After Yuu had left to follow the waterbender, despite his warnings, Kimizuki tried to distract himself by cleaning up the communal space. It was a bit in disarray after having so many people visiting Mikaela to get healed of the weird...spirit curse. Thing. He still didn’t entirely understand everything that was going on, if he were to be honest with himself. Spirits were things people spoke about, and claimed to exist, but to actually witness their impact on people and also see someone healing them, it was a lot to take in.
He paused and looked around the room.
Akane had left some time ago to tend to the children at Kimizuki’s pushing. He could manage things just fine, and the kids had been antsy for attention since they had been forced to either help out, or sit and watch, for most of the day. However, the silence of the room, only interrupted briefly by the crackle of the fire, didn’t help Kimizuki’s nerves. It gave him too much opportunity to dwell on what was going on outside the walls of the igloo.
The silence allowed him time to admit to himself that he was worried about Yuu.
Hearing Mikaela challenge Yuu to a duel had made his blood run hot instantly. He didn’t understand what the waterbender was trying to prove, but Kimizuki needed Yuu alive. Needed him to get him back to the Fire Nation, to Mirai, to get the waterbending master to save his sister.
His worry formed into something more palpable as he paced the room to find small things to put in order. When his hands weren’t occupied, he constantly ran them through his short hair, and took off his glasses to clean them frantically, or pulled at the edges of his tunic. He looked at the doorway in between all this with anticipation of when the pair would return. And the state they would be in.
It all brought him to the realization that he had put a lot of faith into a guy he knew very little about, who he literally just met on the street. He folded some fur blankets, and looked towards the door for the probably hundredth time, recalling when Yuu had left not long ago.
He had stepped in front of Yuu as he tried to leave, his feet carrying him forward before he even had time to really think about what he was doing.
Yuu sighed. “Really?”
“You’re even dumber than I thought if you think you have the slightest chance of winning this fight.” Kimizuki deadpanned, refusing to move from the door.
“Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence.” Yuu rolled his eyes. “And here I was hoping you of all people would know how far I’ve come. Since you were, you know, with me. From Day One.”
Kimizuki poked his chest as he stared him down. “That’s exactly why. Since I’ve been with you from Day One I know you still have no sense of preservation.”
“Oh, c’mon.” He laughed, with a sense of ease that made Kimizuki want to punch him. “It’s as if you forgot we actually fought people before.”
“But that’s different!” Kimizuki hissed. “Everyone we fought this whole time were simple thugs or small-fry sentries, you dumb shit. Not a master waterbender who also happens to be the strongest in the tribe. And might I remind you that you’ll be fighting him alone?”
“Yes, Kimizuki, I know what duel means. I’m not that dumb.” Yuu replied. “Now if you don’t have anything helpful to say, can you get out of the way?”
For an instant that seemed to span into minutes, they stared at each other wordlessly, as though engaging in a battle of wills. Kimizuki couldn’t form into words what he wanted, which was to give Yuu all his reasons for really why he shouldn’t fight Mikaela. They stuck in his throat painfully. Yuu wouldn’t listen to them anyway, because in his mind this duel was the answer to their problems, the way to get a waterbender on their side. And Kimizuki wished Yuu could see it wasn’t. There had to be someone else out there. It wasn’t worth his life.
Still, Yuu refused to break eye contact. Kimizuki knew he wouldn’t win this one, not without attempting to knock his friend out to keep him from leaving.
Kimizuki let out a heavy sigh. “Is there any chance at all I can change your mind?” he asked, knowing the answer even before he finished his question.
“Nope, sorry.” Yuu’s smile was infuriatingly bright. “Don’t tell me you’re actually worried for me.”
“Fat chance in hell, punk.” Kimizuki relented, shaking his head as he stepped aside. He didn’t think even admitting something like that would have changed his mind. “Fine, then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Feel free to go ahead and get thoroughly fucked.”
He watched Yuu walk past him, undeterred by Kimizuki’s words. “And while you’re doing that, I’m gonna replenish our supplies and clean up. You know, actually do something productive.”
Yuu had turned his head to give a quick grin and wave, before sprinting away. Thankfully he missed Kimizuki slamming his hand against the wall in anger.
The memory made his palms sweaty with anger all over again. Kimizuki clenched his hands around the fur in his hands before throwing it to the ground with a growl. Why was he so worried about some punk kid, anyways? If the guy wanted to get himself killed, that would be on him. For all Kimizuki knew, he could still get a waterbender to go save Mirai without the aid of the Prince.
In all their time together, there wasn’t much he actually knew about Yuu aside from what he had observed and what little info he had managed to get out of him. Yuu was a Firebender, and the Prince no one knew about, the Prince hidden away by his angry uncle. His parents had been killed by waterbenders in the middle of the night.
He was a brat who got seasick and was clumsy as all hell. He could fight but it was rough and he won mostly by dumb luck, when he managed.
He was stubborn. But also caring. And he was keen on helping a poor kid like Kimizuki to save his family.
He recalled the look on Yuu’s face as soon as he had set foot into his small home and seen Mirai, how his entire demeanor had changed. Kimizuki had been unsure about accepting help from a stranger, royalty or not, but he had to admit there was a softness and determined look to Yuu that was contagious. Mirai had seen it, too.
Kimizuki cleared his throat and rolled his shoulders. That was why he was so on edge about Yuu agreeing to the fight. It was all for Mirai. That was all. He needed to save his sister. He needed the extra help to get into the Fire Nation. Without Yuu, would Narumi even help? Especially since he had asked Kimizuki to help watch over him...
He drew closer to the fire and sat on one of the pillows left there, studying the flames. He had always wondered what it would be like to be a bender of the elements, to be able to take flames and control them. To him fire had always still been dangerous and something not to trifle with – but to someone like Yuu they were a weapon, a part of him and something he depended on.
He reached out towards the flames, close but not touching, feeling the heat along his skin. A part of his memory recalled the first time he met Yuu, how he had been surrounded by flames...
His thoughts went back to Mirai. If Mikaela hadn’t killed Yuu by some stroke of luck, then would they actually return to the Fire Nation together and save his sister?
And if that happened, what then for their little group. Would they all go off their separate ways? Kimizuki had only ever known a life of thievery and tending to his sister, he wasn’t sure what he would do without needing to worry about his livelihood in such a way. And what would Mikaela and Yuu do? Mikaela would only be going to help healing, and Yuu was supposed to do…something…while in the Water Tribe…
Kimizuki lowered his hand. What was Yuu supposed to do while here, anyhow—
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps entering the space behind him. He turned sharply towards the door.
“What the fuck?” He jumped up to his feet and took a moment to assess what the hell was going on. Mikaela stood in the entryway, covered in dirt and bruises, his hair no longer a soft golden frame around his face. Instead it hung in muddy strands in front of his eyes, which were dark and focused on the ground. He looked as though he were wearing red instead of his usual soft blues. The color didn’t really suit him, Kimizuki thought.
But then he realized the source of the color; in his arms was Yuu, clearly unconscious. Covered in blood.
Lots of blood.
“Are you fucking crazy?” Kimizuki stormed forward, intending to rip Yuu away from the blond. That finally got the guys attention as he looked up with anger in his eyes. Kimizuki didn’t care. As he got close he could see Yuu had a huge gash in his side where most of the blood was coming from, and his face also had multiple cuts with dried blood clinging to his skin. Kimizuki snapped his eyes up to Mikaela, beyond pissed now. “What were you thinking? You know he’s stubborn—“
Mikaela sidestepped him and moved towards the center of the room. “He brought it on himself.”
“Bullshit.” Kimizuki followed him and grabbed his shoulder. “You did this on purpose.”
Mikaela shrugged his hand off him as he lowered Yuu to the blankets near the fire. “He couldn’t control...his power. Not my fault.”
“So, what, you beat the shit out of him until he couldn’t fight back to prove some sort of point?”
“You’re blinded by your need for the prince. You think he is the only answer to help your sister.” Mikaela turned his head and gave him a look with hard, blue eyes. “And he is your only friend, right?”
Kimizuki straightened up, hand lifting away as if burned by flames. “He just promised me a waterbender who could heal my sister.”
“A fool’s word, is what you took as a promise. That’s your own fault.” Mikaela began to carefully pull at what was left of Yuu’s tunic.
The waterbender stood up, nearly leaping to get close to Kimizuki and grip his arm so fast he didn’t even have time to pull away. His gaze was hard, voice low and threatening. “Do you want to keep arguing, and let Yuuichirou die meanwhile? Or do you want me to save him?”
Kimizuki’s arms hung at his sides. He turned from Mikaela’s stare to Yuu’s face, eyes tightly shut and mouth slightly open as he lay there. Blood smeared on his cheeks in small lines as though he had been crying.
“You better save him, or you’ll follow him.” He wrestled his arm free and turned to leave. At the entrance he gave one final look. Mikaela was already on his knees next to Yuu, the now familiar blue glow shining through the water he worked in his hands.
As if Mikaela sensed his presence still, he uttered barely loud enough for Kimizuki to hear.
“You can trust me.”
Meandering between sleep and reality, Yuu couldn’t decide where he’d ought to be. On one hand, his consciousness called forth to the pain lingering in the soreness of his muscles, seeking his attention and its need to be healed. On the other, Yuu could slip back into oblivion and forget all about his body’s worries, ignoring all his subconscious wanted him to remember in favor of a peaceful slumber.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a choice when something cool touched his skin and began to ease all the ache away.
It was comforting. Like gentle hands digging into the flesh of his skin and massaging in all the right places. Yuu wanted to stay conscious, to keep feeling this cooling sense of tranquility around himself. But its effects weighed him back farther into the darkness of his mind, tempting him into its lullaby until he relinquished all control and succumbed.
With an effort he hadn’t expected to need for a simple task, Yuu peeked through the slits of his eyelids, only able to exert so much energy to keep awake. He sighted a hazy picture of a figure in yellow and blue, kneeling over him with what were possibly his hands on Yuu’s chest.
They were glowing a familiar shade of calming blue and Yuu strangely wasn’t frightened by it. If anything, his sense of contentment grew until his eyes could no longer focus and his vision was once more consumed by black.
But he was still hanging on by a thread to his awareness, just barely, his curiosity over the figure beside him keeping him aloft and thinking.
When had he last seen someone with the colors of yellow and blue again? An image of a moon overhead, two burly men towering him and snow as far as the eye can see brought Yuu a memory of the first night he saw the man.
The waterbender. The master healer. The man Yuu needed to tutor him in becoming the best Avatar ever. How could Yuu have ever forgotten about him?
However, his image brought with it a myriad of memories. Yuu almost wanted to shy away from them. Why wouldn’t he when he recalled how powerful his bending became near the end of their duel?
It was like he’d been backed into a corner by Mikaela’s attacks and the only way his body could respond was pool into an untapped power Yuu hadn’t known was within him. He’d felt invincible in that moment. Unstoppable. But frightening too. Difficulty in containing him was an understatement, especially when Mikaela was hardly able to do it himself.
Kimizuki was right...maybe he shouldn’t have gone alone to the duel after all. As he watched the form above him move in and out of his view, his mind wandered back to what had taken place...
It wasn’t as if this was the first time Kimizuki lacked absolute faith in Yuu’s abilities, but somehow he still felt a little aggravated.
He honestly didn’t care what people thought of him. It couldn’t be he was actually hoping for a different reaction from the guy.
I’ll show you, you overgrown flamingo. I’ll make you regret ever doubting me!
Things were finally looking up for him. He had a chance to finally show that conceited waterbender exactly what he was made of. Maybe he could even win the duel without ever needing to rely on other elements. Who’s to say Mikaela ever fought a firebender before?
Okay, sure, maybe he was getting a little ahead of himself. But as they say, fake it til’ you make it, right? In any case, he was determined to end this match with a bang. He’d practiced so much back at the palace, surely all those hours fighting his tutors would account for something in a one on one battle.
He found Mikaela in the flat field surrounded by snow dunes in which they were to hold their duel. It was situated far from the village, so none of them had to worry about their attacks endangering lives. Yuu would usually relish the attention of people watching him in action, but in this situation where he might have to reveal his identity, he needed the place to be entirely secluded from everyone, including Kimizuki.
The blond spared a glance at Yuu as he approached, face neutral as he stood up from his meditating position. “You came.”
“Of course I did. There’s no way I’m gonna flake out on this.” Yuu simpered.
Mikaela tilted his head slightly. “Kimizuki’s not with you.”
“He’s not coming,” Yuu shrugged. “Thinks he knows how this whole thing’s gonna turn out.”
“Does he now?”
Yuu didn’t know what to make of Mikaela’s tone. It seemed inconsequential and harmless, but he couldn’t shake off the feeling there was some kind of hidden meaning lurking under the surface.
Yuu decided to leave it. “Yeah. So, you ready or not?” He remarked lightly as he tossed his winter coat off, leaving him in his changshan. There was no need to wear any more disguises, and though it was light, the original outfit Narumi had given him provided the best comfort and legroom. He’d work up a sweat in no time.
He rolled his neck from side to side and stretched his legs. He couldn’t wait to move and shake off the chill already infiltrating his clothes.
Mikaela had also shrugged off his fur cloak, leaving him in his lighter waterbender garb underneath. It was form fitting and sleeveless and unlike any waterbender outfit Yuu had seen so far — lacking the traditional furs, thick trousers and warm linen; for a second, Yuu wondered how such an unconventionally light outfit wouldn’t outright give him hypothermia under daily circumstances.
Mikaela cleared his throat, and Yuu jolted back to attention. “Before we begin, I’d like to make something clear first.”
“What’s that?” he asked, bemused.
“As you know, I’m a waterbender who is capable of healing. That being said, I won’t be using it during this duel. We won’t drag this out longer than we need to.”
“Alright, sounds fair.” Yuu agreed easily. “Anything else?”
“Well…” Mikaela paused, seeming a little conflicted. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but thought against it. “Never mind. We can start whenever you’re ready.”
Yuu smirked. He entered into an aggressive stance; spreading his feet apart, pulling a guarded arm toward his chest as the other was extended outwards, palms up and fingers splayed in front of him. Fire thrummed under his fingertips, ready to ignite at a moment’s command. His mental acuity was uncluttered and lucid; he couldn’t be more ready even if he tried.
Mikaela stood in a stance echoing what he had seen them practicing outside - it wasn’t a hard stance but something defensive in nature, ready for Yuu to strike.
There was no one there to make sure this was a fair fight. Only riveting tension making his heart vault in an almost nervous fervor and a definitive silence often found in the calm of the storm, crushing and foreboding. Once Yuu made his first move, he would shatter the fragile tranquility connecting them by a sliver.
He’d have the first honor, Yuu decided, as flames finally burst free from the confines of his fingers, blazing to life and expelling a familiar, comforting warmth that instantly thawed the chill on his frosted skin.
Yuu breathed out, letting out a giddy laugh. It felt so thrilling to finally let loose and firebend for once without having to worry about anyone seeing him and being exposed. The fire was melting away every burden weighing him down, every chain shackling him to the unforgiving floor.
He could fly.
He shot up, taking off the ground as flames propelled him forward at exhilarating speed straight at Mikaela, who still had yet to make a move.
“Here I come!” Yuu crowed as he quickly closed in on the waterbender. Using the definitive momentum of his flames, he swung around with his arms and plowed through the air with a spinning high kick, bringing down his leg right on Mikaela’s head.
Or where his head would have been if his attack had actually connected as planned. As it was, the blond had sidestepped at the last second with complete ease to avoid Yuu’s strike.
Yuu landed a little too hard on the ground and would have stumbled from the force if the snow hadn’t helped cushion his fall a little. But before he could right himself, Mikaela raised his arms, and a glassy stream of water shot around him like a whip and snaked around Yuu’s outstretched leg before curling tightly around his ankle.
Yuu gasped, barely able to register the icy sensation climbing up his limb before he was dragged forward, his free leg giving way to the movement as he fell on his back.
It was the same move Mikaela had used on the masked men who had attacked Yuu—but this was the first time Yuu had ever been water bent on, so instead of feeling fear and panic, his chest swelled with the desire to prove himself even more than before.
But it was too frigid. A splash of freezing water on the burning inferno that was Yuu. No, that couldn’t do. Not when he was just cast free!
He focused on his captured leg, feeling it burn up, drowning the biting cold, drastically heating up the water snake coiled around it until it was reduced to nothing more than water vapor.
Flashes of his duel with Kimizuki came back to him. Kimizuki, who was at a disadvantage most of the time due to his lack of bending powers, who also more than made up for it with his acrobatic agility.
Using his arms as leverage against the biting cold snow, Yuu threw himself towards the waterbender, his lower body twisting with the motion of a flourishing backwards kick directed at Mikaela’s jaw.
The blond likely hadn’t expected Yuu to know how to counter a water attack —his face finally broke its perfect neutrality, showing just the tiniest bit of expression. A millisecond later and Yuu’s leg would have clipped him right on his chin, and Mikaela must have known it was too late for him to parry.
So he brought his arm up to guard instead, a large sphere of water engulfing it to counter Yuu’s attack and act as a shield to his upper body. He was pushed back away from Yuu, water hissing into wisps of steam on the side of his arm as it made contact with Yuu’s leg.
It was an opportunity if Yuu ever saw one. He punched the air with knuckled fists, pelting fireball after fireball at Mikaela, each one bigger than the last and singeing even more water as they crashed into the barrier. He could tell he was about to successfully breach Mikaela’s defense.
The waterbender had other plans, however. After the fourth fireball, he ducked under the next as it sailed over his head, his arm making contact with the snow-laden ground.
In an instant, a barrier of hardened ice rose from the ground in front of him, effectively rendering Yuu’s barrage of fireballs momentarily useless.
Yuu tched and prepared to vault himself at the barrier to blast it apart himself.
But something sailed through the air and nicked him on the cheek before he could move.
The fuck was that?
His cheek stung, a telling sign of a wound. He gingerly touched the wound and the red blood on his fingers confirmed. Before he could decipher anything further, another one came at him, and then another one.
Yuu grit his teeth and threw himself low to the ground and out of reach, rolling on the snow. Ice daggers He had to begrudgingly hand it to Mikaela; the guy really knew his moves.
Really, all the more reason to convince him to be his waterbending mentor.
Thanks experiencing firsthand the mysterious ways of waterbending, Yuu recalled one of the things he had learned about the element when he had managed to find some scrolls on waterbenders.
Unlike firebenders, who generated fire on their own depending on their stamina reserves, waterbenders drew water from their surroundings.
So as long as snow was around them, Mikaela had an inexhaustible supply of water, which meant Yuu had zero chance of being able to turn the fight in his favor. Kimizuki probably knew this, and expected Yuu would be cowed by it eventually despite his firebending.
He probably didn’t think Yuu could figure out a way to use his firebending to his advantage.
Yuu ran to the side, managing to narrowly avoid dagger after dagger until one plunged dangerously close into the snow right in front of his path —and when he turned around, more had blocked his way.
He was trapped.
Mikaela lunged forward with a water whip in hand the instant Yuu halted, and that’s when Yuu yelled, sweeping his leg around him in a full 360, dispelling the endless sheet of white and heavily strewn daggers around within a large radius of a circular heatwave that exploded outwards. Fortunately, it caught Mikaela in its blast and drove him back several meters away, dissipating his water whip in the process. Dry, hard rock peeked out from under their feet as the snow in their immediate surroundings evaporated.
He didn’t manage to clear all of the snow in the whole field, but a good chunk of it was gone. It was a significant blow to Mikaela’s supply, which was a big win in Yuu’s book.
They were both panting for air as they kept their distance from each other. Yuu grinned as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Like I’d let you get that close to me.”
The irritation on Mikaela’s face was all but palpable now. Yuu had to admit getting the cold and aloof waterbender this riled up was fascinating, but in a dangerous sort of way.
Kind of like Kimizuki but not. It was like playing with fire, but not-fire.
Mikaela straightened, cracking his knuckles as he looked, really looked at Yuu. He seemed a little contemplative, though it didn’t clue Yuu into what was going through his head at all. What was he up to just staring at him?
For the first time since the start of their match, Mikaela spoke.
“I admit to having underestimated your capabilities. It seems you are not as much of a pampered prince as I thought,” His voice was tempered steel, but it didn’t sound incensed. Not in the slightest. There was a slight edge to it, but he was still infuriatingly calm, much to Yuu’s chagrin. “I commend you for your efforts. Unfortunately, the fun ends here.”
Despite Yuu’s breathless excitement at being taken seriously for once, he couldn’t hold back an audible gulp. What was Mikaela truly capable of, if this had been him holding back?
Yuu looked down for a brief second as he wondered. But that was a mistake. As soon as he looked up, Mikaela had disappeared.
Yuu sucked in a sharp gasp. He couldn’t believe he let his guard down at such a pivotal moment. Hadn’t Shinya always told him to pay attention to his surroundings and to always, always protect his back?
Yuu’s emerald eyes widened.
Behind him .
He whirled around just in time. There was no chance to wonder how the hell Mikaela had gotten there so fast, because before he knew it, he had doubled back and instinctively focused everything he had on defending himself. Mikaela was mid-air, arm outstretched to grasp at Yuu with ice sparking at his fingertips.
Crowley, help me!
Mika found his arm cocooned, trapped in an unmistakeable stalagmite of earth protruding from the ground directly in front of Yuu to hold Mikaela in place. His eyes were wide and mouth fell open.
For a second that seemed to span into centuries, everything was silent, with only heavy breathing from both people piercing through the veil of thick, electric tension in the air. Brilliant, cold blue meeting vivid, fiery green.
“You,” Mikaela bit out, getting over his initial shock, though his eyes were still blown in slight disbelief. “You, the next Fire Lord, and also the next prophesied Avatar. The next in the cycle after the highly classified earthbender Avatar. It all makes sense now.”
Yuu’s mind was running a mile a minute, thoughts racing through his head and leaving him speechless, hearing but not really listening to what Mikaela was saying. He actually gave himself away without meaning to, and now Mikaela knew.
There are people out there who’d want to hurt you for being not only the prince of the Fire Nation, but also the Avatar. Shinya had said once, right before Yuu made his great escape.
Waterbenders are not to be trusted.
When it came down to it, Yuu wasn’t actually prepared to handle the consequences of revealing his true identity. He watched as Mikaela struggled to remove his arm from the rock it was encased in as Yuu silently panicked.
Mikaela was gifted, boasting a skill range on a much higher threshold than most of the benders Yuu had encountered thus far. Yuu would even go so far as to call him a master.
But he was still a waterbender, the absolute last bender who should know the truth about Yuu without a promise of confidentiality.
Hell, if he had to be honest, he’d much prefer Kimizuki knowing over Mikaela.
Yuu knew next to nothing about him. He had no clue how the waterbender would react. What if he’d go around broadcasting the information to everyone? What if he’d tried to take his power for himself? What if he’d do the same as his brethren ten years ago and—
No, couldn’t afford to falter now. This was bound to happen one way or another, if he was serious about learning waterbending. He couldn’t be haunted by his past now, of all times.
Feeling a little faint, he tried to laugh it off. It didn’t sound too forced in his opinion —just a little winded. When he found his voice again, he was relieved. He dared to take a step closer. “Haha. So you figured it out?”
“I knew something wasn't right about you. The spirit incident just tipped me off even more,” Mikaela said. “Wouldn’t you have caught on to the fact that no one except those who hold direct ties to the Spirit World can see spirits? Only the Avatar is capable of such things.”
Mikaela sighed. His free hand curled into a fist at his side. “I suppose not. Well, if anything, this makes my objective clear.”
Before Yuu could get a single word in, he was repelled backwards with a sharp pain impacting his side, the high water pressure along with it knocking the wind clean out of his lungs. He fell to his knees with frustration and managed to raise his eyes.
Mikaela had broken himself out of the airtight grip of Yuu’s rock prison by blowing it and Yuu away. Swirls of dust moved as he stepped forward, but Yuu didn’t have time to curse Mikaela. The sharp pain returned again and he hissed as he touched the spot it resonated from -
There was a sticky sensation on his side, stinging even worse than the cuts on his face. Surely the impact wasn’t that bad.
His fingers came away dark crimson, much to his churning horror.
Mikaela was not kidding around. He was seriously attempting to severely injure him, if not outright kill him.
Yuu sat up as abruptly as he could, ignoring the wave of dizziness threatening to overtake him. “Are you crazy?” Yuu gritted out disbelievingly at Mikaela, who was already crouched low and preparing his next attack.!”
This turned out much, much worse than he had anticipated. Double the worst case scenario, and triple times that. In all honesty, Yuu had expected the fight to end the moment Mikaela found out about his true identity as the Avatar. He would acknowledge Yuu’s powers and accept the honor of being his waterbending mentor. There couldn’t have been a greater honor, right? If Yuu were in his position, he wouldn’t have thought twice of serving the Avatar.
And wasn’t that what participating in the duel meant? Fighting until the power of the opponent was acknowledged or a level of mutual understanding was reached? His practice duels with Kimizuki always ended after they both tired themselves out. No bloodshed, only verbal barbs and sore, aching limbs. No fear of real danger or death.
But then again, he knew Kimizuki, and Kimizuki knew him.
Could he really say the same of Mikaela, whom he had only known for less than five days? Even after they met, Mikaela had been less than kind in spite of Yuu’s amity with his charges. All things considered, he had assaulted Yuu out of nowhere for something he didn’t do.
He didn’t know him enough to know how far Mikaela would go in a duel or when he’d declare it over, and asking him hadn’t garnered Yuu a proper reply.
If this kept up, this duel could very well turn into a fight to the death.
His breaths came in sharper, shorter pants. He had to survive this. For the sake of Kimizuki and everyone he left behind. He started to stand.
He would survive.
“Try to prepare yourself.” was the only warning he got before Mikaela charged, any trace of reserve in his form gone, replaced by glacial determination. The last of the snow in his immediate vicinity was melted, water dancing around him as they coalesced into an object within his outstretched hand. As he ran, it grew longer with more water he collected, and soon it froze, tapering off at the end with a cruel glint.
Mikaela had made use of the limited water he had left around him and manipulated it into the deadliest weapon Yuu had ever laid eyes upon.
He had only ever fantasized about swords made from ice, but this was undeniably real.
Icy wind whipped around Yuu’s face as if it were screaming at him of the impending danger and urging him to get away, and for the first time in his life, Yuu heeded its call, silently pleading for its help. He needed to get his hands on everything, anything to get him out of this situation alive and in one piece.
Mikaela’s strength was incomprehensible. His skillset repertoire was beyond even Yuu’s wildest expectations. The blond’s strength wasn’t absurd, but his keen eye made him highly versatile and adaptable to his opponent’s moves, complimenting his flawless mastery of an element that had taken Yuu’s parents’ lives in all of its callousness, all too easily. Even if Yuu was the Avatar, he knew he couldn’t light a candle to Mikaela’s might as he was now. Receiving his frontal assault would only lead the firebender to his death.
Before he could budge after just managing to rise up to his feet, Mikaela closed the distance in a flurry of snow and ice; sword scraping lightly on the snow and slicing it in half like it would to Yuu if he didn't dodge that very instant.
Yuu stumbled backwards when his adversary's sword swung out with conviction. The point caught his already torn changshan and ripped it clean off his torso, exposing him and his open wound to the biting, chilly air. Yuu didn't have time to catch his breath as Mikaela immediately went for another swing, undeterred. He aimed for his face, and in a thoughtless reaction to danger, Yuu swiped at it in a pitiful attempt to bat it away. Perhaps the wind took pity on him, since it intervened in response, redirecting the flow of the attack so it missed Yuu, even if only by a hair.
Just when Yuu thought he could sneak in a quick counter, Mikaela's relentless agility made his form unpredictable. As if that weren't enough, if Yuu wasn't worrying about the waterbender's unnatural speed, he was worrying about death reincarnated into a merciless, frozen blade. He was almost solely relying on his frantic, adrenaline-crazed footwork —albeit fortunate, as it narrowly steered him out of harm's way at pivotal times.
It was only a single misstep, a small negligence borne from the realization he could easily push Mikaela back with the wind's aid, or further propel himself to safety and focus on proper defense. But with every revelation that struck akin to lightning on the ground, Yuu's reflexes slowed, and that was when Mikaela's blade snagged the wound on his side, bleeding its angry red even more.
Yuu screamed as he toppled over, unable to withstand the excruciating pain erupting, on top of an already throbbing laceration. He didn't dare sneak a glance, didn't want to see the countdown towards his ultimate demise, letting his hand fly towards it instead in a poor attempt to stem the increased blood flow and pain. Water whipped across his face, and he was thrown back into the snow, blood smearing on the ground.
Although the burning cacophony of acute pain racked all of his senses, he was miraculously still conscious of Mikaela's next coming attack in the form of more ice daggers, and he scrambled to his feet to dodge, biting back the spell of dizziness that threatened to claim him.
His body was screaming at him to flee, and Yuu was sorely tempted to. But against his better judgement, he loosened his fists that had automatically assumed its default firebender stance. His heart pounded wildly against his ribcage, screaming it wanted out. Yuu bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. The blood loss coming from his side was starting to mess with his vision, and his stamina was at least halfway drained. He didn’t have much power left.
There was no guarantee it was going to work.
The ice sword was enchantingly beautiful up close, even if it was about to potentially skewer Yuu. There was no hesitation in the waterbender’s unflinching gaze, no semblance of mercy as he readied his blade for the final strike.
Yuu bowed down to the forces of nature, letting himself not only be at the mercy of Mikaela’s blade, but also the wind still lingering, possibly from the momentum of Mikaela’s assault. The wind howled, building up all around him.
As he stared at the mighty sword bearing down upon him, he simply felt like a leaf.
Suddenly, the wind changed its course of direction. Mikaela realized too late as he swung his blade forward with a polished gait, slicing the wind in front of him, catching nothing but empty gusts of air.
The landscape shifted for Yuu, the wind pivoting him swiftly around and away from danger in a second that seemed to move excruciatingly slow. Its voice was soothing and lilting as it whispered into Yuu’s ear, urging him to further harness its power. He obliged, and a great current lashed out at Mikaela’s back and sent him flying forwards.
He recovered, twisting in the air before landing on his hand and doubling back on his feet. Flexible and lithe like water, though his hair was extremely mussed and he looked a little worse for wear.
As Yuu quickly scanned his surroundings from his new vantage point, he realized —as he and the waterbender switched places— Mikaela had gotten much closer to the snow outside the radius of Yuu’s earlier heatblast.
He thought he had managed to turn the wind in his favor —and he had, literally… but figuratively, luck was still largely on Mikaela’s side.
Praying fervently on the off chance Mikaela was too focused on Yuu to notice his own sudden tactical advantage, Yuu beckoned the air currents around him with large, sweeping movements, making as though he was targeting Mikaela.
He took a deep breath and expelled all the energy he amassed from his fingers, a massive directional shift of air he hurtled straight in Mikaela’s direction —who had raised his arms to block the onslaught— and fanned out past him.
Just when Yuu thought he succeeded in blowing the snow away, Mikaela sprang into the air, the wind giving him a slight boost —much to Yuu’s dawning horror— and snatched the water out of the air to pull it around himself like a coiling blanket before shooting it downwards in front of him, freezing it as the tip hit the ground and turned into a magnificent oblique spire.
Yuu had no time to take it in before Mikaela landed on it, balancing his body just so to glide cleanly down its precarious, steep surface—
—towards Yuu at a positively terrifying speed.
Fire took up too much energy and wind was useless. Yuu struggled not to panic through the hazy, thick sensation of slipping and losing ground the more Mikaela closed his distance.
No matter how much he tried to repel the waterbender, he just kept coming. There was no way at all to slow him down, apart from Yuu’s bursts of serendipity.
Feeling like he had to get away, he willed the earth under his feet to catapult him into the air, away from the rapidly advancing Mikaela.
Yuu sensed more than knew he was dangerously close to burning up the very last of his power, that he was very close to his limit. At most, he only had power for one more attack. He had a feeling he wouldn’t even be able to cushion himself when he’d fall afterwards.
He had never attempted to use up this much power before, and the consequences of it tugged at the back of his mind like a guilty conscience. But loss was the furthest thing from his mind right now. At this point he’d do anything, absolutely anything to win.
He dug deeper into his exhausted reserves, begging for any last bit of strength, resisting the onslaught of lethargy with all of his might.
His arms quaked like the earth he commanded as he moved, scorching hotter and hotter as he forced every last bit of power he had that howled in desperate overexertion. The earth beneath his feet rumbled in tandem, rousing from its permanent slumber.
Numerous pillars of rock erupted in jagged succession from the ground, trying to uproot the advancing waterbender, who dodged each one with precise accuracy. He no longer had haughty confidence, but he was more focused than ever before. His eyes locked onto Yuu’s with frightening clarity as he took off from an ice ramp, closing in distance for the kill.
Not enough. More, more! Yuu roared in his mind, more power surging out, a dissonant cacophony of rock and wind slicing in Mika’s direction, slicing Yuu’s own skin. He had lost control, but as long as he kept up the barrage, sooner or later the waterbender would fall.
He couldn’t think anymore. He didn’t have the energy to. For an infinite moment, everything turned empty and white; his vision, his mind, his senses. He felt nothing, weightless and devoid of all emotion. It was as if he was cut off from everything and nothing all at once.
When he came back to, he was still in the air, and underneath him was a colossal crater that had leveled and drowned the whole expanse of the field —even the snow dunes. It was the byproduct of indiscriminate destruction; like the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that swallowed all, the only indication anything ever existed being faint fumes curling up into the air and dissipating into nothing.
He felt wetness slide down his face and drip down to the earth below, tinting his vision a deep red, but his attention was elsewhere.
Nothing on the ground had escaped its wrath, and Mikaela was nowhere to be seen.
For a split gut wrenching moment, Yuu felt like vomiting. Decimating the landscape without his consciousness was one thing, but if he also claimed another life—
“But he killed people, Shinya! When he was seven! SEVEN! What am I supposed to do if it happens again, huh? What if he can’t control it?”
“...by the time we got inside, the waterbenders were already dead.”
“I… That was… me?”
The bloodcurdling scream that erupted from his throat seemed dysphonic and inhuman. Arms scratched and pulled at his hair, trembling, bleeding an angry red. Red; a different shade of fire that was darker and colder. It burned him, scalded him with saturated cruelty and everlasting despair. Blood the color of sin, running endlessly thick like the memories clouding his head, consuming it whole in its despicable dysphoria. Blood on his hands. Another sin he could never wash away—
“At this rate, you’ll just destroy yourself.” A voice came from behind him, and before Yuu could react, the air was knocked out of his lungs, and the ground rose up to meet him.
For a moment, he only saw white, and he couldn’t tell if it was the snow or the splitting headache threatening to rip through him. His head felt thick and foggy, weighing down on his neck like weights.
Too heavy. Everything was too heavy.
But he hadn’t murdered. He was still alive. Even while agony rocked his entire being, he clung to that semblance of salvation. It was the only thing that mattered.
Sound came back to Yuu in short, fuzzy bursts of stinging pain, making his ears ring. He tried to stand up again, but none of his limbs listened, instead forcing him to collapse. In his brief respite, he made out coarse wheezing, a gulping of air like a man drowned, taking it in like it was never enough. Wild and spastic, resembling a beast. The ground under him was dyed red. Was that his? It looked bad.
Did he break a rib? Pierce an organ? He couldn’t tell where the pain began or ended. It washed out everything else until the deep-seated ache corroding him was all that remained. But it was worth it, if it helped him latch on to consciousness. He was still awake, so he could still tolerate it.
He could still go on. So why? Why couldn’t he move?
“It’s over.” The soles of a boot crunched on the small patches of remaining snow in front of him and stopped, maintaining a respectable distance. Yuu couldn’t look up, so he was stuck staring at it with lenses tinged with fog and red. Like a dog at the heels of its master. A weakling.
“What were you thinking?” Mikaela continued without sympathy. “Were you so ready to throw your life away over something like this?”
Yuu didn’t reply in favor of squeezing his eyes shut. Trying to will away the pain, the disgrace, this public humiliation.
It was just a light pressure of a heel on his arm, a sole resting on the crook of his elbow. But somehow it was enough to make his entire body seize up in aftershock, and he held back a broken whimper.
He gasped for air, reeling at the sharp pinpricks shooting up his arm and his lungs, setting his nerves alight in sheer agony.
He gave in. “You… you were going to kill me. Didn’t— didn’t have a choice.”
“What makes you say that?” Mikaela said.
Yuu paused, temporarily forgetting the excruciating pain wracking his whole body. What did Mikaela mean? Wasn’t it obvious? He had injured Yuu from the blast, had every intention to harm—
Wait a minute. That was weird. Even in his own head, it sounded ludicrous. His adrenaline slowly began to ebb away, and it was as if reality slapped him in the face like cold water. Now that he had time to think it over, he felt a little mortified. Did he really think that? He couldn’t handle a bit of blood without chickening out? There was no way he could say that out loud.
“Do you think waterbenders just kill arbitrarily? If I wanted to kill you, I would have plunged this sword straight through your chest.”
Yuu grimaced. “You kept fighting… even after I sh-showed you... I’m the Avatar.”
“So I should have just bowed down to the great and mighty Avatar who had deemed me worthy of his blessing, and all would be right in the world?” Mikaela kneeled, grabbing Yuu by the scruff of his neck and forcing him to look at the blond despite his groans of pain. “Wake up, Yuuichirou. The world isn’t some fairytale land where you can reenact your ideal fantasies just because you're the Avatar.”
He knew that. Did Mikaela think he didn’t? He had stopped living any semblance of a fairytale life the night his parents were murdered in cold blood.
Yuu’s throat felt scratchy and thick. “I just wanted to...prove my—myself. That I’m worth...being followed.” It felt like being rubbed raw every time he spoke.
“You? A leader?” Mikaela scoffed. “Your friend was right. You do lack self-preservation instincts. You’re the future king of your nation, right? And the Avatar, on top of that. I don't even want to think of the future of this world. So much power endowed on a presumptuous, witless ingrate headed to an early death —it’s downright horrifying. How is it your guardians let you roam free? Your esteemed Fire Lord, too, all blindsided by you. They must be either dreadfully simple or just plain incompetent.”
Yuu thought of Shinya, who had cornered him and could have easily dragged him back to the Fire Nation, but instead chose to let him go with a blessing— directly betraying Guren’s trust in order to preserve Yuu’s journey as an Avatar.
Yuu thought of Narumi, who had stood by his side always, pledged his own life and blood, sacrificing his own livelihood for Yuu to break free of his country’s shackles, to seek his own destiny.
Yuu thought of Guren, who had taken it upon himself after Yuu’s parents’ death to rise to regency in spite of his aversion to inheriting his brother’s throne, so he could stand by with what he believed in his own way— protecting Yuu.
Something inside Yuu snapped.
“What was that?”
“Don’t you dare—don’t you dare insult them!” He spat, eyes flaring in unbridled rage. Overwhelmed by emotion, he reached inside for the power that always flickered inside him and made itself at home, forgetting for an instant his dire condition.
All he found was a flash of searing, hot flash pain spiking through every inch of his fried nerves, and before he could stop himself, his throat tightened up and convulsed, choking up warm blood that splattered horribly on the ground.
Mikaela didn’t flinch, nor did disgust mar his expression as he spoke. “There you go. You can’t even control your powers. What are you hoping to gain?”
Yuu scrunched his eyes shut. “I—”
“All you have going for you is your rebellious tenacity. But it’s that tenacity that will soon be the cause of not just your own demise, but also everyone else around you,” His voice was as cold and biting as the ice he wielded, and under normal circumstances, Yuu would have been amused at how fitting it was for him. He was rigid and unchanging, impenetrable by any means.
“You’re like a bomb ready to go off at any minute. And you want me to come with you? Don’t make me laugh.” He released Yuu, who barely caught himself with riddled and battered arms.
He clenched his eyes shut as the shot of agony languorously ebbed up his elbow.
“You don’t know if you can control this properly, Yuu.”
“Waterbending isn’t the answer to all your problems!”
“You—you’re wrong…” Yuu rasped. His throat felt clogged with the leftover blood and bile he refused to upend.
Mikaela’s gaze was frighteningly calm. “Am I? Tell me what part of what I said was wrong. The fact that you’re an incompetent ruler who has no sense of responsibility? Or the fact that you’re leading your followers to certain doom?”
“Not… not them...I’ll save them!”
Mikaela laughed humorlessly. “That’s rich. Save them, you say?” He jabbed a finger in the direction of the orphanage, where Kimizuki supposedly remained. “You’re going to save him, who clearly has a better understanding of limits than you do?” He leaned closer. “You two are wanted fugitives, aren’t you? Nothing is stopping me right now from turning both of you into the Fire Nation where you belong. Let’s see if you can save him now, prince.”
“You won’t,” Yuu growled, glaring despite the pain. “I’ll stop you.”
“Predictable,” the blond uttered. “Then let me present you with a hypothetical situation. Say you could save him, your precious comrade and follower, but at the cost of your own life. Would you still do it?”
“Are you...fucking —ki-kidding me? Of course I would!” Yuu exclaimed despite his pained stutter, not missing a beat.
“...You’re even more of an imbecile than I thought.”
“What did you say!?”
“Your followers —assuming you have any— follow you because they believe in your ideals. They believe in your strength which will pave the way to a better future. They are placing their trust and safety in your hands. You are their hope, their beacon of light.
“Then you throw away your life for them, under the pretense of saving them. You must think it's noble and selfless. You think you’ve done good in their name. No regrets, right?”
He paused for a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was darker. Lower.
“But let me tell you something. There’s nothing more selfish than martyring yourself for another. If there’s one thing I despise the most, it’s mindless messiahs like you. In one way or another, you get yourself killed before you fulfill your purpose. Then what happens?”
“That’s—” Truth be told, Yuu hadn’t given it much thought. Why would he? There was no way he was going to die. But with how bleak things are going for him right now, he had no choice but to confront the issue.
“...Then the next Avatar will replace me.”
“Really?” His eyes narrowed, sinister and foreboding. “Then I might retract my previous statement. I should just kill you now.”
Yuu could only stare at him in shock, not believing what he was hearing.
Mikaela tilted his head. “Why do you seem so surprised? Did you know? The only reason I let you stay at Akane’s place for so long is because the kids took a bizarre liking to you. I wasn’t going to openly reject you in front of them. I bid my time, waiting for the opportunity to deal with you myself. And now is the time.”
Yuu could feel the blood under his skin turning cold, and he couldn’t tell if it was because of the blood loss or the horror that was the waterbender in front of him. He gathered his voice for a last ditch attempt. “But I...I wasn’t going to do anything to them! You have to trust me!”
“Trust you?” Mikaela leered. “Did you think I’m dumb enough to take that risk? You’ve demonstrated just how uncontrollable and dangerous you are. You’re not staying anywhere near them after what you just did, and there’s nowhere else in the village you can go. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to put you out of your misery. Maybe the next Avatar won’t be all brawn and no brains this time.”
Had he really gone and done it this time? Mikaela couldn’t be serious. After all that happened, Mikaela wouldn’t hesitate to just dispose of him?
What was up with this guy, anyway? Yuu could understand him being distrustful and apprehensive of Yuu and Kimizuki. After all, they were both trespassers who had jeopardized an official diplomatic meeting between two highly esteemed delegates, publicizing their execrated origins (to be fair it was just Yuu, with Kimizuki very reluctantly being dragged along to his whims while at his wit’s end as always) and nearly getting flogged by the demeaning public itself.
If only it ended there. Yuu had even declared himself the rightful heir to the Fire Nation throne, and he was sure there were already waves of dissent and disbelief spreading throughout the masses.
And now, the veil concealing his most guarded secret had been lifted, and he was all but vulnerable to the full weight of Mikaela’s judgement.
However, wasn’t assisting the waterbender in dispelling the spirit that was ravaging the tribe help prove his credibility just a little bit? Did the Avatar really mean nothing to him?
No… it wasn’t that. There was more to it. It was almost as if he was… afraid of something. While it was brief, Yuu had seen how Mikaela behaved around other people. He was respectful and helpful, but there was something about it that was irreparably distant. Wary.
He never lingered whenever the occasion called upon it, even for the kids. He was always off somewhere on his own, and while it was no business of Yuu’s, he would be lying if he hadn’t wondered if Mikaela was just a lone wolf by nature.
He hadn’t expected to learn anything about Mikaela in the brevity of his time at the Water Tribe. There was no assured way of convincing him Yuu was worth a try, especially with his scummy performance just now in conjunction with being at the absolute mercy of the waterbender. He almost wanted to tell Mikaela to get on with it and end his ignominy.
He didn't know why, but something struck him as inherently off about Mikaela.
There’s nothing more selfish than martyring yourself for another. If there’s one thing I despise the most, it’s mindless messiahs like you.
He heard a sense of antipathy, a bitterness laced in words that didn’t seem as though it was directed at Yuu, but rather at something else.
It was only a hunch, but it was better than nothing.
“Look. I don’t know what your deal is. Okay? But I get it.” Yuu swallowed his throat’s protesting against the prolonged speech. But he had to keep going. “I know. I know how it feels like… to be abandoned.” While he could barely remember his parents’ faces, he could never forget the blood that pooled under their limp bodies. It was the first thing he saw every time he closed his eyes. He was used to it now. He really was.
“But that’s why… it’s no excuse for me to mope around. If I...if I have a purpose for this power I’ve been given —this power I never asked for...then I’m going to use it until I breathe my last.” It hurt. Talking hurt. “I owe it to everyone...everyone who helped me get this far. Because they believe in me, even when I don’t.” He knew, deep inside, he was terrified. Growing up hadn’t changed that fact. He had blood on his hands when he was only 8 years old. Despite that, Narumi still trusted him. He fussed over him, cared for him, didn’t treat him like the murderer he was. He had seen him off with a smile and a fond farewell, reassuring he would always, always be on Yuu’s side.
The rending fear he felt when he thought he killed Mikaela was still a fresh imprint on his mind; he doubted it would disappear any time soon. “You’re right, I can’t control this power...but nothing will change if I don’t take risks! I can’t just sit still and let everyone else make my decisions for me.” The words spilled out of him before he could take them back.
But he didn’t care. He was too far gone now. “I’m naive, weak, stupid, and selfish. I’m probably the last person who deserves this kind of power. So even if...even if after all this you reject me...at least I’m satisfied knowing I gave it my all. Even if I lost...if all of this was doomed from the start…” He was holding on to his consciousness by a string, and he was quickly slipping. “At least...even just for a little while...I managed to take charge of my own destiny!”
Mikaela didn’t say anything. Yuu couldn’t even see what expression he was making anymore. His eyelids were rapidly closing against his will, and he had no more strength left to keep it open.
Yuu doubled over on the snow, fisting the ground and biting back tears no longer wanting to stay inside. He tasted salt and iron, rejection and disappointment laying heavily on his tongue. He swallowed back a choking sob.
He failed. Again. He was never going to be able to learn waterbending. It seemed like no matter what he did, waterbending was always out of his reach.
All of his efforts thus far had evolved around the notion of learning waterbending, but maybe he had to learn to accept it just wasn’t in the cards for him.
He was just going to end up short of a true Avatar.
I let you all down.
His teeth clenched. His vision was wavering, the edges going dark. The last thing he witnessed before darkness took pity on him was Guren’s hard, unforgiving face and his solemn voice.
Fire and water were never meant to coexist.
Especially not for the Fire Prince.
When Yuu was once more brought back to consciousness, he blinked, unfamiliar with his surroundings. It seemed like he was back in Akane’s place but just not in the same room he’d frequently slept in. Struggling to right himself on the fur-lined bed, a strike of pain lanced through his side, and Yuu groaned, his body aching from head to toe.
“Just lay back and rest. You’re gonna aggravate your wound otherwise.” A familiar voice cut through the silence of the room, jolting the prince from his act.
His eyes scanned around to find Mikaela sitting at a desk a few feet away from him, his elbow resting on the back of his seat as he regarded Yuu. Keen, blue eyes raked over his form lying prone on the bed which Yuu was starting to think was owned by the blond himself.
They stayed in awkward silence, with Yuu avoiding the waterbender’s eyes and the other not hiding his scrutiny at all. Eventually, Mikaela asked, “So how long are you planning to keep this from Kimizuki?”
“This?” Yuu glanced down at his bandaged wounds, grimacing at how battered and bruised his body looked. Kimizuki definitely wouldn’t be amused in the least. “I think it’s going to be difficult to hide it from him in the first place. It’s not a big deal if Kimizuki saw me like this anyway.” He tried to shrug then winced, realizing he shouldn’t have moved his shoulders too much.
Mikaela seemed to resist outright eye rolling at Yuu as he corrected, “I meant, about you being the Avatar.”
He stiffened. Yuu had never really given much thought about telling Kimizuki his secret. After all, the pink-haired teen was only accompanying him to help his sister and once that was done and over with, Kimizuki would leave him. For good.
Honestly, the thought of separating made his chest tighten a little. He and Kimizuki had gone through a lot just to get here and thinking they would soon have to part ways made Yuu feel like he was swallowing bile. But it would be for the best. Kimizuki didn’t need to be tangled up with Yuu’s Avatar issues, not when he had an ill sister to care for.
“I can’t. It’s not any of his business.”
Mikaela’s brow rose, clearly not agreeing with him, “But doesn’t he deserve the truth? You owe it to him for coming this far.”
That was true. Kimizuki had come along with him to the Water Tribe without even knowing Yuu’s intentions for it. It showed just how much loyalty Kimizuki had for his only family. But… “..I don’t know how he’d react. What if he hates that I’ve basically been lying to him all this time?” Yuu voiced out, scrunching the sheets under his palm.
Mikaela scoffed, “That’s some shallow faith you have in your friend. You could reveal your secret to me, but not your own sidekick?”
“He’s not my sidekick.” Yuu immediately snapped.
“Really? I thought you only brought him along to make sure your ass doesn’t get burned.”
Yuu shot the waterbender a sullen glare, irritated he was too far away to smack him on the face. “Kimizuki, he’s...more than that, you jerk.”
“Then I don’t see why you haven’t told him yet.” Mikaela shrugged, turning back in his seat to face his desk like the matter was solved then and there.
But it wasn’t that easy. Not for Yuu at least. He knew once he told Kimizuki... “Something’s going to change between us. Kimizuki probably wouldn’t act the same way around me like he is now and...I liked that he did. That he was different.”
It was silent for a long time afterwards and Yuu thought Mikaela had no other thoughts to share until finally, he said, “That’s just a risk you’re going to have to take. If you’ve trusted Kimizuki this much until now, then you should trust him with this too. It’s your call to make, of course. But I do know the longer you wait, the more it’s going to endanger your relationship.”
Yuu frowned, looking contemplatively at his lap, “How would you know?”
“You and Kimizuki are both more alike than you realize.”
That gave Yuu a pause, scrunching his brows at the admission. Were they really? He began to grumble at the irony of Mikaela giving him friendship advice, of all people, and the fact that Yuu was actually contemplating it.
Mikaela released a tired sigh, standing up from his chair to sit on the edge of the mattress. Yuu couldn't help but flinch a little as Mikaela gently pressed a glowing hand to his bruised cheek.
Yuu was unable to meet his eyes. This was a situation he never thought he’d find himself in. Getting healed by a waterbender who Yuu was told were untrustworthy people by his uncle, and not just any waterbender but one of the best healers in the Northern Water Tribe, who also happens to have a really nice face. Yuu cleared his throat, hoping the warmth in his cheeks wasn’t obvious by Mikaela.
Couldn’t the blond have sat a few more inches away from him? Spirits, Yuu pitied his patience.
"Are you scared of me, Yuuichirou?"
Yuu's instinctual reaction was to scoff, asking Mikaela if he were serious. But the tone he used was quiet and anything but derisive.
There was no need to protect what left there was of Yuu's pride. In light of recent events, Yuu decided to offer him the truth.
"A little," Yuu confessed. "Sorry. But you don't have to—"
"Don't be." Mikaela interjected simply. He tilted Yuu’s face up, making it difficult for him to avoid those piercing eyes.
"Don't be sorry. You have a right to feel that way." Mikaela leaned back, releasing his face to place his hands on another wound on Yuu’s side. "I know your parents' lives were taken by rogue waterbenders. You probably grew up being reinforced by the belief that waterbenders are immoral, barbaric brutes. Then I do...this. I imagine meeting me didn't really help dispel that stigma."
"Yeah, you're... probably right." Yuu said slowly. "But...that didn't stop me from finding you." Oh, crap. Now that it was out of his mouth, it just sounded weird. "—for the sake of waterbending. I didn't regret it." He added hastily.
Mikaela made a noncommittal noise in his throat. "It's not going to get easier for you, you know."
Yuu blinked, uncomprehending. "Uh..."
"I'm not going to attempt changing your mind. You must have known that when you came seeking for my help." He paused to lean over and claim the bowl of water next to the Yuu's cot. "You're free to believe in what you want. I'll leave it to you to discern the truth of waterbenders with your own two eyes. Then you can decide for yourself." He stood up and left.
Yuu was left to stare blankly at the spot Mikaela had just occupied. What was that all about?
Yuu had lost the duel. He couldn't convince Mikaela to help him in his training and heal Mirai. Post-battle, he had resolutely scorned Yuu for trying to win him over to his side.
So there was no need for him to say that. It didn't make sense for Yuu.
Yuu reclined back on the sheets carefully, trying not to stimulate his injuries a second time. It was too soon to try and figure things out now. His head throbbed, telling him he should probably get more sleep before Kimizuki came back. They'll sort things out then.
It didn't take long for Yuu to succumb back into the darkness of his mind.
Yuu felt warm on one side. Too warm with the amount of blankets layered on top of him. He slowly opened his eyes and squinted at the brightness and heat of the fire directly to his left. It was closer than he recalled, but things had been so fuzzy since the duel, he was surprised he remembered anything at all.
Like his conversation with Mikaela.
His cheeks burned at the memory and he shook his head to try to forget when they last spoke. He groaned and rolled onto his side. A pain shot up through his torso and he let out a hiss at the sensation.
“Don’t move too quickly, idiot.” A stern voice came from his other side. He rolled his head, not moving the rest of his body. Kimizuki sat on some furs nearby, cleaning his glasses with the edge of his shirt. “Let me check your bandages.”
“Pff, I’m sure I’m fine.” He closed his eyes and forced his body to listen to his willingness to sit up, but a sudden firm hand on his shoulder kept him in place. He let out a sound of protest and opened his eyes.
Kimizuki looked at him with a mix of anger and concern. “I could care less how you think you’re doing. You didn’t see yourself when you were brought in here. So stop moving.”
Yuu resigned himself to lie still while Kimizuki inspected him. He kept his eyes above him, at the ceiling.
“The bastard…” Kimizuki muttered.
“Eh?!” He tried to sit up again but Kimizuki was faster than him, pinning him once more.
“Would you stop squirming for two minutes!”
“What’s wrong?” Yuu’s mind raced. Was he seriously injured to the point Mikaela couldn’t heal him? Were his injuries permanent? Would he be badly scarred—
“The bastard completely healed your wound. There was so much blood...I didn’t think it was possible.” Kimizuki sat back and allowed for Yuu to finally sit up.
He pushed his hand up under the tunic and felt at where he knew he had been badly cut - there was only a small scar there now. “It still hurts…”
“There’s bruising for sure, but that’s nothing compared to how bad you were cut. You should be grateful.” Kimizuki stood and stretched, looking around the room. When Yuu followed his gaze, he noted there was no one else in the room. Including...
“Where is he?” Yuu questioned, voice possibly louder than it needed to be. He shoved the blankets off his legs in frustration.
Kimizuki gave a sound like a sigh. “He hasn’t been back since he last checked on you. Maybe he’s with the kids.”
“Oh,” He looked down at his hands, at the small bruises on his arms. All reminders he hadn’t accomplished what he had set out to do. He had failed so badly. Failed at acting like a prince, at finding a waterbending master, at keeping his promise to Kimizuki. What would they do now?
“Yuu.” He looked up. Kimizuki stood over him, arms crossed. Yuu wondered if he could read his thoughts. “We should head out. There’s nothing for us here, now. I don’t think Mikaela will come around again.”
“But,” his throat felt dry. He swallowed hard. “Mirai. We have to find someone who can help her.”
Kimizuki rolled his shoulders and walked away from Yuu, starting to fold up the blankets he had been sitting on. “There are other islands. There should be other waterbending masters. Mikaela was the one in this tribe but I doubt he is the only one in existence.”
“That’s...true. I suppose.” Yuu slowly pushed himself to stand. He almost fell a few times, feeling weak, but motioned for Kimizuki to not help when he looked like he might reach out. He had cause enough trouble for the guy.
“Maybe Mitsuba hasn’t left yet. We could hitch a ride with her to other islands.” Kimizuki motioned in the general direction of the harbor. “I’m sure if we get over there soon we can find out when they leave.”
“O-okay.” Yuu tried to get firm grounding with his feet. He still felt dizzy - and he wasn’t sure anymore if it was from the injury or just reeling from everything happening. Having to leave without Mikaela felt like the worst kind of defeat. He had been so convinced he would be the one who could help him, help Kimizuki. He really had jumped into all this without thinking things through.
A shadow blocked his vision as Kimizuki stepped in front of him. “Yuu. Come on. Let’s say goodbye to the kids.”
Something stung his eye. “Maybe we should just—”
“Yuu-nii!!!” A voice rang out and he winced. Kimizuki’s expression seemed sympathetic before they both looked towards the voice - all the kids were clamoring at the small door, with Akane holding them back from charging inside.
“Sorry,” she said with a soft smile. “They’ve been going crazy wondering how you’re doing and asking when you would wake up.”
“It’s okay, thanks Akane.” Yuu smiled back, and she lifted up her arms. The kids all ran forward, tackling Yuu and Kimizuki’s legs, shouting for them and clinging tight.
“Be careful!” Akane shouted. “Yuu-nii is still recovering!”
“Okaaaay,” they all shouted in unison. Kimizuki snorted as he ruffled some of the kids’ hair.
While Yuu greeted each of them, Akane stepped closer. He could feel her stare and looked up to meet her large brown eyes.
As if she read his mind, she frowned. “I haven’t seen him since last night. It’s too soon for his meditation, so I don’t know where he is.”
“It’s...that’s fine.” Yuu lifted his hands, worried his emotions would somehow be readable to the kids. “But we-”
“I figured,” Akane interrupted, “but don’t...don’t say anything. Not yet.”
He gave a single firm nod in understanding, and Kimizuki did the same.
Silence lingered ever faithful by their side as they made their way to the port. Under most circumstances, Kimizuki would have given a kidney for some peace and quiet — terms which usually didn’t exist within Yuu’s library. But for some reason, it felt a little stifling this time. Even weirder was that Kimizuki didn’t feel the need to make a snarky comment about it —okay, even he had to admit it was a little amusing to rile Yuu up.
The way Yuu was now, with his bowed head and hands compulsively clasping and unclasping as he walked in front of him without sparing Kimizuki much of a glance, instead looking a little vacant, Kimizuki felt he deserved the quiet. It was the least Kimizuki could do after all the prince went through. Not only that, he didn’t really know what to say. What did Yuu need to hear at a time like this? Did Kimizuki even have a right to speak up?
The gnawing guilt had remained even after the outcome of the duel was made apparent. It was a no-brainer the reckless idiot would have lost to Mikaela. But Kimizuki had to wonder if there was a way to change the aftermath of it had he been a little more supportive to Yuu. Maybe Yuu wouldn’t have been brought back covered entirely in blood, deep in unconsciousness, his gaping injuries like a finely honed dagger burrowing its way into Kimizuki’s heart. He always thought his blunt realism was one of his shining traits, but it was during these moments he was made all too aware it was a double-edged sword.
God, he really was an asshole sometimes, wasn’t he.
His vision whipped back into focus at the sound of his name, and he wasn’t sure what he was more surprised at; that Yuu had stopped and was now staring back at him with mellow concern or that he actually spoke up.
“What?” Kimizuki managed after a moment.
“You’ve been pretty silent. What’s up?”
You’re what’s up, you idiot. Kimizuki scoffed, shaking his head slightly. “You’re really something else, aren’t you.”
“It’s nothing.” Kimizuki said, a bit louder. “You don’t seem too hot yourself.”
“Eh,” Yuu shrugged noncommittally, yet Kimizuki could easily see the tension rolling off of his shoulders. But before Kimizuki could comment on it, Yuu had turned back around. “Anyways, we’re here.”
Kimizuki’s gaze lingered for another second at Yuu’s back before he sighed inwardly and followed Yuu’s gaze. If he didn’t want to talk about it, then that was fine with him. As long as he was still helping Kimizuki find a waterbending healer for his sister, then whatever was going through Yuu’s mind was none of his damn business.
He was sure Yuu would say the same.
To their relief, the harbor was relatively empty at that time of day. It came as a little bit of shock to Kimizuki, who was used to the constant bustling activity of his homeland’s harbor. While in the Fire Nation, there would usually be hollering merchants, scrawny kids running around screaming their heads off, rowdy sailors hooting and catcalling and the like, here the relative calm was almost sacred. Seagulls flew overhead, their trilling the only sound that echoed through the peace.
Only a few ships lined the shore, and Kimizuki quietly breathed a sigh of relief. It meant they had come at an opportune time when most of the seafarers would be going about their business. It meant it’d be less likely for them to run into trouble when they —to put it kindly— perused a vacant ship.
But still, Kimizuki thought testily as he watched Yuu bound up the plank to the farthest and smallest ship from the port, it seemed prudence was something the hot blooded prince still lacked even when in a state of disconsolation.
Sighing, he made sure the coast was clear before he ambled after Yuu, stepping onto the ship with extreme caution. There didn’t seem to be anyone on the ship, thankfully. Who knows what would have happened if Yuu had clambered on when someone was in the middle of, say, maintenance. Straight to the palace for sentencing they go.
“Er, you think this is good enough?” Yuu addressed him as he paced the deck and inspected their surroundings. “Since we’re trying to be inconspicuous —and there’s only the two of us, anyway— I figured the smaller, the better. Besides, it won’t be as much of a loss to the Tribe if it goes missing, right?”
“...Yuu.” Kimizuki began suddenly before he could stop himself, and found emerald green eyes blinking at him inquisitively. What was he doing? “Uh...about earlier.”
The hell, Kimizuki.
He understood now. The uneasy feeling churning in his stomach as he trailed behind Yuu, fixated on how his feet dragged and the bounce in his step dimmed, inciting his unsought concern for the other’s well being. Of all the things he didn’t know about Yuu despite his utter transparency. How had Kimizuki fooled himself this whole time? There was no way Yuu would have reacted so badly if there wasn’t something more in it for him.
Kimizuki knew firsthand that emotions this strong could only result from something personal; it almost never stemmed from someone else’s problems. The only reason Yuu could be behaving like this was…
“For so long, I’ve been content to travel with you, if only it was to save Mirai. Any other reason was irrelevant to me.” Kimizuki continued, watching as a flicker of something —fear?— flashed in Yuu’s eyes. “It was a purely symbiotic relationship; you needed a comrade-in-arms, I needed a means to get medical help for Mirai. My business was my own, and so was yours. I had no intention of prying.”
“H-Hold on, Kimizuki—”
“But the way you’ve been reacting since waking up is a real cause for concern. It was a mistake to keep quiet for this long. I’m sorry if I’m overstepping my boundaries here, but at this point, there’s no other way around it. I have to know the truth.”
Kimizuki stared at Yuu with enough intensity to keep his gaze focused right on him as he continued. “Yuu, I have my reason for going on this trip. The question is...what is yours?”
This seemed to trigger something in Yuu, who for all intents and purposes, turned deathly pale. Kimizuki didn’t know how to feel about that. It was just a simple question...right?
“Yuu?” Kimizuki nudged, a hint of concern creeping into his voice.
“My...my reason,” Yuu stuttered. “It’s actually...um...I—”
“This is getting ridiculous.” A voice suddenly rang, loud and clear overhead, hauntingly familiar. “Honestly, what are you waiting for?”
Kimizuki and Yuu whirled around frantically, but found no one. Kimizuki had never believed in the gods, but he fervently prayed he was just mishearing things. It couldn’t be...
A sound came from above them, and Kimizuki looked up just in time to see a whirl of blue and red leap down from the crow’s nest and land in front of them, cloak billowing generously around him as tousled platinum blond strands came into view. Kimizuki instantly doubled back, hands reaching for his daggers.
“Yuu, get back. Something about this is fishy.” Kimizuki crouched, his eyes darting all around. “Fuck, we walked right into a trap. Looks like we’re not getting off scot-free. Again.”
“Wait, Kimizuki!” Yuu yelped, thrown completely off balance, gaze darting back and forth between him and their unexpected visitor. “What do you mean?”
Kimizuki clicked his tongue. “He’s been anticipating us, you moron. He might have an ambush lying in wait for us, so watch your back. For all we know, he could be in league with those guys from before.”
“N-no way…” Yuu winced. “That’s stupid and you know it! He healed me!”
“Yeah, he wouldn’t have to if he wasn’t the one who nearly killed you in the first place!” Kimizuki snapped, grip on his blades tightening. “I refuse to surrender here. We’re not going down without a fight.”
Mikaela, who had remained silent throughout the frenzied exchange, finally spoke up. “Stand down. I have no interest in fighting you.” His tone was as blithe and indifferent as always.
It did nothing but rile Kimizuki up more.
“Bullshit!” Kimizuki spat. “There’s no other reason for you to be here otherwise!”
“But there is.” Mika said, plain and blunt. Nothing belied the perfectly neutral expression on his face as he spoke his next words, “What if I told you I’m here to join you?”
When Yuu first forced his eyes open, harsh reality came crashing down on him like a tsunami. His throbbing injuries had less to do with how hard it suddenly became for him to breathe, and more of an inexpugnable memento of how badly he fucked himself over. It pulsed and flowed under the finely wrapped cotton around his body, but no physical pain could compare to the chaotic deluge of his mind. It was as if Mikaela had managed to waterbend straight into his head, which seemed tragically ironic the more he thought about it. What could he do, bend water in his brain?
He couldn’t even bring himself to laugh.
His wounds were already closing at a much faster rate than how normal wounds would heal —likely thanks to the virtues of water healing. His physical scars would definitely fade over time, but the emotional scars didn’t seem likely to leave any time soon. Mikaela’s peremptory presence lingered like an ornery matrix on his mind, voice squeezing past the overwrought cracks of his mind, taunting him with the faithfulness of a devout follower. The longer he repressed them, the more distorted the voice became, the more potent. It wheedled like an infernal demon wrapped impeccably under the smooth, disimpassioned veneer of a waterbending master. Of waterbending itself.
Even gravity had started working against him, pulling him down with a force that would have toppled him easily if he let it have its way.
He had needed to get off the island. To get away from the feeling of absolute failure, of incurring the wrath of the tribe, to escape the ire of the assassins, to protect Akane and the others. His compass had been destroyed, and he was lost, his anchor to his one goal all but obliterated. All he knew was that his very presence there was wrong, and he had to go.
Rejection was something he had never experienced in his life. Sure, he had small rejections here and there, with being forbid to travel as one of the more significant ones. But since it had derived from family, he still didn’t really mind.
Being judged by people who didn’t know him at all, however, grated at his nerves in a way he didn’t know was possible. Especially when they turned out to be right. It felt like they had torn down the walls he had painstakingly built for himself in eager preparation for his journey, exposing him as the deadbeat he had desperately convinced himself he wasn’t.
And here was the source of all his grief, standing in front of him, likely indulging in the destruction of his own making. How could he not? What could possibly be more humiliating than dangling a bait in front of Yuu he knew he didn’t deserve? He had lost, he’d admitted that. He had let his immaturity get the better of him. Everyone knew that. Wasn’t that enough? Did he pity Yuu?
He’d had enough.
His vision flashed white as he surged forward, gripping the lapels of Mikaela’s cloak. Kimizuki shouted in warning, but it was too late. Everything other than the person right in front of him had been reduced to blinding white noise.
“Is this all just a game to you?” Yuu seethed. “I don’t need your fucking pity.”
“Pity?” Mikaela replied, thoroughly affronted. “Don’t insult me. I’d never join your duo of misfits for such a paltry reason.”
“Then why else would you be here?” He tightened his grip. “You’re telling me it’s not actually to rub it in my face?” The knot in his chest tightened. He didn’t know what to do with it.
“Are you saying you don’t want Kimizuki’s sister to be saved?”
Now that wasn’t a question he was expecting.
Yuu stepped away, releasing him. “I didn’t say that!”
“That’s what it sounds like. Why else would you travel so far and risk your own life, if not for that?” Mikaela’s sharp gaze was relentless and straightforward. He pulled no punches. He didn’t even hesitate to throw back Yuu’s words at his own face.
At that moment, there was no one else he hated more.
Yuu knew exactly what Mikaela was trying to do, and his control was slipping. Mikaela had him cornered without even trying.
He trembled, taking a quick, shaky breath—
“Stop it.” Kimizuki cut in, a steady voice of reason in the anarchy of Yuu’s mind. Yuu glanced at Kimizuki, but the latter was staring straight at Mikaela with an expression of steel. “We know you’ve never been interested in coming with us to help my sister, otherwise you would have just agreed to do it. Yuu lost the duel. So why did you change your mind?” Kimizuki’s eyes narrowed as his voice dropped a pitch. “It can’t be that the magnificent, impregnable waterbender is actually… a typical good boy type of pushover?”
Mikaela looked unimpressed. “Do me a favor. Save your lowbrow digging for someone who actually cares.”
Kimizuki bristles. “Why, you son of a—”
“Yuuichirou,” he turned back to Yuu, completely unfazed by Kimizuki’s sputtering. “Do you remember what I told you before?”
“Did you come here just to remind me? In case you didn’t notice, I was about to do it before someone decided to interrupt.” Yuu glared. “And you still haven’t answered my question.”
“I’m here because both of you need me. Isn’t that reason enough?”
As much as he’d like to believe it, but….
Yuu shook his head, feeling his confidence renewed. “No. There has to be something in it for you.”
“If you must know, then—” Yuu held his breath, “—you’re impulsive and utterly hare-brained. Anyone with half a brain could see that. The proportions of your bark is staggeringly astronomical compared to your bite.” To his side, Yuu heard a snort that was quickly muffled into a cough, and he glared at his companion. “—but you did bring up a good point towards the end. And I suppose you did demonstrate some potential. So I decided to put my faith in you, as much as it pains me to admit it. I’d like to see you live up to your promise.”
Yuu was frozen in place and an embarrassing warmth spread up his neck, but he couldn’t bring himself to say more than “Eh?”
“I won’t lie that I have my own personal reasons, yes, some that I’m not interested in disclosing. But to the extent of your relevance, I want to see where investing in you goes. After we help Kimizuki, of course.”
“What!?” He jolted in shock. His mind was running a mile a minute, and he could hardly keep up. All the possibilities, the implications… it was too much. ”Does that mean...you’ll be my waterbending master?” Yuu blurted out before he could stop himself.
Just as the words left his mouth, his eyes widened in unadulterated horror.
Mika smirked, as though he was expecting Yuu to ask, and crossed his arms.
Yuu covered his mouth with his gloved hand and froze. He had gotten so excited that Mikaela was agreeing to be his teacher, he had completely forgotten—
“Wait, waterbending master?” Kimizuki turned to Yuu and confirmed his worst fears. “Oy, what are you going on about? What would he be teaching you?”
Yuu’s wide eyed stare darted between Kimizuki and Mikaela, two vastly different expressions etched on their faces. The waterbender looked menacingly smug, while his friend was completely confused and a little less than happy.
He knew Mikaela was right, and that he should tell Kimizuki the truth. He deserved as much, and Kimizuki had caught on there were other intentions for his journey. He couldn’t avoid it anymore, he would be exposed whether he wanted it or not, and it would be easier if he just came out and said it. Then they could move on. Or go their separate ways. Whichever Kimizuki wanted...
With a final look at Mikaela, who nodded very sharply, Yuu turned to his traveling companion of the past few weeks. “Kimizuki… remember what you asked me earlier? About...my reason for doing all of this.”
Kimizuki nodded tentatively, though his eyes never left Yuu’s.
With two sets of eyes staring intently at him, there was no going back. Yuu gulped. “There’s…. something I’ve been meaning to tell you. Why the Fire Nation never announced a legitimate heir, why I absolutely had to leave...”
He found his throat suddenly dry, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth.
“I’m the Avatar—”
He was interrupted by the sound of an explosion in the distance. Quickly forgotten, Kimizuki and Mikaela ran past him to the front of the ship to look out over the water. All around them the port was alive with noise as the other crew suddenly flood onto the docks to try and get a look at what was happening.
In the distance was a large familiar ship. Or at least, what remained of it. A huge cloud of thick, dark smoke rose from the middle of it, bright orange flames engulfing most of its body.
“Whose ship is that?!” Yuu shouted after running to join the two.
Kimizuki gave him a stern look. For a moment Yuu thought maybe it was about what he had just revealed, but then Kimizuki’s eyes dropped and returned back to the burning vessel.
“It was the Earth Kingdom ship.”