bombs here, you could set them off.”

Qyu’s shocked expression gave way to a familiar glower. “You!” he bellowed. “The Water Tribe savage! I should have known you’re involved with my daughter’s disappearance somehow.”

“He’s not,” Zuko said wearily. “It’s a long story, Qyu. Put out your lantern and I’ll explain.”

Qyu did not put out his lantern but brought it higher, so it was shining in Zuko’s face. He was still standing directly in front of the doorway, blocking the room’s only exit. “What are you doing, cavorting around with a man who’s supposed to be in a prison cell?”

Zuko waved a hand. Dousing a lantern flame was easier too: he felt like another sense had opened up in his mind, making the perception and control of an external flame much less unnatural than it had been before. He made his heatless light appear again, in time to catch Qyu’s furious expression deepen. “Funny you should ask,” he told Qyu. “We’re looking for your daughter too. She has a lot to answer for.”

“As do you,” Qyu hissed. He summoned a small flame on one finger to re-light his lantern, but Sokka darted forward and slapped his hand down, extinguishing the flame.

“Listen,” Zuko said as Qyu sputtered. “Sokka is innocent. Kizia attacked him first and he defended himself. Your daughter’s a dangerous criminal who attacked Luan and then me as well. She put me in this thing—” Zuko gestured at the vest, “—and if you light a fire near me now, it’ll set off the bombs inside. All three of us could die.”

Qyu only re-lit his lantern, ignoring Sokka’s loud cry of frustration. “Where have you been all afternoon, Lord Zuko? The whole court is in an uproar over a dead Earth Kingdom minister. They’re saying that you are the murderer.”

“No, he’s not!” Sokka said. “Weren’t you listening? Your daughter killed her.”

“Barbarian lies,” Qyu said dismissively.

Sokka made another noise of annoyance, and Zuko gritted his teeth. “You said you were searching for her, Qyu. Did she leave some clue behind? A note saying that she’d be in the catacombs?”

“My daughter left a note saying that she’s decided to disappear forever after the shame of what that man has done to her. I ordered guards to search the whole palace and half the city, but they turned up nothing. I remembered how much she admires the late Fire Lord Sozin and his work, and then I came down here to search for her. Imagine my surprise when I find you two here instead. What did you do to her?”

“You mean, what she did to us,” Sokka said.  “She’s the one who locked us in here!”

“Lies,” Qyu sneered again. “My daughter is a helpless young woman.”

“He’s telling the truth,” said Zuko, fists clenching. Anger was rising up in him again. “And even if he’s lying, it doesn’t matter. You’re forgetting that I’m the Fire Lord, Qyu. At the end of the day, my word is law.”

“Uh—” Sokka said.

Qyu’s expression changed. “Siding with a foreigner, Fire Lord? This must be the first time I’ve seen you show any backbone. And all along I thought you were as soft as your failure of an uncle.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up ,” Zuko snapped. And then, because he couldn’t resist: “My uncle has more courage and integrity in his little toenail than you have in your entire body, you racist old bigot.”

Qyu looked startled for a moment, and then his face shifted to his old bone-and-gristle look of utter rage. Zuko was going to regret this, but for that brief, shining moment, he felt fantastic.

Maybe this is what he should be offering the universe in exchange for getting out alive – the feeling of saying the one thing he’d always wanted to say to the most annoying man in the world. Why hadn’t he done it before now? Just tell people to shut up?

“I see you’re obsessed with punishing my family for whatever reason,” Qyu snarled. His twisted-up face looked like someone who had just chewed and digested himself. “Fine, if you won’t let justice take its course, then I challenge you to an Agni Kai. My daughter’s innocence for that Water Tribe barbarian’s freedom.”

“Uh—” Sokka said again.

“I don’t do Agni Kai’s,” Zuko hissed. “Sokka is innocent and Kizia is guilty, we can settle this in front of a court.”

 

His refusal only enraged Qyu further, and those yellow eyes narrowed into pits.“Where’s the fighting spirit of your ancestors, Fire Lord?“

Zuko shrugged. This was something he learned from Azula: some fights are won by walking away. “I said no to your Agni Kai, Qyu. Now get out the way. We’re leaving.”

“You unmanned yourself,” Qyu sneered, “when you surrounded yourself with your foreign friends.” He raised his arms and both hands lit up with fire. The sudden wave of heat was startling in the small space of the tomb. “Let’s see if you’re still a coward against this.”

Before Zuko could react, Sokka dove in front of him and put his arms out, shielding Zuko. “What’s wrong with you two?” he said, voice shrill. “There’s explosives in here!”

In response, Qyu took another step into the tomb, his hands still wreathed in fire. He ignored Sokka. “Letting your friends fight for you? Stop making cowardly excuses.”

Sokka did two things in such quick succession that they were almost simultaneous: he half-twisted around and shoved Zuko back a few steps, so he and the explosives vest were out of range. And then, moving with the recoiling momentum of his shove, he launched himself at Qyu and tackled him down to the ground.

Qyu grunted, probably from astonishment as much as from pain. Sokka struggled, trying to hold his opponent down, but Qyu sent out a scorching jet of fire from one palm and forced Sokka to let go to avoid being burned. Sokka rolled over; Qyu staggered up and pushed another palm full of fire towards Sokka, but Sokka scrambled up, ducked into Qyu’s reach and grabbed Qyu’s forearm from the inside, forced it downwards over his shoulder. The fire went harmlessly into the ground.

“Get out of here!” Sokka yelled. “Before it goes off!”

Zuko sprinted out the doorway. He went a few paces down the corridor, and then stopped. He turned back.

Inside the tomb, Sokka and Qyu were still fighting: Qyu had shrugged off Sokka’s hold and now he aimed a kick at Sokka’s chest, his foot leaving a flaming arc in the gloom. Sokka dodged, then took a swift step closer and socked Qyu in the abdomen, knocking the breath out of him and cutting off the next burst of fire at the source.

Between the two of them, Sokka was smarter and more vicious, but Qyu had the bending advantage. And as good as Sokka was, he was still injured and moving slower than normal.

“Stop it, Qyu,” Zuko yelled. “That’s an order.”

Qyu did not stop. He swung at Sokka wildly, and a fist landed square on Sokka’s ribs, sending him tumbling to the floor. Sokka groaned and tried to haul himself up, but he collapsed in a spasm of coughs.

Zuko watched them, breathing hard. His impulse was to divert Qyu’s attention to himself, take him down. But he forced himself to think past that. What could he do that wouldn’t put all of their lives in danger? Qyu was getting closer to Sokka now, his fists lit up, but the adrenaline pumping through Zuko’s veins was slowing time down to a crawl. Sokka would think of something smart, but he wasn’t Sokka.

What could Zuko do?

He lifted his hand. Reached for that sense of calm acknowledgement again. He felt for the energy that moved through the world, that moved through fire as well as all things. He dropped his hand down and moved the fire away .

It was almost like redirecting lightning – Zuko wouldn’t be able to do it if Iroh hadn’t taught him that technique – but unlike lightning, there was no direct contact between him and the fire.  Similar to lightning, Zuko could sense the energy of the heat and the light passing through him. Instinctively, he let it run through his belly, avoiding his heart, and then opened one hand and released it.

A part of the stone wall exploded with a boom. Another ceramic urn shattered.

All three of them flinched at the sudden explosion. Qyu spun around, an almost comical look of shock on his face as he gave his empty hand a shake. “What kind of freakish trick did you play on me?” he demanded.

And then without warning, shot a fireball directly towards Zuko.

“No!” Sokka screamed, but Zuko was ready. The fireball extinguished in mid-air, the same invisible energy passed through him, and he released it outwards. The altar table exploded, scattering incense and peaches everywhere.

More blasts of fire came at Zuko. Clenching his jaw with concentration, he extinguished and redirected them elsewhere. He had never done this before: fighting like a waterbender, absorbing his opponent’s attacks and channeling them somewhere else. Qyu was relentless, and soon the air grew thick with dust and flying pebbles, making it difficult to breathe. The effort of his exertion was creating a painful pressure behind his forehead, a pain that arced down the bridge of Zuko’s nose. It was bad, but no worse than his usual migraines. He pushed it down.

Qyu, only a few steps away now, launched a huge jet of fire at Zuko’s chest. Zuko tried to dissipate it, send it to another section of the wall, but it was still new enough that he hadn’t figured out how to aim it yet. He felt the force rocket out of his fist, and distracted by the pain and the coppery tang of blood begin to trickle out of his nose, accidentally sent it upwards, towards the metal doorframe above him.

The frame exploded, and the shockwave knocked Zuko to the ground.

When he scrambled up, Qyu was towering over him, his hands lit up with fire. "I think I will give you a scar to match the other one," he snarled. "Leave it as a reminder of your cowardice."

Zuko looked up, blood streaming over his mouth. Qyu’s lamp was still in the middle of the room where he dropped it; Qyu himself was a black silhouette against the light. Behind him, shadows moved.

“Why do you hate me so much?” Zuko rasped. He pulled himself up to a half-seated kneel, his hands resting on the ground in front of him. “Tell me why.”

"You have no right running this country,” Qyu said. "I saw the Agni Kai between you and your father, years ago. If you had fought back, even attempted to defend your own honour, we would have all respected you even in your banishment. But you didn't even raise a hand.” He stepped closer, reached down. “How could someone like you be the Fire Lord? A weak little boy pleading for mercy?”

"I'm not pleading for mercy," Zuko said.

The fire in Qyu's hand glowed brighter. "No? Then what are you doing on your knees?"

"Keeping you distracted," said Zuko.

And that was when Sokka took a swing at Qyu’s head from behind.

The urn in his hands connected with a satisfying clang, the ceramic shards shattered into pieces on impact. The fire in Qyu’s hand went out, smothered by the cloud of human ashes raining over him. Qyu himself swayed on his feet, his eyes rolling up into his head before he collapsed forwards, narrowly missing Zuko. He twitched once or twice on the ground, and was still.

For a breathless second, Zuko and Sokka only stared. And then—

"I think I got some ashes in my mouth,” Sokka said. He spat on the ground and shook out his hands. “Thanks a lot, Zuko's great-grandfather. You taste horrible."

“These are Sozin’s ashes?” Zuko asked faintly. The blood coming out his nose made him sound a little stuffy.

Sokka shrugged. “It was the closest one I could grab,” he said. He came forward and offered his arm, helping Zuko up with a surprising gentleness. “Oops?”

"Good riddance,” Zuko managed.

“Easy there,” Sokka said. “Don’t move too quickly.” He patted Zuko on the back of his neck, and then fumbled around the floor, grabbing a bunch of fabric, handing it over. “For your nose.”

“Thanks.”

"You okay?” Sokka asked, concerned.

“I’m okay.” Zuko was trembling a little, but that would pass. He was okay. But he didn’t let go of Sokka’s arm.

Sokka had handed him the silk altar cloth he used before as a blanket. Zuko wiped his face with one corner, then used another section to staunch the blood flowing from his nose. He studied the luscious folds of silk in his hand: the expensive goldwork gleamed even in the dim glow of the knocked over lamp. He wondered if he should keep it, maybe see if the bloodstains could be washed out of the cloth. Sozin really didn’t spare any expenses, even for something few were ever supposed to see.

Then he shrugged and dropped the blood-smeared cloth to the ground. Sokka was right: it did smell like dead people.

Meanwhile, Sokka was fiddling around with Qyu's unconscious head on the ground. He pulled off Qyu’s headpiece from his hair and crowed in triumph. "Ha! Perfect." He brandished the pin that was holding the headpiece in place. “And here’s a second pin too, that’ll do for the tension wrench. Let me see your vest again.”

Zuko turned around obediently and held up another light above his head. He felt Sokka wiggle the pins into the lock on his back, and closed his eyes. He wasn’t a superstitious person, but he mouthed a silent prayer now. He wasn’t sure who he was talking to: Agni or the universe or the dead. He wasn’t sure what he believed in anymore. Just to be safe, he addressed all of them. Let them survive this night, let Sokka survive, and Zuko would do something to make it all worthwhile. He would give up anything. Do anything, even—

The lock clicked, fell open.

“Get it off, get it off!” he gasped, but Sokka was already pulling it off his shoulders in brusque motions. Zuko twisted his arms, shaking them free. The absence of the weight brought such a relief that it nearly staggered him.

“I got you,” Sokka said. “It’s okay.”

Zuko breathed in, a sweet intake of air.

Sokka dumped the explosives into a corner of the tomb with an expression of distaste. "Let’s get out of here.”

"What about Qyu?” Zuko asked. “Do we leave him here?”

Sokka was all for shutting Qyu inside the tomb along with the bombs, but Zuko argued that head injuries were too serious to be left alone for a day, and as much he hated the man, they couldn’t leave Qyu in mortal danger like this.

"Do you think either of us is in any shape to carry a body through the tunnels?" Sokka had said, which settled it.

As the steel door slid shut for the final time that night, Zuko surveyed the destroyed room. It had not been a good night for his dead ancestors. The crumpled heap of the silk cloth, the scorched and ruined walls, the piece of broken funeral urns scattered around the floor. The grey piles of Sozin's earthly ashes were already indistinguishable from the dust and grime of the dirt floor, the remnants of his urn lost among all the other toppled or exploded ceramic shards. A single trampled lily – one of them must have stepped on it during the confusion – was lying on top of the mess. It looked like an absurd funeral wreath. 

The doors closed on the scene of devastation, sealing it away.

“Good riddance,” Zuko said aloud, and smiled.

*

Zuko led them onwards, heading away from the tomb and towards the exit.

They walked through another chamber where masses of dragon bones were stacked together in tight rows.

“I’ve never seen someone do that before,” Sokka said, breaking the silence. “I can’t believe you’re the new Sparky Sparky Boom Man now. And without a tattoo!”

“Who?” Zuko asked.

“Combustion Man!”

“He has a name, you know.”

Sokka waved a hand impatiently. “You’re missing the point. I declare you…Sparky Sparky Boom Lord.”

“Very creative,” Zuko said, though he was secretly a little flattered. If putting out natural fires required concentration and strength of will, dismantling another bender’s attack was considered nearly impossible. He had long since reconciled himself to the fact that he could never make lightning, and it was strange to find out there was even more to firebending than he thought possible. Could Zuko pass on this new technique too, like Iroh did to him? And one day, if Zuko lived long enough to see old age, who knew where his own student might take it? What they might invent? The world is very big, after all.

Imagining the possibilities almost made him excited about old age.

“Hold this,” Sokka said, handing Zuko the broadswords. He had insisted they retrace his steps and recover the swords from where he dropped them. By some miracle, they were still lying on the ground near the trip wire. Evidently, Kizia didn’t consider the possibility they might escape. Zuko took them. The weight of the blades was different from his own set, but the feeling was comforting in its familiarity. He hefted one sword up, testing the balance as it swished through the air.

Sokka, busy pulling something out from his pocket, didn’t notice Zuko's little manoeuvre. He held a hand out. “You want one of these?”

Zuko stared. Sokka was holding two ripe peaches. Suspiciously familiar peaches. He closed his eyes. “Are those from—”

“Sozin’s tomb? Yep.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

“Those are offerings,” Zuko said, appalled. “You can’t eat those.”

Sokka paused, peach already halfway to his mouth. “What does that mean? Are they poisoned? Should I put them back?”

“They’re technically fine,” Zuko said, and then, because it was just that sort of night. “You know – never mind. Go ahead and have it.”

The peach completed its journey. “You sure you don’t want one?” Sokka asked with his mouth full. “Because after what just happened – I’m starving for a snack.”

Zuko shook his head. He was hungry and thirsty, but eating something that was offered to the dead was taboo. He just couldn’t do it, not any more than he could write a character upside down or walk into a matted room without taking his shoes off first.

“So smashing your great-grandpa's ashes is one thing, but eating perfectly good fruit is where you draw the line?” Sokka paused, licked a finger thoughtfully. “It’s not like the dead can take what the living don’t eat – Mom used to say that when me and Katara were picky about meals.”

Some things were built in at bone level. Zuko had nothing to offer but a shrug.

They made their way past another row of snarling skulls in silence. Sokka finished his peach and threw the pit in the air, punting it forwards with one foot; the pit bounced off a stack of more vaguely draconic remains – possible femurs, but Zuko couldn’t be sure – and tumbled to the ground.

“Weird how I can remember her saying that, but not what she looked like,” Sokka mused out loud, and then came to such an abrupt stop that Zuko tensed, expecting an attack. But it was just Sokka looking distraught. He put a hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “About what I said earlier…I wasn’t even thinking about what happened in the Forgetful Valley with Ursa – her not remembering and everything. I didn’t think how that sounded to you.”

Zuko sighed. “The hilarious irony of our respective situations was not lost on me,” he said drily.

“Still though,” Sokka said, and moved his hand so it fitted against the curve of Zuko’s neck, his thumb pressed gently in the spot behind Zuko’s ear. “You can tell me anything, you know.”

“I know,” Zuko said. A look passed between them, and he dropped his gaze, blushing. He was very aware of all the dead things around them; it was not a good setting for heartfelt conversations. Next to him, he heard Sokka clear his throat. Sokka moved his hand away, and by mutual and silent agreement they started walking again.

When they passed the loose peach pit on the ground, Zuko kicked it too and sent it rocketing down the passage ahead. He and Sokka passed it back and forth between them down the length of the passage.

“Hey,” Sokka said in a different tone of voice. “Doesn’t this remind you of our old wacky adventures? You have to admit – even near-death experiences felt different when you were sixteen. Everything was more fun then.”

It was possible, Zuko reflected, that he and Sokka had different definitions of the word ‘fun’.

“The only thing I miss was having a drive,” he said. “I’ve always had a purpose, even when it was the wrong one. But now what? I just keep a hold on peace for as long as I can? It’s not like there’s an end goal to being the Fire Lord.” He aimed at the pit again, missed, and cursed. “I guess I could get married and have an heir.”

“Another link on the never-ending chain of Fire Lords,” Sokka intoned in a mock-dramatic voice.

“Another link on the chain,” Zuko echoed dully.

Sokka snuck a foot out and stole the pit out from under Zuko. “Okay, putting aside your insult to our burgeoning – and definitely non-reproductive relationship – you know that normal people don’t have a grand drive, right? Most of us just muddle our way along.” He kicked the pit at the wall, where it ricocheted and sailed into the eyehole of a dragon skull nearby. “Oops.”

Zuko peered into the skull: the pit was in there, along with a lot of dust and possibly a lot of spiders. He considered sticking a hand down there, but decided it wasn’t worth it. He also considered saying something about the ‘non-reproductive’ comment, but he let that go as well. What could he say? “If you don’t have a purpose, then how do you get out of bed in the morning?”

Next to him, Sokka peeked into the other eyehole. He clicked his tongue. “If you must know, I get out of bed one leg at a time, cursing whoever it was who invented mornings,” he said, and stuck his tongue out when Zuko rolled his eyes.

The weird moment passed and they continued on, both of them lapsing back into silence. Zuko squeezed his fist, feeling his nails dig into his palms. He took a deep breath through his nose; he knew that the universe had it in for him somehow: how was it that he was already having relationship issues – when his relationship had barely begun? He breathed out, and put it aside in his mind. There are bigger things to worry about right now.

Chapter Text

Zuko slowed his steps  in front of a chained and locked door, the same door that Sokka had asked him about when they entered the catacombs. Beside him, Sokka stopped too, looking confused. 

“What’s going on? This isn’t the exit.”

“I know where Kizia is,” Zuko said, not looking away from the heavy padlock hanging in front. He leaned down and made the light in his hand brighter, examining the keyhole; now that he was looking for it, he could see faint scratches, telltale signs that a key had been inserted recently. “She’s lying low inside the catacombs.”

“I thought she’d be on the first ship out of here.”

“Qyu has everyone searching in the palace and the city itself for his daughter. The first ship out of here, no matter by air or water, would leave at dawn at the earliest. Nothing sails in the middle of the night. Kizia’s hiding out in here.”

“But how do you know she’s here?” Sokka asked, sounding gobsmacked.

Zuko glanced up. Sokka was looking at him expectantly, but he didn’t answer. The words decayed in his mouth. 

Of course he knew: he’d always known. A part of him had known from the first moment he came down the spiraling steps, from the moment Sokka had suggested coming to the Dragonbone Catacombs. He just didn’t want to know. 

Here was the one place that Kizia, if she knew anything about him at all – and Zuko suspected she did, quite a lot – she would know that he would never willingly open. There was something in here that he had buried years ago, something so dishonourable that if he tried to explain it, words cracked and broke under the burden. No amount of struggle could get them out.

Zuko had never been afraid of a fight, but he was afraid of this. 

But he had no choice. He dropped the light, pressed his hand against the lock, and called up the hottest fire he could make. 

The metal hissed and liquified.

“Woah,” breathed Sokka, as the remains of the lock dripped down in a molten puddle. “You should warn a guy before doing something like that.”

Zuko wrenched his head up, alarmed. “Did you get burned? Stay farther back.”

Sokka only gave him a goofy smile in response. It was a nice smile, especially after their not-quite-disagreement earlier, but Zuko didn’t return it. Already an old familiar misery was settling over him.

“Get ready,” he said, and ignored Sokka’s renewed barrage of questions as he pushed open the door and stepped inside.

Inside was a long hall, spacious compared to the one they were just in. The space was about the same size as one of the palace corridors. Like the rest of the catacombs, the walls were rough stone and the ground was compacted dirt. There was another door at the end of the hallway – the second locked chamber – and Zuko made his way towards it without looking left or right, only a tiny sphere of light in his hand to make sure they didn’t trip in the darkness.

“Seriously, what is this place?” Sokka asked, swiveling his head around and trying to squint through the gloom. “Why do you have a secret tunnel inside your secret tunnels?”

“It’s not a tunnel. I told you, it’s an archive.”

But Zuko paused anyway. Sokka deserved to know. Zuko wanted him to know. He was sick of secrets.

He raised his hand and increased the light.

“Urgh,” Sokka said, shielding his eyes. “Warn me next time, would you? It’s like having the sun in my face.”

“I’ll remember to do a special signal just for you,” Zuko said sarcastically, trying to push down his unease. “I’ll crow like a rooster-pigeon next time. Is cooka-coodle-coo enough warning?”

But Sokka had a point: the effect was like a tiny sun rising underground, illuminating the whole hall. Light passed over the high ceiling paved with rocks and boulders, the old and brittle torch sconces that hadn’t been touched in years, the bruises and cuts on Sokka’s hands, and also – the wooden panels leaning against the walls, covered in coarsely woven sheets. 

Zuko watched as Sokka blinked his eyes open, adjusting to his surroundings. Before Sokka could ask, Zuko grabbed the closest corner of a sheet and snapped it off.

He let Sokka take it in: the painted scene of Sozin attacking an Earth Kingdom city, one of the first colonies, taken at the beginning of the war. A bolt of lightning zapped out from Sozin’s fingertips; dead soldiers piled up outside the stone city walls. 

Zuko pulled off another sheet, revealing the painted panel next to the first: this one showed Azulon electrocuting a dragon. The dragon, curled up around a snowy peak, had its maw open in what could be a snarl, but it didn’t look as fearsome as Zuko remembered from his childhood. It looked like a grimace of fear. Had a painter retouched the mural since then? Or was it Zuko who had changed?

There was a cracked egg laying at the foot of the snow-covered mountain, dribbling yolk.

“Most of these show my family,” Zuko said in a low voice. “And as you can see, most of what my family did was conquer things.”

Sokka said nothing.

They made their way down the hall. When they came to the final series of wall panels, shoved as far from the entrance as possible, Zuko hesitated before taking the sheet off.

Together, they stood in front of the four Air Temples, going up in eternal, painted flames. A red comet streaked across the sky; underneath, a giant Sozin towered over legions of firebenders, waves of fire curling out of their hands. Around them, blackened sky-bisons slumped over on the mountaintops; above, airbenders on torn gliders dropped out of the sky like broken birds.

“Zuko?” Sokka said at last.

“Yes?” His voice was barely more than a whisper.

“Did you put these here?”

Zuko’s first official act as Fire Lord had been to remove his father’s name from his royal titles. But before he was even officially in power, in those manic days between the comet and his coronation, his first unofficial act had been forcing the servants to remove the worst of the murals that decorated the palace walls and the public spaces in Caldera. What couldn’t be pried off was painted over, and what could be pried off was moved down here.

“Yes,” Zuko said at last. “I did.”

He had wanted them burned, but then the ministers and nobles complained. A regime change was one thing – at the end of the day, he was still Ozai’s oldest son – but the proposed destruction of their history, that was another. It was the work of the finest artists over the past century. In the end it didn’t seem worth it to fight it; not when he had an actual war to end and actual soldiers and naval ships to call home. 

In the end he did the grown-up thing – he compromised. The paintings, the enormous portraits of his father and his ancestors from the gallery – not to mention that other trove of horrible artefacts and display items scattered around the palace – were moved underground to the catacombs. Most of the things Zuko had ordered into the locked chamber, but these panels were too bulky to fit through the door, so they were left in the passageway. 

They couldn’t stay but they couldn’t be destroyed, so Zuko put them away, out of sight. Buried.

“Is this why you didn’t want to come in here?” Sokka asked.

Zuko didn’t want anyone to come down here. He didn’t want any of his new friends, especially Aang, to see. He was afraid of what they might remember. 

“It’s the legacy of my family,” he said bitterly. “Our great achievements as Fire Lords.”

“It’s awful,” Sokka said. “But it’s nothing we don’t know already. You don’t have to hide it.”

Zuko laughed humourlessly. “When I first met Kizia, at the banquet,” he said. “Qyu told me that she studied what my great-grandfather did during the first comet. She would have come here at some point for research.”

Sokka turned around. “To look at these paintings?”

“No,” Zuko said. “Not the paintings.” 

He aimed the light towards the end of the hall, towards the second set of locked doors at the end.

“What’s inside there?”

What could Zuko say? It was an archive, a ghost, a dull headache tucked away underground, buried by dead bones. Some days the thought of it haunted Zuko, some days it didn’t. He couldn’t forget that it was there, but most of the time he could ignore it. So he did. The whole country did.

“What’s inside that door?” Sokka asked again. He shook Zuko’s shoulder, as if he could jostle the answer out of him.

Zuko licked his dry lips. “Kizia would be using this as her hiding place. It’s meant to be kept locked. No one is allowed in. Only the Great Sage and I have the keys.”

Something moved in the shadows: a slim figure ducking out from behind the triangular space between a panel and the wall.

“And yet, that key was so easy to steal, Fire Lord,” Kizia said, stepping forwards, looking as supremely unconcerned as she did while putting an explosives vest on Zuko. “You have to wonder if anyone even cared if I took it.”

*

“You!” Sokka bellowed, and raised the broadswords. Beside him, Zuko dropped the light and lit up twin fireballs in his hands, ready to attack.

Kizia called up her own small fire, but all she did was light up the lantern swinging from her hand. “Nice trick with the light,” she said, nodding at Zuko. “I’ve never seen this kind of illumination before. Where did you get it from? Woo’s manuscripts? The Five Principles of Master Gichin?” She blew out the flame on her finger like it was a match. 

“We have you now, Kizia,” Zuko said. “Don’t make this hard for yourself.”

Kizia raised her hands too, but in a gesture of surrender. “I just want to talk.”

Sokka brandished his swords. “Now you want to talk? After you just tried to murder us?”

“I wasn’t going to leave you there permanently,” Kizia said. She looked annoyed. “The sages would have received an anonymous note in the morning, telling them to go check Sozin’s tomb. I told you I just needed you out of the way for tonight.”

“Sure,” Sokka said flatly. “And before that, the palace guards would have received a note telling them to let me out of prison? And Luan will get a note too? Telling her that being dead isn’t permanent?

Kizia stepped closer. “I’m not a sadist – killing Luan was horrible. But it’s a burden I was willing to bear for the sake of a greater good.”

Sokka didn’t back down. “Give it up. Even if you escape now, your dad has half the city looking for you.”

“I know,” Kizia sighed, and took another step. This close, Zuko could see that her spectacles were back around her neck, and she had a pair of broadswords – twins of the ones in Sokka’s hands now – slung across her back. He watched her warily, but Kizia made no move to attack. It seemed like she really wanted to talk. “Dear old dad’s chasing his daughter down like she’s a lost puppy,” Kizia said. “Of all people, I thought I’d get some sympathy from you, Zuko. Rebelling against one’s awful father and all that?”

“He turned against Ozai to end a century-long war,” Sokka cut in. “What are you doing other than stealing and murdering?”

Kizia’s delicate eyebrows furrowed together in a scowl; in that moment the family resemblance to Qyu was startling. “I’m working for a great cause,” she said. When Sokka scoffed she added, “Diverting the reparations was just what we did to raise funds. It’s only a part of working towards our goal, not the goal itself.”

“What’s your goal then?” Sokka asked, not lowering his swords. “Proving that Daddy’s pocket money isn’t enough anymore?”

That must have struck a sore spot, because Kizia’s scowl deepened. “You know,” she said with a touch of heat. “If I were a man, the family fortunes would just be mine by right. I wouldn’t need these machinations at all.”

Sokka gave a derisive laugh. “How tragic. Hand over your glasses, Kizia, I’ll need them to look for the world’s smallest tsungi horn to play a song just for you.”

Another sigh. “While I hate to lower the quality of the repartee,” Kizia said. “I want to talk to the Fire Lord, not you, Sokka.”

Was that an insult? Zuko rubbed his temples. “What do you want?” 

“I’m part of an organisation whose aim is the spiritual renewal of the Fire Nation—” Kizia began, stepping closer, but Sokka swung his swords again, forcing her to stop  in her tracks. 

“Another assassination plot? That’s not even original. Shut up, he’s not interested in your weird little nationalist agenda.”

“No,” Kizia said. Her eyes were fixed on Zuko’s. “Let me finish. Our goal is the spiritual renewal of the nation. We don’t want to destroy you, Zuko. We want to destroy the system around you. And I’m asking you to join us.”

“You want the Fire Lord to join a conspiracy to destroy himself?” Sokka broke in incredulously. “Are you stupid or are you actually crazy? Why would he be interested?”

“He is,” Kizia said calmly. “I can see it on his face.”

Zuko had no idea what she could be seeing, but Kizia was so close now that Zuko could see the faint smudges of soot on her own cheeks, the dark shadows under her eyes. Kizia must be just as exhausted as Zuko was, after the day they just had – but her gold eyes were bright; her expression composed. She looked confident and in control, graceful despite everything.

“You’re part of the problem, Zuko,” she said gently. “But I’m telling you now you can be part of the solution. What has any of your ancestors ever achieved after Sozin’s passing? Look at what Ozai did to us when he crowned himself the Phoenix King. The failures of your father showed us how our system so far had failed the people of the Fire Nation. Just because someone was born lucky doesn’t mean they’re fit to rule.”

“I wouldn’t call myself born lucky,” Zuko said in a small voice. 

“We’re idealists, Zuko, you and I,” Kizia went on smoothly. “I wouldn’t be doing all of this if I didn’t believe in something, and I believe there’s a reason why we’re in this mess of a world.” She stepped even closer. “There are a lot of burdens attached to the crown, Zuko. Aren’t you tired of being the Fire Lord?”

From a long distance off, Zuko felt his own head nod up and down. It was true. He was tired. He was tired of the guilt, tired of being tired.

Sokka shot him a wild look. “This is the worst attempt at persuasion I’ve ever heard,” he said flatly. “You can’t talk your way out of this one, Kizia.”

Kizia didn’t look away from Zuko’s face. “Join us,” she said again. “We’ll help the Fire Nation build a new future, one without these shadows of the past hanging over us. We’ll help you abdicate. No more Fire Lords, no more burdens.”

Zuko opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Abdicate .

The word shot through him like lightning.

The electrifying certainty was at once exhilarating and terrifying. Even considering it made him want to weep from the sheer relief. Kizia was putting into words the secret strain of thought that had been running unspoken through Zuko’s mind for years: that he wasn’t meant to rule, not really. Iroh was supposed to do it, then Lu Ten, then Lu Ten’s own children – but not him. Not Zuko. Zuko was lucky to be born the oldest of two; he was lucky that his sister forfeited that Agni Kai. He didn’t get the throne because he was the right person. He got it because he was the last person left: the only one in the royal family still alive, sane, stubborn and bloody-minded enough to stay.

Abdicate . The possibilities contained in that idea staggered him. Zuko had thought he knew what his destiny was, but maybe he was wrong. Iroh was wrong.

He opened his mouth, but it was Sokka who broke the silence:

“Political reform’s nice and all,” he said loudly. “But am I the only one who’s still hung up about the murder ?”

Zuko started; for a second he had nearly forgotten about Luan, about Sokka’s own near-death escape this morning. 

Kizia wrinkled her brows at the annoyance, but it was too late. The moment popped like a soap bubble, the sense of electrifying certainty drained away. The hollow of its absence was a physical shock, so much so that Zuko took a step back, braced one palm against one of the murals to hold himself up. Under his hand, was the enormous crown on Sozin’s painted head, rendered in gold leaf. Zuko touched his hand against his own hair by reflex, met with nothing, and then remembered too that he had given his own headpiece away.

He found the words he wanted to say.

“Of all the places in Caldera to hide,” he asked quietly. “Why pick these two? Why here? Why Sozin’s tomb? They’re monuments to murder.”

“Sozin was not a murderer,” Kizia corrected him calmly. “The Fire Nation was under threat from the Air Nation Army. He did what he had to for the greater cause, like I did. Sometimes you have to do things that are unpleasant in order to assure your own survival and the survival of your civilisation.”

“Ah,” Zuko said. He mused it over.

“You’re not taking her seriously, are you?” Sokka squawked. He looked stricken.

“How about another question,” Zuko said. “Why the Blue Spirit mask?”

If the non-sequitur surprised Kizia, she recovered quickly. “Have you ever seen the plays? Like the Blue Spirit, I’m the people’s hero.”

“The Blue Spirit wasn’t a hero,” Zuko said. He wasn’t sure who he was talking to, Sokka or Kizia or himself. “Not the real one, anyway. He threatened children. He stole from the poor – he never gave them a single copper. He was selfish and self-obsessed and blinded by his own stupid ideas about honour.”

“What do you know?”

“Because I was the Blue Spirit,” Zuko said, and pressed his knuckles into his eyes. He couldn’t believe that he almost fell for what Kizia said earlier.

What?” Sokka yelped, at the same time that Kizia hissed:

Liar .”

“I don’t care what you think, but my answer is no,” Zuko said, and re-ignited the fire in his hands. “Now give up, Kizia.”

Kizia was faster on the uptake than her father. She took a look at Zuko’s expression, and then without warning, shot two rapid streams of fire towards him. Zuko blocked them, but already she was sprinting down the hall towards the door. Sokka ran after her, but Zuko stayed where he was and aimed for the steel door instead. When Kizia got there and tried to push the door open, she dropped her hand with a cry of pain – Zuko’s fire had heated the door to a burning temperature. It bought Sokka just enough time to gain in on Kizia. Spinning around, she shot another few fireballs at Sokka; he dodged the first one, and the rest were dissipated by Zuko, who re-directed it to the walls.

“Very impressive,” Kizia said, as a painting of Azulon exploded in a mess of splinters and pigment. Unlike Qyu, she didn’t waste time questioning how or why, just unsheathed the swords from her back and slashed them upwards at Sokka, parrying his attack with a grunt of effort. Sokka retaliated with a slightly clumsy swing. Neither of them were used to using the twin broadswords.

Moving quickly, Kizia dropped one of her swords, curled one fist to perform her heat attack again. Zuko, caught off guard, didn’t disperse the energy fast enough, and Sokka yelped when a wave of non-lethal but still blistering heat moved over him. He stumbled, and Kizia took the opportunity to push the door open with the sword still in her right hand. She slipped out through the crack.

Zuko rushed over and helped Sokka up. “Are you alright?” he asked frantically, making a light in his hand and checking Sokka over for burns.

“Shut up, you moron,” Sokka gasped. “Go after her!”

“Are you–”

“Shut up and let’s go!”

*

They ran through the corridors in pursuit. Kizia was still limping slightly on her injured leg, but Zuko’s back and nose were aching, slowing him down, and judging from the way Sokka was clutching his ribs, Sokka wasn’t doing any better. The three of them lurched uneven through the corridors like some sort of comedic pantomime. 

It would be funny, if only everything about the situation was different.

At least they weren’t running in the dark; the torches in this section of the catacombs were still lit.

“Where is she going?” Sokka wheezed.

The sound of creaking stone up ahead answered that question.

“The exit to the courtyard,” Zuko wheezed back. 

When they rounded the final corner and skidded to a stop, Kizia was already halfway up the staircase. Without turning around, she shot a stream of fire over her shoulder in their direction. Zuko batted an arm, sending the force of Kizia’s attack to the steps above her. She stumbled, nearly falling off the staircase, but regained her balance in time to shoot a second jet of fire at them. Zuko was close enough that he blocked it the normal way. Sokka, putting on a final burst of speed, leaped onto the staircase and was beginning to climb up when Kizia reeled to a stop and held something up.

“Back off,” she screamed. “Stop right there or the whole thing blows.”

Something glinted in her hand: a metal sphere about the size of a fist.

Sokka must have recognised it, because he froze mid-step. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Drop your swords,” Kizia said. 

Sokka hesitated, but then obeyed, setting down the broadswords down on the steps behind him with a clatter.

“What is she holding?” Zuko asked, although he was beginning to suspect.

“A smaller version of the tanglemines,” Kizia said. “It also ignites on contact with oxygen. If I pull the cap off here—” she turned the bomb over, showing the lid on the top in the shape of a fruit stem, “—then we’d only have a few seconds before it explodes.”

Sokka held his hands up. “Listen to me: put it down. At this distance you won’t make it up the staircase in time before it all collapses. You’re risking your own life.”

“Better die than be locked up in a cell,” Kizia said. “You’re a man, you don’t understand what it’s like. I’ve spent my whole life being underestimated and humiliated, I’m not going to just give up now. Actually killing the Fire Lord isn’t part of the plan, but why not? If you won’t join us, then you’re in our way.”

“Kizia,” Zuko said, trying to keep his voice steady, project a sense of confidence he didn’t have.  “I don’t understand who you’re working for and what your ultimate goal is, but I know we don’t have to be enemies. Put it down and I’ll hear you out. There’s a way out of here where no one gets killed.”

Sokka crept up a step while Zuko was talking, but Kizia didn’t notice. She only held the bomb up higher; in her other hand, the remaining sword pointed at Zuko. 

“People have already been killed,” she said. “What about all our soldiers who died in the war? The airship crew who drowned on the day of the comet? Your own cousin died laying siege to Ba Sing Se. I don’t believe in compromise.”

Zuko groaned silently inside his head. No communication was possible with someone who believed so much in her idea of the truth that the strength of her belief became a safeguard against reality. “You were holding them wrong earlier,” he said instead. 

“What?”

Sokka crept up another step and rounded the turning.

“These are dual swords, Kizia,” Zuko said. Another few steps – Sokka was almost right behind her now. “But you favoured this blade more because you’re right-handed. But these are meant to be two halves of one weapon. Like in life, there’s always another side to a story. You make yourself off-balance if you only listen to the one you think is right.”

“Why—” Kizia began, but then Zuko, hoping desperately that it was going to work, hoping even more that he wasn’t going to die with the world’s most embarrassing last words, said:

Cooka-coodle-coo ,” in his most passable imitation of a rooster-pigeon call.  Then he squeezed his eyes shut and conjured up the brightest light he could make.

He heard Kizia shriek in surprise, and then a banging noise when Sokka closed the last few steps between them and tackled her. Zuko opened his eyes again, just in time to see two dark shapes roll down the steps, Kizia’s face screwed up in pain. The light was so piercing it left dark red spots dancing across the back of Zuko’s eyelids; Zuko could only imagine what it would be like to have it directly in your field of view. Sokka was also blinking rapidly, but he was recovering fast. He must have closed his eyes just in time. It gave him just enough of an advantage to force Kizia’s hand open, making her drop the bomb.

It clattered down the steps, bouncing a little. Zuko scrambled after it, but then Sokka gave a gasp – Kizia had wrested one hand free. She called up a small orb of fire in her hand, making Sokka twist away, but in the motion his foot accidentally connected with the dropped bomb, sending it flying the rest of the way down the steps. It hit the stone wall at the base of the staircase with a crack and rolled to a stop.

Zuko darted forwards to pick it up, but faltered when he came up close. “The cap is split!” he yelled.

“Don’t touch it!” Sokka yelled back, confirming Zuko’s fears.

Exploiting Sokka’s moment of distraction, Kizia wrenched herself completely free. Sokka grabbed for her again, but holding herself against a step, she booted him with the flat of her foot and caught him square on the chest, directly over his burn wound. Sokka collapsed, and Kizia scrambled away, clambering up the stairs on all fours.

Zuko ran up too, tried to tug Sokka up the steps with him – up towards safety. “Come on!” 

How long do they have left? How much air is leaking into the bomb right now as Sokka struggled to get up, still doubled over in debilitating pain?

“Get out of here!” Sokka gasped, still doubled over, but didn’t get to say anything else. An explosion interrupted him.

Chapter Text

There was a moment of pure shock, the type of deafening silence that only followed after destruction.

Zuko rolled over, groaned, and started coughing out the dust of the rubble. He blinked away the stars in his vision. No matter how many times it happened to him, being caught by collapsing debris still managed to be awful every time in a completely new way. He shook his head; pebbly bits rained off and rolled away on the ground. His ears were ringing. His back hurt. His insides felt like they had been liquified and then left to re-congeal like a bowl of jelly, like there was marrow leaking out of his bones, organs wobbling loose where they should definitely not be. 

“I feel bad,” Zuko summarised out loud, and spat out more dust. 

Something stirred next to him; Sokka raised his head and coughed too. “Couldn’t put it better myself,” he said weakly.

Zuko turned his head over. Sokka didn’t seem too injured, though there was a cut on his brow. Probably the result of some piece of flying detritus. “You okay?” he asked.

“Peak condition,” Sokka said, and launched into a severe fit of coughing that ended with him dry retching into the ground. 

Moving slowly, Zuko tried to extricate his limbs from underneath Sokka’s. They were still lying on the ground, tangled up from when he wrapped himself around Sokka to protect him from the blast. Zuko shifted his left arm; Sokka groaned in protest, and Zuko gave up. Kizia was long gone. There was no hurry. They could lie here for a little while longer.

“How are we…not dead?” Sokka asked when he stopped coughing.

Zuko licked his right thumb and wiped off a trickle of blood from Sokka’s cut, then smiled when Sokka made a disgusted face. “Advanced firebending technique,” he said. “I call it my ‘not-dying-from-horrible-explosions’ move. I invented it years ago when Zhao tried to blow up my ship with me still in it.”

“Wow.”

“That’s right.”

Sokka let his head fall back on the ground. “May that guy rest in agony, seriously.” 

Rest sounded very good to Zuko right now. Sokka should never find out how close they were to actually dying; Zuko couldn’t believe he pulled it off, or that they were still alive. But some survival instinct had kicked in so strongly that he was able to move without thinking. It turned out that when push came to shove, Zuko wanted to live. He wanted it very badly.  But it was hard though – really hard. His eyes drooped shut again.

He could hear Sokka’s worried voice saying something: “What are you doing? Don’t pass out on me now.” 

There was something else as well, but it all sounded like a fuzzy mumble to Zuko, lost in the general ringing in his ears. “Wake me up when this all turns out to be a bad dream,” he mumbled, and then gave in to the flood of oncoming dark.

*

Immediately, or what felt like immediately, Zuko opened his eyes again to someone poking his face. “Stoppit,” he mumbled, but only got a poke in his cheek for his trouble. He opened his eyes to see a pair of blue ones staring at him.

“This is not the time to pass out,” Sokka informed him. “I’m worried you have a head injury. Let me check your pupils.” Zuko obediently widened his eyes. He hadn’t noticed Sokka getting up, but he was crouched over Zuko now with a flaming torch in his hand. The torch came closer. Zuko blinked in surprise.

“What’s your name?” Sokka asked. “Where are we right now?”

“I’m fine, Sokka.”

Sokka scoffed. “Just answer the question like a normal person.”

“My name is Zuko, and we’re in the catacombs,” Zuko said for the sake of it. “It’s five years after the end of the Hundred Year’s War. I don’t have any dizziness or double vision, and I feel alright except for my back and the broken tooth in my mouth.” WIth effort, he reached up with and prodded his face; his movements were sluggish and heavy. “And my head hurts a little,” he added.

“You had me worried there,” Sokka said, rocking back on his heels.

Zuko shrugged as best as he could lying down. “Tell me you didn’t shower my wounds with any burning kisses.”

He got another poke. “Twat,” Sokka said, and Zuko laughed weakly. 

There was still a lot of blackness fizzing on the side of his vision, but he decided not to mention that for now. “I could do with a drink.”

“Oh, me too,” Sokka said with great feeling. “But I promised the universe I’d give it up, remember?”

“I meant a drink of water. My throat hurts.”

Sokka looked shifty, and then he reached into his pocket and pulled out the remains of a very squashed peach. 

“Come on,” he said, seeing Zuko’s appalled expression, “the dead can make an exception this one time. Although if you want, I could lie and say I found it lying around in one of the chambers. Who knows, maybe...this is another peach? Maybe one of the sages left it somewhere as a little underground snack? Would that help?” 

He waved the peach in front of Zuko’s face. There was still a bit of pocket lint stuck to the fuzzy skin.

Zuko sighed. Eating it would be sacrilegious, not to mention totally disgusting. It went his every instinct, but then again – he had hit the limits of his physical capacity two miraculous acts of firebending and a half dozen emotional revelations ago. His throat was so parched it was like sandpaper; he was very tired. He felt bad. 

Surely the universe owed Zuko a special dispensation, just this once. He gave up, nodded, and let Sokka feed him a few bites from his hand. 

The peach was a good peach. The flesh was perfectly ripe: pale pink and white on the inside, full of juice too. It tasted like honey and nectar, like sunlight moving over a blooming garden on the best day of summer. After the first flood of sugar entered his system, Zuko sat up and took it from Sokka, ate the last few bites and sucked the pit clean. Even squashed and covered with mysterious pocket fluff, the peach was the most marvelous thing he’d ever tasted. Sokka watched without comment.

“So what now?” Zuko asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Now, we really get out of here,” Sokka said. “Forget about Kizia, let’s just try to escape in one piece.”

“How?”

“I told you this when we first came in here. There are more entrances and exits to the catacombs than the sages knew about. It’s how Kizia moved around. All we have to do is go out through one of them.” Sokka gave him a reassuring pat on the arm. “Trust me. I’ve been trapped in a secret cave before. I know how to find our way out.”

“But how?”

Sokka winked. “All we have to do is let huge, ferocious beasts guide our way.”

Zuko looked wildly over Sokka’s shoulder, down the passageway to the row of yellowed dragon skulls. “Uh,” he began, then stopped. 

“I’m just kidding,” Sokka said. “It’s love. Love will show us the way.” He fluttered his eyelashes and pressed a kiss to Zuko’s knuckles, even though it was filthy with dirt and peach juice. 

Zuko goggled. 

Sokka burst into giggles. “You’re too easy,” he said, still grinning, and pulled out a sheet of paper out from his other pocket. “I have a map. In the tomb, when I was looking through the crate, I found a map of the catacombs shuffled in with the rest of the papers. I was going to tell you about it, but then, uh—” an awkward look passed over his face. “And then we had our little fight, and it slipped my mind.”

“Oh thank goodness,” Zuko said, relieved. 

“Anytime.”

“I mean, not at that ,” Zuko said, “it’s just that a map seems more reliable than other—other methods.”

“Words of an incurable romantic,” Sokka said lightly, and Zuko rolled his eyes. 

For the second time that evening, Sokka helped Zuko to his feet. Zuko’s legs were all pins and needles and he staggered when Sokka let go, but after the first few steps he could just about walk. He conjured up a small light, and Sokka studied the map with ferocious intensity.  “This way,” he said after spinning around the paper around a few times. “This matches up with the section we’re in right now.”

Zuko nodded helplessly. It wasn’t a real map in Sokka’s hands, just a few spidery hand drawn lines on cheap paper. If Sokka hadn’t pointed it out, he would have dismissed it as random scribbles. 

“I’m going to assume that the places marked with dots are entrances,” Sokka said. “I don’t think this is drawn to scale, but it lines up with where I think the palace is relative to the temple.” He was ready to set off, but Zuko stopped him with a hand on his shoulder:

“Before we go, there’s one thing I have to show you here. Something I need to face tonight before I can leave.”

Sokka shrugged. “Okay.”

“You’ll stay with me, right?” Zuko asked, feeling anxious. “No matter what? Even if it’s awful, promise you won’t leave me here?”

Sokka grabbed his hand and pressed another kiss to the knuckles, serious this time. Something warm jolted through Zuko, sweeter than a whole orchard of peaches. 

“Of course not,” Sokka replied. “Who do you think I am?” 

--

They went back to the locked chamber.

This time, as they went down the hall, past the old murals, Zuko made himself look at each one. He pointed to one of them – Azulon slaying his first dragon. 

“That used to be in the far-southern pagoda,” he told Sokka. “It used to sit opposite this one weird statue of a lionturtle with eight flippers. The statue was my favourite spot for hide-and-seek; once I crouched there for an hour before I realised Azula and Ty Lee had forgotten about our game. I didn’t mind though. I sat there and told myself stories about how I’d defeat my own dragon one day.”

Sokka studied the picture. “Is this real?” he asked. “Do you think we passed by this dragon’s bones without knowing it?”

Zuko hadn’t thought about that. “Probably,” he said bitterly. “Ironic, isn’t it? We all knew that the dragons were the first firebenders, and then as a nation we hunted them to extinction anyways. I never asked why.” 

“If I grew up here, I’d want to hunt dragons too,” Sokka said. “What little boy wouldn’t?” 

Sokka didn’t look disgusted or horrified; he looked sad. The expression in his eyes made something in Zuko’s stomach twist. 

They passed by the mural of Sozin and the burning Air Temples. 

“This one used to be in a walkway, next to one of the gates of the Garden of the Humble Pair,” Zuko said. “You would have passed by that spot on your way to the banquet.”

“But I didn’t see this,” Sokka said.

“No,” Zuko said. “But I did, thousands of times when I was growing up. I never thought about this either.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. There was a thought in his mind he didn’t know how to articulate.

They reached the end of the hall to stand in front of the second locked door. Zuko stared at it. He didn’t want to open the door, but he also knew that if he left now, he wouldn’t have the courage to come back.

“Is this what you want to show me?” Sokka asked softly. “What’s inside that room?”

Zuko gave the door a try. The lock was unlocked already – Kizia hadn’t bothered to close it after herself.  

“What is there anyways?” Sokka asked again. He sounded afraid, more afraid than he was even when they were trapped inside the tomb.

Zuko kept his gaze straight ahead.

“Zuko?”

“The extinction of the Air Nomads was the finest military achievement in Fire Nation history,” Zuko said, finally. “Our greatest deed. It was proof of the glory of our power, and proof that other races were inferior by comparison. It was evidence for why we had to spread our civilization to the rest of the world.” 

Once he began talking, the words tumbled out like stones. 

“The soldiers who returned home after the comet didn’t come back empty-handed. They brought things back with them. War prizes and hunting trophies for display. And in the century since then, we had scholars who went too, people who cleaned out what could be salvaged from the temples. It’s so we could study the Air Nation army, understand how they allowed themselves to be destroyed. ”

“Objects?” 

“Some are objects,” Zuko said dully. “Some are what we considered to be objects.” You’ll see.”

He pushed the door open and stepped inside.

 

*

 

The room wasn’t the largest in the catacombs: about the size of a small barn or one of the palace meeting halls, but crammed with so many overflowing shelves that it seemed monstrously huge. 

Piles of crates and cases were stacked haphazardly on top of each other like jumbled merchants’ wares at the end of market day. Some of the things were unidentifiable to Zuko: decorated sticks and wooden tops, things that looked like horns and pipes but without mouthpieces, little gold lockets and panels of wood mounted on axles. Others were painfully ordinary: bowls, cups, brass lamps and bells, boxes with carved silver covers, tangled heaps of beads made from what looked like plant seeds and chunks of turquoise, yellowed heaps of scrolls and books. There was one basket filled with nothing inside except little bison-shaped whistles made of bone. 

They didn’t seem too bad, as long as someone didn’t think too hard about where they came from. And besides, the truly bad things lied deeper in the chamber.

Zuko snapped his fingers, making a few sparks fly out. A wave of nausea was rising from the pit of his stomach.

Sokka was still staring around with his mouth open. “Have these always been here? The whole time?” he asked in a whisper.

“No,” Zuko said back, his voice just as low. “I can only order them collected from places under royal jurisdiction. The palace. The royal colleges and their museums. The temples and other places in the catacombs. But there’ll be more in private collections. Airbender artefacts are considered quite – collectible. People find them charming.”

“I wondered why the temples looked so empty,” Sokka said. “Everything’s here.”

“Some,” Zuko said. “And not everything here is from the temples.” 

He didn’t want to explain, but Sokka was already looking around. Behind the first rows of shelves were more stacks of enormous crates. He took the lid off one and peered over the rim, dumped out a handful of books and scrolls. Zuko, heart sinking, recognised the distinct Fire Nation workmanship on the bindings. Sokka reached in and picked up one of the cases, undid the ivory toggles, and pulled out the sheafs of paper inside. He held it up to the torch in his hand and choked at the sight: a woodblock print of a horrible little deformed figure with a lolling expression on its face, a distorted blue arrow bisecting its swollen white forehead. 

 

“Hua’s Phrenology ,” Sokka read out loud. “Being an Explanation of Air-bending and its Degenerative Effects on Mental Faculties. ” He flipped through the pages and shuddered, closing the box again and dropping it to the floor. Sokka pulled out more papers, more scrolls and folios, more horrible faces. There was one pamphlet about air bisons whose diagrams of an anatomical dissection made Sokka blanch. He dropped that on the floor too.

“That’s enough of that,” he said in a shaky voice, and pushed on ahead.

Zuko stayed behind, staring at the crate. Something in his chest was forcing the air out of his lungs, making it hard to breathe. None of the contents of the room was new to him. He was the one who issued the order that put these things here. But to see it all again, gathered up like this, knowing what he and his country must look like in Sokka’s eyes…Why hadn’t he just ordered it all destroyed at the time? Some delicate sensibility about not burning books?

And Sokka hadn’t even seen the back of the room yet. 

“Look,” Sokka whispered from ahead somewhere. Zuko shook himself. He was braced for more horrors, but Sokka was just holding up a bedroll in his hands, quite ordinary looking.

“This must be where Kizia was planning to sleep tonight,” Sokka said, and gave it a shake. Something small and round bounced out from its folds and rolled away. Zuko scrambled after it and fished it out from underneath a shelf, and he was about to show it to Sokka when he heard a gasp from farther on. 

He hurried over, fearing the worst — knowing that it was.

Sokka was in the back corner, staring at a glass case filled with charred skulls and bones. “Why—” he began, but couldn’t finish the question.

There were more cases behind the first, more remains that had once been on proud display Some still had detailed inscriptions still attached in spidery handwriting. One case had a full skeleton inside, obscenely wrapped in a yellow and red robe. The movers had left the case tipped over on its side, so the wooden medallion around the neck had flipped up, fallen into one sightless eye socket. Property of the Royal College of Healers, read the placard attached underneath.

“Most of the bodies were cremated or dumped into pits,” Zuko said. “But some were brought back.” His own voice sounded like it was coming from far away. 

“Does Aang know about this?”

“Of course he doesn’t.”

Sokka grabbed his arm. “Why doesn’t he?”

“If these were things from your tribe,” Zuko said, and swallowed dryly. “If they’re remnants of the last waterbenders – would you want to see them? Would you want to show them to Katara?”

“No,” Sokka said.

“Exactly—,” Zuko started, and Sokka interrupted.

“No, I don’t want to see them, but also no, I wouldn’t be making that choice at all. My sister’s not a child, she could decide for herself.”  

A long silence passed. Sokka didn’t let go of his painful grip on Zuko’s arm. 

“Katara might keep something like this from me ,” he said, “but I’d never do this to her .”

Zuko tore his eyes away, tried desperately to look at something that wasn’t dead bones and ashes, that wasn’t the awful look on Sokka’s face. There was a row of gliders leaning on a rack, against the back of the wall. He shrugged free from Sokka’s hold, went closer to take a look. As he approached he saw how some gliders were decorated with charms, others with bits of colourful woven bands; some had carvings or painted designs – tiny drawings of leaves and flowers, spiraling clouds, prayers for good luck and fair weather. One glider had a loop of blue wool twisted around it, an ivory Water Tribe-style charm dangling off the end. 

The embroidered pattern on the cord looked  familiar, not unlike the ones on the front of Sokka’s sealskin parka, the one he had given to Zuko a year ago. 

Was this charm also a present from a friend? A lover? No one alive would know. Mutely, Zuko held it out and showed it to Sokka, who sighed.

“Katara and I tried to hide it too,” he said. “When Aang first woke up. But we couldn’t lie about it forever, and in the end he found out anyways. It was hard, but he carried on. Even when he was just a kid, Aang was stronger than any of us.”

The Mechanist at the Northern Air Temple made Aang’s gliders now, but Aang always kept his new ones as plain wood. What about the one he was carrying when Zuko first saw him? Were there decorations too? Little reminders of home? Zuko tried to call up the image, but he couldn’t remember. And when he looked at the gliders again, he realised how tiny some of them were, tinier than Aang’s original one, the one he carried when he was just a child..

“Let’s get out of here,” Sokka said. He pulled Zuko’s arm, but Zuko didn’t move. 

He was staring off into the darkness, feeling dizzy enough to sway on his feet. To have rebelled against Ozai, even to have joined the opposing side during a war – that was one thing. There was heroism in that, a sort of virtue in Zuko renouncing his father, a man who by all counts was a complete monster. But to be confronted like this, with all the evidence of the past and collective atrocities of an entire nation – it was inhuman. They were inhuman.

It turned out there was an evil in the world that had no human-shape at all: an insidious evil, a sort of wilful ignorance that made people insensate to suffering. A form of darkness that obfuscated the truth and hid itself away, but remained lurking inside every person in his country, Zuko as well. He had grown up like this, with the stories and the artefacts and the skeletons in covered cases. He had never questioned the facts he was taught about the savages in icy wastelands or flying though the high empty air. He needed those stories. They all did. They all knew what they'd done during the comet, but they didn’t want to think about it. Their comfortable lies buried the reality away, and in time it ossified. 

“I want to leave,” Sokka repeated, and pulled Zuko’s arm again. “Let’s get out of here.”

Zuko touched the rack of gliders again. “Did you know that there was a fad for collecting these?” he asked. 

Sokka shook his head, his lips pressed in a thin line.

“One of the provincial governors had a basement full of these in his house,” Zuko went on. “He held spring blossom viewing parties every year, and every year at the end of the day, he took everyone into the house so the guests could see his collection. One year my family went, and I remember him telling us that the joy of collecting these is that no two gliders were the same. Each one was unique. Each one stood for a unique human life.”

Zuko didn’t remember much of the party or the gliders themselves, but he remembered the soft sponginess of spring grass, the iridescence of the wide marble steps by the door, the way that everyone, Ursa and Ozai and their children included, had politely ooh-ed and ahh-ed when the governor snapped one open to show them the folding mechanism inside. The glider was very old, and as it opened it made a cracking sound like the breaking of a bone.

“It was the last time my family was together before my mother was banished,” Zuko said. “It was the happiest day of my childhood. What does that say about us as a people?”

A long silence.

“I don’t know,” Sokka said. 

“Me neither,” Zuko said back, and then yelped when Sokka punched him in the arm.

“I just know that I want to leave,” Sokka said. He gave Zuko a shake. “I said I’d stay with you, but that means you have to stay with me. Let’s go.” 

Zuko rubbed his arm. The sudden jolt of pain grounded him.  “Yeah,” he said softly. “Okay.”

They went back through the hallway of paintings again, out through the first door, and back down through the passages of the catacombs. They were still underground, but it was easier to breathe outside of that locked chamber. 

Zuko took one last look at the metal door as they closed it. All of the things that he had locked away, what they meant to him, what he remembered about them, were not the atrocities they represented but the moments of his life that had happened around them. Zuko had accepted that all the joys of his childhood were tainted by sorrow, but he could not handle that under joy and sorrow there had always been an unspoken horror, and none of these things erased the other. These things reminded him of home, but that home was gone. It would never come back. Zuko wouldn’t let it.

“You alright?” Sokka asked as they walked down the corridor.

“Probably not,” Zuko said. “What about you? Are you alright?” 

Sokka shrugged. “Could be worse.” 

How ?”

Sokka shrugged again. “I’m not sure, actually. But let’s keep going anyway?”

“Okay,” Zuko said. 

“Okay.”

 

*

 

They pushed on through the darkness. The catacombs were bigger than Zuko had imagined, and the two of them made slow progress. They walked in silence, both of them lost in their own thoughts. Eventually the flaming torches and stacks of bone gave way to smaller tunnels of dirt and pebbles, some so tiny they had to pass through one at a time, bent over like old men.

Half-crawling through one tunnel, Zuko adjusted his grip on the unconscious man slung across his back. After some debate, Sokka had convinced him that they should bring Qyu with them – Zuko was all for abandoning Qyu down there forever,  but Sokka argued that with the temple entrance destroyed, there was no guarantee anyone could go back for him soon. And besides, head injuries were too serious to leave overnight. Sokka had offered to carry Qyu himself, but Zuko refused. He didn’t think Qyu deserved to have his life saved by Sokka, so Zuko carried the man while Sokka carried the crate with the evidence of Kizia’s embezzlement. 

“We can’t leave the Air Nomad things in the catacombs,” Zuko said after a while.

Sokka gave him a look with his head tilted. “What are you going to do with them?”

“I don’t know,” Zuko admitted. “What do you think?”

“I think you should ask Aang.”

Zuko nodded. “Maybe…” he said, thinking out loud. “Maybe we need a different type of monument. Not something that glorified what we did, but something that makes us confront the past. A reminder of the truth of what we’ve done.”

When he was young, when he pictured what Sozin did, it was like seeing a mural painted on a wall. A streaking comet, a bloodless wave of fire and lightning. When he thought about the dead airbenders, if at all, he had pictured a flock of birds, falling noiselessly out of the sky. It happened a century ago. Everyone, criminals and victims alike, were dead. Dead and buried and packed away in clean glass cases and printed history books. 

“You want to guilt trip people into not being bloodthirsty, war-mongering imperialists?” 

“Sort of.” 

They emerged from another tunnel and Sokka cleared his throat.  “You could just do it if you wanted to,” he said.

“Guilt trip people?” Zuko asked. “What do you mean?”

Sokka was studying the map again. “Sharp left here, I think.” 

They turned left. 

“What I mean is, you could give up being the Fire Lord,” Sokka said, picking up the conversation again like nothing had happened. “The Jasmine Dragon’s a nice tea shop and all, but your uncle isn’t going to pick a tea shop over his country. If you stepped down, Iroh could do it.”

“Why would I do that?”

Sokka made a disgruntled noise. “Because it makes you so guilty and so unhappy that even the universe feels bad for you?”

“There’s more to life than being happy.”

Sokka looked annoyed. “Not this destiny and honour bullshit again. Tell me then, what’s better than happiness?” 

“Duty. Pride.” Zuko thought for a bit. “A clear sense of purpose.”

“There’s no shame in letting go of pride,” Sokka argued. “And there’s no shame in admitting that your people can get on just as fine without you. Sometimes people don’t need you as much as you want them to. Admit it, I bet some part of you just enjoys swanning around, telling people what to do because you rule this stupid country.”

“I really don’t,” Zuko said. 

Sokka said nothing, just rolled his eyes. Zuko sighed, but he didn’t look away; he made himself look at Sokka’s face. Really look. Really pay attention to what was going on around him. Even by the low light of his torch – Sokka had insisted Zuko conserve his energy and stop firebending – he saw how Sokka’s eyebrows were furrowed together, how his mouth was twisted into a funny shape.

“You know, there are lots of people who need you, Sokka,” Zuko said carefully. “ I need you.”

He hoped he was saying the right thing. Their eyes met and Sokka smiled – only a little sadly. 

“Thanks,” Sokka said after a while.

“It’s true.”

They went on trudging. 

Zuko hoped they were getting close to the exit: Qyu was heavy, and Zuko’s shoulder muscles were burning. And exactly as Zuko might have expected from the most annoying man in the world, Qyu remained stubbornly awake at times when Zuko wished he’d be unconscious, and stubbornly unconscious just when Zuko could do without the additional strain on his back. 

He squinted at the ceiling overhead. Was he imagining it, or was the texture of the rock changing? The ground felt like it was sloping upwards too. 

“We can switch if you want,” Sokka said. “I’ll carry Qyu for a bit, you take the box. Even secret masked vigilantes get tired sometimes, Mr. Blue Spirit.”

Zuko adjusted Qyu’s weight on his back. He was tired; every part of him ached. But he was strong enough to push on.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Nothing wrong with accepting a bit of help,” Sokka said, but he didn’t force it. He studied the sheet of paper again. “Just hold on, I think we’re getting close.”

They were getting close. The night was nearly over; dawn was on its way. Zuko didn’t need the map to feel how the air was beginning to stir over his face, or to sense the sun rising over the sleeping world above them. 

Together, step by step, he and Sokka continued walking forwards. They were winding a path through the catacombs, heading away from the darkness, going up towards the light.

 

Chapter Text

Zuko was asleep. Something was pulling him upwards from unconsciousness, the coming daybreak, but he kept his eyes shut, resisting as long as he could. He felt good, relaxed down to his bones. A breeze moved against his face; a deep sense of calm permeated the air. He was slipping in and out of a half-dream that he was back on Appa’s back again, flying through the sky. But the sun was calling him awake, and his bladder too was making increasingly urgent calls for his attention. Feeling extreme regret, Zuko rolled over, cracked open an eyelid, and re-joined the world.

Only to realise he had no idea where in the world he was. 

He reached up to rub his eyes, and the texture of the coarse sheets sparked the day’s first coherent thought: the infirmary. He was in the infirmary. 

There was someone sitting next to the bed, their face hidden in the predawn gloom. The only source of light came from the lamp on the bedside table, which casted a feeble glow over a wooden top spinning on the ground, kept afloat by a small whirlwind turning the pinwheels at its bottom. At the top of the thin shaft there was a hook attached to an enormous tangle of fur. As the top spun, bits of the fur lengthened and twisted against itself, becoming a rough yarn. 

Zuko’s brain wasn’t working yet, so he spent another long moment just listening to the dawn chorus of warblers and sparrows coming from the window, watching a pair of blue-tattooed hands feed in more fur, adjust the whirlwind so the spindle wouldn’t wobble. A breeze made the lamp light flicker, and it flared over the curve of a bird-boned shoulder jutting out of an orange and yellow robe, the blue curve of a bald head bent down in concentration. It was very serene. 

Outside, the sky took on its first tinges of colour: wispy orange and yellow clouds floated against a dark blue sky. 

Then Zuko’s bladder made another insistent demand for his attention, so he got up. Or at least, tried to get up. His limbs refused to cooperate.

Aang looked up from his spinning. “Zuko! You’re awake!” 

Zuko gave an incoherent groan in response. His mouth wasn’t cooperating either.

“Water?” Aang asked. He wiggled a hand, and a swirling coil of water rose from a nearby jug and tipped itself into a bowl. He braced one hand behind Zuko’s head, helping Zuko take a few long sips. “Do you want me to get a healer?” Aang asked, but Zuko shook his head. 

What are you doing in here? , he tried to ask, but what came out was just: “Chamber pot.”

Anyone else might have snickered, but Aang was Aang and Zuko’s greatest friend for a reason. “Gotcha,” he said, and slid the hand on Zuko’s head down to his back, easing Zuko up to a sitting position before fetching the bedpan out from under the bed. Then he politely turned away, pretending to look out the window while Zuko relieved himself. Afterwards he even helped Zuko cover the bedpan and put it away without comment, poured Zuko some more water to drink and got him a basin to wash his face and hands.

When Zuko felt marginally more lucid again, he managed to get out two full sentences. “Aang, what are you doing in Caldera? And why am I in the infirmary?”

Aang sat back down. “Apparently you came out of some secret catacombs and fainted in the middle of a courtyard, so you’ve been in the infirmary ever since. And I only got here yesterday. It was meant to be a surprise visit to hand-deliver wedding invitations, but when Appa landed and Sokka filled me in on what’s going on – wow .”  Aang flung his hands up and his eyes went round. “Ooh, Sokka’s gonna be so mad when he finds out you wake up the first night he takes a break.”

And just like that, everything that had happened – Kizia, Luan’s death, the Dragonbone Catacombs, Sokka – slammed back into Zuko’s brain.

“How long was I out?” he asked, frantic. “Where’s Sokka? Is he alright?”

“Only three days,” Aang said. “And Sokka’s in his room getting some rest.”

Memories were coming back in a flood. “What about Mina? Did Sokka get her out of prison? Do they think I killed Luan? And what about Qyu?”  Zuko’s brain finally processed what Aang just said. “Have I really been asleep for three days ?”

Aang gave him a pat on the hand. “Mina was the one who put you in the healing sleep. She said that it was only supposed to last one day, but when you didn’t wake up she said we should all leave you alone and let you catch up on some sleep. And Sokka explained it all to me, and we both talked with the Earth delegates. They know that Kizia was the one who killed Luan, not you. And the Lord Qyu person – last I heard he’s trying to organise some sort of taskforce to find his daughter.”

Zuko swallowed. “So you didn’t find Kizia then?”

“Sorry,” Aang said. “Sokka wanted to put a blockade around Caldera and screen every boat and airship heading out, but – uh…” 

“But it’s a big city,” Zuko finished. “She had a day’s head start by the time you got into action, and there’s a million ways she could have left by now. It wasn’t worth it.”

Aang nodded. “Yeah, and also – things are kinda chaotic right now.”

“Chaotic?”

“You scared a lot of people by disappearing and then passing out for three days,” Aang said cheerily. “I’ve only been here for one night, and I’ve had to reassure so many people that you’re still alive and I’m not here to do some mystical Avatar stuff to bring you back from the dead.” He shot Zuko a mischievous grin. “Do you think they’d believe me if I say you’ve been reincarnated into a badger-frog? From now on it’s Frog Lord Zuko, long may he ribbity-ribbit?”

Zuko groaned. “Is it too late to knock me out again?”

Aang gave him another pat on the hand. “Look on the bright side. You got loads of flowers and gifts while you were out. Sokka and I put them all in another room though, we started to run out of space.”

Zuko groaned again. Three whole days. Rumours about a war of succession were probably swirling around half the country by now. Most of the get-well messages were probably from panicked people hoping to avoid a civil collapse, should Zuko actually meet his untimely demise. He really should be sending for a healer, or at least sending word that he was awake. He should be making a public appearance as soon as possible to quash any alarm. 

But Zuko made no move to get up from the bed. The pettiness of letting the whole court sweat a little longer cheered him up tremendously.

Aang shoved the grey-ish misshapen lump on his spindle under Zuko’s nose. “I need your opinion on my spinning,” he said. “What do you think? You have the best taste of anyone I know.” 

“It looks good,” Zuko said, a bit too quickly.

Aang’s eyebrows shot up. “Really? Because I think it looks more like –”

“Like a clump of wet noodles, yes,” Zuko said, relieved he didn’t have to lie.

A shrug, and then Aang began picking at the mass of yarn, unwinding it from the spindle into a ball. “It’s only my first time,” he said with a smile. “Lots of room for improvement. I think if I get really good in the next few months, I’ll have enough wool to make Katara a shawl. I just need to get it done between Appa’s shedding season and the wedding.”

Zuko wanted to ask more about the political situation that must be unfolding over the last three days, but getting a straight answer out of Aang was more difficult than it seemed. Better to just let whatever current topic of conversation they were on ride out to its natural end. 

“Why the rush?” he asked instead. “Is it a wedding present?”

“Not really,” Aang said bashfully. “I’m doing it all backwards. I should have made the clothes at the beginning of courtship, not when we’re already engaged. But I wasn’t going to kill some poor seal just because its skin was pretty. Katara said it was fine and she doesn’t want anything, but see – now I can give her something made the Air Nomad way. As long as I get it done before the wedding date, it’ll be a nice compromise.”

Zuko examined the yarn again. Now that he was looking closer, he could see how the creamy greyish colour was familiar, He sniffed it and felt his lips quirk upwards. Appa’s ripe smell was familiar too.

Then he looked closer, at the wooden spindle underneath the yarn. The wood was painted with spiralling designs, and though the paint on the handle was a faded orange, it must have been vibrant once. When it was first made, a hundred years ago or more. 

A chill went through Zuko. “Is that from—?”

Aang looked down too. “Yes,” he said simply.

Before he had ordered them into the catacombs, Zuko had seen a dozen of those little wooden objects in the palace library, locked in glass cases with plaques underneath, bearing inscriptions like ‘Unidentified Air Nation Army Weapon, Origin: Western Air Temple. Year 0 of the Great War’. He never paid them much attention. If pressed, he might have guessed it was some sort of small club or torture instrument, maybe something to create shoot deadly blasts of air at Air Nation enemies.

Aang grabbed another bunch of bison fur and hooked a new clump to the top of the shaft. He made the whirlwind appear again, and a new skein of lumpy yarn began to take shape on the Unidentified Air Nation Army Weapon. “I didn’t go down there,” he said, not looking up. “I couldn’t. But when I fixed the entrance in the temple, I asked the sages if they could bring up some of the smaller objects, just so I could take a look.”

Zuko felt his throat close up. “Oh, Aang .”

The spindle kept moving. “I used to watch the spinners do this on long journeys,” Aang said dreamily. “It takes a lot more skill to keep the spindle moving and balanced when you’re on a bison, but they made it look so easy. There was a nun in the Eastern Air Temple who could keep five of these going at once: one with each hand and foot, and then a tiny one she blew on with her mouth. Her name was Sonam, and kids used to beg her to show us her different tricks. We never got tired of watching her.”

A breeze ruffled the edges of Aang’s saffron robe. The spindle wobbled, but Aang adjusted his hand and the whirlwind corrected before it could topple.

“I should have told you before,” Zuko whispered.

“It’s alright.”

Zuko rubbed his knuckles over his eyes. “It’s not alright.”

Aang didn’t look up. The spindle kept moving.

“I thought I was protecting you,” Zuko said. “But really, I was protecting myself. I was afraid you’d all hate me again. What I’ve done – what my family had done, I – the war itself was bad, but to keep these things afterwards – it was…we were – we are —” Zuko struggled, inarticulate for a moment, and then for once he found the right words to say what he wanted to say: “It was barbaric. We are barbaric.”

Aang stopped moving his hand and caught the spindle as it fell. “Zuko, you weren’t there when my people were killed.”

“If I could go back in time—”

“You can’t.”

“I know,” Zuko said wildly. “But if I could – look, I know it’s insane to think about the past this way—”

“No,” Aang said. He put down the spindle and launched himself up in a puff of air, drifting down to sit cross-legged next to Zuko on the bed. “That’s not what I’m saying, Zuko. I think about it all the time too – what if I could go back in time? If I didn’t run away that night? How might the world be different if I fixed my mistake a hundred years earlier? But that’s a normal thing to think. It’s normal to want to fix what went wrong in the past; it’s part of keeping sane and moral.”

Aang fell silent and propped one hand under his chin. He chewed on his other thumbnail, looked out the window. Zuko watched him in silence. They’ve never talked about the genocide of the Air Nomads this frankly before.

“Wanting to resist time just means you’re human,” Aang said after a few minutes. “We can’t win against time, but there are things in the world that can transcend it. Like love. The Nomads are gone, but their love for me hasn’t left this world. It’s still inside of me, and it’s being reborn as new love as long as I’m alive.”

Zuko tried to imagine it. “But aren’t you – how do you do it?” he asked. “How do you deal with this much loss?”

“What even can I do?” Aang asked back. “I let myself feel it.”

Something in Zuko’s chest gave a squeeze, his heart felt bruised like an overripe fruit, heavy with love and sorrow.  “C’mere,” he said roughly, and before he could second-guess himself, he pulled Aang close and hugged him. 

Aang hugged back. “I’ve had a lot of years to think about this,” he said. “You don’t have to comfort me.”

“But I want to,” Zuko said, his voice muffled from where his face was buried in Aang’s shoulder. “You must be grieving terribly. I express my regards.” He felt Aang nod, and knew that Aang understood what he was trying to convey. 

Aang rubbed him on the back, and they both held on tight. It wasn’t like they haven’t hugged before, but this time Zuko didn’t let go straight away. He tried to put a lot of things in the hug, the sort of things he still had no words for: his own smallness before such an enormous grief, his shared mourning for a people he had never met, could never meet. 

When they finally both let go, Aang cleared his throat. “Passing out for three days must really be good for you, huh?” he said lightly. “When did you get so emotionally open?”

Zuko wiped his eyes on the infirmary blanket; tried to compose himself again. “When did you get so wise and grown up?” 

“I’m always wise!” Aang protested, and then immediately contradicted himself by perking up and asking: “Do you really think I seem grown up? Because I was thinking of growing a beard to look a bit older.”

“Absolutely not,” Zuko informed him. “Take my personal advice: Suki would eviscerate you. Her caricature drawings are devastating.”

Aang held up a fistful of Appa’s fur under his face. “Just a little bit though, to cover my chin. What do you think? Doesn’t it just scream ‘I’m a wise old Avatar’?”

“You are a wise Avatar already,” Zuko said. “And you’ll have plenty of time to grow old. Don’t get ahead of yourself.” 

Aang stuck his tongue out, and Zuko sighed. The Avatar could grow a beard if he wanted to; at least Zuko tried to warn him.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence. Aang went back to his spinning. His hands were moving faster now with more practice, and the new yarn was already looking much finer than his previous attempts. Zuko had noticed this before, when he was still teaching Aang firebending, how quickly Aang learned and adapted to new things. He used to wonder if it was an Avatar thing, this ability to move through the world with such spontaneity and ease, but now he wondered if it was simply a part of who Aang was, a type of grace unique to Aang and Aang alone.

For so long, Aang’s advice to forgive and let go had annoyed Zuko. Now he marvelled at it. People carried grief in such strange ways: some turned it outwards, they wanted the world to pay for their loss; some people turned it inwards, and their grief destroyed them in silence. Some, like Zuko, did both. But to let it go – not to forget, but to let it pass through yourself like light through water – Zuko was beginning to understand what Aang’s sunny bubble of self-composure meant. What it took to have it.

A shadow waved in front of the latticed door. There was a knock, and a male voice called out, softly, “Aang? I’m here now if you want to take a break.”

Zuko’s breath seized. He was very aware, all of a sudden, that he was wearing a horrible infirmary gown, that his hair hadn’t been washed or combed in three days, that his right eye was still reddened and puffy from emotion. 

“Wait—” he began saying, but Aang was already bounding across the room to slide the door open.

“Sokka!” Aang chirped. “Guess what just happened!”

Sokka didn’t guess what happened. He said nothing at all. He was staring at Zuko, and Zuko stared back, wordless.

“Sokka? Zuko?” Aang looked back and forth between them a few times. “Everything okay?”

“Good morning,” Sokka said. His mouth curled into an uncharacteristically soft smile.

Zuko blinked; he wondered if he was still dreaming. “Why are you in a Kyoshi Warrior dress?” he asked.

“Oh,” Sokka said, and his face went back to its normal droll expression. He waved a hand at his metal headdress and armoured green robe. “You mean this ? It’s a long story.”

“Short story, actually,” Aang piped up. “Zuko, it turns out you forgot to sign the paperwork to rescind the order that made the Kyoshi Warriors your bodyguards. When the guards wouldn’t let Sokka in your room, he put on the outfit and said that he was technically still an honourary Kyoshi Warrior, so he might as well come in and save you from any other assassination attempts. Everyone was kinda surprised, but no one could say that he was wrong.”

“And believe me,” Sokka added, “they tried.” He had every bit of the costume on except for the face paint, and Zuko could see the crinkle of amusement in the corners of his eyes, the tiredness too.

“Oh,” Zuko said.

Sokka grinned. “Lo turned out to be a surprising help, actually. She took my side and said that what’s legal is legal. A Kyoshi Warrior gets to stay.”

“Lo?”

“You know, the old woman with this hairdo?” Sokka held up his metal fan behind his head. “She has a twin who follows her around everywhere?”

“You can tell Li and Lo apart?” 

Sokka tapped his cheek. “It’s all about the subtle difference in mole placement.”

“I didn’t know the Kyoshi Warrior culture was so popular here,” Aang said pensively. “One of the nurses kept asking Sokka where he got the dress and if he could order one too for private use. Cultural exchange is amazing, isn’t it?”

“Absolutely,” Zuko said weakly. Behind him, Sokka was slapping a palm against his forehead, and Zuko fought down the desire to laugh. 

Sokka came the rest of the way into the room and sat down by Zuko’s bed, wove their hands together tightly. “Anyways,” he said. “How are you feeling? I told Aang to keep the window open to keep the infirmary smell out.”

“Good,” Zuko told him. “What about you? How’s the burn injury?”

Sokka brought their intertwined hands over the spot on his chest. “Fine. I told you Mina is incredible. And bonus: half the healers here are terrified of her. When I brought her here she started waving this gold headpiece around and started ordering us all around. And just so you know – she also left an itemised medical bill, but I think you need to get stronger before opening it. My eyeballs almost popped out.”

“Worth it.”

“We should really stop meeting in infirmaries like this.”

“You can suggest a place next time.”

Sokka smiled again, and Zuko smiled back, and they stayed like that, smiling at each other, until Aang gave a light cough.

“I think I hear Appa bellowing,” he said in the silent room. “Better go see if he wants some more hay.” With a few quick movements, he gathered up the spindle and stuffed the rest of the fur into his basket, picked up his glider that was leaning in a corner. 

He was halfway out the door before Zuko reacted in time to call after him. “Wait, Aang, we’re not finished talking yet.”

“We’ll have a lot of time to talk,” Aang said, turning around. “I think I’ll be staying in Caldera for the next while, sorting out what’s in that room. Funeral rites and so on, you know.”

The easy mood in the room vanished. Sokka inhaled sharply through his nose; Zuko was clenching his hand hard enough to draw blood. 

“Aang–” Sokka said in a low voice. “I can’t imagine how it feels, seeing what’s in there. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

“No,” Aang said. “I do.” He looked at the basket in his hand, sighed, and took out the spindle again. Sokka made a quizzical noise.

“Do you know something?” Aang said. “Even now, when I saw this, my first reaction was, ‘ I should ask Sonam how to use this the next time I see her’ —” 

Zuko opened his mouth, but Aang held up a hand.

“Let me finish,” he said gently. “The thing is – I haven’t thought about Sonam in ages. If this spindle had just been left in the temples, then a hundred years of wind and rain would have destroyed the wood by now. But it didn’t; it was preserved, just like me. And now that I found it, it helps me to remember. The spinners and weavers of the Eastern Air Temple are dead, but they’re not gone. When I see this, I can still feel their presence in the world, and I know that nothing is permanent. Not even death.”

At that moment Aang looked very old. Very young and very old at once, like both the young man that he was and the old man he should have been – was made to become now, shouldering an unimaginable burden.

Sokka shook his hand free. “Alright,” he squawked. “Ding ding ding, it’s hug-the-Avatar hour. Get back over here, Aang.”

Aang backed away a few steps. “I’m okay, guys, really.”

“Just take the hug,” Zuko told him. “Sifu Hotman says so.”

Aang smiled, and in a burst of motion he dropped the basket and the glider and flew over to throw his arms around Sokka, who was still sitting on the bed. After a moment, Zuko shuffled over and wrapped his arms around them both. It was a lot of hugs for one day, and the morning had barely started.

“It’s like I told you,” Aang murmured. “Some things can transcend time.”

Sokka made another questioning noise, but Zuko nodded in understanding.

He once thought that the past could be surmounted like water underneath a bridge. Then he found out the past could come back; and it was more like a slow flood, an invisible leak. But really, the past was an ocean. It surrounded them and bound them. It was human to fight it, but in the end, they were all subject to its churning forces. Some things the past swept away – a mother’s face, for instance, or stories known only to the dead. Some things got washed back up in strange and unpredictable ways – a mask, a spindle, a boy asleep in an iceberg. 

When memories reached through time like a whale swimming through water, it didn’t have to be a force of destruction. There was a way to let the past nourish and sustain you, ways to reckon with both the good and the bad. Ways to keep what you can and return the rest to the wide open sea. 

“We’re here for you, Aang,” Zuko said. “If you ever want to tell us more about the Air Nomads – about anything at all. We’ll listen. We’ll do anything to help.” Sokka voiced his agreement, and Aang sniffed.

“Thanks guys,” he whispered, and then, with his voice still husky with emotion: “Hey, I have a question.”

“Anything,” Sokka said. 

“Do you want a sock or tea cosy?”

What ?” Sokka and Zuko said at the same time. They shot each other a glance. The sheer bafflement on Sokka’s face, underneath his metal Kyoshi Warrior headdress, was a sight to behold. 

“Appa has a lot of fur. I bet I can give out hand-knitted socks and tea cosies as wedding favours,” Aang explained. “I’m making a list now, and you two can get first dibs. Which one do you want more? Socks or a tea cosy?”

“Tea cosy,” Zuko said, at the same time that Sokka said:

“Socks.”

They pulled a face at each other, and Aang burst out laughing.

“I noticed you visited Katara during the whale hunt this year,” Zuko said after a few moments. “I knew you’d show up eventually. Concentrate on Katara’s shawl for now: she’ll love it.”

“Really?” Aang asked, looking uncertain.

“Yeah, if only because it’s you who gave it to her.”

“Yeah,” Sokka added. “Katara’s soppy like that. Welcome to the family, kid – not that you’re not already part of it, but still. I mean, I can’t believe I’ll be the Avatar’s official brother-in-law.” Zuko gave him a shove to shut up.

“Thanks guys,” Aang said. At the sound of Katara’s name, his grey eyes had gone all soft and bright, and an even sillier expression than normal appeared on his face. Zuko, bracing himself for the old stab of jealousy at someone else’s happiness, only felt all soft and bright along with him. 

He looked at Sokka, and knew that they were both thinking the same thing: some people just deserve to be luminously happy. Aang was one of them.

 

*

 

After Aang left the room – to actually go check on Appa this time – Zuko forced himself to get out of bed and stretch his legs. Sokka helped him up, and helped him to the window, where they stood watching the morning sweep over Caldera.

By this time the rest of the palace was waking up too. The infirmary overlooked one of the central gates, and looking down from its high windows reminded Zuko of a childhood pastime of lying by the garden ponds, fascinated by what the insects and pond life could be stirred up from the silt. And the more he looked the more he saw: laundry maids swaying on their wooden clogs; kitchen boys with rolled towels tied around their heads, hauling in wicker baskets of herbs and lychee nuts and silvery masses of fish. Bustling by were guards and farriers, cooks and messengers; in the corner, a scruffy goat-dog tied to a post chased and tried to eat its own tail.

“You’re pretty quiet all of a sudden,” Sokka said. “Copper piece for your thoughts?”

Zuko was thinking – it didn’t matter how many centuries passed. Their crimes were buried inside the nation like a tumor inside the body, leaking disease into the bloodstream. It tainted everything, even the fireflies, the fig trees, the fishing boats in the harbour; all the people in the country, from the vendors and their wooden carts to the old women shelling peas on the front stoop. Zuko himself. They were all the descendants of the people who did it, and no matter what anyone said, they were what their ancestors made them. 

“Why did Kizia believe the things that she did?” Zuko asked.

Sokka pressed his lips together. “You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to understand these things.”

Something jogged loose Zuko’s memory. He reached for his pocket, but then realised he had no idea where his clothes were.  “I found something in Kizia’s belongings when we were still in the chamber,” he said anyways. “A Pai Sho tile.”

“You don’t mean she’s—”

“No, no,” Zuko said in a hurry. “Not the White Lotus tile. The Red Lotus one.”

Sokka’s mouth fell open. “Huh.”

“Yes.”

“She did tell us she was working for a group of people,” Sokka said, tapping his chin in thought. “Seems like we’ve only unraveled the edge of a conspiracy.”

“Maybe.”

“Either way, interesting times ahead of us.”

Zuko added it to his mental list of Fire Lord tasks; it was a long one. Aang said he wanted to restore the artefacts back to the Air Temples; give the human remains a proper funeral. But he didn’t say what Zuko should do with the dragon bones, the painted murals, the horrible pamphlets boxed up in crates. Zuko wondered if he should just drag them all out and leave them in the courtyard; make people see what their country has done. Make them remember.

But that didn’t seem like the right thing to do either.

There would always be someone like Kizia, looking for a deeper meaning, who saw old bones and dusty statues and took it as a challenge. People who spun themselves the comfortable lies they wanted to hear. When Zuko thought of evil as a person, at least he could imagine defeating it. But what could he do when evil was everywhere? How could anyone fight against something that had no shape or form? It was like trying to catch a shadow in his hands.

Below them, a flying lemur swooped down over an open basket of lychee nuts. But the goat-dog’s bleated at the last second, and the lemur swerved right in surprise. Momo crashed to the ground, somersaulted a few times in the dirt, then tumbled to a flapping stop. 

Nearby, one of the watching maids started laughing so hard she nearly dropped the bucket of water she was carrying. 

Sokka snorted too. “Did you see that—” he began, and stopped at the expression on Zuko’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“Are we all guilty?” Zuko asked, and Sokka’s smile disappeared. 

“What do you mean?”

“I know how Aang would answer this question, but I want you to tell me yours. Do you think we’re all guilty?”

Sokka exhaled slowly through his nose, stared back out the window. The maid was still there. After checking that the cook’s back was turned, she stooped down and sneaked out a handful of lychee nuts from the basket, which she gave to Momo along with a brisk rub between his large ears. Momo, pleased, leaped on the maid’s head and wrapped his tail around her neck. One of his claws got tangled in the string tying her sleeves up, but it only made her laugh again, her shoulders shaking with mirth.

“I don’t think you’re all guilty,” Sokka said finally. “But I don’t think you’re all innocent either. I think that’s not a fair question to ask.”

Zuko twisted his fingers together. He was thinking of something else that Sokka had said to him once, that Zuko was self-absorbed with guilt. 

What they needed wasn’t more guilt; it was shame. Guilt was something directed inwards, something that could be buried away and hidden. But shame let people see themselves reflected in others’ eyes, a picture of themselves they couldn’t bear let stand. Zuko thought his purpose was to restore honour to the Fire Nation, but he had been going about it the wrong way. The Fire Nation couldn’t have honour until they had the humility to see how they were wrong. 

Zuko wasn’t his family, he didn’t have to carry their guilt – but he had to deal with their shame. 

“Do you think there’s any hope for us?” he asked instead. 

Below them, Momo stuffed the lychee nuts into his mouth. He flapped his wings a few times and took off with a leap. The maid waved goodbye, and, still giggling, picked up her bucket of soapy water and hurried off through a doorway. The only evidence of the encounter was the wet ring the bucket left on the ground, a few discarded lychee-nut shells scattered to the wind.

“Yes,” Sokka said softly. “I do have hope. For you especially.”

“But I don’t think I’ll ever not be fucked up,” Zuko said. 

Sokka took half a step towards him and knocked their shoulders together. “Join the club, buddy.”

Zuko leaned over and rested his head against Sokka’s neck. A tower embattlement kept the infirmary window in shade, but everywhere else in Caldera the sunlight was coming through. It brought green over the gardens and gingko trees, red over the tiled roofs and the clothes of the people, golden yellow where the rays touched the low clouds, chasing the remains of the night away.

Maybe there was peace for Zuko to find here too, peace to be made. 

“I’m going to change this country,” he said. He thought about the phrase that Kizia used. “A spiritual renewal – that’s what we need.”

Sokka snorted again. “You sure know how to pick a fight, don’t you? I admire your dedication to live and die by your own unrealistic and unachievable goals.” 

Zuko shrugged. It felt good to say. It felt like a good purpose. He wasn’t fueled by his anger anymore, but it didn’t mean the feeling went away: he was still angry at himself for not being better; he was angry at his whole country for not being better. But anger could be a part of life, not its opposite, and Zuko just had to find the right fight to channel it into. He was used to picking impossible fights.

“I prefer to live,” he told Sokka, and he was surprised at how much that was true. “ I have a lot of work to do before I die.”

Sokka gave his hand a squeeze. “Don’t die.”

“I won’t.”

He had come very far from the boy who dreamed about killing dragons, or the teenager trying to capture the Avatar to win back his honour. He could go further still. Zuko thought before that he didn’t want to live, but maybe what he meant was – he didn’t want to live the way that he once did. 

He turned his head to press a kiss to Sokka’s stubbled cheek, and felt Sokka smile. 

“Work is fine,” Sokka said, and wrapped an arm around Zuko’s waist, one hand coming to rest lightly on a hip. “But you’re forgetting all the other things in life to live for. What about them?” 

“Will you help me remember?” Zuko asked.

“Only if you help me too,” Sokka said, and nuzzled a spot behind Zuko’s ear.  

The sun crossed the point where it came through the window, and the new day came in like a breeze. The morning was as gold and sweet as a freshly-peeled apple, and it illuminated the whitewashed walls behind them, turned their shadows into vivid hues of blue and violet, transforming Sokka’s dark lashes into flecks of light. 

Zuko nodded. And standing together by the window, the two of them leaned even closer towards each other, sealing their promise with a kiss. 

Chapter Text

Three weeks after Aang’s arrival in Caldera, Aang decided it was time he departed for the Western Air Temple. There were funeral rites he wanted to perform, and he couldn’t delay them any longer without throwing off his entire travel schedule for the next half-year: there was unrest in one of the former Fire Colonies, a banquet for Bumi’s centenary of kingship in Omashu, strange news of malevolent spirits appearing in the North Pole. It seemed unfair to Zuko, that something like Aang’s monumental grief had to be rushed according to schedule, but Aang only shrugged when Zuko said this to him, and Zuko dropped the subject. It was something he and Katara understood long ago: there was a whole world that needed Aang.

Sokka offered to come along as far as the Western Air Temple, but Aang shrugged a second time; some things he wanted to do alone. So in the end Zuko and Sokka said their farewells to Aang in the courtyard, scratched Momo one last time between his ears, and watched together as Appa rose into the air, making an unusually clunky silhouette, his saddle laden down with its precious, dreadful cargo. Before they were even a black dot in the sky Zuko missed all three of them already.

Aang would be back before they knew it, Zuko had said, both for Sokka’s benefit and his own. He and Aang had talked about a lot of things over the last few weeks, and they would go on talking about them for a long time yet. Zuko suspected these were conversations that would last both their lifetimes, trying to come to grips with a horror beyond comprehension. 

And in the meanwhile, life went on. It had to. 

That night, Zuko knelt down at his desk and went through the correspondence he’d neglected over the last few days. He snapped open a slim brocade pouch, took something out, then started with his official letters first. Most of it was the usual: letters, reports, petitions, various complaints from various people – the government wasn’t even in session this late in the summer, but somehow rumours of his new education reforms and memorial plans had already leaked, and more than a few polite but strongly worded letters of complaint made their way to Zuko now. 

A few he answered; the rest he reduced into ashes and dumped in the dustbin. 

The complaints would only get less polite and more strongly-worded from here on now, but what else was new? It turned out having a lot of people angry with him wasn’t the end of the world, and Zuko had a stronger grip over his position than he thought. And if the complaints get really annoying – Zuko could always threaten to disappear for three days again. That seemed to have alarmed a very large number of people, more than he expected. People hated to see Zuko on the throne, but they hated it even more when he was gone. It was the closest he ever came to feeling appreciated.

Zuko watched the inked words of another letter curl up in smoke. He once thought he was grown-up, but he wasn’t done growing yet; he wouldn’t be until he had sifted through all the things he had inherited and figured out what to keep – and what he must throw away. 

He flicked through his stack of personal letters: Iroh sent a note saying that he’ll arrive in Caldera sometime the next month, but it depended on the weather. Zuko checked the date: the letter was sent via messenger hawk six days ago. Traveling itineraries were hard to predict during the stormy season, but he hoped Iroh’s ship would sail faster rather than slower. He wanted to see his uncle again, wanted to drink his tea and talk about Pai Sho and be comforted. And besides, Iroh would be a valuable ally in convincing the rest of the court that Sozin’s statue needed to come down; Azulon’s one in the harbour as well.

Outside, a boom of thunder sounded as though in agreement.

Mixed up with the rest of his papers was a message whose sender Zuko didn’t recognise. He opened it. It was a note from the manager of the Ember Island Theatre, giving his profuse thanks to the Fire Lord for his royal patronage and expressing  his hopes that the Fire Lord would return soon to catch their latest offerings in autumn. 

Zuko turned the attached playbill over – might as well confront the horror right away –  and nearly choked.

Wager for the Water Maiden, ran the bold-printed title. Underneath was an illustration of a pretty young woman in blue, and a few shadowy figures Zuko guessed were meant to be the male romantic leads, but they receded into the background compared to another figure, a woman with an enormous mane of flowing hair and a sultry expression. Based on The Latest Bestselling Romance To Have Swept The Nation. 

Zuko considered setting this on fire too, but sighed and set it aside instead. He knew a few people who might be interested in going.

Stories were funny things. Take the Blue Spirit, for instance. It made a thrilling story, but between Zuko’s two false identities, he thought now that Lee the tea server made the better one. There were no exotic barbarians or stirring romances; the closest thing it had to a folk hero died under a murky lake, and in the end the costumed vigilante threw away his mask. 

But it didn’t have to be a good story; it was just what happened. Lee stole an ostrich-horse from a poor healer and her mother, but he also stole food from a rich ship captain to feed hungry refugees. He went on one very bad date. He worked in a tea shop and swept floors. He loved his uncle, and then decided to betray him anyways. He was a coward and a hero and all the things in between.

Somewhere in the Earth Kingdom there was another Lee – a real Lee – who might enjoy hearing about that. 

Another clap of thunder. Zuko put down the papers in his hand and opened a window to check the weather: a fierce storm was brewing outside. He stuck his head out and breathed deeply, inhaling the wild smell of rain and green leaves. In the gardens, the fig trees were dark, shaking shadows, shaking their leafy heads like shaggy moose-lion manes in the wind. Raindrops pelted the top of Zuko’s head and trickled down his collar, making him squirm, and he pulled his head back inside.

Wiping the rain off his face with a sleeve, he picked up a report he’d been meaning to read. The words floated in front of him without registering.

When he and Iroh were traveling through the Earth Kingdom, they passed through villages where whatever wheat and barley hadn’t rotted in the fields had been requisitioned for the war effort. Farmers whose sons had been taken away had their harvests taken away too. There were children whose stomachs were swollen with hunger, who chewed on fig leaves and sticks, trying to distract themselves from the hunger. Zuko wondered what had happened to them, if their fathers and brothers had come home, if any of the aid the Fire Nation had sent had reached them in some way. Were they happier that the war was over? Did their own family come back inexorably changed too? 

Zuko was supposed to be in Ba Sing Se this winter to meet with the Earth King, but there must be some free time in the schedule, enough for him to take a little detour northwards, to visit a few tiny villages where, once upon a time, people had shown a stranger far more kindness he had deserved. How was Song’s mother doing? How old would Lee be now? Almost the same age that Zuko was when they met. 

In retrospect it seemed terribly young.

 

*

 

“Excuse me,” came a cheerful voice from the doorway, startling Zuko from his reading. “But I’ve just been soaked through on my trek through someone’s obscenely huge palace. There wouldn’t happen to be a firebender around to work a little drying magic, would there?”

Zuko looked up to see the top of a wolf-tail, bobbing down as its owner tried in vain to wring out a corner of his soaked shirt. 

“Shoes off and close the door,” Zuko said mildly. He read another few lines, and then lifted his head again to see Sokka, his wet boots in one hand, gaping at Zuko in amazement.

What ,” he yelped, “ is that?

Zuko ducked his head down, self-conscious. “Give me a minute. I’m almost done reading something.”

“Since when did you wear glasses ?” 

There was a scroll tucked under Sokka’s arm, and he dropped it with a thump into Zuko’s inbound basket as he weaved his way behind Zuko’s desk. 

“They’re new,” Zuko said. He was about to ask about the scroll, but then Sokka crawled up behind him and tucked a chin over his shoulder. 

“Just when I thought you couldn’t possibly have any more secrets left,” he said. “But  just so you know, they look very cute.”

“It doesn’t matter how they look. They’re supposed to help me see .” 

“Can you see that I’m still damp?” Sokka asked. He poked his cold nose into Zuko’s cheek. Zuko rolled his eyes, but he waved a hand and sent out a gust of warmth anyways. Sokka grinned, and then swiped at the report in Zuko’s hand. “What’s this?”

“You’re welcome,” Zuko said after a moment, when it was clear no thanks were coming. He set the bound folio down and laid his hand flat on the cloth cover, making no move to dislodge Sokka from where he was glued to his back. “The Fire Lord’s affairs should remain confidential.”

“First of all –” Sokka said, and waved a finger over Zuko’s face. “First of all, that is clearly just the latest study on grain production from Ba Sing Se University, every dignitary has their hands on a copy the second it was off the press. And second—” he wrapped his other arm around Zuko, held up two more fingers, “—you weren’t  reading it. You were staring at the paper trying to set it on fire with your eyes. And for anyone else in the world, that’d be a metaphor.”

“You’re holding up four fingers in total.”

“One for each eye,” Sokka said, and tapped the frame of Zuko’s glasses on both sides. “When did you get these?”

“Just yesterday,” Zuko admitted. “Mina said my headaches would improve if I corrected the blurriness in my left eye.”

“And did they?”

Zuko nodded. “I don’t need them all the time, but it helps with reading.” 

He leaned backwards into the welcome circle of Sokka’s arms. Now that he was adjusting, the ache around his temples was already much better than it had been for years. He could’ve kicked himself for not doing something about it before, but then again – of course he hadn’t. Zuko had always just gotten on with it, too wrapped up in the rest of his misery to notice how some problems had easy fixes. 

He traced a finger over the rough stitches on the folio’s spine. “Have you read this already?”

“No,” Sokka said. “But I’ve been meaning to. Hand it over.”

While Sokka thumbed open the pages, Zuko snuggled down and leaned his head back. “You make an excellent chair,” he said out loud, and felt Sokka shiver where his breath tickled Sokka’s throat. He was so comfortable – so grateful to not be staring at another graph about storage temperatures and shipping times – that he wasn’t expecting it a few minutes later when Sokka shoved him off his lap.

“You’re way too distracting,” Sokka said without looking up. “And plus, the weather needs to get a lot colder than this before I can cuddle a coal furnace like you.”

“A coal furnace?”

Sokka shot him a look over the top of his current page. “You run way too hot for a normal person.”

Their eyes met; Sokka was smirking.

“Ah,” Zuko said, feeling flustered – it was very strange, being flirted with – and Sokka’s smirk deepened. Zuko wasn’t sure what to say in response, so he looked away, and after a while Sokka’s expression went back to his furrowed look of concentration, as he became re-absorbed in his reading.

Since that night in the catacombs, they’ve been treading carefully around each other during their brief moments together. Speculation about the Fire Lord’s personal life was an evergreen source of gossip – Sokka’s Kyoshi dress was the stuff of legend by now – but with something to actually substantiate them, Sokka seemed to have developed a sudden case of propriety. He greeted Zuko politely when they saw each other in public, stood the appropriate distance apart when they waved Aang goodbye, but otherwise he would barely meet Zuko’s eyes. They ate dinner together on a couple of nights, trained in the mornings when Sokka could get up early enough, exchanged kisses when they were sure the doors were locked. They had been as chaste as schoolchildren, both of them cautious for their own reasons.

Here was one of Zuko’s many reasons: he was busy. There were a million things that wanted his attention all the time, and he rarely had extended periods of real privacy. He didn’t know why Sokka was taking it so slowly, but he suspected it had something to do with the secrecy. Sokka was starting to understand something Zuko had known from the beginning: that if a relationship between them was actually confirmed, Zuko would suffer. 

And as the foreigner and the newcomer in the palace, Sokka would only suffer much worse. 

It was a risk for Sokka to come to his door like this, but Zuko was glad. There was a glow in his chest right now. like he had eaten too many fire flakes too fast.

To distract himself from whatever undoubtedly awful expression his face was making while he stared at Sokka, Zuko reached over to his desk and picked up a sheet of blank paper. He fiddled with the edges, and then stared down at his hands. He wasn’t expecting to see Sokka tonight, and he had set out the rest of his evening to read the grain report. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself in this unexpected free time.

The blank sheet glowed white under the lamp light, ghosts of the unwritten words flitted across the page. Zuko picked up a brush. What should he write? Start yet another draft of a potential letter to Azula? Start issuing orders for his trip to Ba Sing Se in the winter? Jot some notes about what he’d read so far of the grain report?

He set the brush back down.

Using the edge of the desk, Zuko carefully tore the sheet in a neat line, making it into a smaller square. For a moment he couldn’t remember how it was done; the writing paper was made from mulberry fibers, and it was much thicker than the thin printed sheets he used as a child. He turned the paper around one way and then the other, trying to work out the mechanics of the simple fold. 

How did it go again? He turned one edge down with clumsy fingers, then smoothed it out and tried again. Then he smoothed that out as well, and then tried one more time. He found that if he kept himself relaxed, the next step would come to him instinctively. His hands remembered what his mind did not.

“What are you doing?” Sokka asked after a long while.

Zuko started. He was so absorbed he didn’t notice time passing, but now he saw that the lamps were dimmer than before, the oil nearly gone and the untrimmed wick puffing black smoke.

“I haven’t done this for years,” he said, and handed over one of his creations before dousing the lamps’ flame with a wave.

“What is it?” Sokka asked in the gloom.

“It’s a lantern,” Zuko explained. “I’ve been practising something. Look.” He cupped Sokka’s hand and concentrated. A burst of gold light appeared in the middle of his folded paper lantern, lighting up Sokka’s handsome face, his wide blue eyes. Zuko snapped a finger, and the light pulsed, first turning blue, then green, then back to a clear white. “Scientifically, how am I doing this? How does this make sense?” 

“I have no idea,” Sokka said, smiling.

“I’m not too good at the colours yet,” Zuko said, “but one day I think I can make more subtle variations. I’ve seen the dragons do something similar once.”

Sokka’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “I’m going to have to use the ‘cute’ word again.”

“I also have this,” Zuko said. He let go of the paper lantern and got up to fix the lamps in the room, before taking out the second thing that he made and handing it to Sokka. “I know you missed the hunting season this year to come to Caldera, so it’s for you. A reminder of home.”

Sokka turned the present over in his hands, a folded paper whale with two ink dots for eyes. He was uncharacteristically silent.

“It’s to replace the one that you didn’t get last year,” Zuko said. “Not that…not that I’m saying it could possibly be the equivalent to an actual whale. But it’s the closest you can get anyways, over here, though I know it’s not the right species, because I don’t know how to do the polar ones I saw. But at least you didn’t fall off a boat to get this one, so, uh—keep that in mind? Maybe it’s all for the best?”

Sokka still said nothing.

Zuko rubbed the nape of his neck, acutely aware that, a year ago, Sokka might have punched him for giving him the same thing. 

But a year ago, Zuko wouldn’t have been able to give it.

“Stop digging yourself deeper, you idiot,” Sokka said, finally. He looked up, and his eyes were shining. “It’s amazing. Thank you.”

“Oh,” said Zuko, relieved. “Good.”

Sokka touched the little inked eye. “What should I call her? How about Princess Splishy-Splashy? Flipper the Swimmer? Or, oh – I know!” He waved his arms. “Spouty the Whalepaper?”

“Don’t make me regret making this,” Zuko said, but the glow in his chest intensified as Sokka tucked the paper whale away in his pocket.

The two of them began talking at the same time: “When are—” “What do—"

Sokka gestured. “You go first.”

“What do you think about the grain report?” Zuko asked.

“I think based on the post-war trade figures and considering the average size of the paddy fields here, the Fire Nation is headed towards a rice surplus problem unless you start issuing tariffs to protect domestic supply. Your farmers can’t compete with Earth Kingdom prices.”

Zuko let the information roll around in his head. Doing that would make a lot of merchants very unhappy with him, not to mention a lot of farmers, but it was good to keep in mind. “And what’s your question?” he asked.

Sokka hesitated, and then leaned forward, putting his hand on top of Zuko’s. “Listen,” he said bluntly. “Do you want to have sex?”

A moment passed. Sokka must have caught Zuko’s wince, because he added in a rush, “It’s okay to say no if you don’t want to, no pressure – I was just curious if you might be interested, that’s all.”

“You’re always curious.” Zuko said. He fiddled with another sheet of paper in his hands. “And I’m not saying no.”

“Okay.”

He looked up; Sokka was wearing that look that meant more questions were coming.

“Can we—” Zuko cleared his throat. “Can we go somewhere else for this?”

“Of course,” Sokka said, only a touch too quickly. “It’s not like I’m planning to jump you in the middle of your office or anything.” 

“I mean, can we talk about this somewhere else?”

“The ink would spill everywhere,” Sokka added nonsensically, and then: “Why?”

“Because I don’t want to talk about sex in the same place I read tax codes and respond to racist letters?”

“Isn’t your room’s right next door?”

“Maybe not my room.”

“Why?”

Sokka had never seen the royal bedchamber before, Zuko realised. He got up and slid open the door that linked his study with his bedchamber. He lit a few lamps, then beckoned Sokka over, inviting him to look in.

It was a Fire Lord’s bedroom, and the traditional Fire Lord approach to interior design held that everything that wasn’t red or black could only be rescued with a thin layer of gold on top. The effect was was a dollhouse created by a goldsmith gone rogue: there was gold on the walls, a gold-leafed ornamental vases on red and black stands, carved tables inlaid with rubies and onyx and more gold sitting next to the bed, which mercifully was not gold, but still jet black two-hundred-year-old ebony. Opposite the bed hung a few priceless ivory carvings: one of an erupting volcano, another one of a screeching phoenix ascending from a field on fire. These were the first things Zuko saw every morning, and every morning he opened his eyes and had the same thought, which was —

“It’s all a bit much,” Sokka said, and whistled.

“My family gravitates towards the tacky,” Zuko said apologetically. 

Sokka whipped his head around. “This…this wouldn’t be your dad’s old room, would it?”

Zuko shuddered. “Oh, Agni, no. That would be truly fucked up. The last person who slept here was a great-uncle who died before I was born.” 

He had picked this set of rooms on a whim in the days after his coronation, not having paid very much attention. He would have been fine with his old bedroom, but Li and Lo insisted that, as Fire Lord, Zuko should move somewhere closer to the center of the palace for security reasons. The rooms hadn’t been so bad when he picked them; they were far enough from Ozai’s actual rooms that Zuko didn’t have to take a lengthy detour, and plus, there was a nice view of the garden. But the second Zuko made his choice, Li and Lo brought in the palace decorators to bring his bedroom up to scratch with standards. And the standards, Zuko had quickly realised, were bad.

Sokka poked the lid of a carved music box, and jumped when it flipped open to a tinny version of the national anthem. Zuko reached over and slammed the lid shut. He had no idea where this even came from.

“Do you like all of this stuff?” Sokka asked.

“Not really,” Zuko said. He didn’t want to talk about sex sitting next to a stack of tax documents, but he really didn’t want to do it in a room where everything was grandiose and antique and, in a roundabout way, did remind him of his father. But still, Zuko’s own room made him uncomfortable – maybe that was why he never slept too well in there.

Sokka took another look around at the dreadful red and black and gold everything. “I really do admire how you guys really commit to an aesthetic once it’s established.”

“Sure.”

“Nice if you like red.”

“To be honest,” Zuko said drily. “I prefer muted pastels.”

Sokka snorted – he was the only person in the world who genuinely found Zuko funny – and closed the door. He picked up his mysterious scroll from the basket and tucked it back under his arm. “Let’s head back to mine then. But get ready for a walk, your stupid palace is way too stupidly big.”

 

*

 

Sokka lived in a set of rooms in the eastern wing, tucked away beside one of the pine groves. It was still enormous and lushly decorated, though thankfully still much less ostentatious than Zuko’s own room. Zuko had been invited inside a few times already, but he and Sokka usually sat by the low table in the outer room, the door to the bedroom kept closed in a silent signal. 

Tonight, Sokka ushered him straight through. The room was small; there was a workbench and a stool shoved in the corner, and Zuko headed to sit down there, only for Sokka to stop him with a hand on his shoulder. He pushed Zuko down to sit on the low bed in the centre of the room instead, and then sprawled out next to him on top of the sheets.

“Uh,” Zuko said, feeling unsettled. “Shall we – began then?”

Sokka laughed. “Talk to me first,” he said. “Something’s up with you, I know it.”

Zuko traced the pattern of the woven rushes of the floor with his big toe, searching for the words. Sokka laid next to him, his head cushioned in the crook of his arm, waiting. After a minute or two, Zuko swung his legs over and lied down too, mirroring Sokka’s position. 

“How about I start?” Sokka said softly when another minute passed in silence. “I’m not the world’s most perceptive guy when it comes to these things, but I know when someone wants me; I’ve seen you looking. And you’ll need more than a pair of glasses to fix your eyes if you can’t tell that I’m looking too. We’re not going to spend the next year dancing around this, are we?”

Zuko took a breath. “I think there’s something wrong with me. Not physically. Just, maybe there’s something wrong with me when it comes to relationships. I’m not very good at – wanting people.

“There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to have sex,” Sokka said. “A lot of people don’t—”

“But I do want to have sex,” said Zuko, frustration welling up. “I do.” But he had no idea how to explain the emptiness he felt sometimes in place of desire, or the sense of disconnect he felt sometimes between desire and attraction. Incredible to think there were people who could do things like this casually, men who slept with other men, as if it wasn’t a daunting challenge.

“Let’s talk this through slowly,” Sokka said with infuriating patience, and sat up. “Do you want to have sex with me?”

“Yes,” Zuko gritted out. “Or no, because I wouldn’t be sure if I wanted to unless I tried it first. So – maybe.”

Sokk laughed again. “Thanks buddy, you just just included every possible answer in there.”

“Then I’ll go with the last one,” Zuko said. “A solid maybe.” Both of them were still fully dressed, but he felt frighteningly naked and small, like his body was a soft animal, vulnerable in a way he never experienced before.

“Why don’t we try an easier question?” Sokka said. “Did you ever want to have sex with anyone? Ever?”

Zuko thought back. He liked Mai – loved her too, in the best way he knew how. He liked her dry put-downs and the way her eyelashes fluttered when she was bored, which was often. He liked the weight of her in his arms; he liked kissing her, liked surprising her with presents and watching her pretend not to care. They had a fight when she told him she was leaving for Kyoshi; he missed her terribly afterwards – but he didn’t want her, even though there was no reason he shouldn’t. They slept together a few times, never very enthusiastically, and in the end they both agreed the risk of pregnancy was too much. 

They shared a bed though, and his horrible room felt less horrible when Mai was around.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Zuko said. “I’m normal.” It sounded weak even to his own ears. 

Sokka gave him a look. “I’m sure you are,” he said, and Zuko tried to persuade himself there wasn’t a note of sarcasm there. 

Did he ever want to have sex? For a while he wondered if he and Mai had something in common, a simple shared distaste for the other sex, but even their awkward fumbling were better than that night in the brothel. Having a stranger touch him was so strange that Zuko pushed him off halfway through, got dressed again feeling worse than he did before. He didn’t want to get married, but a part of him had resigned himself to doing it one day anyways. He could just get on with it; he thought he wouldn’t mind it too much, as long as he got to know the other person beforehand. The act itself didn’t repulse him.

“Hey,” Sokka asked. “Do you ever touch yourself?” 

Zuko nodded, and felt his face heat up. He rolled over so he was lying on his back. “It’s different with yourself though,” he told the ceiling. 

“How so?”

“It’s just different.”

“So you’re not interested in the buddy system the rest of us abide by,” Sokka said lightly. “Got it.”

“I’m not uninterested.” Zuko did want, in some general sense, but he suspected that the thing he wanted was something very specific, and what it was remained a mystery even to himself.

“That’s not the signal I’m picking up,” Sokka said slowly. “Although, to be fair – someone could write a manual on how to decipher your signals and I still won’t pick up half of them. It’s been a very confusing month.” 

“There’s a difference between wanting to fuck and wanting to fuck someone.”

Sokka wrinkled his forehead in thought, and then rubbed his chin and sighed. “This is what I deserve for trying to seduce the most difficult person in the world,” he said, also addressing the ceiling. “Thanks, universe.”

“I’m not difficult,” Zuko said, mulishly.

Sokka snorted.

Zuko forced himself to say the words, if only to try out the sound of them. “Like now. I want you now, Sokka.”

It was awkward to say, and it made him feel awkward to have said it – but Sokka breathed in sharply through his nose. He grabbed Zuko’s hand; Zuko grabbed back, grateful for the human connection, the proffered reassurance at his  moment of vulnerability, only for Sokka to laugh once more. He gave Zuko’s hand a squeeze, then pulled it downwards to let it press against the bulge in his lap.

They stared at each other.

“Are you –?” Zuko hissed, and then closed his eyes. “I thought we were having a serious, heart-to-heart conversation.”

“A serious, heart-to-heart conversation about sex and masturbation, while we’re both sprawled out on a bed,” Sokka countered. “What am I supposed to do? Grab a brush and take down minutes? Not think about it?”

Neither of them moved. Zuko forced his hand in Sokka’s lap to relax. It was just another man’s cock underneath the layers: nothing unusual. He drew a tentative knuckle over the seam in the middle, over the bulge – no, over Sokka’s cock – he had to start making himself habituated to this inside his head, and it felt alright. Not too weird. He traced the seam again, then cupped Sokka’s cock through the layers of fabric. He could do this. As long as he didn’t think too hard about it. Instinct and feeling were Zuko’s strong suit, he’d be fine. He made himself relax more.

Sokka was still talking: “If you think this is the first time I’ve ever popped a boner while you were saying something serious—” Zuko tried giving a soft squeeze, and Sokka broke off, gasping. “That felt good.”

Zuko tried to replicate the same motion. “Like this?”

“Yes,” Sokka said, and gave a moan. “But it’ll be better if our clothes are off.”

He just had to think of it like a new firebending move, Zuko told himself. Learning something new was only unfamiliar the first few times, but eventually practice would turn it into second nature. He just had to trust his body would learn. 

He got up off the bed, untied the belt around his tunic, pulled the undershirt over his head. He reached for the waistband of his pants, and then hesitated, heart pounding. Stalling for time against the inevitable, he folded each article of clothing carefully before leaving them draped over a wooden clothes rack in the corner, a spot of crimson against the greys and blues. He turned back, his lower half still clothed, but his chest bare. 

On the bed, Sokka was already fully nude, his clothes strewn in puddles on the floor. He was reclining against the headboard with his hands behind his head, his legs stretched out on top of the covers. Zuko prepared himself for the shock of really seeing another man’s penis out, erect and straining – but it actually wasn’t too bad. It was just Sokka. Zuko drew his gaze upwards to Sokka’s face. Unlike him, Sokka didn’t seem embarrassed or afraid, just relaxed, a man sitting on his own bed at ease with the world. 

He looked very good.

Without breaking eye contact, Sokka smiled and reached down to give his cock one long, slow stroke, and then another. “Are you going to get over here?” he asked. He looked like someone who was used to being looked at. Who was used to looking back.

Zuko licked his lips, mouth dry, and Sokka’s gaze darkened. 

“Come over here,” Sokka said.

Zuko took a step forward. He made himself breathe slowly, like the opening of a meditation. Maybe Sokka was right, he was the most difficult person in the world, even to himself. What was wrong with him?

“If it turns out you don’t like it, we’ll stop,” Sokka said. He took his hands away and put them back under his head, looking as nonchalant as ever. He grinned up at Zuko. “But you’d never know unless you try. Although I understand if, of course, his majesty is too afraid to get over here.”

“I’m not afraid,” Zuko snapped.

“Prove it.”

Zuko took another deep breath; he strode forward and climbed onto the bed. He braced his left palm against the headboard, and then swung his leg over Sokka’s lap so he was straddling him, face-to-face, their hips pressed together. Zuko didn’t know what to do with his other hand, so it fluttered, useless, until Sokka grabbed it and pressed it to his mouth, gave a sweet open-mouthed kiss to Zuko’s open palm before guiding it down over his chest, where it splayed open on the warm skin.

Sokka’s burn wound was fading to a dark circle, which was reassuring progress. Zuko ran a finger along the edges of the scar, up through the pectoral muscles – Sokka had a scattering of dark hair there, which was oddly thrilling  – and he pressed a hand over Sokka’s heart, which was thrumming away like an engine. Their breaths mingled in the close space between them, but neither of them spoke. 

Zuko held himself still, balancing with the muscles of his thighs and the other hand that he still kept braced against the headboard. He got the impression that Sokka was trying to hold still too, letting Zuko take the lead.

It was ridiculous, he told himself, to have disobeyed everything his family and upbringing had ever taught him about being a good son, only to stop now, confronted with something he actually wanted for once.

He touched Sokka’s chest again, over Sokka’s throat and shoulders, feeling the texture of muscle and skin. On another exploratory loop, a fingernail accidentally flicked the edge of a nipple, making Sokka grunt and jerk his hips up.

Zuko bucked down, instinctively trying to keep his balance, and the sudden sensation sent a jolt of liquid pleasure trickling through him, making him shudder with the intensity. He rolled his hips again, blindly chasing the friction again, and Sokka met him with another low grunt. Zuko did it again, and again, and they settled into a rough kind of rhythm rutting against each other, grinding their cocks together through the layer of fabric.

It felt alright, this kind of rubbing, even though nothing matched that initial burst of pleasure. But it was fine. It was already better than his only other sexual encounter with a man. He liked having Sokka pressed against him this way: undressed, hair mussed in its wolf-tail, wearing such a look of obvious pleasure on his face. Zuko could keep going like this. 

It was alright.

And yet, despite everything, his cock was softening. How long were they supposed to stay like this before it was appropriate to switch to another position? Another minute? Five more minutes? Zuko’s thighs were starting to cramp. He didn’t think he gave anything away, but Sokka stopped moving anyways. He grabbed Zuko’s hand, the one still on his chest, and laced their fingers together. 

“What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” Zuko said sharply. Had Sokka noticed that he wasn’t hard anymore? It was a kind of humiliation Zuko hadn’t even known existed.

“Do you want to stop?”

“No.”

“No, as in, ‘I’m having a good time, I want to keep going’? Or no, as in, ‘I’m a stubborn idiot who’s literally incapable of giving up ’?”

“Can’t both be true?” Zuko asked, and Sokka huffed out another barely suppressed laugh. A lot of things Zuko said were amusing him tonight.

“Let me try something else,” Sokka said, and rolled them both over on the bed.

Now Sokka was a warm weight on top of him, his face hovering over Zuko – his eyes were the darkest blue Zuko had ever seen, the pupils blown wide. Sokka kissed him on the cheek, then pressed his own cheek to that spot, nudging a nose behind Zuko’s ear, and took a deep breath. Zuko froze for a second, and then drew Sokka closer by his nape and did the same to Sokka, took in the intimate scent of sweat and soap and hair. 

Sokka kissed him again, behind the ear this time, and mouthed a wet trail down along his throat. “Can this be undone?” he asked, poking at Zuko’s hair.

Zuko blinked, and then sat up into a kneel. He lowered his head, presenting his hair.

“Should I do it then?” Sokka asked, sounding surprised, and when Zuko didn’t move he reached for him and slowly untied the cloth band around the topknot, slid out the pins, loosening it with a few tugs of his fingers. Zuko choked off a moan in the back of his throat, then blushed when Sokka paused. 

“You’re a total weirdo of a human being,” Sokka said. He poked Zuko with the ends of Zuko’s own hair, making him yelp. “Do you know that?”

“Shut up,” Zuko said breathlessly. “So are you.”

“But you’re lucky I like weird shit,” Sokka said, pulling him closer. They stared into each other’s eyes, then Sokka leaned in to kiss him on the mouth. 

And oh , that did something to Zuko. Unlike the clumsy rubbing against the headboard, kissing felt easy and natural. This was nothing he hadn’t done with Mai before, but something about touching Sokka like this felt – right. Like he was finally making fire after failing to move earth and water. The stubble on Sokka’s cheeks were scratchy like a summer cucumber leaf, but his lips were petal-soft, his tongue very warm. The press of their bare chests together was delicious.

Touching another man like this was different from anything else that Zuko had experienced before, moving against someone with such intimacy, without the shadow of violence or a transaction between them. He nipped gently at Sokka’s lower lip, and was rewarded with a small groan. Zuko’s cock was getting interested again; Sokka must be able to feel it, pressed against him like this, but Sokka didn’t say anything or do anything different, only went back to kissing him on the mouth.

Here was another thing he liked about Sokka: how patient Sokka could be sometimes, how generous. 

“I want to do this right,” he whispered into Sokka’s mouth. “Tell me what to do to make it good for you.”

Sokka froze, then buried his face in a nearby pillow and groaned loudly. “Do you have any idea what you sound like saying things like that to me? In that voice?”

“What voice?”

Sokka pretended to sink his teeth into Zuko’s shoulder, a playful half-bite. “Don’t play coy with me,” he said, and then slid a hand over the waistband of Zuko’s pants. “And you can start by taking this off.”

This was the flip side to Sokka’s patience, the way that, when he felt like it, he could incessantly goad Zuko out of his comfort zone. 

Zuko took a breath, wiggled out of the last of his clothes, and fell back on the bed. A beat, and then Sokka was on him, pinning his arms down besides his head. They kissed again, but this time open-mouthed and sloppy, real heat building now, teeth clicking together from the force of pressing against each other. He could feel Sokka’s cock rubbing against his stomach, slick with moisture and sweat, and he pulled one arm free from Sokka’s grip and slid it between the intimate press of their bodies. He closed his fist and gave a light, tentative stroke, and was rewarded by a full body shudder.

How had Sokka touched himself earlier? He tried to replicate the same slow, tight squeezes now.

More ,” Sokka moaned.

Zuko paused, trying to puzzle out this direction, and Sokka flipped over to lie beside him. He closed his own hand over Zuko’s, guiding him. “Like this. Not faster – just more .”

It was different from how Zuko liked to touch himself, but he supposed every man must have his own preference. He propped himself up on one elbow and stared down in concentration. “Do you like it with a twist at the top?”

“Hmm?” Sokka said distractedly.

“Like this.” Zuko pulled Sokka’s hand away, and then made a ring with his thumb and first two fingers. He twisted it a few times around the tip of Sokka’s cock, and then rubbed his thumb across the underside of the head. “It’s how I like it myself.”

“Keep going.”

“So it’s correct then?” Zuko asked.  

“Yes, fine – it’s correct,” Sokka groaned, arching up, panting slightly. “But I like hearing you talk more than anything.”

He made no move to put his hand back over Zuko’s, but to be on the safe side, Zuko went back to the more regular strokes like before, the motion slicker from the pre-cum forming on the head. “What do you want me to say?”

“Anything.” Sokka closed his eyes. “Talk to me. Tell me about how you like it. Tell me–“ he broke off with a gasp when Zuko’s hands tightened. “Do it more.”

Zuko was beginning to figure out that by ‘more’, Sokka meant more pressure, and stroking the whole length of his cock every time.He did it obediently, and while he figured out what to say he bent down and kissed Sokka’s exposed throat, and then swiped his tongue down to touch a nipple. Sokka’s chest was damp with sweat; the taste of salt and skin flooded his mouth, made his mouth burn.

“I don’t know how to tell you what I like,” Zuko said. “But I’ve seen the sort of woodblock prints they sell in shop back rooms, and I’ve overheard what sailors say at sea. I know there’s lots of things two men can do, and it’s different from being with a woman. But compared to you I don’t really know anything.”

“Forget about that,” Sokka said. He was rocking his hips upwards now, thrusting into Zuko’s hand. He pulled Zuko closer and buried his face in Zuko’s neck, his body a taut line of tension. “Don’t think so much,” he panted, “there’s only you and me on this bed right now. Just do what feels natural.”

Zuko adjusted his grip, sped up his stroking. Sokka reached up to his face and ran a thumb over his wet lower lip.

“Look at you,” Sokka said, his voice low with desire. Zuko flushed, caught off guard even in a moment like this. 

“Do you want me to suck you off?” he asked. “I have always wondered what it might feel like.”

Sokka didn’t respond, only buried his face again in Zuko’s neck, wrapped his hand again around Zuko’s hand on his cock, making him take the already quick pace to a frantic rhythm. Zuko held on; Sokka was clutching at him like a drowning man at sea.

“Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck – Zuko, ” Sokka gasped, and came. 

Zuko kept stroking, working Sokka the reverberations of his orgasm until Sokka slumped back against the pillows, shaking. He didn’t let go.

“To be fair, I warned you about the voice,” Sokka said, still panting. “Sorry. But gotta have something to look forward to in the future, huh?” He stretched out and wriggled his toes. 

“Sure,” Zuko said. Sokka didn’t look sorry. He looked immensely smug and pleased with himself. Zuko was more preoccupied with the sight of another man’s come on his hands. 

He just did it. He just completed a sex act with another man, and the most bizarre part about it was what to do with the aftermath. Even his most fervent imaginings never considered that it could all be so – so gross. He looked around for a towel or handkerchief, and then, giving up, wiped it on the corner of Sokka’s sheets.

“Your turn,” said Sokka, and pounced before Zuko could proceed any further with his very calm and very minor freak out. 

He pressed Zuko down on the bed and shimmied downwards, so his head rested between Zuko’s thighs. He pressed a kiss to Zuko’s stomach, then hooked Zuko’s knees over his shoulders. 

“The best way to learn is through demonstration,” Sokka said. He winked, and without further warning, licked a broad stripe up Zuko’s cock and swallowed him down.

The sudden sensation made Zuko’s hip buckle upwards. Sokka’s mouth was hot and wet, and it felt very good. Zuko scrabbled at the covers, gripping the poor bedraggled sheets in his fist. He was beginning to understand why people spent their money on this, why they marry badly, why they risked their health and reputation to convene in filthy alleyways or expensive rooms for a few moments of pleasure. 

Sokka swirled a tongue, and Zuko almost wailed. If it was always like this, then it was worth it. It was worth any amount of money or danger to feel this good, this alive.

But there was something about the way that Sokka kept flicking his gaze up – so he could look at Zuko’s face – something about the jolt of pure lightning that passed between them when their eyes met. This couldn’t be bought with all the gold in the royal treasury. If he thought sex was like firebending, then this total abandon was like fire itself, pure energy and heat dancing through his entire body. 

Zuko should be paying closer attention right now; he should be figuring out how to do it, in case Sokka wanted the favour returned in the future, but all he could do is give in to the all-consuming pleasure of the moment. All he could do is accept a gift as it was offered. He was close now, really close, crossing the final line from where there was no return, hurtling towards an inexorable point like the sun spinning towards noon in the sky. 

He tried tugging Sokka’s head away to give him some warning, but Sokka only hummed and took him in deeper, making him moan. 

Fire moved through his body like sunlight through the world, making Zuko cry out with the force of the release, and he came so hard that the world whited out.

 

*

 

They lied next to each other, listening to the rain pelting against the shutters.

“That was interesting,” Sokka said. His voice was hoarse and his hair was a mess, but he was still more composed than Zuko, who was a half-melted bowl of jelly on the bed.. 

“Hmm?” Zuko slurred. He felt like his bones had been liquified, although in an extremely good way this time. Sokka’s hand open on his hip, stroking it in soothing circles.

Sokka jerked his chin up towards the ceiling, and then slapped Zuko’s thigh until Zuko made himself roll over to take a look. 

On the plaster there was a black scorch mark.

“I see,” Zuko said, and giggled. “Oops.”

“Is this a common thing? Breathing out fire when you come? I just need to know if I should keep a bucket of water nearby for next time.”

“Next time,” Zuko echoed, and giggled again. His thoughts haven’t unscrambled themselves yet. 

Sokka smiled. “Yeah. Next time.” 

He laid his head down on Zuko’s chest, then dragged one of Zuko’s hands onto his hair. Zuko took the hint. He loosened what’s left of Sokka’s wolf-tail and combed out the silky strands with his fingers, continuing until Sokka settled against him with a contented sigh.

They spent a long-time like this, half-dozing, their legs tangled together. After a few minutes or a few hours, Zuko woke up again and began to survey the room with interest. Now that he was paying attention, he decided that he liked it. Traces of Sokka’s personality were everywhere, and they made the room cosy and home-like, a little piece of the Southern Water Tribe in the heart of Caldera. Sokka’s wolf helmet and his meteorite sword were hanging on a wall, next to a few furs and hides, and there were tacked-up drawings as well: a few badly done ones that Zuko recognised as Sokka’s own efforts, and a few much better ones that he recognised as Suki’s. Wedged into another corner, by the window, was the workbench cluttered with paper and charcoal sticks and various odd bits of wire and metal machinery.

And there, left carelessly on top of the mess – a scroll sealed with blue wax with Sokka’s personal stamp.

“What’s that?” Zuko asked.

Sokka cracked open an eyelid and stretched, his whole body suffused with languor. “Do the scritch-scratch thing first and I’ll tell you,” he said imperiously.

Zuko had no idea what he was talking about, but he took a guess and dug his fingertips down, scratching it against Sokka’s scalp the same way he might pet a cat. “Happy now?” 

“I’m never happy,” Sokka said, but he gave a pleased moan and rubbed their feet together, then jumped up anyways and fetched the scroll. 

Zuko shook out his clothes from where he left them, taking out the brocade case with his glasses inside. He slid them over his nose and undid the seal. He scanned the first few lines, and then put it down to look at Sokka instead.

“I know you’re a slow reader—” Sokka began.

“I’m not that slow.”

“—so I’ll just tell it to you now: it’s a letter of resignation.”

A long moment passed, and then Zuko rolled the scroll back up. “Was sex with the Fire Lord really that bad?” he asked, deadpan, and ducked when Sokka threw a pillow at him.

“I’ve been thinking—” 

“Oh?”

“Shut up. I can’t be the Southern tribes’ official representative and have sex with the guy I’m meant to be representing us to. It’s a conflict of interest – we can’t keep this a secret forever. Sooner or later people will find out, and then people here would accuse you of favouritism because of me, and I don’t think my life would be any easier for it. And more importantly, back home the elders and chiefs might say I’m neglecting my duties because of you . It’s a lot to handle.”

“You wrote out the resignation before you even saw me tonight,” Zuko said. “How did you know we were going to have sex?”

Sokka sat back down on the bed, still naked, and drew his knees up to his chest. “There more to a relationship than sex.”

Zuko didn’t answer; he was studying the sinewy shape of Sokka’s forearms, the shape of his profile as Sokka stared off in the direction of the shuttered windows. He pulled Sokka closer, touched the smooth muscles on his bare back, and pressed his forehead against the knobs of vertebrae punctuating the elegant curve of a spine. He kissed one perfect shoulder blade, and then the other. If the dim and flickering lamplight could make even Zuko look appealing, then its effect on someone like Sokka was nothing short of devastating.

“Are you even listening to me?” Sokka said. “I’m quitting my job for you, jerkface. Show some support here.”

“Of course I’m listening.” 

Zuko reached around to run his hand down the line of Sokka’s leg; there was a network of faint white scars over his left kneecap, the one that was injured during the comet. Zuko thought it was perfect too, but Sokka slapped his hand away. 

“Don’t touch me there.”

“Okay,” Zuko said, and smoothed his hand across the tense line of Sokka’s shoulders instead. “So what are you going to do if you’re not an ambassador?”

“Not sure yet,” Sokka said. “It’s not like I’m abandoning my duties right away. I’ll stay until they decide on a new ambassador, and then after that…sponge off my rich boyfriend, maybe. Rent’s not cheap here, you know.”

“I’ve been informed as much,” Zuko said gravely. “And then?”

Sokka turned around so they were facing each other. “I don’t know, but all of this politics and power stuff, it’s not for me.”

“You’re probably better at it than me.”

“That’s not hard,” Sokka said, and then it was his turn to duck a flying pillow. “But I was thinking – after the war, there are more people from the Water Tribes travelling. There are a lot of us just in Caldera alone, people far away from home. Life’s not easy for us sometimes; there must be something I can do to help. Help us protect ourselves from the people who want us foreigners gone, maybe. There’s only so much you can do from the top, as the Fire Lord. I think other people have to work the opposite way.”

“It’s a very noble purpose,” Zuko said.

Sokka sighed and slumped down. “I’m done with being angry at other people for not fixing things.”

“Understandable.”

“I want to help my people,” Sokka said in a rush. “Of course I do, but to do what you and Katara do all day – listening to a million people’s opinions, trying to figure out what’s right or wrong – it’s horrible . Dad once told me that being a chief was the slow drilling of a hole through hard ice. He was trying to tell me that leadership is difficult, but all I could think of was, ‘why don’t you just invent a better drill ?’.”

Zuko nodded. 

“Does this all even make sense?” Sokka asked. He was gnawing at a fingernail. 

“Yes,” Zuko said. “Of course it does.” It was strange to bow without any clothes on, but he made a decent attempt. “Ambassador Sokka, if that’s the decision of you and your people, then the Fire Lord accepts it.”

“Oh good,” Sokka said with a relieved sigh. “Thanks, your fiery majesty.” He laid back down again and nudged at the Fire Lord until his fiery majesty adjusted himself to make a more comfortable human pillow. “Don’t tell Katara I said this,” he said from his position on Zuko’s lap, “but she’s the one who really took after Dad. But I’m not like them. I’m not like you. I’m not good at being good and I don’t like politics. I just want to build better drills.”

“But if you’re more like other people, then you’d be less like yourself,” Zuko said. He scratched through Sokka’s hair again, and Sokka hummed, a vague pleasant sound. 

Another comfortable silence settled over them. And then –

“I’ve been thinking about something for awhile,” Zuko said quietly. “I’m not going to get married. I’m not going to have children.”

Sokka gave him an upside-down amused look. “Not unless one of us really pulls off a miracle.”

“Not like that,” Zuko said. He didn’t know how to explain how terrifying a choice this was to him. “I won’t be the Fire Lord forever, and I’m the last male heir left. If I don’t have children, and if Azula doesn’t have children – that’s it. That’ll be the end of us.”

“Who’s going to run the country after?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” Zuko said. It was another terrifying question. “But we need some sort of system where blood doesn’t matter. Kizia was right about this one thing: there has to be a better way of deciding who’s the ruler.” 

He didn’t like being his life as the Fire Lord, but giving it up wasn’t the right solution. Neither was running away and leaving it to Iroh to deal with. There were more ways to move forward than he could see sometimes; Zuko just needed a light to pierce through the darkness, a guide to point him out of the maze. 

Sokka snorted. “You just have to one-up my big announcement, didn’t you?”

“Sorry,” Zuko said quickly. “That’s not my intention–”

“I know,” Sokka interrupted, and smiled. “And I get it. I believe in you.”

“Oh,” Zuko said. “Good.”

Sokka sighed, and then swung his knees from side to side. “You know, this is definitely not how I imagined it happening.”

“What isn’t?”

“Everything. Coming here. Being the ambassador. Quitting being the ambassador. Seducing you. I’m behind schedule for that one.”

“Wait–” Zuko began, but Sokka slapped a hand over his mouth. 

Forget that last thing I said !”

Zuko prised Sokka’s hand off his mouth. “What schedule?”

“Nothing!”

“Whatever happened to ‘the rest of us muddle along one day at a time’?”

Sokka flashed him a guilty grin. “I know what I said.”

“And?”

“And I’m very bad at taking my own advice.”

Zuko rubbed his temples; he was discovering that some headaches had nothing to do with his vision. “Tell me when you scheduled for my hypothetical seduction.” 

“Okay,” Sokka said primly, “that’s not what the word ‘hypothetical’ means–” Zuko flicked him on the temple. “If you must know, I planned for it happening around my second week here.” 

Zuko spluttered in indignation, and Sokka cracked up. He stopped for a brief moment when Zuko tried to smother him with one of the pillows, and then, laughing even harder, rolled Zuko over and tried to wrestle him down against the bed. Zuko wriggled and flipped sideways out from underneath, then hooked a leg over Sokka’s to force him down instead. The two of them tumbled over each other a few times, and when the dust cleared, Zuko was sprawled out on top of Sokka, the bare lengths of their body aligned against one another.

“Your face looks different like this,” Sokka said.

Zuko shot him a quizzical glance. Both of them were still slightly out of breath.

“When you’re smiling and you have the glasses on, and with your hair down and everything – your face looks different.”

“Is it bad?” Zuko asked, surprised. 

Sokka peered up at him. “No. You just look like a different person, that’s all.”

“Oh.” 

Zuko pulled an arm free and sat up, adjusting his glasses that had come crooked in their tussle. The optician had brought a mirror when he fitted Zuko for the lenses, but Zuko hadn’t noticed much of a difference himself. He brushed a fingertip along his scarred eye, down his long nose, towards his pointy chin – was there really that much of a difference? 

He hadn’t even realised he was smiling. 

“Who do I look like then?” he asked.

Sokka pondered the question. “Just you,” he said finally. “Like yourself – but lighter in some way. Different.”

“Thank you,” Zuko said. His heart was doing something complicated in his chest.

Once, on one of their ambles on the tundra, Sokka had pointed out a berry bush nestled in the crook of a rushing stream. To Zuko, the tiny dark berries seemed as tasteless as water, but Sokka insisted they were delicious. They argued, but in the end both of them picked off the berries by the handful, to bring back to the children at the camp. 

Perhaps there was a quality to certain things that strangers couldn’t detect – a taste you perceived only after you got to know a land, a person. A subtle sweetness, one that only time would reveal.

 

*

 

“I’m tired,” Sokka said, and gave a huge yawn. 

“Go to sleep then.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Sokka retorted, even though he was already curling up under the covers, his cheek mashed against a pillow.

“And you said I’m a difficult person?” Zuko demanded, but he got no response other than a raised eyebrow.

“Come lie down too, Zuko,” Sokka murmured. Zuko nodded and crawled under the light sheets, but he didn’t let himself fall asleep just yet. 

He listened to the continued patter of the raindrops outside. Soon, the rain would be over. Soon, he and Sokka would need to have a serious conversation about the future, how secret they would need to keep things while Sokka was still ambassador, where Sokka would live after his replacement comes. And soon too, the summer storms would end, and the government would be back in session, and a lot of people would be lining up to challenge Zuko: people passionately attached to statues and dead lies, people who would rather die than admit past wrongs.

They didn’t realise what a fight they would be in for. Zuko once duelled an admiral so arrogant that he thought he could kill the moon; he could take on anything. And that man was dead now, but the moon remained. Zuko’s countrymen were survived by what they had failed to kill: there were young waterbenders alive right now, dreaming under the Southern Lights; there were dragons coiled up in ancient caves; an airbender sheltering on his sky bison’s tail. They were more than stories. They were alive, and they would go on living. 

Only Zuko would be the last of his kind. 

A pang of melancholy shot through him, making his nose sting. But he didn’t fight it; he tried to let it pass through him like light through water. Seeking reassurance, Zuko brushed a hand over the shaved sides of Sokka’s head, then ran a light thumb over the lines of Sokka’s brow, unfurrowing now in sleep. Sokka’s breathing was coming slow and even. 

The rain outside was slowing down too. Autumn was on its way. 

Soon, the chrysanthemums would open their million-petalled buds, the maple trees would shiver and redden, and the best plums, the ones so purple they appeared almost black, would ripen and make their heavy branches dip in long, graceful arcs. There would be crisp breezes and lantern festivals, candied chestnuts and a moon that rose coppery in the evening and cooled to liquid silver at night. The harvest moon would be so bright that you could see shadowy shapes across its face: squint one way to see the shape of a koi fish, look again, and there would be a young girl’s face, looking down at the world.

Sokka would like all of this, melancholy as it was. He had never spent autumn in Caldera before, and Zuko wanted to be here for him, to show him Zuko’s favourite time of the year. 

Autumn, the season of air and cool mist...

Next to him, Sokka made a soft, sleepy noise and rolled over. He threw an arm over Zuko and pulled him closer, so Zuko’s back was pressed against his chest. Zuko wiped his eyes and let himself be held. He meant what he said earlier. Sokka wasn’t like anyone else: he was a man who understood how machines worked and systems functioned, who appreciated maps and poetry and fishing nets. A man who dealt with people and things as they were, not as how he thought they should be – a thoughtful man, for all his carelessness sometimes. Someone who wanted to fix the problems in front of him.

Someone who didn’t believe in grand ideals, but who did believe in the people who held them.

Zuko shut his eyes and reached outwards, and even in the dead of night felt the sun on the other side of the world calling out to him. 

A year and a bit had passed since his diplomatic visit to the South Pole, and now, lying on the bed, held by a man like this, Zuko let go of the past and the future altogether. He turned around on the bed and fitted himself to the shape of Sokka’s warm, sleeping body. The wave of grief passed, and in its wake there came a gentle peace – it wasn’t the same as happiness, but it was enough. It was enough to exist in this moment as it happened, in the present.

 


 

Pathik: The sixth pool of energy is the light chakra, located in the center of the forehead. It deals with insight and is blocked by illusion. The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation. Things you think are separate and different are actually one in the same.

Aang: Like the four nations.

Pathik: Yes. We are all one people, but we live as if divided.

Aang: We're all connected. Everything is connected.

("The Guru". Book 2, Episode 19 )

 


 

 

 

END NOTES:

I knew when I started out that I wanted to write a very 2020 post-war ATLA fic that attempts to address the painful intergenerational traumas of colonialism and the actual….genocides…that occurred in the show, but I didn’t expect to write so many fucking words about it.

And I wasn’t sure if I should append a lengthy annotated bibliography to this monster of a fic, but hey, it’s 2020 and embracing your pretentiousness is a good thing, baby!

The idea for an airbender spindle comes from this amazing tumblr post by @yetanotherknitter.

The Southern Water Tribe in this fic is based on a blend of Inuit and Old Norse culture, which was how I interpreted what we see in the actual show. I took a lot of artistic license with the actual whale hunt scene, but in my defense, all the animals in the Avatar universe are weird!  Parts of it are based on actual hunting practices, so at least the use of boats and sealskin floats attached to harpoons are real. Blanket tosses are also real, and they’re very fun to see. One book that I drew on a lot is Inuit, Whaling, and Sustainability, which has a lot of quotes from Inuit people talking about the importance of whaling to their culture. If you want to read more about landscapes, check out Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, by Kathleen Winter, and Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. And if you enjoy poetry and don’t mind having your heart crushed, another amazing read is Split Tooth, a novel/poetry collection written by the musician Tanya Tagaq, about her own childhood growing up as an Inuk in the Canadian Arctic.

A lot of the day-to-day details about the Fire Nation comes from the memoir My Asakusa: Coming of Age in Pre-War Tokyo , by Sadako Sawamura. Zuko’s hesitation to eat muktuk , or raw whale blubber, is one among many nods towards Japan’s history of colonisation. It comes from a manifesto by the 19 th century ethnologist Ino Kanori, where he distinguishes the people of Taiwan into Chinese (shinajin), ‘cooked barbarians’ (jukuban), and ‘raw barbarians’ (seiban). 

Zuko’s haiku in Chapter 4 is a riff on the famous one by Basho called “ Temple Bells Die Out". Also, there are entire passages here that draw directly on The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel. The former is about a man telling the nonchronological story of his broken-up family, and the latter is about a man reflecting on nation-making and mythology and how his own past comes back to haunt him. I’m obsessed with both. And also, this fic couldn’t exist without Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” (“You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves”), and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living.”). Do not even get me started on Eliot and language and time and anxiety and the traumas of war because, argh. I will not stop .

Finally, the book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil , by Susan Nieman , is a book by a Jewish woman exploring the German concept of Vergangenheitsaufarbeiting (i.e. “working through the past”). It’s heavy stuff about how Germany has dealt with the legacy of the Holocaust, and uses that to look at how America hasn’t dealt with slavery and Jim Crow laws in its own history. This and Four Quartets are the philosophical engines that carried me through the last third of the fic.