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Rise of the Dragon

Chapter Text

Water… Earth… Fire Air

In eras bygone, four nations coexisted in harmony.

However, a series of tragedies began to befall the world,

And none was left unscathed.

The equilibrium of power has been tilted to a great imbalance,

Its people fallen to temptation.

The end is fast approaching, and all souls are fated to meet oblivion.

Rumors whisper of the Avatar, the master of all four elements,

holding the key to mankind’s only hope of salvation.

Families pray under his guiding light,

Enemies vow to divide and conquer .

But the glimmer of hope is sometimes found

in the darkest of places,

somewhere people would least expect.

—o0o—

Darkness enshrouded the people of the Fire Nation as they slumbered through the dawn of a new day in their humble abodes. They lay in their beds, unknowing of the events that would transpire in just a matter of minutes. Past the walled cities and up the steps of the great volcano stood at the very top the majestic palace of the Fire Lord and his family.  

Despite the peace of the night, there was great clamor in its lavish indoors, every maid in service running to and from the royal family’s main bedroom. Shouts and pained moans echoed in the corridors as the Queen of the Fire Nation was finally due to give birth to the Fire Lord’s first heir.

At the same time, another great disturbance was happening 10, 000 miles away from the Fire Nation. The halls of Ba Sing Se were free of people aside from the occasional loyal guard standing alert for any threat to the Emperor. Even lower underground, a set of people were on the verge of a new discovery, their souls brimming with passion at the pride of their work but at the cost of something far too great.

And in that one moment, two occurrences happened that would shake the foundations of the world as everyone soon came to know of it.

The screams of a young man’s dying breath and the cries of a newborn life.

—o0o—

At the age of seven, Yuuichirou Ichinose was quite rambunctious for a Prince of the Fire Nation. Like every other kid his age, his energy was boundless, his thirst for knowledge ever insatiable.

Scratch that. Guren knew the brat couldn’t care less for the scholarly. The only thing he craved was combat.

Ever since he was given permission to attend Guren’s daily sparring sessions —at Shinya’s adamant suggestion, of course; why Guren still bothered listening to that airbender was far beyond him—Yuuichirou had taken up an instant liking to it, and ceaselessly hounding Guren for days after that to teach him how to do the “Fireball Cannon Thingy with the Leg Thing”.

He would never admit it, but Yuuichirou’s eagerness to assign himself under the Fire Nation General’s wing was kind of cute.

Despite his countless pleading and begging that quickly turned into shameless ass-kissing— he even tried to do twice the studying he was expected to complete at certain periods, and Guren scoffed at the memory, remembering how well that turned out (re: he knocked out)— the raven-haired man knew better than to indulge Yuuichirou, especially when he was still far too young.

He didn’t want to bring down the wrath of his brother and sister-in-law upon him. The last thing he wanted was to be thrown into prison for jeopardizing the safety of the Fire Lord’s only son.

And speak of the devil, the little Prince was running towards him in the courtyard hallways, an excited grin stretched wide across his youthful face, his emerald green eyes shining in delight.

“Guren!” Yuuichirou shouted, nearly careening into the older male.

Thankfully, Guren’s hands shot out to steady the eager boy before he could topple them both, and he raised a curious eyebrow.

He already had a feeling where this conversation was headed.

“Teach me some of your super awesome moves!”

Guren sighed and shook his head, but his lips twitched up into a small smile. “I told you, Yuu. Not until you’re older.”

As expected, a small pout formed on the child’s face, his hopes ruthlessly squashed again. Guren was glad he’d built up a sort of immune mental barrier against Yuuichirou’s puppy-eyed dog looks lest he’d spoil the Prince any more than he already was.

Squatting down to eye level, Guren suggested, “Why don’t you go find your mother to practice your calligraphy skills?”

“But I’d rather learn new stuff from you, Guren! You’re amazing!” was Yuuichirou’s response, his last ditch attempt to sway Guren’s resolve.

Guren ruffled his hair instead and stood back up, giving Yuuichirou a small smirk, “Don’t think you can fool me with that now. Go on and find something else to do, I’ve got meetings to attend to.” With that said, the older male continued his way to the throne room, hoping Yuu wouldn’t cause more havoc while he was away.

—o0o—

Fortunately for Guren, Yuuichirou was spending time with his mother in the Palace gardens, sitting by the pond where Yuuichirou fed little turtle-ducks bread.

“Yuu-chan, don’t give them big chunks of food now. They might choke.” His mother, Queen of the Fire Nation, reminded gently. She placed her hand on Yuu’s back as the small boy leaned over the calm water, his hand outstretched towards the turtle-ducks.

“I know, Mother.” Yuuichirou said like it was obvious, letting the animals feed from his palm.

His mother smiled tenderly, brushing stray strands away from the side of his cheek and letting her eyes wander on her most precious person.

“How are your lessons, sweetheart? I hear you’ve been pestering your uncle for combat lessons again.” The lady had to hide an amused smile as Yuuichirou instantly turned towards her, clearly still perturbed.

“Yeah! Stupid Guren won’t teach me anything— I mean!” Yuuichirou’s hand shot towards his mouth when he realized he had forgotten to address Guren formally in front of his mother. It wasn’t like Guren minded when he called him that, but Yuuichirou was heavily conditioned by his mentors to address everyone in the palace with their proper honorifics. It had just become a sort of habit for the seven-year-old.

But the beautiful woman only laughed lightly at her son and patted her lap for Yuuichirou to crawl onto. When he did, she wrapped her arms around him and softly kissed his forehead.

“It’s alright, Yuu-chan. He’ll teach you once he knows you’re ready.”

“But I’m ready now!” Yuuichirou whined against his mother’s chest, feeling warm and content in her embrace.

His mother tut-tutted at him and patted his head to get him to look up at her. When their eyes met, she said, “Patience is a virtue, Yuu-chan. If you can master that, you can master anything you set your mind to.”

Yuuichirou nodded and set his head to rest against his mother’s chest again, her steady heartbeat a source of great comfort for the young child. “Mother, when I grow up, I’m going to become the best soldier ever!”

“And then, will you protect your mother when she’s grown ill and old?” Her wise eyes brightened at the smile on her child’s face. Yuuichirou pushed up against her and proudly placed a palm on his chest, a clumsy imitation of a Fire Nation vow.

“Of course I will! I’ll make you proud, mother!”

The woman laughed as she patted her son’s head again, “You’ve already made me proud, my dear son.”

—oOo—

Time passed for the mother and son as they laid under the shade of a Lotus tree, the little boy now resting against his mother’s breast as she hummed and ran her hand through his soft raven hair, his lashes fluttering closed at her gentle ministrations.

“My Lady, so you were here after all.”

The woman glanced up as footsteps trudged towards her direction. She acknowledged the new presence with a smile, sweeping her eyes back towards her son. “Have you been looking for me?”

The Fire Lord had his hands behind his back, a tender smile on his face as he looked upon his two most beloved. “There is an important matter I need to discuss with you, but perhaps now is not the time.” He nodded at Yuuichirou’s presence.

“It's alright, he's asleep.” The woman patted the empty space beside her and after a brief moment of hesitation, the Fire Lord sighed and soon sat down beside his wife.

“Surely you must be aware of my aversion to sitting on the dirt, my love?”

The woman released a soft chuckle, “I know, but you’d do it for me anyway.”

“I’m afraid you’re right.” He shrugged, not looking quite put out as one would be. Despite the intimidating aura that came with his ascendancy, the Fire Lord was quite benign. Underneath his strict and unapproachable exterior laid a gentle, virtuous heart only the Lady was permitted to see.           

During the days when the Lord was his most obstinate, there was very little the council of highly persuasive consuls could do to change his mind. They had no choice but to turn to the Lady to help make concessions.

It was she who possessed the power to open the Lord’s mind, to soothe and temper his most deep-seated nerves. When circumstances turned bleak, she was the only one who allowed him to let his guard down and speak his every concern.

She cocked her head at him in parts curiosity and parts concern. “I must say, I was not expecting you back so soon. Your meeting was due to dismiss in another two hours. What’s the matter, dear?” She inquired, shifting Yuuichirou just a tad on her lap so his legs could curl more comfortably.

The man sighed, suddenly sounding very tired, “It’s about the Avatar...the people are growing restless.”

The implications were more than clear. She side eyed her husband but didn’t stop stroking her son’s hair. “I see.”

The previous Avatar was an earthbender, yet little was known about them, save for the fact that they passed away a fairly young age. In 73AG, reports of their passing reached the Court, however any further inquisitions to the cause and their identity were vehemently restricted by the Earth Grand Secretariat.

Such secrecy was unheard of and placed grounds for immediate suspicion, yet the Council knew that if they continued to probe, the Fire Nation would risk war with the Earth Kingdom. So they had no choice but to lay it to rest.

All they knew now was that it was their turn, as decreed by the cyclic order of the Avatar Spirit spanning nearly ten thousand years. It was now the Fire Nation’s responsibility to identify who their next Avatar is, and civil unrest was to be expected until they were found.

Naturally, the first popular candidate would fall upon those hailing from the royal family. Namely, those born around the same year the last Avatar died.

“It’s the same year Yuu-chan was born.”

The Fire Lord gravely nodded his head, continuing his discussion, “There are, of course, many other children born in the same year so there’s a possibility that Yuuichirou isn’t—”

“—but there is a possibility that he is, isn’t it? You, of all people, should know,” She immediately interjected, her arms holding her son closer to herself like she could protect him from imaginary foes.

It wasn’t difficult to distinguish a dweller of the Fire Nation from the others. Almost every citizen bore amber eyes, and those who didn’t were usually immigrants or merchants from other nations.

Rarer still were those originating from the monarchy; it was highly preferred for the royal lineage to remain as loyal as possible to the characteristics representative of fire nation heritage, otherwise unnecessary complications would bear fruit down the line. Power would potentially become compromised, and the entire monarchy could fall apart and thrust the nation into chaos.

After scouring the family tree and ancestry scrolls, the Lady had no doubt that their blood was pure. There had been no records of hybrid marriages between benders of an element other than fire, nor were there any of descendants that did not bear the mark of a purebred firebender. All of them retained amber eyes that smoldered like ash and shone like the sun.

That was until Yuuichirou was born.

The verdant green of his eyes couldn’t be further from the typical amber. When the newborn first opened his eyes, the sight that greeted the Lord and Lady incited nothing short of great confoundment.

Infidelity was completely out of the question. The two sovereigns had nothing but absolute trust and faith in each other. There was never a shred of doubt between them that the Lady had mothered another man’s child. In the end, they ultimately decided that this unusual phenomenon was just an peculiarity, and preferred to view it as a form of kismet instead.  

It was clear when Yuuichirou grew up and his features became more and more defined that he was, beyond any doubt, their progeny. The line of his jaw and his large, bright eyes were unique to his father’s, while his nose and smile belonged to his mother’s.

Yuuichirou, their sweet child. For how much longer could they have concealed the truth? Concealed him from their subjects, from the judging eyes of the Fire Nation?

There was a crack in her composure now, a frown on her face as she thought of all the horrible things that could happen in Yuuichirou’s future as a potential Avatar. “You know what happened to the last Avatar, don’t you? Those people are going to come after Yuu-chan and exploit him until he dies!”

“I know and I won’t let that happen, my Lady.” The Fire Lord solemnly promised. He raised a hand to caress her cheek, trying to calm her with his touch and words, “I will protect him with my life. No one will be able to touch Yuuichirou so long as he’s in this palace.”

The woman leaned her head against the hand and closed her eyes, heart heavy with the thought of her son being cooped up his whole life, like a nightingale trapped in a golden cage, his beautiful green dulled by alabaster walls and doors. Abhorration would be an understatement on his part. But if he really did end up being the Avatar, the Queen had no choice but to keep him safe. Away from the danger. Away from them .  

“The troops are currently on their way to search for children born in the same year and they’re all to be led to the Fire Sages for scrutiny.” The man continued, once again focusing on the topic at hand. “...Yuuichirou will have to go through it too.”

The Queen gave a nod, her face blank as she set her eyes on Yuuichirou’s sleeping face,  “I understand.”

There was a brief moment when both Fire Lord and Lady stared down at their only son and heir, wanting him to live a long, good life whether or not he’d be named Avatar. Though they didn’t know it, there were bound to be great trials waiting in Yuuichirou’s future and his parents could only pray for his safety.

“On another issue, we managed to capture those rogue waterbenders that have been causing ruckus in the lower districts. I’ve dispatched Guren to apprehend them.“

“Have you now? That’s good to hear.”

“Indeed, I can always count on my brother to see things to their end. Sometimes I feel he would be better suited to the position of Fire Lord than me.”

“There you go again with the nonsense. How many times have I told you, dear, that humility of yours is what makes you, and no one else, our supreme leader?”

Yuuichirou began shifting in the woman’s lap and his mother shushed him gently, rocking him against her chest as if he were still a baby.

The Fire Lord couldn’t stop the smile that lifted the side of his lips at the small, sleepy sounds his son made, as the sun began to set and the sky tinted red.

—o0o—

A creak in a grand hallway of the Palace broke the serene silence of the night, a fluffy ball of raven hair popping behind an open door as he glanced left and right for anybody still awake. When a certain night guard noticed his presence, Yuuichirou held up a hand to his mouth and gestured for him to keep quiet as he tiptoed out of his room and rushed across the marble hallway, making a beeline straight for his parents’ bedroom.

Once Yuuichirou managed to creep inside, his small bare feet padded across the lush carpeting to reach his mother’s side of the canopy bed.

“Mother?” Yuuichirou whispered, eyes wide and hesitant as he tugged at the blanket around her.

The woman stirred in her sleep, amber eyes blinking open to find the small face of her child looking up at her. She gave a small, sleepy smile and pulled back the blanket for Yuuichirou to crawl into. Once Yuuichirou was settled in, she wrapped her arm around his little body and pulled him close to her warmth.

“What’s wrong, Yuu-chan? Did the nightmares bother you again?” She drowsily inquired as she caressed his soft locks.

Looking uncertain, he nodded his head, tucking himself under her chin as though he could hide himself under his mother’s protection.

“It...it was about those airbenders again! But I couldn’t really understand what was happening because they blindfolded me and...and started talking about weird stuff. They attached me to a bunch of scary things and it just hurt...everything hurt, and then I woke up.” Yuuichirou trembled as he recounted the horrible nightmare, wishing he could erase it from his memory. “I thought airbenders were peaceful and nice! That’s what my tutor taught me…”

His mother shushed him with her gentle voice, patting his back at the same time as her other hand threaded through his hair. “It’s okay, sweetie. No one’s going to touch you while you’re here.” As she said it, her own eyes gleamed in concern and she turned to her side to see her husband awake and sharing the same look.

“Yuuichirou.”

The small child immediately stilled from the sound of his name being called and he peeked up from his mother’s shoulder, muttering, “Hello, Father.”

The man on the other side of the bed looked at those huge, green eyes staring at him before he patted the space between him and the child’s mother. “Why don’t you stay here between us, son?”

Yuuichirou grinned and scrambled over his mother for his father, snuggling his cheek into the soft, downy pillow between them and releasing a contented sigh.

The older male leaned down and kissed his forehead, an act rarely seen outside these walls, as he whispered, “Everything’s going to be alright, Yuuichirou. We’ll protect you.”

Thud! Thud!

Yuuichirou flinched at the sudden noise and looked towards the door where more sounds emitted from outside.

Feeling nervous, Yuuichirou unconsciously held onto his mother’s sleeve as both his parents sat up from the bed, their faces stricken and alert.

“What’s going on?” His mother hurriedly asked, jumping off the bed with Yuuichirou secure in her arms. Yuuichirou had wanted to be set down but the arms tightened around him further, his mother urgently telling him to be quiet.

Yuuichirou hadn’t understood but did as he was told. The scary noises outside made him too frightened to react. Was there someone outside?

His father shook his head in answer while unsheathing a sword that was propped beside the bed. Yuuichirou watched as a fire blazed around the whole metal, its gleam shining even brighter than the moonlight.

The second the doors slammed open, everything became a blur. Yuuichirou couldn’t recall most of what had happened and if anyone asked, he could only recount the last moments of his family.

When three men wearing blue outfits and masks stepped into the room, his mother had instantly deduced the danger of the situation and dashed for the secret exit on the farthest corner to the right with Yuuichirou.

Meanwhile, his father faced the intruders head on, giving his wife and child enough time to escape as he fought with his opponents, his face a calm picture and his eyes deadly cold. But the fight lasted only a matter of seconds and Yuuichirou saw it all happen over his mother’s shoulder. Like a puppet strung up by invisible strings, his father’s limbs went lax and arched up in weird angles, his expression turning from confusion to complete horrification before Yuuichirou saw red coat his father’s lips, his body trembling and slowly slumping on the floor, lifeless.

Yuuichirou couldn’t take it. It was as if his nightmares had come to life.

His resounding scream at that instant could possibly cost him the life of another, but he couldn’t staunch it.

At his strangled outcry, his mother abruptly stopped and turned around, the sight of the Fire Lord falling to his death causing her to cry out in anguish, all thoughts suddenly lost.

Yuuichirou didn’t remember if he was crying because the next second, he was on the floor and his mother charged at the enemies herself, a tower of fire erupting from the palms of her hand as her own tears streamed down her face. But before she could do anything, she was met with the same fate and Yuuichirou, with wide eyes, watched as her blood stained the carpet floor.

 

It was as if time itself had stopped.

 

No...No…this couldn’t be…

 

Her eyes, wide and unseeing.

 

Mother… Father… No, please…

 

Bodies strewn on the floor like dolls.

 

Anyone… Someone...

 

Thundering of feet.

 

H-Help me.

 

After that...

 

A blinding flash of white light.

 

Then…

 

Silence.

 

Chapter Text

91 AG
11 years later

 

Setting Guren’s robe on fire to express his dissent was probably not one of the brightest ideas Yuuichirou Ichinose ever had.

But hey, it wasn’t like he was the one to blame. Everyone would have reacted the same way at the sight of his eighteen years worth of dreams and ambitions being shut down and rejected yet again.

Or at least, so he thought.

To be fair, maybe there were people out there—somewhere in the Fire Nation, or perhaps even beyond—who were okay with living a dull, monotonous life, stranded in a lifestyle curbed to other people’s desires until the end of their days, but Yuu certainly didn’t know any. And yes, that was a valid argument even if the only people he knew were Stupid Guren, Shinya and Crowley—his airbending and earthbending masters, two oddballs to say the least—and the maids and the courtiers living in the palace.

Such was the price one had to pay when living their entire life trapped between four walls on top of a volcano, he guessed.

To be honest, Yuu had always lived quite a good life in the palace. It was peaceful, nobody ever bothered him— Stupid Guren being the exception to the norm, of course—and spring afternoons spent under the blossoming cherry trees, especially those right next to the pond with the turtle-ducks in the backyard, were incredibly delightful. All he had to do was say the word, and he would get whatever he wanted, no matter how bizarre or unreasonable his requests were.

But there was one wish, only one, that nobody ever granted him. And said wish was the very reason why he was running for his life that morning, sprinting through the garden as fast as he could while a furious Guren chased after him, sending a vast array of curses and threats his way for burning his favorite robe.

Not a single servant who Yuu passed batted an eye at the scene before them. The sight of the dignified and composed Fire Lord engaging in a wild goose chase after a whimsically harmless child was a fairly regular occurrence after all; and while it had been incredibly amusing the first couple times, the novelty of it soon wore off after the tenth time.

“Stop following me, Stupid Guren!” Yuu shouted, jumping over the roots of one particularly bulky tree.

“You set my clothes on fire, you brat!” Guren barked back, hurrying after the younger male to catch him before he turned the corner: Yuu had way too many secret hideouts in the backyard, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let him get away. “Get back here!”

Yeah, like that was going to happen.

Yuu bolted past the airbending training courtyard and the willow trees next to the warehouse at the back of the palace, seeing salvation in front of him as he turned the corner, but—just his luck—one of the trees clearly thought he couldn’t get away with his mischief this time and deemed it appropriate to end Yuu’s trip with its protruding roots.

“Shit—” Yuu cursed, trying to scramble back up as soon as he could, but Guren reached him before he could get his footing and run again.

“Stay. Where. You. Are.” Guren said, slightly panting, but his eyes were as fierce and severe as always.

Yuu froze, every inch of his body—heart included—as still as stone. He didn’t like to admit it, but Guren was the only person he’d ever been truly afraid of. He’d seen him angry once, the first and only time the Royal Counselor suggested finding a waterbending master for Yuu, and, well… Guren’s wrath wasn’t something he wanted upon himself.

He knew Guren despised waterbenders, which was probably why he had gotten so mad previously, but he also knew he’d just burnt his favourite robe and it wasn’t that far off. He hadn’t started shouting, for starters, which was alone was already a bad sign.

Yuu had yet to understand what was so wrong about wanting to go outside the castle walls. It was his only dream, after growing up all sheltered and spoiled in such a huge place. It wasn’t even about being lonely—he’d grown accustomed to that, after his parents passed away eleven years ago—but more about seeing what the world had to offer. All the books he’d read in the library would talk of how beautiful the different nations were, from the buried treasures and underground catacombs of the Earth Kingdom to the crystalline structures of the Water Tribe, and to the breathtaking air temples of the Air Nomads shrouded above the clouds. He’d read all about them, but he didn’t have the slightest clue as to what they looked like. His whole knowledge was limited to the palace walls, the sight from his bedroom window and the place Guren hid the key to the dessert cabinet—an old barrel in the warehouse.

Besides, Guren always looked so tense around Yuu, like he was another nuisance to him. Why not let him go already? It would save him so much trouble, so why not agree to Yuu’s request? He honestly had no idea, but he was sure of one thing; today was the day he would stand up to Guren and not accept no for an answer. All he had to do was wait for Guren to start yelling at him like he always did—

—But this time he didn’t. No yelling. No cursing. No calling Yuu a brat and no telling him to go back to his lesson. None of that, just silence and a disappointed look in Guren’s eyes as he caught up to where Yuu was sprawled on the ground.

“Ah, there you are, Your Highness,” A soft voice, lilting yet stern smoothly interjected from behind Guren before either could shout a word.

“Master Shinya, I—”

“You are terribly sorry for being late to your airbending lesson, correct?” His mentor strode up next to Guren, poised and calm. The bright orange of his tunic was a stark contrast to his pale skin and ash white hair.

Yuu caught himself glancing at his mentor’s hands to catch a glimpse of the powder blue tattoos adorning his wrist. Of all the benders, he still thought tattooing their whole body was the coolest tribal representation he’d ever seen.

In his presence, Guren instantly straightened up and rolled his shoulders back, seeming to have snapped back to himself as a scowl formed on his face. Ice blue eyes scanned Guren, taking in the state of his robes and disheveled hair.

“I take it your firebending session went well.” He smiled at Guren, teasing him, before walking forward to extend a hand to Yuu. Guren scoffed and folded his arms.

“You see what he did to my robe!” Guren growled. Yuu kept his eyes down as Shinya helped him up and draped an arm around his shoulders. Fingers curled around his shirt as he was led past Guren. The man always treated Yuu gently, and if he had ever had an older sibling, Yuu would imagine Shinya behaved like one would.

“He’s still learning, you should go easy on him.” He smiled down at Yuu, who cast Guren a wide grin and a thumbs up.

“Just. Go practice!” He growled in response, waving an arm as he stormed off, his tattered and singed robes billowing out behind him. Yuu held in a laugh while he could.

“Now, my prince, shall we?” Shinya bowed his head slightly and raised an arm to direct Yuu down the halls leading back to his training grounds.

As they walked, Yuu sighed and crossed his arms behind his head. “I really don’t feel like… acting like a leaf or whatever today. Can’t I do something else instead?”

“Like what, earthbending?” Shinya didn’t look at him, keeping his hands together behind his back as they walked.

"Yeah, I can practice that cool trick I did yesterday! I was making quicksand!”

"You mean getting yourself stuck in the ground? Remind me again how that happened." Yuu didn’t have to look at Shinya to see the knowing smirk quirking at his lips.

"… Shut up."

Okay it was true—Yuu had gotten himself stuck in the ground once. But that wouldn’t trump the feeling of actually accomplishing something in a bending lesson, which was becoming less and less of a thing lately. It seemed like the older he got, the worse mastering a bending technique became, which had secretly begun to infuriate and depress the young prince. So when he had finally figured something out…

He recalled how it felt when the sand had started moving under his feet. Grinning up at his earthbending mentor, Crowley, who laughed and applauded him, Yuu had never felt prouder in his life.

“Master Crowley! I did it!” He moved his feet in and out of the sand, moving his hands to control the width of the circle, which was presently a bit wider than him.

“Well done, Little Prince!” The man walked over leisurely, leaning down to inspect the sand. He was pretty much the polar opposite of Shinya. Tall, but barrel-chested, tan skin speaking to his years of earthbending outdoors. He had been a general in the Ba Sing Se army, a time when he and Guren fought side by side in a war once. He was supposedly one of the best earthbending masters in the Kingdom, and having earned Guren’s trust and loyalty, he had instantly been recruited as Yuu’s teacher.

The prince’s grin grew brighter at the praise and he stood still, willing the ground to rise up and become firm once more.

Instead, he started to sink lower.

“What the…? Master Crowley, what’s happening?”

His mentor merely raised an eyebrow at him. “You need to get yourself out. That’s the second part of this test.”

Yuu’s heart sank rapidly at the same pace his body was. He couldn’t believe he got tricked! “I’m trying! It’s not—I’m not getting pushed up! Hey!” He screamed down at the sand as if it had a mind of its own and was deliberately trying to drown him. He was now buried up to his mid-thighs. “Crowley!”

But his teacher stood back and watched, arms crossed over his stupid big chest, a grin tugging at his lips.

“Crowley! You moob!” Yuu screamed out and began to panic; he couldn’t help it. The sand was at his stomach and he didn’t think his teacher would let him get buried under the sand but—

As the sand swallowed his shoulders, he took a deep breath, channelling the last remnants of his pent up energy to concentrate.

Then, everything froze. He was buried up to his collarbone in the middle of the training ground and with no way of knowing how to get himself out.

Shit.

Crowley plopped down on the floor in front of him, legs crossed and chin propped up by a fist as he smiled lazily down at Yuu.

It didn’t help Yuu’s current predicament at all. “Get me out!”

“That’s a new one you made up—moob, was it? What does it mean this time?”

“It means you have man boobs!”

Crowley blinked and stared down at his rather impressive and defined chest, “Do I?”

“Yes you do, you big lump of moob! Now get me out of here or I’ll call you something worse.”

A hint of amusement sparkled in his mentor’s eyes and he snickered, and as Yuu continued to sink he patted his head a few times.

“You’re adorable, Yuu-kun.”

Crowley!”

The earthbending mentor gave him a look. The annoying look he would sometimes get in his stupid dark blue eyes, like he was studying Yuu for something. After an awkward staring match which included Yuu struggling to get the sand to listen to him again, Crowley finally leaned back.

“So, what have you learned?”

“That you’re a big jerk!”

The way Crowley stood up and brushed the dust off his pants incited absolute horror in the young prince, and when he turned his back on Yuu, unadulterated desperation got the better of his ego.

“Fine! Fine! I shouldn’t get cocky when I’m bending. I have much to learn! I need to learn how to harness jing better!”

The man instantly pivoted mid-walk like he knew Yuu would give in, hands outstretched in front of him, “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” He lifted one hand and the ground opened up around Yuu, allowing him to climb out of his near-death prison.

He had stormed off after that lesson.

Yuu shook the memory from his mind as he followed Shinya into the airbending training area. His palms were already sweaty before even starting, anticipating his instruction.

Shinya held up a hand, signaling for Yuu to stop, while he moved forward into the center of the space. He held his hands together as if in a prayer. Yuu did the same, closing his eyes for a heartbeat or two to get his heart rate under control.

“First, try something you want to work on.”

“Huh?” This was new. Usually Shinya had a specific curriculum lined up for each lesson.

“I want you to show me something you think you’ve improved on, to show me your progress.”

Yuu sucked in a huge breath of air, held it, and released. He stepped back with one leg and began to move his arms in a circular fashion. He imagined the air as moving molecules between his limbs, sliding through his fingers, until he started to move faster. Drops of sweat began to form on his forehead, but he began to see the air forming a small circle in front of him. His eyes widened and he held his breath, pulling his arms farther apart to start creating a bigger circle. Finally, he began to lower it closer to the ground until he could release it from the confines of his grasp and jumped onto it, sitting cross-legged. He let out the air he had been holding.

“See, you could do it!” Shinya hollered from across the grounds, clapping his hands loudly. “You just had to be leaf in yourself.”

Yuu wanted to be excited, he really did. But it was a simple parlor trick, and Shinya’s rubbish pun didn’t help his lack of enthusiasm. He made the wise decision to completely ignore it.

“I’m just sitting on a stupid ball of air. How is this going to help me fight?” Sweat clung to the back of his shirt as he folded his arms over his chest. He looked up at the sun to see it had been almost an hour, though it hadn’t seemed as though they had been sitting there so long. It shouldn't have been so hard to make something so easy, but every time he had been tasked with this ability it took him around the same amount of time. He wasn’t getting any better, and it had started to weigh heavily on him.

Shinya tutted. “Let me show you.”

Suddenly, he charged forward and Yuu, panicking, tried to get the air beneath him to cooperate enough to move him out of the way. He shouted and waved his arms as the ball finally shifted backwards, but Shinya used a blast of air to propel himself faster, closing in the last few feet between them and sweeping a leg through the ball. Yuu screamed and fell over, the air dissipating from underneath him as his rear hit the ground.

“What was that for?!” Shouting, Yuu stood up quickly and pointed a finger up at the man’s face.

“I was trying to demonstrate the usefulness of such an ability, Yuu-kun. You could have easily dodged my attack.”

Yuu squared off his shoulders and narrowed his eyes, noticing how Shinya stood just out of arm’s reach from him. He grinned and hopped back once before shooting both his palms out at his teacher. Gusts of air blasted towards him, and Shinya was nearly caught off guard.

Nearly.

With ease and fluidity Yuu was secretly jealous of, Shinya conjured up his own strong wind from his hands and feet, propelling himself up into the air. He spun and landed on the ground behind Yuu, who whirled around and tried to land a kick in his chest to which Shinya blocked with his arms.

The hand to hand sparring continued, mostly Yuu attempting to land a hit on Shinya while he dodged and parried, making Yuu’s frustrations only grow stronger.

When they circled around each other, Yuu flipped over his mentor and threw another blast of air at Shinya’s back, hoping he'd managed to surprise him. However, Shinya swiftly rolled out of reach and shot back, propelling Yuu up high into the air.

“Catch yourself!”

“What?!” Yuu saw the ground rapidly approaching and floundered for a second. He needed to cushion himself! Hands flailing wildly, he frantically began to try to manipulate the air around him, trying to will it to coalesce into a cushion so he wouldn’t break his back. He wouldn’t hear the end of it from Guren if he broke something again while training with Shinya—

The ground was getting closer and he still had nothing.

Squeezing his eyes tight, Yuu braced himself for impact. There wasn't anything he could do now. He could feel it, he was going to hit—

Whoosh!

… Air? He opened his slowly and looked around to see Shinya hovering above him, hands splayed towards the suspended prince, lowering the boy gently to the ground.

“Shit…” Yuu rolled over and stretched out on his back, catching his breath.

“How about—” Shinya’s face loomed above him, a soft smile stretching across his face, “—we take a break.”

Yuu released all the stress in his body with a resounding, “Yes, please, thank you.”

—o0o—

They sat against the solitary tree in the courtyard. A servant brought them each a cup of tea, which they sipped in silence, Yuu leaning back against the trunk while Shinya sat on the opposite side, their thighs brushing.

“Do you think…” Yuu started to say, then took a sip of his tea, collecting his thoughts. “Why do you think I’m so bad at this?” He bit his lower lip, worrying the skin red. He hated admitting such a thing out loud, but it had been starting to get to him.

Shinya raised an eyebrow, curious. “Why do you say that?”

“I just… I’m not getting any better. I can’t feel the earth moving, I can’t move like a leaf— I can’t even control my firebending enough without catching Guren’s robes on fire… more than I intended to! And waterbending is still a completely unknown territory for me— who knows how badly I’d mess that up…” Yuu released a long-suffering sigh and looked into his cup of tea, imagining what it would feel like being able to manipulate water right out of it and create a weapon out of something so easily.

In lieu of waiting for a reply, Yuu shifted and leaned his head against the tree, contenting himself before continuing, “Guren has had me locked up in the palace all this time, claiming to protect me. But from what? How am I supposed to…be the Avatar, when I can’t even walk out the palace gates? I’m not a coward, but—”  

“No one thinks you are, Yuu.” Shinya said as he turned his head to face the young prince.

Closing his eyes, Yuu groaned in frustration. Even if he wasn’t a coward, he sure as hell was starting to feel like one. “Then why is Guren so… so stubborn? Why won’t he just let me out and see the world? Travel and learn bending from different people, learn waterbending?”

Shinya hummed as he edged closer, bumping their shoulders together in an affectionate gesture, the wind whistling through the branches and rustling his silver hair. Yuu glanced up and noticed something unbearably deep in his eyes Yuu couldn’t quite place. “Guren is stubborn, but it’s for your own safety. 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.”

“Nobody even knows I’m the Avatar.”

“And for good reason.”

Yuu sighed and rolled his eyes, but Shinya caught him before he could hide it and instantly, there was a finger jabbing his side, a surprised laugh echoing in the tranquil garden.

“H-Hey! What was that for?” He couldn’t stop the giggle bubbling past his lips as Yuu rubbed his side. He was quite ticklish and Shinya knew that well, the bastard.

“For thinking like that. You know you can't go outside because it's dangerous for you.”

“Then I need to learn how to protect myself better!”

“You think I’m a bad teacher?” Shinya raised an eyebrow before he looked up at the trees, as though studying the wind blowing through the branches.

“N-no! It’s not that! It’s just… I’ve been learning from you, Crowley, and Guren, for a couple of years now and I just don’t feel like I’ve made any progress at all. At the rate I’m going, Guren will never find me a waterbending mentor!”

A hand rested gently on his knee. “Yuu… there’s something you need to understand about Guren.”

There was a pause as Shinya hesitated for a moment which prompted Yuu to say, “He doesn’t like them, does he?” Tipping the cup back and forth on the ground, Yuu’s voice softened, “Waterbenders, I mean.”

Such a thing would make sense. Yuu never recalled there ever being waterbenders around, and even though this was the Fire Nation, sometimes benders from other tribes would venture into cities or the palace for various reasons. But Yuu hadn’t even really seen one, much less know what waterbenders could do. The little knowledge he’d acquired of them were from the ancient scrolls he’d read concerning the past Avatars.

“He…” Shinya inhaled deeply, a shadow of conflict playing across his face, eyes darkening in consternation. “He doesn’t trust them, is more the case.” He confessed finally.

Yuu looked back up at him with surprise coloring his features. Shinya lowered his gaze, long lashes shadowing blue eyes, as he offered a small grin to Yuu, one corner of his mouth tugging up. “But it’s nothing to do with you, do you understand?”

Yuu chewed the inside of his cheek, uncertainty and regret churning the insides of his stomach. He nodded his head, but his thoughts were already far beyond the shade of the tree.

After a long moment of sitting in silence with each other, Shinya stretched and announced, “Alright, let's continue.”

—o0o—

If Yuu had to pick something he’d learnt from his airbending session with Shinya, he would have undoubtedly said the unnecessary, useless and way-too-vast array of leaf puns.

Yuu groaned as he walked through the corridor to the dining room, massaging his back through his clothes. An hour of plant jokes would have drained the life out of anyone. Maybe that was why he couldn’t bend properly. Lack of vital energy. Yeah. That must have been it.

“‘Leaf it to me’, he said…” Yuu muttered under his breath, rolling his eyes. “How does Stupid Guren even put up with this side of him…”

But he’d actually accomplished something in his lesson, so he couldn’t complain. Not as much as usual, at least.

One thing that had been out of the ordinary, however, was his talk with Shinya. He would have never expected him to be so open… he’d always believed him to be the average airhead, so the idea of actually sitting down and having an open, deep talk with him had never crossed his mind. And he never would have thought it would have made him want to apologize to Guren enough to make him aimlessly wander around the palace looking for him.

Unfortunately, the boy was too lost in his thoughts to notice the body adamantly blocking his path, and ended up crashing into it head first.

“Ow! Damn it, watch where you’re—,” He rubbed his nose, fully prepared to roast the person who'd dared run into him, who— in the time it took for Yuu to recover—had not started begging for forgiveness.

However, he was not expecting to see the familiar face staring down at him, though not unkindly. “Narumi!”

The dark golden brown locks framing his face swayed as his head shook, a small, breathy chuckle escaping his lips. “You were saying, Yuu-sama?” He said as he flicked the shorter boy’s forehead lightly. “How many times have your mentors told you to always be aware of your surroundings? Spacing out for even a split second can very well cost you your life.”

“Pfft, yeah, like anyone’s gonna come for me in this bigass palace. Besides, I got you to watch my back.”

“Just because I’ve been stuck with you for twelve years doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want, you know.” The taller brunette sighed, scratching at his ponytail. “There are times when I’m unable to watch over you and protect you…”

“Like today?” Yuu shot him a look. “You weren’t there when Guren nearly owned my ass this morning.”

“You know, bocchan, I may be your retainer, but that doesn’t excuse me from my other duties.” His shrug was nonchalant. “In any case, you need to stop trying to piss your uncle off. It’s not going to win you any favors. Not to mention you’re not the only one getting the short end of the stick. Think about those who have to clean up after your mess, would you?” Narumi gestured not-so-subtly at himself.

“Yeaaaah… sorry about that.” Yuu winced. Sometimes he forgot it was always Narumi who had to throw in a good word for him and pacify the people he angered in his place. “Did you… see him today?”

“Of course I did. He gave me the look.” Narumi emphasized by giving Yuu a poor imitation of Guren’s glare. “That’s how I knew you did something. Again.”

Yuu’s face morphed into something resembling a pout, and Narumi chuckled, placing a hand on his shoulder as he prepared to leave. “Go to him. I’ll see you later tonight.”

The prince acknowledged him with a short hmph, shoving his hands in his pockets as he continued on his way in the direction opposite of the ponytailed brunette’s receding figure.

Guess he had no other choice.

He had many options to choose from when searching for his grumpy, old uncle and Yuu decided he’d follow his instinct and hope it’d lead him to the older male.

But of course, the only time Yuu expected Guren to be in the throne room, he wasn’t. Typical.

He headed towards Guren’s room, his footsteps echoing in the dimly lit corridor. Everything was usually eerily silent in that area of the palace since Guren had a tendency to be cranky whenever someone disrupted his sleep, but he could hear some chattering from behind the door in front of him, curiously left ajar. He recognized Guren’s voice and, unless the old man had gone nuts, there was someone with him.

Yuu ran towards the room anyways, knowing full well he would probably have to wait until Guren was gone with whichever guest he had—who invites a guest to their room anyways?—and not giving a single damn about it whatsoever. Talking to Shinya made him feel a little guilty, and heaven knows how bad Yuu was at dealing with guilt.

All he had to do was apologize and everything would be fine. He would knock and say, “Sorry for permanently destroying your favorite clothes, Guren,” and problem solved.

Except he couldn’t do any of that. Not when the sound of Shinya’s voice filtering from inside the room made his blood freeze.

“I think you should trust Yuu-kun.” He said.

Yuu’s heart skipped a beat. Trust him? Trust him with what?

He tip-toed towards the door, resting his hands against the wooden panels to keep his balance as he crouched down, peaking through the gap. Guren was perched on the edge of a chaise lounge by the hearth, going over some paper clippings and documents with a steely expression on his face. His burnt robe had been tossed on one of the chairs without much care, likely during Guren’s earlier fit of frustration.

Fear punched Yuu in the gut before guilt could. Had Shinya told him about the conversation they had? He didn’t think Shinya was the type to betray him, but… what if he had? And what was with that thing about trusting him? Questions flooded his head more than he liked, and Yuu had no time to contemplate on any of them as the conversation continued onwards.

“That’s not the point,” Guren said flatly. He didn’t even look at Shinya, who stood in his ever-so-stoic composure, his hands clasped behind his back. “I can’t afford to risk this much just because of another one of his whimsical fantasies.”

“But he’s eighteen already,” Shinya insisted. “Eighteen and still hasn’t a clue of what’s beyond these walls.”

“You know why I can’t.” Guren’s voice was so cold it sent chills down Yuu’s spine.

Shinya looked hesitant, biting his bottom lip in thought. “But he’s the Avatar… what’s the use of keeping him locked up here, then?”

Guren clicked his tongue, irritated, looking at Shinya for the briefest instant before going back to his paperwork. “That’s not my problem. The brat’s safety is the only thing that matters when it comes to this.”

Shinya’s eyebrow twitched, as if he was mentally cursing Guren’s stubbornness. “Guren… you can’t ignore this forever. One day, Yuu’s going to get fed up and do things on his own!”

Yuu felt a lump in his throat. Never in his life had he heard Shinya’s voice sound so severe and reprimanding. He always looked so serene, like the average happy-go-lucky fool, but instead there he was, scolding Guren and trying to knock some sense into him. In other circumstances, Yuu would have given him a pat on the back.

But not now. Not when he himself was the reason for the argument. Not when he had a feeling he should not be listening to the conversation. And definitely not when Shinya’s predictions were spot on.

Guren raised an eyebrow sarcastically—the way that usually made Yuu want to kick him in the shin—as if Shinya was babbling nonsense. “Like what?”

The white-haired airbender rolled his eyes in exasperation, propping his hands on his hips. “I don’t know—run away? Guren, you’re not only keeping him from being the Avatar, you’re keeping him from his freedom as well! This is why his bending hasn’t improved at all over the last couple of years; he’s barred from the real world. He can’t master all four elements if he continues to be locked up in here. He needs experience—”

Guren closed his eyes, his grip tightening on the papers, “Shinya…”

Shinya deliberately ignored him, pressing on. “—If Yuu ends up hating you, it’s going to be all your fau—”

“ENOUGH!” Guren shot up from his seat and grabbed Shinya by the front of his tunic, pulling him in so their faces were only an inch apart. Old documents went flying in all directions, scattering on the floor, yellow paper clippings swirling around them in turbines before resting.

Shinya’s eyes widened, but Guren didn’t seem to care and pressed on, fuming. “Do you think I like keeping him here and having to deal with his constant nagging about going out? You think I don’t know what it feels like to be chained inside your whole life?” Guren’s face was obscured in front of Shinya, so Yuu was unable to catch a glimpse of his expression, but he heard a sharp intake of breath. “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?”

Yuu’s heart almost stopped beating, blood rushing through his ears like a wave roaring through his mind. Did he… did he hear that right?

He backed up slowly until his back was flush to the wall, but even the wall wasn’t enough to support him, and his knees began to buckle and without his prompting, he fell to the floor with a loud thud.

Heads snapped towards the unexpected sound. The moment Guren’s eyes landed on Yuu’s shell-shocked form he froze, mouth half open like a fish, “Oh shit… Yuu.”

But Yuu didn’t hear a thing, couldn’t even feel or breathe or smell anything as his mind rewinded those last few words Guren had said about him.

He’d killed someone. When he was seven years old, he killed someone and Yuu didn’t even remember a thing about it. Who did he kill? What did they look like? What were their last words before Yuu… before he…

His gut churned with overwhelming hate and disgust and Yuu felt like he was about to vomit all the contents in his stomach.

He heard someone walking towards him and before he even heard his voice, Yuu knew it was Guren. “Yuu, I… I didn’t mean for you to hear that.”

Every step the Fire Lord took made Yuu want to blend into the wall and when his legs finally cooperated with him, he stumbled to his feet and ran towards the direction he came from.

“Wait, Yuu!”

There was a shout and another set of footsteps running after him but Yuu could barely think anymore, his heart sinking in his chest, everything he thought he knew about his life ripped into shreds.

—o0o—

He felt the blood drain from his face, his figure rooted in front of the spot where Yuu had been moments before. Slowly, he breathed in as deeply as he could before he exhaled. His mind raced from the shock of what had happened, still disbelieving of the fact that Yuu had been right there to hear…

A glance at Shinya told the Fire Lord that yes, things got ten times more fucked up than they had been before.

How did things get so messed up? What was Yuu even doing outside the door?

The orange clad man gave him a pointed look. “What are you waiting for? Go!”

Guren ran a hand through his dark hair, messing it up before he moved out of the room without looking back at Shinya, his thoughts already trying to formulate the right words to say. He already knew the door would be shut—he could hear when the kid slammed it from around the corner. He quietly walked down the dark hallway, and when he stood in front of the heavy wooden door, he didn’t knock right away. Shinya’s words of warning echoed in his head.

Would Yuu hate him, or did he already?

He let out an exhausted laugh at himself. How did he end up right back in the same spot, after all these years, terrified once again of stepping into the room of the young prince. He placed a palm on the door, feeling the coolness, remembering how back then it had calmed him, the cold sensation pressed against skin when his body was engulfed in heat from pain, from heartache… from loss.

Eleven years ago, he had stood, just like this, trying to figure out how to tell Yuu his parents, who were his whole world, were dead. It had been something he was dealing with on his own too.

It had been a week and Yuu still hadn’t regained consciousness, but Guren had gone in anyway after repeating the words to himself over and over again, on the chance the small prince could wake up. He would come to eventually, and he would need to know the truth.

Well, most of it. Guren and Shinya had decided quickly Yuu wouldn’t necessarily need to know everything in order to protect himself. To prevent another accident.

Guren recalled how heavy the door had felt when he pushed it open. The nurse who had watched over Yuu had immediately jumped up and fled the room after giving a curt bow, even though he had tried to get her to stay. He wasn’t sure, in the end, if he could do it.

He had sat on the foot of the bed, hands folded as he watched Yuu sleep. He thought about how much the boy’s life was about to change, for so many different reasons. Orphaned, heir to the throne, and the Avatar.

The Avatar.

There was a soft rustle in the bed as Yuu stirred, and Guren sat up quickly, leaning closer to the boy. “Yuu?”

Bright green eyes opened up, slowly at first, until registering it was Guren in front of him. “Guren?”

“How are you feeling? You had a pretty rough bump to the head.”

The boy fidgeted out from under his blankets, rubbing the sleep away from his eyes. Guren waited, not in a rush for this conversation.

Eventually, wide green eyes landed on his, innocent and vulnerable. It made the Fire Lord’s heart twist in agony.

“Guren… where’s mother?”

He knew this question would come, but it still jolted him to the core to hear it. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t sure he would ever be ready.

Looking at the boy now, so wide-eyed and innocent, a touch of weary hopefulness in his small, bedridden figure made his heart lurch with the pain of a thousand fiery suns. He wanted to protect the prince from the truth that would inevitably extinguish the light in his emerald eyes and rip apart the threads weaving his entire world together.

Yuu had always lived his life alone. Powerless and sheltered behind the thick walls that restricted his freedom, his world only consisted of the palace and its inhabitants. There was no telling the degree of devastation that knowing reality would inflict upon him. Knowing the two most important people in his life were no longer walking among the living would undoubtedly bear scars lasting for the rest of his life.

He was young. So young, so carefree, so undeserving of the cruelties this world was capable of.

Even so, Guren couldn’t handle it. He knew the repercussions of lying, the feeling of utter betrayal and hurt resulting from it in the end. No matter how good you were at lying, eventually all secrets would come to light, without fail. He knew such things firsthand. Such was the way of karma.

So he reached out, gathering the small bundle of warmth into his arms, and burrowed his nose into raven hair, inhaling deeply.

It still smelled like his mother’s.

“Guren?” The boy’s voice was muffled against his chest, his body squirming in protest to the sudden embrace. “What are you doing? Where are—”

“I’m sorry, Yuu.” His voice cracked unexpectedly, his arms circling tighter around the child’s body. His chest was full. Full of unshed, pent-up emotion he wasn’t sure he could reign in if he allowed the dam to collapse.   

“Gureeeeen,” Yuu whined, blissfully ignorant to the emotional turmoil wracking his uncle’s entire body. “You’re suffocating me! What’s wrong? Are you hurt? Should I go get mother—”

“They’re gone, Yuu.” His words were no louder than a gentle breeze, “I’m so sorry.”  

Yuu stilled in his hold, and he allowed Yuu some wriggle room so he could look down at his face, small eyebrows scrunched together in confusion, “What do you mean? I don’t get it, Guren. Why are you saying sorry?”

Guren shook his head and cupped Yuu’s face, willing to make the child understand, “You and your parents were attacked days before, Yuu. I wasn’t able to get there in time and… your parents, Yuu, they… they didn’t make it.”

By this point, the child’s eyes were wide and unseeing. Guren couldn’t tell if the emotions swirling in those emerald pools were confusion, anger or both, but he continued explaining anyway, unwillingly digging the blade deeper into his heart, “You’ve been unconscious for over a week now. We couldn’t wait any longer, the people of the Fire Nation wished to pay their respects and give their condolences, so we had to hold the funeral rites already. People wanted to see how you were doing as well but—”

“No.”

“Yuu—”

“No!” Yuu shouted, cutting him off. Tears had welled up in his large, soulful eyes, and cascaded freely down his cheeks as Yuu ripped his face away from Guren’s hands, “You’re lying!”

There was a lump in Guren’s throat now as he tried to gather the child in his arms but Yuu kept on struggling, his face twisted in anguish. His cries reverberated around the room, shouting curses, “Lies! They’re all lies! Why are you lying?! Tell me where my mother and father are! Guren!”

No guards came running at the ruckus Yuu was making, their stations by the young prince’s door otherwise postponed for the Fire Lord’s private meeting.

When Guren finally managed to embrace the boy again, he let Yuu pound his small fists against his chest, his yells muffled by the front of his tunic as it began soaking with Yuu’s tears.

Without realizing it himself, Guren’s own tears had fallen silently on his nephew’s hair, shoulders shaking as he rocked them back and forth in the bed. As a general in an army, he was always told sharing grief with comrades somehow lessened the pain of a loved one’s death. But at this moment, he wished with all his heart Yuu had been spared from all of it.

900

 

He opened his eyes and found himself back in the present, still in front of the door.

He inhaled deeply, and turned the knob. Light slowly filtered inside the dark bedroom, casting a slim streak of gold onto the floor. “Yuu…”

“I don't remember giving you permission to come in,” came Yuu’s muffled voice from the other side of the room. He had folded in on himself on the bed, arms wrapped tightly around his legs and head buried against his knees as he faced the wall.

“I didn't ask.” Guren sighed before shutting the door behind him, lighting a few candles on his way in. Once he was done with the mindless duty, he stood uncertainly for a moment before he finally steeled himself and walked up the short step to sit on the edge of Yuu’s bed.

Yuu curled in further on himself. Guren stayed still, hands clasped in his lap, still trying to think of the words to say.

“Yuu, listen—”

“Who.”

It wasn’t a question. It was a demand for an answer. Guren knew it, and knew he couldn’t back away, couldn’t hide. Not anymore. He watched Yuu’s back, watched how his body moved in time with his breathing, as he spoke.

“The rogue waterbender prisoners, the ones who murdered your parents.”

After a beat, the boy rolled over and sat up. His eyes were wet but hardened as they studied him, gauging the answer being given clearly. Rubbing his cheek with his hands, Yuu wiped away stray tears as Guren continued.

“The night your parents were killed. The part about it being an attack, that’s all true.” Guren steeled himself to not look away from Yuu who let out a long breath of air, seeming to ready himself for the worst.

Every time he recalled the horrors of that night, his chest would constrict. It would feel as though a thousand bolts had impaled him, but he had to do it this time. For Yuu. The prince deserved to know more.

“… As soon as they attacked and your parents were killed right in front of your eyes, you went into the Avatar State. We were… we were all running towards the chambers when there was this burst of blinding light and… by the time we got inside, the waterbenders were already dead. You were… you were lit up—eyes glowing white, and you didn’t see us or acknowledged us at all. Your unlocked powers went out of control and caused the candles to erupt into flames. You nearly burnt the whole room down. But you were still suspended in that cocoon, and I… I couldn’t leave you alone. So I made my way through to get to you, bring you back somehow, and the instant I wrapped you in my cloak, you passed out, and everything died down.”

Yuu’s fists gathered the sheets of the bed and held on tight, his body slightly shaking, “I… That was… me?”

“…Yes.”

A long pause stretched out between them as they both seemed to find the wrinkles in the sheets much more interesting to look at than each other. Guren cleared his throat, finally, to continue.

“That was when we—I realized who you were. Though we didn’t confirm until days later.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, Yuu kept staring down, eyes darting all over the place. Guren imagined there was a lot running through his mind, “If they were waterbenders, is that why I haven’t had a trainer?”

“They can’t be trusted, Yuu.” The words slipped out before Guren could think, much less stop them, though it was the truth. He had no trust for the tribes, for their abilities and what they were capable of and willing to do with their element. Even if the nation’s commerce were to suffer after cutting all ties with the Water Tribes, Guren was determined to keep it that way; he no longer wanted any association with them. “I refused to allow them back into the palace, nor this country for any reason, after what they did to our family.”

“But that was just a few people, Guren! They can’t all be like that.” Yuu sat up on his knees then, upper body leaning towards Guren with an earnest expression, “I need to learn waterbending if I’m to become a good Avatar! You've seen the readings—It can’t be avoided!”

Guren’s lips pursed into a tight line. Be that as it may… “How do I find someone I can truly trust, Yuu? There was already one attempt on your life, what if there is another?”

I can’t lose you, too.

The words were in his mouth but he couldn’t bring himself to say them, to admit part of his own fear in having lost his brother. He couldn’t bear losing someone else in the same way, to the same mistake.

As long as Guren was the Fire Lord, even if he was just a regent for the true heir, he had the power to protect Yuu once and for all, to right the wrongs and to atone for his past sins. Yuu was the Fire Nation’s legacy, and he would not fail his country a second time. He owed it to his late brother and sister-in-law, and to himself.

“I have to be able to defend myself!” Yuu stood up off the bed and placed himself in front of Guren, arms at his sides and hands balled into fists. “I have to be the Avatar, Guren. The people waiting for me are wondering where I am!”

“You don’t know if you can control this properly, Yuu.” Guren tried to control the level of his voice as he stood and rested his hands on Yuu’s shoulders—for a second, he remembered how so much shorter Yuu was, and how he used to look at him differently, but not now, not with so much anger burning in those emerald eyes.

“I can’t learn how to do that stuck here, you know,” Yuu’s voice lowered a few octaves. Guren could tell he was controlling his own temper as well. They both were sometimes so alike it was infuriating. “How can I protect anyone? Or make sure I don’t hurt anyone else, even within the palace walls?”

“Waterbending isn’t the answer to all your problems!” He shook the boy, softly but thoroughly. “There will always be people trying to hurt you with your position, your lot in life, Yuu. Don’t you get it? You’re the next Fire Lord and the Avatar. That’s a shit ton of power! And not everyone will accept that!”

“What, so you intend to keep me here, and never reveal who I am—just become the figurehead? Your puppet?!”

“Yuu!”

The boy wrestled out of his grip and crossed the room, huffing as he faced the door with his arms crossed.

A short but weighted silence fell over them, Guren using the brevity to choose his words carefully. Somehow, he felt like it was the only chance he had to get through to the boy.

“I don’t want you to be a puppet. I want you to be a ruler, Yuu.”

Yuu released a frustrated sigh as he studied the wall, and shook his head. “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything to help myself with that, lately.”

Easing the tension out of his shoulders, Guren finally let himself relax. This he could fix. He could help Yuu feel better about his future in the palace, more than anything related to Avatars and bending elements.

“Then come with me to the council meeting tomorrow morning. We can start integrating you into more processes, so you can get familiar with how things work in the court.”

At this, Yuu seemed to come around. He looked over his shoulder at Guren, something shifting in his bright eyes as Yuu nodded slowly. “Sure, tomorrow morning.”

Guren offered a smile and took a step towards Yuu, arm outstretched. Yuu’s gaze moved from him to the arm, and he let out an exaggerated sigh before stepping into the embrace. Immediately, Guren wrapped him in a one-armed hug, trying to quell the prickling warmth coming from the feeling of hugging his nephew.

“We all mean the best. You understand that, don't you?”

“I know.” Yuu’s voice was muffled in the cloak of Guren’s robe.

Guren pulled back and squeezed the young prince’s cheeks, forcing a smile onto his face that which Yuu promptly wriggled out of, cursing under his breath.

“I’m not a baby!”

“All right, sure.” Guren chuckled as he ruffled Yuu’s soft, unruly hair. He let the hand settle on the boy’s head as he stared down at him, noticing something strange in his green eyes. “You okay?”

For a split second, a flicker of something Guren couldn’t quite catch crossed Yuu’s face, lighting up his eyes, but before Guren could analyze it, Yuu had responded with a brisk, “Yeah. But now I want to sleep.”

Guren nodded and messed up Yuu’s hair once again, earning a few more smacks at his arm. “Goodnight, Yuu.”

It wasn’t until he had nearly shut the door behind him that Yuu finally responded.

“Goodnight, Guren.”

He leaned against the door and let his head hang down. Movement beside him cause him to stand upright—the prince’s retainer was standing guard at the door.

“Narumi.” Guren nodded and the soldier saluted. “Keep an extra eye on him tonight.”

“Yes, sir.”

Satisfied, Guren headed back to his chambers for a long drink to end this long night.

—o0o—

There were times when Narumi wondered if being the Fire Prince’s most trusted protector was the right job for him. Granted, most of those thoughts tended to surface during times when Yuu was at his most vexing, when the brunet’s tolerance had been stretched taut and worn thin. Knowing the prince though—having been stuck with him for several years now—being confined within the castle with limited options available left him little choice but to make a hobby of perpetually trying to get a rise out of his bodyguard. Narumi could hardly blame him for that, so he didn’t mind much.

One thing he had mixed feelings about, though, was the eavesdropping opportunities that came with his role. There was hardly any entertainment to be had when he was on his shifts aside from staring at the opposite wall for hours on end and letting his mind wander to uncharted territory. After all, he was never paired with one guard long enough to hold any sort of meaningful conversation since their shifts were shorter. So he couldn’t help it when he honed in on any kind of noise from within the walls.

Yes, he’s heard his fair share of noises he would much rather erase from his mind permanently—those kinds of sounds he learned to tune out over time.

But conversation was much harder to ignore. Especially when it was painstakingly loud and clear as day.  

And so, Narumi had overheard absolutely everything.

He had a feeling he had stumbled upon something he wasn’t supposed to hear at all. Even though he knew the truth himself, it wasn’t right to listen in on the Fire Lord in his most vulnerable moment. It was during these times he questioned the integrity of his occupation.

However, he managed to push that issue to the back of his mind as he settled into what he was sure to be another long night; if he was lucky, the prince would be too exhausted to bother him and fall asleep. If not, well… he’d just have to suck it up.

Fortune seemed to be in his favor as time passed and nothing out of the ordinary happened. The serene night blanketed the palace once again in gentle moonlight, and the previous conversation was all but a distant memory in his mind as Narumi stood guard in front of Yuu’s room.

Stars sparkled like small gemstones on a cobalt drape, the only sound filling the silence that of gentle gusts of wind playing with the trees and, basking in the moonlight, Narumi couldn’t help but find it rather peaceful and relaxing. Everything suggested a quiet, pleasant, extremely ordinary night.

Until he heard an almost inconspicuous—but very unmistakeable— swearing at two in the morning.

At first, he thought he must have imagined it. If there was one thing he’d learnt about Yuu in all those years spent by his side, it was the guy really cherished his sleep. The kind of I-need-to-be-literally-kicked-out-of-bed-or-else-I-won’t-wake-up kind of cherishing. The thought of him being up at two in the morning was almost ridiculous.

Until he heard it again, and this time the “stupid fucking balcony” echoed pretty clearly in his ears.

He hesitantly pushed open the door, one eyebrow raised quizzically, not sure what to make of the situation. Perhaps Yuu was sleep-talking. It’d never happened before, but with Yuu, there was always a first time for anything even remotely weird or unusual. Perhaps Narumi’s mind was playing a trick on him. Taking care of Yuu would take a toll on anybody, to be quite honest.

Or perhaps Yuu was actually trying to fight the balcony. Narumi snickered. As if. No way he would do that at two in the morning.

Yet there Yuu was, leaning over the windowsill with a satchel slung over his shoulder, his eyes determined and ready to jump off at any second.

Narumi didn’t have time to assess the absolute and utter insanity of the situation as his instincts kicked in and he bolted towards Yuu, dropping his spear to the ground with a metallic clang.

Yuu whirled around, his face reminiscent of caught prey, eyes blown impossibly wide. But before he could even open his mouth, Narumi had firmly secured him around the waist and began hauling him back into the dark safety net of his room, despite Yuu struggling in what looked like a herculean effort to cling onto the window frame, trying in vain to keep his satchel close to him with no intention of letting go.

Yuu squeaked when his grip finally gave out and they ended up pirouetting and cartwheeling before falling to the floor, tiny pools of dust rising from the carpet and whirling around them.

Narumi hoisted himself up on his wrists, glaring at the boy below him in both indignation and utter disbelief. “What exactly did you think you were— hmph!”

Yuu cut him off by slapping both hands over his mouth in all his elephant-like grace, which made Narumi feel as though he’d just headbutted a wall. And he spoke from experience, after all the times he’d chased Yuu back when he went through his infuriating refusing-to-take-a-bath phase.

One of Yuu’s talents, aside from pushing all of Guren’s buttons at every given moment, was waiting until the last instant to dodge an attack—in that case, Narumi charging towards him with a net—so Narumi had had his fair share of crashing into walls when he was younger, and the spoiled prince was to blame. It took him a while to learn how to deal with it, for Yuu’s strong point was his capriciousness. Or element of surprise. Call it whatever, but it was one particular hurdle Narumi had the most trouble overcoming.

But at that moment, it occurred to him that maybe, just maybe, he still wasn’t used to it at all. Even after twelve years spent by his side, Yuu always managed to surprise him and render him speechless. And most of the times, Narumi didn’t mean it as a compliment when he said it.

“For flames’ sake, be quiet!” Yuu whispered, as serious as ever while continuing to press his hands against Narumi’s lips. “What if Stupid Guren wakes up? You know how cranky he gets when someone ruins his sleep!”

Narumi just stared at Yuu, wide-eyed, without the slightest idea how to reply. It amazed him how Yuu was convinced the biggest issue was his speech volume and not him nearly plunging to his death out the window.

The thought of Yuu having nearly eluded him snapped Narumi back into action, slapping Yuu’s hands away from his face and pinning him down by the wrists, his gaze darting from Yuu’s eyes to the satchel. “Maybe we should wake him up,” he threatened flatly. “Perhaps we would find out what you were trying to do.”

“Don’t you dare.” Yuu barked back, trying to push Narumi off him.

Narumi shrugged. “I’m in charge of you tonight, Yuu-sama. If anything happens to you, I will be deemed personally responsible. And being beheaded at the age of twenty-eight is not exactly my aim in life.”

Yuu gulped, his face falling. “B-Beheaded?”

Not really, Narumi said to himself. Just thrown into jail probably. Or be forced to run after you through the entire nation. But Yuu didn’t need to know his bluff and, in Narumi’s opinion, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the risk of being beheaded. “Yes,” Narumi nodded, trying to keep a straight face as Yuu became the embodiment of panic. “Either that, or deal with a fuming Fire Lord Guren. We both know which one is worse.”

The look on Yuu’s face told Narumi that he knew. The green-eyed boy nodded, biting his bottom lip as though mentally upbraiding himself.

“So I take it you understand I cannot let you jump off the window, your Fieriness,” Narumi concluded stoically. “Don’t you?”

Yuu groaned, turning his head to the side and avoiding Narumi’s stare. “Yeah,” he murmured, almost inaudibly. “I don’t want you to die, I guess.”

I guess. Well, that was something at least. Maybe he could even knock some sense into him. Just maybe. Knowing how stubborn the prince was, he had very low hopes.

He let go of Yuu and moved over, sitting next to him and helping him do the same. Narumi stared at him without saying a word, waiting for him to start talking and explain himself.

Yuu sat in silence, legs crossed and eyes darting around the room, careful not to meet Narumi’s gaze. There was nothing discreet about the way he was trying to avoid the conversation they were about to have, just like there was nothing prince-like in the way he fidgeted with the hem of his uwagi and massaged his wrists, or the way his eyes were puffy and red-rimmed from crying.

“So?” Narumi asked, fully aware of how inconsiderate he was being.

Yuu scowled. “So what?”

Narumi rolled his eyes in exasperation. Yuu sure could be a brat. He behaved like a brat most of the time. “That thing.” He nodded towards the satchel. “What, were you trying to run away or something?”

He was expecting Yuu to laugh. He really was. He wanted the raven-haired male to say that it was part of his training regiment for airbending or something—Shinya had once told him to behave like a monkey to feel closer to the leaves, whatever that meant, which prompted Narumi to end up having to forcefully drag Yuu down a blasted tree, so hardly anything surprised him anymore.

It came as an unparalleled shock to Narumi when he saw Yuu lowering his head in defeat, his grip on the fabric tightening.

Narumi felt something gnaw at his stomach. A soon-to-be Fire Lord bowing his head in front of a lowly guard. It would have felt incredibly out of place, had Narumi not overheard the conversation he’d had with Guren. But even so, he didn’t expect Yuu to look vulnerable—wounded, even. It was like all of his spunk and spite had been sucked out of him, and he was almost unrecognizable.

“I didn’t know you would be beheaded if I did it,” He said quietly, under his breath.

Huh. Maybe the beheading joke went a bit too far.

Narumi sighed, running a hand through his hair and messing up his tight ponytail.

Like he cared, anyway. The heir of the Fire Lord was having a mid-life crisis—quarter-life crisis, hopefully—in front of him: his hair was the very least of his problems.

“I won’t get beheaded, Yuu-sama,” he clarified, waving his hand dismissively. “There will be punishment if I let you out, but nothing that drastic. Guren-sama wouldn’t allow for any more barbarism in this palace by anyone’s hand.”

“Thank goodness…” He could see relief painted on Yuu’s face from the way his green eyes sparkled even in the darkness. He must have taken that pretty seriously. It probably wasn’t the best joke Narumi could have made when Yuu had been told he murdered three people when his Avatar state kicked in. Or more than three. He didn’t quite remember how many waterbenders there were, but the image of Yuu in the Avatar state was burned in the back of his mind. Witnessing it was quite a traumatic experience for his seventeen-year-old self, but he was positive that being told what happened was not any less shocking for Yuu.

“I still can’t allow you out of this room, Yuu-sama.” Narumi reminded him. “So I must ask you to kindly refrain from picking fights with the balcony.”

Yuu groaned, picking out the sarcasm in his tone. “What’s the big idea with keeping me locked up here forever? You, Shinya, Guren—what’s with you?”

“We’re doing this to protect you, Yuu-sama. You’re the Avatar and the future heir, after all.”

Yuu’s brows furrowed. “But it doesn’t make sense though, does it? The reason you’re keeping me here is the very reason why you shouldn’t! And besides…”

“Besides?”

He clenched his fists. “… Keeping me here is more dangerous for you than letting me go. And I don’t want to risk hurting any of you… not again.”

It hardly surprised him. Sure, Yuu might have been a self-centered and spoiled brat, but he knew he cared deeply about those around him. Guren had raised him like he was his own child and he was the only family Yuu had left. Having Guren as a father-figure growing up explained a lot of Yuu’s behaviour, especially radical choices like leaving for the sake of not jeopardizing anybody else’s safety. Being told that he was responsible for someone else’s death would have made anyone wonder whether or not they were a danger to those around them.

It wasn’t to say Narumi didn’t have his own share of guilt for being unable to fend off the intruders that night. He had heard reports of the waterbenders breaking out of captivity, and he’d rushed to intercept them before they could step anywhere within the royal chambers, but they had outsmarted him. They had outsmarted them all. It was somewhere along the way as he rendezvoused with Guren and the two had seen the bedroom emitting a strange light, that Narumi’s initial suspicions had finally been laid to rest.

Apparently Yuu had given it enough thought to conclude that the well-being of his beloved ones was now his priority.

So whilst he wasn’t surprised by his thought process, he wondered what would happen from now on.

Because if Guren found out Yuu had ran away, he would send Narumi after him. Because if people found out the Avatar was on the run, they would hunt him down. Because even if Yuu managed to get away, he would have no idea of what the outside world was like. And because even if Narumi ever succeeded in finding him, if Yuu felt he was dangerous, he would not come back to the palace, come hell or high water.

Narumi just sighed in resignation, fully aware any attempt to stop him would result in nothing but a gigantic, utter failure.

Yuu stood in silence for a moment, looking down at his hands. “You knew all along, didn’t you.”

There was nothing he could say to counter that. “… Yeah, I did.”

“So you understand then… what I am… this power in me—I could kill anyone without even meaning to. I won't be able to control it if I continue living within these walls, that's why I have to leave, Narumi.” Yuu glanced up and stared straight at him, determination shining in his bright, green eyes, “Please.”

If Narumi was sure of one thing about the prince, it was he was stubborn to a fault. Sometimes, that led Yuu to make the most inane of decisions even Guren couldn't handle in his best days but other times, like now, Narumi saw glimpses of the the Fire Lord Yuu could grow up to be.

But spontaneity didn’t make a Fire Lord. Careless thinking would only get one so far in life, and for the Fire Lord’s heir, every action had consequences that would affect not only him, but the nation he ruled. In a life where his actions were heavily scrutinized by the masses, reckless decisions could make or break his eventual rule.

Narumi knew just the thing to deter his charge. He hoped he could finally put a damper on his foolish idiosyncrasies and start taking his responsibilities more seriously. “And, hypothetically speaking, if I did let you out, where would you go? Do you even have a plan of action?”

At that, Yuu’s expression turned pensive, and Narumi could only imagine what was going through his head. A few minutes passed before something seemed to click in his mind, and his determined gaze renewed once again. “… To the Water Tribes.”

If he thought it was impossible to get even more surprised by Yuu’s antics that night, Narumi was dead wrong. “...Excuse me?”

The Water Tribes?

The Water Tribes?

It had been a long day, in retrospect. Perhaps Narumi misheard things. After all, there was nothing more stupid than the idea of venturing right into the heart of enemy territory. Even Yuu’s general puerility must have its limits.

“You heard me. I need to go to the Water Tribes, and find answers there for myself.” Yuu hoisted his satchel over his shoulder again. “It’s obvious neither Guren nor Shinya are gonna be of any help. Besides, I still need to find a waterbending teacher. Where else would I find one if not their homeland?”

For a moment, he almost thought Yuu wanted to avenge his parents by raiding the Water Tribes himself—which Narumi wouldn't put past him—but one look in his eyes spoke of the genuineness in his words. Narumi knew whatever else he said to Yuu would fly past the other’s ear, unheard.  

Deep down, he knew no one could hold him down for long. It was only a matter of time until he rebelled against the constraints of his family, and this was it. His destiny was predetermined since birth. There was no point in holding him back any longer, especially when his mind was made up like this.

Sighing, Narumi reached out to ruffle the prince’s hair, breaking his stoic expression with a small grin, “You really want to do this, huh?”

Shaking his head away from Narumi’s hand, Yuu exclaimed, “Of course!”

“And you know the kind of aneurysm Guren’s likely to get once he realizes you're gone?"

Rolling his eyes, Yuu snorted and nodded his head. “I'll make it up to him someday. I promise.”

Narumi knew his next words were going to create a permanent shift in their lives, though if it were for the greater good or the worse, he had no idea. One thing he knew for certain though—if he'd said he didn't want Yuu to go out and become a better Avatar and person overall, he'd be lying.

He had been in his service for twelve years. He was the one who had seen Yuu at his most vulnerable, when Guren was occupied with other affairs. He watched Yuu grow up and struggle. Everything had led up to this singular moment in their lives. He knew it was the time.

“I’ll help you.”

Chapter Text

Okay, listen up.”

A large map was laid out in front of them, edges frayed from age and paper curved after being tightly coiled for so long. Yuu’s eyes traveled over the continents drawn on it, roving over the unique landmarks and geography of each location. Red, blue, yellow, and white—colors representing each nation, and his eyes lingered on them. He couldn’t help but feel a little giddy at the possibility of finally being able to visit these places in person.

He reigned in his excitement by the strict countenance of his retainer, who patiently waited for Yuu’s full attention.

Yuu gulped and nodded, trying to push away the nervous fluttering in his stomach.

Dark brown amber eyes beheld him before focusing on the map. “This is the map of the world. You’re well acquainted with this, correct?”

Yuu nodded again, his mind kicking into overdrive. If there was anything he would remember from his lessons and take to his grave, it was the physical embodiment of his lifelong desires and dreams. When he was younger and more hopeful, he would use what free time he had—that wasn’t spent pulling pranks, studying, or sparring—to nestle himself into his favorite corner in the royal library, hungry eyes and fingers tracing over every continent, admiring the colors and topography, concocting grandiose envisionments of what each country was like.

And now, he was so close.

Narumi’s finger landed in the center of a fiery red landmark to the west of the map, where plumes of volcanic smoke were etched in firm strokes. “This is where we are, currently.” He gestured to the central continent painted yellow, by far the largest out of the four nations which dominated the map. “This is the Earth Kingdom.”

And then, the two significantly smaller islands huddling against vast Earth Kingdom land on opposite top and bottom ends of the map, enveloped in soft, ashen blue. “And here, the Water Tribes.”

Yuu sucked in a small breath. If Narumi heard it, he didn’t acknowledge it.

He continued on. “Based on our position currently, the closest island would be the Northern Water Tribe, also known as the largest division of the islands. This is where the capital city is located.” His eyes rose again to meet Yuu’s. “There is no direct route here from the Fire Nation, since all relations with them have been renounced. The only way to travel here—”

“—is from Ba Sing Se.” Yuu finished, breathing out and repeating the words he had once read verbatim. “I learned this. Ba Sing Se is a metropolis at the forefront of all political and economical exchange. They have trade routes branching out all over the world. If I’m there, I can go anywhere.”

“Exactly. So you know what this means.”

“I’d have to board a ship to Ba Sing Se.” Yuu mused out loud, heart thudding loudly. “I’ll sail there, and then, I’ll catch another one to the Northern Water Tribe.”

“Lucky for you, bocchan,” Narumi leaned against the desk they were bent over, crossing his arms under him. “I have a friend in the freight company who’ll see you safely to Ba Sing Se. He’s a long time veteran of the seas, so as long as you’re in his company, you have nothing to worry about. However, once you disembark…” His voice trailed off, a troubled expression flooding his stern features.

“Narumi,” Yuu’s eyes glinted a fiery green as he caught Narumi’s gaze. His heart hadn’t stopped thudding, half-expecting for it to stop right then and there, but he couldn’t deny the exquisite thrill coursing through his veins. He had prepared himself for this day for years. “You have to trust me.”

Narumi sighed. “It’s not like I don’t, Yuu-sama. I just… don’t know if I can live with myself if I let you go and something were to happen to you.”

Yuu had never considered himself a perceptive person, but he had his moments when he was observant. It was clear Narumi wanted to go with him, to look after him like he always had from the day they met. Yuu would be lying if he said he wouldn’t feel a thousand times safer if he let him, but he knew better.

Yuu grinned toothily. “But who’s going to clean up after my mess?”

Narumi rolled his eyes. “I see what you did there. Of course, the one time you actually listen to me is when you're trying to get your way.”

The laugh that escaped Yuu was brief, but it was enough to expel some of the tension that had gathered in his spacious bedroom. He could tell it worked when he saw an exasperated smile tugging at the corners of Narumi’s mouth.

“So…” Yuu began after they had eased themselves back into relative calm. “When is this happening?”

Narumi was looking at a far-off point out of Yuu’s window when he responded. “Tomorrow, at midnight.”

“Tomorrow?” Yuu echoed, eyes as wide as saucers. He was expecting to go soon, but not that soon. Not that he was complaining.

“Yes. Coincidentally, I have business outside of the palace tomorrow during the day, so I’ll make arrangements while I am out. In the meantime, you should pack your belongings. Don’t worry about anything else. You’ve got the whole day tomorrow to rest.”

Understanding dawned on him. He had no lessons or sparring on the weekend. He was free the whole day. He felt silly for only realizing this now, except…

“Shit.” Yuu’s shoulders sank. “I promised Guren I’d go with him tomorrow morning to learn court stuff.”

Narumi hummed. “That’s fine. Even better, actually. It makes it less likely for Guren to visit you later during the day. Just don’t waste too much energy on the meeting; I imagine since it’ll be your first time, he’ll let you off easy. It is your weekend, after all.”

Yuu nodded, although slower this time. His retainer must have noticed his budding anxiety and clapped a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“It’ll be fine. Just remember this, Yuu-sama. As of now, there is no one in the palace who is in on this except for me. That means, there’s no one you can trust but me. Do not make any hasty moves, or the repercussions would be dire. Wait for me to come to you at midnight, and follow my instructions very carefully. As long as you’re with me, everything will be alright. And one last thing…”

Yuu couldn’t speak. He could only nod again for the countless time that night, his attention entirely devoted to what Narumi had to say.

“No matter what happens, stay in your room until I come. Do not open the door for anyone but me.”

“How would I even know it’s you?” Yuu voiced out loud, sparing an incredulous glance at his solid wooden door that was entirely devoid of peepholes.

Narumi’s voice dropped a couple octaves. “That’s where this handy trick comes in…”

—oOo—

Three knocks. Half a beat’s rest. Another knock.

Yuu mentally recited the code to himself over and over as he sat restlessly on the edge of his bed. His belongings were bunched up in a tight roll next to him, and his hands fiddled anxiously with the string tying it together.  

Narumi had made him memorize the pattern so Yuu would know it was him when he came to fetch him. There was no one Yuu could rely on but his closest retainer.

It was an extremely risky and dangerous game they were playing, but he had already made up his mind. There was nothing anyone could do anymore to dissuade him from achieving what was rightfully his.

Freedom.

Guilt still plagued his conscience at how his conversation with Guren ended yesterday. Guren seemed to think the argument was fully resolved, and resumed the habit of giving Yuu a hard time and ruffling his hair every now and then. Even when Yuu attended the meeting Guren hosted early that same morning, the older man kept throwing the teenager fond looks whenever he thought Yuu wasn’t paying attention. It made his stomach churn, and not in a good way.

He had never been a skilled liar. It just wasn’t in his nature to deceive. What was the point of lying when he could get anything he wanted by asking for it? He’d never had anything to hide either. At least, nothing close to this scale of outrageous proportions.

Truth be told, he was frightened. It would be so easy to just forget everything he had planned with Narumi the night before, to brush it off as nothing more than another of his fantasy escapades.

But he had lived and struggled with the chasm in his memories from the days leading up to and surrounding his parents’ death. Not remembering the last moments with them had always been deeply unsettling for Yuu. Long had he forced himself to cope with memories that should have existed. It made him feel incomplete, like his life wasn’t his own. He tried to convince himself it was okay, that he had no choice but to abnegate control into the hands of those who insisted they knew better. He trusted them, because there was no one else he could trust.

However, the following rounds of depression and cryptic dreams that ravaged him were brutal, and countless times he was shaken awake by recurring horrific nightmares. Some days he would be drenched in sweat, and other days screaming until he was hoarse, and no one but Narumi heard and came to check on him. He had made Narumi promise to keep the nightmares to himself and not cause any concern for the current Fire Lord, which Narumi had begrudgingly agreed to.

His dreams were sometimes vivid, sparking bright and billowing out emptiness. Sometimes he assumed another identity. Other times he was forced to watch from the sidelines as the horrors he had previously experienced instead happened in front of him. He often had trouble differentiating the line between reality and fantasy, the metaphysical portrayal of borderline oppression and inhumanity too much for him to bear. It was always involving the same person, always their fears, their pain that the dreams centered upon. But no matter how much he tried to conjure a clear image of the person, Yuu could only come up with a blank slate. He could never recall anything about the person upon awakening, only the events themselves, and it always pissed him off. It was irrational, but he was beginning to suspect it may have played a dire role in his years of bending stagnancy.     

And now that he knew what he’d done, aware of the people he had killed, everything had fallen into place. He’d discovered the root of Guren’s simmering contempt and vitriol for the Water Tribes.

But now, it was time for him to take charge of his own life.  

His gut twisted imagining the state of the palace in the morning, once they discovered he was missing.

No. He couldn’t get stuck focusing on the aftermath of his escape. His nerves were already fraying at the edges. He had to focus on fleeing with Narumi.  

Eyes darted towards the candle flickering upon his writing desk. It had to be near midnight. Where was Narumi?

Yuu brought his knees to his chest and buried his face in them. What if Narumi had just been entertaining his delusions of freedom, and was out drinking and laughing with the guards, not giving a fuck about him?

Or even worse… what if he had been reporting everything to Guren this whole time?

More negative thoughts swarmed his head, ones he normally wouldn’t play with as his anxiety got the better of him. His breathing grew quicker against his will. He wasn’t sure how to calm himself down.

Without Narumi, Yuu was completely helpless.  

Knock-knock-knock!

Knock!

The subtle yet firm sound made Yuu jump. He couldn’t control the agitated pace of his heartbeat as he approached the door and opened it, albeit excruciatingly slowly.

His heart skipped at the sight greeting him.

“Yuu-sama!” Narumi looked out of sorts, his breath coming out in thinly concealed wheezes, as though he had been running laps around the palace. He was leaning for support against the door frame, pausing for a moment to catch his breath. “I’m sorry for the delay. Commander Mito had me run an errand for her, and it took longer than I thought. But I got you something. Here.” Something thick and dark was tossed in his direction faster than Yuu could comprehend, but his hand shot out to catch it regardless.

“What…” Yuu eyed the object in his hands, puzzled, before looking back at Narumi. Was he serious?

He seemed to have regained his composure, judging by the deadpan expression he shot Yuu. “Did you seriously think I’d let you go out in your royal garb? You’d be a dead giveaway to everyone in this nation, and then it’ll be game over. Hurry up and change before time runs out. We have to get moving as soon as possible.”

Yuu cursed himself for not realizing sooner such a glaringly obvious fact.

He was about to conduct a legitimate escape attempt, and yet he already failed step one. If it hadn’t been for Narumi’s agile pragmatism, Yuu would have remained blissfully ignorant and be found out the instant he took a step out of the walls. He could never even hope to have a chance of survival by himself.

It terrified him how inexperienced and naïve he was. There he was, standing tall and proud, firmly entrenched in the belief he was finally about to embrace his destiny, but was he really ready? Would he ever be?

As he began to strip and change into his new clothes, unbeknownst to Narumi who was resolutely standing guard at the door, Guren’s words from yesterday’s conversation with his airbending master Shinya replayed in his mind. Whatever prophecy had to say of his ‘predetermined’ destiny, maybe there was truth to Guren’s stalwart obstinacy. Maybe Yuu had just been indulging in his ‘whimsical fantasies’ and was taking it a little too far this time.

Regardless of what he thought, he knew he couldn’t dally any longer. He was embarking on a journey he had no clear idea of, treading closely to the point of no return.

It’s now or never.

He finished buttoning the last of his dark gray changshan. It was a form-fitting ensemble and allowed less constriction of movement in comparison to his daily attire, and although the fabric was less airy and silky against his skin, it was no less comfortable. In fact, the longer he wore it, the more he liked it. He rolled up his sleeves, tightened the thin, crimson obi around his waist with a satisfying tug, and spared a brief glance at himself in the mirror.    

He looked different. He’d never really paid much attention to his appearance before, but looking at himself now, he looked… tougher. Like he wasn’t someone to be trifled with. It was nothing but a lie, of course, but he decided he was one step closer to achieving that image.

“Once you’re done primping, I suggest you get your stuff. Like I said, we’re running on borrowed time.”

His frenzied heartbeat pulsing loud in his ears, Yuu whirled around without another word and grabbed his belongings, casting one last glance across his bedroom he was about to leave behind forever, making sure nothing was left behind.

This bedroom he lived in for his entire life, quite possibly never to step foot in again…

Yuu shook his head, cutting off his last ties and turned around, dashing after the brunet and closing the door to the previous chapter of his life.

—oOo—

The corridors were dark, illuminated only by the moonlight filtering through the massive windows stretching endlessly on. Yuu followed Narumi closely as they stealthily maneuvered through the maze of halls, holding his breath when the telltale footsteps of guards headed their way and tried his best to blend in the shadows to avoid the hovering firelight.

Constant fear of being discovered was entrenched so deeply in his mind as he focused on staying safe that he had long lost recognition of his surroundings. His mind was slow to register when a seemingly bland, unfamiliar wall slid open following some sort of incantation on Narumi’s part.

Unbidden curiosity sparked in the part of his mind not yet muddled by panicked frenzy. However, Yuu was given no time to mull over this new revelation as he was immediately pulled along down a well-lit stairwell.

Wherever he looked, there was nothing familiar he could latch onto. It was as if he had entered a completely new dimension, parallel to his own universe.

There was so much he didn’t recognize about his own home he had lived in for his entire life.

He didn’t know anything about the outside world. It turned out he also didn’t know his own home as well as he thought.

After an indeterminate amount of time, they finally broke through the defensive perimeters, only to be greeted immediately with the sight of guard towers.

His spirits plummeted. Why did he assume he’d be in the clear the moment he left the palace? He couldn’t be any further from the truth.

“No, this way,” Narumi whispered, breaking the apprehensive cloak of silence that had followed them intently throughout their flight.

Yuu’s hands were clammy and cold, long freed from Narumi’s calloused, sturdy grasp. The cold air did nothing to make it better, but he willed himself to keep it together.   

At Narumi’s silent urging, Yuu followed him in the direction he was heading.

Away from the guard towers, and away from the main entrance.

Puzzled, Yuu spoke up. “Why are we going to the gardens?”

His question wasn’t graced with an answer, and Yuu was left to stumble after Narumi who had gone ahead, all the while staring at the back of his trusted retainer.

Just how much did he know about the palace? Yuu figured he knew more than he did, considering he disappeared at random times of the day to run errands, as he would put it.

Yuu never questioned Narumi for anything he did, and he wasn’t about to doubt him now, even if the brunet was leading him somewhere unknown.

It was his decision to place his trust in his guardian of twelve years, and he saw no reason to detract it.

He tore his gaze away and took in his surroundings, observing them for the last time.

The gardens were no less enchanting than they were during the day. In fact, it held a certain bewitching beauty to it Yuu was at a loss to explain. Tree branches swayed in the cool night breeze, lotus petals drifting down to disrupt the smooth, crystal clear surface of the pond, tiny ripples ebbing on the water’s moonlight.

Yuu couldn’t help but slow down, enraptured by the sight.

He’d seen and passed the pond countless times, but this time it was different. Seeing it like this, suspended in peaceful tranquility and devoid of any signs of life, Yuu was not expecting the pang of nostalgia to hit him like a tidal wave, unbidden and overwhelming, making his knees weak.

He was drawn to the pond, for some unknown reason. He could almost see turtle ducks lounging on the water that weren’t there, a silhouette of a person smiling at them under the welcoming shade of the tree. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t recall the person’s face. But it felt like their smile was so warm…

A single tear rolled down his cheek, and he blinked.

What the—

“Yuu-sama!” Narumi’s voice shook him out of his reverie, and he wiped at his cheek in haste before hurrying after the older man, pulling away from the pond tugging at the last vestiges of his stolen memories.

—oOo—

They spent the remainder of the time evading a few more patrol guards and camouflaging themselves behind various forms of plant life — Yuu had never been more grateful for a lack of them within these walls, particularly at this time of night. Most were usually concentrated around the palace gates and watchtowers to enhance security, where visibility was far more limited compared to the daytime. Trespassers would be likelier to attempt crossing the barren and rocky terrain to the palace.

The brunet barely said a word throughout their whole journey, opting to look back at Yuu every once in a while to make sure he wasn’t lagging behind, and snapped Yuu’s attention back to the task at hand every time the prince allowed himself to get distracted by his surroundings.

Soon, they arrived at the corner most garden of the palace, an array of trees and foliage lined up neatly along the perimeter of the wall leading to the arid outcrops beyond the palace, and no tangible exit in sight.

Yuu was at his wit’s end. His anxiety had fully somatized, and Narumi had deliberately ignored everything Yuu said from the start. And now, with no way out as far as the naked eye could see, Yuu was more than ready to lose it. “So what now? We’re at a dead end. There’s nothing here.” He paced impatiently in circles, kicking the dirt at the soles of his feet.

“Why don’t you look here for a second?” Narumi finally spoke, slight irritation lacing his voice.

To Yuu’s unmasked surprise, there was a hidden vault cleverly concealed between some overgrown shrubs, and Narumi wrenched open the rusty doors with no short amount of difficulty, cobwebs and dust mites escaping from apparent disuse.

Yuu had been taught the whereabouts of underground bunkers and tunnels exclusively for the royal family to ensconce themselves in and escape through, but he had never once heard of one here, so close to the outside world.  

However, his attention was easily arrested by the vault in a hopeless state of derelict, and winced as he was overcome with a single revelation overpowering all else; he had to inevitably wade through the throng of overhanging moss and dingy spiderwebs into the unknown darkness whose secrets only served to fuel his dread.

Gulping, he watched in parts horror and grudging fascination as Narumi, in all his fearless swagger, proceeded to swipe off the offending growth as if he were swatting mere flies.  

“Is there—,” Yuu started. “Is there really… no other way to go but through here?”

The brunet ceased all movement as he craned his head back to meet Yuu’s, his expression hinting at annoyance.

Yuu watched with wide eyes and dawning chagrin as Narumi’s subtle features slowly broke into something that resembled… wait, was he smirking?

Bocchan,” Narumi sighed, a tint of sarcasm flitting in his tone. “After all that bravado you gave me earlier, now you’re telling me you’re scared of a little dirt?”

Yuu could feel the heat burning the tips of his ears. “S-Shut up! I never said I was scared!” As if to prove a point, Yuu marched ahead, unceremoniously shoving past the taller man and through the pitch black maw of the vault as he snapped his fingers and a small fireball hovered above his index finger.

Instantly, a decrepit, slightly putrid smell assaulted his senses, and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. There was an underlying moldiness permeating the air and he shivered as he imagined the creatures stuck underground and dying, their carcasses emitting bone-numbing pungence and decay.

Oh, god. What if… what if a person died in here?

Immediate regret swelled in his chest, but as soon as it came, he stomped on it, hard. He was past the point of no return. There was no point in berating himself for letting his pride get the better of him and walk ahead into something unknown. He wasn’t about to let Narumi make fun of his resolve.

He took a deep breath —through his mouth, of course— and took a step forward.

There was nothing.

“What the—” It was too late. He was going to fall. He was going to—

“Whoa!” A strong hand gripped his upper arm and held him steady. “Easy there, kiddo. Didn’t I just tell you not to make any hasty moves?”

“I—,” Yuu stuttered, a mad blush of humiliation flooding his features. As much as he hated to admit it, Narumi was right. In his rush to prove his retainer wrong, he freely chose to throw all pretense of caution to the wind, and for what? To preserve his delicate ego? He wasn’t able to stop himself from reacting instantly to every little stimulant. There was no denying he was naive, but even he wasn’t so dumb as to not know that if he didn’t change, he couldn’t expect to live for very long outside the palace.

He took a deep breath, his eyes closed. When he opened them again, he looked directly into Narumi’s eyes with a newfound clarity. “I’m sorry. I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.”

Mouth gaping slightly, Narumi’s grip slackened, letting Yuu’s arm fall to his side again.

Clearly, Narumi was about to go off on a tangent about Yuu’s usual carelessness, but his sudden remark must thrown him for a loop. It wasn’t every day Yuu took note of his own faults and readily acknowledged them, much less in such a direct way.

Narumi’s face broke into a terse smile as he set his gaze forward. “Follow my lead.”

Navigating their way underground was no small feat for Yuu. The stairs leading into the black abyss had undergone significant erosion and sported many deep cavities, may it be due to acid or other miscellaneous factors, one of which nearly led Yuu to fall to his demise had Narumi not caught him in the nick of time.

Traveling the majority of the way in the dark, with only the rusty torches lining the cement walls flickering to life under Narumi’s touch as their guide, was both a blessing and a curse to Yuu.

For one, he was extremely grateful he no longer had to entertain his dangerously morbid thoughts now that he wasn’t fumbling blind in the dark. On the other hand, he was positive he could have lived without seeing what exactly his feet were sinking into as he trudged his way through the winding passageways.

Well, at least he didn’t see any human corpses.

The concept of time was lost on him as they made their way through the maze of tunnels that was starting to look more and more like the sewers the deeper in they went, what with the consistent foul stench that Yuu was sure he had absorbed into his being, and the labyrinthian nature of the tunnels whose corners never failed to betray his hopes of spotting an exit, and the fact that he might have accidentally stepped on a rodent scuttling by a few times. He refused to admit that he shrieked, opting that Narumi was just hearing things when the man glanced at him, the fire in his hands flickering a little brighter. He knew he wasn’t fooling anyone, not when he saw the slightly exasperated but mostly amused look his retainer gave him.  

As sorely tempted Yuu was to ignite the whole place, entertaining the idea of burning alive with it just to spare himself this utter torture, the ground sloping upwards prevented him from thinking of such things further. He lifted his head, spotting a shadow of something in the distance.

A circular object, adorned with various engravings hung in front of an ornate door, its bronze reflecting the embers of their fire. It gleamed amidst the rust staining its glossy sheen, the only indication of its former glory. Encrusted within the center of it all was the Fire Nation insignia, the only feature intact and seemingly untouched by the forces of nature.

The small part of him that wasn’t cheering at the inevitable prospect of leaving this grotesque dungeon-like passage mourned at the loss of the vault’s splendor. When did it all start falling apart?

In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that it was so unkempt; it meant the previous generations of the royal family never found a real purpose for it other than it being a sort of compulsory palladium, its existence a little more than palace decorum. It only served to demonstrate the might of the Fire Nation monarchy, as he’d been taught throughout his years of growing up. In the history books dating several millennias back, the Fire Nation was one of the most feared nations, with a myriad of wars to which they had cast their die and conquered.  

“We’re here.”

Yuu was so distracted that he would have run straight into Narumi’s back if his voice didn’t jolt him back to the present. Shame; he’d managed to withdraw into his thoughts far enough that the odor didn’t bother him as much anymore.

“Before I let us out, I need to tell you something.” Narumi announced. “Beyond this door lies the world you’ve only ever heard about or read in books. A word of advice; don’t base what you see off of them. Take it all in at your own pace. I can promise you that it will be  daunting. I don’t know what it is you’re expecting, but please try to keep a low profile. The success of this operation directly hinges upon your cooperation. There are limits to how much I can support you, Yuu-sama. Don’t forget that.”

If Yuu had the power to burn anything he laid his eyes upon, the bronze circular handle Narumi had rested his hands on would have been thoroughly immolated. He reckoned the brunet’s hands wouldn’t have fared much better, either.

He nodded, not trusting the words in his throat.

This was it. This was finally it.  

Narumi acknowledged him with a steady nod of his own, and turned the handle.

 

—o0o—

“Narumi, hey, look!”

Yuu tugged on the sleeve of his retainer’s robe, pointing excitedly at a set of stands lining one side of the walkway in the night market. Trinkets and curious objects were put on display, not to mention a wide array of deadly weapons Yuu had only seen a handful of times from watching Guren’s fighting lessons. Yuu’s attention was caught like bees to honey as he gravitated from one stall to another, passing people walking the opposite way while Narumi had to jog in order to catch up with the boisterous teenager, accidentally bumping against shoppers who gave him a stink eye in return.

They made their way through the lower district of the Harbor city– Narumi managing to convince the two guards on watch at the Harbor Gates he was touring his brother around– as they dressed themselves in simple, brown robes to conceal their identities. In spite of the precautions, Yuu didn’t have much to worry about as nobody had seen the boy since his parents death and Guren’s command to never leave the palace walls.

“I told you to quit gawking, Yuu-sama! We’re in a hurry remember?” Narumi scolded him with a tug on the back of Yuu’s robe.

Yuu had been snickering at a badly done painting of the Fire Lord when he heard Narumi’s words. Setting down the hilarious object for possible future purchase, he turned around with a sheepish smile.

“Sorry, Narumi. It’s just…” Yuu gazed up at the glowing lanterns strung all over the busy market with a smile on his face, green eyes bright with childlike wonder, “I’ve been living in this city all my life but I’ve never got the chance to explore it before. Isn't it weird? I'm going to rule this nation one day yet I didn't even know this existed.”

Narumi’s eyes softened at the longing look on Yuu’s face, sighing in defeat, “You can explore more of it when you come back, alright? But for now, you should leave while you still can.”

A displeased look crossed Yuu’s face for an instant before disappearing just as fast as they continued their way forward. Yuu knew the importance of leaving before anyone knew his of his escape, but the urge to explore the whole city became more and more difficult to ignore as they ventured deeper into the outskirts of the Fire Nation. At the end of their path, Yuu could make out from a distance the high sails of the cargo ships and the Empire-Class Fire Nation warships docked a few ports away. His heart began to race, palms sweaty as his journey’s prelude to the new world drew closer and closer.

“Narumi, what time are they going to set sail?” Yuu took in the considerable amount of distance they had left to cover.

“Well, according to a friend of mine who works there, it’s supposed to set sail in ten minutes but—”

“Ten minutes?!” Yuu squawked, his hands waving uselessly by his sides. “Are you serious?!”

“Calm down, Yuu-sama, we still have—”

But whatever Narumi was about to say fell on deaf ears as Yuu began to dart ahead of him, calling out over his shoulder: “Why are you only telling me this now?! We have to hurry!”

“No, wait! I said—”

He held onto the strap of his satchel as he rushed through the crowds, tripping a bit when he almost knocked into someone. Yuu apologized hurriedly to the man as he continued running, but Narumi managed to catch up to him in quick strides.

“Yuu-sama, slow down!” Narumi hissed in no short amount of exasperation as he seized his forearm, forcing the riled up prince to let up.

Yuu dug his heels on the ground and stopped, turning around with a scowl on his face, “But you just said—!”

He was instantly hit on the back of his head. “You didn’t let me finish, you idiot!” Narumi snapped, pinching the bridge of his nose when Yuu glared up at him, rubbing at the back of his head.  “As I was saying, it was supposed to sail in ten minutes, but he’s doing last minute repairs so we have a few hours until right before dawn breaks. Now, if you hadn’t bolted like a frightened dragon moose, I could have saved us the trouble of nearly losing you in this crowd. Deities, how can I trust you to ride a ship on your own if you can’t even listen properly for one second?”

Yuu let out a long suffering sigh as he rolled his eyes, “Sorry, Narumi, I just got a little excited. Besides, I was mighty responsible when I packed all my belongings for this trip and waited for you in my room.” He grinned and moved to pat the satchel resting on his hip, only to feel nothing but air.

Eh…?

Eyes wide in panic, Yuu looked down and realized his satchel had been cut off from the strap around his shoulder. “Heh?! W-Where did my satchel go?” He scanned his surroundings as if his satchel had simply fallen on the ground and would mysteriously reappear to him.

Narumi closed his eyes and face-palmed, “Weren’t you holding onto it the whole time you ran here?”

“I swear on the Sun Warriors’ name that I was!” He patted his sides again to make sure his satchel really was missing.

He was baffled. He clearly remembered holding onto it before he ran ahead. Which must have meant... “On the way, I tripped and accidentally bumped into someone so it must have fallen then!”

Yuu started backtracking his steps when Narumi pulled him from behind, “Wait, what did the person you bumped into look like?”

“Huh?” Yuu scrunched his eyebrows and tried to picture the man’s face. It was only a split second, but his features were striking enough that it wasn’t hard to focus.  “Well he was tall, wearing glasses and… and…”

Think, Yuu, think! What made him stand out?

“…Oh!” He snapped his fingers and cheerily remembered, “He had pink hair! He was wearing a cloak over his head but I saw a bit of it when we bumped, but I’ve never seen anyone—whoa wait, Naru—?!”

Narumi didn’t say any more as he rushed past Yuu, this time being the one yelled after as Yuu watched Narumi go, wholly bewildered.

“Hey! Narumi!” Yuu shouted, not understanding where his retainer was going. They were getting weird stares from the people around them and after bowing awkwardly in apology, Yuu ran after his retainer.

Once he managed to jog alongside him, Narumi explained without even looking like he was out of breath, his attention anywhere but Yuu, “Yuu-sama, I’m guessing a pickpocket stole it.”

“A pickpocket!?” Yuu exclaimed, eyebrows raised to his forehead, “Er, what’s that?”

Narumi sighed for the nth time tonight, “A thief— their way of stealing is subtle, and you notice your stuff are gone only after they’ve taken it. From the looks of how this one stole your satchel by just bumping into you, must mean they’re an expert.”

“Cool!”

Narumi looked at him with a scowl and picked up his speed, eyes scanning the tops of the crowd. Yuu could only follow, still a tad too short to be able to see much farther ahead of them. Internally, he reprimanded himself for not paying better attention— they would most likely miss the ship now because of having to deal with this. And what if they didn’t find the guy?

He would need to head back home to restock all his clothes and supplies and they’d miss this golden opportunity to leave. His excitement had now been completely sapped. As they roamed the streets, he no longer held the same previous excitement at seeing the market for the first time, and eventually had resigned himself to running behind Narumi, hoping he would catch sight of the thief. He ran into his retainer’s back when he stopped suddenly, hands flying around to grab Yuu and pull him forward.

“I found him, Yuu-sama! He’s about to make a turn down that alleyway!” Narumi pointed towards a tall man walking in a brisk pace a few blocks away from them. As if sensing eyes on him, the man looked behind him and in that short moment, Yuu caught sight of his face. There was a flash of pink under his hood before he disappeared down the dark corner.

“Ah! Let’s get him!” Yuu exclaimed, running even faster now and trying to match Narumi’s quick pace. It was amazing how his retainer managed to pick up on the culprit while Yuu blabbered uselessly on his own. He shook his head, he needed to be more alert and cautious from now on.

They reached the corner and made a sharp turn, ears straining for the sounds of another set of footsteps running a few meters ahead of them.

“I still don’t get it though! How did he manage to take my stuff without me noticing?!” Yuu panted, already feeling the strain of the chase.

“Simple quick hand movements, Yuu-sama. Obviously this pickpocket has been doing it for a long time to acquire such skill.” Narumi answered as he dashed through the alleyway. He used the side of the buildings in the alley to jump back and forth from before leaping high in the air, making a huge sweeping gesture of his hands to erupt a wall of fire in front of the startled man.

He heard the pickpocket curse before he turned around, his eyes hard and face twisted in a ruthless scowl.  

The prince came to a halt beside his retainer who had landed back on the ground, cornering the target effectively.

Yuu held out his hand and demanded, “Give me back my satchel, thief!”

The man’s eyes snapped at all sides, seeking for a quick avenue of escape, but Narumi had skillfully sealed all potential pathways. Luckily, the area they had cornered him in was in an alleyway fairly secluded from the hustle and bustle of market-goers, so they managed to escape most of the public eye.

Yuu’s demand remained unanswered as Narumi, with an arm poised on the spear at his back and the other outstretched to encourage the flames to draw threateningly closer to the stranger who had backed up against the wall.

Yuu knew it spelled the end for the pickpocket. He switched his glare to Yuu and snarled, “Fine. If I do, will you let me go?”

Yuu found that an odd question.

“Now I don’t think you have any right to speak here.” Narumi interjected with a raised eyebrow.

The thief revealed Yuu’s satchel from under his robe and threw it on the ground, dust erupting into particles before it settled. “There! Take it! Now stop these flames and let me go.”

“What makes you think your thievery can be overlooked here?” Narumi propped a fist on his hip, taking the satchel and tossing it to Yuu behind him, “You should be taken to the guards where you can be punished for your crimes. Pickpockets like you need to learn your lesson.”

Yuu could see the man gritting his teeth now, something close to fear and panic growing in his eyes. Yuu tilted his head curiously.

“Hey,” Yuu stepped in with a frown on his face, “Why do you not want to get taken to the guards so bad?”

“Yuu-sama, that’s an obvious answer.” Narumi sighed, shaking his head.

“But he seems really scared, though.”

“Who are you calling scared?!” The thief shouted at them despite his fists shaking and eyes narrowing into slits. “Fuck it.” He spat and he turned to the wall of fire before rushing through it.

“Eh!?” Yuu shouted out in surprise. But the man shed away his burned robes, finally exposing his face as he made his escape.

“Wait!” Yuu didn’t know what made him do it, but he swept past the fire wall as well, able to protect himself with his own flames before he pushed his arms back to create winds for acceleration. He didn’t know if Narumi was following him as Yuu was too focused on the man ahead, but the guy continued out maneuvering him.

Before he knew it, a dozen daggers sailed towards him and Yuu yelped, unable to think fast enough which bending to use to deflect all of them. Thankfully, Narumi came in the nick of time, using his spear to sweep all of the daggers away.

“Be careful, Yuu-sama! Let me handle this!”

But Yuu was already jumping through the air, leaping against rail windows to catch his opponent though he wasn’t sure why he was still after the pickpocket. He had his satchel back and it would be too much of a hassle to send him over to the guards, especially when he and Narumi were trying to hide from said guards of the Fire Nation.

But something about the guy seemed different, and he wanted to try talking to him.

“Stop! I–I just want to talk!”

Boxes crashed down in his path but Yuu pushed them aside with a punch of his palm, the sharp wind breaking through the barrier. Narumi shouted his name again but Yuu couldn’t stop now– he was so close.

He was getting closer and closer to the fleeing thief, and as he began to bridge the distance with his combined powers of air and fire to propel himself forward, a surge of adrenaline washed over him. For some reason, excitement rushed through him. This was true danger, but he felt nothing but exhilaration at the mere thought of chasing down a culprit.

The pink-haired man turned the corner, and Yuu followed right after him, fully expecting to see that familiar back once again. But as he turned, a loud hissing noise greeted his ear, and before he knew it, a pipe was sliced clean in front of him, expelling thick, white clouds of gas and steam, shrouding his line of sight and rendering him into a coughing, heaving mess.

His pursuit broken, he stumbled, his hands finding purchase on the wall nearest to him, and leaned heavily on it as he tried to regain oxygen.

His first thought was, of course, Narumi. He could wait for Narumi to catch up to him and order him to corner that person once again with full confidence in his abilities. Once Narumi had his sights set on something, it was unlikely for it to escape. His prior coup only a few minutes earlier proved it. He’d seen the way the older man handled the thief with a prowess suited to a man of his standing. He was trained in the ways of combat, after all.

He was tempted. He really was. But it was at that exact moment he realized how dependent he was on Narumi, and he had to let that go, if he ever wanted to learn how to fend for himself. At the rate he was now, he was never going to get anywhere.

Gritting his teeth, he surged forward, breaking through the misty haze with a frustrated yell and a fiery burst of flames, startling the man who had put on a fair distance between them. He likely thought he’d managed to lose Yuu. Well, he thought wrong!

Yuu released a sigh of relief when they were at yet another dead end, and finally closed in on him. “Hey! We won’t bring you to the officials anymore so please stop!”

“Bullshit!” Was the immediate retort as the man threw a dirty scowl Yuu’s way.

Scrunching his eyebrows in irritation, Yuu breathed in, recalling his previous lessons with Guren– relax, breathe deeply and imagine a blaze of fire surrounding your opponent, impeding them from escape.

Holding his breath, Yuu pushed both hands in front of him, taking a strong stance as orange flames blasted from the palms of his hands. The pink haired man yelped in surprise and immediately stopped, eyes wide as his glasses reflected the blazing flames towering over him, larger and twice as intimidating as the ones Narumi had used earlier.

 

Yuu was shocked himself, jaw agape as he stared at the scene before him. He did it… He managed to firebend without fucking up!

“Yuu-sama! Are you—”

Narumi finally reached his prince and he blinked as he found the pickpocket trapped in a ring of astounding fire. His jaw floundered for a moment before he turned to Yuu, shocked,  “Did you…?”

“Y-Yeah…” Yuu released a swift breath like he’d been holding it in the whole time, grinning widely as a sense of pride swept through him, “I just did.”

It was his first time accomplishing one of Guren’s specialized techniques and Yuu almost jumped in joy right there.

“Get me the fuck outta here! What do you want with me anyway?” The man shouted, reminding Yuu again of his purpose here. He was going to have to relish his success in fire shielding another day.

“I have some questions for you.” Yuu declared, green eyes shining with determination.

The man gave him a deadpanned look, his glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah! That is, if you want to get out of there?” Yuu raised an eyebrow at him, crossing his arms over his chest.

The man darted his eyes back and forth for a second, probably looking for a means of escape, before releasing a resigned sigh, “Fine… what do you want?” His tone was cold and hard, obviously not liking the situation.

“Why did you give my satchel back?”

The man instantly sent him a look that said he thought Yuu was stupid as he muttered, “I didn’t want to go to prison, dumbass, what else?”

Yuu pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. Seeing that Yuu wasn’t budging, the man wavered in his next response, eyes averted to the side, “I have my reasons.”

“Which are?”

“None of your fucking business.”

“Then I guess I can’t let you out of that fire.” Actually, Yuu didn’t know how to extinguish his self-made fire yet but the pickpocket didn’t have to know that. He was just hoping Narumi would help him out a bit.

Grinding his teeth together, the pink haired male gave him a contempt-filled look before spitting out, “I have a sister. An ill sister who’s going to die if I’m not there to take care of her.” His fists tightened at his sides, head bent low to avoid seeing their faces, “I steal money to buy her medicines… that's why I got your satchel. Satisfied?”

Yuu’s eyes blinked in surprise when the man actually told him his reasons. But hearing it was for his family, his eyes softened and by unconsciously lowering his guard, the flames around the pink-haired male slowly dispersed.

“Oh… that's—”

“Pitiful? I don't need your pity. You can fuck off and leave me alone now.” He spat out, looking more than ready to run out of there.

But Yuu’s words managed to hold him back, “I meant to say that it’s horrible and I want to help!”  

The man snorted, obviously not believing him, “Yeah right. What would someone like you benefit in helping me?”

Narumi tried intervening, “Yuu-sama, I don't think we should–”

“But I'm not asking for anything in return. Your sister is in need of medicine right? Well I have the money to hire a doctor for you if you need it.”

“Yuu-sama, the boat–!”

“It's fine, Narumi. I’ll just give them some money.”

When Yuu approached him, slowly as if to not scare him, he brought out a few royal coins from his satchel which he handed to the man who looked at him in shock.

“I– I… are you serious?” His dark rose colored eyes were wide and he didn't immediately take the money until Yuu grabbed his arm and forcibly placed the money in his palm.  

“I’ll give you more—”

“Yuu-sama!”

He ignored the hand gripping his arm, “If you take us to your sister.”

“What?!” Both men now shouted in unison, staring at Yuu with gaping mouths. In any other situation, Yuu would have laughed at the hilarity of their expressions but he knew he couldn’t let his serious composure crack now.

“Take us to your sister, and I’ll give you more money to help her recover.”

“You act like it’s so simple.” He said through gritted teeth, turning his head away to stare at the ground with one of the most intimidating glares Yuu had ever seen, perhaps only second to Guren’s when he was particularly frustrated.

They all stood there in silence, staring at each other. Yuu didn’t let the tension dissuade him, knowing he was making the right decision here. He was the Avatar, after all. It would be his first time helping someone outside the palace walls and by the Sun Warrior’s, Yuu was going to help this man at all costs.

Finally, the thief squared off his shoulders after letting out a sigh, and gave Yuu a tiny nod of acknowledgement. “I’m Kimizuki.”

Yuu grinned. “I’m Yuu. This is Narumi.” He turned to his retainer, who looked like he was holding every ounce of strength within him not to scowl.

“Yuu-sama, the ship.

“You said we had a few hours, right?”

Yuu raised a questioning eyebrow and fell into a silent stare off with his retainer whose left eye twitched before sighing. Narumi’s shoulders sagged, giving Yuu the exact response he wanted, so he smiled back at Kimizuki with a new glow burning in his emerald eyes. “Shall we?”

—o0o—

Yuu had known he led a privileged life. That wasn’t news to him.

But seeing the state in which people lived within his own kingdom hit him harder than he’d expected. Kimizuki led them through dark streets with hardly any lights, but the smell was even worse than the tunnels he'd ventured in earlier. He couldn’t imagine the state things were in in broad daylight, and was partly thankful for the slight darkness shadowing the clarity of his view.  

He also tried not to raise a hand to cover his mouth. It was almost like they were walking right beside a pile of waste that had deteriorated and rotted over the years and Yuu wondered if he was that far off. Quick looks to Narumi led him to believe the smell didn’t strike him the same. He blew air out of his nose and tried not to make a fuss about it like he might have back in the palace. There was no room to act like a spoiled prince anymore.

At a small shack-looking building barely lit by a nearby lamp, Kimizuki finally stopped and gave them another look over his shoulder. His eyes were narrowed, obviously still distrustful of the situation and the two who had followed him. Yuu didn’t entirely blame him– two firebenders who had all the power to put him in prison but rather offered him more money instead, did seem a little suspicious.

However, whatever his feelings, Kimizuki swung the door open slowly and stood in the entryway, motioning for them to enter the tiny shack.

Narumi held out an arm in front of Yuu. “I’ll go in first.” It wasn’t a question, and despite wanting to argue back, something in Narumi’s tone made him take a small step backwards.

It was pitch black inside. Narumi appeared to nearly be swallowed by the shadows as he entered. Yuu stood awkwardly on the threshold, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he impatiently waited for the all clear to enter.

What's taking Narumi so long?

Just when he thought he would go ahead and storm in, a head of light brown hair appeared out of the blackness. He hopped up nervously as Narumi motioned him inside. His retainer’s face was solemn, which did nothing to reign in Yuu's own anxiety.

He sucked in a sharp breath when he saw her, lying there on a small cot and his insides churned uncomfortably at the sight.

Kimizuki’s sister was sick. Really sick, and it was late so she was probably asleep. Yuu came to realize how invasive his request was to come meet her in person.

A candle was lit in the far corner of the room, affording a little glimpse into his surroundings as Narumi closed the door behind him. The candle was on a nightstand beside a bed, and in the bed lay the tiniest looking girl he had seen. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old, and she looked so young and fragile. Her pale skin reflected the light of the candle and dark red hair fanned out around her head on the pillow like a fiery halo.

Kimizuki stood beside her, not looking at Yuu or Narumi, but instead studying his sister. Slowly Yuu approached, standing at the end of the bed but careful not to get too close.

“When we were in the orphanage, Mirai got really sick all of a sudden. At first they thought it was just a fever, but nothing they did helped it.” He brushed some hair off her forehead—Yuu could tell it was damp from perspiration. “They reached out to a few priests from the temple and some cheap doctors, but even they couldn’t help. They said whatever it was, it was something deep within her body.”

Yuu grabbed the railing of the bed as he watched the girl sleep. She didn’t seem peaceful at all. Her eyes were tense every now and then, and her head would twitch to the side like she was caught in a nightmare. Grimacing in concern, Yuu knew she was obviously in pain.

“The orphanage did everything they could, within reason, but eventually we… we had to leave. They couldn’t afford to take care of her, anymore. The only other thing we could have done was go to the Water Tribe, but there was no way we could get there with what little supplies we had.” The guy knelt to the ground, one hand smoothing out the covers over her. Yuu wouldn't have believed it was the same guy who shot daggers at him earlier with the way he gently took care of his sister.

Yuu glanced up at Narumi at the mention of the Water Tribe, but he had positioned himself against the wall, eyes downcast. Chewing on his bottom lip, Yuu looked back to Kimizuki as the pink-haired male continued his story.

“I tried looking for work, do some odd jobs here and there, but it was never enough to help. Most of it was used to help us survive from day to day. All of the high-paying jobs were already occupied by the military or those from elite schools. Who’d hire some filthy mongrel from the slums in the first place? I couldn’t draft myself into the army, because then who would look after her while I was gone? So I found this place and started stealing to survive. It was the only way. I couldn’t just stand by and watch her die. I don’t have the medicine, but she wakes up to eat and drink a little, and I give her some herbal tea one of the ladies nearby gives me. That seems to keep her stable.” He spoke the last word softer than the others, his hands curling into fists.

There was an awkward silence as they all stood in their respective spots. Making his decision, Yuu righted himself up and lifted his chin.

“We will help cure her! We can—”

Kimizuki tilted his head up at him, eyes narrowed. “Money won’t help her, we’ve already tried. Weren’t you listening?”

“And I’m trying to explain. Why don't you listen!” Yuu immediately regretted raising his voice when Mirai stirred. Kimizuki leaned over and consoled her, but she never opened her eyes, only tossing around slightly before settling back down. Yuu glared at the taller male, hands at his sides and ignoring the scowl being tossed his way.

“Look, I’m saying we can help and not just with money.” At this, Narumi finally pushed off the wall and approached Yuu, eyeing him with dread. “I’m going to the Northern Water Tribe—come with me. We can bring a healer back to your sister.”

“Yuu-sama…” Narumi leaned in and whispered, hand on his shoulder as he spoke urgently, “Don’t be hasty! We don’t even know this man, and he’s a thief. You’re just going to bring him with you?”

Yuu didn’t look away from Kimizuki as Narumi spoke. The guy hadn’t broken his gaze with him either as he crossed his arms over his chest, eyebrows pinched together in consternation. “You can’t expect me to leave my sister behind for who knows how long because you say you can find a healer who would be willing to enter the Fire Nation? Do you think I’m an idiot? Even if I don't look it, I know the law. Waterbenders aren't allowed to set foot in our territory!”

Yuu fidgeted —it was true that all ties and communications with the Water Tribe had been severed years ago and waterbenders had been banned from the Fire Nation, at least according to what he knew. He hadn’t thought about what would happen after he found a waterbending master for himself since he didn’t really think of bringing them back to the Fire Nation, but obviously, that wasn’t an option now that he wanted to help heal Kimizuki’s sister too. Before he could try fumbling his way through any sort of explanation, Narumi surprised him by chiming in.

“Once I get word of your return, I can get them in easily. They wouldn’t be bothered by any guards at all.”

Kimizuki’s eyes darted over to Narumi, eyeing him speculatively. “Sure. So you say. That still doesn’t solve what to do while I’m gone.”

Yuu stared at the floor, biting his lower lip worriedly. He didn’t have any answer to that, either. He was starting to feel more and more like even though he was the Avatar, he didn’t know how to fix anything, actually…

“I’ll see to it personally she is cared for by nurses while you are gone.” Narumi pledged with a hand over his heart, head raised high.

Yuu looked up at him with a start. “Narumi?”

Kimizuki seemed equally if not more surprised. “Nurses? From where?”

“They will be the best nurses your sister could have, that’s all you need to know.”

“What? I’m not going to leave with just your word for it! I want to know who will be watching over my sister and why you— ” Kimizuki pointed towards Yuu, “—want to travel all the way to the Water Tribe? How can you get people in without trouble? Who the hell even are you?” He stormed towards Yuu, narrowing his eyes and jabbing a finger at his chest. Yuu was shocked at the motion. It took him a moment before he could react and swat the offending hand away from him. Clearly this guy wasn’t going to budge easily on taking the help.

Looks like Yuu was going to have to take drastic measures.

“Because I’m the Prince, you stupid…hot-headed flamingo!”

Narumi made a sound like a strangled gasp beside him, the palm of his hand instantly gravitating to his own face with a resounding slap.

Ignoring his retainer, Yuu tried to make himself as tall and imperious as he could at the proclamation, while Kimizuki balked at him, eyes wide in disbelief.

“The Prince? Of the Fire Nation? The scrawny brat no one has ever seen?”

Yuu squawked, insulted, “I’m not scrawny, j-just lean, okay!? And I’m still— HEY!” Narumi finally pushed him aside and gave him a stern look before turning to face a still bewildered Kimizuki.

“We would appreciate your discretion on this, of course. But the Prince needs to travel to the Water Nation without anyone knowing he has left. That’s why we can make these promises to you.”

Dark pink eyes traveled from Narumi, to Yuu, and back again, clearly contemplating the situation. Yuu didn’t know if he believed him when he announced his royal status but it seemed he didn’t look at all troubled by the knowledge, watching as understanding dawned on his face.

“The Prince, huh? No wonder you were so loaded with money in that satchel of yours.” Kimizuki muttered to himself with a shake of his head before he turned to Narumi. “And? Are you going with him?”

“I…” Narumi gritted his teeth. “—can’t.”

“Ha! So that’s what it is. I thought it was weird that there was no one else but you with him. You want me to go in your place to protect the Prince. Let me guess—the Fire Lord has no idea you’re even out here, seeing how his—” he jutted a finger towards Yuu, who looked nonplussed. “—existence alone isn’t even public knowledge. And I’m assuming you’re planning on keeping my sister hostage so that I’d do your bidding, is that it? Sorry to burst your bubble, but if you thought I’d fall for that shit, think again. I’m sure once everyone knows the Prince does exist, and that he’s right here in the flesh, it won’t be very long until word travels to the palace. And then—”

Yuu’s eyes widened, heart hammering in his chest. Even if the conversation was going a tad too fast for him to comprehend, he could feel the odds quickly stacking up against his favor as Kimizuki continued his speech. Time slowed down as everything zoomed into hyper focus, and for a split second, Yuu felt omniscient; catching the exact point Narumi’s eyes narrowed and his stance turned aggressive, Kimizuki deliberately crouching as his hand went behind him in response, undoubtedly to procure some kind of hidden weapon of his own.

The tension between the two was so sickeningly palpable that Yuu could almost see the spark of electricity in the air, and his eyes immediately caught the small figure in the bed, her face contorted in a slight vision of pain, gone unregistered by her brother who was entirely focused on Narumi.

This was bad. This was really bad.  

“Yuu-sama! What do you think you’re doing?! Get out of the way!”

“Not until the both of you cut out this crap!” Yuu swivelled his head to fix Narumi a heated glare. He had placed himself right in the middle of the two, his arms outstretched towards the both of them who were only seconds from lunging at each other. So far it had worked; the both of them stood frozen in shock at the boy who had willingly stepped in harm’s way.

Yuu turned to Kimizuki, who flinched under the weight of Yuu’s burning glare. “I get it, you don’t trust us. We’re strangers who cornered you in your own home, claiming to be royalty, and basically forcing you to split up with your only family. You’re right to think that way, because there is absolutely no reason for me to help you unless it’s for my own benefit. I assumed you’d come along since we promised to help your sister, and I thought it was a win-win situation. I didn’t think about how you’d feel. It was inconsiderate, and I’m sorry. We’ll leave you alone. I’ll still help you find a healer to cure your sister, as long as you don’t alert anyone to our presence.”   

Kimizuki’s stance had relaxed somewhat, though his eyes were still guarded and steely. “Why?”

Flashes of his own parents played in his mind, and Yuu hesitated. “Because—”

“Brother…” A timid voice feebly spoke up, broken and worn from disuse and near permanent debilitation.

“Mirai!” Her brother all but fled to her side, his prior belligerence forgotten, his eyes only for the ailing, young girl in bed. His calloused hands went forward to clasp at those much smaller than his, and Yuu couldn’t help the pang in his heart. As touching as the scene was, he knew they had long overstayed their welcome.

Yuu stared at them for just a moment longer before turning towards his retainer, who had sheathed his spear once more and awaited further instruction. “Let’s go.”

“Are you sure, Yuu-sama?” A chance like this won’t come up again, you know .

Yuu closed his eyes, the unspoken words ringing loud and clear in his head. “Yeah, I’m sure. Besides, we don’t have much time left.”

Darkness still cloaked the city when they exited the shack, and a part of Yuu relaxed. They still had time, there was no need to rush. He just needed to escape that place before it suffocated him. And it wasn’t in regards to the small, cramped space.

He couldn’t deny his frustration at failing to convince Kimizuki to join him in his journey. It all seemed too good to come true in the first place. When they first met, Yuu was taken aback by how cunning and dexterous the man was in combat, taking advantage of his environment to slow down his pursuit, and his uncanny aim with his daggers. The moment Yuu saw what he was capable of, he knew he couldn’t let him go. Who knew that the answer to Kimizuki’s tribulations resided in the very place Yuu was headed to? If he didn’t know any better, he would have been convinced the goddesses of fate were playing a hand in his journey. Nevertheless, he knew he couldn’t dwell on it any longer, and he could sense the man’s unwavering conviction; his bond with his sister was strong. If Yuu couldn’t make him budge, then no lifetime’s worth of hounding would move him even a single inch.

It wasn’t worth separating family, after all. You never knew what could happen. One moment, they’re with you, and the next, they’re ripped away without preamble. Yuu would never wish the same kind of tragedy that befell him upon others, no matter how painful it was to shoulder alone.

Narumi laid a hand on his shoulder—as if sensing that Yuu’s thoughts were clamping him in a vice, and trying to make him snap out of it—but kept walking.

“You did well.”

Wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve, Yuu nodded, willing himself to believe the older man.

They continued to walk in silence, letting the soft chirping of the birds sweep over them, reminding them that dawn was close at hand. The docks weren’t far off now; in a couple of minutes, they’d reach the pier. Yuu could already see sailors lifting crates, their faraway voices drifting towards him. He felt the soft murmurs of people stirring from their slumber and a handful of people leaving their abodes to open shop.

“Wait!”

Yuu stopped mid-walk, and his blood pulsed loud in his ears. He had to be dreaming. Was he that desperate to have Kimizuki join that he hallucinated the man’s voice? Surely not.

Judging by the bewildered glance Narumi threw him, he knew he wasn’t imagining things.

Sure enough, when they turned around, the pink-haired man had caught up to them, and was leaning on his knees, attempting to catch his breath. He had discarded his burnt robe in favor of a new one, folded neatly on top of the haversack slung over his shoulder.

“Kimizuki?” Yuu breathed.

The taller man moved too fast for Yuu to react, and Yuu could only stare as he shoved something into Yuu’s hands.

Yuu blinked as he took in the coins he had given Kimizuki earlier, now safely back in his hands, and looked wordlessly up at the man whose face was slightly flushed.

“You can have your money back. With this journey you’re setting on, you’ll need every last piece. I added what I already had in there, too.”

Yuu’s eyes widened, and he made it a point to make use of all his eloquence to convey his surprise and confused gratitude. “Uh.”

Narumi stepped forward, shaking his head. “What he means is that you’ve got yourself a new companion, bocchan.” He lifted his gaze to meet Kimizuki’s, whose eyes had never stayed in one place for more than two seconds since he caught up to them. “Are you sure about this?”

At that query, he straightened his back. “Do you swear you’re going to the water tribe in the North?”

“I swear.” Yuu pushed past Narumi.

“And you,” He turned to Narumi, “you swear she would be taken care of until I return?”

“You have my oath as the Prince’s guard.” He saluted, his face stoic and serious. Yuu looked back to Kimizuki with wide, hopeful eyes.

“There’s a ship leaving for Ba Sing Se before dawn. We’re going to have to board it soon if we want to make it. Do you have anything else you’d need to bring with you?”

“I wouldn’t come chasing after you if I didn’t bring my stuff with me already, idiot!” He muttered between clenched teeth.

“Hey! You can’t call me that!” It was Yuu’s turn to jab his own finger at the guy in protest. He tried not to think about how thin the material of his shirt was.

“I can call you whatever I like—”

“Hey!” Narumi broke in, standing between the two as they had inched closer to each other. “Kimizuki, first I need a straight answer from you. If you go, I’ll be placing the Prince’s well being in your care. Do you accept this?”

“Narumi!”

Kimizuki closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath. He lifted his chin up and stared at Narumi. Yuu could see one hand clenching around the strap of his pack, so tightly that his knuckles turned white and his tendons showed. His heart began to race, thinking perhaps the guy would change his mind with this new sense of responsibility being thrust upon him, though Yuu would understand.

Then his eyes moved to look directly at Yuu, and he saw within them an unwavering resolve.

“I’ll do it. For Mirai.”

—o0o—

It was close, but Yuu and Kimizuki managed to arrive at the docks as the captain shouted at his crew to start hauling in the packages for the trip ahead. Heart beating almost a thousand times a minute, Yuu took in the simple structure of the Fire Nation trading ship they were about to board onto.

Unlike the steel metal warships a few ports away, this ship had more wood than metal in its outer layer, since it wasn’t built for speed and war. It was, however, still sturdy enough to hold all the heavy weight inside, most of which consisted in trading goods with the other nations. As he stared out over the shipyard, Yuu almost couldn’t believe he was there, about to leave home, taking his first step into the unknown.

Narumi was a ways ahead of them, talking to a burly-looking older man with a white bandana on his head; the true marksmanship of a sailor. Yuu figured he was the captain, with his beefy size and stature, taller than even Kimizuki. At first glance, Yuu was already intimidated, but Narumi looked anything but, smiling and talking to him as if they were old friends. It bred a sense of wistfulness inside Yuu. Never in his eighteen years of life had he seen who Narumi’s friends were, and he sure didn’t expect them to to look like professional rock-throwers – but what did he know, after all? Narumi’s life outside of serving Yuu had always been inaccessible to him, so long as he remained shackled to the palace.

When Narumi had beckoned him over and introduced him as Kagiyama, his trustworthy friend who would be harboring Yuu until he safely reached the shores of Ba Sing Se, Yuu decided his name from now on would be Intimidating Dude #1. He was awful with names – he’d lived in the palace for almost eighteen years, and he had yet to guess the name of the gardener once – and the guy looked like he could crush rocks with his bare hands, so that seemed fitting enough. He didn’t look like a bad person – perhaps a bit scary, but after that one time the cook chased him out of the kitchen and swung a pan in the air, Yuu’s concept of ‘scary’ had been somewhat altered. Yet, Yuu couldn’t help but wonder how they met. How did they grow to be friends? What was it like to have a friendship stemming from your childhood years? It was something Yuu was never given the luxury to experience —and never would be able to, for he was long past the age where he could be considered a child.

A heavy feeling settled in his stomach like rocks forming inside him. Nostalgia, perhaps? Or maybe jealousy? Who even knew after the turmoil of emotions he’d been prey to that day? Surely not me, Yuu said to himself as he breathed in and out slowly to ease the tension out of his shoulders.

But as Kimizuki nudged his side and mumbled a small, “Come on,” from beside him, Yuu realized he was stuck in place, almost shocked with himself at how his legs didn’t want cooperate with his brain’s demands. He gulped, trying to will his body to move, but his palms were sweating, heart slamming against his chest and there was a stinging sensation in his eyes.

He was starting to have doubts. Meeting the captain made embarking on that ship and running away seem too real. Maybe this was going too far. Or maybe it just seemed far because he knew Narumi wouldn’t be by his side this time.

“Yuu-sama…”

Yuu looked back at Narumi, a pang of something shining in his eyes as he stared hard and long at his retainer. “Narumi…”

His voice shook before he could stop himself.

Without further prompting, Narumi grabbed his young prince’s arm and yanked him close, enveloping him in an embrace that wasn't unwelcoming. It was sudden and warm, and Yuu was almost shocked by the gesture, standing stock-still in the older male’s familiar, strong arms.  

 

 

 

Yuu knew Narumi wasn’t a man of words. His actions spoke louder than any speech he could construct and right now, love and protectiveness washed over Yuu in waves, filling him with a quiet peace and strength. His retainer’s familiar scent calmed his mind and eased the tension that had built up in Yuu ever since they’d began his escape. And now that he was finally embarking the next stage, Yuu couldn’t find it in himself to let go.

“Narumi…”

“Hmm?” His low voice rumbled through his chest and Yuu felt it against his head as he pressed it on Narumi’s shoulder.

“I… uh, I’m- N-Narumi, I-”

His voice lodged in his throat every time he opened his mouth like he couldn’t get the words out of him. Saying goodbye to Narumi proved to be harder than Yuu thought it would, perhaps because it was the first proper farewell he’d ever bidden. Though Narumi seemed to have understood his stuttered speech as he pulled back to clutch Yuu’s shoulders instead, facing him with an admonishing look in his eyes.

“Make sure you eat at least three meals a day. Plenty of vegetables too. And don’t give me that 'I don’t like cabbages’ bullshit, I’ve already told Kimizuki here about that.”

“Um…” began Yuu.

“I told you this before, but I’ll tell you again because I know how much of an airhead you can be. Keep a low profile. Don’t stand out. And for the sanity of the Fire Lord, don’t pick unnecessary fights with other benders, and especially not waterbenders— you can't easily place your trust in anyone, I can’t stress this enough. And don’t ever insult potatoes or carrots in Ba Sing Se, or earthbenders will come after you. Trust me, you don’t want that.”

“Er, Narumi—”

“And another thing!” He looked at Yuu dead in the eye. “Try not to die, Yuu-sama. I’ll personally kill you if you do.”

Yuu laughed, waving his hands in a dismissive fashion. “I get it, I get it.” He was going to miss Narumi’s almost motherly doting. “I guess it’s time for us to say good—”

Narumi interrupted with a hand in front Yuu’s mouth, the look in his eyes softening as his expression melted into a gentle, melancholic smile. “I don’t want to hear any goodbyes from you, Yuu-sama. This won’t be the last time we’ll see each other.”

“But… how are you so sure of that, Narumi? I’m not saying we won’t… but we won’t know unless—”

“Because I know,”  His retainer’s resolute words instantly cut him off, his fingers digging almost desperately into Yuu’s shoulders, “that you’ll come back safe and sound - you’ll come back home to us, Yuu.”

Yuu was about to continue protesting, but the way Narumi addressed him caught him off guard. Did Narumi just…call him Yuu? Ever since he'd known the man, he'd never heard his retainer ever call him by his name without using any honorifics. His impending departure to the unknown must have really been affecting Narumi too.

“Listen to me. I know things are going to be tough from here on out but you must keep on moving forward— no matter what happens, no matter what obstacles are thrown your way— be strong, and be brave. I know you’ll get through this. You’re the Avatar! I have faith in you and your annoying stubbornness that you’ll find a way to seek what you need and achieve greatness.”

Yuu stared up at him for a few more moments before nodding resolutely. Narumi gripped his shoulders tighter, the corners of his mouth pulling up to an almost indecipherable smile as Yuu returned it with his own. He then let out a small yelp as Narumi brought him in for another round of hugging, pressing Yuu’s face against his chest. Narumi’s chin rested on top of his head, hands wound around his back tightly. Normally, Yuu would’ve attempted to fight off his retainer, but this time he allowed it. He took in the smell of Narumi, of home, one more time, and his mind was transported back to when they first met twelve years ago…

“Yuu-chan, this is your retainer, Narumi Makoto. He will be guarding you from now on, protecting you from any danger, which means you have to follow him if anything goes wrong. Do you understand?” His mother spoke kindly as she swept her hand in front of the young man standing beside her.

Yuu inspected the new person skeptically as he declared, “I don’t need protection! I can fight well, just like Guren… I mean, Guren-oji.”

She giggled and patted her son’s soft hair, “I know, sweetie, but this is for your mother’s sake. She just wants to make sure her son is safe while she’s not there, alright?”

Yuu pouted up at her before his eyes glanced back to his retainer who gave him a stiff nod.

“Don’t worry, Yuu-bocchan. You won’t even notice my presence.”

His mother chuckled behind her hand, glancing between Yuu and Narumi, “Well then, I’ll let you two be acquainted.” She walked off, her heels clacking on the marble floor as the small six year-old was left with his new sixteen year-old retainer.

“First of all!” Yuu declared, pointing a finger at the man’s startled face, “No calling me ‘bocchan’. I hate that title. Yuu is fine.”

“My apologies, Yuu-bocchan,” Narumi started, placing a hand over his heart, “but I must follow palace rules which is to address you accordingly to your title.”

Yuu pouted, worrying his lower lip as he glared his big, green eyes at Narumi. “But I don’t like it, and you should follow as I say, right?”

“Well…” Narumi's tone wavered for a moment, then he grinned widely. “How about I challenge you for it?”

A spark lit up in Yuu’s eyes at the word ‘challenge’ and he stood up a little straighter. “What challenge?”

“If you can beat me in a round of sparring, I won't call you bocchan again.”

An excited grin spread across Yuu’s face, eyes widening at the idea of being able to practice his fighting , “You're on!”

Narumi's eyebrows rose up his forehead at his the enthusiastic response He chuckled and stuck out his hand. “A shake then, for our agreement.”

Yuu took his hand eagerly, marveling at how much of his hand was enveloped in the older man’s. “Deal!”

They both smiled and Yuu turned on his heel to march down the hallway, eager to get started on their sparring already. “Come on! Don’t keep your prince waiting!”

He remembered the sound of Narumi breaking out into laughter as he ran towards the training grounds, its echoes reverberating through him as well.

Yuu smiled fondly at the memory, now unable to imagine Narumi not referring to him as bocchan. It hit him how much he would miss hearing that nickname.

Narumi pulled away and released his grip, taking a step backwards. “See you soon, Yuu-bocchan.”

Yuu fought the ache in his chest and waved, unable to form proper words anymore. He took a few steps back as well before finally turning his back on Narumi and walking up the plank of the ship they were taking to Ba Sing Se.

Kimizuki stood against the edge, eyes pointedly staring at him, and Yuu tried to hide the way his cheeks warmed. It was clear the guy had seen his emotional display of a farewell.

Soon, the ship lifted its ramp and disembarked from the port, crew members scrambling to follow the orders of their captain as they sailed farther and farther away from land. Yuu watched as Narumi, who hadn’t moved an inch on the dock, became no more than just an indiscernible speck in the horizon until he was no longer in sight.

“I’m surprised how much you care for your retainer.” Kimizuki finally spoke once the city had disappeared from view.

Yuu raised an eyebrow as he turned his head towards Kimizuki, “What, do you think I’m heartless?”

“Quite the opposite, actually. You’re more of an idiotic do-gooder than anything else.”

“Hey!” Yuu shot up and shoved lightly on his shoulder.

Kimizuki swatted him away. “I never really had a high opinion for royalty and nobles in the first place, but you’re somewhat of a… special case it seems.”

Yuu tilted his head down, watching the waves crashing against the boat, his fringe almost shadowing his eyes as he muttered, “Yeah, well. I’m not like most normal princes out there, I would say.”

I would say. Well, whatever,” Yuu looked back up and met his dark pink eyes. “I’m just glad I don’t have to be stuck with a snobby, spoiled, self-centered brat the whole ride to Ba Sing Se and Water Tribes…maybe.”

If Yuu didn’t catch the small hint of a grin at the end of the sentence he would have thought Kimizuki was genuinely picking a fight. Or maybe he was, who knew. His first impression of him wasn’t exactly polite, and it occurred to Yuu how lost he was in dealing with someone who showed him such casual and unflinching disrespect; even Narumi, as loose as he was, didn’t go this far.

Yuu could only scowl menacingly in return, wondering what mess he’d landed himself into by bringing this smart-mouthed pickpocket along to his journey, but really, he didn’t regret his decision one bit.

He had already made a promise to the guy to cure his sister and it was a promise he intended to keep.

Yuu, once again, glanced back towards the horizon, the night sky a beautiful backdrop to the calm waves of the dark, blue sea. It was the first time Yuu had ever seen a scene like this, and he tried committing it to memory; his final glimpses of his home country until he returned one day. Though in just a few days, different places, entirely new experiences, would be open for his exploration. The world was at his fingertips, and he was going to do his utmost to make the most out of it.

His journey had only just begun.

Chapter Text

He waited a few beats after he noticed Yuu leaving the bed above him, making sure the prince wasn’t returning immediately. He opened his eyes and stared at the metal springs of the bunk bed. His time in the slums of the Fire Nation capital had helped hone his senses, and had also led him to sleeping with one eye open at all times. The small amount of light coming through the only window in the small space was a soft blue hue, which told Shihou it was barely approaching dawn of their second day on the small merchant ship. Their first day had been mostly uneventful, the crew not paying much attention to the two younger boys in favor of getting the boat ready for the open sea.

Based on what Shihou had discerned from the crew’s conversations, their route would take them south past the Black Cliffs. Then it would be open water until they entered a canal near the Si Wong Desert. From there, they would transfer the cargo, and themselves, onto a ferry, blending in with the other merchants, where they would hop on a train into the city.

Shihou sat up carefully on the bed, minding his head, going over this plan again and again. He rubbed his eyes with his palms before searching for his glasses somewhere near his pillow. He wanted to trust Yuu, but at the same time he was anticipating the guy betraying him somehow, and he didn’t want Mirai to be left alone for too long without him around to protect her. He wasn’t even sure that Narumi guy would uphold his promise of keeping her safe and care for. So, he had to make sure they stayed on course to Ba Sing Se. That was the first test of trust.

He rolled out of the narrow bed, stretching to his full height and adjusting his thin clothes that had twisted up on him as he slept. Yuu had been gone for too long, and curiosity had finally gotten the better of him. He quietly made his way through the hull of the ship, passing still snoring sailors and merchants, and up the stairs to the deck. He hid behind a tower of crates, eyes scanning the boat for any sign of his new travel companion.

When he spotted Yuu, his body instantly relaxed and he covered his mouth with his forearm to muffle the snort nearly escaping him. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Yuu was leaning over the side of the boat, very much unwell. He had complained a little the day before about feeling nauseous, but no one had paid him much mind, too busy attending to their own duties to cater to a young first-timer. They were all veterans of traveling and had their sea legs, while on the other hand, Yuu, Prince of the Fire Nation, had never once left his palace until the day before.

There was something terribly uplifting about seeing a person of nobility in such poor state. Shihou smirked to himself as another bout of nausea hit Yuu and his face vanished on the other side of the boat once more. He still hadn’t gotten entirely used to the fact that the boy before him was a Prince, and of all the people he could have stolen from, it was him.

Mirai had said it was fate, when he tried to explain to her he couldn’t just leave with a stranger for a foreign land. Shihou had nearly snorted at the notion that the fates cared enough about him to create this path, but for her sake he had only squeezed her hand as a response.

When he had witnessed Narumi and Yuu saying their farewells, something achingly familiar had stirred within him, distinctly heartwarming and sad. It was strangely off-putting, yet at the same time, he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He was trespassing on an intimate moment and —being much of a private person himself— under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have thought twice about minding his own business.

Throughout his whole pilfering career, Shihou grew increasingly acquainted with the pattern of nobles he stole from. Often they had retainers by their side, but they were treated like little more than mere accessories, almost as though slaves. Just people who didn’t matter to the noble. It had disgusted Shihou to no end, and in a way, he felt a little more justified in stealing from them. Money and labor seemed to be disposable to them, so he might as well take advantage. He had long ago convinced himself everyone with excess wealth and power would end up an overbearing abomination.

But it wasn’t like that for the Prince and his retainer. Yuu and Narumi were close, and it was very obvious in the moment he witnessed from the ship. Shihou had started to rethink the kind of person Yuu might be.

He thought he heard something like a sob echo from where the prince stood. Shihou remained still for another breath. He moved away from the boxes and went back through the doorway, sneaking back downstairs and into the kitchen. He rummaged through the old cupboards full of various spices, grabbing some ginger he had spotted at dinner. When he was topside once again, Yuu was still bent over, but his head rested on the edge of the ship, and his breathing was obviously labored. Shihou’s smug feeling from before was replaced by something of empathy for the prince. He made his way over slowly, stopping a few feet away and leaning over the ship as well.

“Hey, Yuu.”

If he had learned anything about the kid in the first twenty-four hours of meeting him, it was that he was loud and never shut his trap. But now he rolled his head to Shihou and blinked, focusing on him wordlessly.

Shihou nearly took a step back. Perhaps seasickness made him less of a spoiled brat.

“Leave me alone.” Or perhaps not.

Yuu turned his head away and stood, still hunched over, arms crossed over his stomach as he started stalking away. Shihou rolled his eyes, sighing inaudibly. It wasn’t as fun harassing when Yuu was too busy struggling with his nausea to mouth off back at him and run around tormenting the crew with his wild ideas.

“Shut up, I’m here to help you.” He took broad steps to close the distance between him and the slightly swaying and disoriented Yuu. He grabbed him by the shoulder and halted him, which made the young man groan and fall back against the side of the boat.

Yuu rolled out of his grasp and sank to the floor, resting his head on his knees, arms still clinging to his abdomen. “I don’t need any help.”

Shihou sat beside him, not minding as it was much warmer than standing in the cold morning air whipping around them. He held out his hand, showing Yuu what rested in his palm.

“It’s ginger. It should help with your seasickness.”

Yuu studied the pieces of crystalized ginger, then looked up at Shihou. He looked completely out of it, green eyes red and watery, skin pale from being sick.

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” He shoved his hand up towards Yuu’s face.

He chewed on his bottom lip before taking a small piece slowly and popping one in his mouth, chewing carefully. “This is the worst I’ve felt in my entire life… I’m pretty sure.” The last word was dragged out and he leaned his head back, closing his eyes as he kept sucking on the ginger.

“You’ll get used to it.” Shihou chuckled at how dramatic the guy was.

“How many more days are we on this ship?”

“Three, according to Kagiyama.” He pulled his knees up and draped his elbows over them, studying the birds soaring above the ship.

Yuu raised an eyebrow in confusion. “Who?”

Kimizuki sighed. He couldn’t believe just how bad Yuu was with names, and he couldn’t believe he was going along with such a guy. “Intimidating Dude number one.”

“Oh.” Yuu nodded, looking lost in thought as he crunched on another piece of ginger he had taken a bit quicker. “Can I die from eating too much ginger?”

“Yes, more than one piece kills you.” He cast a sideways glance in time to see Yuu’s frozen face, cheeks sucked in as he held the ginger in his mouth. “Oh, you already–”

Yuu spit the cube out and wiped at his mouth. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?!”

Shihou was too busy reeling over in peals of laughter, and he felt a sharp kick to his legs as Yuu caught up with the joke.

“Jerk.”

“Idiot.” He barely managed to say as he sat back up, wiping the tears from his eyes.

Yuu huffed and with mild hesitation grabbed another piece of ginger. “So, I have a question.”

Shihou raised an eyebrow, somewhat amused. “After you just insulted me?”

“Hey! You were the one who scared the shit out of me!” Yuu slammed his fists against his thighs. Shihou laughed again, batting away his hands, then straightened up and morphed his expression into a more serious look.

“Okay, what’s your question?”

Yuu pulled himself up as if to try to match Shihou’s eye level from where he sat. “Why did you change your mind? About coming with me.”

He held Yuu’s stern gaze, but he chewed on the inside of his lip lightly. He hardly knew this guy, and he really wasn’t sure how much about himself he should give away than he already had.

“It was Mirai. She told me I should go.” He finally dropped his eyes down to his hands for something else to look at. “She heard most of our conversation.”

“Is… was she really okay with that?”

Shihou curled his hands into fists. “We’re out of options. She knows it.” He would say, if anyone ever asked, that Mirai was the strongest of the two of them. When he was fearful, she would only hold his hand and smile. Whenever he became angry, she would speak softly to comfort him.

“When you and Narumi left, she said I should take this chance to find a cure, to find someone who could help.” He left out the bit about how she called him being too prideful in accepting help at the cost of being the Prince’s new bodyguard. Shihou didn’t need to admit to that. “I didn’t want to leave her, but if Narumi can help while I’m gone, it makes things easier, I guess.”

“Narumi will keep to his word, I know he will. Your sister will be safe.” Yuu bumped their shoulders together.

“You’re so positive, it’s annoying.” He shook his head and let out a long breath, slightly regretting sitting down with the naive prince.

“What?” Yuu’s voice rose an octave.

He kept his gaze forward, fingers scratching at his bandages on his arm. “You see the world differently. People like me… we don’t have the luxury of seeing the world through rose colored glasses. Not like you royals do.”

Yuu was uncharacteristically quiet. Shihou had expected him to scream, shout about how he wasn’t so naive, anything like that. Not this reserved silence. Then the prince let out a huff.

“Well, I can’t help it, I guess. Narumi gave me a reason to have faith in people. Maybe one day he can do the same for you.” Yuu’s hand wrapped around Shihou’s shoulder. He looked at the wide green eyes as Yuu smiled big. “I’m glad you changed your mind, Kimizuki. I’m glad I’m not going through this alone.”

He sure wasn’t expecting the guy to look so earnest. When was the last time someone looked at him like that? He couldn’t recall a time when he was viewed as more than a just a pest on the street or worth anyone’s time. Seeing it from someone as aggravating as Yuu threw him off more than he preferred.

He focused on a lone barrel on the other side of the deck to stop staring at those hopeful and innocent green eyes. Grunting, he shook his arm to get Yuu to release his shoulder. “How are you feeling?” He aimed to try to pull the conversation away from being about himself. The sun had made its way over the horizon. Soon the crew would be waking up and starting their work on the deck.

Yuu nodded his head slowly. “Better. Thanks. For the, uh, ginger.”

“Keep the rest, in case I can’t swipe more.” He grabbed Yuu’s hand and dropped the last few pieces in his palm. He flicked his eyes up and saw Yuu’s eyes narrow at the notion Shihou had taken the spice without asking, but any judging he did silently. Which was good. He didn’t feel like arguing about the ethics of taking spices so early.

“What are we supposed to do for three more days?” Yuu whined as he pocketed the rest.

Shihou rolled his eyes. “What, used to having people at your beck and call to entertain you back at the palace?”

Yuu jumped to his feet, albeit shakily, and stared him down. “No! That’s not what I’m saying! I’m just used to you know…studying, or sparring! Something!”

Shihou let out a small laugh and stood as well, leaning on the edge of the boat to look out over the water. The islands of the Fire Nation were slowly growing smaller behind them. He hadn’t been so far away from home, either.

“We could spar, you know.”

“Really?” Yuu bounced and leaned against Shihou’s arm, elbows knocking. He narrowed his eyes at the gesture, a part of him annoyed at the assumed personal space intrusion, the other amused Yuu so quickly forgot their light bickering. He let out a long breath of air. Sparring sounded like an even better idea, then.

“Yeah.” he smirked. “Based on what I saw in the alley, I could teach you a thing or two.”

On second thought, maybe he shouldn't have spoken too soon, because Shihou decided he hated the look Yuu was now giving him. “If I remember correctly, I think I trapped you in a ring of flames, Kimizuki .”

“That’s cheating. I’m not a bender, so it wasn’t a fair fight.” He scowled reproachfully, crossing his arms across his chest.

“What–!” Yuu looked slightly scandalized.

“So when we spar, no bending allowed.”

“Fine!” Yuu pushed off the edge of the boat and walked towards the center. His legs seemed to wobble a little still from the sensation of being seabound, but he was obviously trying his best to hide it.

Shihou expelled a long sigh. “I never said we should do it now . It’s obviously not a good time for you.”

“I’m fine, come on! You scared?”

“Fucking hell…” He muttered under his breath. He followed Yuu to where he stood in a battle stance, knees bent and arms held up. But his face was still pale and it was clear he was pushing down the slight residual nausea.

“Yuu–”

“Fight me!”

Shihou growled in frustration. “Fine! But don’t whine to me after I beat your ass!”

Stance at the ready, he charged at Yuu, who also sprang forward and pulled back his arm to throw a punch. Shihou noted immediately Yuu’s form was sloppy and his swing was too far back. He wasn’t sure if it was the nausea that was doing it for him or a general lack of raw, non-bending martial finesse, but he leaned more towards somewhere in the middle.

Clicking his tongue, Shihou dodged the fist easily and skirted around the prince, taking advantage of his fleeting surprise at catching nothing but air — was he seriously expecting to hit Shihou with such a poorly-aimed punch? — he snuck in a hit on Yuu square in the back, pausing just enough at the last moment to prevent any consequential damage. Yuu stumbled forward at the impact, making a sound of frustration as he spun around and swung once more, in a pattern not much different than the first. He ducked below Yuu’s flying fists and swiped a foot around to knock Yuu off his feet, convinced the match was his.

Yuu fell backwards, arms outstretched behind him. Shihou rolled his shoulders back. He knew a fight was over. There was no way Yuu could save himself now.

He was not expecting the prince to suddenly recover —at least not at that speed— seeming to barely touch the floor before springing back up and charging once more.

Shihou’s eyes widened at the impressive stunt. But he didn’t have much time to dwell on how fast Yuu moved before he was avoiding a jab to his ribs, parrying across the deck which was mysteriously devoid of sailors, but he had no time to check as his attention was almost entirely arrested by the flurry of blows Yuu was raining down on him.

Would you look at that.

Even if the prince seemed to be under the weather, he more than made up for it with his exuberant vigor and stamina. It seemed with every miss, instead of getting discouraged, he grew more determined to land a blow on Shihou. It was a shame his moves were, for the most part, flimsy and embarrassingly predictable. Subtlety didn’t seem to exist in his dictionary. Despite that, he found it amusing the boy was almost giving Shihou, a well-seasoned veteran and hand-to-hand combat specialist, a run for his money.

He took advantage of a pause in both their movements to throw out a question bugging him since the day before. “So, what’s your deal.”

“My deal?” Yuu tried to sweep Shihou off his feet this time but he moved out of the way quickly.

“You’ve been in hiding for years, no one knows you exist, and all of a sudden you pop up but you clearly have some military training. You’re an illegitimate child of the Fire Lord, aren’t you?”

Shihou got the exact reaction he wanted as Yuu froze mid-strike; he took the opening to grab his forearm and haul him over his shoulder, landing him on his back with a hard impact. He didn’t stay down for long. Yuu rolled over and hopped back up, his brows knit furiously together.

“You’re asking if Guren is my father?”

“Isn’t he though?”

“You’re shitting me right now, right? This is a joke?” Yuu dove forward with both hands pressed together as if to strike his chest. Shihou dropped to the ground and grabbed Yuu’s ankles and twisted. He yelped as he tripped and went colliding with the mast.

“So he isn’t?”

“No he isn’t, you idiot!”

Shihou shrugged. They both stood a small distance from each other, taking deep breaths. But Yuu’s face had a hint of more red to it than was just from the fight, he imagined.

“It makes sense. Like I said, hidden away all this time. You don’t even look like a firebender, what with your eyes being green. Is that why you’ve been kept hidden away? Because it would be obvious you’re not pureblood?”

At this Yuu straightened up. His hands were balled up at his sides. “My parents were both from the Fire Nation. My Father was the Fire Lord until he was murdered, and Guren had to take his brother’s place.” He dashed forward quicker than Shihou had anticipated, delivering a shockingly sturdy punch to his gut and sending him skidding backwards into some boxes.

Shihou collected himself and held a stance, at the ready. Yuu was definitely more agitated, but he wasn’t sure yet if that would be a real weakness or a driving force for him.

The expression on his face was indecipherable when he spoke. “I made an oath to help you. But if you ever insult my family ever again, I won’t give you the chance to apologize for it.”

Shihou lifted his hands up. “I’m just explaining how crazy all this seems. Yesterday morning I was just a lowly thief. Now I’m traveling with the prince? Sparring with him? I’m just trying to wrap my head around everything.”

Yuu took steps to close the space between them. “Who I am right now, it doesn’t matter, okay? We’re travelling together, on equal grounds. We both need to get to the Water Tribe.”

He wanted to know why, what was it Yuu sought in the north. Shihou assumed if he had someone who was also ill, it would be something he could easily explain. However, the topic had been avoided.

So instead, he only nodded as an answer.

Yuu jabbed his shoulder with a finger. “And stop being such a dick.”

“Tch.” He pulled his shoulder away and dipped to the side. He grabbed Yuu’s wrist as he swung his leg once more. Yuu didn’t catch himself this time and tumbled down, taking Shihou with him. He managed to stop himself from falling by kneeling over Yuu, legs on either side of his torso, hand still clinging to Yuu’s wrist.

Maqui's art

Maqui's Art

They stared each other down, breathing heavily, until Shihou relented first and stood and gave Yuu some space.

Yuu sat up and scooted away, collapsing against the mast.

Shihou straightened his back. “Maybe try again tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow.” Yuu rubbed his wrists, eyes studying him intently. “Tomorrow sounds good.”

He turned and walked towards the stairs leading down. “I’m getting breakfast,” he shouted, “if you think you can stomach anything right now.”

A groan of pain was all he heard from behind him. Shihou couldn’t help but laugh.

 

—oOo—

 

At first, everything was great.

The sound of the waves slapping gently against the hull was rhythmic, gentle and mesmerizing. Yuu had been drawn to it, observing the glistening deep blue ocean as it seemed to stretch endlessly over the horizon. The raven-haired prince had never seen so much space that wasn’t hindered by towering slabs of concrete, and the revelation dizzied him as much as it exhilarated him.

From the start of their naval journey, Yuu had spent most of the day outside thanks to his novel fascination with the sea, the seagulls circling them overhead, and the crew at work. It was an environment entirely foreign to him; he found himself gaping at a sailor who bounded up the sails to tie knots like it was nothing, and another who seemed utterly content within what he had been told earlier to be the bird’s nest. Others rushed past him in a flurry of coordinated movement which he lost track of quickly.

Kimizuki had accompanied him for awhile on deck as he marvelled at everything around him, but along the way he vanished out of sight; presumably indoors to their sleeping chambers. Yuu vaguely recalled the taller man nagging at him to go back inside so he didn’t get… what did he say it was? Heatstroke? —but the notion went through his left ear and out his right. He was far too smitten by his surroundings to acknowledge him and Kimizuki probably gave up.

Occasionally, he felt his environments sway ever so slightly though he wasn’t moving. His stomach would flutter and then suddenly lurch in the most unpleasant of ways, even when he was properly fed and hydrated. But he convinced himself it was normal and had faith his body would sooner or later adapt.

He definitely wasn’t prepared for the serious pain rearing its ugly head in his gut and the bile gnawing its way up his throat. The pounding headache ravaging him was relentless, and had only started to build after numerous visits to the toilet, his only relief being the scant moments he was letting out the contents of his stomach.

It was embarrassing how he allowed himself to succumb to seasickness so easily. He could already hear Narumi chiding him in his head, and hell if he’d ever let Kimizuki catch on to it. However, telling himself he should suck it up and get it together was much easier said than done, and it wasn’t long before he gave in to the symptoms of seasickness. He discovered very early on it was pretty impossible to hide.

He scowled at his hand where he was currently palming ginger, courtesy of Kimizuki. Truth be told, he wasn’t expecting the bespectacled man to help him. Yuu was so sure Kimizuki would insult him as usual, even more so after seeing him in such a withered state. Kimizuki was rough around the edges (Yuu would never ask for otherwise, but the guy’s blows sure packed a punch), rude to a fault, and seemed to make it his life’s ambition to grate on Yuu’s nerves every opportunity he had since day one. However…

Underneath the layers of his bitter, snarky attitude, the guy had a pretty good heart. His disdain for Yuu was clear, and the only reason he could come up with for helping Yuu was so he wouldn’t become an inconvenience for their journey, and Yuu respected that. He knew Kimizuki had reservations about leaving his precious little sister to a stranger, but he still chose to give Yuu a shot, for any hope he had of curing Mirai. Yuu didn’t like the guy either, but he couldn’t help but admire the unflinching care and loyalty the man bore for his bedridden sibling, despite the measures he took to keep them alive that was nothing short of dubious.

Then again, it wasn’t as if what Yuu was doing now was sanctioned either, so he really couldn’t be one to talk.

It was hard to think when his temples were throbbing and an ever-present sense of nausea bubbled under the surface. He tossed another ginger in his mouth, relishing the spicy sweetness melting on in his tongue as he sighed and leaned back.

“Whoa, you look pretty bent.” A bass voice sounded from far above him, and Yuu looked up with great difficulty, eyes squinting.

Standing on the quarterboard was Narumi’s friend —what was his name again?— who did a small wave before performing an easy leap over the wooden railing, much to Yuu’s churning horror. He landed next to him with the grace of a hulking panther, completely unbothered.

Yuu could practically feel his face turning green.

“Welp, guess that wasn’t a real good idea.” His guffaw was loud, and it rang in Yuu’s ears like a buffalo’s roar. It didn’t help his persistent headache. “Sorry about that. Do you wanna go back to rest?”

“How?” Yuu grounded out, ignoring his question, eyes scrunched shut as he knocked his head back against the wood. “How are you not feeling anything at all?”

“Believe me, when I first started sailing, I was exactly like you, if not worse. I remember thinking I was gonna die. Can you imagine? R.I.P Taro Kagiyama, Death by Sea.”

Kagiyama. So that’s his name.

He stretched languidly, and Yuu winced as he heard several pops , before settling down next to Yuu. “I spent whole days in my bunk with a pail at my side. I had no energy to move, not even to go to the bathroom. And I most certainly didn’t pick fights with people on deck.” The jab was slight and playful, but Yuu’s gaze went downwards all the same, his cheeks coloring in something other than nausea, earning a hearty laugh from Kagiyama. “Narumi was right, you’re a pretty tough one. Does it run in the royal blood?”

“Narumi?” He wasted no time in latching onto the sudden topic of interest, partly from curiosity and a way to distract himself from his sad condition. “He talked about me?”

Kagiyama arched an eyebrow. “Are you kidding? Sometimes you’re all he ever talks about. Yuu-sama did this, Yuu-sama did that. I feel like I’ve known you for years, even though this is the first time we’ve met in person.”

Sometimes ? Had Narumi had been talking about him to someone outside of the palace, even when his existence was supposed to be entirely concealed from the public? Moreover, what had Narumi told him? How much did this stranger know about him? What did Kagiyama think of him now?

“Ah,” Kagiyama brought his hand to his mouth, clearing his throat. “I shouldn’t have said that. My apologies, Your Highness. I’ve been told I can be a quite of a loose cannon. But I implore you to trust me when I say I’m the only one he talks about you with, and we’ve known each other for a couple years, now. I trust him with my life, and vice versa. Your identity is safe with me.” He swept his gaze over the upper deck at the crew who paid not even an ounce of attention to them. “The proof lies in front of your eyes.”

Yuu followed his line of sight. It was true, from the very beginning of his voyage, no one spared him a second glance. They only threw him passing glances and nodded at him, acknowledging him as another presence, but none of them showed any hint they recognized him. He knew it wasn’t actually Kagiyama spilling the beans about him that he was afraid of, but it was nice to see the reality of it in front of him.

“What did… what did he say about me?”

“Mostly it’s the stuff you put him through; the pranks you pull on everyone and how Fire Lord Guren deals with it. I don’t blame you. What else could you have done when you’re stuck in the palace your whole life? Then again, it makes you wonder why they kept you so hidden. There’s no reason to conceal the existence of the heir to the throne, unless something’s up.”

A pause.

Yuu waited, savoring the gentle breeze nipping at his cheeks and tousling his hair, the minute hum of the tides rolling and nudging, breaking apart at the seams, giving way for the ship. It was a refreshing welcome compared to the monotony of this conversation he’d had time and time again. Yes, he’s been caged in the palace for most of his life. How many more times did he have to hear it rubbed in his face? He knew it more than anyone.

But more than that, he was terrified of what Kagiyama could possibly be thinking in this moment of brief silence. In the face of uncertainty, of endless questions with only half answered, Yuu was intimidated like never before.

Kagiyama seemed to ponder over something before he found words again, “Seeing you now, I can see why. Has anyone told you, you have very distinctive eyes for a Fire Prince?”

The implication was loud and clear. Earlier, Kimizuki had said the same thing —although it was much more excoriating and inculpatory in nature. It had set Yuu off, igniting a deep-seated anger in him he fought tooth and nail to contain. It was hard not to see Kagiyama thinking along the same lines, and Yuu was half-expecting his ire to kick back in high gear.

Then it occurred to him.

You don’t even look like a firebender, what with your eyes being green. Is that why you’ve been kept hidden away? Because it would be obvious you’re not pureblood?

They didn’t know he was the Avatar. This was how people outside the palace viewed him. It didn’t matter what they thought of him, as long as they didn’t know he was the Avatar.

He was well aware of the dangers being an exposed Avatar posed, after living his whole life being sheltered under the blanket of anonymity. Call it a lingering result of eighteen years of scrupulous inculcation, but Yuu wasn’t ready for change.

Yuu breathed a large sigh of relief, ending in a shaky laugh. “Yeah, you’re not the first.”

He didn’t mind so much the fact that Narumi talked about him at all —it actually gave him a fluttering feeling inside— but he couldn’t shake away his suspicions, as awful as it made him feel. After all, Narumi was supposedly his most trusted retainer, and if he disclosed the only substantial reason Yuu’s been hidden for most of his life…

“Hey.” Kagiyama’s succinct tone knocked Yuu out of his paranoia-induced reverie, and he snapped up to see Kagiyama’s face looking at him, completely devoid of mirth. “Narumi’s probably made mistakes, and fusses way too much —believe me, I know how you feel— but he really does care for you, you know. I have no doubt that everything he does has your best interest in mind. Don’t hold it against him. It’s his devotion to you that inspired me to go a step further.”

Yuu stared at him quizzically. “A step further?”

“Ah, right.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a tiny pouch. “This is for you.”

When Yuu hesitantly took the proffered gift, Kagiyama continued. “I’m giving you my sailing permit. It should be enough to cover for both of you when you board the next merchant ship to the Northern Water Tribe. I threw in a couple helpings of ginger in there for you, too. Just in case that peculiar friend of yours didn’t give you enough.” Kagiyama’s gaze lowered, and Yuu followed it to to the pieces of crystallized ginger peeking innocently out of Yuu’s pocket.

It looked as though Kimizuki’s swiping may not have been as inconspicuous as he made it seem, and Yuu would have snickered if Kagiyama hadn’t brought up a more significant issue.

“So wait, you’re giving me your permit?” He stared at the object resting within the pouch, and looked back at the captain, bewildered. “Isn’t it important? You can’t sail without this, can you?”

“Your concern is very much appreciated, Your Highness. However, I only really need it if I’m boarding other merchant ships outside of my own, and the only times I’ve done that is when I did business with the Water Tribes. I mostly concentrate on trade between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom, and I have my own ship and crew for that.”

“If that’s the case, then…” Yuu mulled over, bringing his gaze back to the folded document. “Hold on, does that mean you went to the Water Tribes? Was it the one in the North?”

Kagiyama nodded. “While they’re not as commercially focused as their Southern counterpart, they are the most accessible and easiest to work with. I bring them iron ore in exchange for giant sea crabs to sell in Ba Sing Se to the royal chefs. Some kind of rare and exotic delicacy to them.”

Yuu tied the pouch shut, holding it close to him as if it were a lifeline.

“The Northern Water Tribe… what was it like?”

Kagiyama looked out over the water, a wide grin spreading across his face. “Oh, it’s breathtaking. I imagine you’ll have never seen anything like it, coming from the Fire Nation and all. It’s so clear, the water, the sky, the ice, it feels like you’ve stepped in a magical place. And the architecture still feels like it’s from the spirit world. Like it can’t be real.”

“Have you ever stayed there long?”

“Oh, not at all.” He made a face and laughed.

Confusion flickered on Yuu’s face. If Kagiyama had nothing but praise, then why did it look like he’d rather avoid the place like a wildfire? “So, then why…”

“It’s cold.” His voice took on an extremely deadpan quality, his expression hilariously blank.

Yuu stared. “Uh.”

He nodded.

Was that… it?

“I can see you were expecting a much more compelling reply.” His ensuing laugh was like a broken record, and he clapped a hand hard on Yuu’s back. “But there’s really all there is to it. I just don’t like the cold.”

Yuu allowed himself to laugh. “I guess that makes sense. I don’t even know what the cold is like.”

“It’ll hit you like a thousand needles at first, but eventually your body will adjust if you stick around long enough. I never do, myself. So it’s always a bit of fresh pain every time.” He let out another small laugh.

“I think I’ll be there a little while, so maybe I’ll get used to it.” Yuu felt himself relax a little more. They stayed there in a comfortable silence, watching the waves below them as the ship sliced through the water.

“By the way, that kid you’re with, Kimizuki was his name, right?”

Yuu nodded.

“I’ll make sure to give him these instructions also, but when you get to Ba Sing Se, you’ll need to board the ship traveling to the Water Tribe not along after. My crew will get them their goods, and you’ll go with them to blend in more. They’ll be expecting you. Also, I’ve collected proper clothes for you and your friend. You won’t do well in the North with just those thin outfits.”

“He’s not my friend. I’m just helping him out.” Yuu wasn’t sure why he felt he needed to correct Kagiyama.

“Both of you needing to go to the Water Tribe and not for the same reason?” An eyebrow raised and Yuu regretted speaking up.

“His sister is really sick. He needs to find a healer. Everyone knows the Northern tribe has the best healers.”

The captain nodded. “They are very in touch with their spiritual side, it’s true. I can understand why he would want to go.”

A silence hung between them. Yuu shuffled and looked away from the conversation. “You aren’t asking why I’m going, though.”

The man laughed again. “It’s not my business, really, is it? Besides,” a hand clapped down on Yuu’s shoulder and he jumped, turning to look up at Kagiyama. “A friend of Narumi’s is a friend of mine.”

 

—o0o—

 

Guren Ichinose rubbed the headache pounding in his forehead with his thumb and index finger as he rose regally from his throne, looking over the fire dancing around him. It had been a long day full of council meetings and greeting mercenaries from neighboring nations that took much too long to settle– basically, “boring Fire Lord stuff”, as his nephew aptly liked to put it.

Now that he thought about it, he hadn't heard from the little runt all day. Usually, he'd come barrelling into the throne room without taking the courtesy to knock, either yelling at Guren for something inane or hammering in delight over accomplishing another one of his bending techniques. Not that he would admit missing the ruckus of the boy, but it was just a bit too quiet in the very large palace.

Cracking his neck, Guren passed through the flames he had erected around himself, dispersing them upon exiting the throne room.

“Call the prince and make sure he attends dinner with me promptly.” Guren ordered at a guard who swiftly replied with a “Yes, Lord Guren” before making his way down the hall.

Guren turned a different direction to head to his own room, fully intending to disrobe from the heavy capes and hard wool to lighter attire. He had only just turned a corner when a head of white-hair popped into view.

“Guren! Is the meeting over already? Are you heading off to dinner? Or maybe you're going to change first?”

Only Shinya would address him so informally. The last time Guren had reminded the airbender about using respectful honorifics, Shinya had just merely laughed in his face and told him “You’re funny,” with none of the obeisance meant for a king . The memory alone served to add another painful beat to his annoying headache. The chirpy fast-paced talk did nothing to soothe it, either.

“Not now, Shinya. It’s been a long day, and this blasted downpour is not helping.” Though even if Guren had already started walking the other way, Shinya immediately fell into step beside him, a wide grin on his handsome face.

“It is a reigny season indeed, your Lordship,” came the cheeky reply, and Guren sometimes wondered if he were living with more than one adolescent. One he would gladly throw out any time soon. Shinya was lucky he was a the only airbending master Guren trusted with Yuu.

Shinya followed him all the way to the end of the hall where his bedroom was situated. Huge ornate doors loomed over them as guards stationed at their post moved to open them wide for Guren and Shinya. Although he sent a pointed glare towards the airbender, the man ignored him and strutted inside like he owned the place.

Dragons, give me strength.

Shinya was a rather familiar presence in his room at this point. Unfortunately. Not by choice of course, but Guren couldn't get the man out no matter what he did. It was like Shinya lived to annoy Guren as much as he could before the sun set over the horizon everyday. Speaking of the airbender, Shinya had just flopped down on Guren’s bed like he owned the place and sent him a laidback smirk when he noticed the other staring.

Such impudence.

Groaning, the agitated Fire Lord moved towards his walk-in cabinet and looked for a suitable outfit to wear. Usually he’d have his servants helping him select something and dress down after a day’s worth of tiring meetings, but with Shinya around, he would never hear the end of his “You’re a lazy ass” lecture.

Why he still hadn’t kicked the damn insufferable man out of his room yet still escaped Guren’s own reasoning.

“I'm about to change, can't you leave?” Guren grumbled as he turned his back to Shinya and began shucking off his blood red robes and threw them on the floor beside his feet. They landed with a loud clunk!

“Eh? But my room is in the other wing. It’s so far~”

“I don’t care. Go make yourself scarce or look for Yuu to play with. Your presence isn’t needed here.”

While he was talking, Guren was so focused on untangling the ribbons over his tunic, he didn’t notice the person creeping up behind him. He jumped when a hot breath whispered against his ear, “How about I help you undress instead?”

He nearly choked on his own tongue. The Fire Lord whirled around and glared at the innocent smile on the airbender’s face. He still remembered the last time Shinya had tried stripping anything off him. That hadn’t ended well. This time, though, the airbender was on him before the dark-haired man could even react.

“Wha–?! Shinya, w-wait!”

Shinya smiled mischievously with his hands raised, manipulating the air to yank down a sleeve past Guren’s shoulder, the other one following it and leaving Guren in only his light undergarments. Guren yelped and Shinya only laughed but his hands began to pull at the sash around his waist with the aid of his airbending skills.

“Shinya…!”

Thankfully or not, a knock punctuated through their arguing and immediately, Guren pulled himself away from airbender. Glaring at the grinning man who backed away from the Fire Lord as well. Guren roughly adjusted his clothes back in order and called for the guard to enter.

“Did you come here to tell me my nephew refused to dine with me?” Guren asked before the man could speak, already prepared to find the little rascal himself and manhandle him to the dining area.

“Uh, um… actually, the young prince wasn't in his room.”

“So he's wandered somewhere else in the palace?” Guren raised an eyebrow.

“Uh, my lord, he’s…” The guard seemed to be sweating on the spot, very clearly trying not to fidget under the presence of the Fire Lord. “He’s not… anywhere in the p-palace that we can tell. My lord.” He added hastily like it would lessen the blow.

But something dark and heavy had already settled around Guren’s chest like an anchor sinking to the bottom of the sea.

“What do you mean–” Guren started, words rolled into a growl as he approached the nervous guard. “–that he's not in the palace? Where else would Yuuichirou be?”

“M-My… lord. We think h-he ran… away…”

“You think ?!” His voice roared throughout the room.

The guard flinched. “I'm sure, my lord! S-Some of his clothes are missing and no one has seen the prince since this morning.”

“Since the MORNING ?!” The candles around the room flared up, their orange flames expanding and almost burning the ceiling. Guren could feel a vein throbbing in his forehead, his headache now escalating into a slamming beat of a sledgehammer. He ignored the way the guard cowered under his vicious glare. He was furious. He was downright worried. Where the fuck was his nephew and how did he run away?! It shouldn’t have been possible; all personnel had strict orders to keep Yuuichirou within the Palace perimeter. The possibility of him escaping should have been nil.

“Guren.” A hand was placed on his shoulder, Shinya’s voice was soft, urging him to calm down. Guren closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to remember himself and reign in his temper.

When he opened them again, his dark purple eyes were steely and his mouth was pursed in an angry line. He needed to think straight.

“Who last saw Yuuichirou?”

The guard seemed to realize he was still being addressed to and he straightened up accordingly. “N-Narumi, my lord.”

“And where is he now?”

“On his guarding shift in the treasury room, my lord.”

Guren tightened the sash around his waist, glancing at Shinya beside him to see the same worried eyes directed at him. He strode out of the room with one last command. “Bring Narumi to the throne room. Now.”

The guard immediately scurried down another hall as Guren, with wide strides, made his way to the throne room once again with Shinya silently following after him.

The tension was thick in the air, Guren’s mind an endless whirl of worried and angry questions clashing against one another. He checked Yuu’s room first along the way as it was situated close to Guren’s ever since the murder of his parents. And just as the guard said, it was void of any whereabouts of his nephew; no creases on the bed, and his sword and a few clothes were missing from the cabinet. There was no sign of Yuu himself.

The vein in his temple pulsed fiercely, heart palpitating fast as his mind raced with ideas of how he could have prevented this. Why would Yuu even leave like this? He’d thought the teen was fine yesterday, attending his first meeting and enduring it with as much patience as an adolescent could handle. Yuu had showed no signs of wanting to run away from the palace. In fact, he was downright obedient.

...No, wait. On second thought, that was even stranger. Obedient and Yuuichirou could never exist on the same plane of existence unless he was plotting something. In this case, his escape. Usually, the translucence of his facade was no match for Guren. Cheap, amateur tricks like this were something he could see through even in his sleep. But he had dismissed his docility to the events of the night before. It should have drained at least two days’ worth of energy from the both of them.

Never in his wildest imaginings did he consider the possibility it didn’t break Yuuichirou; it made him.

He released an aggravated breath and continued his way the throne room. If Shinya wanted to say anything about the situation, he kept it to himself, but he could feel the airbender eyeing Guren markedly beside him.

“My lord.” His guards saluted him the moment he stepped to the grand doors. He stormed through the large room and situated himself down on his throne, while Shinya took up his usual spot standing to one side of the room, when Narumi walked in. He looked calm and composed, like nothing was out of the ordinary or that he had any clue as to why he was summoned. Guren watched him with sharp eyes as he stopped and bowed in front of the him, holding the position until Guren ordered him to stand.

Mind plagued with Yuu’s well-being, Guren couldn't hold back the bite in his words. “Narumi, I have been told my nephew is no longer in the palace grounds. As his retainer, do you know anything about this?”

“Yes, my Lord.” His expression didn’t falter.

Guren’s eyebrows rose before his voice morphed into something thunderous. “Did you help Yuuichirou leave the palace when I explicitly ordered he should never be let out?”

There was a pause that felt like centuries had passed, and the whole court seemed to hold their breath in unison, everyone’s eyes trained on Narumi, who had shielded his gaze and made his expression indecipherable. His shoulders had grown rigid, and his fists were clenched and white-knuckled.

He lifted his head, meeting Guren’s glare head-on. “Yes. I escorted the young prince out of the palace and helped him find a way safely out of the city.”

Flames immediately erupted all around him, casting the whole room into an orange, molten glow as the Fire Lord unleashed his anger, “HOW DARE YOU!?” Guren leapt from his throne, eyes blazing, “You purposefully led my nephew into the pits of danger?”

“If you mean the marketplace? Then yes, I did.”

Blood boiling under his skin, Guren stretched his arm back and hurled his fist forward to launch a ball of fire towards the retainer, missing Narumi by inches and instead sending it into the wall behind him. It left a burnt mark the size of a human’s head, and small chips of the wall plaster raining on the marbled floor.

Narumi stood as still as ever, expression unchanging even as a bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. If he was scared by the sudden attack, he didn’t show it.

“Don’t get fucking cheeky with me, Narumi. Have you any idea what it is you’ve done? My nephew is out there, with no bodyguard or protection whatsoever. If he gets injured or killed, I’m holding you responsible for it.“ His voice resonated around the throne room, anger and worry fueling his entire reasoning. “I trusted you. His parents died trusting you!”

Heavy, weighted silence followed after his words as Guren collected himself for a few minutes and sat back down on his throne. Clenching his hands into fists, Guren released a sharp sigh. “Why would you let this happen, Narumi? You’re his retainer . You’re supposed to protect him.”

“And I am.” Narumi answered resolutely, though a tiny hint of rawness that wasn’t there before was now present. “It’s important the Avatar learns all four elements and masters them, but Yuu-sama isn’t going to get that whilst living in here.”

“Are you questioning my parenting?” Guren raised an eyebrow.

“No, my lord, just stating that Yuu would never master waterbending while under your tutelage. Doing so is important for his duties as the Avatar. You know that.”

“He doesn’t need to learn waterbending because he has no duties to the world out there. The only responsibility he has is to the Fire Nation and to become its future Fire Lord.”

“I beg your pardon, my lord, but that is unreasonable!” Narumi stepped forward.

“That is his birthright!” Guren rose from his throne and stepped down from it, his hands curling at his sides.

“So was being born the Avatar!” Narumi shouted, and seemed to instantly think otherwise about his words. He turned his head away, his shoulders rising and falling quickly with his erratic breaths.

Guren took another step towards the man. “I will not allow the only family I have left to pursue a suicidal mission!”

“Lord Guren, please.” Narumi implored to the Fire Lord, looking back to him now with earnest. “I understand how much Yuu-sama means to you, but he’s a man of his own now. He cannot be dictated for the rest of his life. He needs the life experiences outside these walls to become a better leader. A better Avatar.”

Every word, every line Narumi sprouted scratched at the small itch the Fire Lord had about keeping his nephew locked up. It was something he didn’t like thinking about, nor did he want to speak about it either. Shinya had tried countless times before and it had never worked to change Guren’s mind. Yuu was safer in the palace with him, simple as that.

But now, this… this retainer thought it prudent to act upon himself and let Yuu out of the safety of his own home. Thrust him into a world he had no knowledge of and most likely getting himself in danger. Or worse, killed.

Guren closed the space between them completely. “How dare you take it upon yourself to assume you know what’s right for the prince!” He sprung forward and wrapped his hand around Narumi’s throat, his fingers instantly digging into the vulnerable skin of his neck. He swept his leg under to knock him to the ground. Narumi, completely caught off guard, offered no resistance until his back connected painfully with the stones beneath him. He cried out and tried to claw at Guren’s hand, his eyes wide and finally full of fear. It was the emotion Guren wanted to see, to make Narumi understand fully what he had done. He vaguely heard Shinya shouting his name, but paid it no mind.

“I hope you are satisfied with what you’ve done.” He willed his fingers to grow hot, to create the same fire burning through his core and release it through his palm, blossoming on the thin skin of Narumi’s throat. The man started to cry out, his arms and legs flailing for purchase on the floor, trying to get Guren to stop. “You can die knowing that you’ve betrayed the honor and trust of the royal family you serve, and your name shall be a lesson taught to those who come after you—”

Then suddenly the Fire Lord went flying, away from Narumi as a gust of wind punched him in the gut and held him suspended in place near the ceiling. He looked down to see Shinya standing beside Narumi, his outstretched hand giving away the fact that he had raised his hand against the king.

Guren was in too much shock to react.

Taking advantage of Guren’s stupor, Shinya propelled the winds to guide the bound Fire Lord back onto his throne, securing him there in a manner that was far too easy for Guren’s liking. Struggling while encased in the barrier of wind was as successful as breaking through a heavily bolted door.

“Shinya, I order you to release me!”

“Guren, why don’t you try calming down first?” Shinya motioned for the guards’ assistance. They seemed unsure whether or not to follow the airbender’s words, looking from each other, then to Guren and then to Shinya. He clenched his teeth tight as he watched Shinya shout for them once more, and this time they ran over to where the airbender stood by Narumi’s prone body. As the man rose, a dark red imprint bloomed on his throat, peeling, burnt skin and blood clotting in places darker than the rest.

“Take him down to the dungeons,” Shinya ordered, “see that his wound is taken care of.”

The guards exchanged hesitant glances then looked towards the Fire Lord still trapped on his throne, obviously still uneasy about the situation. Shinya seemed to have noticed and shouted sternly, “What are you still standing there for? I said to take him down to the dungeons and heal his wounds. NOW!”

They immediately snapped to attention, obviously fearful of what the airbender would to them. Hauling Narumi up by the arms, they guided him out of the room. Only when the heavy doors had closed did Shinya finally relinquish his hold on Guren.

The second he did so, Guren turned on him, expression livid as he grabbed Shinya’s arm. “What was that?”

Shinya didn’t move away from his tight hold. “You can’t blame Narumi. Not entirely.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Shinya let out a long breath despite the way he straightened his shoulders and gave him a hard look. “I think this would have happened, with or without Narumi’s help. Maybe it’s better at least Yuuichirou had someone assisting him.”

“Why would you say that?” Guren let go and paced in front of his throne, his agitation over Yuu’s disappearance and Narumi’s behavior increasing the more he thought about it.

“We just talked about this the other day. He was bound to do this sooner or later. His drive to be the Avatar, to embrace his fate, overpowered any plan you have for him, Guren. It is more of his destiny than anything else.”

His movements halted. He stared at Shinya with eyes fearful for the truth as another set of guards replaced the previous ones, standing at their position by the door.

“This inconceivable brat…” It felt as though he deflated suddenly. All the energy sucked out from him, even the fire around his throne had died down as he sat on the steps leading up to it.

“We need to find him, Shinya. I can’t…I can’t lose more of my family.” Guren shook his head, his voice sounding low and despairing as he recalled what happened eleven years ago. The day he lost his brother was a day Guren could never forget.

He wasn’t about to make the same mistakes this time.

Shinya placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, and for once Guren welcomed it. His voice rang out to the guards across the room. “Send for Mito immediately.”

“Right away!”

The order cut through the fog in Guren’s head like a siren. He couldn’t keep wallowing like this, and let Shinya do everything for him. He was the Fire Lord, he had the all means and power under his disposal to find Yuuichirou. Guren was going to bring his nephew home no matter what it took.

But first, he needed to be sure Yuu wasn’t in the capital any longer before he began making preparations. It was a smart call for Shinya to ask for Mito.

He turned his back to the door, stepping to the throne and resting a leg against it, his fingers trailing the armrest. His mind raced with all the possibilities of where Yuu could have gone. With a loud slam, the doors were thrown open by who he assumed would be Mito, the Commanding General of his military. Looking over his shoulder, his prediction was proven right as she strode through the room with her chin held high, bright red hair swinging from her ponytail.

“My Lord,” she bowed as she reached the front of the throne. “You summoned me?”

Guren froze. The gravity of the implications concerning his inevitable avowal to someone else began to sink in fully; having to admit Yuu was missing, that the only heir to the Fire Nation was gone…

“My Lord?” Mito repeated, eyes scanning his face quickly. He wasn’t of sound enough mind to properly pick apart convoluted expressions, but her confusion was extremely prominent. He lifted his chin and took in a stilted breath.

“The Fire Lord is requesting your troops be sent out to search the city for Prince Yuuichirou, Commander.” Shinya carried his voice well, stepping to Guren’s right but not looking at him, his gaze on Mito.

“With all due respect, Shinya-”

“That is my order. No questions.” Guren finally gathered the ability to speak. Mito snapped her glare back to the Fire Lord, but didn’t say anything more, having schooled whatever reaction she had into a severe neutrality.

She merely nodded. “We will begin at once, my Lord.” She turned on her heels and exited the room. As the heavy doors slammed shut Guren felt a vein in his temple pulse.

He counted the beats before he let out one last surge of anger, hurling another fireball at the door much to the surprise of the guards standing watch. He stormed past Shinya, ignoring the hand he knew stretched out for his arm, and made his way to the smaller door leading back to his chamber. His attempt to slam the door failed when the tailing airbender halted its movement, pushing through and following Guren as he paced around his room.

“Can you just not berate me for five-” Guren stopped and stared at Shinya, who had merely sat on the edge of his bed, his eyes looking up at the ceiling.

“You’re worried about him.”

“I… Of course I’m worried, Shinya! I don’t know where he is! I can’t even begin to think of where he would go, how he could possibly be handling anything on his own…” He furled and unfurled his hands, forcing back the urge to light up the furniture in the room.

“Let’s think about this, rationally.” Shinya continued, “Mito’s troops will search the city tonight, but we need to be prepared to consider he might already have left the capital.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.” Guren begrudgingly sat on the bed beside Shinya, his body feeling heavy. A hand gripped his shoulder.

“Guren, if he left the city, we need to have a plan ready so we can move, and we have to do it quickly and discreetly. We can’t send the Fire Nation’s army out looking for him, it will raise a lot of suspicions and you don’t want people knowing he’s missing.”

He let out a long breath. Shinya was, irritatingly, right. The country couldn’t know Yuu was missing, it would send them into a frenzy, either to find him or to kill him, depending on who found him first.

There was only one option, really.

“I’ll go to him.”

“Guren?” Shinya turned on the bed, and he could feel those blue eyes trying to read him. But he didn’t turn, he kept his eyes on the candle on the small table. His hands curled around the sash of his robe.

“Wherever he is. I’ll get him myself.” He snarled. “I’ll be teaching him a lesson he’ll never forget.”

 

—o0o—

 

He was sure his presence was entirely overlooked the entire time court proceedings went on, but he didn’t mind. He had slipped away after Mito, who had regarded him with an anxious nod as she left ahead of him.

The troops were long gone when he arrived at the gates, and the palace guards were already in the process of closing them when they noticed the earthbender drawing closer.

“Lord Crowley! Will you be joining the search expedition for the young master?” A nervous young man saluted in their typical Fire Nation style, blatantly intimidated by Crowley’s stature as he seemed to shrink into himself —as with almost every other soldier of his station Crowley had ever met face-to-face.

“Of course!” Crowley replied, flashing an easy, concerned smile at the guard. “Guren hasn’t really ordered me to, but he’s not in a very good state right now. I worry for both him and my protégé. It’s better than just sitting around doing nothing, right? I hope it’s not too much trouble.”

“A-absolutely not, my Lord!” The guard bowed hurriedly as he signalled the great gates of the courtyard to open and for Crowley to step through.

He nodded his thanks as he passed, making his way without another word, where he had no doubt some degree of disquiet would be taking place.

He could already pick up on the distant rumblings of the townsfolk as soldiers raided streets and homes in their search for the missing prince. They were shoving past recalcitrant inhabitants into what was basically forced entry, earning them threats of indictment for harassment and other various crimes with reference to the unconscionable invasion of privacy.

It was uncouth behavior for such a highly esteemed army of their calibre, but it couldn’t be helped. It was the prince who went missing, after all. This was a variable that had gone utterly uncalculated for, simply because it seemed senseless of the boy to run from the only sanctuary he’d ever known. His reckless actions were completely unprovoked and threw the nation into a state of frenzy, and now the careful barrier of peace the Fire Nation had erected so meticulously for years was in great danger of being compromised.

Crowley heaved a long-suffering sigh, scratching at the back his head near his thick, long braid, already anticipating the inevitable flak he was going to get from his peers.

This was going to be fun.

He ignored the various cries and protests assailing his ears as he merged into the mayhem of stampeding soldiers and nobles, seamlessly making his way through the confusion with practiced rueful smiles and solicitous assurances everything was fine and that no, there was no raid from external forces, and no one was to be harmed.

It never ceased to amuse Crowley how all the elites living within the prestigious Caldera City were all airs and graces, demanding every right to be informed of every political and military act by virtue of their heightened entitlement and affluence.

With neighborhoods located so close to the Royal Palace, the Fire Lord exercised full control over who was allowed to live there. Naturally, priority was given to the highest ranking government officials and dignitaries, legislators, and members of time-honored aristocratic houses who had dutifully served the Royal Fire Family since the very dawn of the Fire Nation. For whatever reason, as the current reigning Fire Lord, Guren had not been as strict as his predecessors, extending invitations to patrons who barely served the Fire Lord, and were only there to climb into his good graces and be pretentious asshats.

Guren really needed to stop being as generous as he was, letting in almost anyone with plenty of wealth to spare to live within the royal neighborhood around the Fire Palace.

    A long whip of crimson hair flitted across his vision, and he turned his head to spot the commander of the troops herself a small ways away, issuing orders and demanding intel from her subordinates. Although her stance radiated confidence, Crowley knew she was troubled, and curiosity drew him closer.

“Still no sign of him?”

“No, General Mito!”

She clicked her tongue in agitated annoyance. “Alright, keep fanning out. We need to find him no matter what it takes.”

“Miss General!”

“Hey, lady! What do you think you’re doing?”

“General Mito, we need answers!”

“Why is the army doing this?!”

“Who are you looking for?”

“I refuse to tolerate this injustice! We’ve done nothing to deserve—”

“Huh?” The sudden onslaught of questions from the nobles who had chosen that moment to crowd around her was apparently too much for the proud Jujo, who already had her hands full managing her troops; men pouring in and out to deliver a steady stream of status reports. She looked flustered and torn as some nobles went off on an angry tangent, and looked wildly around the ruckus amassing in her immediate vicinity. “No wait, listen—”

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.” Crowley watched as startled eyes swivelled to his direction, and he put on his flashiest grin. “My sincerest apologies, but I must humbly ask all of you to step back and give your commander some space. She’s only doing her job. I assure you, we are working our hardest to make this inconvenience as short-lived as possible, and your cooperation is much appreciated.”

“But, sir—!”

“The person of interest we are searching for is highly classified, but you may perceive him as a felon, if you will. Letting him escape our jurisdiction was our fault entirely, hence why we must retrieve him as soon as possible, lest the harmony of this nation —and all that we strive to protect— be mercilessly uprooted. For that reason, I must beseech your most profound compassion, as venerated members of Caldera’s finest. In the name of the Fire Nation, we will have this situation under control very soon. Please have faith in us.”

Crowley didn’t know what would happen after that impromptu speech, but the crowd reluctantly began to disperse, their dissent reduced to nothing but murmurs amongst themselves and second glances at Crowley and Mito.

He reigned in the urge to chuckle. He should’ve known the tactic would work; peppering his fancy spiel with blind praise never ceased to placate mindless elites quickly. He’d dealt with these types of people regularly, even from where he came from.

Speaking of which, he’d better hurry…

A low, guttural cough turned his attention to the woman who stood next to him, her eyebrows drawn together in visible consternation.

“… Commander?” Crowley raised an eyebrow.

“I am… unsure of whether it was necessary to paint Yuu-sama as a wanted criminal.” Mito began, tone unsteady, almost as if she wanted to say something else.

“What better alternative would you have proposed?” Crowley replied, propping his hands on his waist. “Does it really matter what they think of him? In the end, I was just going for the route with the fewest questions.” Crowley hmm-ed, tilting his head as he looked at her. “At least, fewer questions than the ones you seemed to have trouble fending off earlier.”

Scarlet flooded her cheeks instantly, and her gaze snapped downwards.

Ah. Maybe that was a little unnecessary.

His superior had always called him a bonafide heartbreaker, and Crowley begrudgingly saw what he meant, although he was still loathe to admit it. Yet, time was ticking, and if he didn’t end this conversation soon—

“I’m very sorry for having troubled you, Lord Crowley. Under normal circumstances, I would not have required your assistance. However, this particular kind of predicament has disconcerted me somewhat. I could have reacted accordingly, and yet I let my emotions reflect poorly on my actions…” Mito bowed.

Crowley waved a hand. “Don’t sweat it. I was just doing what any other good person would have done. And besides, after how Guren spazzed out earlier? Word is spreading through the castle - It’s not something you see every day. I doubt there’s anyone who’s not worried out of their minds right now.”

The smile she gave him was wry as she straightened up. “You seem to be handling the pressure fairly well. I’m quite envious.”

Crowley laughed slowly. “There’s really no need to be. I’m worried about him too, like everyone else. I’m just used to hiding it better.” He winked.

Her violet eyes seemed to gleam under the sun, her ensuing chuckle light. “Well then, I’d best be off. I need to check on the soldiers down in Harbor City and see if they’ve uncovered any leads as to the young master’s whereabouts. Were you headed somewhere, also? If not, I could always use more hands.”

“Oh no, that’s fine. Actually, I was thinking of checking out the more remote areas. The outer neighborhoods surrounding this area could use more investigating. He shouldn’t have been able to get through the entrance gates, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to check, just in case.”

“I concur. My men are all prioritizing the public roads because it seemed like the most likely route he perused. It seems unlikely he’d have managed to get into the private neighborhoods, but we can never be too sure. If that’s alright, I’d like to leave that in your capable hands.”

“No problem. Leave that to me.” Crowley grinned.

With a small nod, she turned and started walking away.

“I wish you the best of luck.” He added after her.

“Likewise.” She looked back for a brief second, a smile tinting her face before continuing onwards. “Once again, you have my gratitude, Lord Crowley.”

Once her form was far enough and disappeared beyond the downward slope of the roads, Crowley began to move again.

The remainder of his journey was —thankfully— swift and devoid of any more pesky hindrances. This was partially thanks to the roads gradually growing more narrow and more bereft of people, and the choice he had to consciously make to finally drop his hero act. The years of persistent dexterity his espionage demanded was almost second nature to him now, and he found it was slightly difficult to reassume his original identity without automatically erecting a friendly facade in front of those around him.

But he hardly ever showed his face around him anymore these past few years, presumably too caught up with matters elsewhere and preferring to delegate communicating his directives to… much more eager candidates.

Crowley didn’t really care about the man’s presence —in fact, he was very much relieved he was spared from his unnecessary antics— but he appreciated the personal space he was given when he came personally to deliver proceedings.

“Lord Crowley!”

He recognized the high-pitched voice before he saw her, and before he could react, he felt hands clamp around his neck with reckless vigor, a head full of slate blue hair instantly invading his direct line of sight, and he held back a small sigh. Before he could say anything, the girl had started prattling on, nuzzling her face against his broad chest.

“I’ve missed you so much , Lord Crowley! How have you been? Are they treating you well? Are you taking care of yourself? It’s been months since the last time you came to see me, and you have no idea how hard it was to get through each day without being by your side! There wasn’t a single day when I didn’t worry about your safety, my lord!” He could feel wetness seeping through his clothes at her deeply emotional euphoria, but he had no choice but to listen to her bawl. “All I’ve had for company was that annoying, old hag who thinks she can just order me around just because she’s been here longer —oh, who cares about that! I’m just so happy I get to finally see you again!”

He laughed easily, patting her head fondly. “It’s good to see you too. It’s been awhile.” His hands came to rest on her shoulders. “But what did I tell you about doing things to attract attention, Chess?”

“Aww, but Lord Crowley…” She protested, but didn’t get very far.

A whimper escaped her as she let Crowley gently pry her arm off of him, putting a respectable distance between them as he led her to an area submerged behind a row of finely cultivated gardens gracing the porches of grand, opulent residences with awning, fierce archways reserved for a very select few.

With a single wave, he had constructed several layers of hard rock blocking their only way out, preventing curious eyes and ears from potentially eavesdropping on their conversation. He doubted the possibility, with everyone currently preoccupied with matters concerning the prince, but it was a safety measure just in case.

After deeming the area they were in to be isolated and secure, he turned around to see a pout pulling at her lips, jutting out petulantly on her charming, impish face.

Chess Belle was small and petite —height barely grazing Crowley’s shoulders. She was probably standing on the very tips of her toes when she attacked him earlier, to be able to reach around him the way she did. Even now, she was thrumming with barely contained energy as she started bouncing back and forth on her heels, her wide, cat-like eyes hungrily raking every inch of him in unabashed.

Her wanton zeal whenever the strapping earthbender was involved perplexed him in ways he never sought to fathom in their short period of initial acquaintance. At first, while he couldn’t deny the relish he derived from the attention she poured onto him (in the most surreptitious manner, of course) the feeling wore off quickly and merely began to result in enervating his mood, especially after his more unsavory days.

It wasn’t just her, either. Another had been under his command for a longer time, and although her loyalty was more subdued —likely due to her older age— it had bled through her demeanor all the same, and was no less ardent.

Regardless of his personal sentiments, he valued their undying loyalty towards him, in spite of not knowing what he ever did to deserve it. In a world where wealth and influence was the currency, such devotion was rarely heard of. One would be hard-pressed to find a man who cared for more than their own ambitions, who wouldn’t think twice about following their will and laying down their life for their sake without a second thought.

“Lord Crowley?” Chess said, tilting her head slightly.

“Ah, sorry ‘bout that.” Crowley laughed. “Are you here alone?”

A whiff of displeasure flashed across her face for a split second —it did not go unnoticed by the redhead’s keen eye. “Yes, Lord Crowley. The others are rallying their forces at Ba Sing Se, and Horn’s with the Chancellor in the North Tribe.”

“Ba Sing Se? What’s all this about?”

“The root of this adversity, of course.” Chess crossed her arms, her previous flirting abandoned. “I spotted the prince with a strange, bespectacled man accompanying him to the docks, and it turns out they got on a merchant ship headed towards Ba Sing Se.”

Crowley raised his eyebrow. “Really, now? I wasn’t expecting him to find his way out so quickly. Did that man help him? I wasn’t aware of the prince knowing anyone outside of the palace.”

“I’m not sure how involved he is. But they weren’t alone.” She met his gaze. “It looks like we had another component that went entirely unaccounted for.”

Ah, it all made sense now.

He broke into unbridled laughter before he could stop himself. “That one retainer of his is a good one.”

He knew something was fishy when he first saw him in court today. Being a man with such a strong sense of duty, there was no such thing as ‘slipping up’ when it came to protecting his liege. There was a reason Narumi was at his side for so many years, even before Crowley came into the picture.

He was very competent at his job. Much too competent for a regular retainer.

“I didn’t realize they were so close.”

Chess humphed. “It’s the reason we’ve been on the down low for so long. Trust them to get their hands on the Avatar before us. Well, if there’s one thing we could take out of this, it’s that at least we’ve finally found out who one of them is. We can take care of him from here and plunder the identities of his contacts in other nations. We’ll finally overthrow that inane society and prevent the Avatar from coming into contact with their members, ergo it’d be easier for us to get him back. BAM!” She clapped hard once for emphasis as she giggled. “Two birds with one stone!”

“Haa, getting our hands on him might be a problem.” Crowley brought his hands up to his chin in musing. “Guren did us the honor of subduing him.”

Her eyes lit up. “After all that nonsense about preventing bloodshed? And he went ahead and executed him?” She sounded excited, like a kid seeing candy for the first time. “Well, there goes our chance of getting anything out of him.”

“No, fortunately, his airbender stopped him.” Crowley had a few reservations about the airbender by his side, but now wasn’t the time or place to indulge. For now, he was grateful Shinya intervened when he did; it made keeping an eye on him easier. “But he’s out of the picture now, at least. I reckon he won’t be able to do anything now but twiddle his thumbs from inside the cells.”

“And what of the Fire Lord?”

“He’s not handling it well, naturally.”

“Hm…” There was a pregnant pause. “He’s not happy.”

He had a feeling she wasn’t talking about the Fire Lord anymore.

Crowley sighed. “No, I don’t suppose he is. Did he send you here just to tell me off?”

“Not really. No one sent me here, my lord.” At Crowley’s bemused expression, she pouted again. “Okay, maybe he did, but you know I’d still come regardless!

“I believe you. So you think I should go retrieve him from Ba Sing Se?”

“No, our agents are heading there as we speak. It’s too early for you to be showing your true allegiances just yet. Go back to Guren for now; we’ll take care of the rest in the meantime.”

It was hard to do much else but agree. If they had following the prince taken care of, then the least he could do was handle damage control on his side. He knew Guren would still be in a rage until he had any sort of update as to Yuu’s whereabouts, and he would deliver just that.

“You’ve proven yourself once again an invaluable asset to both me and the organization, Chess.” Crowley bowed deeply, looking up in time to see the hint of red flushing her cheeks. “Hopefully next time it will not be so long in between meetings.” He lifted his hand to lightly tap her chin with a gloved finger before he took a step back, away from her leaning into the touch, as he instead removed the rock wall from around them. He nodded his head, slowly, eyes trained on her another moment and she stayed her place, watching him with watering eyes.

He couldn’t dwell on the moment; he had more important matters to tend to.

 

—o0o—

 

Yuu did not expect his arrival to the Earth Kingdom to start with a crime. A fashion crime.

It was all fun and games when they changed into the clothes Kagiyama had given them – fancy green and gold robes, made of rather-expensive-looking fabric – and Yuu almost got himself punched by Kimizuki for telling him he looked like a reversed chard.

When Kagiyama presented him with the sun hat he was supposed to wear, Yuu wasn’t laughing anymore.

“Do I have to?” Yuu groaned, tying the strap under his chin. “It makes me look stupid.”

Kimizuki failed to repress a chuckle. “So that’s why you look the same as usual.”

“It looks like a soup bowl,” Yuu complained, spinning around in front of the mirror. “You know I hate soup.”

“So I gather.” Kimizuki rolled his eyes. “You’ve been repeating that for the past five minutes.”

Yuu decidedly ignored him, too focused on his ridiculous hat to care. There was nothing good about it, starting from how heavy it was. He deemed it incredibly unlikely people would actually wear something like this, but Kagiyama swore – after taking his fair time laughing at the sight of it on Yuu – that it was the latest fashion trend among the Earth Kingdom merchants.

Another thing he hated about it was it flattened his normally spiky hair. And yes, on top of everything else, it looked like a blasted soup bowl.

“Can’t Kimizuki wear it instead?”

“No way in the Spirit World I’m doing that.” Kimizuki wrinkled his nose at the sole thought. “Besides, you’re the most thick-headed out of the two of us,” he added with a smirk, patting his shoulder, “It was practically made for you.”

“It’s just for precaution, Your Highness.” Kagiyama gave him a half-amused, half-apologetic smile. “You’ll stand out less this way.”

Yuu stared at his and Kimizuki’s reflection in the mirror. A glaring flamingo dressed in green and a walking soup bowl. For some reason, he highly doubted Kagiyama’s words.

“Is this all we need?” Kimizuki’s voice dragged Yuu back to reality. “I thought the Earth Kingdom was some sort of impenetrable fortress or something.”

Kagiyama tapped his chin in thought. “There is one more thing you might need, but we shall go to the port office to get it.”

“Really? Are we finally disembarking?” Yuu almost jumped as he asked. Oh, how he wanted to get back on dry land… it was all he wished for, after spending four days at the mercy of seasickness. Seeing Kagiyama nod was a heavenly sight.

Saying the sight of the harbour left Yuu speechless would be both a mistake and a huge understatement. True, he could not find the right words to describe how pretty it was, but the way his eyes sparkled as he dragged Kimizuki around to explore every nook and cranny of the port made up for his lack of verbal appreciation.

It wasn’t anything like the Fire Nation. Everything looked more… earthy. And green, very green. He figured the grass really was greener on the other side-- or anywhere else, compared to his homeland. He was used to the view of the gaunt hillside from the palace, the barren-looking soil of the Fire Nation. The Earth Kingdom was verdant, with ivy climbing up house walls and hugging the chimneys, and flowers so colourful and beautiful their sole sight filled Yuu with energy and vitality.

“Kimizuki, what plant is this?” asked Yuu, after dragging Kimizuki to a florist's.

Kimizuki adjusted his glasses with a sigh, looking at the tiny black and white flowers Yuu was examining. “Those are panda lilies. And you probably should refrain from touching the flowers.”

Yuu ignored him altogether. “And which one is this?”

“I think that’s a white dragon blush. I heard people use it to make tea.”

“And this one?”

“That’s an unbloomed flytrap. Oh, and it’s carnivorous.”

Yuu jumped back in surprise and his hat almost knocked over an entire shelf of potted plants. One more reason to hate his ridiculous attire. Luckily for both him and the vases, however, Kimizuki caught them before they crashed to the ground.

“Watch it, stupid Yuu.”

As soon as Yuu turned around, the sight of Kimizuki balancing a vase on his forehead to keep it from falling almost made him forget he had been affectionately petting a carnivorous plant. He scoffed back a laugh: if wearing that hat meant he would get to see Kimizuki look like a court jester, he could get used to it. Even if he had to deal with an angry florist brandishing a broom and telling them to get Yuu's hat away from ‘Amane Flower Business’.

“So, where now?” Yuu asked a confused Kagiyama, who had just seen the two of them sprint down the entire street.

“The port bureau, I suppose.” He raised a curious brow. “And why are the two of you out of breath?”

Before Kimizuki could say anything, Yuu smacked a hand across his face to keep him from talking. “Uhm, we had a, what should I call it, an unexpected encounter with a flytrap, y’know how they are, an unfriendly bunch —much like the owner really, trust me, chasing us around with a broomstick, but it’s a long story, you don’t want to know. How about we all just get out of here?”

Kagiyama blinked. Kimizuki rolled his eyes. Yuu just gave each of them a pat on the back and started marching forward, only for Kagiyama to point out he was going the wrong way. But it kept Kagiyama from asking him more questions, so he was cool with that.

Yuu figured it wouldn’t be the last time they got chased or they had to deal with plant troubles, so he thought of it more as practice than a hindrance. He even made the shop’s name into his fake one to fill out paperwork at the bureau – Yuuichirou Amane. The lady at the booth snickered – probably at his hat – but there was no sign of suspicion on her face, and Yuu couldn’t help but heave a relieved sigh once he sat on the train to Ba Sing Se.

“That went pretty smoothly,” said Kimizuki, sitting next to him.

Kagiyama looked amused by the slightly surprised note in his voice. “Are you kids not used to things going well?”

Kimizuki shrugged. “Something like that.”

Kagiyama actually laughed. “Well, let's hope this trend keeps up until tomorrow, shall we?” He winked at Yuu in complicity, in a way that reminded him of Shinya. If his first thought was Shinya, Guren was the second, followed by the realization he would probably be on his tail. In that moment, he couldn't have agreed with Kagiyama more.

“At least we're already halfway through,” said Yuu optimistically. “Getting to the Earth Kingdom wasn't nearly as hard as I expected it to be.”

“That was hardly the most difficult part, Yuu-sama,” said Kagiyama, taking out a battered piece of parchment from his pocket and unfolding it in front of them. It was a discoloured map, yellowed at the edges and barely readable along the folds, with routes traced all over the sea. Only one city was circled in red marker, at the heart of the Earth Kingdom. Yuu's eyes had been drawn to it even before Kagiyama pointed at it.

“Ba Sing Se,” he explained, tapping his finger on the map. “Capital of the Earth Kingdom. It's only natural for its defence system to be top-notch. It's said no foreigner has managed to get through the entrance gates for a decade, possibly more.”

Well, there went all Yuu's hopes of an easy way in. Encouraging.

“Believe me, it's a hassle even for Earth Kingdom citizens to get past the city walls.”

“I guess we won't be going through the main entrance, then,” said Yuu.

Kagiyama simply nodded. “You would need a pass to be granted the permission to get through the city walls, and the Earth Kingdom does background checks on anyone who requests this pass. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you why you can't take that route.” He took a deep breath, steepling his fingers. “But rumour has it there are some secret passages hidden in the walls.”

“Why?” Yuu asked, furrowing his brows in perplexion. “I thought Ba Sing Se was impenetrable.”

“They're not to be used to evacuate the city.”

“Correct.” Kagiyama nodded. “Supposedly they're used by nobles and royalty to get in and out the city freely.”

Kimizuki raised a brow in suspicion. “Supposedly?”

Kagiyama shrugged. “Such are the rumours.”

“Are you saying we're basing this entire plan on a rumour?”

Yuu could hear the uneasiness in Kimizuki's voice. Quite frankly, he couldn't really blame him. What if they couldn't find these rumoured passages? What if it really was just a made-up story? There were too many if's and too few certainties. But it was all they had, and it was worth a shot.

“It's very likely these passageways exist,” Yuu said, feeling the most confident he'd been in days. “Or rather, it would make sense for them to exist. If the Fire Nation's royal palace was structured like Ba Sing Se, I highly doubt the Fire Lord would want to go through all the procedures that Kagiyama said people in the Earth Kingdom must follow.”

The image of Guren having to do such a thing came to his mind out of nowhere, and Yuu didn't know whether to laugh or be scared. He knew how much Guren loathed bureaucratic paperwork and he had a feeling Ba Sing Se's security system wouldn't sit well with him.

“Lunatic royals,” Kimizuki muttered to himself, shaking his head, and Yuu had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. He then turned to Kagiyama. “All right, so how do we find these passageways?”

Kagiyama grinned. “That's for you kids to figure out.”

 

—o0o—

 

Ba Sing Se was like nothing Yuu had ever seen before.

They called it Walled City, and it was a fitting name. The Great Outer Wall was the single tallest object Yuu had ever seen in his entire existence, and – even though he couldn’t see it – he could feel the city was brimming with life within those walls.

Even the station was filled with people, mostly low and middle-class citizens, all dressed in shades of green and gold and brown. It was like looking at an emerald, glinting after being polished and reflecting the sunlight. But there were two reasons why Yuu didn't have time to sit around and admire the colourful crowd of people passing him by: the first, he had to hurry and find the passages as soon as possible. The second, he'd butted hats with two old men already, and they did not look pleased. While he'd heard most people from the Earth Kingdom were kind and understanding, he didn't want to put that rumour to the test more than he'd done back to the florist's. Hence, Yuu deemed it best to get out of there, and neither Kimizuki nor Kagiyama had anything to object.

“Is there always this mad a crowd?” Kimizuki asked, after they managed to get away from the stream of people heading towards the city gate.

“Wouldn't know.” Kagiyama smiled. “I haven't been here enough times to tell.”

“It's beautiful…” Yuu said, marvel still shining bright in his eyes.

Kagiyama laughed. He seemed to find most of Yuu's reactions amusing. “I suppose it is. I guess it's not a bad place to say goodbye.”

“Right now?” Yuu's eyes widened in surprise as a tiny pang touched his heart. He knew Kagiyama couldn't come with them, but he'd hoped he would stay by their side a while longer. “So soon?”

“I'm afraid this is where we part ways, Yuu-sama,” he said with a polite smile, bowing in respect. “You do not need my assistance anymore. The two of you have proven to be more resourceful than I expected. I'm sure you will accomplish great things.”

Kimizuki bowed back in thanks. Yuu held out his hand for Kagiyama to take. The sailor looked briefly thrown, not sure what to make of it. Then he took it.

“Thank you for everything you've done for me – for us all – so far,” Yuu said, shaking Kagiyama's tanned, callused hand. “I won't forget this.”

“It's been a pleasure, your Highness.”

“I just have one more thing to ask of you,” Yuu added, squeezing Kagiyama's fingers tightly. His mind went to Narumi, in the Fire Nation. His uncle would have discovered his absence by now, and he, as his retainer, would be asked to take responsibility.

“I'll make sure to tell Narumi you're safe.” It was as if he'd read Yuu's mind, but not quite right.

Yuu nodded. “Please ensure his safety too.”

“I'll see to it.”

 

—o0o—

 

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s the best I could come up with,” Kimizuki replied curtly, pressing his ear against the wall as he tapped on the bricks.

“It doesn’t seem to be working.”

“Maybe you should try thinking of something then.” He clicked his tongue in annoyance. “But need I remind you that there was smoke coming out of your ears when you were trying to figure out a way to find out where these alleged passages are?”

Yuu groaned, tapping the wall in utmost boredom. They’d been at it for more than an hour and it didn’t help Yuu couldn’t stand waiting around. The firebender’s curse, he called it, and it apparently rhymed with ‘bullshit’ in Kimizuki’s vocabulary – that’s what he’d been calling it for the past thirty minutes, at least.

“I just don’t think they’d be so easy to find.” Judging by the look on his face, Yuu knew he had just said what was also in Kimizuki’s mind.

Kimizuki sighed, sitting on the closest rock in sight. “We probably need an earthbender for this, don’t we?”

“Oh.” Yuu hadn’t thought about that. It made perfect sense. Of course they would need an earthbender for this, and a skilled one at that: there was no way the Earth Kingdom would have allowed the existence of secret entrances to the lower ring without a way to protect them from enemies. For having come to such a conclusion… maybe Kimizuki was actually smart, despite him behaving like a dimwit most of the time. Maybe. “Then we have to find an earthbender.”

“And tell them we’re a royal firebender and a pickpocket who are planning to illegally sneak into the city?” Kimizuki growled. “How did I not think of that before?”

The sarcasm in his voice was somewhat irritating. Yuu still hadn’t gotten used to it, despite their many arguments. “Right, right. It’s not as though you’ve done anything illegal before, right?”

“That was different,” he said through gritted teeth, an unfamiliar glint in his eyes. “I did it for my sister.”

“Isn’t that why you tagged along as well?”

“It doesn’t matter why right now,” he snapped. “If we don’t find an earthbender, it will all be for nothing.”

I’m an Earthbender too. The words echoed loud and clear in Yuu’s mind. A really bad Earthbender. But he ignored the last part. Maybe he should just give it a go. Maybe he should just try finding the passages through earthbending, even though he had no idea how to do it. Maybe he should just tell Kimizuki he was the Avatar.

In a sense, it was a way to prove to him – and himself – he was worthy of his role. In another, it meant trusting Kimizuki like he’s never trusted anybody after —what, four days?— of knowing them.

He glanced at Kimizuki, who had started to kick pebbles at the wall out of frustration. The only reason he was there was because of his sister. Not because he wanted to see the world, or because he was looking for wealth elsewhere – it was entirely for someone else’s sake. Yuu figured he could trust someone like that.

Yuu gulped. “Maybe we don’t really have to look for an Earthbender to get us past the walls.”

“Get past the walls?” an unfamiliar voice spoke from behind Yuu. He jolted, taken aback, and nearly fell to the ground in the process. “Hey, Eita, these guys are looking for a way to get past the walls too!”

Yuu blinked, not sure what was going on. The guy who had just approached them looked like Yuu’s definition of a weirdo, with oddly-tied clothes, a water flack bumping against his hip at his every step and anklets and a necklace made of flowers. His hat looked pretty stupid too, but he wasn’t in a position to judge him for poor fashion choices.

“But we know the way already,” the man called Eita – Yuu assumed – shouted back in response. Yuu had a feeling it wasn’t the first time he had to remind him that.

It took both him and Kimizuki a while to process what he’d just said.

“You do?” Yuu asked, bewildered.

The man grinned. “You bet, kid. Me and my pals are heading there right now.”

Yuu peeked over the guy’s shoulder to see who “his pals” were. He looked like the type of guy who raised buzzard wasps and whose idea of fun was getting drunk on cactus juice, so he didn’t know what to expect. He certainly did not expect a whole caravan of motley assorted people.

There were women, kids who kept running all over the place, minstrels and merchants, from the bulky carpet-seller with five rugs on one shoulder to the kid with a carriage of cabbages twice as big as him, who was staring at him with big, doe eyes.

“Who are you?” asked Yuu, curiously.

“That’s a good question, kid,” he laughed. “Do you know who you are?”

“I, uh, guess so?”

Kimizuki rolled his eyes. He clearly wasn’t up for the philosophical talk. “And what are you, sir?”

“Jesters! Farmers! Wanderers!” He pointed to the crowd behind him. “People of the world! My name is Nagai and… oh, Eita!”

The man with sandy brown hair slapped the back of his head. Now that made weird-hat-dude shut up.

“Forgive him,” Eita sighed. “He tends to get a bit carried away. Were you trying to join the caravan?”

“Yes!” Yuu said, before Kimizuki could stop him. He had a feeling he was going to, judging by the way he nearly slapped Yuu’s face to shut his mouth. “Just until we get to Ba Sing Se.”

Eita shrugged. “Fine by me. Hop along.”

Just like that? He glanced at Kimizuki, and found him looking back at him with the same perplexed expression. It seemed too easy. “Really?”

“Yeah!” Nagai nodded cheerfully. “An Earthbender and his friend are always welcome.”

“Earthbender?”

“Are you not?” Eita raised an eyebrow quizzically. “What’s with the soup bowl get-up then?”

Kimizuki elbowed him in the ribs. Yuu strongly contemplated if he’d rather deal with the angry lady from Amane’s Flower Business than put up with Kimizuki’s “reminders”.

“Ouch– I mean, yeah. Earthbender. I am. Yes. And this is my non-bending friend.”

“Welcome aboard, kids!” Nagai laughed loudly, almost knocking the both of them to the ground with a pat on the back.

It didn’t take them long to figure out Nagai was a bit mental, just stopping short of a nutcase. He knew everything about harvesting giant Shirshu boars, had a talent for juggling cabbages and really, really liked knock-knock jokes. He thought lighting ten torches on fire at the same time was a good idea to make them last longer, could tell you every little secret about the walls and was a connoisseur of every tea house in the middle ring. While Yuu enjoyed it, the amount of useless trivia was probably too much for Kimizuki, who ended up spending most of the journey through the passages facepalming and shaking his head.

Eita, on the other hand, looked out of place because his mannerism were too proper. He stood up straight, while Nagai walked like he was dancing, he was one of the few people to wear shoes and, most importantly, he didn’t wear a tasteless headband like Nagai did. Both Yuu and Kimizuki were taken aback when Eita told them he and Nagai used to work as royal guards before they decided they wanted to see the world, and left the palace. From his descriptions, the Earth Kingdom sounded like a wonderful – yet confining – place to live.

But to Yuu, who found even the passageways charming, Ba Sing Se looked more than wonderful to say the least. It was absolutely incredible. He was greeted by flower shops and market stands, and a crowd of market-goest dressed in brown and green. The streets were busy in the lower ring and bustled with people, merchants and kids kicking a ball around and playing hopscotch on the pavements.

Nobody was surprised to see a badly assorted group of people come out of the Great Wall, or maybe everybody was just too busy selling carrots to care. Nagai described it as a “way not to clog the main entrance”, but Yuu just figured most of the people there only wanted an easier way in, without having to deal with passports and papers and old cranky ladies at the booth.

Once they got past the Great Wall and said goodbye to the rest of the crowd, only then, Kimizuki seemed to relax slightly. It was short lived, however, as Yuu thought it appropriate to run around the shops, play dices with some shady individuals in the back of an alleyway and almost getting scammed.

“What do you mean ‘ you cheated ’?”

“It means yer a bloody cheater,” the beefy man in front of Yuu snarled. “I ain’t giving ya any money.”

Yuu fumed. It was one thing to lose an arm wrestling contest, but winning and being called a cheater by some nasty geezer because of it was on a whole other level. He was seriously considering setting fire to both his surroundings and the darned “win fifty gold coins if you beat this guy at arm wrestling” corkboard sign that lured him in and led him to this fuckery.

“But I won!”

“Come on, Yuu,” Kimizuki said in exasperation, holding him back and dragging him away.

“This is not over! I want my money back!” Yuu yelled at the guy, who was smirking insolently. It was then turn for Kimizuki to get his eardrums to ache, as Yuu turned around and shouted at him, “And what the hell, Kimizuki? I was right!”

“I know you were.”

Yuu jerked away, freeing himself from Kimizuki’s hold and staring at him with rage in his eyes. “Then why the fuck did you drag me away? I could have beat that guy!”

“Yuu, he was two feet taller than you. And four feet larger, in case you didn’t notice.”

Yuu was offended at the implication. “Who gives a shit? You know I could have socked that guy in the gut! Actually, I’m going back there and beating the unholy sh–”

But before he could start running back to the booth and probably set fire to the guy’s underwear, Kimizuki grabbed him by the back of his collar and held him back. “You will do no such thing, you idiot.”

“Why not?” Yuu snapped. “I need my money back.”

Kimizuki sighed. “First, you already attracted too much attention. Second, we need to get to the ticket office as soon as possible. And third,” Kimizuki threw a bagful of gold coins in Yuu’s hands, “the guy left his back open.”

Yuu blinked. He looked at the gold in his hands. He blinked again. “I have never been more glad to have a pickpocket for a comrade.”

“Shut up.” Yuu could swear he’d seen a smile play on his lips.

“For being the safest city in the Earth Kingdom, this place sure has a lot of crime.” And no, he was not saying it because he almost got scammed. Or robbed. Or saw theft happen in the market. Or because–

A loud crash from the street in front of them startled him. Because of that too, yes.

He looked at Kimizuki for the briefest instant before he started to run towards the source of the commotion, but that fraction of a second alone was enough for him to see the look of don’t-you-fucking-dare in the pickpocket’s eyes. Yuu took it as a challenge.

He rushed over, almost tumbling over a crate and tripping on himself, only to see a couple of guys harassing a boy, the shirtless one hoisting him up by the collar of his vest and the other making a mess out of his cabbage wagon. The looks on the two guys’ faces were what truly made Yuu mad. They didn’t even see him as a challenge. To them, it was nothing more than mere entertainment. Nobody was doing anything to stop them – maybe they were too used to this, maybe it was the norm – but the look on the boy’s face felt way too familiar. There was helplessness in his eyes, overwriting his will to react and stand up for himself. Yuu couldn’t just sit back and watch someone go through the same thing he did.

“Hey, you!” Yuu shouted, making heads turn and murmurs spread. “Leave him alone.”

For a second, the two guys glanced at each other in silence. Then they burst into laughter. “Run along, kid,” the half-naked guy said, nodding towards the boy he was holding by the collar, “unless you want to end up like our pal Yoichi here.”

The boy called Yoichi struggled to free himself from naked-dude’s hold, but to no avail, his feet kicking nothing but air.

“I told you to leave him alone.”

“Or else?” the cart-wrecker asked spitefully, tossing a cabbage into the air.

Oh shit . Now he had to think of a good comeback. Something cool, something intimidating, something Kimizuki would say–

“Or else you’re going to pay for it. Both for what you’re doing and… uh, the cabbage cart too.”

That turned out slightly more underwhelming than it sounded in his head. Seriously, where was Kimizuki when Yuu needed his sarcastic sass for once? No surprise the cabbage-wrecker started laughing hysterically.

“Yamanaka, have you heard this kid?” He laughed boastfully. “This brat is something else.”

Half-naked Yamanaka just rolled his eyes and waved dismissively, almost forgetting he was holding Yoichi in his grip and making him swing midair. “I said run along, brat. Even Yuuji could beat you, and that’s saying something.”

Yuu smirked. “Oh, I highly doubt that.” He bent his knees and planted his feet, raising a fist in front of him in what was a typical firebending stance, ready to strike at any given moment… or he would have been, if something – someone – hadn’t smacked the back of his head.

“Ouch, what the–”

“What the hell were you thinking, you dimwitted moron,” Kimizuki scolded him, towering over him in all his totem-pole glory. “What do you have for brains, sawdust? You know you can’t do that .”

Yuu could feel the curious stares of the passers-by on him atop Kimizuki’s glare, and came to the conclusion maybe, maybe , firebending in the middle of the street and blowing their cover wasn’t the smartest of choices.

“Oh, great, he brought his boyfriend over too,” Yuuji snickered, tossing a cabbage their way. Kimizuki dodged it promptly, glaring at Yuuji.

“I’m saying this in your best interest.” Kimizuki’s eyes narrowed, making his look almost scarier than usual. Just when Yuu didn’t think it was possible. “Don’t try that ever again.”

“Are you picking a fight, punk?”

Kimizuki’s eyes flickered from Yoichi to the cabbages to Yuuji, who was tossing another one of them in the air, clearly waiting for a chance to throw it. “Not if you leave that boy and his cabbages alone and get your asses out of my sight.”

Yamanaka raised an eyebrow at Kimizuki, looking briefly surprised. He was still swinging Yoichi midair, and Yuu was starting to get motion sickness just by looking at him. “This kid owes me money. Don’t make me repeat myself, and run along.”

“I paid you back already,” the boy called Yoichi managed to say, his voice weak as he kept struggling. “All of it, interests and everything.”

“You shut up,” Yamanaka said through gritted teeth.

Yuu clenched his fists. “Let him go.”

“I told you not to make me repeat myself.”

“Let him go.”

“All right,” Yamanaka smirked spitefully, “have it your way.”

He dropped Yoichi with the grace of a hopping bison and kicked the ground with his heel with all his strength. Yuu braced himself for the worst, but there was nothing but an unnatural silence all around him. For a moment nothing happened. Then the earth started shaking underneath Yuu’s feet and pointed rocky spikes erupted from the ground, aimed at Yuu and Kimizuki. They both rolled to the side, without breaking eye contact with Yamanaka.

Despite him being a huge jerk, Yuu was fascinated. He got to see another earthbender; he had the chance to really fight against one who wouldn’t go easy on him the way he felt Crowley did. He stopped himself for praising his opponent any further as soon as he saw the way he was kicking Yoichi and keeping him to the ground. That guy was the, uh, biggest jerk in jerkville. That didn’t sound impressive either. He decided to keep it to himself and let Kimizuki handle the insults.

“He’s an earthbender,” Kimizuki said, clicking his tongue. As if Yuu hadn’t noticed. “And you can’t use your bending. Shit.”

“It’s going to be hard to defeat him without my bending,” Yuu protested. “I can always use it sneakily.”

Kimizuki raised an eyebrow at him in what looked like both disbelief and scepticism. Clearly he didn’t believe ‘Yuu’ and ‘being sneaky’ could co-exist in the same sentence. “Don’t do it.”

“Then what do I do?”

Kimizuki pulled out a dagger from the inside of his boots. “Anything but.” And then he charged towards Yamanaka, moving with speed and agility one could only acquire by having to survive on their own for years. He was quick, lighting-quick, and even Yamanaka looked briefly thrown. He swished. Yamanaka barely dodged. Yuu honestly didn’t know Kimizuki was that skilled, and he had a feeling neither Yamanaka nor Yuuji would have expected it.

It was a reckless move, Kimizuki’s, and Yuu only realized charging headfirst was its drawbacks when he saw Yuuji try to sneak up on Kimizuki, taking advantage of his focus on Yamanaka. For a good second, Yuu didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know if he should shout out and warn Kimizuki, distracting him from Yamanaka. He didn’t know if he should ignore Kimizuki’s words completely and just make barbecue out of Yuuji’s butt. Scratch that, it was out of the question: Kimizuki would never let him live it down if he blew their cover right here and now and burned their chances of finding a cure for his sister.

Then it hit him. It was ridiculous and maybe a bit crazy, but it was the first thing that came to his mind. Oh, might as well . So he took off his hat and threw it.

He didn’t expect it to work. The hat weighed at least as much as a hammer, perhaps more. But for once he appreciated the universe’s efforts to prove him wrong, and a clean hit from the hat knocked Yuuji down. Yuu almost wanted to laugh. Hadn’t Kimizuki had his hands full, he probably would have facepalmed.

“I told you to scram!” Yamanaka shouted, throwing a boulder the size of a cauldron Kimizuki’s way. It hit his shoulder and Yuu winced at the sight, but Kimizuki didn’t waver. Instead, he sliced his dagger once more and landed a hit on Yamanaka’s forearm.

Not being the most friendly person they’d encountered during their journey, Yamanaka did not seem pleased about it. Especially when Yuu grabbed a cabbage and hit him straight in the head.

If the whole Avatar thing didn’t work out, Yuu always had a future as an slingshotter.

“Sorry about the cabbage,” he said apologetically to Yoichi as he rushed to his side, making sure he was okay.

Yoichi smiled amusedly. “Are you kidding? That was priceless– also, watch out!”

Yuu turned his head just to see a rock – one of the many Kimizuki had dodged – fly right towards him. He wouldn’t be able to dodge it. He knew it, and the impact would not have left him unscathed. He screwed his eyes tight, holding his breath. Oddly enough, however, he didn’t feel anything. Or rather, there was no impact whatsoever.

He opened his eyes slowly, uncertainly, only to see Yoichi catch the rock at full speed with an open palm, making in float midair for an instant before toss it aside.

Yuu blinked. He looked at the fragile, jade-eyed boy next to him. He blinked again.

“Are you an earthben–?”

“Shh!” Yoichi pressed his hands to Yuu’s mouth. “Please don’t say a word about this.” His eyes were pleading, but the longer Yuu caught his stare, the more he felt it was probing at him. He felt slightly uncomfortable.

Was Yuu imagining things or did Yoichi look slightly too taken aback that someone came to his rescue? And what’s with the reaction? Yuu wanted to question him further, but his judgment told him it wasn’t the most appropriate occasion for a third-degree. Besides, who better than him could understand a need for secrecy? If Yoichi was hiding his bending, there was probably a damn good reason behind it. Although, to be quite frank, he could have used some backup.

“Stay there,” Yuu told him, looking around for things he could use as weapons in lack of a knife. “I’ll figure something out.”

His “figuring something out” ended up in Yuu stealing a bunch of tomatoes from one of the market stands and throwing them Yamanaka’s way. Rudimentary weapon, but it did its job. Yuu also found out he didn’t possess such a great aim after all, as he ended up hitting Kimizuki’s head more than Yamanaka’s. Luckily, Yoichi was better at it than him, so he balanced things out.

Yuu wasn’t sure if he was doing more harm than good, but one tomato to Yamanaka’s face gave Kimizuki an opening, and he hit his shin, making him lose his balance for a fraction of an instant. “ You run along, brat .”

Yamanaka faltered, struggling to keep himself from falling to the ground, and, just when he looked like he was about to counterattack, he tripped on his feet and hit his head. Yuu could have sworn he’s seen the ground under his feet move, and felt Yoichi relax as Yamanaka fell down.

Yuu whistled softly. “Nice.”

Next to him, Yoichi drew a breath of relief. In front of him, a panting Kimizuki hid his dagger in his shoe once again. It didn’t go exactly the way he’d imagined his first fight with an earthbender would be, but he could live with that. He couldn’t have done much without his bending anyways.

It dawned on him how dependent he was on his firebending. The moment Kimizuki told him he couldn’t use it, he felt powerless. He hated that feeling. Kimizuki, on the other hand, looked as powerful as ever. Reckless, yes, but powerful.

“Are you crazy?” Yuu raised an eyebrow at the non-bender.

“Why?”

“You left your back wide open the whole time, you idiot.” Yuu punched his arm. “Be more aware of your surroundings, you dumbass.”

“But I knew you had my back. And besides,” Kimizuki returned the punch with the interests, “you’re one to talk about surroundings.”

Yuu snorted, unable to retort. He did almost get hit by a rock, after all. “Whatever. You smell like tomatoes.”

“And whose fault do you think that is, you–?”

Before Kimizuki could finish his epithet, Yoichi burst out laughing. It was one of those cheerful, carefree laughters that instantly lighten the atmosphere, and Yuu would not have expected it from a boy who had just been bullied.

Yuu sighed, going to retrieve his hat. At least now he’d found a good use for it. It had rolled all the way next to Yamanaka’s body, and it occurred to Yuu he hadn’t moved since.

“Are you sure he’s not dead?”

Yoichi went pale as a sheet. “I-Is he?” He looked at Kimizuki, hoping he would reassure that he wasn’t, but he seemed to be denser than usual in responding.

Kimizuki shrugged. “Well, he did hit his head.”

Yuu picked up a stick from the ground and poked his cheek. His face contorted in discomfort, and, surprisingly, Yuu felt relieved. As much an asshole as Yamanaka was, Yuu was glad he wasn’t dead. “I think he’ll be fine.”

Yoichi sighed in relief. “I’m so glad.”

Kimizuki just looked at him quizzically. Yuu knew that look. Something had piqued his interest. “Even though he had all the intentions to hurt you?”

“Yes,” Yoichi nodded, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “Besides, he helped me and my family out when we needed a hand.”

“But he was after you even after you repaid your debt,” Kimizuki stressed.

“Doesn’t mean he deserves to die o-or anything horrible like that.” Yoichi smiled hesitantly, scratching the back of his head. He then added, as if on afterthought. “Ah, but I’m glad you helped out. People here in the lower ring don’t do that very often.”

“It was no bother, we wanted to help,” Yuu said, picking up some of the cabbages and putting them back on the cart. Yuu started to wonder how he managed to drive that thing: it was twice Yoichi’s size.

“Next time at least choose fresher tomatoes,” Kimizuki complained, handing Yoichi the last two cabbages. He didn’t let Yuu the time to rebut. “There you go. I’m sorry, but we really have to go now.”

“Can I do anything to thank you?” Yoichi asked, leaning forward and looking at them with gratitude in his eyes. The guy really wore his heart on his sleeve. “Anything. I’d like to repay you somehow.”

“No need,” said Kimizuki curtly, but bowing nevertheless. “This butthead got himself involved and almost made things worse. There’s not much to be thankful for.” He hesitated for a second, his gaze flickering from Yoichi to the cabbage truck. He then shook his head and cleared his throat. “Well, see you.”

Yoichi looked slightly perplexed. Yuu couldn’t blame him, really. Could Kimizuki be any more awkward? One would think he was the one who spent his whole life in a royal palace away from society.

“Sorry about him,” Yuu said, scratching the back of his head. “He can be blunt at times. Oh, and don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”

Yoichi’s eyes widened in surprise, but then he just smiled. “Thank you.”

Yuu would have stayed and talked more, if Kimizuki hadn’t started shouting his name from the other end of the street. He looked like the fire lemur that often climbed up to his bedroom window when he was a kid, waiting for Yuu to feed him.

“Then, uh, bye.” Maybe Kimizuki wasn’t the only awkward one after all, and maybe they both didn’t want to say goodbye to the jade-eyed boy so soon.

 

—o0o—

 

Running to the ticket office was by far Yuu’s least favourite part of the whole “Ba Sing Se Experience”. His problem wasn’t stamina, or the amount of people he butted heads – or rather, hats – with, or the fact they hadn’t eaten all day. The true catastrophe was Kimizuki’s complete lack of sense of direction.

“I’m positive we’ve been here at least four times,” Yuu remarked, looking at what had now become a familiar back lane. “Are you sure we’re not lost?”

“Shut up, Yuu.”

Yuu had a feeling he should not have felt so worried about Kimizuki not bothering to deny the evidence this time. “So we are lost?”

“No,” Kimizuki said for the fifth time that day. “This is a shortcut. It’ll get us there. I think.”

“Fifth time’s the charm!”

“Shut up,” grumbled Kimizuki.

Yuu didn’t have the heart to make fun of him much any further. To Kimizuki’s defense, all the side streets in Ba Sing Se looked exactly the same, and Yuu would have probably have gotten lost too at least once or twice. But Kimizuki didn’t need to know that, and Yuu had a reason to smirk smugly. Especially when the back lane they were walking on brought them back to the same street they started from.

“A shortcut you said, eh?”

“Yuu, I swear that if you don’t shut up–” Kimizuki stopped when he saw Yuu’s face had gone pale within a millisecond. “Hey, you alright?”

Yuu didn’t reply. Little did Yuu know what expression Kimizuki was wearing – worried, probably, or perhaps just perplexed – and he honestly couldn’t have cared less. His whole attention was directed towards the group of men walking in the middle of the street in front of them.

“Holy flaming dragon!” Yuu cursed, grabbing Kimizuki by the wrist and dragging him back into the alleyway they came from, crouching behind a crate to spy on the men without being seen. “What the fuck is he even doing here?”

“Wait, I’m not following you. Who’s here?”

Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe it was a doppelganger, or maybe sporting raven black hair and a look of permanent pissed-off-ness was the latest fashion trend in the Earth Kingdom. But by that point in time, Yuu had come to know that Lady Luck did not like him that much, and that if there was any way something could go wrong, it would.

“My uncle,” Yuu said. “Fire Lord Guren Ichinose.”

Chapter Text

Yuu’s entire thought process could be summarized in two sentences, the first one being ‘Guren is here’. The latter was ‘Well, shit’.

“The Fire Lord?” Kimizuki’s eyes were wide in surprise. “Like, the actual Fire Lord? His Holy Flameness? The Head of the Nation’s Royal Family? That cranky-looking dude is Him?”

Yuu nearly slapped Kimizuki in an attempt to shut him up. “Yes, yes, so be still and don’t make a sound, or we’re screwed.”

“You mean you’re screwed,” Kimizuki promptly corrected him, not bothering to conceal the amusement in his voice. “I should go say hi.”

Yuu didn’t need to turn around to know Kimizuki was smirking. Of course the jerk would find it entertaining. Of course. “You’re lucky I’m trying to think of a way to escape, or I would have punched your face in already.”

Kimizuki snorted. “Don’t try too hard, you’re not used to it.”

“Stop being such a smartass and lay low,” Yuu grumbled, poking his head over the edge of the crate.

Kimizuki sighed, his tone now devoid of any trace of mirth. “We need to find somewhere to hide. I suppose going to the harbor is no longer an option.”

“They must have come here on a military ship,” Yuu muttered under his breath, more to himself than to his companion. “Dammit, those things are faster than messenger hawks… should we risk it?”

Kimizuki looked at him like he’d just grown wings. Or another head. Something like that. “Yuu, have you lost your mind? There’s no way your uncle would leave the ship unguarded.”

“But if we don’t get on board today we’ll have to wait here for an entire week,” Yuu said with panic written all over his face.

“There’s not much else we can do,” Kimizuki said, taking a peek at Guren and his man over the crate. “I can’t think of any other way out, at least.”

Yuu sighed. “Maybe there is no way out…”

“Don’t tell me you’re thinking of giving up now?”

“Of course not!” Yuu said indignantly. “Not now that we’re here, anyways. But I should do as you suggested, and go talk to Guren—”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Kimizuki cut him off, shaking him by the shoulders. He probably would have looked less flustered if Yuu had suddenly transformed into a fire ferret right then and there. “Did you hit your head or some shit? Because you sound like you drank three swigs of cactus juice, and I did make sure you wouldn’t.”

“Seriously, does anything satisfy you?” Yuu gave himself props for succeeding in sounding exasperated even though his heart was racing, adrenaline and fear flowing through his veins. “For once I’m going along with your suggestion, you limp lettuce, but you’re always—”

A clear laugh from behind them abruptly stopped Yuu’s creatively colourful insult mid-way, making them turn around at the speed of light, nearly knocking over the crate in the process.

“Ah, uhm, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop…”

“Yoichi?” Yuu said, not expecting to see both him and his oversized cabbage cart again. He glanced at Kimizuki just long enough to see he was wearing the same astonished look on his face. He wasn’t sure whether to find it reassuring or doubly as worrying. Neither of them had heard him arrive, too focused on Guren and on the soldiers in front of them to remember to watch their backs.

Yuu could only feel thankful the person who saw them was Yoichi, and not one of Guren’s men. The last thing he wanted was having to run for his life in Ba Sing Se and, knowing his luck, most likely ending up lost in the worst part of the slums.

“What are you guys doing anyways?” Yoichi asked in a whisper, crouching between them.

“Waiting for doom,” Yuu muttered, before Kimizuki elbowed him in the ribs.

“We were on our way to the harbour but ran into someone who’s looking for us. Someone dangerous,” Kimizuki explained, pointing at the other end of the alleyway. Well, that sure was an understatement. “So now we’re hiding here until we figure out a way to get out of this place without getting caught, or we’re done for.”

Yoichi raised an eyebrow. “But how come you ended up here? The harbor is nowhere near…”

Despite the situation, Yuu couldn’t help but smirk smugly. “It was a shortcut.”

Kimizuki shot him a murderous glare, but seeing him blush in embarrassment was one of the things worth dying for. Probably.

Yoichi didn’t pick up on the red hue on Kimizuki’s face, too busy looking for possible escape routes. “Why don’t you just run away from the other end of the alley?” he asked, before slapping his forehead as if he’d just realized something obvious. “Oh, some of the bad guys could be there.”

An amused smile played on Kimizuki’s lips. “Bad guys?

“Dammit, I can’t even walk around in this stupid soup bowl without attracting too much attention,” Yuu said, punching the ground in frustration. “So we’re stuck here until we find a way to disguise ourselves—” then it hit him. “Wait a second, I got this! I have a completely fool-proof plan!”

Kimizuki looked positively horrified. “Oh no.”

Yuu grabbed Yoichi’s hands in his, enthusiasm and confidence making his green eyes sparkle. “Yoichi, can we borrow your cabbages?”

Yoichi seemed briefly taken aback. Kimizuki pinched the bridge of his nose and just repeated, “Oh no.”

Despite the initial skepticism on Kimizuki’s part and the confusion on Yoichi’s, Yuu’s idea looked like it could actually work. It was brilliant, if he said so himself. Kimizuki didn’t seem quite as enthusiastic, but he didn’t object, and Yuu figured it was good enough.

Sure, using cabbages to cover their faces until they found a safer place to stay wasn’t the most elaborate plan he’d ever heard of, and there were about a trillion ways for things to go wrong, but sometimes, the best ideas were the ones that just felt right.

And for once, the universe was on his side. Yuu held his breath the whole time it took them to walk to the end of the street, with his soup bowl hat on and an armful of cabbages in front of him, covering his face.

Granted, Kimizuki’s grunts of complaints were not the kind of soundtrack Yuu would have chosen to go with his brilliant plan, but so long as nobody approached them and nobody had any idea he was the runaway Avatar, he could roll with it. Besides, he was fairly convinced that Yoichi was basically a walking four-leaf clover because when he was around, things didn’t seem to go so badly.

As they kept walking, Yuu noted how the houses were very different than what he had seen back in the Fire Nation, like when he visited Kimizuki’s home. The buildings were tall, seeming to be several floors of apartments stacked on top of each other. And while it was obvious there were so many people crammed into this part of town, it wasn’t in the same derelict state at all. The streets were clean, and people walked with a purpose and destination in mind, not aimless and dejected as he had seen previously.

Yuu had to admit, it made him think about the state of his home country a little bit more than he ever had when he had been living in the castle. He didn’t know much about politics or leading a nation yet, but he wondered if there was something he could do, as the Heir prince, to help flourish his country.

He shook his head for such thoughts. First things first, he needed to complete his training as the Avatar. Then he could think about how to help the people of the Fire Nation.

Ahead of him, Kimizuki and Yoichi walked side by side, though Kimizuki kept looking back as if he didn’t think Yuu could keep up. Several times Yuu kicked him in the calf just to prove he was right behind him, getting the guy to glare at the cabbages covering Yuu’s face and curse a few times.

They finally stopped in front of a three-story building with stone walls and a gable roof made of precariously held together green tiles. Some of the paint had come off, leaving empty patches of gray on the walls and coloured flakes and fragments scattered on the ground, suggesting that perhaps they had just fallen off.

Yuu finally let out his breath when a cursory look confirmed they were mostly alone on the street.

“Where are we exactly?” Not that it mattered in the end: anywhere was good so long as Guren or his men weren’t anywhere in sight.

“Ah, crap!” Yoichi said in sudden realization, hanging his head. Yuu had to suppress a surprised chuckle. “I walked us to my home without thinking… I mean, you could stay here,” he nearly squeaked out the last word before quickly continuing. “ Or I could take you to the nearest inn if you’d be more comfortable—”

“We wouldn’t want to impose on your family,” Yuu started, but Yoichi shook his head decisively.

“You saved me earlier today, and I have yet to find a way to thank you properly. So please,” he smiled softly, “Allow me. I’ll handle my sister.”

Yuu peeked at Kimizuki, waiting for his opinion on where they should go, leaning into his street smarts more than Yuu probably would ever admit to his face. The walking flamingo shrugged, placing the cabbages he’d been holding back into the cart. “Yuu, your uncle’s men are probably keeping an eye on every inn in town, as well as the harbor.” He stared at Yoichi with an expression Yuu couldn’t quite read before clearing his throat and looking back at Yuu. “I say we stay here.”

Yuu gave a decisive nod and couldn’t help smiling back at Yoichi. “Thanks for saving the day!”

Kimizuki offered a tiny bow of gratitude, and Yuu could swear he heard Yoichi chuckle softly. Yoichi led the cart around to the side, where a small shed stood. He hurriedly unlocked the padlocked and pushed it inside, locked it, and spun around to face them once more.

“We’re just on the second floor!” He looked at them with a warm smile before leading the way up a set of narrow stairs. Yuu and Kimizuki shared a look before following. Yuu acknowledged to himself that they were in fact about to walk into a stranger’s home in a city where no one knew where they were. What could possibly go wrong.

Yuu reached out to grab the hem of Kimizuki’s tunic, ready to whisper that maybe they should reconsider all of this, when Yoichi stopped in front of a door, carefully kicking a pair of sandals sitting to the side of the entranceway.

“Oh good, my sister is home! Perfect timing. Sister, I’m home!” He opened the door as he shouted out and motioned for them to step inside the small apartment. Yuu peeked around Kimizuki, and they both stared into the dark unknown of Yoichi’s home.

The pair of deep green eyes staring them down made Yuu want to hide behind the tall pink head, but he swallowed down the desire to run and instead lifted his chin. Yoichi’s sister stood nearly as tall as Kimizuki, broad shoulders leading up to a freckled face, framed by wild brown hair that fell to her shoulders. It was almost uncanny, how much her and Yoichi looked alike yet having different demeanors.

“Tomoe! This is Yuu, and Kimizuki.” Yoichi stood in front of them, facing his sister, the smile plastered to his face evident in the way he spoke.

“Hello!” Yuu said quickly, offering a quick bow, not sure what else to do with his hands except keeping them pinned to his sides. When he lifted his head up, he could see Kimizuki had also bowed deeply.

“And just where did you pick these ones up this time?” Tomoe’s voice was soft, but there was an air of annoyance tinged with exhaustion. He and Kimizuki shared a worried glance. The choice of words was interesting— Yoichi did seem like a Good Guy, so maybe this wasn’t the first time he brought home strangers in need of help. A part of Yuu was relieved that maybe this wasn’t rare, that they weren’t imposing more than what had happened before. Kimizuki didn’t appear to be calmed by this notion, however. He instead looked as though he were about to break out into a sweat, his neck turning a dark shade of red.

“In the market! They just need to stay here for one night, that’s all!” Yoichi bowed deeply, leaving Yuu and Kimizuki in full view of his sister. Tomoe narrowed her eyes at them both while her brother continued talking. “They need to leave Ba Sing Se as soon as possible, and get to the Northern Water Tribe.”

Her eyebrows raised and she placed a hand on one hip. “That doesn’t sound suspicious at all.”

Yoichi righted himself and waved his arms, darting his eyes between them. “No, no it’s not like that, they aren’t bad people or anything!”

“How can you be sure?” Her attention turned to her younger brother, a slender finger jabbing towards his chest. “How long have you even known them?”

Yoichi squeaked as Yuu side-eyed Kimizuki, who studied the wooden floor instead of watching the siblings discuss their fate. His hands were curled into fists at his side.

“Yoichi, come here.” Tomoe grabbed her brother by the arm, interrupting his nervous rambling by dragging him further into the house. She scolded him under her breath while attempting to be as polite as possible to them in a very awkward manner. “You two. Sit down and don’t touch anything.”

But instead Kimizuki and Yuu stood exactly where they were in the entrance, listening to the muffled sounds of the two speaking in the other room. Yuu tried hard to eavesdrop, assuming Yoichi was giving her the full rundown of everything he knew about the two strangers in their house.

“Ah fuck it,” he heard Kimizuki say. He stepped away from Yuu’s side and opted to sit on one of the large cushions on the floor, stretching his legs out and closing his eyes.

Yuu snorted. “You have no issue getting comfortable quick.” He followed him nonetheless, taking the cushion directly across from him and flopping onto it.

Yuu had to admit it was nice to sit back and rest for a bit. The conversation in the other room had lowered in volume— but he still strained to try to hear it anyways. He debated seeing if he could sneakily throw a gust of wind at the door to push it open, but figured he would either fail terribly and blow the door down or draw Kimizuki’s attention to his actions. Yuu wasn’t sure which scenario was worse.

He huffed and rested his chin on his hand, his other hand plucking at the cushion idly.

“He’ll fight for us.” Kimizuki mumbled, startling Yuu to lift his head.

“What?”

“Yoichi. He’s…he’s a good person. He’ll make sure we get out of here somehow. Even if this…whatever plan is going on here...doesn’t work with his sister.” He lowered his eyes away from Yuu’s questioning gaze. He couldn’t have looked more tense while staring at the floor even if their lives depended on counting the panels in Yoichi’s living-room. Saying he looked uneasy was an understatement.

Yuu didn’t like seeing Kimizuki stressed. Annoyed, yes. Exasperated, even more. But stressed? Not one bit. Yuu nibbled at the inside of his lip, resuming his previous position to continue studying the door. If Yoichi’s plan didn’t work, it would set them back who knew how much— he wasn’t sure how many more obstacles he could face before just…giving up.

“Yuu?” Kimizuki’s voice sounded far away, so focused he was on his thoughts.

He didn’t avert his gaze, but he let out a puff of air. “I heard you.”

They sat in silence, listening— or half-listening —to the conversation taking place that would determine their fate. It all felt so dramatic, to be sitting on a cushion awaiting what would be the deciding factor in their journey. They needed to get to the Northern Water Tribe. They needed to find a waterbender to train him— he had so much to learn still, in order to even be close to becoming the Avatar he was meant to be. Yuu held back the laugh in his throat— the almighty Avatar beholden to the mercy of an older sister to continue his journey and learn the ways of the water element.

Fucking brilliant.

Yuu wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the door opened. Tomoe stepped through first, Yoichi immediately behind her. Both Yuu and Kimizuki leapt up, backs straight as Tomoe closed the distance between them, Yuu pushing against all instinct telling him to step back. He kept his eyes on her dark green ones as she stopped between him and Kimizuki, staring at them both.

“So,” she crossed her arms, “Yoichi says you saved him today?”

There was a heartbeat of a pause where they both just stood completely still before nodding their heads, probably a bit harder than necessary. But the way Tomoe stared them down felt as though they were under severe investigation.

Thankfully Yuu managed to put two words together. “Yes, ma’am.”

“And then he just so happened to run into you again on his way home,” her eyes narrowed, “correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Yuu raised an eyebrow at Kimizuki. So much for an original comeback.

“And why are there people looking for you?” Tomoe leaned forward, her hands on her hips. “Are you criminals? Crooks? Thieves? Who did you murder—”

“No one!” Yuu exclaimed, overwhelmed by the amount of questions she was throwing at them. “I promise, we’re not criminals.” Tomoe didn’t look too convinced. Yuu deemed it wise to overlook Kimizuki’s brilliant career as a pickpocket for now. “We’re just travellers. The one coming for us— well, for me, really… see, he doesn’t even know Kimizuki here exists— is my uncle. He’s kind of an overprotective nutcase, y’know—”

“We won’t cause you any sort of trouble,” Kimizuki cut in, “I promise.”

Tomoe studied Yuu, and then did the same to Kimizuki. Yuu held his breath under Tomoe’s gaze, while she was in the process of deciding whether to send them to their doom or bestow some sort of grace upon them. The wait was downright nerve-wracking. She curled her lip in annoyance, as if she was pondering her choice one more time.

“Fine,” she finally said, “but I don’t like the look of you, and if you so much as touch Yoichi I swear I will come for your—”

“Thank you!” Yuu smiled widely as he took her hand in his and shook it vigorously. “Thank you, Yoichi’s sister!”

She gave him a puzzled look, but she must have noticed the wide smile on Yoichi’s face, because her expression softened for an instant. “Why would you want to go to the Northern Water Tribe, anyway? The cold is almost unbearable.” She shivered at the sole thought, but before she could ask Yuu any more questions, she turned around to look at Yoichi, as if she’d been hit by an afterthought. “Yoichi, didn’t you say they would stay just for one night?”

Yoichi nodded, still beaming.

Tomoe’s eyes narrowed. “But the last ride to the North left earlier today.”

The second those words left Tomoe’s mouth, Yoichi’s smile was replaced by a nervous laugh. “Yes, actually I was, uh, hoping you could do something about that…”

She only raised one pointed eyebrow in response, waiting for an explanation.

Yuu thought Yoichi would cower, back out of his idea and not be able to ask this of his sister. But instead, the boy seemed to pull himself together, lifting his chin and setting his shoulders straight. He looked Tomoe in the eye. “I was hoping they could join you on the Sanguu ship in the morning, and travel with you until the stop at the North.”

“Are you serious?” That was not a positive reaction. Yuu inwardly winced as Tomoe continued. “You do realize I’m going on an official diplomatic trip, not some leisurely globe-trotting, right? I can’t just take anyone that’s not certified, especially two—,” she glared at Yuu and Kimizuki. “…vagrants out of nowhere.”

“I—,” Yoichi’s gaze lowered.

Tomoe sighed. “You have a kind heart, little brother, but you can’t just blindly take in strangers who give you even a slightest hint of kindness. The world isn’t that bright. Putting aside the possibility that we may be swindled, we’re also in a state of financial struggle ourselves. You can’t afford to be a humanitarian, especially when it afflicts those around you. Do you know what kind of situation you’re putting me in?”

Yuu had heard enough; he knew he was only causing trouble for Yoichi now. “Okay, hold on a—”

“— I’m really sorry! I know this was extremely selfish of me, Tomoe-neesan!” Yoichi broke out of his stillness and bowed deeply. “I shouldn’t have dumped responsibility of them on you when you’re not the one owing them anything… you have no obligation to help them and compromise the job you worked so hard for… but I want to help them, I really do. I just lack the means to. That’s why… you were the only person I could turn to… you’ve always been,” His voice broke. “I’m sorry… please… just this once…”

“Oh, Yoichi.” Tomoe sighed, raising a hand to ruffle Yoichi’s hair dotingly. “I’m not mad at you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I went too far. I just worry about you sometimes. I don’t want anything to happen to you. Understand?” She pulled Yoichi towards her in a gentle hug. “You’re all I have left. I can’t lose you, too.”

The brunette sniffled as he wrapped his arms around her. “I know… I know.”

Gazing at the two siblings sharing a moment in front of him caused a small ache inside Yuu to grow, the guilt of causing this to happen to the one person who was trying his best to help them festering in his heart. From the corner of his eye, Kimizuki looked pained, and Yuu couldn’t even begin to comprehend how the taller man felt.

Clearing her throat, Tomoe pulled away from Yoichi and stood now to face the two of them who were trying to look as if they hadn’t been watching what just transpired.

“Sorry for the awkward display. I’d hate to abuse my privileges as one of the Sanguu family’s retainers, but as you can see, I’d do anything for my little brother here, no matter how foolish he may be.” Without looking, Tomoe patted the top of her brother’s head, earning a small blush from him. Kimizuki and Yuu looked at each other simultaneously, likely coming to the same conclusion. “Don’t look so relieved, kids. You’re not out of the woods yet.”

Yuu wasn’t sure if he had ever been scrutinized so much in his entire life. He had previously thought putting up with his uncle and his bending tutors combined was stressful enough, but this was even worse. Tomoe turned out to be the absolute master of scrutiny and perusal.

“Can you cook?”

“Yes!” They both shouted. Yuu ignored the skeptical side eye he got from Kimizuki. He hadn’t cooked much on the boat to Ba Sing Se but he had shown his inability to move around a kitchen enough. What was the worst that could happen with a little lie like this once they were already on board? If it helped get them to the North, he was sure it was worth it.

More glares, more concerned frowns. Then Yoichi made a small noise, almost like a whine, and Tomoe seemed to come to a decision.

“You can come—”

Yes!Yuu shouted, slapping Kimizuki on the back, causing him to shout out and give him a hard look. Yoichi laughed nervously, while Tomoe sighed.

“—if you promise to keep a low profile. And watch your mouth on the ship. You’ll be surrounded by royalty, you’ll need to act like it. Behave yourself, because this chance won’t come again.”

Yuu held back the retort climbing at the back of his throat, wanting to explain how he knew very well how to act around royalty. Well, barely. Instead, he crossed his arms over his chest. “Of course! You won’t even know we were there.”

After one more look he would later dub as the Sister Stare, Tomoe left the room in a flurry, muttering something about needing to grab a few things. They all sat back down, Yoichi taking up another cushion beside Kimizuki. Somehow it felt like they’d just successfully run a marathon uphill— brutal, but worth it.

“Hey,” Yuu finally spoke, after a few minutes of them all just staring at their hands. Yoichi and Kimizuki both looked up at him. “Thanks for your help. I mean. Both of you, actually, I guess,” he laughed nervously, rubbing the back of his neck.

Kimizuki glanced to his left at Yoichi, who began to wave his hands in front of him. “It’s nothing, really! You saved me, I’m just returning the favor, is all.” His cheeks had turned a soft pink, and Kimizuki looked back down at his hands.

“No no, you don’t under—” Yuu started to express, but was interrupted when Tomoe entered with a tower of fabric in her hands. She handed both Yuu and Kimizuki a stack of clothes.

“You need to wear the right attire to blend in. This should work. It’s some of my older uniforms, but it’s all standard so it should fit mostly. Maybe not you,” she smirked at Kimizuki, “but beggars can’t be choosers.”

Kimizuki wrinkled his nose, but when Yoichi giggled he stilled himself, his neck turning red once again.

“Thanks,” Yuu offered, smoothing his hand over the clothing. It was a soft green material, almost matching Yoichi’s eyes in color. Embroidered on the tunic was the insignia of a small otter grasping something that resembled a metal discus. He recognized it from his royal studies— the mark of the Sanguu family.

“We leave at dawn tomorrow, so I suggest you get as much rest as you can tonight. Once on the ship, you won’t be treated to any luxury. You’ll be working hard to earn your keep.”

“Of course,” Kimizuki agreed, straightening up more.

“We don’t have extra beds, just blankets, so I’ll bring those out for you to sleep on. Hope you don’t mind the floor.”

“It’s fine,” Yuu smiled wide.

Tomoe cast a look at her brother before turning and leaving the room. “I need my sleep so you better be quiet.”

After receiving their blankets, Yuu settled on the floor near a corner while Kimizuki set up his blankets closer to the front entrance. He began to mentally coach himself, trying not to think about how hard the floor felt. Yoichi stood in the entrance to the room, running a hand through his wavy hair and tucking it behind his ear.

“I’ll wake you guys up. I’m usually awake before dawn anyways for work.”

“Thanks, Yoichi. Again. For uh, for everything.” Yuu fell backwards, wincing at how he had already forgotten he was lying on the floor. He glanced up as he adjusted himself to see Yoichi still standing there, but staring down at Kimizuki now.

“Thanks,” his companion finally spoke, sliding slowly under his blankets but not breaking eye contact. “Goodnight.”

Yuu watched as Yoichi turned to leave, blowing out the lantern. He scooched around under the blanket to try to get comfortable. Even the tiny bed on the ship was better than this set up, and he felt bad for having ever complained even a little. He thought he heard footsteps, and turned on his side to look towards the hall.

A shadow hovered over Kimizuki. Yuu nearly jumped up but in the last moment, his eyes adjusted enough to see it was just Yoichi who had returned, in the dark, crouching awkwardly beside Kimizuki. He held his breath as he watched, unsure of what to make of the situation.

If they were talking to each other, he couldn’t hear them. But he did see Yoichi turning and Kimizuki grabbing his pant leg. Yuu wondered what in spirits they could be fighting about, having only just met that day, and in the middle of the night. He let out a small groan of protest and pulled his blanket over his head, not wanting to deal with this when they had to wake up so early in the morning.

When he shifted the blanket down, mentally preparing himself to sit up and whisper loudly at the both of them to just leave whatever stupid fight they had in the morning, Yoichi was no longer there, and the room was quiet.

Yuu released the air he had been holding and rolled over, adjusting the rucksack that had become his pillow, thankful to get some rest… Or so he thought, but as it turned out, he was unable catch even a wink of sleep.

No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get his uncle’s face out of his head. Even now, Yuu had trouble believing he had actually chased after him all the way to Ba Sing Se, and the implications of that alone were entirely impossible to dismiss.

Guren was undisputably the most powerful figure of authority in the Fire Nation. He was the mightiest firebender, the most treasured by his people, the sole bearer of the highest form of puissance one could only dream in idyllic fantasies, and the heart of all they believed and invested in.

However, regardless of personal opinion, that also came with the fact that he was his own major shortcoming. The more influential you are, the more danger you're in. Danger that could impact not only yourself, but those you hold influence over. Guren had engrained this saying in Yuu’s brain to impress upon him the consequences of embracing his duty as an Avatar; a being of unimaginable power transcending beyond the boundaries of even kings or rulers.

He remembered how Guren himself had chosen to take over the lesson that day to personally teach Yuu of a burden that the Fire Lord himself bore, and something Yuu shouldered ten times more. He hadn’t been able to decipher the look in Guren’s eyes throughout the whole lesson, too dark and complex for young Yuu’s comprehension.

That had been Yuuichirou Ichinose, innocent and pure, the love and protection his family bestowed upon him, a boon against the darkness of the world lying beyond his severely limited horizons.

Now, he understood all too well the conflict reflected in Guren’s eyes as he was forced to carry both burdens. Coming all the way to another kingdom himself instead of sending his most powerful commanders; the fact that he was here, in his own flesh and blood, meant he spared nary a thought for the risk he had undertaken, one he had yielded on the entire population of the Fire Nation, all for the sake of finding Yuu.

Yuu twisted and turned on his bedroll with that last line of thought making endless rounds in his head. There was no position that felt comfortable for more than half a minute—no affront intended towards Yoichi’s gracious accommodations, of course. He was merely dealing with his own personal Hell, which he was determined to overcome by sheer force of will.

Every time he let himself unwind enough to drift to sleep, the piercing cut of violet eyes sliced through his hazy veil of slumber without a single ounce of forgiveness. Whenever a breeze billowed through the bells outside and made them chime, the hairs on Yuu’s neck rose. When the occasional wind was loud enough to rattle the door hinges, Yuu had to physically stop himself from bolting out of bed, imagining Guren breaking down the door and finally cornering them like mice in a cage.

After some time, he’d had enough. It was clear he wasn’t going to get sleep any time soon. If anything, he’d probably try and knock himself out when they were on the ship en route to the Northern Water Tribe. Which meant he wouldn’t have to deal with that accursed seasickness again, so that was a double win.

He slowly rose from his bed, looking around to make sure he didn’t wake Kimizuki up. Yuu watched as his chest rose and fell in steady, even movements, indicating he was sound asleep. It was a little off-putting to see the nimble swindler letting his guard down so much that he was dead to the world, but Yuu supposed he deserved this much, after all he made him go through.

Ba Sing Se was deathly silent as he stumbled out of the house, the breeze seemingly a lot less threatening than it had been when Yuu was rolling around in bed, trying to dispel his nightly terrors. He inhaled deeply, letting the fresh, cool air saturate his system, and hopefully wash away all the chaotic apprehension that had discombobulated his nerves and clung to every pore in his body.

Yuu’s body succumbed to the placating effects of the night air and relaxed. His following exhale was like a door that finally gave way to clarity, and through the ugly miasma of his mind that was slowly disintegrating, he realized that coming out here, alone, was probably a very bad idea.

It had done him good though. He was already feeling much better in lieu of letting himself remain cooped up in a place that housed all the nightmarish possibilities involving his uncle, and he wasn’t ready to go back inside any time soon.

In the invigorating tranquility of the night, Yuu didn’t need to strain his ears to catch the hushed chirping of crickets in the distance. This side of town looked almost completely removed from the extreme clamor of activity downtown where the concept of time was nonexistent, and he could spot the effulgent lights of the market in the far distance, as if they were proving his point.

He finally found security in the deserted outskirts, lulling him into the belief that no one would think to look for him here. So when he was pulled into an alleyway after making the very wise decision to take a nighttime stroll, staring straight into familiar icy sapphire eyes, Yuu knew his nightmares had truly come to life.

“Sh—,” Yuu started, bewildered, before a hand clamped around his mouth, cutting him off.

The man leaned in dangerously. “If you value the lives of your companions and your own safety, you’d best watch your volume.”

The chilling breath on his ear kicked him out of his shocked stupor, causing him to shove against the taller man whose grip hardly budged and was as unrelenting as ever. Despite the master bender’s svelte form, his strength was unmatched. Yuu’s panicked resistance was futile against the iron grip that kept him firmly subdued, and it forced him to realize his position in this conflict.

This man was not someone he could overwhelm, at least not so early in his journey. Yuu might have had a chance with Kimizuki and Yoichi at his side, but they were both fast asleep, blissfully oblivious to his current predicament. He was alone in the middle of the night with nothing and no one in his surroundings he could use either as a distraction or to his advantage. The taller man had clearly tracked him down, tailed him, waited until he was alone, and pounced at the opportune moment to ambush him.

He must not have been that far from the truth when he thought he’d just landed in a trap far deadlier than anything he’d ever encountered before.

Rendered speechless and immobile, he could only glare at the man, who stared back at him coolly, undeterred by his meager show of intimidation.  

“You’ve really gone and done it this time, haven’t you?” Shinya spoke.

It would be really nice if Kimizuki could make himself useful right about now.

“Have you any idea how positively acerbic Guren has been ever since he found out you ran away? He’s been beside himself with worry, rejecting both the council and the court and neglecting the caution he had always prided himself in. He sent the whole nation into an uproar, and they don’t even know why. All they know is that there is a highly lethal fugitive on the loose, and that’s not a very good predisposition for a country to have.”

Yuu’s eyes had wandered, looking not-so-subtly for any means of escape as Shinya went on, and the action did not go unnoticed. A hard shake pulled his attention back to stare at danger in the face.

“Listen to me. Do you realize the severity of this capricious little stunt of yours? You’ve caused a great deal of trouble for everyone in the Fire Nation.” His voice was as cold as steel, and held no room for sympathy.If Guren finds you now, I can promise that you will never see the light of day again. You ever heard of the Boiling Rock?”

He had. His tutor had once told him about a prison so dangerous that once you were in, you never had any hope of escaping. Only the most lethal convicts were sent to the isolated prison surrounded by lava that would roast you alive the moment you attempted to step off the island. It was a prison equipped with maximum security; he heard the warden and his guards were once convicts themselves, having been granted parole and sworn fealty to the Fire Nation. As former prisoners themselves, they were more intimate to the ways of inmates and prevented any possible outbreaks.

It had nothing to do with him.

Yuu let out a scoff, throwing Shinya slightly off-guard by his slackening grip. Yuu took the opportunity to speak.

“Was that supposed to scare me?” Yuu hissed. “I’m not dumb. There’s no way Guren’s gonna throw me in there. No matter what, I’m—”

“—a member of the Imperial family?” It was Shinya’s turn to scoff. “Have you forgotten your lessons already? That prison is for dangerous inmates, as well as those who are deemed too high-profile or pose too great a national security risk for a normal prison. Do you believe yourself exempt from these qualifications?”

Yuu opened his mouth, ready for a comeback—

All they know is that there is a highly lethal fugitive on the loose—

—and he breathed out.

Shinya’s gaze was as appraising as ever. “Understand now? Guren cares about you, but he is a king before he is family. He would never forsake you, but he would do what he believes is right. Even if it means incarcerating his only heir.”

No he wouldn’t.

“Deep down, I know you’re aware of this.”

Gurenhe isn’t like that!

“Rest assured, there’s nothing for you to worry about. I am positive Guren will procure only the best cells in commensuration to someone of your standing until the national situation is brought under control and he considers you ready to resume your original position…under better scrutiny, of course.”

As Shinya went on his tangent that gradually became more and more sinister, Yuu’s hands had curled into fists, his fingers digging so deeply into his skin that he would feel the blood trickling out of it if he hadn’t gone fully numb.

He couldn’t possibly be letting Shinya’s words get to him. He was better than this. But a tiny part of him couldn’t help but voice the concern he had adamantly, fervently denied.

He had drawn out Guren’s anger plenty of times, yes. But he had never incurred Guren’s true wrath. He had no idea what Guren was truly capable of doing. How far he was willing to go in regards to Yuu, his family. He had been shielded from that, carefully cradled and put behind closed doors to the horrors of reality, to the actions that fellow members of the royal family and those in association to them have done.

Yuu had been blind, and willfully so.

“You’ve had your shot at freedom. I commend you for coming this far. But if you think you’re anywhere near prepared for what the world has in store for young upstarts like you, then you ought to think again. Getting yourself caught so soon should tell you a thing or two. You’ll have time to think over your choices on the trip ba—”

NO!

It all happened in a split second. Shinya was barely able to recover fast enough from the abrupt, thundering shout that tore through the air as the ground in Shinya’s immediate vicinity shook in response, as if responding to the call.

Before he could bridge the disconnect between earthbending and its source, he leapt backwards from the stream of rocks that shot up sharply from the ground directly underneath his feet, forcing himself to relinquish the hold he had on Yuu.

Then it all fell silent, as if it never happened, heavy breathing the only sound that rang through the air. The only evidence that still remained from Yuu’s roaring outburst was the protrusion of earth erecting a jagged, disorganized wall between his former, stubborn protégé and himself.

Shinya whistled, eyes wide, glittering in what seemed to be mirth. “Truly impressive.”

Yuu’s glare hadn’t given way. He held himself taut, trying not to reveal that he hadn’t been expecting his emotions to generate such a forcible bending reaction. Shinya raised a pale eyebrow at him.

Despite the blockade separating them, Shinya started closing the distance once more.

Shit!

“Stay back!!” Yuu mustered, taking a step back and making contact with the wall behind him. “I’ll… I’ll do it again!”

He didn’t know if he could actually.

To his utmost surprise, Shinya stopped right in front of the obstruction, reaching out to lay his palm on it, seemingly ignorant to the boy’s plight across from him.

“If only Crowley could see this…” He murmured, stroking the slab of rock as if it were a newborn. Confused and slightly entranced, Yuu could only stare at the languid movement. “I’m almost sad that I had to send them off on a wild goose-chase.”

Time seemed to halt for Yuu. “Damn right you– wait, you what?”

With Shinya no longer encroaching on his personal space, Yuu was able to get a clear view of his face when he looked up to make eye contact with Yuu, and what he saw puzzled him. It was as though all the prior antagonistic spark had all but left his eyes, which were now bright and shining aqua.

“Did you realize what you just did? I was right all along. Keeping you locked up inside that stuffy palace for years and letting your talent decay for his own personal sense of security was never the right way to go.” Shinya went on excitedly, his eyes shining as if he was about to start bouncing on the spot. “You were just wasting away in there, but Guren would never listen to me. And now look at you! Not even a month away and you’re already growing by leaps and bounds!”

Was Yuu dreaming? He pinched the bridge of his nose, both to confirm he was awake and to make his headache subside as he tried to recap and make sense of these turns of events. “Hold on a minute… so are you saying… that you were bluffing this whole time?”

“What about?” He tilted his head innocently.

“About everything?”

“Not really. Guren and the others really are here in Ba Sing Se looking for you.” He said as he ruffled his bangs back into place. “But they’re nowhere near us currently. I came here alone.”

“But…” His inhale was shaky, and it suddenly felt difficult to speak, but he pushed through. “But were you really going to bring me back?”

Shinya hummed. “Well… that depends. I just wanted to see the strength of your resolve.”

Yuu collapsed on the ground, the shards of rock crumbling along with him. He was completely drained. “No fucking way…”

Shinya laughed amusedly. “Now now, don’t be like that. Did you think you’d get off that easily without some sort of test from me?

“You could have just acted like a decent human being and told me that you were on my side!”

“Well, that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? And besides, it’s not as fun.” He pouted, and Yuu would have smacked him right there and then if his energy hadn’t been completely depleted.

Before Yuu could retort, Shinya had schooled his face back to the seriousness it had on before. “But honestly, you wouldn’t have realized what you were capable of if it weren’t for a stimulus. Part of the reason why your progress was so stagnant back in the capital was because you lacked a fight-or-flight response. You had never been required to react in a situation where you were driven into a corner, when doing so would have brought out your intrinsic potential.” Shinya leaned down, grinning. “Weren’t you surprised? That you were able to conjure up the energy you needed to defend yourself. That earthbending was all you, you know.”

Yuu’s face colored against his will, and he hid his face in his knees in reflex. “Sh-shut up.”

It had happened too fast for him to comprehend, but the spontaneous earthbending really was him. There could be no one else—even if the execution reminded him eerily of someone he had encountered earlier during their stay.

A certain event was suddenly brought to the forefront of his mind, and everything started to click. The riot Yoichi and the bullies were involved in had left a significant impression on him. When he let Kimizuki take point— unwillingly, mind you—his mind had observed the fight keenly. Finding himself in a very real, very dangerous contingency where he was deprived of thought, he had instinctively brought out and channelled Yamanaka’s technique to counteract Shinya’s aggression.

“I have to say though, you executed that move much more flawlessly than that boy you and your friends were fighting against in town. And it’s not my bias speaking, either. You were able to contain the radius of your attack in spite of your temporary loss of control. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again; I’m very impressed.”

“Geez, what’s with all the praising?” Yuu’s face was slowly heating up. “I just threw out some dumb rocks in the heat of the moment, there’s not much of a diff—wait, what did you say?! You saw us!?”

Shinya feigned shock, bringing up a hand over his mouth. “Oh, whoops.”

Shinya!”

“Oh, wipe that look off your face. It was just me; Guren was organizing his troops while I skipped off by myself. I just happened to be in the area when your little brawl broke out.” At Yuu’s gaping expression, Shinya chuckled some more. “You should see yourself right now, you look absolutely adorable.”

“There is literally no way you could have just happened to be in the area. How the fuck did you find us?”

Shinya pouted. “You wound me, your Highness. Are you implying that I am not worthy of the wonderful karma bestowed upon all airbenders, especially one as handsome and catching as myself? Surely you jest.”

If Yuu could shoot fire from his eyes, he would have thoroughly incinerated the silver-haired airbending master—not once, but ten times over.

The man finally decided to take pity on him when he ceased his laughter. “All joking aside, I do actually believe luck played a part in it. Just not as much as our hypersensitivity.”

“Your hyper… what?”

“We hardly have the time for an airbending lesson right now, but I’ll give you the gist of it.” Shinya sighed, folding his arms. “All elements share techniques common to one another due to their tightly intertwined coexistence. One such technique is shared between air and earth. Has Crowley taught you anything about seismic sense?”

“Of course! Only highly-skilled earthbenders have it. It’s when they’re able to use the ground to detect vibrations that they perceive as people or objects, or something like that.” Yuu said. “That’s why I hate whenever Crowley tells me to try aiming for his blind spot… He’s got none, dammit! Earthbenders are so broken, it’s unfair…”

“Very few earthbenders are gifted with the ability to reach mastery of seismic sense, so not many of them are ‘broken’, as you say.” Shinya replied, shaking his head. “But I digress. Airbenders have a similar technique in which we use to perceive our surroundings by being in-tune with the air currents. However, this only works best in an area where there aren’t many buildings to obstruct the flow of air. Being in a congested urban city like Ba Sing Se is hardly an ideal place for an airbender, hence why they rarely visit this place. Were it not for luck, I wouldn’t have spotted you as fast as I did.”

“Right, so let me get this straight.” Yuu began slowly. “You found me with that hypersenshittivity of yours—”

Hypersensitivity.”

“—and followed me back to Yoichi’s place… and waited for me to come out until past midnight like a creep… to corner me in some shady back alley? Are you trying to be some sort of thug?”

“Gee, laying it pretty thick with the sleazy portrayal, aren’t we?” Shinya shrugged. “It was nothing like that, I assure you. On another note!” He added swiftly before Yuu could open his mouth to protest. “Be careful of that boy you call Yoichi. I have a feeling he knows more than he lets on. Tread lightly around him, though I fear it may already be too late.”

“Yoichi?” A memory of Yoichi begging for the bullies to let him off came to mind, the very picture of defenseless and vulnerable. He remembered Yoichi looking extremely relieved for their timely assistance, the genuine spark of gratitude in his hazel eyes and his bright laughter at Kimizuki’s dumb antics. “You’re kidding, right?”

Shinya’s smile was small and unreadable. “Just keep my advice in mind. I have nothing that can convince you, but just take heed of it, alright? You’ve come this far.”

Perplexed, Yuu mumbled out a brief affirmation, though at that point he no longer had the energy to question him. It was like a dam had suddenly broken; all the fatigue he had been holding back washed over him like a tsunami, and if he weren’t already on the ground, his knees would have buckled from the sheer exhaustion.

Shinya seemed to sense the change in Yuu’s countenance, and his gaze softened. “You must be tired. Forgive me for keeping you out so late. You should head back soon. Daybreak is nearly upon us, and your friends will soon be wondering where you are. You’re departing for the Northern Water Tribe very soon, yes?”

Yuu was silent, staring at him with a million questions gone unvoiced.

“You needn’t worry. I know of Guren and his troops’ route and I’ve made sure they wouldn’t cross paths with you on your way to the harbor. This is the least I can do for you.”

“Thank you, but you don’t really owe me anything…” Yuu started hesitantly, this much fortune in one day slightly boggling him. First Tomoe and now this.

“Then, think of it as my personal parting gift to you. I didn’t get to see you off properly at the Palace, so I wanted to do something as your former mentor and supporter.” By the end of his sentence, his breath suddenly caught as if thrown off kilter.

“…Shinya?”

The expression on Shinya’s face was strangely forlorn and distant, and although he was looking at Yuu, it felt as though he was staring through Yuu, if it made any sense. Either that, or Yuu might finally be going nuts from sleep-deprivation. “There’s not much I can offer you on your journey but… I do know of a waterbender who may be willing to teach you a few things. You… you two might get along well.”

If Yuu didn’t know any better, he would have mistaken Shinya for a mind-bender rather than an airbender, but he couldn’t find it in him to complain. The more leads the better, no matter where it came from.

After Shinya gave him directions—which thankfully weren’t too difficult—and exchanged a few more muted squibbing, Yuu made to leave. Storing the information at the back of his mind for later review, and he was more than ready to catch what little sleep left he can acquire before his inevitably rude awakening by one of his friends.

“Yuuichirou.” A hand on his shoulder made him pause. “Stay safe.”

Yuu ducked his head in acknowledgement and managed a tiny smile. “Thanks.” Tell him I’m sorry, was what he nearly said, but he bit his tongue. “Take care of my shitty uncle for me.”

 

—o0o—

 

Shinya stood motionless and watched as the young prince, their only shining beacon of hope, turned his back for the last time and started walking into the distance, not looking behind him. His obsidian hair fluttered in the pre-dawn breeze as he slowly became enveloped in the morning mist that had begun to gather.

Shinya watched until there was nothing but the lush blue staining the darkness of the sky, eroding away the night, and the speck of gold creeping in on the horizon.

“Yuu… I’ll be praying for you.”

 

—o0o—

 

Tomoe seemed taken aback when she entered the room, her dark chartreuse eyes wide— muted by the heavy drape of dusk preceding dawn— as she took in the sight before her. You’re awake, she mouthed, and Yuu gave a miserable shrug.

There was really no one he could blame but himself. Earlier that morning, when the town was still fast asleep and he was in the midst of coming back, he had let himself become lost in thought, dragging his feet and wasting away what little was left of the time he could have used to get some rest.

By the time he tiptoed through the portico of Yoichi’s house, the sun had already begun shedding its rays in the distance, and he knew he was done for.

He only managed to close his eyes for approximately twenty seconds before he heard shuffling and approaching footsteps, and he groaned.

Tomoe stared at him for awhile longer (he knew his eyes must be bloodshot) before shifting focus, and he found himself following her gaze to the figure across his bedroll, still lying prone in unconsciousness.

In his extremely lethargic irritability, Yuu couldn’t be more aggravated even if he tried.

He barely noticed Yoichi trailing in timidly behind Tomoe, his head bowed and shoulders slightly hunched as Yuu attempted to strangle Kimizuki awake, muttering curses with every second that passed which yielded no results other than mild stirring.

Yuu snapped. “Goddammit, Kimizuki! If you’re not gonna wake up right this instant, I swear on stupid Guren’s ratty ass—”

“Here, let me,” a soft voice intervened.

Yuu stuttered, his words lapsing into silence, taking in the sight of Yoichi who had seemed to suddenly materialize by his side and was currently reaching out a hand to place it delicately on Kimizuki’s shoulder. “Kimizuki-kun…”

As if struck by lightning, Kimizuki bolted upwards, pink hair sticking out like straws in numerous directions, eyes struck wide and darting all over the room before landing on Yoichi, who was staring right back at him, cheeks flushed a dark red— or was the dim light playing tricks on him? —and face only a scant two inches away from him.

Yuu didn’t know what bothered him more; the fact that Yoichi seemed to have more impact than Yuu on Kimizuki despite having been acquainted more recently or the fact that they were acting weird around each other.

But whatever. It’s not like he cared. There were more important things they needed to do anyway.

Before anyone could say anything, Tomoe interrupted, “We’re running on a tight schedule and I do not intend to keep my lady waiting, so I highly suggest you get ready posthaste if you prefer not to get left behind.”

As though burnt, Kimizuki shot up from his perch on the blankets, wordlessly gathering his things. Yoichi stood slowly, scratching his cheek with a finger as he followed Tomoe out the door.

Yuu cast a backwards glance at Kimizuki, wondering if he should throw a jab at him, but decided it wasn’t worth it.

He went outside for the second time that day, the morning breeze doing nothing but chilling him to the bone.

 

—o0o—

 

“Do you get the feeling…?”

“What?”

“That there are barely any guards around here. Like, shouldn't they be patrolling this area too?”

Yuu sighed, turning to give his companion a look as they continued on stealth-running, “Look, I don't want to question our luck right now. They're probably just guarding somewhere else by this time of day, it's a big city.” Yuu explained, even though he knew the actual reason why they haven’t been caught yet.

Maybe he should take more leisurely night strolls in the future if it proved beneficial to his goals. But then his strained eyelids from a long, sleepless night gave a slight twitch and Yuu instantly retracted that thought.

“Hmm… alright.” Kimizuki made a noncommittal sound at the back of his throat but eventually stopped speaking as he and Yuu made it to the harbor where Tomoe said the ship was docked.

Hiding behind a building, Yuu peeked out and moved his head side to side, trying to gauge if any guards were nearby. Even though Shinya had given his word that they'd be able to reach the ship smoothly, Yuu could never be too careful.

“Come on,” he told Kimizuki as they swiftly made a beeline towards the ship that looked to be about the size of one of the Fire Nation war ships. Yuu had to wonder why someone would sail in a ship that big and intimidating to a friendly treaty meeting?

Well, it’s not my concern, Yuu thought as he and Kimizuki finally managed to slip through the crowd of early-bird sailors, all looking a bit bleary eyed but ready for another day’s worth of work.

“So we’re going to meet Tomoe in the entrance and she’s just gonna let us in?” Kimizuki whispered close to Yuu’s ear as they wandered nearer to the ship’s loading entrance, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.

Yuu nodded minutely, “That’s the plan. Try not to wander off, alright?” He smirked up at the pink haired teen who rolled his eyes in annoyance.

“Speak for yourself.”

When they made it to the line at the back of the ship, they noticed Tomoe already there waiting for them. As they reached her, Tomoe mentioned something to the guard on watch and he gave a brief nod before letting them enter inside.

Once they were a good distance away, Yuu breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank dragons, that’s over.”

“Don’t get too ahead of yourself yet.” Tomoe told him sternly, leading them down hallways covered in steel metal and rocks. There were piles and piles of dirt placed in some corners of the room that Yuu figured wasn’t just put aside for cleaning. It appeared earthbenders liked to carry a bit of earth around them in their travels, which made sense seeing as they couldn’t make earth out of air like firebenders could.

“Our lady is a very strict and orderly woman. She despises dawdling so unless you want to walk the plank she’ll be expecting all of her crew members to be working to the fullest of their abilities.” Tomoe cut them a sharp glance over her shoulder, “Don’t be one of them. If you ever cross paths with her, just stay still and bow your heads until she’s out of your sight. Make sure not to get on her bad side either. Other than that, you’ll be fine living the next three days here.”

They walked deeper into the bowels of the ship, fuel tanks and smoke filters all around them until something juicy reached Yuu’s senses and he inhaled the tasty aroma deeply. His stomach grumbled in appreciation, his earlier sleepiness all but forgotten in the event of eating delicious food. They hadn’t been able to eat breakfast when they left that morning.  

“This is where you two will be assigned until further notice. Just follow the cook’s orders like cutting and grabbing ingredients for him. I’m sure the both of you have at least some form of knowledge in the kitchen, right?” She eyed them hesitantly as if she wasn’t sure whether or not she could entrust the next three day meals in the hands of incompetent teenagers.

Yuu moved to dissuade her doubts by puffing his chest out proudly, thinking he could prove her wrong with his untapped potential in cooking (even though his only experience in the kitchen was stealing baked sweets when the royal cook’s back was turned). Kimizuki, on the other hand, only acknowledged the statement with a quick lift of his chin and pushing his finger up his glasses.

It didn’t take Yuu long to prove Tomoe right.

One careless switch of the stove and setting the cook’s shirt on fire got Yuu booted out of the kitchen before the sun even began to rise in the sky. Kimizuki managed to suppress a laugh at the humiliating scene, especially when Tomoe came down to lecture Yuu for his ineptitude before sending him on bathroom duty.

Yuu had to resist stomping down on the flamingo’s toes when he passed him by.

Spending the whole day scrubbing toilets was not what Yuu had hoped for in this voyage. Every sway of the ship turned his stomach sick and the bad smell in the bathroom wasn’t making things any better.

It was the fourth time he had to clean the same stall, and he did not want to get into details with the reason why.

“I hate the fucking sea.” Yuu aggressively scrubbed the floor one more time, glaring at it as if daring it to fight him. “This is why you can’t trust waterbenders, with their many ships and— oh SHIT!” The ship swayed abruptly, causing Yuu to lose whatever contents he had left in his stomach and after a moment of reorienting himself, went back to cleaning the same stall all over again.

Damn seasickness.

Ten minutes later, Yuu shakily made his way to the dining area for the staff break, one hand on his stomach and the other on the railing supporting himself as he climbed up the steps. He tried not to look too ill as he dunked himself on the seat next to Kimizuki, his gut giving an unpleasant lurch at the sight of some nameless grub in front of him. Raising a hand to grab a fork from the bowl, he twirled the sharp end around the sticky substance and scrunched his nose when it stuck to the utensil.

“Who eats this muck?” Yuu groused, too sick in the stomach to even think about putting it in his mouth.

Suddenly, the noble felt something drop onto his lap. He glanced up at Kimizuki suspiciously, looking down until he found a piece of ginger between his legs.

“What the…?!” Eyebrows raised, he turned back to Kimizuki with shock and gratitude shining in his green eyes, almost lunging himself at the taller male if the action wouldn’t cause horrible consequences for his stomach.  

“I just nicked it from the kitchen ‘cause they would have thrown it away otherwise, so stop looking at me like the sun’s coming out of my ass, idiot Yuu.” Kimizuki said as he sipped his tea though there was a noticeable pink stain on his cheeks.

Yuu smiled at him nonetheless, raising the ginger to chew on it and sighing when his stomach settled a bit.

“Thanks.” he mumbled.

They passed lunch in a quiet fashion after that until Kimizuki nudged Yuu in the side, gesturing with his chin towards the back with a meaningful look on his face and Yuu nodded, figuring it must be something important. They stood up and left their finished bowls in a basin for washing as the rest of the crew milled about around them.

Once they were away from prying eyes, Kimizuki leaned against the railings of the ship, wind rustling the short pink strands in his hair as he turned his head to face Yuu, “Okay, we need to start talking about what we’re going to do once we’re in the Water Tribe.”

Yuu sighed, slouching against another spot of the railing, “Oh…yeah. I mean, I thought we could just roam around and ask for the best waterbender in town who’s not some high official in the tribe.” Here’s hoping that the waterbender Shinya told me about happens to be the best one…

It sounded dumb and Kimizuki knew it too because he gave Yuu a pink-eyed glare, “Are you serious? You want to just walk up to some stranger and ask for a waterbender master? Do you ever use your fucking head?”

“Then what the fuck do you want me to do?”

Kimizuki made an exaggerated gesture of thinking before his face morphed into something mocking, “Uh, I dunno—lay low and observe first? Seriously man, it’s like they don’t teach you common sense in the palace.”

Yuu’s mouth dropped open, completely offended by that, “I’ll have you know that I was tutored under the best—!”

“Excuse me.”

Yuu’s next words were abruptly interrupted when a new voice cut into the conversation. He and the nonbender snapped their heads toward the source and their eyes widened upon seeing a blond, short woman glaring at them fiercely with her hands propped on her hips.

“What do you think you two are doing here?” The woman said imperiously, violet eyes narrowed, stance defensive as she took in the forms of Yuu and Kimizuki’s attire. By the metal outfit of her armor, Yuu immediately knew she was of nobility status and he straightened up, remembering to bow his head in front of her.

He noticed Kimizuki bowing his head beside him as well.

She had to be none other than Mitsuba Sanguu, Tomoe’s master, Yuu thought as his mind scrambled for a way to explain themselves. Thankfully, Kimizuki managed something first.

“We apologize for being here, my lady. We’ll go back to our respective stations now.” He tried pulling Yuu away by the sleeve of his shirt but Mitsuba stopped them from leaving with another sharp retort.

“Hold it. I don’t remember you two. Who are you?” She inquired, unmoving from her position.

Yuu cleared his throat nervously, “We’re new here.”

“It’s our first day.” Kimizuki added like that would help.

Mitsuba raised a blond eyebrow, “I see. Then what’s your business up here when you should be helping the staff below deck?”

“Uh…”

“I got sick!” Yuu offered, raising his hand slightly as if he were in front of a teacher.

The lady knitted her brows together, narrowing her eyes at Yuu, “Sick? With what?” A contagious illness probably wasn’t a good idea to mention as an excuse.

“Food poisoning!” Kimizuki responded, clamping the shorter teen on the back. Yuu struggled to stay in place when the prat hit him with the force of a rock. “He needed to get it out of his system.”

“By puking?” Mitsuba deadpanned.

“…Yes.”

They waited for her verdict, hoping she believed the half-lie they made up on the spot, though at least, Yuu wouldn’t have to make another excuse for why he’d be standing over the edge of the ship for a while. Mitsuba took a moment studying the two of them with a glare in her eyes. Does she ever relax? Yuu thought, beginning to worry that they might have been found out.

But with a roll of her eyes, Mitsuba huffed and said, “Just make sure to clean the area when you’re done. I don’t wanna see any vomit on the deck floor. Understood?”

Kimizuki and Yuu quickly bobbed their heads, not wanting to prolong this awkward encounter any further. She gave them a firm nod, finally turning away from them and leaving where she came from. Yuu felt the tense muscles evaporating from his body.

“That was too close for comfort.” Kimizuki murmured, watching the lady as she turned a corner and disappeared from view.

Yuu shrugged, leaning back against the railing in relief. “Well good thing we managed to lie through it. Guess you looked too suspicious, Kimizuki. It’s the hair.”

As expected, Kimizuki turned piercing eyes at Yuu. “No it’s not! Next time, I’m not giving you any shit for your seasickness.” He turned to leave and Yuu, panicking, ran after him.

“No! Wait! I’m sorry, flamingo, I was kidding!”

Oops, was the only thing that ran through Yuu’s mind when Kimizuki visibly stiffened and slowly turned his head to give Yuu what was possibly his most terrifying glare to date.

“What…did you just call me?”

 

—o0o—

 

“So, who is it?”

Tomoe raised her head from her book and blinked confusedly at her mistress. “Pardon, my lady.”

The blond woman heaved an unladylike sigh as she lounged in her seat and propped her head on a fist. “Between four eyes and the seasick bloke. I know you’ve been spending a lot of time with them, Tomoe, I’m not blind.” There was a teasing smile on Mitsuba’s face now and the brunette was beginning to realize what her mistress was trying to imply.

“No! Oh spirits, you can’t mean that I like one of them?”

A light chuckle followed her exclamation, Mitsuba muffling it with the palm of her hand. “It’s an honest mistake when you’re always around them so much. I mean no offense, Tomoe.” Clearly the situation amused the lady and Tomoe sighed in defeat, closing her book so as to properly explain herself.

“I just look after them because they were two new recruits to the crew of the ship and I wanted to make sure they were doing their job right.”

Mitsuba nodded, satisfied with that. “I’m glad. You’re always working yourself to the bone, Tomoe, even in matters not concerning your duties at all.”

“My lady, I’m sorry If I’ve ever stepped out of—”

“That makes you brave and strong, Tomoe. Never be sorry for it. You’re one of my best ladies for a reason.” Her face lit up in a proud smile and Tomoe felt a little punch in the gut as she recalled how she had trampled on Mitsuba’s trust a little by bringing in two strangers into her ship. If Mitsuba ever found out about her actions, she would see Tomoe as a betrayer of her trust and in all her kindness, would cast her away without a second thought, forbidden to step near her residence again.

Too late now to reconsider her decision. Tomoe decided she was just going to have to make sure that both Kimizuki and Yuu didn’t fuck up anything in the next two days of their voyage to the Northern Water Tribe.

 

—o0o—

 

Yuu didn’t think he’d stumble onto anything important when he was assigned to clean the floor of Lady Mitsuba’s room that afternoon. He was glad for the reprieve from scrubbing bathrooms all day yesterday; he didn’t think his stomach could handle another hour inside the tiny area, with the consistent swaying of the ship and the smell of urine filling his senses. Sadly, nothing really ever went his way ever since they boarded this puke-inducing vessel.

Damn Kimizuki. Yuu cursed the bastard in his head just because he could.

When he reached the lady’s room, he placed the bucket beside him to lift a fist and knock on the wooden door. But before he could, the young prince heard voices inside.

“Honestly, Tomoe, you don’t have to continue living in the slums of the kingdom forever. I’ve offered you residence in my establishment as one of my dames; it’s a much better and healthier environment for you. You’re working for a noble, after all.” That was Mitsuba talking and from what she said, Tomoe was in there with her as well. Holy flames, how could Yuu just barge in now?

“Please, my lady, it’s alright. Yoichi and I are quite happy with the small home we have. It was one the last things our parents left us along with the cabbage business before they passed away so I can’t possibly leave it all behind. Yoichi has been very keen on continuing their legacy.”

“Well, if it’s that’s how you feel. Just don’t hesitate to ask me when you’re really in need of something, Tomoe.” There was some shuffling and the sound of footsteps before Mitsuba continued, “I trust you.”

“You have my utmost gratitude, my lady. Your kindness truly knows no bounds and my family is further blessed by it.”

Looks like Yuu was going to have to find another time to clean the lady’s room. Interrupting them would break whatever moment they were having and make Yuu look like an ass.

So he began stepping back, away from the door and making the littlest noise as possible so as to not alert the women of his presence. However, he’d forgotten about the bucket beside him and his wayward foot caused it to clatter and make the most deafening sound in the quietness of the hall. Yuu winced, his eyes darting around the hallway in search of somewhere he could hide.

Déjà -vu, much?

“Who’s there?” he heard Mitsuba call from the other side of the door.

“Uh—” Yuu panicked and blurted out the first thing that came to mind, “Room service. My lady,” he added, as an afterthought.

“Come in,” Mitsuba said, and Yuu, a pile of nerves, opened the door and stepped in.

He bowed down as soon as he entered the room, knowing servants were supposed to do this in front of nobility, and made sure not to flinch as Mitsuba’s eyes scanned him from head to toe.

“Where’s your tray?” she asked, breaking the silence that had filled the room.

Yuu could see Tomoe stiffen. Oh crap. The tray. Why hadn’t he just said he was going to clean her floor? Because his mouth didn’t know how to work under pressure, that’s why. If Kimizuki saw him now, he’d be laughing his ass off.

“It’s, uh–” Think, Yuu, think. You can do this. “It’s in the kitchen, my lady.”

The way Tomoe facepalmed was not encouraging.

Mitsuba raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Didn’t you come here to deliver room service?”

“Yes, my lady,” Yuu said, pulling himself together and straightening his back. “I’m here to ask if you’d like room service.”

Mitsuba did not look convinced. Yuu couldn’t blame her: he didn’t expect this to work either. Surprisingly enough, it did, and Mitsuba just fell back in her chair, waving at Yuu dismissively.

“You can tell the cook I’m good,” she told Yuu curtly, before diverting her attention back to Tomoe. “But as I was saying, you can take up on my offer anytime, Tomoe.”

Tomoe shook her head, smiling. “I’m happy just being able to be by your side like this, my lady.”

“Believe me, the feeling’s mutual,” Mitsuba sighed, curling her lip. “Could you imagine how boring it would be having to sit through those meetings with the Air Nomads without having you to talk to?”

Tomoe wrinkled her nose and tried to hide her giggles. Apparently she wasn’t much of a fan of the Air Nomads either. “I wouldn’t want to be in your place, my lady.”

“Who would be,” Mitsuba sighed, leaning back into her armchair and kicking her feet in the air. “Nobody in their right mind would willingly sit through Shinoa’s pointless chatter and extremely lame, vulgar jokes. It truly makes you wonder how she is raised as an airbender of all elements.”

She couldn’t hold back her chuckles this time. “You seem to be particularly averse to her presence, my lady.”

“Naturally. She’s the bane of my existence, Tomoe.” Jumping off her armchair, Mitsuba stretched her arms wide over her head. “But this trip is a Shinoa-free zone. No Shinoa in the Water Tribe, no Shinoa on this ship… that’s why it’s so peaceful.”

Yuu mentally snorted. This trip to the Water Tribe was far from his idea of peaceful.

“And if we succeed in negotiating the treaty, the world will be more peaceful too,” she said, standing up straight with pride.

Knowing he shouldn’t loiter around any longer, Yuu was about to leave, grabbing his bucket that had fallen on the floor. He could probably lie to the staff head when he went back down that Mitsuba had been asleep in her room so he couldn’t clean it at the moment. No need to expose more of his humiliating blunders.

“Which reminds me, which should I go for Tomoe? The blue or the green one?” Mitsuba inquired, opening her closet and throwing down two formal dresses with different colors onto the bed. “Should we parley in their colors or stand proudly by ours to emphasize our cause?”

“Hmm,” Tomoe tapped her chin in thought. “I think—”

“Green would probably be a better choice, though showing a bit of blue isn’t a bad idea either.”

“You’re still here?” Tomoe hissed, telling him with her eyes that she wanted him out of the room this instant before he got himself into more trouble. However, the lady was already stepping forward and demanding him with a hard voice,

“What did you say?”

“The— uhm…” Realizing what his big mouth had landed him into, Yuu plowed on, hoping it would redeem himself somehow. “The green is a symbol of your kingdom so you should wear that as a representation of your earth kingdom pride, on top of it giving off confidence and security. It’s said that green is also the color of pacification. But an accessory like a blue panda lily could show the Waterbenders that you really mean to strengthen the ties you have with them, not to mention they’re pretty close in the color wheel, so they’d definitely go well together. It’s a…win-win situation?” He ended uncertainly, hoping the lady wouldn’t react too violently to his sudden intrusion.

“Hmm, I see.” Mitsuba commented, staring at him with lidded eyes, “You are proposing that I dress with intention. How clever of you. And just where did you come by with this knowledge?”

Oh shit, now Yuu realized his mistake. He frantically tried to think of reasons why he knew about this stuff without saying he was the fucking run-away prince of the Fire Nation who was taught a broad range of subjects including art. “Uh…”

Blessed dragons, Tomoe came to his rescue, “He’s actually a son of a flower shop owner so he knows a lot about good colors, creativity and stuff. Will you excuse us for a moment?” She bowed her head to Mitsuba before the brunette none too gently dragged Yuu away from the room, shutting the door close behind her.

When she turned to face him, there was fire in her light green eyes. Yuu gulped, ready for the lashing.

“What in the four nations were you thinking, Yuuichirou?! She could have had you kicked out of this ship if you’d said anything more.” Tomoe snapped, looking quite menacing despite her short stature.

Yuu sighed, scratching the back of his head nervously, “Er… I just thought she needed help and I knew of an idea how?” He knew that wasn’t the answer she wanted judging by the way they narrowed into slits. Yuu hastily moved to think of the positive side to this, “But hey! At least she didn’t get mad, right?”

Tomoe groaned, rubbing her forehead a little like she was about to acquire a headache from all this mess. “You were lucky, yes. But don’t do it again or the lady might not be so merciful next time, understood?”

Yuu nodded his head rapidly, already adding ‘not going into Mitsuba’s room’ as part of his not-to-do list whilst staying on this ship. “You have my word, Tomoe! I won’t cause you any more trouble.”

“You’re already trouble enough.” She mumbled, sighing once then raising a hand to gesture for him to leave, “Alright, you can go, Yuu.”

“Thanks! You really saved my ass there.” He smiled widely once more to her, his gratitude practically overflowing as he didn’t want to get out of this ship now that he was so close to his destination. He grabbed hold of all his things and moved to leave when she suddenly asked him another question.

“By the way, how did you actually come to know all that stuff that you told the lady?”

Yuu paused, thought for a moment for a suitable excuse, then realized Tomoe had already given him his answer. “Guess you had me figured out. Just like you said, I worked in the Amane Flower Shop! The name’s Yuuichirou Amane.”

He left the vicinity, grinning to himself as he strolled to the kitchens to find Kimizuki and boast of his recent near-death experience and his brilliant new identity.

Chapter Text

Once the second night of their voyage had passed and the dawn of a new day rose above them, it brought along an excruciatingly icy temperature, the likes of which had never been experienced by two of the ship’s newest additions before.

“Fuck, fuck! It’s fucking freezing up here.” Yuu complained through clattering teeth and shivers, despite being already wrapped up in a furry warm coat, thick gloves and socks. “I’m almost tempted to firebend a bonfire just to warm up.”

“Don’t you fucking dare, you idiot.” Kimizuki snapped from beside him, trying to concentrate on sweeping the ice chips off the dock floor by brushing them to the side of the ship.

But Yuu continued to groan and moan at his companion, “How are you even surviving in this weather?”

“I’m not! You think my hands aren’t numb right now? I feel like they’re about to fall off any second, but I keep them moving anyway to get the blood flowing.” He pointedly glared at Yuu’s unmoving hands, to which the prince scowled right back.

“You two! Stop chit-chatting and get back to work.” Mitsuba hollered at them from the balcony above their workstation, mouth set in a firm line before walking away. Ever since Yuu’s encounter with her in her quarters, she’d been acting stricter to them, demanding their work to be just as efficient as the veteran workers’.

Kimizuki, of course, pinned the blame all on Yuu. “If you had shut your damn trap for one measly second—”

“She didn’t look that mad at me when I interrupted her!”

“Then explain the glaring eyes every time we’re anywhere near her vicinity, dumbass?”

Yuu cracked open his mouth, frowned, then said, “Maybe… that’s her way of showing she likes us? I mean, my uncle’s like that!”

Kimizuki rolled his eyes like it pained him to look at Yuu. Straightening up from his hunched position with the broom held in one hand, he stared mockingly down at the prince. “Yuu, you’d be the last person on Earth to recognize someone’s affections for you even if it hit you right on the face.”

“What!?” Yuu squawked, insulted beyond belief. Dropping his broom to the ground, Yuu drew up to his tallest capacity (which wasn’t much) and spat out, “You’ve only known me for about a week, so you don’t have any basis or proof to tell me that, you damn—!”

“Look! We’re here!”

The sudden exuberant shout of one of the crew members instantly drew Yuu’s attention away from the argument. The entire ship rounded the corner of a great iceberg, displaying a new scenery never before seen by the two fire nation citizens.

What laid out before the young prince immediately took his breath away, the cold and seasickness long forgotten as Yuu ran over to the side of the railing and leaned over it for a better look.

All he could focus on was the vast icy landscape in the horizon and the huge city laid out on top of it, multi-tiered and built almost in the shape of a pyramid. It sparkled like a jem stone under the morning sun, showing off icy thick walls and crystalline structures that spoke of glorious waterbending architectures. Looming over the city stood giant ice cliffs where guarding stations could be seen at both edges. Yuu guessed they were used for emergency purposes if an unknown fleet came to their territory.

As they drew closer, Yuu realized the whole city was heavily defended by the great wall built at the center of it all, attached between the two cliff edges with the emblem of the Water Tribe plastered on the front.

Yuu’s jaw promptly dropped at the beautiful sight, marveling at the icy creation ancient waterbenders had constructed for their people. How could have anything so amazing and breathtaking been made by people Guren loathed for years?

“Wow… this is a whole lot different than the Earth Kingdom.” Kimizuki murmured with a tone full of awe. When Yuu glanced up at him, he saw those rose-colored eyes wide and sparkling behind his glasses.

Smiling, Yuu turned back to gawk at the city of the Northern Water Tribe, feeling excitement and a sense of duty coursing through him. He was almost there! Just a couple of more minutes and he would be trudging through that snowy expanse in search of his waterbending master.

He couldn’t stop the wide grin taking over his face. It felt like he’d been waiting years and years for this moment to come. It felt like he was about to get one step closer to becoming a real Avatar.

He didn’t know how to contain himself, hands and body quivering all over — no longer from the cold, but from the excitement, thinking of the adventure he and Kimizuki were about to undergo. It was surreal!

“Hey now.” Kimizuki’s voice suddenly drew Yuu back from his thoughts. “If you keep acting like that, you might stumble and fall overboard, and I’m not gonna jump in the icy water to save you.”

Yuu turned to the taller male with an annoyed whine, hitting his shoulder once for ruining the moment. “Asswipe.”

“Dumbass.”

“Dimwit.”

“Moron.”

Kimizuki almost laughed, but instead, after a beat of silence, he said, “Thanks, by the way.”

Yuu raised an eyebrow, suddenly suspicious of the polite turn to their conversation. “What for?”

“For bringing me here. For giving me a way to save Mirai.” He kept his eyes on the city a moment longer before bringing them to Yuu, “For a second there, back in that alleyway, I thought we wouldn’t be able to make it… that your uncle would find us before we could even get to a ship. But somehow we found our way here, right at the door to the Northern Water Tribe. I don’t know if we’ll be successful in finding a healer willing to travel back with us to the Fire Nation but… I just wanted to say that I’m thankful. You could have arrested me when I pickpocketed you, but instead you wanted to help my family.” Kimizuki chuckled to himself like he was recalling the memory of Yuu shouting at him to tell him the reason why he was stealing his money. “You looked like an insane idiot, but I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me.”

“You’re being such a fucking sap. Stop.” Yuu muttered as warmth creeped up his cheeks, hitting Kimizuki again and harder this time. “So what if I looked like an idiot? I’d do it again. Besides, I needed your help and you needed mine, so it’s good you ended up pickpocketing from me.”

Kimizuki snorted, “That’s one way to put it.”

“And save your thanks for when we actually bring that healer to your sister and cure her, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.” They shared a brief smile with each other, and Yuu tried not to think about how this probably was one of the rarest bonding moments they could have ever had together. Fortunately, another one of Mitsuba’s irate shouts snapped them out of their idleness.

“Do I have to say it again, you two slowpokes? GET BACK TO WORK!”

-oOo-

The sun had reached its peak by the time they drew closer to shore, its rays glinting a warm, gentle hue on the smooth, paved ice anchoring Water Tribe vessels. The fire prince breathed in the scent of misty dew of clean northern air, letting it fill his lungs.

He found himself tasting the cool atmosphere, welcoming the chilly bite and promise of snow even in the height of midday.

Snow.

Yuu had read all about it in scrolls and parchments back home, and discovered this peculiar phenomenon only occurred in the North and South pole. The description of snow being “cold” and “powdery blanket of crystal flakes” drew a large blank in his head; which naturally came to him as no surprise. He’d only ever known blankets of rolling heat, the shimmering condensation of air in the distance, the sweltering temperatures that made everything cling to damp, sweat-laden skin. The thought of sweet, refreshing comfort seemed like a pipe dream of a lonely crown prince swathed in a throne of conflagration.

But here he was, his dreams made reality in the form of drifting, miniature crystals that tickled his senses and flickered softly across his vision. In his disorientation, he absentmindedly swiped at the flakes that caught on his nose and watched as they melted on his fingertips.

As they approached the estuary, ship bells tolled to signal their arrival, and people in thick blue furs emerged from their icy havens to gaze with various levels of wonderment and confusion at the massive Earth Kingdom vessel. It must have been an uncommon sight in order for it to earn such a curious response from the townsfolk.

Yuu watched in slight open-mouthed awe as their ship moved through the canal, squeezing between the rows of houses and wading under the sleet bridges that hung just over their heads. A series of tunnels gushed out water in perfect arcs, resembling miniature waterfalls brushing against the hull.

It didn’t take long for the ship to reach its destination. Yuu spotted several people standing on the edge of the port, poised with huge chunks of rope in their hands, likely to moor in the ship. When they were safely anchored and the gangway was lowered, Yuu was already in the process of standing up, with the full intention of racing down to port.

A hand caught on his elbow and held on fast.

“Don’t even think about it,” Kimizuki hissed.

Yuu blinked, and then let it sink in.

Ah. He’d nearly forgotten the warning Tomoe had given them before she left to join her mistress: commoners and staff were not permitted to disembark before nobility, as royalty must always go first.

It may have slipped his mind that although he technically was a royal, he was currently posing as a commoner, and Kimizuki’s expression completely belied his poorly concealed irritation, almost as if he knew that Yuu was going to forget but still held out the slim chance that he wouldn’t.

A steadily growing crowd had gathered in the port – curious people with expressions of confusion and wonder present on their faces – and an aura of nervous anticipation rolled off of them in waves.

Hey, hey! Do you see the size of that ship?

There’s an insignia. That’s no merchant ship. It’s not ours either.

Could it be? Are we being invaded?

No, you idiot! Haven’t you heard the announcement? They’re saying the chief has a meeting today with a noble from the far seas!

Wow, really!? Now that I think about it, that looks like—oh!

The vocal clamor dissipated as their eyes honed in the same direction, and Yuu’s eyes followed.

He blinked again.

Mitsuba emerged from the depths of the ship, with her faithful entourage trailing behind her. She was decked in flowing earthen silk, like a lone flower blooming in the arid desert. Her golden hair was done up, enveloping an emerald headpiece with tiny tassels hanging from both ends that fluttered with every step she took. The finest blue panda lily stood out in the golden luster of her hair, and Yuu gave a start.

—But an accessory like a blue panda lily could show the waterbenders that you really mean to strengthen the ties you have with them.

Around her arms shimmered a sheer shawl glistening midnight blue, kept in place by her delicately clasped hands as she strode through. Her eyes had darkened into a soothing sangria, calm yet salient to reduce the masses into awed silence. She was a far cry from the temperamental, bossy noble Yuu had endured for the past few days. She almost looked like a completely different person.

Tomoe was one of the first people walking behind her, head bowed in deference to her mistress.

So this is what nobles from Ba Sing Se were like.

“Would you look at that,” Kimizuki muttered under his breath, raising an eyebrow in stupor. “Someone’s dressed to kill.”

“And guess who helped her choose her wardrobe?” It was hard for Yuu to contain his gloating, so he didn’t. “Without yours truly, she’d be lost as a lamb.”

Kimizuki scoffed in reply.

As if responding to Yuu’s thoughts, Mitsuba caught sight of him with a slight tilt of her head. She glared at him, huffing inaudibly and stepping off the ship with her followers in tow.

Well, so much for propriety.

When Mitsuba was out of sight and the crowd had cleared, Yuu stood up to stretch, Kimizuki wordlessly following suit.

The port was left mainly deserted save for a single man, standing idly not too far away, humming some sort of mellow tune to himself as he held some sort of rod with a string dipped into the ocean. A bucket was placed innocuously by his side.

Yuu, unable to control himself, ventured closer to see what the he was doing as Kimizuki trailed ahead, oblivious to the prince’s slight detour.

“It’s called fishing.” The man spoke without turning around when Yuu drew near. “Are you interested?”

“Fishing?” Yuu echoed, catching sight of the fish swirling in the bucket. Oh. “What are you going to do with them?”

“What, the fish?” He turned to Yuu then. “Eat them, of course. There’s not much else you can eat to survive on this island.”

“Oh,” Yuu said, a little distracted by the man’s facial features. He looked almost like a younger, dark-haired Shinya, albeit more bored-looking.

“Aren’t you headed somewhere?” The man cut in, as if reading his mind. “Your friend might be wondering where you are.”

“Ah—right.” Yuu remembered Kimizuki, and if he didn’t catch up to him soon, he was going to be in one hell of a situation. “Sorry to bother you! I hope you… catch lots of fish!”

“Thanks.” Light, grayish-blue eyes searched Yuu’s own for a split second before he turned back around to whatever he was doing earlier. As Yuu was walking away, he heard him say one last thing. “… Good luck.”

Good luck? That was a pretty weird thing to say to a stranger he had just met. Maybe he was saying it to the fish.

When Yuu caught up to the taller man, Kimizuki was standing rod-ram straight, arms crossed and foot tapping impatiently.

Oops.

Yuu could see a vein almost protruding from Kimizuki’s temple, and an eyebrow twitched. “Shame. Another ten seconds and I would have gotten you a leash, royalty be damned.”

Yuu snorted and decidedly ignored his comment, instead finally taking the time to observe their surroundings.

The first thing Yuu noticed as the pair started to make their way through the crowd, was not just how the snow looked, but also the sound it made as they walked.

It reminded him of wood crackling in fire, a large one, like if all the wood began to snap at once, but was muffled under a blanket. It was so familiar and yet so foreign, all in one simple step. Yuu paused, staring at his feet and the fresh white snow surrounding them. He twisted his ankles by moving his lower body, feeling the powder move and listening to the crunch, before taking two more steps to listen again. He laughed, a puff of warm air escaping his lips.

“Yuu?” Kimizuki took a small step backwards to be in line with him once more, sighing and grabbing at his elbow as if to ensure he was even still paying attention to his surroundings. “Did your brain finally freeze over back there or are you suddenly incapable of walking on your own?”

“No!” Snatching his arm back, Yuu lifted his gaze up to the city before them. They were standing in a square within one of many canals, stretching out beyond his line of sight. Each canal had what looked like homes on either side, apartments perhaps, several stories high. The main transportation appeared to be gondolas, the long narrow boats powered purely by waterbenders moving the water around them.

Yuu let out another long breath and knelt to the ground, trying not to let the flamingo of all people see him so overwhelmed by this place. He let his gloved hands shift over the snow, watching the powder move as though it were sand. “Just never seen snow before, is all.”

He heard Kimizuki let out a huff of laughter, and didn’t say much else. It was the same for him, so he obviously couldn’t say much. Or at least he better not or he would get a foot in the shin. But instead Kimizuki knocked Yuu off balance with a quick kick, causing him to fall over onto his side.

“Hey!” Yuu moved quickly to rise up, grabbing handfuls of snow in the process. He wouldn’t get bullied for enjoying the scenery by this guy, he decided, as he moved in one fluid motion to shove a handful of snow into Kimizuki’s face. His glasses shot up his forehead, and Yuu heard something like a muffled scream through the flurry of white, but he just laughed and bounced away, bolting for one of the nearby gondolas.

Just when he thought he was close to securing a ride, he went down on his back, the blunt force of a human body knocking the air out of his lungs. “Kimizuki don’t–” he was cut off when something like fire rocks rained down on his face.

“Fuck!” He couldn’t help but scream, despite the snow falling into his mouth. The sensation of the biting cold on his flesh was like being burned alive, excruciatingly painful. Kimizuki rolled off of him and he violently rubbed at his face to get the snow off, breathing in deep gulps of air to try and calm down his raging pulse.

“That… hurt! You asshole!” He ungracefully gathered himself up off the ground and stormed over to the stupid flamingo, smacking him on the shoulder.

He was met with narrowed eyes and a scowl. “I know. You did it to me first, you idiot!”

Yuu opened and closed his mouth several times before shaking his head and mumbling a whatever under his breath. He hailed one of the boats on the river beside them.

Though Yuu really would have rathered not get onto any more boats for a long while, there was no way to get around the city without using the gondolas. The two companions sat in silence as the boat moved through the water. Transfixed, Yuu watched the gondolier gracefully move his arms to direct the water, pushing them forward. He was also mentally taking down notes, hoping to recreate the same movements and be able to manipulate the water like this person did.

They could hear the sounds of a city on the other side of the walls, of people shouting and the smell of cooked meat permeating through the chilled air. It made Yuu’s mouth water, hunger hitting him for the first time in days since his stomach had made it its life’s mission to force out anything he chewed down due to seasickness.

“Here you go,” they had stopped at another square, this one much larger than where they left off. It was full of large igloos; a faint blue light creeping through the small lines in the rooftops of each of them.

As they stepped out of the boat, Yuu slipped a bit on the snow which was more compact in this area, but was steadied by Kimizuki’s grip on his arm.

“Would you be careful for once?”

“I don’t know how to walk on this stuff! How are you doing it without falling over when you’ve never been on it either?”

“Easy, I’m not a spaz like you.”

Yuu made to argue more, but their attention was pulled towards the center of the square— there were drums beating, somewhere within. It was also when Yuu saw them.

He held his breath, green eyes wide and pulse racing. There had been benders when they docked, and the gondoliers...but something about this, about seeing them just going about their lives, walking and talking, and—

Waterbending.

There were men and women practicing in one corner, volleys of water shooting through the air, transforming and moving, like nothing Yuu had ever seen before. He tried to see if there was one person standing out as the leader, but they seemed to just be practicing movements together, water weaving around them as though ribbons were attached to their fingertips.

It was mesmerizing.

“You’re staring,” Kimizuki knocked against his shoulder.

“Shut up, look at them!” Yuu exclaimed, taking a few steps closer, his features lit up with wonder and awe. “It’s amazing!”

Everything he knew about waterbending had been through books and scrolls, and what little he could get out of Shinya when he was in a good mood. None of it compared to what he was witnessing now before him. They moved like firebenders, pushing the element around them but appearing less violent and less dangerous. The water was smooth and beautiful, the reflection of light bouncing off it as it moved. He finally looked back to the only other person around who had also never seen such a sight before and smugly grinned upon seeing Kimizuki’s intent gaze.

“Come on, let’s get a closer look before we find your healer!”

He ran, sliding to a stop just far enough to be out of any serious danger. A few of the benders cast him wary glances, but they continued their sparring regardless.

“Oh man, oh man, look! He’s making an ice disc!” He pulled on Kimizuki’s coat and pointed at one, then to another, “And she’s making an ice blade!” All before them were various techniques happening at once, too much even for Yuu to keep track. of His fingers twitched, wishing he could just jump in and start trying to mimic their moves. “This is so cool I’m so—”

“Hiya!” A voice chirped from behind them and they both froze on impulse as if they’d been caught where they shouldn’t be. Which, if he were being honest, they were. Two Fire Nation folks wandering the Northern Water Tribe, and one of them actually the Prince, was probably something most citizens of this city would frown at.

As they slowly turned around, they were greeted by a young girl, probably around sixteen if Yuu were to guess. She was dressed like many of the other people of the city, head to toe wrapped in blue and white fur and thick boots and gloves. Her long brown hair was tied up in a braid that hung over her shoulder, moving slightly as she waved at them.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” She smiled up at them both.

“What makes you say—” Yuu puffed up, but Kimizuki grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and pulled him back while stepping forward.

“We’re from the Sanguu court.” He spoke cautiously, giving Yuu a stern look. “This is our first time visiting the Northern Water Tribe.”

She studied them both without hiding her intentions, looking them up and down with narrowed eyes despite the smile plastered on her face. Yuu pulled out of Kimizuki’s grasp and straightened his back, lifting his chin. He was a Prince! The Avatar! He could pass some kid’s silly test.

“You don’t look like soldiers,” the girl questioned. “And you aren’t waterbenders, if you’re from the Earth Kingdom. What are you doing over here in this part of the city?”

Yuu hadn’t considered the possibility they would be required to talk to anyone aside from the waterbending master, and so he found himself stuck and unable to speak in response to her question. Instead he looked around, trying to find inspiration somewhere for an answer that wasn't I’m looking for your best waterbender because I’m the Avatar and I need him to teach me so that I can finally fulfill my destiny ! And oh, pay no attention to the fact that I’m also Prince of the Fire Nation, thanks.

He jumped when Kimizuki spoke.

“I’m looking for a healer. I’m told the best one in all the Water Tribe lives here. Is that true?”

Yuu stared up at him, then shifted his focus back on the girl. Her stance changed from warm and welcoming, to more guarded as she righted herself and crossed her arms.

Regardless, Kimizuki forged ahead. “My sister is sick. She’s…”

Yuu stepped closer and whispered low against his arm. “You don’t have to—”

“Back home, they’ve said there is no cure for her now, except for a waterbender’s healing. I’m hoping your tribe can help, it’s my last resort. Lady Sanguu allowed me to leave the ship to ask for assistance while we’re here, so we don’t have much time—”

The girl drew in a breath and stepped forward, placing her hands on Kimizuki’s arm, the previous pensiveness instantly vanishing from her demeanor. Yuu almost gaped at how quickly she was won over. “Say no more. I’m Akane. I’m one of the students learning the ways of healing. You’ve definitely come to the right place.”

Kimizuki smiled softly, placing a hand over Akane’s. “Thanks. Like I said, our time is short, can you take us to one of your best?”

“Ah! Well, you see,” Akane took a small step away from him, “he’s actually not here right now. He’s just outside the city, for his monthly meditation.”

Kimizuki’s shoulders sank.

“But he should be back any day now! We don’t ever know exactly when he comes back, but he’s usually not gone for more than a week. In the meantime, maybe I can show you around the city?”

Kimizuki nodded and Akane cheered, spinning and starting to lead them away from the soldiers and towards the large igloos on the other side of the square. Yuu bounced and followed the two of them, trying to conceal some of his excitement. Even though he wasn’t going to see him right away, the fact that they were so close to meeting a waterbending master had him buzzing with anticipation.

When they neared the first set of igloos, a small kid with big dark eyes and a messy head of hair with nearly the same color poked his head out. “Akaneeeee!” The whine at the end of her name was telling of something having gone amiss, and Yuu couldn’t help but smile. He hadn’t been around many kids growing up, but he did remember using the same exact tone to try to get his way with his teachers and uncle.

“Kouta, what is it now?” Akane sighed and pressed forward faster. “I told you not to practice anything without him!”

“We just—” the sounds of something breaking inside the igloo made him jump and his eyes widened before another kid, with sandy blond hair and big brown eyes came up from behind and covered his mouth.

“It’s fine! Everything is okay now, never mind!”

“Taichi…” Akane groaned but laughed, obviously not too troubled, yet.

Even Kimizuki let out a small laugh at their antics. Akane didn’t stop her momentum, rolling up past the two boys to step inside the building. They both followed, and Yuu marveled at the construction inside. It appeared to be all ice, but smooth and hardened; a craftsmanship none other than a skilled waterbender can accomplish in an igloo. There were a few fires lit in the center of the room, around a small platform that rose up. Which was also where a group of children were gathered, Kouta and Taichi now among them, circled around something as if to protect, or hide, it.

“What did you do?” Akane stood just before the center and crossed her arms over her chest. Now Kouta, along with a few of the other kids, looked completely terrified, as if they would break into tears at any moment.

“We were just trying to help!” Taichi cried out, standing in front of the other six kids. Yuu made to step forward but Kimizuki held up his arm to prevent him from moving further.

Yuu stopped, but he still fidgeted. This wasn’t his business, he knew, but something in the way the kids stood around had him worried.

Akane motioned with her arms, and with a resigned sigh Taichi moved and the other kids followed, spreading out. In the center of the platform there was a small creature, black and white, with two sets of flippers -

“Is that a penguin?!” Yuu gasped out loud. He had read about them when studying the Water Tribes but of course had never seen one up close.

Akane turned and gave him a small smile, “It is. I suppose it makes sense you’ve never seen one. This one though,” she stepped forward, suddenly acting much more mature than minutes before. It was clear the animal was hurt as he tried to move, one of his flippers not moving as he tried to right himself up. He was also very small, probably just a baby penguin. The children crowded as Akane knelt down, and Yuu stepped forward past Kimizuki’s arm as well, eager to see. Up until now, they had witnessed a little waterbending in a combative sense, but healing was still a mystery to them.

“Bring me a bowl of water,” she directed, and Kouta was the one to come out of his watchful trance to run and collect the request, bringing it back to her side. He stepped away again, kneeling to watch. The children all had their eyes on Akane, and Yuu was the same, studying her face, her hands, the way she was so composed for someone so young. With a flick of her hands, the water moved from the bowl and into the air, then maneuvered it to wrap around the broken flipper. Everyone gasped as the water emitted a soft blue light that pulsated with each breath Akane took, until she let out one long breath. Then the water evaporated.

The room was quiet, and the penguin was able to use all his flippers to hop back up on his feet.

“Holy shit that was amazing!” Yuu screamed out, his voice echoing off the ceiling and drawing all eyes towards him. He clapped his hand over his mouth. Kimizuki sighed.

Fortunately, the kids were all instantly distracted by the penguin running around the room, chasing it and petting it when it allowed them to. Akane rose from her knees and seemed to be a kid again, laughing at Yuu.

“It wasn’t that bad, just a sprained flipper.”

“But it looked so easy! That’s so amazing!” Yuu looked to the penguin, happily laying on its back and allowing for its belly to be rubbed. It struck Yuu then how amazing waterbending could be, having multiple uses - fighting, but also healing. It was something so opposite from firebending, which seemed to only cause destruction and chaos.

Something like a chill ran through his very core, and he shivered. He looked behind him while Akane and Kimizuki started talking to each other, about Mirai, it sounded like. There was no one in the door, but something called to him. He walked towards it and looked outside. Everything seemed normal, the waterbenders practicing, people riding in their boats down the canal, and it had started to snow lightly. Yuu scanned all around, even the rooftops, but the feeling faded.

“Yuu?” Kimizuki’s voice pulled him back to reality, forcing its way through his thoughts.

“Hm? “ He looked back to them to see Akane holding the penguin, the kids circling around her.

“They need to take the penguin back to its home, do you—?”

“Oh my god whatcanwecome!?”

Kimizuki snorted and looked over his shoulder at Akane “Told you.”

After much effort to corral all the kids, they piled into a larger gondola to ride to the gates of the city where they were dropped off, and guards opened the gates to let everyone out.

Yuu sucked in a big gulp of air as a wave of cold wind blasted against them. Since they had been previously nestled in a canyon of the Northern Water Tribe city, they were protected from any wind. But outside the gates, there were less barriers from the harsh weather.

“Holy shit I thought I was cold before—”

“By the spirits, Yuu! Watch your mouth around the kids.”

Yuu hissed at Kimizuki, and wrapped his arms around himself tighter, thankful once again for the clothes from Tomoe. They trudged forward, the wind only rushing at them in gusts every now and again, at least. If it was constant he might have said fuck it and turned around back into the slightly warmer confines of the city.

But then again, penguins.

He wasn’t sure when he would ever have another chance to see something like the Northern Water Tribe ever again. Once he found a waterbending master he would be in training, hopefully, and then after that, he’d be focusing on his duties as the Avatar. Would he still have time to chase a bunch of kids to where penguins were and play in the snow?

The thought soured his mood a little. He hadn’t always thought about being the Avatar, and what it would really mean for him.

“Yuu?” He lifted his head, realizing he had fallen behind the group some. Kimizuki was looking back at him.

Yuu ran past Kimizuki and laughed at the look on his face as he smacked him on the arm, ignoring the hey shouted at him. He caught up to one of the kids and lifted them up in the air. Placing them on his shoulders, he laughed, running around the snow with them cheering.

He would take advantage of this, before he couldn’t just be a person playing in the snow anymore.

They crested over a hill and Yuu stopped himself from careening over and tumbling down, but the kids apparently knew what was coming and launched themselves over it, tucking and rolling and laughing. The kid he picked up, who happened to be Taichi, squirmed in his grip, and Yuu placed him back on the snow to watch him follow the others. Akane stepped up to stand beside him.

“Look,” she pointed, directing his gaze out a little to where the kids were ending up, leading to the water.

“Holy shit,” Yuu whispered under his breath. “It’s gorgeous.”

The water was calm since there was a glacier out in the distance to keep waves from breaking out on the shore, and the penguins had made the little oasis their home. There were small caves full of the creatures, ice blocks they were sunbathing on, and when the kids approached the birds didn’t scatter. In fact, they ran up to them.

“What the—”

“They come here a lot to play, when the weather permits. Today the wind isn’t so terrible. Come on!” Akane shoved Yuu softly and jumped, feet first, to slide down the snow to join everyone else.

Yuu looked up at Kimizuki and edged closer to him, bumping their arms together. “You jump, I jump, right?”

The guy just snorted in response.

“Come on!” Yuu hit him with the back of his hand against Kimizuki’s stomach, which didn’t do much considering the many layers they were wearing.

Another eye roll, and then Yuu was being grabbed, and all he could see was the blue of the sky until—

“Kimizuki!” he gasped as the cold hit his back.

Laughing, Kimizuki had wrapped his arms around Yuu and they were rolling down the hill together, snow trapping on their jacket and pants, cold soaking through their hair. He couldn’t help laughing after the first few seconds of shouting and cursing, feeling exhilarated from the fall.

When they stopped at the bottom, Kimizuki stretched out on his back, with Yuu clinging to him tight before he rolled away, staring back up at the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

Yuu thought about how much Kimizuki had done for him already. The pickpocket didn’t have to be there at all for Yuu, he was really only going along for his sister. But he had become someone Yuu had grown accustomed to having around, and he would never admit it but he would miss him when their journey ended and paths split. He played with the snow between his fingers, thinking about if he owed it to Kimizuki to tell him the truth…

“Yuu-nii!!!!” A body slammed into his stomach and got him wheezing as Taichi climbed all over him. “Come on, we can go penguin sledding!”

“What?” He sat up, shrieking as more ice moved down his back. He turned and gave Kimizuki a glare.

“You heard the kid, penguin sledding.” Kimizuki grinned.

Yuu determined he would get his revenge later when there weren’t children around. They scrambled up, leaning on each other to gain balance, before joining the rest of the group.

Yuu hoped he would never have to reveal that he used airbending to make sure he didn’t make a fool of himself around the kids.

Sledding on penguins was not easy. At all. They were slippery and wobbled and holding onto their flippers while they were moving was nearly impossible. He wasn’t even sure how everyone else managed it so easily. He did manage to get a few good laughs in though when Kimizuki completely ate shit nearly every time he thought he had finally figured it out.

In the end, after what felt like hours, they all were spread out on their backs in the snow, making angels and laughing. Taichi clamored all over Yuu again, sitting on his chest. Yuu poked at him and laughed.

“You ride almost as good as big brother!”

“Oh?” They hadn’t mentioned a big brother before, “ Where is he?”

“He was gone for a few days, but he should be back soon!”

“Is he a healer like Akane?”

“Well,” Taichi played with the front of his coat, “He is, but he is like, super strong! He can heal and fight using waterbending! He’s the one who teaches a lot of the villagers.”

Without warning, Yuu sat up, and Taichi fell to the snow with a yelp. Kimizuki raised an eyebrow at him. “I would love to meet this big brother of yours.” Akane had said the bender would be back any day now, but maybe Yuu could get to him sooner somehow.

“He’s probably in the castle!” The boy grinned and spun around. “That’s where he usually goes right when he returns, before he comes to see us and play.”

Yuu swallowed, then saw Akane not far off starting to round up the kids. He stood and took Taichi’s hand, and noted how wet and cold his hands were in his.

“Oh, here, Taichi, take mine,” He took off his gloves and replaced them on the boys hands. Even though they were much bigger on him, it would be better than having soaking wet gloves on the way back to the city. The boy looked up at him with those big brown eyes, and ran forward, wrapping his small arms around Yuu’s legs and hugging tight.

“Thank you, Yuu-nii!”

Yuu made a garbled noise and offered many it’s no big deals and let’s go before Taichi released him and they caught up to the rest of the group.

“So, we’re going to the castle next, aren’t we?” Kimizuki spoke just loud enough for Yuu to hear.

“At least check it out, maybe this all powerful healer is there and we can get out of here soon and back to your sister. I’m not built for this weather long term.” Yuu blew out a puff of air and watched the small cloud form in front of him. With a twitch of a finger he made it swirl away in a pattern.

“You’re in a rush. I thought you had business to tend to here.”

“Well ok, I do, but I don’t want to be here longer than I have to.” He hoped they could get Mirai healed, and then go somewhere maybe in Ba Sing Se to train. It would push back his avatar training, but he had made a promise, and he wanted to make sure Mirai would be safe. Plus then Narumi wouldn’t have to worry about nurses watching over her in secret anymore. He had to put this ahead of himself just a while longer, then he could start his training.

“Fair, it’s fucking cold here.” At that, Kimizuki looked down at Yuu’s hands. “You’re gonna catch a cold, you idiot.”

“Tch, five minutes won’t hurt me.”

—o0o—

“Ouch, ouch, ouch!”

Yuu should have known better than to hold onto the frozen handrail with bare hands, but he was in a hurry and the staircase leading up to the Royal Palace had really steep steps so at the time it looked like a better alternative to falling to the ground butt-first.

“Watch it, Yuu,” Kimizuki said, grabbing his shoulder to help him regain his balance.

“I swear this snow is firebending me.” Yuu scowled at the handrail, and he could have sworn he’d heard Kimizuki groan.

“Let’s hurry up!” Kimizuki said, running up the stairs three step at a time, with Yuu following suit.

Yuu had never seen KImizuki so… driven. It was kind of endearing, to be quite honest, and Yuu liked this new side of him. He looked motivated, and his eyes twinkled behind his specs.

That was not to say that he wasn’t in a similar state either. Kimizuki was so close to his goal he could taste it, and Yuu was genuinely happy for him. Especially because the amount of snarky remarks he’d sent Yuu’s way had significantly decreased ever since they heard about the waterbending master’s whereabouts.

Kimizuki probably paid as much attention to the palace as Yuu did, which was limited to acknowledging the ridiculous size of the courtyard and how slippery the ice was underneath his shoes.

Neither of them had any idea where the throne room was, and it didn’t help that the palace looked much smaller from the outside. He had seriously underestimated the number of staircases the Royal Residence had.

“Great,” Kimizuki clicked his tongue, eyes going from a corridor to corridor. “Which way now?”

“Up there,” Yuu said, pointing at the series of steps leading upstairs. If he knew anything about castles, it was that a big, fancy staircase to the throne room was a must, and this icy, slippery series of overly-steep steps looked just about right. For a waterbender’s taste, he figured.

Kimizuki didn’t look too excited about it. “You’d better be right,” he said, a little out of breath, “or else.”

Yuu ignored Kimizuki’s “subtle” threat as he began running up the stairs. He was positive he was right, and he couldn’t hold back a grin when he finally reached the door at the end of the corridor and wrapped his hand around its handle.

He took a deep breath and pushed it gently, trying not to make its hinges creek and opening it just enough for both him and Kimizuki to get through.

If anybody had turned their head to look at them, Yuu certainly didn’t notice, far too entranced by the beauty of the throne room. Light and colours bounced off the crystalline walls, painting shapes on the smooth marble floor. Inlaid marble columns – or were they made of ice? Yuu couldn’t tell – framed the hall in a display of brilliant artisanship, and blue drapes bearing the Water Tribe emblem, embroidered in golden thread, hung proudly from the ceiling. The room was split into two, those dressed in Earth Kingdom green on one side and those wearing Water Tribe blue on the other.

“Sanguu-sama, I must impress on you the peril our two nations will face should the Air Nomads advance upon us. As of this moment, we have the golden opportunity to blindside them before they can suspect of our rally, and turn the tide in our favor. Surely you cannot disagree.”

“I concur, Lest-sama,” Mitsuba stated politely, although her tone was a little clipped. “However, the terms you speak of are, frankly speaking, quite….unfavorable.”

It looked as though they arrived right in the middle of the Council Meeting. Yuu and Kimizuki had to quickly snap out of their awe and mingle with the other Ba Sing Seians, careful to not draw too much attention to themselves as they moved around.

Of course, Yuu’s sinuses chose that moment to act up and emit a very loud sneeze that echoed throughout the large space, and everyone’s stares landed heavily on him and Kimizuki.

The councilmen seated up on the dais seemed confused, Mitsuba was horrified, and Kimizuki looked as if he’d just been hit on the head with a broomstick. Having everyone’s eyes on him kind of told Yuu he shouldn't have done that. Oops.

As I was saying,” Mitsuba cleared her throat, picking up her speech from where she’d been interrupted, “The Earth Kingdom is willing to further pursue this matter until a fair compromise is reached.”

“Our offer still stands.” The guy sitting on the throne on the other side of the room spoke matter-of-factly, “Marrying into the Water Tribe shouldn’t be so out of the question if the Earth Kingdom has a strong resolve to form an alliance.”

“And as I’ve repeatedly said, the Earth Kingdom cannot accept these conditions,” Mitsuba said, her lips stretching into a forced smile. “It’s not a fair compromise since the situation with the Air Nomads is impacting the Water Tribe too, isn’t it? How will a marriage of nobles benefit an ally for war?”

War? That sounded serious, Yuu thought a bit worriedly.

The guy chuckled, visibly amused by Mitsuba’s continued refusal. Yuu wondered how he managed to look down on people so much despite being such a short guy. Maybe sitting on the throne did make a difference. Or possibly just added to his massive ego.

“I’m afraid you’ve got this very wrong, my Lady. You’re not in any position to refuse. Your father has already agreed to my proposal. And to answer your last question: it will strengthen our loyalty and trust of both armies together. I think that would be the fair compromise you were looking for, am I right?” He sat back in content, smugly sure that he’d already won the argument.

Murmurs started to rise between the ranks of the Ba Sing Seians, and Mitsuba herself looked mildly unsettled.

“Oi, Kimizuki,” Yuu said, elbowing his companion’s side.. He’d just arrived with Kimizuki, but it was fairly apparent that Mitsuba was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Kimizuki flinched. “Ouch– What?”

Standing on his tiptoes, Yuu whispered in Kimizuki’s ear. “What’s the deal with this guy?”

“Beats me…” Kimizuki shrugged. “Why make her come all the way here if he’d closed a deal with her father already? Not to mention that she hasn't got a choice in the matter to begin with. What a load of political bullcrap.”

Yuu had a vague idea why they still brought Mitsuba here: humiliation. He had some memories of Guren telling him the easiest way to get your way in an arrangement was to take all the power away from the other party, and that was exactly what Throne-guy was doing to Mitsuba.

He was playing dirty. Which instantly brought him down in Yuu’s eyes. Well… even further down than he already was.

Stepping down from his tiptoe, Yuu scowled and carelessly said, “Well shit, that’s damn unfair.”

It took him three seconds to realize that the room had suddenly gone quiet and that everyone’s eyes were upon him again.

And another two seconds to realize why.

He instantly clamped a hand over his mouth, eyes wide. He didn’t think the acoustics of the room were so good as to carry his voice over to the other side – now all the dignitaries and nobles were eyeing him with barely concealed appallment and shock.

Mitsuba’s mouth fell open. Tomoe wore a similar expression behind her and Yuu, well, he hadn’t meant that to be heard by everyone else.

Laughing weakly, Yuu rubbed the back of his head, “That… didn’t come out right.”

“Clearly,” Throne-guy silkily replied with raised brows, “Tell me, since you’ve rudely interrupted this meeting twice now, maybe you could give us a little insight to your Mistress’ situation.”

“Uh… uhm…”

“Why do you think that it’s unfair for the Sanguu family, a noble of high standing in the Earth Kingdom, to marry into the family of Water tribe royalty in order to foster a bond of tranquil permanence between our two armies against a common enemy?”

Despite his shock at being put on the spotlight, Yuu’s mind instantly raced with ideas. He might not know much about the tribal codes of the Water tribe but he had years of tutoring about the other nations. And he was familiar with the rules of royalty.

If throne douche wanted to humiliate him, he’ll see something else coming.

“Because arranged marriages among nobilities of the Earth Kingdom have been annulled ever since Tai Feng’s reign. I don't know what the deal is with Mitsuba’s father but the parties involved in the arrangement, if having already reached the age of maturity, should have a say of consent.” Yuu recited promptly, almost patting himself on the back when he saw the impressed looks he was receiving from the other people in the room.

“How dare a commoner of your liking speak against me?” Throne-guy stood up in all his five-foot glory, staring Yuu down with disdain. “I am Lest Karr, Chief of the Northern Water Tribe–”

“And I am Yuuichirou Ichinose,” Yuu retorted, smirking. “The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation.”

The entire crowd assembled below the dais burst into stifled declarations of shock.

Lest sneered as he looked around them room, as if asking the question. “Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?”

Yuu felt every pair of eyes in the room on him. Instead of cowering behind anyone, he lifted his chin higher and crossed his arms.

“Of course it isn’t—”

Kimizuki grabbed his arm at the same time that Mitsuba stepped forward and spoke so her voice echoed throughout the room.

“My apologies for my servant’s interruption. He’s new. It’s his first time accompanying me across the sea and he is quite delirious with the corsair’s scourge. I’ll have him escorted out immediately to his chambers. Tomoe, if you will.” She beckoned at her with a single nod.

Lest laughed as he fell back onto the throne, still studying Yuu intently. “I was going to say, the last thing he looks like is the Prince of the Fire Nation. We all know they are nothing but brutes.”

The hold Kimizuki had on him was nothing against the rage burning within him at the statement made not only against himself, but also his people. He shook out of his friend’s grip and assumed a fighter’s stance - Kimizuki’s ensuing shout fell on deaf ears as he focused all his energy into his fingertips.

Streams of fire exploded out of his hands, cascading into the center of the room where no one stood.

The room erupted into screams of panic and bodies slamming into each other as they attempted to make their escape. Someone kept shouting, and he turned his head to see Kimizuki standing with his back to him, facing guards who had stormed into the room as everyone else cleared out.

“Shit!” Yuu turned back to look across the room - Mitsuba’s face wasn’t scared, but furious, and Lest was looking on as if watching a play take place.

Then something cold hit his back and he stopped bending, but before he could turn around he was hit again with water, knocking him to the ground. Ice manifested around his ankles and wrists - he was pinned.

Kimizuki was somewhere behind him. He could hear him struggling, shouting not to hurt him…

Shit, he had really fucked up this time.

“Hold!” Lest’s voice rang out, seeming even louder given the space was practically empty now. Yuu turned his head to watch as he and Mitsuba and her soldier’s moved closer, minding the melted ice in the middle of the room.

When Lest stood directly over Yuu, he didn’t kneel, but he looked down on him while a hand cradled his own chin.

“So, you were harboring the Prince of the Fire Nation, and didn’t even know it?” The question was obviously directed to Mitsuba, who now stood beside him. Her hands were balled up in fists at her side, and Yuu was sure she would stab him with all the rocks on the island if she could.

“Clearly,” Mitsuba’s voice proved Yuu’s thoughts. He looked away to see Kimizuki being held by two guards, panic-stricken eyes glued to Yuu.

“So,” a toe poked him in the side to get his attention back to Lest. “what is the supposed Prince of the Fire Nation doing spying on a meeting between the Water and Earth Tribes?”

“What do you mean by supposed!” Yuu made an attempt to move, but of course couldn’t. He wondered if it was worth it to try firebending out of this mess.

“Well first of all, any firebender can do what you did,” he motioned to the center of the room, “that isn’t any indication of royal blood. Second, why would the Prince be parading as a servant of the Sanguu household? Seems like a poor front for a spy, is what it sounds like to me.”

Then Lest did kneel, a hand gripping his shoulder. “But let’s pretend for a moment you are the Prince. Please, explain to us why you’d do all this sneaking around.”

Yuu huffed. “Listen, I know that ties with the other kingdoms, especially the Water Tribe, has been shaky -”

Shaky?” Lest laughed.

Yuu scowled. “But I wanted to see the Water Kingdom for myself. I’ve read so many books on it, and the Fire Lord wouldn’t let me travel here. I was hoping that if I managed to make it on my own, I could maybe start some talks between our kingdoms. That’s all!”

Lest’s blue eyes pierced through him, making Yuu fidget under the gaze and also the increasing pressure on his shoulder.

“Such an idea is worthless unless the Fire Lord himself wishes it.” He murmured.

“I will be the Fire Lord, one day.” Yuu spoke through gritted teeth. “You would do well to remember that.”

He surprised himself as the words tumbled out. It appeared Lest was about as shocked, and the room was quiet once again.

He braced for things to get worse. But instead Lest started laughing and patted his arm. With a wave of his hands, the ice shattered around him and he motioned for Yuu to rise. He also motioned towards the guards holding Kimizuki.

“And who is this young man then, your Highness?”

“I...It’s Yuuichirou, my name.” Yuu was still catching up to the fact that it seemed things might be...okay? He looked at Kimizuki, who was just staring at him blankly. “And he’s my bodyguard.”

The boy furrowed his brows but clearly he knew they were in a tight situation and couldn’t exactly argue, thankfully. Yuu was sure he would hear about this later though.

Lest nodded, and Kimizuki did his best version of a half bow that had Yuu almost snorting out loud.

“So what, you believe him?” Mitsuba stepped forward now, staring Yuu down.

“I think only a foolish noble who hasn’t seen much of the world could behave so rashly.” Lest snickered. Yuu tried not to get riled up at the comment, because apparently his naive aura was all that was saving their asses.

Mitsuba breathed out and turned on her heel, leaving the room. “Fine. We will continue these discussions later, perhaps somewhere more private.”

“Of course, “ Lest bowed to her back. His eyes snapped back up to Yuu, who straightened up and squared off his shoulders. Kimizuki lined up beside him as well.

“Spend as much time here as you like. But please mind our meetings as we conduct our business.” He had a strange smile on his face.

“O...okay. Thank you.” Yuu offered a small bow and gave Kimizuki a wink, who promptly rolled his eyes in return.

“Since I imagine you had nowhere to stay aside from the ship, these escorts will take you to your living quarters in the palace. We always take care of our esteemed guests.”

Yuu tried not to get too excited as he looked to the two armed guards Lest gestured to. He was taking the first steps, finally, of being the Avatar and working towards bringing the kingdoms together! Something finally worked out for him!

Remembering his manners in front of royalty, Yuu said, “We’re grateful for your hospitality.”

“I hope we can chat again soon. Please, enjoy your stay.” Lest grinned wider and nodded before leaving the room. They followed the guards towards a door on the other side of the room.

Yuu elbowed Kimizuki, and when their eyes met he grinned.

“This isn’t good, you idiot.” Kimizuki spoke through clenched teeth. “That guy is the head of the tribe, he’s going to tell people you’re here.”

“By the time my uncle finds out, we will be long gone with the waterbending master. It’s fine.”

“You’re going to be the fucking death of me.”

Yuu let out a laugh and clapped Kimizuki on the back, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “Come on, this is the most fun you’ve had in your entire life that didn’t involve law breaking.”

“Shut the hell up.”

—o0o—

The dark gravel of the pavement didn’t hide the tap tap sound of his footsteps as Guren made his final round of the street. He breathed out a tired sigh, one hand in his pocket and the other raised to pinch the bridge of his nose. It’d been a long night.

It wasn’t easy getting into Ba Sing Se without alerting the Emperor or the Royal guard of his arrival. But they were here now, thanks to a few a connections he still had in this kingdom. The last time he’d been in the city was a long, long time ago, before the Fire Nation closed their borders against the water tribe, traveling around with his brother...

...Hajime.

Distracted, Guren leaned against a small building, taking a bit of a break as he was sure Yuu wasn’t around in this area. When he opened his eyes, the glittering night sky stared back at him, so vast in its entirety and holding so many secrets within. It probably knew where Yuu was better than he did.

What would Hajime say to him if he knew he had lost his only son in one of the biggest kingdoms in the world?

He might have yelled at him. Probably hit him upside the head before calling all reinforcements to search for Yuu. He wouldn’t have even bothered with veneers. His brother would have searched high and low just to find his son. Honestly, Hajime’s protectiveness was a whole level on its own compared to his. No doubt it ran in the family.

Right now, Yuu could just be a kilometer away from him and Guren wouldn’t know because the little shit knew how to hide. Well that was at least one skill he was good at that didn’t involve fighting. Guren should have taught him to grow some social skills too, maybe even how to live without depending so much on the advantages of royalty. Maybe then…he wouldn’t have grown such a big head for adventure.

Guren thumped his head against the wall and grimaced. Maybe he had been too harsh on the boy when he’d ask to learn more about waterbending or going outside. It’s not like they didn’t have enough bodyguards to spare.

Then again, the one retainer he did trust Yuu with ended up helping him escape.

Guren still hadn’t forgiven Narumi for his transgression. At least Shinya had half a mind to insist for a different penalty. Yuu would never have forgiven him otherwise if Narumi came back to him with half his face burnt.

Come to think of it, where was that air-headed bastard? He’d told to meet him back at the starting point.

Looking around, Guren pushed off from the wall and moved a little closer to the light of the moon.

That was then he heard something creak behind him.

“Shin-?”

The ground beneath Guren’s feet suddenly shifted. Moving on instinct, Guren tried jumping away but the soil had melded with his feet and trapped him where he stood. Before he knew it, the entire flooring flipped over, taking him with it as moonlight swiftly began to disappear. He tried shouting, anything but it all happened too fast before he was engulfed in a sea of darkness.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

As Yuu and Kimizuki made their way to their rooms, the weight of the the day’s journey and events started to wind down on them. Yawning, he noticed the waning crescent moon steadily rising overhead, bringing with it a blanket of dark blue skies.

Past the crystalline buildings and comfy igloos, they found themselves led to a breathtaking mosaic structure situated in the outskirt of the city. Entering through the glass gilded doors, Yuu found that it was furnished with fur-lined couches, soft down sea-blue cushions and two separate queen-sized beds — a room fitting for royalty.

The guard who led them turned to face Yuu and bowed, “Master Lest would like to apologize for the inconvenience. Due to the rather uh...short notice, we only managed to prepare a single room for you and your retainer.”

Nodding his head, Yuu raised a hand for the guard to straighten up, then smiled, “It’s fine. Please send Lest-sama my gratitude for his hospitality.”

With that, he and Kimizuki were left alone. Sighing in relief, Yuu raised his arms over his head and stretched his back. “Well. That turned out better than I expected.”

Kimizuki’s mouth fell open. “ Better?! Are you fucking kidding me?”

Raising his brows in surprise, Yuu replied, “What stick got up your ass? We got through the meeting, didn’t we?”

The taller male crossed his arms over his chest and scowled, “Yeah, without a few setbacks like scaring half the people inside that room and almost getting us killed.”

“Hey, I wasn’t aiming for anyone! I know how to control my bending.” Yuu retorted, “Besides, it all worked out in the end. It was just that Lest dude who tried provoking me.”

Kimizuki rolled his eyes before glaring at the prince pointedly, “Yeah, but you were the one who had to go and blow our cover like that. Also... bodyguard? Really?”

“What did you want me to say? Court jester?” Yuu snorted, moving towards the sofa to throw himself onto, “Fine, I can admit that it was a bit reckless of me—”

“A bit?”

“—but hey, we’re alive! And we get to stay in nice sleeping quarters for once.” Yuu gratefully sighed, sinking into the cushions as if he hadn’t had a lifetime of living in relative luxury.

Kimizuki just shook his head before moving to one of the beds in the far corner. Yuu watched him inspect it critically before he laid his hand on the mattress and subtly stroked the material as if it were an entirely foreign creature.

“It’s not an animal, you know.”

Yuu snorted when Kimizuki jerked his hand back and glared at the prince who was peeking at him from over the couch.

“Just go to sleep, idiot Yuu.”

“Stop calling me that!”

It took a little work but eventually, Kimizuki and Yuu learned their way around their new room and were now snuggling into the warm sheets to sleep.

“Goodnight, Kimizuki.”

“Night.” came the grunted reply. Yuu stared up at the icy ceiling for long peaceful moments, waiting for slumber to take him. He thought about Akane and the wonderful kids they met today and the misunderstanding encounter with Lest in the council room. He hadn’t really planned on making such a huge impression on his first arrival in the Northern Water Tribe but that’s what Yuu got for recklessly diving in without planning ahead. At least they were resting comfortably now.

Eventually, his eyelids slowly shut and his mind drifted away, riding the waves of a tide that brought Yuu further and further away from reality.

When he opened his eyes again, the night sky was staring back at him but with it came a silvery presence of a fire ferret. A very big fire ferret. Yuu drowsily tilted his head to the side while the animal did the same thing. It made a sound at him, huffing out air as if it believed Yuu could understand its language. Not knowing what else to do, Yuu shook his head side to side, hoping he was projecting his confusion to the fire ferret. Never once did he think of speaking to it.

But then unexpectedly, the fire ferret leapt away from him and started running away. Yuu raised a hand, calling to it — no, don’t leave —but the image of the fire ferret slowly faded away, replaced with a white smoky film that filled his vision.

Next thing Yuu knew, he was being manhandled out of his bed.

“Get him! Hurry!” A low voice whispered furiously to the one who was hauling Yuu. He noticed a head of pink hair lying limp on the man’s shoulder, and Yuu realized with a jolt it was Kimizuki.

“W-Who are you people?!” Yuu demanded, getting angry when the man holding him wouldn't answer and just shoved him out of the door. He was concerned for Kimizuki who looked like he’d been knocked out cold. Something hot burned in Yuu’s gut at the sight of him so defenseless.

“Shut him up, will ya?”

A cloth was harshly pressed against Yuu’s mouth and he struggled to get it off. But one of them kicked him on the back, blinding him with the pain and rendering him immobile.

In the moment it took for Yuu to get his bearings back, he and Kimizuki had been carried off to a remote area in some icy landscape. Whatever these men wanted to do with them, they wanted it as far away from civilization as possible.

Yuu’s first thought was that these men wanted to kill them, which did nothing to calm the rapid beating of his heart.  

They were dumped unceremoniously onto the freezing ground.

“Fuck!” Kimizuki shouted, jolting back to consciousness as snow seeped through their clothes. “W-What’s going on?!” His teeth chattered as he spoke.

“Dunno, but these people obviously didn't bring us here to give us a warm welcoming.” Yuu said before he pushed Kimizuki to the side to avoid getting hit by a sailing icicle.

Jumping to his feet, Yuu kicked the air to release a fireball at one of his assailants. But it instantly died when it was met with a sheet of ice shielding the burly men.

Masked Guy #1, the one who had woken Yuu up, made a swinging motion with his arms and raised his palms at Yuu as a strip of water sailed towards him.

The prince jumped away to avoid it and roundhouse kicked in the air for another slew of fireballs, each as equally short lived as the last.

Two against one was definitely unfair when all his fire got extinguished instantly, and just when Yuu thought it couldn’t get any worse, shards of ice crystals formed in the air and proceeded to pursue him.

Yuu’s eyes widened. He bent his body this way and that, barely swerving out of the way as the sharp crystals almost pierced him, and even used a little subtle airbending to blow one away when it aimed straight between his eyes.

“Okay, that would have been really cool if you weren't trying to kill me.” Yuu grouched angrily.

“Yuu!” Kimizuki snapped at him, calling his attention to the dual tentacle-like waters coming at the prince with lightning speed.

Panicking, Yuu raised his arms to evaporate them but they were too fast. Masked Guy #2 wrapped his water around Yuu’s ankle, flinging him into the air while the other sliced into Yuu’s shoulder.

It was shallow, but Yuu still cried out in pain as he was dropped unceremoniously on Kimizuki while clutching his now bleeding shoulder. Beneath them, the snow shifted to ice and trapped their hands and legs to the ground, keeping them in place.

“Don't worry, we’ll make it quick.” Masked Guy #2 smirked, raising his hand with a dagger-shaped ice.

Furious and a little terrified, Yuu tried burning off the ice from his limbs. But he was panting too much, his heart racing fast against his chest and his entire body felt stiff and frozen in unadulterated panic. His eyes could only watch as that dagger came closer towards them whilst Kimizuki whispered frantically in his ear to do something.

He could feel a familiar burning sensation inside him coiling within, waiting to come out and somehow, Yuu knew that if he let it out, he wouldn't be able to control it.

But if it was the only way he could save himself and Kimizuki, then he would have no choice.

He had taken a deep breath, but it was as if time had suddenly slowed down. The dagger seemed to be moving in slow motion compared to the jet of water that suddenly shot between their assailants and knocked the dagger out of Masked Guy #2’s hand.

“What the...?”

Yuu immediately looked down at himself, wondering if he had unlocked some hidden water bending skill he didn't know about.

That’s when Yuu noticed the dark shadow in front of him, stark against the white snow reflected by the moon’s shine.

Someone had appeared behind the masked men, and while he was mostly silhouetted under the silver moon, Yuu could make out hair gleaming platinum blond and deep, piercing eyes, blue and alert.

“What a nuisance,” drawled the man’s voice before shoving the two masked men away with a single wave of water.

“Who the fuck are you?!” One of them shouted, scowling fiercely at the intruder, shooting up onto his feet quickly to craft a makeshift icicle sword in his hand. With a mighty swing, he lunged at his opponent.

But the new guy clearly was no novice.

He ducked under the swing, placed his hand on the snow and immediately, ice crystals shot up from below and entrapped the shocked man in an icy prison. The other masked individual used the distraction to come at their attacker from behind, sharp ice suspended in the air around him and shooting straight for the blond dude.  

By the time Yuu opened his mouth to warn him, the projectiles were already gone. They had suddenly exploded in a dust of snowflakes just inches from the man’s body. Gobsmacked, Yuu turned his eyes to see that the new guy had raised a shield of water on his back, protecting him from the onslaught and also destroying them at the same time.

Yuu hadn’t even seen him move that fast. Holy fuck, that was so cool!

“If you don’t want to leave, then you’ll die with them!” Masked Guy #1 spat, creating more ice daggers behind him.

The blond dude sighed like he was so tired of this already, “I’m too busy today. Why don’t we take a rain check?” He raised his hands and a cloak of water formed around him, elongating to shape like arm-tendrils and the man didn’t waste time to attack. The first tendril dove straight for the Masked guy who dodged out of the way but another quickly swiped him on the side.

It knocked him off his feet and sent him rolling on the snow.

Blondie followed after him, throwing punches with his tendrils left and right. The masked man didn’t even stand a chance!

When it looked like he was unconscious, the blond dude then turned towards Masked guy #2 who had just managed to weasel his way out of the ice prison. Though he didn’t have enough time to defend himself.

With a quick flick of his wrist, a tendril shot out and wrapped around the guy’s ankle, throwing his squabbling form hard against the ground beside his companion, knocking him out on impact.

Yuu didn’t realize it but he had his mouth open the entire time, only closing it when Kimizuki did it for him.

“Keep your mouth shut, idiot. You look like a fish out of water.” He snapped before turning wary eyes at the figure gazing at them almost indifferently. His cloak of water was no longer around him and he was eyeing them both like they were burdens he hadn’t wanted to save but did.

Not noticing the tension in the air, Yuu scrambled to his feet when the ice keeping them trapped unfroze the moment its controller went out. Ignoring Kimizuki’s warning to be cautious, he approached the blond dude with a bright gleam in his eyes.

“Shit, man, your moves are wicked ! Are you a waterbending master? No, of course, you’re a waterbending master. Fuck, that was like the best fight I’ve ever seen. I mean I haven’t see much fighting in my life except if you count pranking my uncle but damn, man you’re like a whole other level! You’re insane!” Yuu said all in one breath, his excitement literally pouring out of him in waves. “I-I mean that in a good way.”  

The blond dude stared at him for a long time, his striking blue eyes slightly wide and disturbed before they narrowed into one of confusion, “Are you a child?”

Kimizuki snorted behind him as Yuu squawked indignantly, “No, I’m not! I think we’re the same age!”

The man didn’t seem too amused by the conversation. He sidestepped Yuu while saying, “Alright. I’m leaving.”

Yuu blinked, watching the man walk a short distance away before his mind helpfully supplied that he was letting a potential waterbending master walk away.

“Ah, hold on!” Running after him, Yuu jogged alongside Blondie and flashed him a smile when the man side-eyed him a look. This way, Yuu noticed that he was a couple of centimeters shorter than him. “I’d like to ask you something.”

When blond dude didn’t answer, Yuu took it as a sign to keep talking. Although he didn’t exactly know how to broach the topic about asking him to be his waterbending master and heal Kimizuki’s sister in the Fire Nation, Yuu settled on the basics.

“What’s your name?”

Pausing in his tracks, the man sighed before turning to Yuu, “Mikaela.”

“That’s a nice name...” Yuu trailed off, twiddling his fingers and then jolting as he remembered something. “Oh yeah! Thanks for saving our lives there, by the way.”

“Right. If that’s all, then.” Mikaela continued on walking, seeming to have decided that this conversation was over and he was no longer a part of it.

“B-But—!” Yuu would have chased after him had it not been for the hand pulling his arm back. Annoyed, Yuu turned to face Kimizuki who was giving him a scowl. Albeit a not-so-threatening one since his teeth seemed to still be chattering from the cold.

“Yuu, you idiot, just let the guy go. He obviously doesn’t want to be here.”

Yuu leaned close to whisper rapidly under his breath. “But he could be the one we’re looking for!”

“Well,” Kimizuki doubtfully eyed the fading form of their savior before responding, “Doesn’t look like he wants anything more to do with us. Let’s just find another waterbending master, preferably a nicer one.”

Yuu frowned, turning back to look in the same direction. He doubted they could find anyone as good as that guy, though Yuu let Kimizuki keep his reservations. Who knows? Maybe he’d end up changing his mind.

“So...what now?”

Yuu tore his eyes away from the spot on the horizon where Mikaela’s figure was last seen and met Kimizuki’s dark eyes. The words he spoke had hardly registered, and Yuu tried not to look distracted. “Huh?”

“We can’t stay here,” Kimizuki motioned behind them in the general direction of where their room had been with a sharp jab of his chin. “It’s obvious someone in the Water Tribe wants us dead. I’m sure it has nothing to do with you announcing that you’re the Prince of the Fire Nation or anything.”

Yuu huffed in response, of course catching his meaning. But he couldn’t deny what Kimizuki said, even if he wanted to. It was clear that Yuu’s statement and actions were having immediate consequences for them both. Maybe he did need to watch himself more outside of the protection of the Fire Nation...

A firm hand gripped his shoulder. “Yuu?”

Yuu’s pulse pounded in his throat as he tried to think of a plan, of a way for them to be safe until morning when they could hopefully talk to someone they could trust. Maybe Mitsuba would be able to help them, despite the ruckus he had caused in the middle of her meeting with the leaders of the tribe.

Things had been so much simpler just mere hours ago. His mind drifted to penguins, to snowball fights, to—

“I think I know where we can go!” He gave Kimizuki a wide grin before pushing past him and charging forward in what he hoped was the right direction. It was getting colder by the second, and they weren’t exactly dressed for the weather. The adrenaline from the attack was wearing off and the chill of the night air seeped through his thin clothes. They would need shelter soon or they would be human icicles by morning.  

Kimizuki followed silently, aside from blowing on his hands every now and then. Absentmindedly, Yuu grabbed a rock he spotted poking out of the snow and studied it as they walked, glancing to Kimizuki’s bare hands every now and then. With a mix of determination and adrenaline left over from the fight, he concentrated and carefully filled his lungs with air before summoning a small flame at the tip of his lips. He held the rock up to his mouth and blew softly to heat the rock up. When it felt nearly too hot, he handed it to Kimizuki, who had been watching him out of the corner of his eye the entire time.

He took the offered stone and cupped it gingerly in his hands. “Thanks,” he muttered.

“Sure, it’s the least I can do for dragging you into this mess.” Yuu found another stone and did the same, clutching the rock tightly between his palms as they moved.

Yuu wasn't sure what else to do except return to the place they knew they had been safe in before.

The city was eerily quiet. Yuu figured there would be less guards because of the hour, but it seemed even less guarded than he would have expected. They only saw a few guards here and there, and despite making eye contact, none of them deigned to come after the pair of boys —who were clearly not from the tribe and running around the city in their pajamas— or at least take a moment to question them.

“That’s strange,” Kimizuki mused out loud after the fourth set of guards on watch caught sight of them, and did nothing as they ran by and hopped into one of the small gondolas.

“What do you think it means?” Yuu asked as they slid along in the river. He was practically lying on the bottom of the ship to try to avoid the cold air rushing past them as they moved.  

“I think it means that the attack on us wasn’t officially sanctioned, at least.” Kimizuki pushed the boat along. Yuu was thankful he had taken on the rowing oar.

“Like spies?”

“Like something else is going on in the village.” Kimizuki glanced down at Yuu quickly before returning to focus on the river, but the look on his face was one of worry.  

Yuu tried not to think about it too much. He could almost curse Guren for allowing him to become so uneducated in so many different things related to politics, but he knew also he hadn’t been the best heir. Something he would never admit to his uncle, of course.

They exited the boat, and Yuu stopped to study the many igloos in front of them, trying to remember which one they had been in that afternoon. He caught sight of one near the center. The glow of torches lit inside could be seen through the small holes in the sides.

“Ah, they’re awake!” Yuu nearly skipped as he moved closer.

Kimizuki quickened his pace to keep up. “For once, this might actually be a good idea.”

“Hey!” He tossed a look back at his pink-haired companion who just smirked. Kimizuki knocked his shoulder as he caught up.

Yuu ran ahead the last few meters until he was at the familiar opening. He dropped his rock, ready to stand at the large fire inside.  

“Akane!” He shouted, knocking awkwardly against the entryway as he skidded to a stop in the center.

“Yuu, shut up!” Kimizuki hissed from behind. “It’s late! The kids are probably asleep.”

“It’s fine!” He waved flippantly at the taller male. He turned back to knock again—

—only to be met with an all too familiar pair of icy blue eyes staring him down. Yuu was taken aback for a moment to see the waterbender again, partly because he looked different in the warm glow of the room; the furs he’d been wearing before removed to expose more of his lean yet lithely built form. His blond hair hung in messy but not unkempt strands around his face, and there was a hint of redness to his cheeks.

Yuu couldn’t bring himself to say anything.

Mikaela didn’t budge. He might not have even blinked.

“Ah- um. H-hello. Again.” Yuu finally blurted out. He straightened up and rubbed his hands up and down his cold arms. The warmth inside the house was emanating outward, beckoning him, and this guy stood between it and him.

By this point Kimizuki came up beside him. He let out a small mutter of shit under his breath when he realized their situation.

“How did you find this place?” The waterbender’s eyes narrowed, first at Yuu and then at Kimizuki, before resting on the prince once more with a stare that could probably kill them both if he allowed it.

“We just, um.” Yuu wrapped his arms around himself tighter. He really just wanted to go inside already. “Look, we needed somewhere to stay for the night and—”

“Yuu-san! Kimizuki-san!”

They both let out long breaths of relief as Akane finally came into view from behind Mikaela.

“Akane?” Mikaela turned and looked to her before snapping back to them again. “You know these two?”

Akane nodded and stood beside him. “We met earlier today. Yuu-san was looking for you, actually.”

“...Yuu?”

Yuu tried not to make a face at how Mikaela’s nose wrinkled almost unnoticeably as he repeated his name. Surely finding out he had been lurking around his home would do nothing to help his standing with the waterbending master.

“Yes!” She continued, “Kimizuki-san’s sister is sick, they need… oh, are you two cold?”

The sound of Yuu’s teeth chattering had no doubt begun to overshadow the conversation. He nodded violently, the rock he warmed up earlier starting to lose its heat from the chilly weather.

“Mika! What are you doing making them just stand out there? Come in you two, come in.” She ushered them past her. Yuu held Mikaela’s gaze for a few uncertain seconds, until the blond reluctantly moved backwards to allow them entrance. The lit torches inside made the room much, much warmer, a stark contrast to the biting cold outside. Yuu darted his eyes around the cozy place but didn’t see the other kids anywhere.

“Where are the others?” He whispered, just in case they were hidden somehow in the space.

“This is the main hut where we hold lessons. They sleep in other smaller ones. They’ll be back tomorrow.” Akane directed them closer to the fire in the center of the room. The two stood there and warmed their fronts and backs eagerly, their heated rocks already thrown out. A quick look around them let Yuu see Mikaela exiting through another doorway.

“Mika?” She inquired, her tone with a hint of sternness. He stopped at the door, and for the first time since Yuu had met him a small smile graced his lips.

“Sleep well, Akane. Tomorrow we’ll talk more.” He slipped out, not sparing Yuu and Kimizuki so much as a glance.

Yuu coughed. “So, uh…”

Akane and Kimizuki turned to look at Yuu.

“You call him Mika? Why?”

She looked at Yuu incredulously, as if she was unsure of how to react.

Kimizuki seemed as if he was expecting this, and instead smiled at Akane. “I’m sorry. He was dropped on his head when he was a baby.”

Hey!”

Akane’s laugh was the one of someone who just got told a joke they didn’t quite understand. “I see… In any case, why are you here so late? I thought you would be staying on your ship?”  

“Oh well,” Yuu scratched at his eyebrow, having moved on from Kimizuki’s insult. He felt bad at the idea of lying to Akane, but also didn’t feel it would be right to get her caught up in what was going on. Especially considering he didn’t understand everything that was going on.

“We were out past curfew touring the city. Mitsuba doesn’t allow anyone to board after that. Security reasons.” Kimizuki cut in.  

Yuu did what was probably a terrible job at not looking surprised at his answer. Once again his ass was saved by the flamingo...

“Ah, I see. I have heard she is very strict with her crew.” she smiled. “We just finished cleaning up for the night. But let me get some bedding and you can sleep in here near the fire.”

“Thanks, Akane.” They both bowed deeply.

She ran out the same exit as Mikaela did. They stood there in silence as they continued to take in the heat, hands raised as close to the torches as possible. Yuu found himself comforted by the fire. The sound of the crackling flames echoing in the room reminded him of the palace. He wondered how Guren was holding up, and if Narumi was doing okay. His chest tightened thinking of his retainer and, for so long, his only friend.

He surprised himself at actually feeling a little homesick.

“Hey,” an elbow bumped his. “You okay?”

“Hmm,” Yuu kept his eyes on the flames. “Just, thinking about...everything. And frustrated. We found someone who could help you but in the process also someone else who wants me, and therefore you by proxy, dead. Just wish things were less complicated.”

The silence hung between them for a few heartbeats before Kimizuki finally responded. “That’s fair.”

Akane interrupted, coming back in with an array of blankets and pillows as well as what appeared to be extra sets of coats and other heavy pieces of clothing for them to wear. She carefully arranged the heavy fur blankets and pillows on the floor as the boys stood still and watched. She hopped up and poked both their shoulders.

“Sleep tight! We’ll wake you up in the morning, if the kids don’t find you first. Those clothes should help you stay warm until you can get back to your quarters.” She bounced and turned away, leaving them to the quiet of the igloo once more.

At first, Yuu had reservations about sleeping inside such a big open space constructed out of ice, but it was surprisingly warm once he had curled up under the blankets near the open flames. He watched Kimizuki as he took off his glasses.

“See you in the morning, Yuu.” He cleared his throat and crawled under the blankets in one corner.

Yuu had taken the opposite, still reveling at how warm it was under the fur. “Good night.” He glanced over to Kimizuki once more, but he had already curled up and hidden most of his body and face.

He got himself comfortable and slowed his breathing, willing himself to fall asleep.

 

—o0o—

 

Yuu woke up to a toe jabbing him rudely in the rib. He swatted at the offending foot, making slurring, indistinguishable sounds of protest. “Ngh, wha—? Ugh… five more minutes, Narumi.”

“We need to talk.” The familiar, scathing voice made him sit up abruptly. He quickly remembered he wasn’t tucked safely away in his home, being pestered by his most fastidious retainer. A part of him panged at the thought.

Instead he was met with the sight of the waterbender looming over him, arms crossed tight over his chest.

“Hey! Uh, listen, Mikaela, I think we got off on the wrong foot yesterday,” as Yuu spoke, Kimizuki blinked to awareness beside him but stayed curled up under his blankets, only turning his head to glance up at them as he fumbled to put on his glasses. Mikaela’s face stayed stone cold.

“I don’t know why those guys were attacking us—”

“Maybe because you threatened an entire room of people and revealed you were the Prince of the Fire Nation?” Mikaela cut in, blue eyes narrowed into slits. “You might as well have declared war on everyone in that room.”

“Hey!” He struggled out of his blankets, managing to stand up with the blankets pooling at his feet. Looking around the room, he didn’t see Akane yet. He wasn’t sure how Mikaela heard about what happened, but clearly word had spread fast. “I didn’t think it was right, how Mitsuba was being treated, okay? You weren’t there, you don’t know—”

“That doesn’t matter. If you are a prince as you claim to be, you should know how to control yourself better. And besides, firebending in the middle of a room of waterbenders? Are you really as dumb as you look?”

“Uh, guys,” Kimizuki’s groggy voice chimed in. Yuu didn’t care. The nerve of this blond dude was absolutely fucking crazy.

“How dare you— ” Yuu jabbed his finger at Mikaela’s chest.

The waterbender scoffed and grabbed Yuu’s hand, moving it up and away from him. Yuu tried to pull out of his grip but was met with his hand only getting squeezed tighter. He yelped but kept struggling. Mikaela stepped closer, letting those narrowed, sharp eyes closer to devouring him in a single look.

“How dare I? That’s rich considering—”

“Yuu-niii!”

Both benders turned to the source of the new voice. Taichi had appeared in the entrance and charged towards them both with his arms outstretched. Mikaela released his hold on Yuu and took a step away.

“Yuu-nii! Mika-nii!” The boy rammed into Yuu’s legs and held on tight around his knees. He laughed and patted Taichi’s head. When he looked up, he saw that softness again in Mikaela’s features as he was looking at the kid. He thought of Mirai, and how they needed Mikaela on their side...

“Look, Mikaela—”

“Not now.” He didn’t look at Yuu, but reached out and poked Taichi’s cheek to get the kids attention.

“Ahh! Mika-nii!” Taichi called out. “You’ll help Yuu-nii’s friend right? We told them all about how awesome you are!”

Yuu smirked at him. “Yeah, Mikaela, we’ve heard so much about you.”

At this their eyes finally met again. He could feel the temperature in the room suddenly dropping a few degrees colder, the pressure almost freezing Yuu to the spot.

Instead of responding, Mikaela turned away. “It’s time for morning practice.”

“Aw okay. Bye Mika-nii! Let’s play later!” Taichi called out after him and waved.

Yuu sighed. He looked down at Kimizuki, who had promptly crawled back into bed and covered his face with his blankets, shutting himself away from the world. Yuu decided he could use the time to practice as well.

Maybe he could watch the waterbenders doing their drills again like he had the day before. He hadn’t felt like he had much time to really study them back then.  

He quickly got into the layers of warm clothes Akane had left for them before stepping outside. He blinked at the brightness of the sun reflecting on the snow and shielded his eyes as he scanned his surroundings. In the distance he could see a group of waterbenders practicing in staggered lines in the open space.

At the front of the group, leading the exercises, was Mikaela. His back was to Yuu, so he carefully walked forward until he was safely hidden behind all the other benders but could still directly see the waterbending master.

He followed the slow movements, trying to capture the simple gestures of Mikaela’s hands, of how his feet slid across the packed snow. He stumbled at first, and certainly wasn’t actually trying to waterbend, but he followed the motions carefully all the same. Soon he felt he was getting the hang of it — he watched as the benders started to add water to their practice by pulling moisture out of the snow at their feet. Mikaela moved the most gracefully out of any of them, now that Yuu could study him under normal circumstances, instead of the throes of fighting. Water droplets danced around Mikaela’s long, lithe fingers, and rolled up his arms before lifting off once more. He looked as though he was lost in a waltz.

“Yuu?” His name made him shout a few choice curse words as Kimizuki walked up beside him.

Everyone turned around and looked directly at him.

Including Mikaela.

“What are you doing out here practicing waterbending techniques?” Kimizuki rubbed at his eyes and adjusted the fur around his shoulders.

“I—uh—” He darted his eyes from Kimizuki back to the group of benders, who had turned away and resumed their routine. Mikaela, thankfully, among them.  

“It just looked cool?”

Kimizuki snorted. “You’re so predictable.”

“Hey!”

Kimizuki waved him off. “Whatever, I’m starving. Can we please figure out the food situation, since our royal chambers were compromised?”

“Do you think we can go back to Mitsuba’s ship?” Yuu tightened the coat he wore around his chest, as it had come loose while performing some of the moves. He was amazed at how quickly the chill in the air made its way to his skin. Why couldn’t firebenders have an automatic furnace inside their bodies? Or was that a technique Yuu still needed to master?

“After that stunt yesterday? I assume we’re gonna have to steal a ship to leave this island and get back home.”

They stood together in silence, watching the benders continue practice. Yuu noticed Mikaela was missing from the front of the group now.

“So, breakfast?” Kimizuki poked him in the ribs.

“Sure, fine,” He turned away, hoping he could try to practice more later uninterrupted.

They trekked back to the igloo. Yuu resisted the urge to look behind him, to see if there were any more new moves he could try to absorb in the half second he would see them.

Walking inside, they saw Akane near the fire setting up a small tray with something that looked vaguely like food.

And Mikaela stood beside her.

“Are you trying to follow me around, or are you just being unintentionally creepy?” Mikaela hissed at Yuu from the center of the space.

“Mika! Don’t be rude!”

Mikaela ignored her chiding, seeming to notice Kimizuki then. “...Akane, give us a moment please.”

“Why?”

Yuu fidgeted between Akane and Mikaela in their stand off. Akane was shorter than Yuu, but the way she crossed her arms and lifted her chin up at Mikaela made her seem like she could take anyone in a fight. Yuu didn’t doubt she potentially could.

But she was the one who relented in the end. “Fine. But you owe me.” She muttered as she stepped out.

“You,” Mikaela spoke to Kimizuki. He noticeably jumped at the attention being paid to him out of nowhere. “Akane says your sister is sick?”

Kimizuki cleared his throat. He tossed a quick look towards Yuu before stepping forward and raising his chin just a bit. He was slightly taller than Mikaela, Yuu noticed with annoyance.

Yuu took a step backwards to give them a little more space, edging towards the table set up with a small offering of food that had been left there by Akane. It was an unusual spread, that was for sure. He tuned out the conversation to study the breakfast. Pieces of dried meat that looked like jerky, pickled fish, and not-noodles that were upon closer inspection actually seaweed in a broth.

His stomach growled. He could really go for some fruit, maybe yogurt. He really liked sweet stuff more than anything. He tentatively grabbed a piece of the fish and took a small bite, discovering it was in fact, pickled. And not terribly offensive. His stomach growled once more to remind him he was hungry and to stop being picky, so he took a few more bites to finish off the fish. The noodles he was less sure about, as the color was off putting, but the jerky he tried. It was a bit more chewy than the jerky he knew but it was still good, with a hint of sea salt to it. He reached for a second piece, and debated grabbing more to have for later.

“The Fire Nation? Are you insane?” Mikaela’s voice rose, snapping him out of his food-induced thoughts.

“Look I know it’s risky but my sister—”

“It’s not just risky, it’s just not going to happen. Getting into the Fire Nation is beyond impossible if they don’t want you there. Security has been locked down ever since—”

Kimizuki stepped up close to Mikaela, and Yuu froze with jerky hanging out of his mouth at the action. He glared down at the other male with his height and his voice was low as he spoke.

“We all know why.”

The room was quiet for way too many seconds. The jerky in his mouth nearly forgotten. Yuu didn’t want to think about why his kingdom had such tight restrictions either, and he did appreciate Kimizuki’s concern for him. But it wasn’t worth fighting with their one shot at getting a waterbending master.

Then they both turned their heads at Yuu and he suddenly thought of holding up a piece of the meat he had been about to devour.

“Uh...the jerky? It’s really...good! Is it yak?”

“It’s seal.” Mikaela spoke matter of factly, studying Yuu a bit too intently.

“Oh…” Yuu stopped chewing to think about this, considering the cute seals they had seen while sailing into the harbor. “I didn’t think seal would taste so good.” He forced a smile and took another bite, chewing deliberately.

Kimizuki seemed to let out a long breath and rubbed his temples with one hand. When Mikaela looked back at him, he straightened up.

“Listen, I don’t even know you, and you expect me to just drop everything to go to the Fire Nation? A place where I could be imprisoned and executed just for setting foot on the soil. You know that sounds crazy, right?”

Yuu decided to officially step in. “I can get you in! You can wear a disguise like we did! And besides, I’m the Prince.”

Mikaela crossed his arms, staring at Yuu with what he was quickly realizing was his usual look: pissed off and done.“I don’t think—”

“Mikaela-san!” A voice echoed from the courtyard and the three of them whipped around in the direction of the voice.

A man ran in, covered head to toe in fur and looking like he just ran miles to get there, what of his face visible was bright red from exertion.

“Mikaela-san! It’s Junji! He’s getting worse!”  

“Junji?” Yuu swallowed the last of his jerky and looked back to the blond. He looked completely crestfallen, mouth pursed into a hard frown.

He moved away from Kimizuki and past Yuu without a pause, and Yuu caught Kimizuki’s stare and mouthed the words what the hell is going on. Kimizuki merely shrugged with a sad sigh. He gestured with his chin and Yuu turned back around to see Mikaela had wrapped an arm around the man’s shoulders. They walked out of the igloo as the man continued to frantically ramble about someone named Junji.

So naturally, Yuu had to follow.

Kimizuki managed to swipe some jerky as they left, but no other words passed between them. When they finally stopped, Mikaela said something to the man while bracing his hands on his shoulders. His expression worried Yuu. The guy nodded at whatever was told to him and ran back to where he came from.

“What’s going on?” Kimizuki asked before Yuu could.

Mikaela looked frustrated and defeated as he ran a hand through his hair. “People of the village have been getting sick. We don’t know what it is yet.”  

“So like an epidemic?” Kimizuki asked.

Mikaela nodded. “I guess you could call it that.”

“But it’s curable, right?” Yuu caught up to them, looking between the two.

Mikaela frowned, clicking his tongue as he spoke. “In a way. I can make the symptoms subside for a while, but I can’t understand what’s causing it in order to completely heal the person… I’ve never seen anything like it before. And I don’t like that.”

Yuu studied the snow beneath their feet as they continued to move quickly alongside Mikaela.

Not exactly what you would want the supposedly best healer of the nation to say .

“No one’s died yet,” he added, talking more to himself than to Yuu and Kimizuki, “but if I could only understand how it’s spreading… if I could only get a clue as to how to permanently stop it, or prevent it...”

Yuu felt something poke him in the ribs. He turned around to see Kimizuki lean in closer, as if he wanted to whisper something to him, and they hung back to let Mikaela lead in front of them.

“Yuu,” Kimizuki whispered, his brows furrowed as he scrutinized Mikaela. “Are you sure this guy can help?”

The look on Kimizuki’s face gave his every thought away. More than the people of the Water Tribe, he was clearly worried about his sister. Can he really save Mirai? Was it all for nothing? Yuu really couldn’t blame him for thinking that way.

“We’ll see for ourselves soon enough,” Yuu tried to sound reassuring, elbowing him back in the ribs for good measure. “Nasty attitude aside, you saw how he fought last night, right? He was wicked cool!”

“Yuu.” Kimizuki looked him dead in the eye. “You’re not allowed to say that word ever again.”

“Oi–” Yuu started to protest, but Kimizuki cut him off.

“But yes,” The pink-haired teen admitted, unsmiling. “I did.”

“We’re going to have to trust him for now,” Yuu said with a shrug.

Kimizuki grimaced. “Thrilling.”

Yuu tilted his head, watching Kimizuki out the corner of his eyes as they walked, curious. Why was it so hard for Kimizuki to trust Mikaela? He did save their lives, after all… perhaps he was just being very cautious, given that his sister was involved.

He was quickly distracted from his thoughts when Mikaela stopped in front of a small home nestled among a cluster of others just like it. He tossed them a wary glance over his shoulder before knocking on the door and announcing himself as he entered.

Yuu and Kimizuki hesitated before Yuu huffed out.

“Come on.”

He needed to see the bender in action. He'd seen him fight, but how well could he heal?

Thoughts of himself quickly escaped him at the scene they came upon once inside the home. The sight of a bedridden kid dragged him back to reality. He was sweating profusely and his breathing was laboured, but that wasn’t what caught Yuu’s attention: instead, his eyes were glued to the purple marks and patches running all over his skin.

Mikaela kneeled down by the bed, examining the marks on his face, his neck and his arms. The look on his face didn’t promise anything good. “His condition is worsening,” Mikaela said, without raising his eyes.

“You can help him, right?” asked the man who looked related to the child. Yuu figured he was perhaps Junji’s father. “You can cure him?”

Mikaela bit his lip and quickly stopped, as if trying to not make his nervousness obvious. “At this point, I’m not sure.”

“But he reacted to the therapy well the last time, didn’t he?”

“And its effects lasted longer than I anticipated,” Mikaela agreed, gesturing for the man to take a seat as he explained. “But as much as it successfully delayed the progression of the disease, I can’t guarantee if it will be as effective now.”

The man’s face fell. “So there’s no hope?” His voice broke as he spoke.

Mikaela placed a hand on his shoulder, looking him straight in the eyes. “I swear on my life I will do everything in my power to cure him.”

The man broke into a heavy-hearted sob. He rested his hand on Junji’s forehead softly. “We’re in your hands, Mikaela-san.”

Mikaela nodded, and dipped his hands in the bucket of water placed by the bed. The water turned a bright blue color as it coated his fingers, palms and wrists, and if Yuu didn’t know any better he could have sworn it had come alive.

“One of you two,” Mikaela said suddenly, making Yuu and Kimizuki jump. “Hold him down.”

Yuu and Kimizuki shared a questioning glance, unsure.

“Don’t worry, it’s safe,” Mikaela added.

“Are you sure we should do that?” Yuu asked hesitantly, nodding at Junji’s father.

“Yes,” Mikaela said, looking at him with an expression that he couldn’t decipher, “because I need the absolute certainty that you won’t let go no matter what .”

“I’ll do it,” Kimizuki spoke for the first time since they got there, and kneeled on the opposite side of the bed.

Mikaela sized him up uncertainly, but then just nodded. “Hold his other arm still. Don’t worry,” he added, after seeing Kimizuki falter briefly, “it’s not contagious by physical contact.”

“It’s not that,” Kimizuki said, shaking his head to himself.

“Then what?”

“It just…” he sighed, “It looks a lot like what my sister has, that’s all.”

“I see,” Mikaela lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry. Are you sure you can do this?”

“Yes!” said Kimizuki promptly, his eyebrows knitted together in concentration already. “Yes. I want to.”

“Right,” Mikaela nodded, giving him indications on how to position himself. “so hold his arm down here, and rest your torso here to keep his legs still. He will get convulsions, so make sure your balance is good.”

By the end of the explanation, Kimizuki looked like a spider having a stroke, but he didn’t seem to care. “Got it.”

“And remember, whatever happens,” Mikaela looked at Kimizuki dead in the eyes, “do not let go.”

Kimizuki gulped but nodded once in understanding. Clearly Mikaela was one of those people with the rare gift of making everything they said sound ominous, but he wasn’t lying about the convulsions. As soon as he placed his hands on Junji’s wrist to begin the healing, the boy started shaking under Kimizuki’s grip. Junji’s father had moved away, observing from the corner of the room, likely not wanting to disturb the healing process.

Black smoke started coming out of his skin as Mikaela worked around the marks, and the water glowed an even brighter blue. Watching Mikaela work his ability would have been quite a sight, had a kid’s life not been at stake. There was something captivating about the way his hands moved in fluid movements and graceful gestures, and Yuu couldn’t bring himself to look away.

Hell, he was so focused on the whole thing that it took him a handful of seconds to start seeing shapes in the smoke.

At first, his reaction was the same as any other person would have had in his situation: wondering if he was hallucinating. The second was blinking a few times, and pinching his cheek to confirm he was actually awake. The third was to mildly freak out, falling backwards in the process.

“What the hell is that thing?”

The more Yuu looked at it, the more it started to look like some sort of animal, with paws and fur and a tail – the whole package. Kimizuki, on the other hand, for some reason was looking at Yuu like he was insane. Mikaela just gave off an aura of general pissed-off-ness at the interruption.

“What thing? The smoke?” Kimizuki asked.

“That! That thing!” Yuu said pointing frantically at the smoke over their heads.

“The smoke is proof that the healing process is being effective,” Mikaela said in his calmest tone, without even turning to look at Yuu. “Now shut it and let me focus.”

Yuu glared at him. “You could have at least warned me ahead of time I was going to see a massive smoking fire ferret. I thought I was hallucinating. It freaked me out!”

Mikaela’s movements faltered. “A fire ferret?”

“Yeah.” Yuu got up, scratching the back of his head, “Geez, what is it with fire ferrets lately–”

“Yuuichirou,” Yuu gaped as Mikaela called him by his name (he thought Mikaela had likely forgotten it), turning to stare him dead in the eyes. “What fire ferret?”

Yuu raised an eyebrow. “Very funny. I don’t think now’s the time to mess around with me.”

“I’m being serious,” Mika didn’t flinch, keeping his uncomfortably intense stare fixed on Yuu.

“What, are you trying to say you’re not seeing the massive ball of furry smoke on top of your heads?” The way Mikaela and Kimizuki exchanged confused glances spoke words. Yuu just stared at them. “Hold on, seriously? You really don’t see it?”

“Yuu,” Kimizuki said carefully, “it’s just smoke…”

“Maybe you’re just tired,” Mikaela suggested before resuming his work.

You can see me? spoke a third voice, which Yuu didn’t recognize. It sounded like it was coming from far away, echoing in his head. He could only presume it was coming from the smoky ferret.

“I don’t know,” Yuu answered honestly.

“You don’t know if you’re tired?” Kimizuki asked.

Yuu just rolled his eyes. “Would you shut up? I’m trying to listen to the ferret.”

“Oh god, it talks, too?”

Kimizuki sounded seriously worried, but Yuu ignored it, instead directing his attention to the apparently-invisible-and-that-clearly-wasn’t-expected-to-be-seen fire ferret. He wasn’t sure talking to a mass of smoke made much sense, but at this point, Yuu had stopped asking questions.

Yuu tilted his head to the side, scrutinizing the smoke. It looked almost like the animal from his dream, yet it was hard to distinguish without the coloring and...everything else. Why was it even here, anyway?

I can tell you possess great powers, young one. The smoke continued speaking, slithering towards him and circling the room in wide, graceful arcs. Mikaela seemed to be saying something but Yuu was too entranced by the spirit standing in front of him to care.

You are the one I have been looking for.

That made Yuu pause, wondering what the fire ferret meant. Does it know I’m the Avatar?

Yes.

Yuu jolted, yelping out loud when he realized it was reading his fucking mind. Kimizuki sent him another strange and slightly worried look but didn’t comment this time around, probably thinking Yuu had already lost his mind.

Well, Yuu’s starting to believe it too.

W-Who are you and how can you read my mind?! Yuu thought back, trying to know more about this sudden presence in his mind.

You will know soon enough, young Avatar... Suddenly, the smoke in the room swirled into a mist, bringing with it the shape of the fire ferret, then dissipated, leaving no traces that it was even there. Yuu stared wide eyed around the room before turning back to see the other two standing shell-shocked, and for a split second, he thought they saw the same thing he did. But his hopes were dashed when he realized they weren’t actually looking at the place the ferret just occupied.

“Was...was that supposed to happen?” Kimizuki asked, uncertainly glancing down at the child who seemed to be breathing a little easier now.

There was a furrow in Mikaela’s brow as he looked down at his hands before checking Junji as well, “No… but he’s fine now. The illness has all but disappeared from his system.” He did a few more hand gestures with the water flowing under his palms, moving over the boy’s prone form before taking a step back.

“He’s completely healed.” Although his words were positive, his tone was anything but. Mikaela didn’t look happy that the child was suddenly stable and Yuu could take a stab as to why. He was still weirded out by that fire ferret, not knowing where it went after making a spectacle of itself like that.

Junji’s father finally stepped forward, disbelief and hope warring in his features, “Is it true? Is he finally okay?”

Mikaela promptly wiped off his doubtful expression, offering a small smile to the older man, who wasn’t looking as he had immediately rushed to stand beside his son. “There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him anymore. He’s completely fine.”

“Oh thank the spirits!” The relief in his voice was palpable, and it looked as if he was close to tears again. “Thank you, Mikaela-san.”

Yuu frowned, walking out of the igloo with Kimizuki as Mikaela spoke with the man more, still contemplating about that weird animal in the smoke.

He decided to ask his partner. “Hey, about earlier, you really didn’t see anything?”

Kimizuki sighed, an unreadable expression on his face, “No, Yuu. There wasn’t anything there. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?”

Yuu didn’t answer that, suddenly frightened for his mental state as he thought about why only he could see the fire ferret while nobody else did. Kimizuki seemed to sense Yuu’s nerves, because he rolled his eyes, bumping him on the shoulder, “Oi. I didn’t really mean it, idiot.”

“Nevermind about it.” Yuu muttered. He looked over his shoulder to see Mikaela making his way out, a hand tiredly swiping over his face, “Hey, you go on ahead. I’ll be back in a bit.”

Kimizuki just shrugged in response, features already set into a deep thought as he trudged away from Junji’s place. Maybe he was thinking about his sister again, and that they’d finally found a waterbender to cure her.

Yuu sighed. If only his own problems could be easily solved with just a mere healing of a waterbender.

“Mikaela!” Yuu called, jogging towards him when he didn’t pause to wait, just glancing at the prince with a turn of his head.

“So… how many people in the village are sick like he is?” Yuu asked once he caught up.

The waterbender was silent for a long moment before he said, “Too many to count.”

“That’s strange. I didn’t see any of the other people in the city looking that sick.” Yuu muttered, touching his chin as he glanced up in thought.

“That’s because it’s only happening within the outer regions of the land.”

Yuu’s brows rose in understanding, nodding his head. “You know, Kimizuki’s sister is in the same condition.”

“Yeah, so he mentioned. But unless I figure out what happened in there, I won’t be of any help either.” Mikaela stated before sharply eyeing Yuu, “And even if I did, the risk of leaving this island is too great. So don’t get your hopes up.”

“But...didn’t you just heal that kid?” Yuu said, perplexed at Mikaela’s sour mood. Shouldn’t he be relieved that Junji was cured?

Mikaela finally stopped in his tracks, eyes narrowed and jaw clenched, “No. It wasn’t me. It was like the illness suddenly just… disappeared on its own. I don’t understand it.”

Yuu felt his stomach drop. Didn’t that boy’s condition get better the moment the fire ferret left? It was white and wispy, like a ghost. Or maybe a spirit. Maybe the spirit had something to do with it?

“Spirit? What spirit?”

Yuu jumped, “Eh?! Don’t tell me you can read minds too?!”

Mikaela leveled him a stare that practically screamed are you stupid? “You were muttering under your breath.”

“O-Oh.”

Mikaela’s impatient and expectant gaze was still on him so Yuu turned his face to the side, rubbing the back of his neck, “Uh, it’s nothing. Don’t mind me.”

Yuu gestured for them to continue down the path but the blond kept on staring critically. Then with something gleaming in his ice, blue eyes, Mikaela crossed his arms over his chest, “The thing you saw earlier… it was a spirit, wasn’t it? It was actually there? It wasn't an act of you playing stupid?”

“I wasn’t acting stupid! When have I ever acted stupid?!” Yuu squawked, arms flailing.

Mikaela shook his head, turning back to continue his walk, “Since the moment we met.”  

“Just for that, I’m not telling you!” Yuu huffed, turning away and marching back towards Akane’s home, mumbling furiously under his breath about ‘know-it-all jerks’ and ‘no respect to princes’.

However, the spirit debacle wasn’t over yet. By the middle of the day, two more people had asked for Mikaela’s assistance to heal their own family members. It seemed the news of Mikaela curing the unknown disease had spread throughout the village and people in need were begging for their loved ones to be saved.

The thing was — Mikaela couldn’t do it again. He told them he didn’t know what cured Junji but it hadn’t been through his own abilities. He even made an example of it by trying to heal one of the sick parties that had been brought to see him and nothing had happened.

Some of them grew hopeless once more, others were mad, thinking that Mikaela was lying to them and trying to hide the cure for himself.

Yuu and Kimizuki hadn’t wanted to accompany the waterbender after that, unable to do anything to help alleviate the situation and not risk being a bother to the blond. But when Mikaela came back after placating and dispersing the crowd growing outside his igloo, the raven-haired teen could tell he was pissed.

He went straight for Yuu. Grabbing him by the collar, he dragged the kicking and shouting prince outside the house, ignoring the looks they got from Akane and Kimizuki.

“What are you doing?!” Yuu ripped himself away from Mikaela, panting slightly from the struggle. The man had a strong grip.

“The spirit. I want to know what you know about it.”

His eyes seemed to sear through Yuu’s soul, looking for any lies Yuu might be about to tell him. Well, the waterbender was in for a surprise, “I told you, I know nothing about it!”

A hand shot out of nowhere and slammed against the wall beside Yuu’s head. Mikaela leaned in, expression serious, “Do you take me for a fool?”

Not knowing what to say, Yuu shook his head. His body tense as he pressed himself against the wall as much as he could, ready for anything Mikaela might dish out on him.

“Then just tell me about the spirit you saw. I know you don't care about these people’s lives, but I do. They're my people and I have a job to protect them.”

Somehow, listening to Mikaela’s words sparked something deep within Yuu. It sounded so familiar Yuu could laugh at the irony of it because he and Mikaela had nothing in common at all. Until now.

“You're not the only one who has people to protect.” Yuu raised his head, staring right into Mikaela’s glare. He finally conceded, “But I’m telling you honestly that I have no idea what that spirit is. I can only say that it looked like a fire ferret and it talked in my mind.”

Mikaela’s brow scrunched. “What did it tell you?”

“Uh…” Yuu wracked his brain to remember the exact words but he could only recall the gist of it. “Well it asked me first if I could see it and then I freaked out and tried asking who it was. But then it just said something cryptic as fuck and left.” Yuu shrugged helplessly.

When he looked back at Mikaela’s eyes, he seemed to be contemplating his words. Still unmoving from their position, Yuu was about to ask if he could back up a little when suddenly, “Why can you see it?”

Yuu sweated, “What?”

“The spirit. How come you were able to see it and not us?” Mikaela questioned, eyes hard as ice. Yuu’s mouth floundered, trying to think of a reply that wouldn't expose him as the Avatar. He didn't want to reveal himself like this!

“Well...uh...because…”

“Hey! What are you guys doing?”

They both simultaneously turned their heads to the new voice — Yuu greatly relieved to see Kimizuki, while Mikaela looked annoyed as always. His friend and savior purposely strode towards them and extracted Yuu from between the wall and the waterbender’s body. The prince sent him a grateful look while the other just rolled his eyes at him.

“We were having a chat.” Mikaela said, straightening up and looking as if he hadn't just pinned someone against a wall.

“Right. Didn't look that way to me. Besides, it's supper time, Akane’s calling.”

With that, he trudged back inside, dragging a more compliant Yuu with him. Next time he'd be ready for Mikaela’s confrontation about the topic but for now, Yuu had some planning to do.

That night, as they settled into their beds, (after begging and apologizing to Akane about spending another night in their place) Yuu didn't think that he'd be dreaming again. Or at least about that fire ferret. How wrong he was to doubt.

The moment he opened his eyes, he knew he wasn't in the Water Tribe anymore. The land was smoky, fogging up his vision and Yuu couldn't see anything from a mile away.

“Hello?”

Yuu called out, stepping further into the smoke and trying to see through it for any signs of life.

Yuuichirou Ichinose.

The prince jumped, spinning around for that voice. When he didn’t see anyone — or any thing for that matter — Yuu continued on walking, scoping his surroundings more carefully now. Was that the spirit? Was it in here somewhere?

Come. Follow the path.

Yuu scrunched his brows, wondering what the spirit meant when Yuu could barely see anything in front of him. Just as he thought that, the fog around him suddenly divided in two, revealing a stone-covered path to a destination Yuu couldn’t see. He frowned, wondering if he should follow.

But then, Mikaela flashed through his mind’s eye. The waterbender needed to know what the spirit was doing to get all these people sick. Yuu had felt the conviction in him to save them. Well, Yuu couldn’t ignore someone who needed help. That was his duty as the Avatar.

With one step forward, Yuu made his way to wherever the spirit needed him to go. It’s not like he was actually moving. This was all just a dream, right?

Eventually, Yuu came into a clearing full of snow, the stars shining brightly overhead with millions of constellations etched onto the inky backdrop. It almost took Yuu’s breath away. There were never that many stars in the Fire Nation due to the perpetual lanterns they had around the city.

But this...the waterbenders were so lucky to have this view all to themselves.

You have arrived, young Avatar.

Yuu was startled out of his thoughts, turning to his right to see that the spirit had finally showed itself. It looked just as it did from his previous dream. The spirit easily towered over him, probably two meters high and Yuu had to crane his head just to look up at it.

“Who are you? And why did you bring me here?” Yuu didn’t even know where here was but he was pretty sure they hadn’t left the Water Tribe yet. The smell, the sight, the wind — it was all the same; Yuu shivered from the frigid cold of the atmosphere.

I am Ame. And I need your help, young Avatar.

Yuu scratched his head, “Uh...depends. With what?”

To bring me back home.

Well, that sounded simple enough. Only...Yuu had no clue where fire ferrets originated from. Maybe they came from the Fire Nation? They’re called fire ferrets after all. Of course, they must have gotten their name because they could survive the heat — was Yuu’s reasoning and didn’t hesitate to voice his logically sound deduction.

No. Was the spirit’s blunt reply. I am from a higher plane than this world. One that cannot be easily entered unless you are the Avatar. My home is the Spirit World.

Oh. Yuu probably should have figured that out when the fire ferret approached him in spirit form. This is why Kimizuki enjoys calling me an idiot.

Ame tilted its head to the side, like it was looking inquisitively down at Yuu. Do not belittle yourself, young Avatar. I sense great potential within you, so fear not of what you have yet to know. All shall be within your grasp in due time.

Yuu blinked. “Oh...thanks?” He didn’t expect to be getting life lessons from a translucent fire ferret of all things, but Yuu guessed this just came with being the Avatar. Speaking of…

“You said you only live in the Spirit World, right? And only the Avatar can get in there. So how exactly can I..bring you there?” The prince coughed into his fist, feeling awkward. He’d never done anything as an Avatar before; this was his first mission to prove himself!

You cannot. The balance between our worlds is shifting, blurring the lines between your world and mine . I, and many others, cannot get back home. We need your help .

But how was Yuu supposed to do anything of that if he had no clue how to get into the Spirit World in the first place? Shinya might have mentioned it once in his airbending lessons with him but they’d never really stayed on the topic long before moving on to another.

Wake up.

Huh? Yuu scrunched his brows, wondering what that was. It didn’t sound like Ame’s voice.

Ah, looks like our time here is up, young Avatar.

Wake up!

Startled, Yuu turned to face the fire ferret frantically, “W-Wait! I want to help you but I don’t really know how to go about this!”

In time, young Avatar, you will learn. I have faith you’ll bring us all home.

“Yuuichirou! Wake up!”

Gasping and jerking wildly where he stood, Yuu opened his eyes and found himself staring back into icy, blue pools, filled with anger and confusion. Then Yuu took into account his own body — there were droplets of water running through his eyelashes; wet bangs were stuck to his forehead, and his form was shivering under the very, very cold climate of the Water Tribe.

“Did you just douse me in water?!” Yuu yelled, shaking the excess liquid from his hair. He placed his hands against his arms, rapidly rubbing them up and down as he desperately infused warmth in his palms, melting the chill away from his bones.

Mikaela didn’t look too concerned, his attention now preoccupied with something else in the distance. This ticked Yuu off greatly. He’d just been humiliated by the waterbender and he wasn't even going to acknowledge him? He’s a prince! He wasn’t about to let his dignity get trampled by some arrogant master of an element he was dying to learn from him.

But just as Yuu opened his mouth, Mikaela cut in, “I see it”, his voice filled with wonder and caution, body tense all over, “The spirit.”

That made Yuu snap to attention, glancing around at his surroundings for the first time and realizing he wasn’t where he should be. How had he ended up in a snow covered wasteland when he’d just tucked himself into bed not a few minutes ago?!

Did he sleepwalk? Recalling how his dream self had been following a path to reach wherever the spirit was, Yuu didn’t think it so farfetched. Could spirits really have that kind of power over him? Speaking of the spirit, Ame was standing a little ways beyond, watching the two of them with blank, silvery eyes.

Calm your friend, young Avatar. I mean no harm to his people any longer.

Yuu hadn’t known what he meant until he glanced towards Mikaela. The blond was crouched in a defensive stance, hand raised with the intent to summon the water at his command and Yuu hastily grabbed his wrist.

“Wait! It’s friendly.”

Mikaela’s eyes, cold and vicious, snapped to face him, “Friendly? That’s the spirit causing everyone’s illness, right?”

“Well, yeah…”

The waterbender snatched his wrist away, “Then, I need to eliminate it before any more people fall ill.” He’d only begun to run for it when Yuu intercepted him, stepping in front of Mikaela with his arms spread wide.

Blond dude didn't appreciate it. “Step aside.”

“Just listen, will you?” Yuu glared. “I know how to deal with it.” Mikaela didn’t look like he believed him but he didn’t make any more aggressive moves toward the spirit. Yuu turned to face Ame again, seeing that the spirit was still watching them.

“When you said you mean no harm, will the people in the village be okay again?”

Of course. I’ve been searching for anyone who could understand my plight, possessing them and accidentally hurting them in the process. But with you here, my message has been heard. My presence will no longer linger in their persons.

Sighing in relief, Yuu said, “That’s good. See Mikaela, Ame’s going to set everyone free.”

When he turned, the blond was only giving him a confused and astonished look to which Yuu raised a brow at.

I cannot stay any longer, young Avatar. I must leave but remember my plea. My spirit is weak in this land.

“W-Wait! Don’t go! I still need to know how to bring you back home!” Yuu rambled, chasing after the fire ferret that was turning away from them, its four legs running towards the snowy mountains up ahead. Yuu would have kept on going had Mikaela not stopped him.

“Hey, let go!”

But Mikaela refused. His penetrating gaze raked all over Yuu’s face, his features stony. He only released him a few moments later and when Yuu turned to look over his shoulder, the fire ferret was already gone, disappeared from sight.

Yuu groaned, “Now I’ll never know how to help Ame. Where can I even find an entrance to the Spirit World?”  

“You’re joking, right?” Mikaela began, facing the prince, “Nobody can just... find the entrance to the Spirit World. It’s hidden for a reason. Besides, why is it asking you for help?”

Yuu hadn’t been ready yet to come up with a story, and Kimizuki wasn’t there to help him.

Internally panicking, Yuu came up with, “None of your business.” And began to walk away. He was surprised when the man actually dropped the subject.  

“Fine. Then tell me what you meant when you said the spirit was setting everyone free. Free from what?” Mikaela questioned, keeping up with his pace.

Yuu heaved a great sigh, “Weren’t you listening?” But before he could continue explaining, Mikaela snapped, “Obviously not since it only seemed to want to communicate with you.”

Yuu blinked rapidly, not noticing that. “Oh.”

“Yeah, and you won’t tell me the reason for that too, right?”

The prince was getting worried now, not liking that gleam in Mikaela’s eye like he was trying to solve something. Yuu gulped and shook his head. The waterbender seemed to accept it easily and Yuu hoped he wasn’t smart enough to piece everything together.  

Mikaela followed behind Yuu closely but didn’t press him any further. The silence weighed on Yuu — he needed a waterbending master, wanted him to be that master, and yet the words died in his throat that would allow him to tell Mikaela the truth. Voicing who he was, his true identity, was finding it more difficult than he had imagined.

A part of him feared that if Mikaela wouldn’t help him, no one would.

When they reached the igloo, Kimizuki was pacing in the middle of the room.

“Yuu! What the hell? Where were you?” He ran up and grabbed Yuu by the shoulders, shaking him.

“I guess I wandered off in my sleep...but! Mikaela and I figured out how to help the people who are sick!”

“What?” Kimizuki took a small step back and studied them both. “You did?”

“I bet it would work on Mirai, too. Right, Mikaela?” Yuu finally turned to look at the blond, who still had that calculating gaze locked on him.

“It could,” he spoke slowly, “if she has the same disease. I wouldn’t know without seeing.”

“If it’s spirits,” Yuu muttered, “then we just have to find the ones that are causing the problem and help them, right? So if the ferret is gone…”

Mikaela’s eyes widened. He left them behind quickly to go to one of the folk left in one of the rooms to rest — Mikaela hovered over them, performing the same motions as with Junji.

“What happened out there?” Kimizuki whispered to Yuu. “You wandered off and somehow found a miracle cure?”

“It’s a long story...maybe on the way home.” Yuu focused intently on Mikaela, on how he looked different, somehow. As if he were lighter, less burdened.

They couldn’t hear the words spoken, but by the way the family around the person reacted, and the exponential relief etched on Mikaela’s face…

Yuu smiled. “He did it.”

They both got into their furs and left Mikaela to help the other sick people of the village — word quickly spread and people flocked to the igloo, leaving Kimizuki and Yuu to hang around with the kids to keep them from getting in the way.

At the end of the day, Yuu thought that maybe...maybe he could ask now. Lay it all out for Mikaela, get him to help Kimizuki, and begin his training.

Akane flagged for them to come inside as the sun set. As they did, Mikaela stepped out. He looked tired, but also had an air of satisfaction about him as he smiled at Akane.

“You were amazing today, Mika.” She touched his shoulder lightly. “You need to eat.”

“I’ll be right there.” He watched as Kimizuki passed by, then put an arm up to block Yuu from entering. “Outside.”

Yuu narrowed his eyes at him, but followed, biting his tongue against the oncoming argument.

“Listen, Mikaela, I know I still owe you—”

Mikaela faced him as soon as they were far enough away from the entrance. “I think I figured it out, it all makes sense now.”

“Huh?!” Yuu jumped. “What does?”

“You. Who you are.” Mikaela pointed his finger at Yuu, his voice low. “Why you’re here. How you conned your friend into being your bodyguard and coming along to the Water Tribe and risking his life.”

Yuu gaped, astonished, before clenching his fist. “I did no such thing—”

“Fight me. In a duel.”

Yuu stopped. He was standing close to Mikaela, close enough to see the breath escaping him as he breathed. “What?”

“I challenge you, Yuuichirou.” The water bender straightened up and lifted his chin, making Yuu want to punch him in the stomach to get him to stop.

“And if you win, I’ll go with you.”

Chapter Text

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.

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.

“Listen-“

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.”

—o0o—

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.

Mikaela.

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.

So...playing with...ice?

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.”

Yuu gawked.

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?”

“…Yes.”

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.

“Answer me.”

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.

“You bastard…”

“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.

Kimizuki…

Shinya…

Narumi....

I’m sorry…

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.

—o0o—

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.

"W-what?"

"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.

—o0o—

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.

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.

—o0o—

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.

But...

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.

“Kimizuki?”

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.”

“Huh?”

“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?”

—o0o—

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.”