Chapter 1: you can always find me here
And then it's just too much:
The streets, they still run with blood.
A hundred arms, a hundred years,
You can always find me here.
When Azula is nine, she becomes an only child.
She hears the Fire Lord call for her brother’s life, and Azula runs to Zuzu’s side to hold it over him. It’s funny at the time. Zuko is so scared and frustrated, and Mother is as cold and distant with Azula as she always is. Azula runs to bed and giggles into her pillows.
The next day, Zuzu and Mother are both gone.
Azula is young, but she isn’t naive like Zuko is. Like Zuko was . She knows what has happened. It takes a long time to sink in, because unlike with Lu Ten, it wasn’t an awful accident. It wasn’t the product of war. Zuzu is gone because the Fire Lord decided that he needed to be gone, and apparently the Fire Lord thought that Mother needed to die, too. And then the Fire Lord is dead, too, and Father ascends the Dragon Throne.
It’s hard to process, but Azula keeps moving. There are moments that she expects to find Zuko feeding the turtleducks, but they’re few and far between.
Azula only allows herself one moment of weakness. While hiding, she hears servants talk about how they will be clearing Zuzu’s room out the following day. It’s only been four days since he disappeared (since he died, Azula’s mind insists; you have to think the actual words), and Azula has spent most of it swept to one side in the energy of Father ascending the throne. She has been shown off, of course, but she mostly spends her time in the shadows.
Azula lets herself visit Zuzu's room one last time while everything is still in place. She stands for long moments in the middle of the room, looking to the bed where she had jumped on her brother to wake him up, to the window where Azula had held out the badgerfrog he’d found to see if it would fly, to the desk where Zuko had carefully penned out nonsense letters for practice. Zuko’s swords are sheathed and leaning up against a wall, like he had recently returned from practice. The room has clearly been tidied, but nothing seems to be missing.
And when Azula spots Zuko’s most prized possession, his pearl-handled dagger, Azula realises that she has somehow been lying to herself. As much as she has forced herself to say and think ‘Zuko died’, she hasn’t really internalised it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she has been convinced that he got away on time.
But Zuzu would never have left that dagger behind.
It can only be here for one reason, because Zuko wouldn’t have left it willingly. Which means that…
(An emotion bubbles up within Azula, and she stamps down on it firmly.)
Azula approaches the desk where it sits and unsheathes the dagger, glancing at the inscription: never give up without a fight. She hopes that he didn’t. She hopes that he fought to the end, that he had to be taken down, even if she knows that it’s unlikely to be true.
Azula wonders if she should return the dagger to Uncle Iroh. It had been a gift from the stupid old man, of course, and Azula hasn’t seen him since Lu Ten’s death. Uncle Iroh had always liked Zuko, too. It might bring him some comfort.
But she doesn’t. Instead, Azula sheathes the dagger and takes it with her.
Goodbye, brother, she thinks as she leaves Zuko’s bedroom.
When Azula is eleven, she stands for long minutes before their family portrait.
It had been painted when Azula was eight and Zuko was ten. Azula has paused to look at it occasionally when passing by, but now Azula is eleven and she realises that she’s older than Zuko ever was. She stares at his painted face and wonders at how similar they look. (Looked.) Azula has never liked that she takes so significantly after her mother, but she did used to be secretly pleased by how she and Zuzu would sometimes be mistaken for twins. It was amusing largely because it frustrated Zuko, who was two years older than her but small for his age. Now, it makes her wonder what he would have looked like, had he been able to grow into a teenager, and then into an adult.
Would they have still looked alike as adults? Would Azula have found it amusing?
She looks at her mother’s painting every now and then, too, but she feels more detachment there. Mother had never loved Azula. But Zuzu had. Zuko had been devoted to her, once, even when Azula was cruel to him. She had once pushed him off the roof when they were playing, and then overbalanced and needed to jump. Azula had landed on her feet, Zuko had broken his wrist, and Zuko had still been worried about her.
Her brother had been an idiot. But he’d been Azula’s idiot.
(She never admits to missing him out loud. She isn’t even sure if she does, really; life is simpler as the Crown Princess. Azula had always won any competition for Father’s approval, but it was simpler not to have to compete in the first place.
But she does stop and stare at Zuko’s face.)
Which makes it all the more surprising when Azula tracks the Avatar down and fights his group of peasant friends, only to find herself staring into an eerily familiar face.
Chapter 2: born again with each sunrise
It hurts in ways I can’t describe;
My heart bends and breaks so many, many times
And is born again with each sunrise.
Zuko has no intention to leave with the Avatar.
He tells Avatar this on multiple occasions. The first time, Zuko is living in the smallest village he’s ever travelled through. He’s staying with a family here who need the extra hands around the house, after having said goodbye to their older children when they joined the war effort. They have three small children, but the father travels and the mother works hard, and so they pay Zuko in room and board and the occasional coins when they’re able.
(Zuko likes this job largely due to two factors: he enjoys spending time with the children, who are well-behaved and curious, and he appreciates that their father is rarely around. The last time he took a similar job with a family, the father had thought that Zuko’s position in the household - his dependency - came with certain fringe benefits that Zuko had not been amenable to, and it resulted in a somewhat dramatic termination of employment.)
Of course, Zuko doesn’t meet the Avatar and his Water Tribe friends due to Zuko’s employment. Zuko meets them when he sneaks out one night, masked and armed, to address the rumours of what has been recently lurking in the forest nearby.
He isn’t the only one who’s been attracted to these rumours.
“Watch out!” he calls when the kid in orange seems to be overwhelmed by the creature’s speed. He then kicks himself mentally, because ‘watch out’ isn’t helpful. “Hey, over here!” he tries instead, charging toward the wisping end of the creature’s tail.
The thing turns to look at Zuko - or at least, Zuko thinks it does. It doesn’t technically seem to have eyes?
Zuko fights, mostly on the defensive, leading the thing away from the kid. He doesn’t have much of a plan, because he had really only been looking to find out what was happening here, but at least he has his twin swords.
It’s not going to be enough. Zuko twists away and spins his swords, calling up his fire. That makes the creature falter.
“Oh cool, it doesn’t like the fire!” the kid calls out from somewhere above. Zuko glances up, and yes - the kid is literally in the trees. “Hey Katara, I wonder how it feels about water?”
“On it!” a girl’s voice calls out, and then the creature is being attacked with fire on one side and water on the other.
It starts to cower.
“Okay, okay,” the kid says, gliding ( gliding? ) down to the creature. He speaks softly, and Zuko withdraws his fire. “It’s okay. We don’t want to hurt you,” he insists.
Zuko’s night only gets weirder from there.
Once they’ve calmed the creature down, the kid somehow deduces that the problem is that it’s been separated from its family. He looks so devastated by this fact that Zuko somehow finds himself agreeing to spend the night trying to reunite the weird, wispy monster with other weird, wispy monsters in the forest. The kid flies again, and Zuko blinks up at him, but apparently the fact that the kid thinks he knows which direction to go in is more important than the fact that-- Is he an airbender?
Well. At least it’s going to be several long hours before the kids wake up.
“So what’s your name?” the kid asks cheerily as they lead the creature through the woods, lit only with the fire in Zuko’s palm. His swords are sheathed behind his back, but Zuko is ready to reach for them at any moment if the creature attacks. “I’m Aang, and that’s Katara,” he points to the waterbender, “and that’s Sokka. They’re my friends.”
Katara has been petting the creature ever since it calmed down. Sokka, clearly the wiser of Aang’s friends, is keeping his distance and glaring at the monster, clutching one end of a boomerang.
“I’m Lee,” Zuko replies. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought the Air Nomads were all gone?”
(Zuko thought that his great grandfather had wiped them all out. Once, it had been told to him as a positive story of enemies falling. Now, looking at this child in oranges and yellows, it makes Zuko feel a little sick.)
Aang’s cheerful demeanor dissipates like the air leaking from a balloon. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve heard that too.”
“But it must be wrong, right? Since you’re here?”
And then Zuko hears the weirdest story he’s ever heard in his life. And Zuko has lived through a few weird stories himself.
“And so Katara and I are looking for a waterbending master, so that we can learn waterbending together!” the Avatar finishes, having regained his energy.
Zuko hums. He imagines that Royal Caldera City is abuzz with the news of the return of the Avatar. Of course, news like this reaches tiny Earth Kingdom villages last.
(He hopes that having an Avatar sighting here doesn’t mean that anyone will come through seeking information. Zuko might have to move on quicker than he’d anticipated.)
“Are you going to take your mask off at some point?” Sokka asks, clearly irritated by just about everything. The creature is now nuzzling its face against Katara as they walk, and Sokka seems to be alternating between wary looks at the creature and wary looks at Zuko.
“Sokka,” Katara scolds him. “If Lee doesn’t want to take his mask off, he doesn’t have to.”
“Don’t get me wrong, the whole two swords thing is impressive, but it is weird following a guy into the woods at night when he’s that good with two swords at once, and is wearing a theatre mask, and is a firebender.”
Ah. So that’s the problem.
“Removing my mask won’t stop me from being a firebender,” Zuko points out.
“Well,” Sokka argues, crossing his arms and glowering over at Zuko, “it’ll at least make you seem human.”
Zuko hesitates. “I don’t-- People in the village don’t know I’m a firebender,” he explains. “That’s why I wear the mask. I usually try not to bend at all, but…”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Aang insists. “We won’t tell anyone.”
Zuko hesitates, and then decides that the literal Avatar has more important things going on than blowing Zuko’s cover. He uses the hand that isn’t holding their light to remove his mask.
Hush falls around them. Zuko assumes that it’s because of the scar. It isn’t exactly subtle, not even in the relative dim of the firelight.
(Zuko never explains the scar, but he knows the conclusions that people come to: that he’s a war orphan, wrapped up somehow in the wrongs of the Fire Nation. They know that he must be at least part Fire Nation, even with an Earth Kingdom name like Lee; his eyes are too golden for anything else. They think he’s a child who is damaged and alone because of the war. And Zuko lets them assume, because it’s easier for him, and because… well, in a way, it’s kind of true.)
Zuko looks up at Aang, only to find - quite unexpectedly - that he’s beaming.
“It’s nice to meet you, Lee the Firebender,” he says, dipping into a bow. “Shall we get Smokey back to his family? I don’t think it’s far now.”
Zuko nods, and then intends a glance back to the Water Tribe pair before moving on. However, what he finds is Katara frowning over at Sokka, and Sokka staring at Zuko with wide eyes and a slightly slack jaw.
Zuko’s heart jumps. He’d been led into a false sense of security by Aang’s lack of overt reaction to the scar, he realises. Zuko ducks his head, letting his hair fall a little in front of his face, and turns to follow Aang further into the forest.
Behind him, he hears Sokka cough awkwardly and Katara stifle a laugh.
(Zuko is long past being humiliated by people’s reactions to his face. He knows this reaction, and he barely even blames Sokka for it. But somehow, it still smarts a little every time.)
The Avatar is right about the creature. They watch it dance with its (much larger, even scarier) parents and disappear into the darkness. Aang is delighted; everyone else is hungry and tired. Zuko accompanies them back toward the village, donning his mask as they come close to the edges.
“Hey, do you want to have breakfast with us?” Katara asks, smiling over at him. Agni will be showing his face soon; light is filtering into the world.
Zuko shakes his head. “I need to get back to the family I’m staying with,” he explains.
“Not your family?” Sokka asks. He seems less annoyed than earlier; Zuko isn’t sure if it’s the fact that he’s now seen Zuko’s face, or just that they don’t have a rabid forest monster following them.
“I work for them,” Zuko explains. “Part of the job is being there when the kids wake up.”
“Uh, no offence, but why is someone who can do that with two swords at once looking after someone else’s kids?” Sokka asks. “And on top of that, you can-- you know.”
Zuko bristles. “What, I can fight, so I can’t look after children?” he asks. “Or because I can firebend I’m too dangerous to be around them?”
“What?” Sokka asks, wide-eyed. “Whoa, buddy. No! I just meant… you know.” He rubs at the back of his neck, clearly at a loss. “Aang? Little help?”
Aang turns around so that he’s walking backwards and smiling at them, and then immediately trips over a branch. After righting himself, he opts to walk beside Zuko instead.
“I think what Sokka means is that, well, you’re a firebender. And I’m the Avatar, and I need to master all of the elements to restore balance to the world, and… well, you know what’s been happening with the Fire Nation for the last hundred years. And you can really fight! Like with those swords, you were all,” Aang swishes his arms through the air, making whoosh sounds, “and then you started bending fire from your swords, and it was all--”
“I think what my brother and Aang are trying to say,” Katara interrupts, “is that you should consider coming with us.”
Zuko frowns, and then realises that they can’t read his expression from behind the mask. “Come with you where?”
“To the North Pole!” Aang replies. “And then wherever we go afterwards. You can teach me firebending.”
“I can’t teach you firebending,” Zuko replies, sharp and immediate. After a moment, he clarifies: “I’m not… I’m hardly trained myself. I barely remember anything. I’m a firebender, but I’m not a good firebender.”
Sokka clears his throat. “That is not what it looked like to me.”
Zuko’s frown deepens. “Well, you’re wrong. Look, my fire has gotten a lot stronger, but I don’t know anything about it. I barely remember the katas from when I was a kid. I’ve hardly mastered the basics, let alone enough to teach you. You need a master.”
“Oh!” Aang says, excited again. “Then we’ll find a master for both of us! Like what Katara and I are doing. We’ll learn together!”
“No,” Zuko replies.
There’s a pause among the group.
Somewhere along the way, they’ve stopped walking. The edge of the forest is in sight now. Zuko can see the village, just barely, in the distance.
“But you’re the first firebender we’ve met who’s a good guy!” Sokka bursts.
Zuko crosses his arms. “You don’t know that I’m a good person. You don’t know anything about me,” he points out. “And if you keep throwing yourselves at firebenders on a whim, then you’re going to end up getting burned.”
Sokka draws a breath to argue, and Aang is still frowning, but it’s Katara who speaks. “Guys, we can’t force him to come with us,” she points out. Then she turns to smile at Zuko. “It was nice to meet you, Lee. Don’t worry; we’ll keep your secret. And thank you for your help.”
Zuko nods, and then bows with the sign of the flame. It’s not something he’s done for a long time.
“I wish you luck on your journey,” he says.
(Zuko has been running for years. More or less since he left the Fire Nation, aside from those long months in which Mother was sick and Zuko was too frightened to move her.
He’s not running toward anything. He’s not naive enough to think that there’s an end to his restless movement. Stopping means that people get to know you; people getting to know you means that they are more likely to learn about you, and learning about Zuko is dangerous for everyone.
And so he keeps running. He doesn’t think he’s running away from anything specific. He doesn’t think that anyone is looking for him, really; if they were, they would have found him in those still months with Mother. But even if he isn’t running toward or away from anything, Zuko knows that he can’t stop.)
The second time that Zuko says ‘no’ doesn’t stick.
It’s many moons later. Zuko has left the small village for a small town. He’s working for a stern man now, who has hired him to do the grunt work of building a stone wall between him and his neighbours. Zuko is literate enough to read plans and strong enough to carry them out, which makes him perfect for the job. It’s hard, slow work, and Ling doesn’t offer Zuko a roof over his head, so Zuko is sleeping under the stars at the back of Ling’s property. But Ling does offer two hot meals a day, and there’s a river nearby to bathe in, so it isn’t the worst work Zuko has done.
(It’s certainly not the worst work that Zuko has been offered.)
The Avatar finds him working and bounds over on too-light feet.
Zuko glances over, a particularly heavy foundation stone in his arms. “No,” he says, immediate and firm.
Aang pouts. “But I didn’t ask you anything!”
They’ve increased by one person. There’s a new girl with him, and she really is just a girl - but the Avatar is also a child, Zuko supposes.
“There’s only one reason you would have tracked me down,” Zuko replies, turning away from the group and setting the stone in its place. “I’m not teaching you firebending.”
“The kids miss you,” Katara says in greeting. Surprised, Zuko turns around to face her. “We went back to the village where we met you, and we met the family you were staying with. They spoke highly of you.”
The corner of Zuko’s mouth pulls up. “They’re all good?” he asks, and is pleased when Katara nods. He likes Ryu, Chin, and Kuvi. The months with them had been pleasant, and Zuko had been blessed to witness Ryu’s first steps.
“Why didn’t you stay with them?” Aang asks, curious.
Zuko’s eyes shift over to the girl. “You’re new,” he points out.
“I’m Toph,” the girl says, shoulders squared. “I’m Aang’s earthbending teacher.”
Sokka clears his throat, and when Zuko looks over, it’s to be met with an honest and friendly smile. “Hi, Lee,” he says, and Zuko nods in response. “We’re not here to cause any trouble. You said no, and we respect that. We’re just looking for… a favour.”
It turns out that the Avatar has somehow managed to frighten himself away from the idea of firebending. He’d hurt Katara when he’d tried, and then gone into a snit and decided that he was never firebending again. They’d managed to coax Aang into the idea of trying again someday by using Zuko as bait, which is problematic because Zuko doesn’t want to be bait.
After listening, Zuko glares back at his wall. If he doesn’t build, he doesn’t eat.
“I’m busy,” he answers. “Even if I wanted to help you. Which I don’t.”
Toph raises an eyebrow. “Either my feet are lying to me, or you’re busy with literally putting stones in a line.”
“I’m building a wall,” Zuko says, which is obvious, and then: “Wait, what about your feet?”
Which leads to a much more interesting story. Zuko is so entranced by Toph’s explanation of her earthbending skills that he barely even blinks when she stamps her feet and brings all the stones into a pile.
“Yeah, that’s not how building a wall works,” Zuko points out. “Could you put those back, please?”
And this leads to the Avatar and his friends helping to build the wall. With Toph’s bending, it barely takes any time at all. She might not be much of an engineer, but she takes direction well and the foundation stones don’t hurt her back to move. They get to where Zuko hoped to be by the end of the day in minutes, and Zuko stops her.
“We can finish the whole wall,” Toph suggests, happily.
Zuko crosses his arms. “No thanks,” he says, trying not to sound too stiff.
Apparently it doesn’t help. “It’s no problem,” Sokka says from where he’s been leading them through the plans. He’s taken the lead with aplomb. “When we’re done, we’ll have you all to ourselves!”
Zuko scowls. He hadn’t intended to spend any particular time with the Avatar, and now he owes the Avatar and will have to teach him something after all. And they want to finish the damn wall.
Zuko takes a calming breath.
“I’m paid by the day,” he goes with, because ‘you’re literally taking meals out of my mouth’ is a little too revealing. “I don’t want to finish the wall right now. But I can leave early today, since we’ve reached my goal.”
“So you are going to teach me firebending?” Aang asks, beaming up at Zuko from where he’s been spreading mortar.
Zuko would like to say ‘no’, but he’s apparently been to stupid to realise that they’ve backed him into a corner of debt. “I will help you to regain your confidence,” he allows.
The others cheer, and Zuko wonders what he’s in for.
Aang is really jittery about fire. Zuko has him work on his breathing for a while, but Aang is also an intense ball of pre-teen energy, and he does not like focusing or, apparently, breathing.
“Fire is different to the other elements,” Zuko explains, sitting cross-legged and mirrored by Aang.
They’ve set up near where the Avatar and his friends are making camp. There’s a giant flying bison napping across the way from them, which Zuko has had to sit facing away from, because it’s a flying bison and there is no way he won’t get distracted. They’ve also had to specify a lemur-sitter, because Aang’s pet wants to interrupt them.
At some point, the rest of the team had bored of watching Aang and Zuko breathe. But now that Zuko is speaking again, they’re regathering. Zuko does not appreciate the audience.
“Because it’s more dangerous?” Aang asks, nervous.
“Fire can be dangerous,” Zuko agrees. “But it’s also life. It’s the sun. It gives us food and heat. There are trees that need the fire in order to grow to their true potential.”
“That’s beautiful,” Aang says, staring up at Zuko with wide eyes.
Zuko calls the tiniest flame to his palm and holds it out between them. “Fire is different to the other elements because it lives inside us. When you airbend, you’re using the air around you. When Katara waterbends, she needs a source of water. When Toph earthbends… you see where I’m going. But the fire is inside you.” The flame grows and falls with Zuko’s breaths for a moment, and Aang goes wide-eyed as he realises what is happening. “It means that it’s more connected to you. But it also means that you have to know it. You have to be able to locate your flame and control it.”
Aang sits back and looks grumpy. “And that’s why I have to breathe.”
Zuko nods, and then talks Aang through feeling the sun. He talks about how firebenders can feel when the sun rises, even if they can’t see it. He thinks that he’s grasping at phrases from his teachers, maybe even from his uncle, but it’s all he knows to teach. Aang listens patiently, and then closes his eyes and breathes with Zuko.
It’s a long time before Zuko holds his flame out again.
“I don’t want you to call your own fire yet,” he says. “You need to work up to that. But you can also connect to alien fires. I want you to focus on my flame, because I can control it if anything goes wrong.” Aang looks nervous again, and Zuko tries for a comforting smile. He isn’t sure that he pulls it off. “This is safe. I’m in control, okay?”
Aang frowns, and then shuffles forward to sit closer to Zuko. “Okay. I trust you, Lee.”
The Avatar breathes, and eventually, Zuko’s flame starts to match Aang’s breaths.
By the time evening falls, Zuko realises that he’s missed his meal. Ling runs on a tight schedule, and Zuko knows that if he isn’t there for the meal, the meal isn’t served to him. There are no hold-overs in Ling’s universe. He’s not eating tonight.
Maybe Ling will be kind, and one of tomorrow’s meals can be breakfast. It would help for the energy.
“I need to be heading back,” Zuko says. Sokka has apparently released the winged lemur, who is now chittering away at Zuko while flying around him in circles. “I hope this was helpful, Aang. I wish you all the best on your journeys.”
He bows to each of them, but is stopped by a flailing Aang.
“Wait! We’re not done yet. I can’t even connect to my own fire!”
Zuko turns back. “I told you that I would help you overcome your nerves,” he explains. “You’re less nervous. But you’re going to need an actual master to teach you.”
“But you clearly know what you’re talking about. You did all those breathing exercises!”
“I’m not a good enough firebender to be your master, Aang,” Zuko says, voice firm.
Sokka leans toward Toph and says in a voice that is nowhere near a whisper: “When we first met him, he was firebending with two swords at once to stop a scary forest smoke-monster. Have you ever heard of someone firebending with two swords at once?”
“I wasn’t aware that firebending with one sword was even a thing, Snoozles,” Toph replies.
Zuko frowns. “That’s because it’s not a thing,” he explains. “I made it up because sometimes sword fighting isn’t enough, and I’m not enough of a firebender to fight effectively that way.”
Sokka holds his hands out in clear astonishment. “He made up fire-swordbending, Toph. Because he’s not a good firebender.”
“Uh huh, really unimpressive,” Toph replies.
Zuko sighs wearily. In his attempt to look at something that isn’t the two of them focusing inappropriate attention on his firebending skills in order to manipulate him into helping, Zuko’s eyes fall to Katara. She’s cooking something in a pot over the small campfire, but her fire seems to be waning, and she’s trying to fix that through rearranging the firewood. Zuko clears his throat and then offers her fire from his palm, pulling the flames higher.
Katara smiles up at him. “Thanks, Lee,” she says, because unlike her brother and friends, she doesn’t seem interested in strong-arming him. “Would you like to have dinner with us?”
Zuko’s stomach literally rumbles. Zuko scowls while Katara chuckles.
But if Zuko stays, then Zuko owes them again. He thinks about how hungry he’s been; the meals from Ling are keeping him going, but the work has been hard and the days have been long. And then Zuko does the math: even if he does help Aang tomorrow, he’ll need them to help with the wall first. The wall and the training are the transaction; the food pushes him over the edge. He'll owe them something unspecified.
“No thank you,” he replies. “I have dinner from Ling, in payment for the wall.”
He goes to bow again, but is interrupted by Toph: “Well, that’s a weird thing to lie about.”
Zuko hesitates. Everyone else looks up at him. “Excuse me?”
“Oh right,” Sokka says, looking awkward. “Toph can sort of tell when people are lying. Through her feet.”
Toph lifts one foot from where she’s sitting on the ground and wiggles it. “I can feel heartbeats,” she says. “And yours is like, kind of too fast all the time anyway, but you definitely picked up there. So what - no dinner from the boss, but you’re also too good to eat with us?”
Zuko grits his teeth. They want him to be indebted tonight, because it ensures tomorrow. Maybe they intend to keep him off-balance this way to corner him into training the Avatar.
“I’m fine,” Zuko forces out. “Good night.”
He turns and leaves swiftly, ignoring Toph’s declaration of yeah, so he’s not fine. Zuko is done here, and he should get back to his stuff to ensure that nothing has happened to it while he’s been away. He doesn’t mind sleeping on Ling’s land, but Zuko does wish he had somewhere safer to keep his few meager possessions.
“Hey, Lee!” Zuko hears behind him, and he sighs before turning around. Damn his manners. “Wait up!”
It’s Sokka, and he’s holding a bowl of food. Zuko frowns. “What do you want?”
Sokka holds out the food. “As a thank you,” he says. “I know you don’t want to eat with us. That’s okay - you’re private, we’re a lot, I get it. But if we made you miss your meal or something, then we kind of owe you this?”
Zuko blinks at the bowl, and then up at Sokka. Is that right? Do they owe him dinner because they kept him from Ling’s meal? Or is this a trick?
Wary, Zuko reaches out and takes the bowl. Sokka smiles at him, bright and wide, and for some reason Zuko’s eyes really like Sokka’s smile. He finds himself starting to smile back, before he catches it and reverts to a neutral expression.
“Okay,” Zuko says. “If you owe it to me. Then I’ll eat with you.”
Sokka’s smile grows even brighter, and Zuko finds himself unable to look away until Sokka goes to lead them back.
The team around the fire doesn’t question Zuko’s reappearance. Zuko assumes that they were of a mind with the debt, and sits cross-legged by the fire.
“So Lee,” Toph greets him from where she has been shoveling food into her mouth. “Which is it: war orphan or runaway?”
Zuko didn’t think he would regret returning quite so abruptly.
“Toph!” Katara scolds her.
“What?” Toph asks. “I’m just asking because he’s a firebender in the Earth Kingdom. And also a kid who apparently does whatever job is offered to him for a meal. He’s obviously either a war orphan or a runaway, because he’s Fire Nation and he’s here.” She gestures with her chopsticks, and then goes back to eating.
Aang frowns at her. “He could just be half Earth Kingdom and half Fire Nation,” he points out, as if Zuko isn’t right here.
Toph snorts. “Not if Sokka’s description of his golden eyes are true,” she says.
“Toph!” Sokka cries, horrified.
“What?” Toph asks. “Why is everyone always yelling at me?”
“Because you’re a menace!” Sokka shouts. “I wasn’t-- I didn’t say-- I was just describing you to her because she never met you, that’s all,” he assures Zuko.
Zuko watches this play out with a deep-seated sense of confusion.
“Obviously,” Katara interjects, her voice careful and sweet, “Toph needed to know about exactly what Lee looks like to understand why we were looking for him.”
“It would help with the search!” Sokka defends himself. “And it was… for texture! So that Toph knows. Because she can’t see him for herself.”
“And Toph knows so much about what gold looks like,” Aang adds, snickering.
Zuko eats, and watches, and is confused. He doesn’t understand the significance of Sokka’s apparent misstep, and he also doesn’t understand how these friendships work. But then again, he hasn’t had a real friend since he was eleven, so he’s probably just rusty.
Thankfully, the conversation leaves the topic of Zuko’s eyes, and the group eventually decide to tell Zuko stories of their adventures. Once Zuko has finished eating, the winged lemur curls up on his lap. Zuko scratches at the lemur’s fur while he listens, and the creature snuggles into him to nap. Since war stories are always months behind in backwater towns like this, Zuko is far behind on the news.
Honestly, it’s probably one of the best evenings of Zuko’s life. He mostly just listens to stories and avoids telling his own, but social interactions are usually more work-focused for Zuko, and so it’s kind of nice to hear stories.
By the time Zuko leaves, he doesn’t even mind the idea that they might come and help him with the wall tomorrow.
They do turn up again, but it’s before lunchtime. Zuko shifts, uncomfortable, and tries to work through the dilemma in his head:
If they finish the wall before lunch and want to leave, Zuko should follow them because he owes them the teaching time. But then Zuko doesn’t get lunch, unless they offer it, and Zuko doesn’t know if they’ll owe him the meal again or if Zuko will be in more debt.
If they don’t finish the wall before Ling decides it’s time for lunch, then does Zuko let them keep working while he eats? But then Zuko isn’t really earning his meal in the first place.
“Uh, Sparky, you okay?” Toph asks. Zuko ignores her and tries to parse this out. Can he ask them to come back later? But what if they want the extra hours with Aang? “Whoa, seriously, what is your heart doing?”
“Sorry,” Zuko says, and he is pretty sure that he’s never had to apologise for his heartbeat before. “I’m just trying to figure out how today works.”
The whole group is looking at him, clearly confused. “Like… yesterday?” Sokka suggests.
“You arrived after lunch yesterday,” Zuko corrects him, and then decides that transparency is the only way around this. “But it’s a few hours until lunch now, and if I leave early, I won’t get to eat.”
“That’s what you’re freaking out about?” Toph asks. “Yikes, Lee. Just eat lunch with us.”
The boys nod, happy with Toph’s conclusion, but Katara’s eyes are narrow. “Why are you so concerned about the meal thing? You were like this last night, too.”
“It doesn’t carry over,” Zuko explains. “If I don’t work the day, then Ling will stop asking me to work. But the meals don’t carry over to the next day.” When Katara continues to look confused, he adds: “So I would be working for nothing, I guess?”
Something clears on her face. “Is that all he gives you?” she asks, incredulous. “You do all this work just to eat and sleep in his house?”
“I don’t sleep in his house,” Zuko replies automatically, and then abruptly realises his mistake.
Katara looks furious. “Lee, this is a lot of hard work to be doing just to be fed!” she exclaims. “Just-- Just eat with us. You can sleep at our camp, too, if you’re already sleeping outside.”
Zuko shakes his head. “You’ll leave in a day or two; the wall will take me a week, at least. And Ling might ask me to do something else afterwards.”
“Okay, then - crazy idea,” Sokka says, pointing at Zuko, “you just come with us.”
“Sokka,” Katara says, quiet and careful.
Zuko scowls. “I’m not going to be manipulated into joining the war effort through promises of food,” he says, as carefully as he can manage. He is very carefully not shouting. Ling’s neighbours might not be visible right now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t hear him shouting about firebending. “If it was that easy, I would have signed up as a soldier.”
“Lee, I don’t think Sokka meant it like that,” Aang says. “It just seems like a bad deal. You should be paid something real for work like this.”
“There isn’t money in places like this,” Zuko responds. “When people pay me in food, it’s because that’s what they can afford. And if you want to help that, then…” Zuko sighs, realising where his own train of thought has brought him. “Then end the war and let the Earth Kingdom stop starving.”
Zuko pinches the bridge of his nose.
Aang clears his throat. “Did you just talk yourself into helping me…?”
“Let’s build the next section of this wall,” Zuko says. “Then I’m taking a break for lunch. Then I will help you with your fire one last time.”
Of course, that’s where everything goes wrong.
They reconvene at the Avatar’s camp for long hours of firebending practice. By the end of it, Aang is happily cupping his own fire. As per Zuko’s instructions, Aang keeps it the size of his smallest fingernail, and he’s eventually able to match it to his breathing.
And then Aang is distracted by the river and ideas about waterbending, and he and Katara end up standing on the edge of the water and practicing.
“Is this how practice works for him?” Zuko asks Sokka. “He gets distracted by another element and then just… wanders off?”
Sokka looks thoughtful for a moment, and then nods. “Yeah, pretty much,” he admits. Then he elbows Zuko lightly, and Zuko flinches away. “You’re good with him,” Sokka says, smoothly adding a bit of distance between them. Zuko relaxes. “You’re patient.”
“I worked with kids, remember?”
“Don’t let him hear you compare firebending training to babysitting,” Toph suggests.
Zuko nods, watching the waterbending, and then realises that this break might be a good opportunity to wash. “Hey, do you have any soap?” he asks. “I can pay you back for it.” He leans over his own bags, grateful that he’s thought to bring his things today. It’s safer this way, and now he has a copper coin to offer in exchange for soap.
“Sure,” Sokka says, and wanders over to their bags. “But you don’t have to pay us, it isn’t a big deal.”
Zuko’s stomach clenches at that, because if they won’t take the coin, they might ask for something else. But he makes himself ignore it for now, because Sokka is already holding out the soap, and Zuko is really ready for a dip in the river while the day is warm.
“Thanks,” he says, taking the soap, and then strips down to his underwear.
He isn’t expecting the commotion, but Toph suddenly turns and holds her arms out. “Whoa, are we being attacked?” When she doesn’t get a response, she grins wickedly. “Oh, no? I figured an attack was all that could explain Sokka’s heart rate!”
Katara and Aang giggle, water sloshing back down into the river, and Sokka glares.
“Toph!” he complains, and Zuko resolves to ignore whatever is happening here and jump into the river.
It’s not ideal to wash with his underwear still on, but it’s hot enough today that they’ll dry before long anyway. And it feels good to be able to bathe during the day, with Agni smiling down upon him. Zuko works the soap through his hair, and then over his skin, tuning out the arguments and laughter in the camp.
It’s kind of pleasant.
Later, when he’s dry and dressed again, he convinces Aang to return to their breathing exercises. Zuko thinks that he can probably get Aang playing with the fire a little more by the end of the day, and that should break through Aang’s nerves. He’ll be primed well to find a master, Zuko’s almost sure of it.
Which is when they are actually attacked.
Toph grumbles through the whole thing, which makes it a slightly surreal experience, but they go from being calm to running from fire almost ridiculously quickly. The team is clearly somewhat used to this. They take their stances and fight back, and Zuko uses the cover of their stances to dive for his bag, pulling out his twin broadswords.
Zuko notices that the team ends up quickly on the defensive.
“How did you even find us?” Sokka shouts. “How do you always find us?”
“I guess you’re just not as good at running as you thought you were,” the firebender replies.
Zuko stands with his swords in hand, and spins into an offensive position.
They fight. For long moments, all Zuko can see is fire and water and earth and air, and then he realises that he’s seeing two colours of fire: his own is its usual reds and oranges and yellows, but when the firebender first bends, before anything catches with flame, her fire is blue.
Zuko’s heart drops, and he stops for long enough to try to get a look at her face.
Their eyes meet.
Her hands freeze in midair, halfway through an attack, as she stares at Zuko. And Zuko stares back, because there’s no way that he would ever mistake that face for anyone else. It’s practically Zuko’s face, after all; practically their mother’s.
The air hangs still between them. Azula’s eyes are wide, and Zuko knows that they must be perfect mirrors of one another. Zuko’s heart is in his throat. It feels like the bottom has fallen out of the world, and he’s floating, floating - or falling and waiting to hit the ground.
Azula lets out a breath, and it must be quiet in the roar of the flames, but Zuko hears it clearly. And he knows that she knows.
Toph stamps her feet, and the earth rushes up to push Azula back. The moment is broken. And Azula flees, as sudden and violent as she had shown up.
The world greys out. Zuko drops his swords.
“Whoa,” Sokka says, slotting himself under Zuko’s arm. “Are you okay, man? Lee? Can you hear me?”
“I need to sit down,” Zuko hears himself saying, but his lips are numb and he doesn’t remember deciding to sit down. Sokka lowers him to the ground and Zuko tunes out the noise, focusing on his own breathing.
In, and out.
There’s no going back. This is broken now. This life is broken. Azula knows where he is, what he looks like now, and that he is fighting with the Avatar. Which means that Ozai knows. And it might not be entirely true - his fighting might have only been a consequence of chance - but that doesn’t matter. He’s survived the last five years by the grace of the Fire Lord. It is a kindness, not to hunt him down. That kindness has reached an end.
When Zuko comes back to himself, he’s lying on his side, and Sokka is sitting in front of him and chattering away. Momo the winged lemur is curled up in Zuko’s elbow, also chattering away. As far as Zuko can tell, neither of them is saying anything of any substance.
Zuko pushes himself up to sitting.
“Lee!” the Avatar breathes, rushing over to them. “I’m so sorry, Lee. You said you didn’t want to have anything to do with this fight, and Azula--”
“Is she hunting you?” Zuko asks, because it’s suddenly very important.
Aang blinks. “Yeah,” he says. “She’s been trying to bring me to the Fire Lord, I guess to imprison me, since killing me will just mean another Avatar. Oh! She’s the Fire Princess.”
“And she is the scariest person you’ll ever meet,” Sokka adds, “so the good news is that it’s all uphill from here?”
Zuko blinks at Sokka, who looks drawn and worried. “I’m sorry I panicked,” he says, because he thinks that might be important, too. “I just… wasn’t expecting that.”
(He’s careful to tell the truth, now that he knows about Toph. Or, well: he’s careful to avoid lying.)
Sokka reaches over as if he’s about to touch Zuko’s shoulder, and then clearly changes his mind and leaves his hand hanging awkwardly. “No, it’s okay, it’s-- we understand.” He swallows. “She’s pretty terrifying.”
The Avatar is being hunted by the Fire Nation. Zuko is being hunted by the Fire Nation.
It suddenly seems much simpler than before.
“I think Ling is going to have to find someone else to finish that wall.”
Sokka looks confused, but Aang is beaming. “Sifu Lee, it’s an honour to have you join us,” he says, and bows.
Zuko’s brain is still working slowly after his momentary panic, and so he’s still looking at Sokka while Aang bows. Which means that while Katara and Toph join in their welcomes in the background, Zuko finds himself watching a slow smile dawn over Sokka’s face.
“Welcome to the team, Lee.”
Chapter 3: don't let me break this
And Lord, don’t let me break this,
Let me hold it lightly.
Give me arms to pray with
Instead of ones that hold too tightly.
Azula never flees.
(She doesn’t stop running until she’s back at the ship.)
Azula tactically retreats, because she sees several steps ahead and she knows when a small loss will equal a large gain, but she never flees.
(She orders the crew to move, chooses any direction that is away, and locks herself in her room.)
Azula has a job to do. Her job is to capture the Avatar, alive, and return him to Father. She is the crown princess, and she will go down in history for this.
(She sits at her desk and stares at the remains of her plans, and her mind is oddly blank.)
Azula rifles through her maps, forming the basis of a plan.
(Her brother is alive. Her brother is alive. How is that possible? What happened to him and Mother? How did he get that scar? Why is he with the Avatar?)
Azula should have captured the Avatar by now. This is her third run-in with the Avatar and his little team of peasant children. They barely seem to have a plan, but they keep slipping out of her hands. And now they have a firebender, making them a perfect little matched set, an annoyingly apt metaphor for the Avatar himself.
(What happens if she captures Zuko, too? What if she brings him home? Azula isn’t naive enough to think that Father will welcome him home with open arms - whatever happened to Zuko has clearly tainted him, turned him into the enemy. But could Azula keep him alive somehow? Can she craft a plan that would allow Zuko to come home?)
Azula sits back, eyes going unfocused as she stares at the flame banner on the wall. The Avatar has a team. Maybe it’s time that Azula has a team, too.
“Why do you think she ran?” the Avatar asks.
They’ve chosen a new hideout and made camp, and Zuko is helping Aang and Sokka to erect the tents while Katara cooks. Toph has begged off due to blindness, but judging by the expression on Katara’s face, there’s more to her excuse than that.
Momo is also helping, which is to say that he’s perching on top of whatever Zuko is handling and staring at him with wide, wide eyes.
“Momo likes you,” Sokka points out, smiling.
“Momo is a nuisance,” Zuko responds, but he doesn’t really mind. Now that he’s worked past the panic and spent hours watching the world from above, he’s feeling a lot more at peace with this situation. There isn’t any going back for Zuko, so the only way is forward.
“I think she’s scared of Sparky,” Toph replies to Aang, kicking her feet into the air as she lies on her back by the fire. “Did you see how she looked at him?”
“Why would she be scared of Lee?” Aang asks.
Toph hums. “I guess because we’re complete, now? We have all the elements covered. Maybe that’s making her second guess fighting us four-on-one.”
Zuko frowns, glancing around the group. “Five-on-one,” he corrects. “There are five of us.”
Zuko assumes that Toph has just miscounted because she’s used to them being a group of four, but then Sokka beams up at Zuko. “Yes, thank you, Lee. There are five of us, aren’t there?”
“I guess I didn’t count Sokka because he’s not a bender,” Toph explains.
Zuko frowns. “But he’s still a fighter. He has the boomerang,” he points out. “And I mostly fight with swords, so if I count…”
Sokka shoots a desperate look at his sister and gestures to Zuko. “Can we keep him forever?” he pleads, and Katara rolls her eyes.
Zuko suppresses a smile.
Later that night, around the campfire, Zuko thinks about how to tell them who he is. There’s no need for them to call him Lee anymore, after all, if the Fire Nation knows that he’s here. He’s close to doing it, finding the right wording, thinking about how to explain how he got to the Earth Kingdom with as few details as possible, when the conversation turns back to Azula.
“The problem is that if we take out the Fire Lord, Princess Azula is the next in line,” Katara says, shuddering. “I’m not sure that’s any better.”
“She’s insane,” Sokka nods in agreement.
And Zuko sees what’s going to happen with alarming clarity. If he tells them who he is, then they’re going to try to put him on the Dragon Throne. It’s almost too perfect; they have an ally who could make a play for the throne. As long as they do this correctly, the Fire Nation will have to accept Zuko’s claim.
The edges of Zuko’s vision grey out slightly again, and he makes himself take deep, measured breaths. He can’t panic now. He needs to think. He needs to think--
(Zuko doesn’t find a solution that night, but he does come to one conclusion: he is never ascending that throne. He would rather die in this war.)
In some ways, the following days find Zuko falling into rhythm with the team. In other ways, he doesn’t at all.
For a start, he doesn’t understand their relationships. It seems like every other sentence Toph says is aimed to get a rise out of someone. The siblings bicker incessantly. Aang is flighty like a bird - sometimes less metaphorically than one would expect - and it takes a lot of patience to teach him anything (which Toph decidedly does not possess). But despite all of that, they make it clear that they would die for one another.
(Zuko is also always just a little bit convinced that he’s made a mistake. He shouldn’t be here. If they lose this war, he dies; if they win, they might force him onto the throne.)
During their second fight together, Zuko sees how they fit together like puzzle pieces. For all Toph mocks Sokka’s fighting style, she also seems to know how and when to depend on him for a long-range attack or distraction. Aang is suddenly focused and determined. Katara listens to Sokka’s plan and carries it out effectively, instead of questioning him the way she does with his navigation.
Zuko doesn’t know where he fits in yet, but he supposes there’s probably time to figure that out.
They’re fighting against a group of Fire Nation soldiers who are terrorising a group of Earth Kingdom refugees. It’s a brutal clash, but it’s also over quickly. The soldiers flee, and the team turns to take stock of the refugees.
There are some minor injuries, but they mostly seem okay. And then, while Aang is answering questions about being the Avatar, Zuko hears something strange.
Zuko’s hearing has always been excellent. It’s not as good as it was prior to the burning, but it’s still above average, and so he seems to be the only one who responds to the sound. It’s coming from around a corner, and Zuko follows it until he finds her.
She’s a small girl, two years old at most, and she’s cowering.
Zuko kneels so that he’s close to her height. “Hi there,” he says. “I’m Lee. What’s your name?”
The girl peeks up from behind her knees, and Zuko smiles at her.
Minutes later, he rejoins the group, this time with a new addition.
“... I found another sword. Do we need another sword?” Aang is asking, holding up a weapon that the soldiers had dropped.
Zuko clears his throat. “Well, I found a baby. Do we need a baby?”
He’s aiming for a joke, because this group seems to thrive on finding reasons to laugh, but it falls flat. They turn to look at him, confusion morphing into surprise, and Katara actually squeaks.
“Oh Tui and La, she’s so cute,” Katara says. “What’s your name?”
Zuko shifts her on his hip and leans away so that he can look at her properly. “We’ve been over this, but she’s not saying,” he explains, and the girl giggles and hides behind her hands. “Oh, that’s funny?” Zuko asks. “I’m going to have to give you a name, and it’s going to be terrible and old-fashioned. Do you really want a terrible old lady name?”
The girl giggles again.
“Uhh, where are her parents?” Aang asks, worry lacing his tone.
Zuko hushes him, and then throws him a quick frown that he hopes conveys ‘shut up, I just got this kid to stop crying’. “They’ll find us soon,” he says to the girl. “Of course, it would help to know your name.” She hides behind her hands and shakes her head. “No? No name? Are you the girl with no name? Mysterious,” he says, dropping his voice low. “Intriguing.”
The child is giggling again now. Zuko smiles, and then looks back to the group. Katara is still cooing at the girl, and Sokka is wearing a very confusing wide-eyed expression as he stares at Zuko, so Zuko gives up on them both. He turns to Toph and Aang. “Can you go ask around while I keep the enigma amused?”
It turns out that it isn’t necessary.
“Ora!” a voice calls out, and the girl jumps in Zuko’s arms and twists to look around. “Ora, there you are!”
Zuko lets out a relieved breath. Ora holds out her arms toward the woman, and Zuko shifts her weight to pass the toddler over.
“She was hiding,” Zuko says as Ora clings to her mother. “She’s a smart kid, getting herself out of the way like that.”
Ora has started crying again now that her mother is here. The relief is probably overwhelming. The woman kisses her on the top of her head, and then looks at Zuko. “Thank you for taking care of her,” she says. “Ora, what do we say to the nice young man?”
Ora lifts her head and looks at Zuko, and then giggles again. There are still tears on her face. She’s probably overtired.
“Yeah, that’s about right,” Zuko agrees. He bows. “It was nice to meet you, Ora of No Name.”
Ora’s mother looks confused, but Ora keeps giggling as they leave, so Zuko counts it as a win.
“Well, if we ever decide to steal a baby, we know who our guy is,” Toph states.
“If we ever decide to steal a baby again,” Aang corrects.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko says. “What?”
When Mai and Ty Lee are onboard, Azula locks them in a private room and glares them both into submission.
“I need to disclose something to you,” she says, pitching her voice into a dangerous tone. “And it never leaves this room. You don’t even talk about it with one another unless I’m there and I allow it.”
Ty Lee looks wide-eyed and trusting. Mai looks bored, but it’s a cover; Azula sees right through her.
“Ugh, what is it?” Mai asks.
Azula feels her eyebrows drawing in without her permission, and she forces them back.
“Zuko is alive.”
As they continue to travel, Zuko realises something fundamentally strange about their relationships: nobody seems to owe anyone anything.
They just work together. Katara does most of the cooking, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is indebted to her. When Zuko starts helping, Katara seems mostly happy for the company, and not upset that it means that Zuko will owe her less.
It kind of reminds Zuko of some of the families he’s seen. The better ones - better than his family by far - just seem to work together, as if there is one common goal and it doesn’t matter overmuch who owes what to whom. These kids are like that, weaving in and out of each other’s space, asking for help and receiving it, volunteering for jobs, keeping each other company.
When he notices this, something relaxes in Zuko that he didn’t even realise was tense.
And they seem to like him? Toph has taken to mocking him for never talking about himself, but she seems to lightly insult everyone on the team. Aang is always thanking him for his firebending pointers, and seems to think that it’s appropriate to outright say ‘we really like you, Lee’ and ‘I’m glad you joined us, Lee’, like it’s normal to just tell people things like that. Katara is already kind-natured, but she also seeks out his company specifically. And Sokka is… well, Zuko doesn’t understand Sokka at all, but Sokka smiles at him a lot, often for no apparent reason.
Even Momo seems comfortable with him, and Appa lets him steer without complaint.
So Zuko starts to think that maybe he should disclose his story to them. Maybe they wouldn’t make him ascend the throne if he said he didn’t want to.
(But it would mean choosing Zuko’s comfort over choosing what they think is best for the world, Zuko reminds himself. That’s not likely to happen, is it?)
And then they gain a plan, and Zuko thinks: this is it. If they want to attack the Fire Nation, they obviously need to know their options now.
And then they lose Appa, and it all falls apart.
Zuko seats himself across from Aang, who looks like he needs to sleep for a week. It isn’t clear whether it’s the Avatar State that sapped his energy, or losing Appa, or some combination of the two. He’s been flinging himself between anger and despair since Appa’s disappearance, and they’ve all been dehydrated and scorched, and if Aang doesn’t sleep soon, he’s going to collapse.
“Okay,” Zuko says, drawing Aang’s attention. “You need to cry.”
“What?” Aang asks.
Zuko hands over a pouch of water. Aang takes it and drinks, which is good, because he’s going to need the rehydration for the tears that are inevitably coming.
“You need to cry,” Zuko repeats. Aang scowls at him. “I know you don’t want to. But if we’re going to figure out a plan and find Appa, then you need to work through this place you’re in, which means that you need to cry.”
“What do you know?” Aang asks, turning his body so that he’s not facing Zuko anymore.
There’s a lot that Zuko could say to that. (I know because I’ve lost everything before, too; I know because I’ve cared for grieving children; I just know, trust me.) But this isn’t about Zuko, so he doesn’t. He lets the silence fester, waiting for Aang to tire of it. He might have only spent days by Aang’s side, but he knows as well as anyone that he can’t let a silence sit.
Aang sighs. “Appa is the last one who knows me from home.”
“I have to find him, Lee. I have to.”
“We will,” Zuko says, even though it’s a dangerous promise. But he thinks that Aang needs to hear it, and needs to hear that it’s ‘we’ and not ‘I’.
Aang looks up at him, and his eyes well up with tears. That’s good.
The kid flings himself at Zuko to cry, which is less good because Zuko doesn’t like being touched, but this isn’t about Zuko and his preferences.
The Avatar cries, and eventually cries himself to sleep.
They travel to Ba Sing Se to warn the Earth King. And without Appa, it takes a while.
Zuko is going to tell them about who he is, because it’s the right thing to do, even if it all goes wrong for Zuko. When the panic clamps down and he finds himself thinking but I don’t want to, Zuko reminds himself that not everything is about what he wants. If they force him onto the throne, then… then that happens. Zuko might not even survive the war for it to be a problem.
(But he can’t ascend the Dragon Throne. He can’t.)
Zuko decides that he’ll tell Sokka first, because Sokka is their strategist. Aang might be the Avatar, and the one who likes Zuko best, but he’s still not in a good place. Aang might be able to focus his energy on moving forward now, but he’s still in a vulnerable place.
(Zuko might be able to press an advantage with Aang. Aang likes him and Aang is having a hard time. He could probably find a way to verbally corner him into a promise not to force Zuko onto the throne.
But he won’t do that.)
They’re in the midst of their travels, having run into an old friend of the team, when Zuko pulls Sokka aside.
“I need to tell you something,” Zuko says, and Sokka stands up straighter.
“I need to tell you something, too,” Sokka says, and then takes a deep breath and says very quickly: “The thing that Suki said about us kissing was, it was just a kiss on the cheek. We’re not a thing. I was sort of seeing someone at the North Pole, but-- We told you about Yue, right? She became the moon?”
Zuko blinks, and then blinks again. “Uh,” he starts, and then Sokka looks at him imploringly. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Sokka replies, and then smiles a bit shakily. “I just. I just wanted you to know that.”
Zuko is so confused. And suddenly feels very awkward, because he doesn’t know what’s happening, and maybe Sokka isn’t the person he should tell. Maybe he should talk to Katara. (Toph is obviously the bottom of the list. Toph isn’t even on the list.) Katara will be kind about the fact that Zuko didn’t tell them right away, and also, Katara mostly makes sense.
“Okay,” Sokka says again when Zuko fails to respond. “What did you want to tell me?”
“It’s nothing,” Zuko replies, pulling away to return to the others. “Don’t worry about it.”
Zuko’s friends don’t know who he is. It doesn’t take Azula long to realise this. This means that Zuko’s friends don’t know that they’re holding a secret weapon. A road to power. A method to end the war.
(Which means that Zuko is either smarter or stupider than Azula had expected.)
Safely hidden in the folds of Ba Sing Se, Azula watches her brother from a distance. He and his friends are still searching for the sky bison. They go out every day and ask after it, and one of them usually spends a few hours wandering around while blowing into an apparently silent whistle.
“We separate them,” she says to Mai and Ty Lee. “It shouldn’t be hard. Zuko and the Avatar have to live; I don’t care about the other.” Azula thinks about how they’re Zuko’s friends, even if he doesn’t trust them enough to tell them his own name. She sighs. “But don’t kill them unless you have to.”
Ba Sing Se is the weirdest place Zuko has ever been. It’s huge and bustling, nothing like the Earth Kingdom towns and cities he has travelled through. It’s also frustratingly difficult to get the Avatar a meeting with the Earth King.
And they still can’t find Appa.
They end up drawing posters, which then get taken down, and they rinse and repeat. They take turns with the bison whistle. They talk to everyone they can, just in case anyone has seen him.
Zuko is not filled with hope. But they don’t have a better plan.
While Aang and Katara continue to work their way toward meeting the Earth King, and Toph takes a turn with the bison whistle, Zuko helps Sokka to make more posters. Sokka’s drawing is getting a little more accurate, but only because he’s copying a picture that Katara drew.
Now that the younger kids are out, Zuko finds himself asking: “Do you think we’ll find him?”
Sokka hesitates, and ink drips until he puts everything to one side. He looks up at Zuko, serious in a way that he usually isn’t. “We have to believe that we will,” he says eventually, and Zuko nods.
“I know,” he replies. “I know Aang needs us to believe it. And… Appa’s worth more alive than dead, so. So that means he’s probably okay.” He nods, and then looks to Sokka again.
Sokka smiles at him with half of his mouth. It’s oddly charming. “That’s the spirit, I guess,” he says, and something about the odd atmosphere makes it seem a little funny, and then Zuko’s eyes land on Sokka’s most recent picture.
“What… Sokka, I can’t even tell which end of Appa you’re drawing,” he says, and the laugh bubbles up from somewhere deep in Zuko. He holds up a hand to cover his mouth, like he can force the sound back in, but then Sokka snatches at his hand.
“No!” Sokka laughs. “Don’t you dare, that’s the first time I’ve heard you properly laugh, even if it was at me--”
He forces Zuko’s hand down, and Zuko semi-wrestles against it, and the laughter keeps coming. It’s not really that funny, but some kind of tension has broken, because they’re both near-hysterical with it.
And then Zuko’s eyes catch on Sokka’s, and he realises that he’s being watched. The laughter slows to a stop, and Zuko is suddenly very aware of how close they’re sitting, and how Sokka’s hand is still on Zuko’s.
Sokka swallows, and Zuko looks down at his throat, and then Sokka is leaning forward.
When Sokka kisses him, it feels like having a headrush, but somehow in a good way. Zuko finds himself leaning forward automatically, his mind shutting off and his body taking over, as he adds pressure to the kiss.
Sokka makes a soft noise. It causes Zuko to draw a sharp breath, which breaks the kiss for just a moment before Sokka presses in again. Sokka’s other hand lands on Zuko’s knee, just the tiniest bit of pressure for leverage, and a zing of heat rushes through Zuko. And then Zuko’s brain catches up with his body.
Zuko pulls back abruptly, scrambling away from Sokka, and it feels like the floor has been pulled out from under him. He just found his footing, just decided that he maybe trusts these people, and he’s been wrong this whole time.
Zuko is such an idiot.
“I don’t owe you that,” Zuko says, as firm as he can make his voice.
Sokka blinks, cheeks warm and eyes looking a little dazed. “What?”
“I don’t, I don’t owe you that, you can’t just--” Zuko climbs to his feet, his knees feeling a little watery.
What does he do now? It’s only been weeks, but his life feels so ensnared with this team’s lives now. Does he just leave? Will they even let him?
“Lee, are you… okay?” Sokka asks, and it’s a testament to how little Zuko’s brain is functioning that he hadn’t even noticed Sokka standing. Sokka takes a step forward, looking confused, and Zuko takes three steps back. “Whoa. Okay. I’m sorry.”
Is that it? Does Sokka just say sorry and this is over? How much debt does Zuko have, and how does it get repaid?
Zuko takes a deep, calming breath.
“I don’t owe you that,” he says again, and Sokka nods.
“Okay,” he agrees. “Yeah, you don’t owe me anything. I’m not-- You know that’s not how that works, right? I didn’t kiss you because I think you owe me anything.”
Zuko goes very still.
The equation shifts. He looks over to the floor where they had been sitting and frowns. He doesn’t ask why, but Sokka must hear it anyway, because he explains: “I kissed you because I like you, that’s all. It’s okay if you don’t like me back. I’m sorry. I should have asked first or something.”
Zuko looks over to Sokka again, who’s now rubbing at the back of his neck, his cheeks stained red with embarrassment.
“Oh,” Zuko replies.
Sokka meets Zuko’s eyes again. It looks like it’s difficult for Sokka to do. He shrugs. “Yeah,” Sokka agrees, and then coughs. “Uh, maybe we can just pretend this didn’t happen?”
Zuko’s mind has come back to life, and now it’s racing.
Nobody has ever kissed Zuko just because they liked him before. But he supposes that’s how it’s meant to go, right? Just because Zuko’s experiences with this have been messed up doesn’t mean that Sokka is messed up. He’s Sokka. He’s kind and funny and sarcastic, and somehow always hungry no matter how much they eat, and he’s smarter than anyone gives him credit for--
And that kiss had felt really, really good.
Dread settles in Zuko’s stomach. He likes Sokka. Somehow, without realising it at all, he’s put himself in this awful position. He’s backed himself into this corner. Because Sokka doesn’t know who he is.
Zuko realises that his hands are trembling.
And of course, because Toph’s timing is impeccable, that’s when she slams the door open.
“All right, I am off duty, someone take the whistle,” she insists, and then pauses. “Whoa. What happened?”
Zuko assumes that his heart is doing something ridiculous. He draws a deep breath. “I’ll take it,” he suggests, and walks past Sokka to the door.
He needs to clear his head and figure out what he’s going to do.
Zuko goes out alone. Azula follows.
The Avatar is with the waterbender, but they’re perfectly positioned. The waterbending peasant won’t get in the way too much. Azula sends the signal to Mai and Ty Lee, and then follows her brother on his bison-searching duty.
Zuko looks distressed. Azula watches him for long minutes. He’s walking in fits and bursts, almost-running and then stopping entirely and running his hands through his hair. And Azula’s traitorous heart wants to know what’s wrong, even as her mind formulates a plan.
She doesn’t even need a plan in the end. Zuko is so troubled that he’s paying no attention to his surroundings, and he ends up walking himself into a quiet dead-end.
Azula smiles from behind him, and calls blue fire to her palms. “Hello, Zuzu.”
Zuko spins and then stares at her for a long moment. He doesn’t say a word. Azula frowns.
“Not going to say hello to your dear sister?”
Zuko breathes deeply. It trembles on the inhale.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
Azula smiles, sharp and steady. “Taking you home, of course,” she answers.
It’s all very fast after that.
Zuko is without his swords, which is hopelessly stupid since he’s apparently very rusty at firebending without them. Azula takes him down methodically, pressing her advantage of space and of training and of emotional stability. Eventually, Zuko stops even fighting back.
Zuko’s posture falters. He looks resigned. “You’re taking me to Father,” he says. “He’ll kill me.”
(As if Azula hasn’t thought this through. Zuko must hardly remember her. Azula isn’t going to let him die; he has information on the enemies of the Fire Nation, which means that he’s worth keeping alive, and all Azula needs is a few days to convince Father to let her keep him that way. They’ll write him out of the line of succession easily, and he’ll have to remain under serious supervision until the war is won, but there is a method to get him out of this alive. Azula has been painstakingly meticulous about this.)
“You and the Avatar,” Azula replies, letting herself smile. “My team is picking him up right now.”
Zuko has gone very tense. “You won’t catch him,” he insists.
They’re both standing in fighting positions, but there is no fire anymore. Azula tilts her head. She isn’t sure why she isn’t attacking, or why Zuko isn’t defending.
And then the hawk lands by Azula’s feet, and she smiles. “I think you’ll find that my people already have him and the waterbender cornered.”
Zuko’s stance drops. “Take me to them.”
(Azula should say no. She should knock him out. She should at least tie him up. But she does none of those things, simply knotting her hand into his hair and marching him along.)
By the time they arrive outside the throne room, there is clear commotion inside. Azula turns to Zuko. She’s been holding back on questioning him until they’re in a more stable position, but she’s overwhelmed with the need to know:
“Where is Mother?” she asks, fire in her palms in case her brother tries to run.
Zuko looks back at her. His eyes are oddly empty in this moment.
“She’s dead,” Zuko replies, and Azula nods.
She opens the door and pushes her brother through it.
In the throne room, the Avatar is moments from succumbing. The waterbender isn’t doing any better. They didn’t stand a chance, trapped and alone against her fake Kyoshi Warriors and her Dai Li. Azula’s smile feels like it starts in her soul.
Azula looks to Zuko. His eyes have hardened, but he doesn’t look like he’s about to throw himself into the fight.
“This is a mistake,” he tells her. He doesn’t even look at her as he says it. “If you upset Aang enough, he’ll go into the Avatar State, and everyone in this room is going to end up dead.”
Azula rolls her eyes. “Of course you’d say that. What, you want me to let him go?”
“Yes,” Zuko agrees, and then turns to face her. “If you keep fighting him like this, he’s going to end up hurting everyone. We’ll all get away. But.” He swallows, clearly finding this next part difficult.
Azula is intrigued. “But?”
“But if you let him go, you can take me. I won’t fight you. I’ll come.”
Azula watches her brother for a long moment. He’s offering her a success without a gamble; if she keeps pushing at the Avatar, she might get everything or she might get nothing.
(And here’s the flaw in Azula’s plan, the one she’s barely managed to cover over with excuses: if she brings Zuko home without the Avatar, he’s more likely to survive, because his information will be more useful. The longer Zuko needs to be kept alive for information, the more time Azula has to convince Father to let her keep him alive in general.)
“Lee!” the Avatar calls, clearly having spotted them in the doorway.
Zuko doesn’t look over. He keeps staring at Azula, somewhere between blank and imploring, and Azula keeps staring back.
She should take the gamble. The Avatar is more important.
(Azula has never been an only child. Azula has always had a brother. All these years. All these years.)
She should take the gamble.
Azula raises a hand and touches the edges of Zuko’s scar. He flinches away automatically, and then clearly calms himself. Azula traces the rough edge of the scar. After a moment, she lets her hand drop.
This isn’t a good decision.
Azula makes it anyway.
“On your knees,” she says, and Zuko drops immediately. Azula hums, and then turns to her small army. “Withdraw!” she insists, and they start to pull back.
The Avatar and the waterbender continue to defend themselves, and then the waterbender spots Zuko on the ground. Horror sweeps across her features. Zuko turns his head away from her and stares at the floor.
“Cuff him,” Azula says to her nearest soldier.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko says, but it isn’t loud enough for his friends to hear.
“Lee!” the waterbender calls again, and Azula’s guards pull Zuko to his feet and drag him away. Azula follows.
(She hopes this isn’t a mistake.)
Chapter 4: hubris is a bitch
And how does it feel,
Now that you’ve scratched that itch?
Pulled out all your stitches;
Hubris is a bitch.
Zuko remembers writing a letter to Azula, maybe a week or two into his exile.
In retrospect, Zuko can see that he was feverish at the time, and his attempt at a letter had probably made little sense. But he’d screamed for Azula when he’d first awoken on the ship, and all Mother had said was that Azula would be fine. Except Zuko hadn’t been fine, and if they could do that to Zuko, who was to say that they wouldn’t do it to Azula? Yes, she was the favourite, but what if she falls out of favour? Zuko must have said something along those lines to Mother, because he remembers her response: “Nobody will touch her. She’s the heir.”
He remembers being confused, because Uncle Iroh was the heir to the throne. But then days had passed in a haze of pain and healing, and Zuko had learned that his grandfather had died and his father had ascended the throne.
(The Fire Lord had died because of Mother. Zuko’s last memories of his grandfather are him holding Zuko’s wrists as Father called fire to his palm. Of his grandfather on the stone floor, still, and Mother holding a heavy dragon sculpture in her hands.)
So Azula really was the heir to the throne. But that didn’t stop Zuko from wanting to at least ask her if she wanted to join them. She’d say no - Zuko was sure of that - but she should at least be given the choice, shouldn’t she? And even if she said no, Zuko wanted to say goodbye.
Mother had found him writing that letter, and had made him burn it. Zuko was still terrified of fire at the time, but he did it anyway, tears stinging at his good eye all the while.
(He’d wanted to say goodbye to Azula so badly that burning the letter had hurt more than his wound, more than the fear of fire.)
Later, Mother had sat him down and explained their situation. Explained that the rest of the Fire Nation thought they were dead. Fire Lord Ozai knew the truth, and anyone that he decided to tell, and that meant that they had to keep moving.
Zuko never wrote to Azula again.
(Every now and then, in that first year, Zuko had drafted letters in his mind while watching Mother deteriorate. Things he would tell Azula; things he would ask her. But he didn’t write a single word.)
They chain Zuko’s hands so that they’re pressed together. It’s standard for firebenders, to ensure that they can’t bend from their hands without burning themselves. They don’t tie Zuko’s feet, but Zuko assumes that’s because he isn’t a very good firebender.
It’s at least an hour before Azula joins him. Zuko isn’t sure whether this is due to her needing to oversee the running of the ship, or if it’s a power play. He supposes it doesn’t matter.
Azula stands outside the cell with her arms crossed and stares him down. Zuko meets her eyes.
He’s a little grateful, in a twisted way, for the opportunity just to look at her. Everything is calm now. There’s no fighting or running. Zuko doesn’t even feel panicked anymore, because there’s no point; he knows what happens from this point onwards. There is no escape, and anyway, he’s given Azula his word that he won’t try.
“How did Mother die?” Azula asks eventually.
Zuko nods, acknowledging her question as he thinks. And then he says: “Slowly.”
“Injury followed by illness,” Zuko answers. “She was hurt the night we left. She never quite got over it.”
Azula watches his face, and then her eyes shift to the right to look specifically at his scar. “You were injured, too. Grandfather?”
“Father,” Zuko corrects. “Though Grandfather ordered it.”
“Do you know why?”
“No more than you do,” Zuko replies, because Azula had been the one to present that information, after all. Azula had known before Zuko that Zuko was to be sacrificed at the altar of their father’s ambition.
Azula’s eyebrows draw in. She looks like she’s about to respond, and then she holds herself back. She reverts to staring, and Zuko takes in every detail of her face. She looks so much like Mother. She’ll probably look even more like Mother when she’s an adult.
“You let me think you were dead.”
Zuko doesn’t reply, because there’s nothing to say to that. He just continues looking while he can, at the sweep of her cheekbones and the gold of her eyes. He can still see the little girl he used to know; the one who was harsh and competitive, who was a prodigy, who was whip-smart and wouldn’t let anyone take advantage of her.
“You’re not going to deny that?”
“Why would I?” Zuko asks.
Azula’s jaw clenches and her eyes narrow. “Why did you let me think you were dead?”
Zuko hesitates. “I didn’t have another option.”
“You could have said goodbye that night,” Azula snaps. “You could have written. You could have come back after Mother died.”
Zuko nods. “I could have,” he agrees. “And I would have died.” It’s a choice. Azula isn’t wrong about that. He did choose life over her. He wonders if she thinks less of him for it.
Azula’s breathing is very even. They fall back into silence.
Long minutes later, Azula asks: “Why did you join the Avatar?”
This is where Zuko has to be careful. Any information about Aang could be used against him. He already said too much about the Avatar State; Zuko can only hope that Azula already knew about it from Aang’s earlier use, because he hates the idea that he’s sold information to Aang’s enemy, even if he did it to save Aang and Katara.
Zuko wets his lips. “I had nothing to lose,” he says eventually.
Azula’s eyes narrow.
“Not your loyalty to your nation? Not your honour?”
“I don’t think I have any of that left,” Zuko admits. And then he adds: “The Earth Kingdom is starving. Did you realise that? The Fire Nation has decimated it. The war, it’s-- The Avatar can restore balance.”
Azula rolls her eyes, clearly unimpressed. “You sound like Avatar propaganda,” she says.
Zuko only hums in response.
The siblings revert to staring at one another.
Eventually, Azula’s friends come down to find her.
Zuko recognises them both, though it takes a moment. Azula has retained the same friendships she had in girlhood. Zuko had never been good at friendship, had never been allowed to spend time with kids his own age anyway, so Azula’s friends were the closest things he had to friends as a child. He spent many days with Ty Lee and Mai, and he’s impressed that the three of them are still loyal to one another.
Zuko has only had friends a number of weeks. He can’t imagine years.
(It doesn’t matter what he can and can’t imagine, anyway. The remainder of his life can be measured in days at most.)
“Oh,” Ty Lee says, staring through the bars at Zuko. Her eyes are watering. She looks at Azula, who shrugs some kind of acquiescence, and then Ty Lee is standing at Zuko’s bars. “Zuko.”
“Hello,” Zuko replies, awkwardly. How does one greet an old sort-of-friend who is involved in the ending of his life? It doesn’t seem like an ‘it’s nice to see you’ kind of scenario.
Ty Lee draws a shaking breath, and then says, “Azula, he looks so much like you,” and immediately bursts into tears.
Zuko sits back, more than a little alarmed, and watches as Azula and Mai wear matching longsuffering expressions. After a few moments, Ty Lee catches her breath and turns to Zuko again.
“We went to your funeral,” she says. Zuko nods, because she seems to be waiting for a response. “We weren’t supposed to - children under ten, it’s unseemly, of course - but we snuck in behind the curtains.”
“Ty Lee,” Azula interjects. “Enough.”
Ty Lee falls quiet, and holds onto the bars of Zuko’s cell.
Zuko takes a steadying breath. He hadn’t realised there had been a funeral. That seems very… official. Maybe the Fire Lord had needed to do it for appearances.
“When did you all find out I was alive?” he asks.
“I told them a few days after I found you,” Azula explains.
“But when did you find out?” Zuko asks again, looking toward his sister. “When did the Fire Lord tell you? You obviously didn’t know when it happened.”
Azula hesitates, visibly taken aback this time. “I,” she starts, and then apparently gets a hold of herself. “I found out when I saw you. It’s not like I’m going to forget my own face.”
Zuko pauses, and then nods. “So he never told you.”
“Why should he?” Azula asks. “It’s not like you’re important. Or,” she adds, thoughtful, “you weren’t important until you went and joined the Avatar.”
Mai sighs as if this is all very boring. “Can we get to the part where we get information on the Avatar already?”
“What a good idea, Mai,” Azula responds.
Zuko lifts his chin. “I’m not going to tell you anything.”
He watches as a smile creeps across his sister’s expression. “Well, that might be the case now,” she says, “but I’m sure you’ll have a… change of heart at the palace.”
The winds have always liked Azula. And even when they haven’t, she has been able to direct ships through them with ease. What can she say? Azula is just lucky.
So it’s hardly a surprise that they’re making it to the palace in record time.
(She isn’t worried. She’s not. Zuko hasn’t said anything concerning, after all. She just hasn’t been able to look at his face this closely before, and the scar is somehow even worse than she had been remembering it. It morphs the shape of the skin around his eye, causing it to be fixed in a permanent scowl. And Zuko might not have been much of a firebender when they were kids, but he did have an inner fire - and Azula knows well that it is difficult to get a firebender’s skin to burn.)
Azula gives her crew stern directions, and then returns to her own rooms. It isn’t because she’s wary about looking at her brother. Azula just has to run through her plans.
(Zuko is hardly an open book, but he has told her that the scar comes from that night. Grandfather had ordered Zuzu’s death, and Father had burned half his face off. What was the plan? To just keep going until Zuko’s brain melted out his ears? Death by fire might be one of the most honourable forms of death penalty in the Fire Nation, but it’s usually reserved for non-benders and done on a pyre, not held down and blasted in the face--)
Azula breathes very deeply, falling into a meditative state. There is no use in dwelling on the past. There is only the present and the future. The past is only relevant inasmuch as it is useful.
(Father had known that Mother and Zuzu were alive, and had let Azula think otherwise. She’s Father’s right-hand woman. Would he have ever told her?)
Eventually, Mai and Ty Lee arrive. Azula lets them into the cabin, and Mai leans against her desk as Ty Lee paces the available space.
“Are you sure about this, Azula?” Ty Lee asks. “What if the Fire Lord doesn’t want to see him?”
Mai sighs. “Of course the Fire Lord doesn’t want to see him,” she points out. “He left him to rot in the Earth Kingdom.”
“He has information on the Avatar,” Azula reminds them. “He’s a useful prisoner. I need… two days, three at most,” she estimates. “Father won’t deny me if I show him that it’s logical to let him live. You always need an heir and a spare, after all; and a few years of convincing should turn him into a decent spare.”
“If he’s not going to be a useful ‘spare’ for a few years, then you’ll be old enough to have children,” Ty Lee says. “Then he’s not useful anymore.”
Azula scowls. “Or he can have children,” she suggests. “I’ll be too busy for that. And anyway, he’s sickeningly good with them, apparently. I don’t want any.”
“The Fire Lord won’t let him raise the next in line,” Mai states.
Azula glares. “There won’t be a problem once the Avatar is out of the way. And… We have a few days to iron this out. Once Father sees Zuko turning on the Avatar, providing us with information, it will be easier to convince him.”
Ty Lee bites at her nails and watches Azula with wide, concerned eyes. Mai just sighs unhelpfully.
Zuko thinks about his friends.
He wonders, of course, what conclusions they might draw from Zuko’s surrender. It will colour how they remember him, he knows that; perhaps they’ll think he betrayed them, or perhaps they’ll work out who he is and know that he lied all this time. But there’s no use in dwelling on that, on regretting that his last interaction with Katara and Aang was with Zuko on his knees before his sister, or regretting that his last interaction with Sokka was twisted up and painful and confusing.
Zuko might only have hours to think of anything at all, so he decides that he’s going to spend it with gratitude. He sends a prayer to Agni, and it isn’t right - he doesn’t remember the wording anymore, and he can’t see the sun from here anyway - but it will have to do.
So he pictures the four of them, and thinks of the happier moments they’d spent together. He remembers being confused but also amused by their interactions. He remembers them being kind to him, and to anyone they came across. He does his best to remember what their smiles look like. And then he sends another prayer that they will win this, that they’ll all survive and grow into adulthood.
And then Zuko lets himself think about Mother.
Azula had wanted to know about her, but she’d only been interested in Mother’s death. Zuko mostly remembers Mother dying, too, and the long weeks that Zuko had spent watching it happen and being helpless to stop it. But again, he decides that this isn’t worth dwelling on right now. So Zuko thinks instead of how brave she had been, taking them to the Earth Kingdom; he thinks of how gentle her hands had been when they had run through Zuko’s newly-shorn hair, how warm her body was when she curled up around Zuko at night, how she had assured him that he was loved up until she had lost the ability to speak.
Zuko feels the sun set, even though he can’t see it, and he curls up in a corner and lets himself fall asleep. There’s no fight left in him for anything, even staying awake in these last short hours.
They arrive at daybreak.
Azula hasn’t slept, and Ty Lee keeps bothering her about it.
Azula has sent a message ahead of her that she’s bringing an important prisoner, but she hasn’t specified that it’s Zuko. Azula doesn’t know whether Father will want to keep his existence quiet for the remainder of the war, after all.
(She goes to wake Zuko and bring him herself, because she’s itching to look at him. It’s an awful feeling, crawling against the inside of her skin, and she needs to make it stop.)
When they pull Zuko from the brig, he looks resigned. Azula walks beside him, facing forward as is proper for a princess, but occasionally glancing over to see him. Zuko stares out at Caldera City, and Azula finds herself inexplicably annoyed that he isn’t looking at her.
“The more you tell us about the Avatar, the more useful you are,” she advises.
Zuko turns his head and meets her eyes, and they walk in silence for a moment before he says: “Azula, you do know that I won’t betray them, don’t you?”
It might take some work. But he will betray them. In exchange for life, most people will betray anyone; and even if he won’t do it for his life, then he’ll do it for relief from pain.
(She doesn’t want it to come to that, not really. She wants Zuko to see sense and do the right thing. But if it comes down to it, his life is worth some pain.)
They enter the palace. Mai and Ty Lee can’t go much further, but Ty Lee reaches out and touches Azula’s shoulder before they break away. Azula nods and continues.
Azula stays by Zuko’s side as they enter the throne room. She only breaks away when it’s necessary, when the guards force him to his knees before the Fire Lord. Azula steps some paces away for everyone’s safety, and then turns a calculated smile on the Fire Lord.
“What is this?” the Fire Lord asks, standing from the throne.
Zuko’s head is high, even though he’s been pushed low. His hair needs a cut and is hanging into his eyes, and he’s dressed in Earth Kingdom green, but Azula would recognise his face anywhere. And Father even knows about the scar, so he must recognise his own son.
(There’s a part of her that thinks that she was destined to find her brother again and bring him home. It’s a stupid, childish part of her, that she wrestles into submission. But it’s still there.)
“Hello, Father,” Zuko says.
The Fire Lord stares down at his son for long, long moments.
“Daughter,” he says eventually, lifting his eyes to her. “Explain.”
Azula’s posture is perfect. Her expression is perfect.
“He has been working with the Avatar,” she introduces, because this is the most pertinent information. “I recognised him immediately, of course. And now I have captured him. He’ll have important information.”
The Fire Lord continues to watch her, his expression sharp and focused.
“I asked you to bring me the Avatar, not this.”
(She notices that he says ‘this’ as if Zuko is a thing. She keeps her breaths and her heart rate steady.)
“This will lead us to the Avatar,” Azula explains.
Azula only needs Zuko imprisoned right now. She can allow the surprise to fade before she starts working on her plan to keep him alive in the long run.
The Fire Lord continues to watch her. Azula feels inexplicably small.
“Why did you not inform me of your brother’s whereabouts?”
Azula raises her chin further. “I had not wanted to put it into writing, lest it be intercepted and force your hand,” she explains. “He is more useful as a secret.”
“As a secret from me?” the Fire Lord asks.
“Never,” Azula responds, firm and true.
Father hums, looking from Azula to Zuko. Zuko is still holding his head high. Azula can respect that. He still acts like royalty, even after almost six years as a peasant, even kneeling on the stone floor of the throne room.
(She wonders if this was the room where Father had burned Zuko’s face. She doesn’t allow herself to dwell on it.)
“He is useful,” the Fire Lord allows, and Azula feels something in the back of her mind relax. This is step one of her plan. It’s time to start perfecting the details of step two. “However,” Father continues, “there is one problem.”
Azula hesitates. “A problem, Father?”
The Fire Lord looks back to Azula, his gaze piercing.
“You are strong, my daughter,” he states. Azula allows herself the smallest smile. “Your soul is made of iron and fire. And he,” the Fire Lord continues, not even bothering to look at Zuko, “is a weakness.”
“His weakness will lead us to the Avatar,” Azula reminds him. Zuko’s weakness will be good for them.
The Fire Lord smiles, just slightly. “I meant that he is your weakness, Azula,” he explains.
Azula goes cold. She rushes to correct him, but she can’t quite figure out how.
(Is Father right? Is Zuko her weakness?)
The Fire Lord turns his head to look at his son again. Zuko, Azula notices, is looking up at Azula.
He’s looking at her like he’s trying to memorise her, Azula realises. He thinks--
“Guards,” Father says, and Azula keeps looking back at Zuko, as his eyes flit from her face to her hair to her hands, as Zuko’s face gives away nothing except that he wants to see her-- “Kill the boy.”
Azula’s mind goes blank.
That’s the only explanation she has for what happens next.
The guard behind Zuko stops, and his sword clatters to the stone. Azula pulls her pearl-handled dagger from the guard’s neck.
And then everything happens very fast.
“Run,” she snaps at Zuko, grabbing his arm and pulling him to his feet, and she blasts their way out of the room. There’s a pause of seconds before her father starts flinging his own fire, but it’s long enough.
Azula is out of the room, dragging Zuko behind her.
The guard outside the door snags Zuko by his bound wrists, and Zuko twists and pulls off a kick to the guard’s face, and then they’re running again.
They round the corner, Azula’s arms raised and her fire true, ready for another fight, only to find that the guards are already knocked out.
They continue running.
“This way!” Ty Lee calls from around a bend, and they double back and follow her voice.
There’s a seemingly endless route of unconscious guards. At the end of it, Mai is pulling knives out of the wall, and Ty Lee thrusts a bundle of clothing at them.
Zuko stumbles and Azula pulls him along, practically dragging him. She takes an overshirt from Ty Lee’s arms and throws it around Zuko’s shoulders, disguising the Earth Kingdom colours with Fire Nation red.
“How did you know?” Azula asks.
Mai leans against the knife-free wall and raises her eyebrows. “Well, I mean, duh.”
“There’s no time!” Ty Lee insists. “Down the corridor to the left, to the secret passage that Lu Ten used to use. Go that way.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Azula asks. “You can’t stay behind, you’ve committed treason--”
(Oh, fire and ash, Azula has committed treason--)
“Nobody saw us,” Mai insists. “What do you think we are, amateurs?”
Ty Lee throws her arms around Azula, and then she hugs Zuko, too.
“Stay safe,” she says. “And run fast.”
They take off again.
At the end of Lu Ten’s passage is the last person Azula expects.
(Though maybe she should have expected him. He’s a useless old man, but he’d also loved Zuko, and he never seems to give up on wanting to have tea with Azula and talk her ear off with useless proverbs.)
“My niece and nephew,” Iroh greets them, holding his arms out.
Neither of the siblings go forward to him.
Iroh doesn’t seem to mind. He approaches them, one hand on either of their shoulders, and smiles warmly. “You will need to keep each other safe, now,” Iroh says. “You will be in danger until this war is over.”
Zuko inhales sharply, and Azula looks toward him. He’s staring at Iroh with wide eyes.
“Did you…?” he asks, and then trails off for a moment. “I don’t remember much about that night, I was really out of it after the-- but. This feels familiar.”
Iroh smiles. “Ah, yes, nephew. We have been here before.”
“Oh,” Zuko says, and then turns his eyes to Azula. “Azula, you…”
“Let’s go,” Azula says. “We don’t have time for family reunions right now.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Zuko says, and executes a bow. His hands are still bound, so he cannot make the sign of the flame. Azula wonders if he even would have.
Iroh bows back. “You will need to find the White Lotus,” he tells the pair. “And put your trust in them. I will see you again, my niece and nephew.”
“Come on,” Azula says, grasping at Zuko’s arm, and they continue to flee.
(She’s committing treason. She committed treason automatically, without even weighing her options. Father was right. Zuko is her weakness.)
They run, and run, and run.
But Caldera City is not an easy place to escape from.
“You did this before,” Azula snaps when they find some brief cover. “How did you and Mother escape?”
Zuko purses his lips, staring into the distance. “We ended up on a ship,” he says.
“Ended up? How did you get there? ” Azula asks. “Who did you trust? How did you hide yourselves?”
“I don’t know!” Zuko replies, shifting to look her in the face. “I don’t think I was conscious for much of it.”
His face had been half burnt off that night. Zuko might not have been conscious at all.
(What is Azula doing? What is she doing?)
Zuko looks up to the sky again, and then stares.
Azula shifts to see what he’s looking at.
“Is that…?” she asks, hardly believing it.
Zuko frowns. “That’s Appa,” he says, and then his expression clears and he adds: “They found Appa!”
Azula scowls. “But they won’t find us,” she points out, and feels impossibly bitter. Zuko’s friends are launching a rescue mission, but they would have been too late: Zuko would have bled out on the throne room floor just minutes before their arrival. And they’re too late now, anyway, because the bison is en route to the palace and Zuko and Azula are hiding.
Zuko continues to watch the sky, and then Azula sees the smallest smile bloom on his face.
“What?” Azula asks.
Zuko shifts, twisting his cuffed hands until he can reach his belt. After a moment, he pulls out a small wooden whistle.
“I was on bison whistle duty when you found me.”
Chapter 5: youth bleeding in the square
Funerals were held all over the city,
The youth bleeding in the square.
Women raged as old men fumbled and cried.
We thought you didn’t care.
The Avatar hops off the bison before it’s even off the ground and throws himself at Zuko. Zuko just about manages to raise his bound hands in time for the Avatar to avoid pinning his arms to his sides with the hug.
Azula looks back toward the palace. There’s no way the bison will go unnoticed for long.
“You’re okay!” the Water Tribe peasant boy yells, relieved. “We were so worried!”
“Well he almost wasn’t,” Azula snaps.
The Avatar and his friends finally notice her, and drop from the beast to fall into formation. Azula rolls her eyes.
“Guys, we don’t have time for this,” Zuko points out, because he’s obviously the only one of them with any sense at all. “Azula is coming with us.”
“Azula is-- She’s coming with us? ” the waterbender repeats.
There’s movement in their direction. They’re out of time.
“On the bison,” Azula shouts, snapping. “On the bison, now!”
“She is not coming with us!” the waterbender shouts. “That is insane, why would she be…?”
Zuko looks toward his friends desperately, and then back to where the guards are visible in the distance, coming closer and closer. His face hardens slightly.
“Then neither am I,” he says. “Thanks for coming, though. Could I maybe get my swords?” He looks down at his bound hands, thoughtfully. “I guess just one sword would do.”
“What is,” the Water Tribe peasant boy starts, and then shakes his head. “Okay, we really don’t have time. Everyone on the bison! Fire Princess, on the bison!”
Azula scrambles up to the ridiculous creature’s ridiculous saddle, and then turns back and holds out her arms to help Zuko and his stupid bound hands. She pulls him up and dumps him next to her, and then they’re soaring into the air. Azula lies down flat to protect from the inevitable flames being thrown at them, and watches Royal Caldera City get smaller and smaller.
“Well,” Azula says, when they’re at a safe height, “Father is not going to like that.”
She sits up and looks toward her brother, who looks back at her with wide eyes.
And then Azula laughs.
It’s not actually funny. It’s not funny at all. Azula just committed treason, stabbed a man in the neck, and dragged her long dead brother out of their childhood home.
Fire Lord Ozai doesn’t have any living, non-treasonous children.
Azula’s laughter spins out of her, and for a moment, Zuko lets out a small huff of a laugh, too. It gets carried away on the wind, and they probably sound insane, but--
“I just committed treason,” Azula says, maybe a touch hysterical. Her laughter goes loose in her chest and spins out of control, and then Zuzu isn’t laughing anymore. In fact, he looks a little worried. And then that’s funny too, and Azula’s laughter maybe hurts, a little?
“Oh,” Zuko says, going from confusion to alarm in a heartbeat. “Oh, okay. Um.”
He reaches out toward her and Azula pulls away, and then another burst of laughter pours out of her, and she leans forward again.
Azula’s brother’s arms fall around her shoulders, and he pulls her down and toward him. “It’s okay,” Zuko says, soft and quiet, meant just for her. She can barely hear him above her own laughter. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
“You’re here,” Azula says, and it sounds oddly desperate, even though she doesn’t mean it to. Her laughter bubbles again, and it doesn’t really sound like laughter at all anymore, but there aren’t any tears. It’s not like Azula would cry.
“I’m here,” Zuko says again, and everything slows down. “It’s okay. I’m here, Azula. I’m here.”
When Azula comes back to herself, Zuko is still muttering ‘I’m here’, and the other bison passengers are silent.
This is obviously completely unacceptable.
“Oh, ash,” Azula says, pulling back from where she was leaning into him. His hands get caught behind her, where he’s still bound. He lifts his arms and she jolts from them, offended. “You’re treating me like a child. I am not a child. ”
Zuko blinks at her, and his face is doing something that Azula has never seen it do. “Azula, you just saved my life, and betrayed the Fire Lord doing it. I think you get to have some mixed feelings about that.”
“Uh, Sparky, no offense meant or anything,” the blind child interrupts. “But isn’t she the reason that your life was in danger in the first place?”
Right. Zuko’s friends.
(Azula refuses to be humiliated by that episode. She was laughing, not crying, and adrenaline is real. She’ll maim any of them who comment on it.)
Zuko sighs wearily and goes to rub his face, but can’t because his hands are still bound and pressed together. He sighs again.
“Toph can help you with that,” the Avatar says, looking back from the front of the saddle.
Zuko holds his hands out and the blind child reaches out until she finds the cuffs. Her face screws up in concentration, and then the metal peels back and falls to the saddle between them. Zuko shakes out his hands.
“When did that become a thing?” he asks.
The blind girl smiles. “It’s been a long couple of days,” she replies. “Good to have you back, Sparky.”
The waterbender glares. “Is one of you going to explain why Princess Azula is here?” she asks through a tense jaw.
“I stabbed a man in the neck,” Azula informs them, because again: they need to know that her small laughing episode does not leave her open to any kind of criticism. “And saved Zuzu’s life. Also, we need to look for a Pai Sho tile. That about covers it.”
Zuko stares at her. “Oh wow, you’re still really bad at telling stories,” he says.
“What?” Azula exclaims, deeply offended. “I am not.”
“You are,” Zuko replies. “You’re bad at something!”
“I’m not bad at anything and I will have your head if you say that again,” Azula responds, pointing a finger at her treasonous brother. “You’re the one who’s bad at things!”
“That’s why it’s so funny!” Zuko responds, and while his smile isn’t wide by any objective standard, it’s still the brightest smile that Azula has seen since they were children. Azula laughs again.
The smile slips off Zuko’s features.
“That was an actual laugh, relax,” Azula insists. Her chest still hurts from before. She’s going to have to avoid laughing for a while. She really hadn’t thought that would be a problem. “Go on, if you’re such a talented storyteller, Zuzu.”
“Zuzu?” the peasant boy asks, incredulous.
Azula looks up. “I’m sorry, have you somehow not put this together yet?” she asks. At the set of blank stares, she gestures between herself and her brother. Still nothing. “Honestly, how was I having a hard time kidnapping you,” she mutters.
“Are you two… together?” the Avatar asks.
Zuko lowers his face to his freed hands.
“Well,” Azula says, holding herself back from laughing again, “that would certainly solve the succession problem, wouldn’t it?”
“What? Azula, stop it.”
“No no, think about it,” Azula goes on. “What would Grandfather have said? It’s not illegal--”
“--if you’re the Fire Lord,” they finish together, and then Zuko lifts his face for a brief grimace. “Oh wow, that’s gross.”
Azula frowns. “Don’t be so rude. I think we’re very pretty.”
Zuko’s shoulders shake, and he’s definitely either realising that Azula is the funniest person he knows, or he’s about to suffer a terrible adrenaline crash. “You’re such a narcissist,” he accuses, and then sits up. “We’re-- uh.” He sobers as he looks at his friends. “I should, I should apologise for not telling you earlier. But we’re.”
Zuko looks to Azula, and Azula rolls her eyes.
“Just look at us,” she tells them, and moves to sit closer to her brother. She indicates her face, and then his. When there isn’t an immediate exclamation of understanding, she raises her left hand to cover her eye and scowls. “I shall teach you firebending, Avatar,” she says, pitching her voice low and smokey and serious.
Zuko scowls. “I don’t sound like that. And I never said that.”
“One of you seeing people is going to have to fill me in,” the blind girl says, lying back against the side of the saddle.
“Oh!” the waterbender says, and then gasps. “Oh wow, how did I not see that before?”
“It’s because I didn’t do my excellent impression,” Azula replies. “That, or you’re all hopeless idiots. But who knows?”
“She’s your sister,” the peasant boy says, voice quiet and wondering. “Which makes you…”
“The long lost Fire Prince,” Azula finishes with a flourish. “Heir to the Dragon Throne.”
Zuko stiffens immediately. “I’m not the heir. You’re the heir.”
“Unless we get married,” Azula responds. “Then we’re both the heir.”
Zuko’s face falls into his palm again.
“I hate to break this to you, but I think that maybe neither or you is the heir, since you just… ran away?” the blind girl suggests. “Also, Sparky: uncool. Uncool to be royalty and not tell us.”
“I’m not royalty,” Zuko insists. “I was once. But the Fire Prince is legally dead, remember?”
“Your name isn’t Lee,” the peasant boy says.
Zuko winces. “I’ve gone by Lee for years,” he replies. He sounds quieter now, more unsure of himself. Azula misses the laughter. “But I wasn’t born Lee.”
“We don’t even know your name. Wow.” The peasant looks distinctly unimpressed, turning away from the pair of them. Azula watches, but she’s already bored with the drama. “That’s just… great.”
“It’s Zuko,” Zuko says. “I… You can just call me Lee, though.”
Nobody responds immediately, and Zuko looks a little lost.
Azula sighs. Once again, she’s going to clear up stupid Zuko’s stupid mess.
“You can just land wherever,” she says. “We’re far enough away that we’ll be safe. My brother and I can take it from here.”
Zuko nods softly, where Azula had been expecting him to ask his friends to keep them. But if Zuko is that resigned, then it probably says something about the loyalty of these people, and Azula needs to slow down and make plans. She’s going to need to make so many plans.
Apparently, they’re going to usurp their father.
The blind girl sits up. “Wait, you’re leaving?” she asks. “We’re letting them leave?”
Azula tenses. So does Zuko. He’s smart enough to know an underlying threat when he hears one, then.
“I won’t be anyone’s prisoner,” Azula insists, chin high. “And I will incinerate all of you for trying.”
“Could you avoid doing that while we’re in the sky?” the blind child suggests. “And relax, Fire Hazard, I wasn’t suggesting imprisoning you. Just that we should stick together.”
The waterbender scowls. “We were going to go back to Dad,” she says. “We can hardly take them there.”
Zuko flinches again, and then seems to calm himself with a breath. “You found your father?”
“Yes, while you were busy finding yours, apparently,” the waterbender responds, tone sharp.
Zuko isn’t looking up anymore. Azula tilts her head as she watches him. “That’s… great. For you.”
“It is,” the peasant boy responds, voice as cold as his sister’s.
“Guys,” the Avatar says, sounding nervous. “I know this is weird, but Lee-- Zuko probably has a good reason for not telling us. Don’t you? Zuko?”
Zuko hesitates before responding, and the waterbender scoffs.
“Wow, Zuzu,” Azula drawls. “My friends just committed treason to get us out of the palace alive. And yours are considering throwing you from a flying bison. I think this means I have better taste in friends than you do.”
“Maybe you just don’t lie to your friends constantly,” the waterbender snaps.
Azula raises an eyebrow. “No, I do.”
“Must run in the family, then.”
“Katara,” the Avatar says, awkward and desperate.
“What, Aang?” the waterbender asks. “She has been hunting us down, chasing us, she-- she’s hurt us. And it turns out that Lee is-- sorry, Prince Zuko is her brother, and he just let us think that he was a, a…”
The blind girl raises a hand. “War orphan and/or runaway?” she suggests. “Except it seems like he is at least one of those things, right?”
“Lies by omission are still lies,” the waterbender states.
“Tell that to my feet,” the blind child retorts.
Azula turns to Zuko for clarification. “Feet?” she asks, and Zuko shakes his head.
“She’s an earthbender, she does this thing - it’s really neat, actually - she can feel movement through the earth. It’s like seeing with her feet. And she can feel heartbeats, so she can tell when people are lying.” He pauses. “Probably not you, though.”
“Flatterer,” Azula says automatically, and then sits back to watch the mess that is this group. “Okay, I’m all caught up. You can continue judging my brother’s worth now.” A hush falls across the group, and Azula pretends to pick the petals from an imaginary flower. “Throw him from the bison, don’t throw him from the bison… Throw him from the bison--”
“Nobody is throwing anybody off the bison!” the peasant boy exclaims.
The waterbender appears to have geared up again. “Is this why you didn’t want to teach Aang firebending?” she asks. “Because you weren’t sure where your loyalties lie?”
“What? No. I didn’t want to teach Aang firebending because I’m not a good firebender.”
Azula blinks. “Didn’t you invent that thing you do with the swords?” she asks, confused.
Zuko blinks back at her. “Yeah. Why?”
Azula is quiet for a moment, and then shakes her head. “No reason.”
“Aha!” the peasant boy exclaims, pointing at Azula and then Zuko. “See? I told you--”
“Sokka, now is not the time,” the waterbender snaps.
The peasant boy’s hand wavers, and then he lowers it. “Oh. Right.”
“So,” the blind girl says, leaning back and facing the sky again. “What do we do now?”
They end up landing in a clearing, far enough away from any population that they can allow Appa to rest in safety. It also gives them a chance to figure out whether or not they’re splitting up.
Zuko tries not to feel too much about that. He’s been absurdly lucky today, and he’s thankful for his life and for Azula right now. It makes sense that he doesn’t get to have his friends, too. Zuko automatically builds a small fire and starts to help Katara to get some food together, but she tenses and stops when he gets too close, so he gives up and retreats. He spends a few moments with Appa, making sure he’s fed and running a brush through his fur, and then comes back to the group.
Azula is sitting by the tiny fire. She doesn’t look great.
Zuko watches as she reaches up and works the crown out of her topknot. She then pulls at her hair until it loosens and settles around her shoulders. She stares at the fire all the while, but Zuko can tell that she is coiled tight and ready to defend herself.
Zuko sits close to her, hoping that his presence allows her some calm. He doubts it will, but he’s pretty useless otherwise.
“So if this goes well for us,” Azula says, “who ends up as Fire Lord?”
“You,” Zuko says automatically. “Even if you want to restore my crown, I… I don’t want to be considered for the throne.”
Azula breathes deeply. Zuko thinks that it sounds like relief. “I’ll be the youngest Fire Lord in history.”
Zuko nods, watching the fire with her. “Uncle Iroh will be helpful.”
“Oh no,” Azula says, and Zuko looks over to see her eyes flutter closed for just a moment. “I’m going to owe him so many games of Pai Sho.”
“I think you can get away with saying no, since you’ll be busy ruling a nation.”
“Will you play for me?” Azula asks. “Do you even like Pai Sho?”
Zuko shrugs. “I haven’t played since I was in the palace. I’m probably not very good.”
“Yes, well, you’re not very good at anything,” Azula agrees, and flashes him a small smile. “But you can keep Uncle company. And babies. I’m not having any. You’re in charge of having and raising heirs.”
“I’ll play the Pai Sho and raise the babies,” Zuko agrees. That doesn’t sound so terrible, but… “We should talk about how we get there.”
Azula looks from the fire to the sky. She looks deeply unhappy. “We’re going to have to murder Father.”
Aang drops suddenly on Zuko’s right. Azula tenses up again.
“We don’t need to kill him!” Aang disagrees. “We can just… dethrone him, right? We can keep him imprisoned somewhere. I don’t want to have to kill anyone.”
“You won’t have to kill anyone,” Azula says, her voice dropping low with intent. “I’ll do it.”
“Azula,” Zuko says.
“What? You think I can’t? He tried to kill you when you were eleven, Zuko. He burned half your face off, and he let me think you were dead. And then I brought you home and he tried to kill you again. I could do it.”
Zuko thinks about what killing their father would mean to Azula. He thinks about how she’s thrown her entire life away for Zuko, and Zuko is sure that he’s not worth it.
And then he realises that silence has fallen across the camp.
“He tried to kill you when you were eleven?” Aang asks quietly.
Zuko decides to keep his eyes on the fire. “We don’t have to kill him,” he says, redirecting the conversation. “Not if there’s another option. It’s not exactly a family legacy we want to continue, is it?”
Azula is apparently having none of it. “I’m sorry,” she says to Aang in a way that’s clearly not sorry at all, “why did you think he was an Earth Kingdom runaway child? Father and Grandfather - Fire Lord Azulon - tried to… what? Burn you to death starting with the face?” She turns to Zuko for clarification, but Zuko wasn’t exactly informed of the plan. He just shrugs. “And then Mother took him and ran. And killed Grandfather in the process?”
“She hit him in the head with-- Do you remember that stone dragon sculpture that used to be inside the main entrance of the throne room?”
Azula scoffs a half-laugh, and Zuko flinches. “Wow. What a way to go. Death by incredibly ugly statue.”
“Probably didn’t make it into the official records,” Zuko responds.
“What did Mother do in the Earth Kingdom? It’s not like she had a wide array of transferable skills.”
Zuko shrugs. “You learn skills on the road. I’m a pretty good seamster nowadays. Not that it’s going to help much with Father.”
Azula is quiet again, and Zuko can feel her staring at him, so he turns to her and raises his eyebrows.
“Zuzu.” She continues to stare him out. “What did Mother do in the Earth Kingdom?”
Zuko frowns, unsure what’s wrong, and then wonders if Azula is imagining something worse than the truth. “She died.”
Azula sits back for a moment. “She died straight away?”
“No, it took months,” Zuko replies. “Didn’t we talk about this?”
Azula purses her lips as she continues to look at him. “I guess I imagined that you had a few good years with her beforehand.” Her eyebrows draw in, just slightly. “But she just kidnapped you and abandoned you to the viperwolves.”
“She didn’t abandon me, Azula, she died,” Zuko says, hearing it come out sharp even as he tries to soften it.
Azula looks away. She’s still frowning.
There’s an issue around Katara’s food. Azula glares and refuses to eat, and Zuko runs a hand through his hair (still relieved to have both hands free) and sighs.
“It’s not poisoned,” he assures his sister, but she still doesn’t touch the food. Zuko leans forward and switches their bowls. “Better?”
“Why would I think they’re less likely to poison you?”
Aang looks distraught. “We wouldn’t do that!” he insists.
“They really wouldn’t,” Zuko insists. “They wouldn’t poison either of us. Aang doesn’t even want to kill the Fire Lord, remember?”
Azula stares him down.
“You’re too trusting,” she says. “You always have been.”
“Oh wow, you are kidding with that, right?” Toph asks from across the circle. “Lee-- Zuko didn’t even tell us who he was. Getting information from him was like learning to metalbend. He won’t even tell us why he wouldn’t tell us. Sorry, Fire Hazard, but you’ve read him wrong on this one.”
Zuko shrugs. “You still haven’t told us the metalbending story,” he points out to Toph, who throws her arms in the air and mutters something that sounds like ‘yeah, there we go, prove my point’ .
“Plus, we just saved you,” Sokka adds. Zuko doesn’t look at him, doesn’t look at either of the Water Tribe siblings anymore, because he can’t watch them look level and cold. “It would be a waste to kill you now.”
Azula hums, and then switches their bowls back. Zuko thinks that might be a trusting gesture from her, but then she says: “They knew who I was when they let me on the flying beast. They didn’t know who you were. So they’re more likely to be poisoning you.”
Zuko looks to the heavens and asks Agni for patience.
After lunch, Azula places her bowl to one side and points at Zuko.
“Get your swords.”
Zuko has been quiet and contemplative, and not in a good way. He won’t look at almost any of his ex-friends in the face. Plus, Azula is still brimming with angry energy.
“Sparring?” the Avatar asks, airbending himself up to standing. “Can I watch?”
Azula pauses. “I wasn’t thinking it as sparring so much as shooting fire at the least flammable person here, but sure. Let’s call it sparring.”
They all end up following, which had not been Azula’s intention. She’d thought that some time away from the mistrustful group might be good for the pair of them. However, they’re mistrustful, so they’re probably here to ensure that she and Zuko don’t make a run for it.
(Zuko seems to think that they won’t poison or imprison them. Azula is less convinced. They’re desperate fighters in a war; they’ll do much worse than that if they feel they have to.)
Azula and Zuko fight hard. Azula fights dirty.
It gives Azula a chance to see his firebending up close.
(She’s maybe a tiny bit interested. But only because it takes a stupid amount of control to do what he’s doing with the swords.)
“Lose the swords,” she says eventually, when they slow to a stop, facing one another.
Zuko looks unsure, but he places them to one side and returns.
Azula wins easily this time.
“You’re rusty,” she says once she’s taken him down. “Again.”
Azula pays more attention this time.
Here’s the thing: Zuko has a lot of control, but no training. He’d been a late bloomer - they hadn’t known he would be a bender at all until he was already almost eight years old, far behind the usual age. What Zuko had needed was years and years of rigorous training, but he’s only received a few beginning years and then abandonment. And considering his face, probably a decent helping of fear.
Azula takes him down again. “How scared were you of fire?” she asks, testing the theory.
Zuko looks up at her from the ground. He hesitates, clearly on the edge of asking for a clarification, and then looks thoughtful. “Pretty scared,” he admits, “but Mother made me use it again quickly.”
Smart. Back on the ostrich-horse.
“Your control is decent,” Azula says. “That makes sense of your sword trick. You probably developed the control because you were afraid. She was right to make you use your fire anyway. But you didn’t practice the katas, and now you’re average at best in a fight without the swords.”
Azula doesn’t tell him that ‘average at best’ is above average for someone with so little training. He doesn’t need the ego boost, and even if he does, Azula isn’t the one who’ll be handing it to him. Instead, she runs him through a basic kata, and Zuko takes directions. She corrects his balance and watches again, and then notices that they have closer company than she’d expected.
“Your balance is just as bad. Don’t rely on airbending to compensate - it won’t serve you in the long run. Copy me,” Azula says, and goes through the kata again. The Avatar watches and then recreates. “That was acceptable.”
She introduces fire to the kata. Zuko gets it quickly, probably because it’s buried deep in his memories anyway, and the Avatar isn’t far behind. She increases the difficulty, trying to work through Zuko’s rustiness and the Avatar’s endlessly tiring enthusiasm, and before long, they’re looking a lot better.
Azula puts Zuko through another test run with the swords while the Avatar is practicing. She pays close attention to the swordwork this time, quickly considering and then dismissing the idea of having him teach it to her. Azula hasn’t mastered sword fighting and has little interest in it, largely because it’s so close-range.
“Zuzu,” she says, interrupting him in the middle of a spinning kick. He lands gracefully and then lets the fire die down as he looks up at her. “How far-reaching an attack can you do?”
At the end of the afternoon, when the group has accomplished nothing but three trees ablaze and some refined skills, the Avatar turns to Azula and executes a decent bow with the sign of the flame. Azula raises an eyebrow.
(Azula takes no responsibility for the trees. Even the one that only lit on fire because she was certain that Zuko’s reach wouldn’t extend that far, and was proven wrong in a glorious blaze. Anyway, the waterbender is there to put out unintended fires, and she should be grateful for the opportunity to be useful.)
“Thank you, Sifu Azula,” the Avatar says.
Azula scowls. “I’m not teaching you firebending. You just intruded on my sparring with my brother.”
The Avatar just smiles in response.
They go back to the campsite for dinner. It’s starting to get cooler, so Zuko lights their campfire. Katara glares at him for it, but he doesn’t look her directly in the face, so he pretends that it doesn’t happen.
Somehow, they’ve wasted the afternoon. They’re no closer to knowing what happens going forward. Anxiety is pooling in Zuko’s stomach.
Azula eats more easily this time. Zuko thinks that she must be tired, and hopes that he can convince her to sleep, but he thinks that she’s unlikely to rest when she’s surrounded by strangers who may or may not be enemies.
“So,” Aang says, overly chipper after an afternoon of firebending practice, “the good thing about all of this is that we have a plan for after we defeat Ozai. Right?”
“You can all come for tea at the palace,” Azula says, drily. “And then you can leave me alone.”
“I meant that we can end the war,” Aang says. “We weren’t sure if it would be any better with you instead of Ozai. But now we can team up!”
Azula looks up, eyes flashing.
Zuko feels very acutely that this is about to all go wrong.
“Why would we end the war? We’re winning it.”
A hush falls across the camp.
“Because,” Katara splutters, “because it’s wrong. You betrayed your father - surely you know that?”
Azula’s eyes narrow. “My treason was personal, not political.”
“Wow, so if we get rid of Ozai, we’re just paving the way for Fire Hazard to keep decimating the world. That’s just great,” Toph comments, leaning back against a pile of bags.
Zuko hears Sokka take a breath, and deliberately keeps his eyes on his food. “Lee. I mean… Prince Zuko.” Zuko raises his chin a little, to indicate that he’s paying attention. “Could you tell your… sister, about what life was like in the Earth Kingdom?”
Zuko’s eyes do dart up then, but his gaze barely settles on Sokka before looking at his food again. “Clarify.”
“Yes, exactly,” Katara adds, rushed and impatient. “Tell your sister about how bad it is out there - how much damage the Fire Nation is doing. Tell her about how when we found you, you were working yourself to the bone just for a meal - not even a bed for the night.” Zuko ducks his head, humiliation clawing at his chest. “How long were you doing that for, huh? Just doing anything you were asked to do for the promise of food?”
Zuko flinches. “Not anything,” he snaps, looking up at her. It’s a mistake. She’s glowering at him. But Zuko holds her gaze for a moment, and then looks at Azula. “Not anything,” he repeats. “There are some things I would rather not eat than do.”
Azula understands, Zuko realises. Her face relaxes, but it’s deliberate.
“Okay,” Toph interrupts. “I’m putting a stop to this before Sparky literally has a heart attack.”
And Toph can feel just how fast his heart is beating, that’s-- that’s great.
He draws a deep breath, trying to calm himself down.
“They’re not wrong, though, Azula,” Zuko says, because he understands why Sokka and Katara think that it’s important that he tries. “The Earth Kingdom is crumbling. We were told that the Fire Nation are fighting this war because we want to improve the world, and that the problem is that the other nations won’t accept our help to stop being savages. But we’re just ruining them. They would have been better off without us, and--” Zuko deliberately doesn’t look at Aang. “And the Air Nomads certainly would be. We’re not making the world better.”
“We would be if they just stopped fighting,” Azula says, and Zuko can hear in her voice that she’s quoting from what they were taught as children.
“But they won’t stop fighting, Azula,” Zuko points out. “Just like we wouldn’t if they tried to take away our way of life.”
“You know,” Toph says, sounding thoughtful, “this might actually work in our favour. We always thought it was Ozai or Azula - but we have someone here who understands why the war needs to stop, and he’s a legitimate contender for the throne.”
Zuko thinks that his heart might actually stop.
Everything goes grey around the edges.
“I won’t,” he says, sharp and acerbic as he can when he can hardly see. “I won’t, this is-- This is why I didn’t tell you! I’m not taking the throne, I’m not--”
Zuko is sure that he keeps talking, but he can’t even hear himself. He’s glad that he’s sitting so that he doesn’t fall - but was he sitting? Did he fall?
Everything spins and narrows. Zuko won’t take the throne. They’re going to force him onto it. He was right this whole time, he knew this would happen, he should never have followed them into this war, he should have disappeared, can he still disappear, will they find him--
There are hands on Zuko’s wrists. There are words that aren’t his, and for a moment, he can’t quite parse out what’s happening.
“... dethrone you immediately. It’s never happening, idiot. I would just usurp you, you know I would.”
Zuko tries to draw a deeper breath. His chest hurts, too tight to take the air.
“Promise,” Azula replies. “If anyone ever forces you onto that throne, I will usurp you. I won’t even kill you to do it. I need you for Pai Sho and babies, remember?”
Zuko wrests his breath under control. His chest relaxes.
“Sorry, Zuko,” Aang says, sounding distressed. “Toph didn’t mean-- We wouldn’t really do it. If you didn’t agree to it.”
Zuko doesn’t look at him. He looks at Azula instead, who is serious and drawn.
“Do we need to leave?” she asks quietly, aimed only at him.
Zuko shakes his head. He is clearly in no fit state to make any kind of decision right now.
“We won’t,” Katara agrees. “I don’t think that’s even a thing we could do, Prince Zuko. But we will keep fighting as long as there is war. We will free the world.”
“I want the world to be freed, too,” Zuko says. “I just won’t do that.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Toph says, uncharacteristically quiet. “Sorry, Sparky.”
They don’t figure it out. Eventually, tired and angry, the group retires to sleep.
“I’ll keep watch,” Zuko says in hopes that it will give Azula an excuse to rest.
Azula hums. “Wake me up for second watch.”
“Obviously that isn’t going to work for us,” Sokka points out, and once again Zuko avoids looking at him. “We’ll keep our own watch.”
“Great,” Zuko says, hearing his own voice come out stilted and stiff.
They don’t even trust Zuko enough to keep them safe anymore. It’s not completely unexpected, but it still stings.
Sokka takes the first watch with Zuko. They sit next to each other, awkward and stilted, for a long time. Zuko focuses on keeping the fire at a low burn, warming their makeshift campsite.
Azula is lying down and breathing evenly, but Zuko doesn’t really know if it means she’s sleeping. He used to be able to tell when she was faking sleep, back when they were children. But it’s been a long time since they’ve been children.
Sokka takes a deep breath. “So.”
Zuko keeps staring at the fire. “So.”
“Prince Zuko,” Sokka says, like he’s testing the shape of it in his mouth. “Not Lee.”
“Could you-- I’m not a prince, even if I was born one. Just Zuko is fine. Or Lee. I’m used to being called Lee.”
“Yeah, but it’s not your name. It was a lie.”
Zuko winces. “I didn’t mean to lie to you specifically.”
“Then you could have-- You know what, never mind. We’re going around in circles.” Zuko glances up at Sokka for long enough to see that he’s rubbing at his own temples. “I’m just angry, I guess.”
Zuko looks forward again, and nods.
Quiet falls across the camp again, and then Sokka shifts. He redistributes his weight, moving so that one leg is bent and he’s facing Zuko.
“Hey,” he says, and Zuko looks up. Sokka’s face is still painted in hard lines, in a way that it never has been when looking at Zuko. “I’m angry. But I’m not going to be angry forever. You know that, right?”
Relief unwinds something that had been tight in Zuko’s spine. “Oh,” he says, and then keeps looking at Sokka.
Sokka is angry. Sokka won’t be angry forever.
Zuko leans in and kisses him.
For the briefest moment it’s pleasant, and simple, and a heavy rush like that feeling from their first kiss in Ba Sing Se.
And then, abruptly, it’s not.
Sokka’s hand lands on Zuko’s chest and pushes him away, hard. Zuko catches himself before toppling over. The surprise catches him off-guard, and he looks Sokka in the face again, and it’s much worse than the harsh lines from before.
Sokka looks furious.
“Why would you do that?” he hisses, clearly struggling to remain quiet enough to not wake the camp. “Why would you do that?”
Sokka wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, like Zuko is something disgusting.
“I thought you wanted…” Zuko starts, but he doesn’t know where to end that sentence, so he lets it trail off.
Sokka glares. “I just told you that I’m angry!” he says, and Zuko is confused, because surely that’s a reason to give him something that he wants? And then Sokka continues: “I just said that. Why would you think I want this now?”
It takes Zuko a moment to put this all into place. But it makes sense. Sokka had wanted Lee, but he doesn’t want Zuko. It’s so obvious now that Zuko feels stupid.
Zuko looks away, and nods. Sokka stays beside him, coiled tight with tension, and then lets out a steady breath.
“I’m going to sleep,” he says. “You can keep watch alone. When you’re ready to wake up your psychotic sister, wake me up to take watch again.”
Zuko stays quiet and very, very still.
He doesn’t wake anyone for second watch.
Azula rises with the sun. Which is confusing, because she had expressly requested that Zuko wake her to take over guarding the pair of them.
Zuko is still sitting where Azula left him, staring off into the distance.
“Really?” Azula asks. “You let me sleep all night?”
“You needed it,” Zuko responds, eyes softening as he looks at her. “You all did.”
Ugh. This is the problem with Zuzu. He’s all heart and no head.
Azula takes off to do her morning practice, and watches from the corner of her eyes as Zuko gets breakfast together. Good. She can trust that this meal won’t be poisoned, then.
The Avatar and friends rise slowly, and take food from Zuko without question. Azula joins them and eats, and then watches as the Avatar and his friends pack up the camp.
“You need to practice more,” Azula says to Zuko. “You’re never going to improve if you don’t take it seriously.”
Zuko rolls his eyes as he carries a bag over to the beast.
“How much do I really need to improve, to play Pai Sho and raise children?” he asks, and coming from him, it’s the height of comedy.
“Oh, forgot about the usurping we have to do before Pai Sho and children, Zuzu?” Azula asks. “You’re practicing with me before breakfast, starting tomorrow.”
“Um.” Azula looks up to the Avatar, who’s looking between Azula and Zuko with rapidly increasing awkwardness. “Well. Isn’t Zuko coming with us, and you’re… not?”
It’s the most ridiculous thing that Azula has ever heard. But then a very awkward quiet falls across the camp, and Azula thinks: is it really that ridiculous?
Yes, Azula is Zuko’s sister. Yes, she saved his life. But the blind child hadn’t been wrong yesterday; Zuko’s life had only been in danger because Azula’s plan had failed.
Azula looks toward her brother. He seems suddenly very drawn, mouth tense around the corners, eyes tired and narrowed.
This is unbelievable. Fury straightens Azula’s spine.
Zuko sighs deeply, and then turns from Azula to his friends. He executes a perfect bow. Azula supposes his training has remained in some small, useless way.
“I am grateful for your attempt to rescue me,” he starts, polite and firm.
“Their failed attempt,” Azula interjects. “You would have bled out long before they arrived.”
“And you know that I am in agreement with you about the importance of ending this war. But I will not abandon my sister.”
Azula hesitates, halfway through crafting another interjection into his stupid little speech.
Zuzu is staying with her.
(She won’t admit to feeling relief, but something unfurls in her, and the anger dissipates slowly.)
“What? You’ll just turn against all of your principles?” the waterbender asks, looking completely incensed. “You’ll let the war continue, let the rest of the world crumble under the weight of the Fire Nation, and just… just play Pai Sho?”
Zuko stands at his full height. Azula thinks that he looks more like a prince of the Fire Nation now, clad in Earth Kingdom green with his hair loose and shaggy around his ears, than he ever did when they were children.
“I will spend every day of the rest of my life trying my hardest to convince Fire Lord Azula that the war must end,” he says. “But I will not turn against her.”
“You don’t think you owe us more than that?” the waterbender responds.
“Katara,” the peasant boy says quietly. “Don’t.”
Zuko tenses even further. It looks painful. “I am aware that I owe you much,” he says, and Azula doesn’t understand what’s happening on his face or in the tension of his shoulders, but it looks painful and Azula doesn’t like it. “There have been… many meals and items, and time--”
“You don’t owe them a thing,” Azula responds. “You tried to sacrifice your life for them. It’s not your fault that you didn’t quite manage it.”
“That is not what I meant,” the waterbender says, and her voice is loud now - she sounds as bewildered as she is angry. “I meant for the friendship, Lee.”
And then something much worse happens on Zuko’s face. It clears of emotion entirely, and Azula doesn’t understand what the waterbender has said to cause that reaction at all.
“I didn’t realise,” Zuko says, and his voice is devoid of emotion, too, “that I had a debt for that. I apologise that I am unable to repay you at this moment. I will find a way to clear my debt.”
“Stop it,” the peasant boy snaps. “Everyone just stop it. That’s-- You don’t owe us something, Zuko, that is not how friendships work. And Katara doesn’t think you’re supposed to repay us. She’s just upset because you’re leaving.”
Zuko looks to Azula, and Azula is pretty sure that she understands his expression completely, even as it remains a blank mask. She’s pretty sure that he means get me out of here.
As she stares at his very carefully emotionless face, Azula wonders if Zuko has too much control. Azula would certainly be burning something by now, but while her brother’s hands hold a tremor, they hold no flame.
And suddenly Azula is very aware that her brother has been alone since he was eleven, maybe twelve at the most. This isn’t the kind of control that is born from training; it’s born from necessity.
“I’m going to need you to do more than play Pai Sho and have babies,” Azula says, and Zuko blinks at her, surprised by the non-sequitur. “Do you remember when we were children, and I pushed you off the roof by the hanging gardens?”
The blind girl scoffs. “Wow, Sparky. You’re really leaving us for this?”
Zuko nods. “I remember,” he says. “You overbalanced and fell after me.”
“You broke your wrist. But of course that’s what you remember about it. Did you know what Mother said to me afterwards? She told me I didn’t have a heart.”
Zuko flinches. “She shouldn’t have said that to you.”
“She wasn’t wrong,” Azula points out. “You were always all heart, though.”
Azula stops for a moment, and then sighs.
“The Fire Nation, Zuzu. I can be its head, but I can’t be its heart.”
“What does that mean?” Zuko asks.
Azula tries for a smile.
“It means that you’ve been promoted to advisor, brother. And the first piece of advice that I’m taking from you is about the necessity to end this war.”
Chapter 6: close enough
Then it's just too much,
I cannot get you close enough.
(A hundred arms, a hundred years -
You can always find me here.)
Azula’s declaration makes the group less certain about what is happening going forward, rather than more certain. Azula takes space to continue practicing firebending while they decide. Eventually the Avatar bounds over to try to copy her, and this apparently breaks the waterbender’s spirit. They end up back on the beast, flying in the direction that the Water Tribe peasants’ father and his soldiers are making camp.
Zuko wanes like the moon.
Eventually, Azula gets sick of watching him sitting ramrod straight and occasionally swaying. “Sleep,” she snaps, and Zuko shakes his head.
“I’m fine,” he replies automatically, which makes Azula want to throw things at his stupid head.
“It would be inconvenient for you to collapse while we’re on the bison,” Azula points out. “We might not have time to catch you. After all, who knows how much time we have to find the Water Tribe savages?”
“Don’t call them savages,” the waterbender snaps.
Azula ignores her.
Zuko sways again. He seems to realise he’s doing it this time, and frowns over at Azula before shrugging.
“Wake me if you need me,” he suggests, and then curls up very small at the edge of the ridiculous saddle and folds an arm under his head.
“Nobody’s going to need you,” Azula assures him. “You’re not that useful.”
The corner of Zuko’s mouth pulls up ever-so-slightly before his eyes slip closed, and as far as Azula can tell, he’s unconscious in seconds.
“Idiot,” Azula mumbles, a little disgusted at herself for the affection.
“Can you not call him that?” the waterbender snaps, because apparently the waterbender is waiting for any opportunity to snap at her. “He isn’t an idiot. And he’s not useless. And I do not understand why he’s so loyal to you, when you’re-- you’re--”
Azula raises an eyebrow. Nobody bothers finishing the waterbender’s sentence.
In the corner of Azula’s eye, she watches as the blind child feels around next to her until she reaches Zuko’s ankle. She rests her hand there, and Zuko jolts awake for long enough to see what’s happening, and then tenses for a few moments. He falls asleep again, more slowly this time. The girl doesn’t move her hand.
When she’s sure that Zuko is unconscious again, Azula asks: “What do you have in the way of maps?”
She asks this to the Water Tribe peasant boy, because he was looking at a map and pointing the Avatar in the right direction just moments beforehand. Now, however, Azula catches him staring at Zuko. And while Azula isn’t entirely sure what to do with his expression, she knows that the softness around his eyes and the downward tilt of his mouth spell bad news.
(A Water Tribe peasant. A male Water Tribe peasant. Azula hopes that this is entirely one-sided, because otherwise, she’s going to have a lot to deal with once she takes the throne. It isn’t even currently legal in the Fire Nation - and the plan Azula has for Zuko includes babies.
Can Zuko never make anything easy?)
“Hey,” she says, snapping her fingers in front of his dopey face to demand attention. “Maps. What do you have?”
The peasant boy blinks and shakes his head, and then finally turns to Azula. “Why do you want to look at the maps?”
If Azula rolls her eyes every time this group makes her want to, she will probably permanently damage her vision.
“Allies,” she replies. At the peasant boy’s puzzled expression, she adds: “I need to start thinking about where my allies are situated, and how to reach out to them.”
“But we’re your allies?” he tries.
“Isn’t that sweet,” Azula says. “But a half-trained Avatar, two bending children, and whatever it is that you bring to the table - that’s not enough to win a war. Even with the Southern Water Tribe on our side.”
The peasant boy looks offended. “I bring a lot to the table! I’m the plans guy.”
“And the meat and sarcasm guy,” the blind girl adds helpfully.
“And that,” he agrees, sitting up straighter. “And I fight, too. Which you know, because you’ve fought me!”
“Then as the ‘plans guy’,” Azula says, redirecting the conversation back on course, “you’re aware that the war you’re fighting has just shifted.” The boy does not look enlightened. “You were fighting a defensive war, trying to turn it offensive. You’re now fighting a civil war.”
The peasant boy’s expression clears a little, and he looks off into the sky. “Yeah, maybe that’s a good point.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” the Avatar asks, looking over his shoulder.
Azula thinks for a moment, and then says: “In the long-run, it’s a good thing. It would have been harder to keep a power in place on the throne if the people thought that it was put there by the outside. Even if you had forced Zuzu to take the crown.”
“We wouldn’t have forced him,” the waterbender says, and she looks troubled this time. “Why are you both so sure we would have forced him?”
Azula looks to Zuko, checking that he’s still unconscious. It won’t do any good to push him into another panic attack, after all.
“It might have been your best move,” she explains. “Possibly your only option without toppling the nation’s power structure entirely. He’s a legitimate contender for the throne. But he also wouldn’t have been accepted easily - a likely scenario is that he’d end up dead in the throne room. Which would be nice and full circle from the last two times he’s almost ended up dead in the throne room.”
“We wouldn’t have let that happen,” the blind girl insists.
Azula looks at her and tilts her head. “To be clear, you almost did,” she responds. “Your little rescue mission was cute and all, but he would have been dead if I hadn’t intervened.”
“If you hadn’t intervened in the situation you created!” the waterbender adds.
Azula wonders if they think that she brought Zuko to their father to be killed and then changed her mind. “I miscalculated,” she admits, even though she hates admitting it.
The waterbender keeps glaring at her for a moment, and then it suddenly softens. “Oh. You didn’t think you were taking him to his execution.”
(She had assumed that their anger was purely because she had been hunting them. She’s abruptly reminded that they all share one thing in common: they care about what happens to her idiot brother.)
“If you thought that I was, then you should have been quicker with the rescue,” Azula states, because she would much rather have this argument than admit that they have anything in common.
The waterbender glares again. “We thought he was being held prisoner, because we didn’t know that he’s actually a prince!”
“So who are your allies?” the peasant boy asks, clearly trying to distract them from their previous conversation. He spreads out maps across the saddle between them.
Much more comfortable with this turn of the discussion, Azula replies: “The Dai Li are mine. Father will think that Ba Sing Se has fallen to the Fire Nation, but it only fell because of the Dai Li, and the Dai Li are loyal to me.”
“That’s good,” the peasant says, and then winces. “Two days ago, I really couldn’t have imagined saying that’s good.”
“We saved the king,” the blind child adds. “So maybe that could work in our favour?”
Azula frowns down at the map that the peasant boy has handed her. Between the king and the Dai Li, it’s possible that the entirety of Ba Sing Se and its army is Azula’s - but she did overthrow the king, so he might not be her biggest fan. She moves her hand from Ba Sing Se to New Ozai, which is still labelled Omashu on this map.
“I also took down New Ozai,” she says. “They might bow to me. Mai’s father is in charge right now - she’s loyal to me. That might work for us, too.”
“Between that and the Southern Water Tribe, that’s pretty well spread support,” the peasant boy adds. Azula hums, still looking at the map.
The waterbender huffs. “The whole tribe is on her side now?”
“Better Azula than Ozai,” the blind child adds.
“The lesser of two evils isn’t exactly ideal,” the waterbender says.
The Avatar turns again, frowning this time. “Azula isn’t evil,” he says hesitantly.
“Plus,” the Avatar adds, “Zuko’s going to be with her. We can trust him.”
For a moment, Azula is certain that the waterbender is going to ask can we? , but then Azula watches as the waterbender’s eyes catch on Zuko and soften slightly. “I guess,” she says eventually.
They return to planning.
(It’s possible that the peasant boy isn’t completely useless.)
Zuko wakes to the lulling sound of Sokka describing the Day of Black Sun.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Azula admits, which is high praise from her. “But it’s happened before. There are plans in place for how to handle the eclipse - and it becomes obvious that it’s happening several minutes beforehand.”
“So we have to time the attack right,” Sokka replies.
Zuko sighs and lets his eyes drift open. And then jumps, because Momo is right in front of his face, staring him out.
Momo chatters, tilting his head, and Zuko reaches out to pat him. “Yeah, missed you too, buddy,” he mumbles before sitting up.
Azula turns a glare on him.
“Inadequate,” she states. “Go back to sleep.”
“I’m fine,” Zuko replies. “How far out are we?”
“Less than an hour,” Sokka replies, and Zuko isn’t ready to look him in the face, so he eyes the maps instead.
And then notices that the pointer Azula is using isn’t a pointer at all.
“Is that my dagger?”
Azula turns another glare on him. “No,” she replies carefully, “it’s my dagger.”
But Zuko knows this blade. He knows its pearl handle, its inscription: Never give up without a fight.
(He supposes that’s a message better suited to Azula than him anyway.)
“Uncle Iroh gave that to me,” he points out. The dagger had probably been his favourite thing in the world, back when owning things wasn’t a novelty.
“Yes,” Azula agrees. “But the problem is this: You’re legally dead, so you can’t legally own anything.”
Toph laughs. “Is that how it works?”
“It is now,” Azula responds, and she actually smiles in Toph’s direction before she sheathes the dagger. “You’re not getting this back.”
Zuko shrugs. He doesn’t really mind; it’s been Azula’s longer than it had ever been Zuko’s, after all. Plus, Zuko only owns two things that he cares about: his dao swords and his Blue Spirit mask (though the latter is now pretty much obsolete). He doesn’t need to own a third item.
But he is warmed a little, somewhere deep down, at the idea that Azula had kept something that mattered to him once.
I missed you, too, Zuko thinks, though he won’t say it out loud. When Azula looks at him with a small smile, Zuko suspects that she heard it anyway.
The Water Tribe camp is empty.
The waterbender and her brother are distraught from the moment that the campsite comes into view. Zuko winces back as soon as it becomes clear that they’ve lost connection with the tribe, and it takes Azula a moment to place it as guilt.
“This can’t be happening,” the peasant boy exclaims. “We just found Dad. How could we have lost him already?”
Zuko appears to be making himself as small as possible.
Azula allows herself to roll her eyes again, even though she’s really going to have to stop before she sprains something. “Well, where would they have gone?” she asks. “We can track them.”
“They sail,” the waterbender points out, face hardened with frustration. “We could fly around and look for them.”
“Why would they have left?” the peasant boy asks. “They knew we were coming back. They must have been… attacked.” The pause is intriguing, just a little thoughtful, and Azula leans over the side of the saddle to see what the peasant is seeing. The Water Tribe ship is still sitting on the water.
“How likely are they to have fled by land instead of sea, if they had their ship handy?” Azula asks.
The peasant boy frowns up at her. “Unlikely.”
“So they left on someone else’s ship.”
Azula nods. “Captured or capturers. What do you think?”
“You think they could have captured a ship and left with it?” the peasant boy asks, and then frowns into the distance. “If it was a Fire Nation ship, it would be a smart move, right? Camouflage? They were a target with the Water Tribe ship.”
Azula shrugs. “Don’t get your hopes up. They could have been captured. But I don’t think our armies would have left their ship behind intact like that.”
“Okay,” the peasant boy - Sokka? - says, sitting back from where the pair had been leaning over the edge of the ridiculous saddle. “New plan. We’re going to fly over the waters near here. Azula thinks it’s possible that Dad and his crew captured a Fire Nation ship. Hopefully they’ll have thought ahead and not sailed too far, so that we’d still be able to find them.”
“But how are we going to spot them?” the blind girl asks, and then waves her hand in front of her face. “By which I obviously mean: how are you going to spot them?”
“By which you mean me and Zuzu,” Azula responds. “We’re going to look for something out of place.”
Zuko looks up from where he appears to be trying to fold himself into the smallest area possible.
“Uh, I don’t think they would know to leave us a sign,” the Avatar points out as he redirects the beast toward the waters. “They don’t know you’re with us, remember? And they think Zuko is…” He trails off for a moment, glancing back at the group. “And we wouldn’t know what looks out-of-place in a Fire Nation ship?”
“So we have to hope they found a way to leave us a sign,” the waterbender responds. “Or we have to hope that Princess Azula and Prince Zuko can spot something that doesn’t look right.”
Zuko nods and shifts to the opposite side of the saddle, peering downwards. “I, uh,” he starts, and then rubs at the back of his neck while he continues to look at the blank ocean. “I apologise. If you hadn’t come for me, you’d still have your Dad. I realise that wasn’t really worth it for you.”
“It wasn’t really…?” the waterbender starts, eyes round and disbelieving. “If we hadn’t come for you, you’d be dead!”
“You don’t know that,” Azula points out. “We were already halfway to escape. We just hit a hurdle before you turned up.”
Zuko gives her a doubtful glance, and then goes back to searching. Azula doesn’t take to staring like the others, because there’s no need when there isn’t a ship in sight. Instead, she sits back and watches the waterbender alternate between worried glances at the ocean and worried glances at Azula’s brother.
“You know,” the blind girl says, “searches are always just so fun for me.”
All in all, it doesn’t take that long.
“There,” Azula says, gesturing to the first ship they’ve come across.
Zuko looks up at her, and then follows her line of side to the ship in the distance, squinting. Azula wonders how badly the burn affects his eyesight.
“What makes you so sure?” the Water Tribe boy asks from Azula’s other side.
“They’re flying the flag wrong,” Zuko says. “It’s not at full mast. Either they’ve received bad news from the Fire Nation recently, or…”
“Couldn’t their bad news be that the prince and princess have run away?” the Avatar asks, nervous.
Azula scoffs. “You think Father is advertising my treason?”
“Or that I’m alive?” Zuko agrees.
“He has one dead child and one perfect child, and that’s the story the Fire Nation will hear,” Azula explains. “Anything else would look like a weakness. He has no heir, but there are two young, pretty, treasonous royals ready to usurp him?”
They get closer to the ship. Zuko ducks slightly, strapping his dual swords to his back.
“Fly over quickly,” he suggests. “I’ll jump. I’ll signal you to come down if it’s safe.”
“Um, how about no, we’re not doing that,” the Water Tribe peasant replies, “because that’s insane. We’ll fly by and see if we recognise anyone.”
“If it’s not them, they’ll attack once Appa is in range,” Zuko points out. “If I jump, I’ll distract from that.”
The Water Tribe boy turns wide eyes on Zuko. Zuko stays frozen, staring back at him, and Azula remembers how desperately he’s been avoiding making eye contact up until now. “Yes, and then if it’s not them, you’ll be alone on an enemy ship. How are we getting you back in your scenario?”
Zuko frowns. “Well, it probably is them.”
“Uh huh,” the boy says. “So there’s no need for you to go all lone Blue Spirit on us, is there?”
Zuko frowns and looks away, glaring into the distance. Azula meets the Water Tribe boy’s eyes and raises her eyebrows, and he gives her a despairing headshake.
Whatever. She’ll have to deal with Zuzu’s death wish later. They need to focus on preparing to defend themselves in case this turns out to be a regular Fire Nation ship.
Azula pulls her hair back into a topknot. After all, they’re on the only flying bison in the world, so the group’s anonymity is hardly going to be preserved. And she doesn’t have her father’s concerns about whether or not people know that she has turned traitor.
(She doesn’t put her crown back in. That feels wrong now. It’s the wrong crown. Her hair will remain bare until she is ready to be crowned as Fire Lord.)
The crew are wearing Fire Nation reds, but it quickly becomes clear that they are the Water Tribe. They wave their arms, laughing, as the group arrive on the sky bison. The beast has barely touched down on the deck before the others are jumping off, running toward a particular man that Azula assumes must be the chief.
Well. It’s one enemy territory to another, as far as Azula is concerned - only this one is filled with people who don’t have any particular liking for her brother, so it’s more likely to be problematic. But the game now is building allies, and Azula and Zuko are more than able to look after themselves if this goes wrong.
They follow the others off the beast.
“... All successful?” the chief is asking his children, one Water Tribe peasant child under each arm. “Great! I’m so glad you found us.”
“We really owe that to…” the boy starts, and then looks at Azula. “Right. Actually, there’s something we need to explain.”
“You must be Lee,” the chief says, smiling warmly at Zuko. Zuko nods his head in a way that somehow both says ‘yes’ and ‘I would rather not talk about that’, and then the chief looks at Azula. “And we have a new addition?”
The children are quiet for a moment, each looking to one another to see who’s going to tell the Water Tribe ship that they have two members of the Fire Nation royal family aboard.
Time to get this over with.
Azula meets Zuzu’s eyes and raises her eyebrows. “I believe you’re duty-bound to announce me,” she points out.
It’s obviously an old custom for poor Zuko, who has only ever been honour-bound and never duty-bound to announce her presence, since he technically outranked her through their childhood by virtue of proximity to the crown. He’s also never introduced her with her current title of Crown Princess. Azula is aware that he will mangle it terribly, but Zuzu is the only one of them who will attempt to introduce her properly.
Zuko straightens his own clothing and then clears his throat. He’s rightly nervous - his posture states that he’s ready to defend himself at any moment - but he raises his chin and moves forward with the introduction anyway.
“I am duty-bound before you to announce the presence of Crown Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, Bearer of the Blue Fire, Heir to the Dragon Throne,” he states with a clear, loud voice.
The deck falls into silence.
Azula smiles. “You added to my title,” she says, secretly maybe a little touched.
“Your title doesn’t acknowledge your fire?” Zuko asks, surprised. “It should. You’re the only bearer of blue fire in our generation, as far as I know.”
Azula supposes that she should reward good behaviour, so she also lifts her arm to present Zuko.
“And I am honour-bound before you--”
“--to announce the presence of the Long Lost Fire Prince Zuko, the Phoenix From the Ashes.”
Azula watches Zuko close his eyes. “You added to my title.” He doesn’t sound happy about that.
(Zuko won’t know what she has done by giving Zuko their father’s long-wished-for title of ‘Phoenix’, but, well. She thinks it might be a good last insult to Ozai to gift Zuko that title. She looks forward to doing it officially.)
Azula finally looks to the adults on the deck. None of them have moved to attack, but the chief is looking back and forth between the royal siblings and his own children, as if he might make sense of this if he just looks for long enough.
The Water Tribe boy clears his throat. “Yeah, so, remember how we set out to save our friend Lee? It turns out our friend Lee is actually Prince Zuko, who’s supposed to be dead?”
“This feels like it’s going to be a long story,” the chief says, and then eyes Azula again. “But to clarify, the Fire Princess has been trying to bring you down for months, and… now she’s joining you?”
The waterbender sighs and rubs her own forehead. “Thank you for also thinking this is crazy.”
“It turns out that Fire Hazard didn’t like it much when she found out that her brother had been alive all this time, then the worst father ever tried to kill him again, and so she decided to commit treason and join us,” the blind girl says. “It’s not that complicated.”
The chief nods, still staring at Azula. “And you trust her?”
“Oh, not at all,” the blind girl adds, surprisingly cheerfully. “But we trust Lee, even if he’s not Lee, and he trusts her.”
Azula looks at Zuko with a smile. “Would you describe yourself as trusting me?” she asks, half curious and half amused.
Zuko frowns at her. “You left the Fire Nation for me, with nothing but the clothes on your back,” he says, and Azula supposes that’s the closest she’s going to get from Zuko, who doesn’t even seem to trust his so-called friends not to throw him off the sky bison (or let him throw himself off the sky bison, for that matter).
“Not just the clothes on my back,” Azula corrects.
Zuko looks thoughtful. “Also my pearl-handled dagger.”
“The clothes on my back, my pearl-handled dagger, my crown, and…” Azula pats herself down, sure that she missed something - “ah, lipstick.”
She holds up the lipstick, triumphant.
Zuko is smiling. It’s not much of a smile, really, but it’s a lot coming from him.
“You have great priorities,” he compliments her.
Azula smiles back. “My priorities saved your life. I’d hope you think they’re good.”
They look at each other for another moment, and Azula feels another moment of warm relief at the fact that he’s here (alive, whole, with her ). And then she makes herself eye their potential opponents, because there is no time to let her guard down. They’re not out of the woods anytime soon. They might never be out of the woods.
They end up in what must be Chief Hakoda’s office, with an annoyed man shoving piles of red and black clothing into their arms. “Change,” he says, gruff and unsympathetic. “We’ll hide your sky bison. And,” he turns to Aang, “you’ll need something to cover up the arrow.”
“What?” Aang shrieks, one hand going to his forehead. “Not my arrow!”
“We’re not getting caught because you can’t bring yourself to wear a hat,” the man says, and then leaves.
With Chief Hakoda finding food for them, the group finds themselves standing in awkward silence in the office, clutching their new clothing.
“Well,” Toph says, “I’m not going to bother turning around, but I guess the rest of you should?”
Zuko is already halfway out of his green clothes, which he hasn’t changed in days. He only wishes they would have time to shower before changing, but if he knows anything about this kind of ship, they’re going to have no problems with bathing and changing clothes again very soon.
“Or you could just strip in front of all of us,” Azula says.
Zuko frowns over at her, and then shrugs. He supposes that other people care about this kind of thing. “Little room for modesty when you mostly live outside.”
“That is not true,” Sokka insists, and he hasn’t turned around like Aang and his sister, but he’s also staring very hard at the ceiling instead of looking in Zuko’s direction. “We’ve been mostly outside for months, and never had this problem before we met you.”
“Hah,” Toph says. “Snoozles, your heart is so stupid in so many ways.”
Sokka mutters angrily at her as he turns around to change.
“I’m going to have to break you back into civilisation, aren’t I?” Azula asks Zuko. “Maybe I didn’t think through the ‘feral prince’ issue.”
Everyone else is in the midst of changing, but Azula remains still. Zuko’s frown deepens as he watches her. She’s taken clothing, but hasn’t moved to do anything with it.
“I’ll stand guard,” he suggests once his new clothing is on straight, and Azula hesitates before nodding and turning to change.
Azula isn’t going to be able to relax on this ship, Zuko realises. If anything, she’s going to be more guarded. The potential attackers have multiplied, and they aren’t even people that Zuko trusts.
By the time Chief Hakoda returns, they all look like Fire Nation kids. Aang has tied cloth around his head in a makeshift hat and does not look happy about it. Katara is even undoing her hair in order to blend in with the Fire Nation style.
Azula looks just the same, but in fresh clothing that fits less well. And Zuko hopes that he doesn’t pass a mirror anytime soon, because he doesn’t know what he will feel if he sees himself.
“Well,” Chief Hakoda says, eyeing Zuko and Azula, “I can see it now.”
The pair look at each other, and Azula screws up her nose at him. “Your hair is terrible. You should start putting it back up. It’s probably long enough.”
Zuko passes a hand over his shaggy hair, and tries to imagine himself with a topknot matching Azula’s. It makes him feel a little nauseous.
The feeling doesn’t clear when Chief Hakoda makes them all sit down around the table, which is laden with large plates of food. There’s a brief and very awkward moment in which the Water Tribe siblings and the Fire Nation siblings both go for the same chairs, and Zuko and Azula don’t move away because the other option is to sit with their backs to the door. Zuko isn’t sure if the others understand what’s happening, but Chief Hakoda clearly does, because he quickly insists that his children sit to his left, leaving the seats facing the door open for Azula and Zuko.
Once the others start eating, Azula reaches out hesitantly for the food, and then pulls her arm back and frowns.
Zuko sits back without food, too, trying to do the equation in his head for how much he’s going to owe the Water Tribe. On this kind of ship, with their size of crew, there’s probably room to put them all in beds. There’s food. Showers, the clothing he’s taken without even hesitating, protection, travel...
“Would you like to eat?” Chief Hakoda asks, pushing a plate toward the two of them. Azula and Zuko share a glance. “Ah. The Fire Nation don’t tend to share plates of food like this, I suppose?”
Sokka sighs loudly. “They’re not culturally confused, they think you might be trying to poison them,” he says, exasperated. He leans forward and takes food from the plate in front of him, stuffing it into his mouth, and then picks up that plate and deposits it in front of Azula and Zuko. “There,” he says with his mouth full. “Royal taste-testing.”
Azula watches Sokka for a long moment, and then shrugs and goes to eat.
Chief Hakoda doesn’t look comforted. Zuko leans forward and takes a small amount of food, too, even though he has a sinking feeling that he’ll regret racking up more of a debt.
“We wouldn’t do that,” Chief Hakoda insists. “I know it must be… difficult for you to trust us, but as long as you’re our guests, no harm will come to you.”
Zuko glances at Azula, who meets his eyes briefly before turning back to Chief Hakoda. “And how do we know when we’re no longer your guests?”
Chief Hakoda gives her an assessing look. “We’ll tell you.”
“So we will just have to trust that you won’t harm us, even though your little army is dedicated to harming the Fire Nation. And then we also have to trust that you will tell us if your attitude to us changes.” Azula doesn’t sound impressed.
Chief Hakoda looks thoughtful. “What can I give you, aside from my word?”
There isn’t anything, obviously, so Azula backs down.
Azula is right, though. Even if Chief Hakoda wants to show them mercy (does mercy have a cost?), his crew might not follow his lead. They’re going to have to take care of themselves. Zuko is relieved that he brought his swords with him, and resolves to keep himself armed for the duration of their stay.
“I believe that there’s a story here to tell me,” Chief Hakoda says, polite but firm.
Zuko looks at Azula again, and then glances around the table. It isn’t clear to him who this is being demanded of - until he realises that every face is turned toward him.
“Uh, yeah,” Zuko says, pushing the food away and rubbing at the back of his neck. “The Fire Nation has thought I was dead since I was eleven. I’m… not.”
Chief Hakoda has stopped eating, too. He’s peering at Zuko with attentive eyes, and Zuko looks down at the table. “Why do they think that?”
“Well, I suppose because that was the plan,” Zuko replies.
“Father tried to trade Zuko’s life for the throne,” Azula explains, and Zuko is grateful that the attention is taken from him for a moment. “It didn’t work the way he expected, but hey, he got the throne out of it. Mother and Zuko ran away, and then Mother very rudely went and died and left Zuzu to fend for himself.”
Chief Hakoda is looking at him again. “What happened then? Did someone take you in?”
Zuko shakes his head, and there’s a pause before he realises that Chief Hakoda is demanding more details than that. “No. There were a few people who might have, but I had to keep moving. I didn’t know if the Fire Nation was looking for me, and the longer I stayed anywhere, the more likely it was that someone would figure out who I am and sell me back to the Fire Nation.”
Quiet falls again, and Zuko doesn’t know what the chief wants, so he looks up again. Chief Hakoda looks very serious. Zuko isn’t sure what he did wrong, but anxiety churns in his stomach.
“How old were you, when you were first on your own?” he asks.
“Almost a teenager,” Zuko replies. Toph clears her throat, and Zuko frowns over at her but he’s mostly annoyed at himself. He thought that would be vague enough to get past her. “Almost twelve,” he corrects himself.
Chief Hakoda sits back in his seat, and he isn’t looking at Zuko anymore. He doesn’t appear to be looking at anything.
“So you’ve been completely alone since you were eleven,” he clarifies. “Just travelling, and… what? How did you survive?”
“I did odd jobs,” Zuko explains. “I sewed, or chopped firewood, or built. A few times I stayed with families and helped with the children. I… That was nice, but it couldn’t last long.”
“How long could it last?”
Zuko shrugs. “Longest I stayed anywhere, aside from when Mother was dying, was… maybe two months?”
Chief Hakoda is looking at him again. Zuko works very hard at not looking away.
“That’s a long time to be alone.”
Zuko shifts away from the chief, uncomfortably aware that there are people - friends, possibly, and his own sister - watching this exchange. This exchange which needs to be over. “Some people were nice. And anyway, people are alone longer than that.”
“Are they?” Chief Hakoda asks, and it seems like a genuine question. “I’ve met children without parents before, but they usually form groups. Have adults around. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t have a friend in the world.”
Zuko scowls, and almost corrects him - the chief’s own children are Zuko’s friends - but then he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to be contradicted, after all.
“So then I met the group, and Azula attacked, and I joined them,” Zuko explains, trying to get through the story as quickly as possible. “Azula didn’t know I wasn’t dead. She tried to take me back to our Dad. That didn’t work out too well. Now we’re here.”
Chief Hakoda stares at him for a long, long moment, and then looks past him to Azula. “You didn’t know your brother was alive. That must have come as quite the shock.”
Azula is very still. Zuko realises that she doesn’t like this either.
“It was surprising,” she admits.
“But you still wanted to take him back to the Fire Nation?”
“Not to die,” Azula snaps. “I didn’t think Father would try to kill him again. I thought that… well, Zuzu knows about the Avatar, so he has leverage. Father’s decision was illogical. I didn’t expect that.” She lifts her chin. “And I fixed it. So.”
Chief Hakoda nods. “You rebelled to save your brother. That’s noble, Princess Azula.”
Azula’s eyes narrow.
Chief Hakoda looks back to the rest of the group. “I’m guessing that you wouldn’t have teamed up if you didn’t believe that Zuko or Azula would be a good replacement for Ozai.”
“Azula,” Zuko interjects. “Azula will be Fire Lord. Not me.”
The chief looks to him again, searching and then accepting. He nods.
“She says she’s going to end the war,” Toph explains. “I mean, her reasons for ending it are mostly that she wants Sparky to be happy, but hey, we’ll take it.”
Azula glares at Toph, and then at Zuko. “I know,” Zuko whispers. “You don’t care if I’m happy.”
“I care that you’re alive, and you won’t ask for more from me,” Azula says. Zuko almost smiles, because he knows that it’s not quite true, but he doesn’t correct her.
Chief Hakoda looks around the table, and then nods. “Okay. Thanks for explaining this to me. You’re of course all welcome to stay, and we can figure out a way forward together. Princess Azula - I’ll want to talk to you about your plans for the end of the war, eventually, but for now: thank you for wanting to end it. That means a lot to the world.”
Azula lifts her chin and doesn’t reply.
“You kids should relax for a little while. Choose rooms - I want them separated by gender, please.”
“Dad,” Sokka complains.
“No,” Azula interrupts. “I’m staying with Zuko.”
Chief Hakoda looks at the pair of them, and then nods. “Okay. We’ll pick up planning tomorrow. You’ve all had an intense few days - and for the moment, we’re safe.”
Zuko is relieved at the dismissal. They’ll find a room, and Zuko can wash. And then maybe Azula will want to figure out the layout of the ship with him, in case they need to escape or hide at any point.
But as they go to stand, Chief Hakoda adds: “Zuko, can you stay behind?”
Zuko freezes. He doesn’t look at anyone, and just nods as they leave.
“I’ll find us a room,” Azula says as she walks out the door. “Try not to get murdered in the meantime.”
“Try not to murder anyone on your way there,” Zuko replies, and they’re both only half-joking.
The door closes behind Toph.
Zuko stares at the closed door, willing Chief Hakoda to open it again and declare it a mistake. Chief Hakoda stands up and so does Zuko, but he doesn’t move to open the door. Zuko’s heart rate picks up.
“Zuko,” the chief says, and Zuko makes himself look up. “I think this must be very difficult for you.”
Zuko breathes very evenly. “What do you mean?”
“None of you kids have it easy,” Chief Hakoda explains, and he looks troubled by this fact. “But they’re at least… used to having people to depend on. Even if they’re depending on different people than usual. But you need to learn…”
The chief reaches out and lays his heavy hand on Zuko’s shoulder, and Zuko tenses everywhere and glances desperately at the door.
“... Zuko?” the chief asks, and removes his hand.
Zuko swallows. “Can I leave?” he asks, and he’s coiled tight, because Chief Hakoda’s answer to this question might be the difference between Zuko needing to leave this room and Zuko needing to leave this ship.
“Of course,” the chief replies, and steps away from Zuko. But he doesn’t move to open the door, and he’s now frowning very deeply. “Zuko, I only meant to--”
The door bursts open. Toph is standing there, arms crossed. “Sparky! You’re going to get lost immediately. I’ll take you to the rooms.”
When they’re out in the corridor, Zuko’s arms wrapped around himself, Toph asks: “Did he just threaten you?”
Zuko blinks, surprised by the question. “No?” he says, because he’s pretty sure that’s true.
Toph tilts her head and doesn’t respond. And then, after a few moments, she says: “So I think they went this way?”
(Zuko notices that Toph doesn’t actually know where the rooms are, and he doesn’t know how to make sense of this fact.)
Zuko and Azula take turns at keeping watch that night, in their little room built for one. Azula insists on going first, because she doesn’t trust Zuko to wake her up.
The next day goes like this:
The entire Water Tribe give Azula and Zuko wary glances.
Azula and Zuko wake up early and practice firebending. Aang joins them before long, chirpy and chipper. Afterwards, he bows to both of them, and Zuko is proud that Azula doesn’t react more violently to being called ‘Sifu Azula’ again.
(She does react kind of violently to being called ‘Hotman’, but Zuko thinks that one’s on Aang.)
Azula then sits down with Sokka and a lot of papers, out in the sun. Zuko watches them for a moment before finding himself a task. He ties knots, which is hard work for the brain but actually surprisingly satisfying, and then convinces the gruff man from the day before to hand him a mop and bucket. That kind of work isn’t so different on a ship.
The group take lunch together, and Zuko eats properly this time, because he figures that he’s allowed to.
Katara follows him afterwards, hovering over his shoulder as he finds another task. She ends up following him into the kitchen, and they’re both put to work once Zuko requests it.
After a while, she says: “You, uh. You’re not good at staying still, are you?”
Zuko frowns. “Why would I stay still when there’s work to do?” he asks.
Katara shrugs, and she doesn’t look like her question has been answered.
(Zuko kind of likes spending the time with her, even if Katara’s chilliness around him has only softened to awkwardness. It’s still progress, Zuko tells himself.)
The chief joins them for dinner, and the room is loud and bustling with Water Tribe men dressed as Fire Nation soldiers. Zuko sits with his back to the wall and eats, watching Sokka explain his ideas to his father. Chief Hakoda is listening and nodding, but he looks away every now and then to throw Zuko unreadable glances. Zuko tries to make himself smaller.
At one point, when clarifying a question about building allies in the Earth Kingdom, Azula says: “Sokka thinks that we can get a message to the Dai Li without needing to go to Ba Sing Se in person. It’s probably best to avoid being seen by anyone loyal to my father.” It takes a few moments of watching this play out for Zuko to figure out that what sounds so strange to Zuko’s ears is hearing his sister refer to anyone here by name.
Things can get better, he thinks. Katara has spent time by Zuko’s side by choice, and Azula actually knows Sokka’s name.
After dinner, Zuko intends to find another task. What he actually finds is a group of Water Tribe men playing Five Card Cat Tie, and apparently he hesitates for too long, because he ends up being called in to play.
“It’s Zuko, right?” one of the men asks. He’s not that much older than Zuko, possibly still a teenager himself. Zuko nods. “Great. I’m Pok. Do you have anything to bet with? I’ll lend you a few copper coins to get you started, but I expect you to win them back for me!”
Zuko feels slightly guilty as he starts playing, but he really does like every variation of Cat Tie.
The men look affronted when Zuko lays down his final hand. “That’s a cattersnail.”
“What-- How?” the cook asks. “Did you cheat?”
Zuko shakes his head. “I. Uh, used to play kind of a lot. We mostly played the six card variant, but the five card isn’t that different.”
The table continues to stare at him.
“You can have your money back,” Zuko insists. “I don’t actually want it - I just wanted to play.”
Zuko starts separating coins out and handing them back.
“That is not how betting works,” Pok replies. “You owe me three copper coins and a story though, prince boy.”
“There’s no story,” Zuko insists. “I just worked for a couple who really liked Six Card Cat Tie. They were really good at it - we played every night while I was there. And then when I was, um, maybe fourteen? I realised that if I made the right bet, a copper coin turned into being fed for days.” He shrugs. “I stopped before long, though. I didn’t want to build a reputation, and people would sometimes, uh, not be happy when I won.”
Pok fishes three copper coins from the pile that Zuko has been trying to return to him, and then pushes the rest back to Zuko. “Nuh uh. This is yours now. It’s our fault for underestimating you - we won’t do that again.”
Zuko eyes the pile. It isn’t huge - they were only betting with small amounts - but he doesn’t want them to have a reason to dislike him anymore than they already do.
“We’re insisting, kid,” one of the older men says. “No point in betting if we don’t take it seriously. Plus, now you have something to bet tomorrow night.”
Zuko hesitates, but there doesn’t seem to be any hostility in the group. Eventually, he nods and takes his winnings.
(He does warn Azula, later, because she shouldn’t be on watch without knowing that there’s a complication. Azula appears to be oddly delighted.)
Azula rises with the sun, and she’s angry.
Honestly, she doesn’t know if she can place exactly why she’s so furious, but she is. There have been days now, first on the run with the peasant children (and the dirt child, who is technically not a peasant), and then on this ship, and maybe their situation has sunk in a little bit more.
Azula has been lied to for years. Azula hid behind the curtains at her own brother’s funeral, but he was alive, wandering around the Earth Kingdom. And then when Azula had been the perfect daughter - had chased the Avatar around the world and only asked for one thing, for her brother’s safety - she had been forced to give up everything.
And yes, it’s going to end up fine. She’s going to get that throne and smash her father’s head under it, maybe literally. But right now, Azula is incandescent.
“We’re sparring,” she snaps to Zuko once she’s decent.
Zuzu only nods and follows her up to the deck.
Today, there’s no room for Avatar Aang to join in, and there’s no room for anyone to work around them. Azula throws fire with a vengeance, and she has allowed Zuko his swords, so he matches her blow for blow.
They fight hard, and fast, and without words. Zuko almost knocks her off the ship, and she retaliates by forcing him to his knees.
Zuko stops immediately, which Azula uses to her benefit. He manages to block her fire at the last moment, but it’s clear that he isn’t going to fight back, so Azula glares up at the chief.
Ah. They’ve gained an audience. It must have been longer than Azula realised. She’s sweating and her muscles ache, and it feels wonderful.
Chief Hakoda stands, bewildered and clearly annoyed, and looks to his crewmen. “Why did nobody else stop this?” he demands.
One of the younger crewmen shrugs. “Her fire's blue, chief. And he’s bending with swords. Obviously we were taking bets.”
Chief Hakoda’s expression only darkens. “Her fire is blue, and he is bending with swords, which means that they are very recognisable,” he points out. Ah. He might have a point there.
“Dad,” Sokka points out, and apparently the kids were all watching the show, too. “We were keeping an eye out, I promise. Sea and sky are all clear. Surely it’s good to let them practice?”
Chief Hakoda turns to his son, clearly still annoyed, and two things happen in very quick succession:
First, the chief starts to say something and raises a hand to rub at his own face in exasperation.
Second, Zuko moves so quickly that he’s practically a blur.
Then Zuko is placed between the chief and the chief’s son, swords dropped and arms lifted in a defensive position over his face.
There’s a long, quiet moment. Chief Hakoda stares at Zuko - probably the whole damn audience is staring at Zuko - and Zuko slowly realises that the blow isn’t coming.
(Zuko, she thinks - Zuko, if you thought a blow was coming, why did you drop your swords?)
Chief Hakoda swallows visibly. Zuko’s arms come down, and he looks horrified with himself. Even Sokka looks a little sick.
“He wasn’t…” Sokka starts, and it spurs Zuko to action. He moves away quickly, getting out from between father and son, and then bows.
“My apologies, sir,” he says, stiff and formal. “I misunderstood.”
And then he turns tail and flees.
“What… just happened?” the young crewman from before asks. Chief Hakoda is looking in the direction that Zuko left, his jaw firm.
“Kids,” he says, looking to his son and then each of the others. “I think maybe you should go find Zuko.” Azula nods and collects Zuko’s swords, and Chief Hakoda stops her as she’s about to pass him. “Can you make sure he knows that I wouldn’t?”
Azula nods. “I think that was obvious.”
“I think he’s scared of me,” Chief Hakoda adds, quiet enough that his voice won’t carry to the crowd. Azula raises an eyebrow. “Not wary the way that you are, Azula. I respect that you’re wary of strangers. But I wouldn’t hurt my son, and I won’t hurt either of you.”
Azula hesitates, and then nods again. “I think that’s obvious,” she says again, “but Zuzu was never known for learning quickly.”
They find Zuzu back in the little room, sitting wedged between the edge of the bed and the wall, with his legs pulled up. He doesn’t seem happy to see them, but they pour into the room nonetheless. Azula puts his swords on the bed, and then finds a hair tie and flings it at him.
“Can you put your hair up already?” she asks. “Your hair is getting in your eyes when you fight. You almost went down earlier because of it.”
“But he didn’t,” Avatar Aang points out, happily. “That was a really good fight. I was rooting for you, Zuko.”
“Rude,” Azula comments, finding a space to sit on the floor. They don’t really all fit into this room, but with the waterbender on the bed mostly behind Zuko and the fact that the earthbender seems to fit into any space she’s given, they make it work.
“Well, I was rooting for Azula,” the waterbender adds, which is a surprise. “I like that your fire is blue, and I agree that it’s not fair for Zuko to win when his hair is in his eyes.”
Azula laughs a little, caught off-guard.
Zuko sighs. “Why are we talking about my hair?”
“Oh, should we be talking about how you just tried to take a beating from my father for me?” Sokka asks, clinging to a pretense of being casual. “Is that what you want to talk about?”
Zuko buries his face in his hands.
“I think it was sweet,” the earthbender says, and then kicks Zuko in the shin. At his muffled ow, she adds: “You’ve read Hakoda all wrong, but it’s nice to know you’d protect Sokka. I’m sure it makes Sokka feel all swept off his-- ow!”
Sokka tries to look innocent as he tucks the boomerang back into his belt.
“I’ll fix your hair for you,” the waterbender insists, plucking the hair tie from where Zuko has been fiddling with it. Azula tosses her a hairbrush from across the room, and they fall into a moment of silence.
Zuko clears his throat. “Are you angry with me?”
“Why would we be angry with you?” Avatar Aang asks, and it’s softer than Azula is used to hearing him. The brash excitement is gone. “Toph isn’t wrong, you know. You weren’t right about Hakoda, but it’s still good that your instinct is to protect Sokka.”
“Though I want to add that protecting me by taking a punch for me is, uh. Maybe not the best route? I mean, if one of us is going to get hit because I provoked someone, it should probably be me?”
Zuko looks confused. The waterbender is brushing his hair now, and the whole thing is kind of ridiculous - but between being wedged in this calm room and coming down from the high of the fight, Azula hasn’t felt this relaxed in days. Weeks, even.
“So you aren’t angry with me?”
The waterbender puts down the hairbrush, but she doesn’t move Zuko’s hair up to a topknot. Instead, Azula watches with mild interest as she gathers a lock of hair at Zuko’s temple and starts braiding it with quick, deft fingers.
“Zuko,” she says, very carefully, “do you understand why we were angry before? Why I was angry before?”
Zuko flinches slightly, and then tries to nod, but the waterbender holds him still.
“Okay,” the waterbender continues. “I’m going to need you to put it into words, because I think you maybe tend to jump to the worst explanation?”
“No, I understand,” Zuko insists. “You were angry because I didn’t tell you the truth. And I put you all in danger. I-- I don’t mean to make excuses, but I was trying to find a way to tell you.”
The waterbender sighs. “That’s not why I was angry. Or, at least, it’s not the entire reason.” Azula can see Zuko’s confused frown, but the waterbender can’t from this angle. “I was angry because you lying to us almost cost you your life.”
“If we had known, then we wouldn’t have assumed you would be imprisoned. And yes, we couldn’t have made up much time - but we could have made up some, and if Azula hadn’t-- if Azula hadn’t saved you.” The waterbender looks up at Azula at that point, and her eyes are glassy and grateful. She nods to Azula before returning to the braid. “If Azula hadn’t saved you, we would have been too late.”
“But if you’d told us, we might not have been,” Avatar Aang finishes for her. “I’m not mad at you about that. I wasn’t ever mad, not really. But it’s still… That really sucks, you know?”
The earthbender kicks at Zuko’s shin again, but it’s gentle this time, and more like a nudge. “Yeah, Sparky. Not cool. Understandable, and not mad at you about it, but still: if you could try not to die unnecessarily, we would appreciate that.”
“I was angry that you didn’t trust us,” Sokka explains. “And… I guess I’m still a little hurt about that. But Dad pointed out that it’s probably pretty hard for you.” At Zuko’s questioning glance, Sokka clarifies: “He uh, he said that the reason that you survived all those years on your own is probably because you didn’t trust anyone. So it’ll be harder for you to just decide to trust people. I might not know what that feels like, but I understand that it’s real for you.”
Zuko looks like he doesn’t know how to respond, and then the waterbender hums.
“There, done. I just have to put it up now.”
Sokka isn’t sitting at a good angle to see the braid, so he leans forward a little into Zuko’s space to see his sister’s handiwork. And then he huffs. “Is that a brother braid? How dare you? When did you last give me a brother braid?!”
“Probably about five minutes before you complained about my ruining your wolftail,” the waterbender responds.
Sokka grumbles, and the waterbender gathers the rest of Zuko’s hair up into a topknot and ties it off. It doesn’t look bad, though it’s weird to see a Fire Nation hairstyle adorned with a Water Tribe braid.
Sokka then insists that it isn’t fair to give Zuko a brother braid and not him, and then the waterbender is shifting around the room to braid his hair. The earthbender gets in on the game too, and rejects the concept of the sister braid because she insists that it’s stupid that it would be different. Avatar Aang spends the entire time lamenting his lack of hair, which makes Azula laugh a little at his pain.
While the waterbender is braiding Toph’s hair and Avatar Aang is complaining, Azula remembers Chief Hakoda’s request.
“Chief Hakoda isn’t like that, you know,” she says to Zuko. Zuko raises his eyebrows, and she elaborates: “He’s definitely weird. But he’s ‘yes, let me adopt these street children immediately’ weird, not ‘let’s sell them back to the Fire Nation’ weird. Obviously you should always be ready for a fight, but you can probably… unclench, a little.”
It takes Azula a moment to realise that the rest of the group is staring at her. Aang looks delighted, and Azula is getting used to bending fire in his direction whenever his expression is too annoying (it’s good practice, she insists), but she avoids doing so in such an enclosed space.
Katara clears her throat. “Do you… want a braid, Azula?”
Azula gives her best cold stare. “Touch my hair and lose a hand, waterbender.”
Chapter 7: the darker it gets, the more i do
I believe in you,
and in our hearts we know the truth, and
I believe in love,
and the darker it gets, the more I do.
Azula and Sokka have been sitting on the deck, surrounded by notes and maps, for hours. It feels like they’ve been back and forth on the same issue - New Ozai and the risk of Governer Ukano - for half a lifetime. Sokka is now charting out his thoughts, plans and backup plans for if they’re betrayed. Originally, Azula didn’t want anything put to ink in case their plans ever end up in the wrong hands, but the truth is that Sokka’s drawings are so bad that nobody else will ever be able to decipher them.
“It’s like its own code,” Azula explains to Toph, because Toph deserves to understand the level of awful Sokka’s drawings have met. Toph snickers and Sokka glares over at them.
Chief Hakoda usually drops by once every few hours for updates and advice, but the next time he comes over, he just looks around at them all. Aang and Katara are practicing waterbending by the edge of the ship, near enough that they occasionally voice their opinions (on their plans, and also on Sokka’s ability to chart out their plans).
“Where is your brother?” Chief Hakoda asks, frowning down at them in the sunshine. “I can never seem to track him down.”
Zuko does join them occasionally, but he always manages to disappear with an appropriate excuse before Chief Hakoda arrives.
“Yeah, maybe don’t do that,” Azula suggests. Chief Hakoda hesitates, and then sits on the deck with them. “If he’s avoiding you, you should just let him.”
“He’s not avoiding you,” Katara insists, wandering over from where she has been practicing waterbending with Aang. “He’s working. I think he said something about fixing a plumbing issue?”
“Why is he working?” Chief Hakoda asks.
“He likes to be busy,” Katara explains.
Azula stares up at her, wondering if she should shed light on that situation.
“Do you think I should talk to him?” Chief Hakoda asks Azula, looking very serious. “I know I scared him, but it seems like every time I talk to him it gets worse.”
It’s private, right? And the others know enough that they should understand. Zuko did tell them all--
“Azula?” Azula looks over at Aang, who is wearing a concerned expression as he watches her. Azula leans back and sighs dramatically.
“You’re all making it weirder than it needs to be,” she says. “Just leave him alone and let him work. It makes him feel safer.”
“Safer?” Chief Hakoda asks, and Azula is annoyed at herself for not just saying ‘better’. They would have accepted ‘better’. “Why does working make him feel safer?”
Azula eyes them all. “This should be more obvious to all of you.”
“Well, it’s not, Fire Hazard.” Toph knocks Azula’s leg with her foot, and Azula flicks a lazy flame in her direction in response. “Hakoda just wants to know what to do about the whole oops-you-thought-I-was-going-to-hit-you situation. Spill.”
“Okay, I advise you to leave it alone and stop prying,” Azula says. “You make him uncomfortable and that probably isn’t going to change while you’re on the ship, because you hold the most leverage. Hence the working.”
Chief Hakoda is staring at her like she’s a puzzle. “I think you’re going to have to walk me through that.”
They should be able to work this out for themselves, just like Azula did. And Zuko hasn’t actually told her any more than anyone else. So it’s not a breach of trust to explain it to them, she decides, especially if it helps them to stop treading on Zuzu’s stupid toes.
“It’s really not that complicated,” Azula insists. “Zuko has spent years working for food, or a bed, or whatever he needs. So he works, he gets paid, he goes. And he doesn’t do that in a different order, because if he gets paid first, then he has this idea that they have the leverage to demand more from him. And, well, it’s not always more work.” At the blank looks of Zuko’s friends, she adds: “He did tell us this. Remember? Katara said that he would do absolutely anything in exchange for a meal, and he got all offended?”
“Oh,” says Chief Hakoda, the only person who wasn’t actually there for that conversation. He looks a little ill. “That’s…”
“Reality,” Azula finishes for him. “You think a pretty, damaged kid like him didn’t get propositioned a few times? Told that he owes something he doesn’t want to give? Had the promise of a warm bed held over his head, as long as he’s willing to warm--”
“Azula, that’s enough,” Chief Hakoda says, but it isn’t firm. It sounds more like he doesn’t want to hear anymore. Chief Hakoda rubs at his forehead, and then curses under his breath.
“I don’t understand,” Aang says. “What do you mean, something he doesn’t want to give?”
“Azula, don’t--” Katara says, voice sounding a little wet, at the same time that Azula says: “Sex, obviously.”
Quiet falls over them like a blanket. Aang is staring at her, wide-eyed.
Azula thinks they’re being way too dramatic.
“I’m not saying he did,” Azula presses. “I think he made it pretty clear that he would rather miss meals. I’m saying that he obviously has a thing about people holding leverage over him. So he’d rather work before being paid, so that he understands the trade. But nobody told him what he’s doing on the ship, and he’s eating and sleeping in a bed.”
“I don’t owe you that,” Sokka mumbles under his breath, and Azula looks at him. Sokka shakes his head, looking away from her and glaring at nothing.
Hakoda lifts his head from his hand and looks at Azula despairingly. “Do you think he actually thinks…?”
“Probably not,” Azula responds. “I mean, not consciously. But he’s used to operating this way. There’s no harm in letting him work, and you get labour out of it. Let him chop potatoes and tie knots. What does it matter?”
There’s a long pause as everyone digests this. Katara looks close to tears. Azula rolls her eyes.
“Look, he’s also clearing out your crew playing Cat Tie every night. He’s fine. Just leave him alone and, I don’t know, maybe don’t hit on him.”
The chief drops in on their evening game.
Zuko tenses up immediately, and wonders if he should be working. The chief won’t know that he’s putting in work if he keeps catching Zuko training and playing Five Card Cat Tie, right?
“I’m not falling for that again,” Pok says from next to him, scowling. “Don’t do your oh-no-my-cards-are-so-bad routine when your cards are always better than mine, Zuko.”
“I wasn’t--” Zuko starts, but he doesn’t really know how to finish the sentence.
The chief looks over at him and nods, but his eyes don’t linger; instead, he seems to be content with watching his crew play cards.
Nobody else seems concerned that they’ve been caught playing. Zuko tries to make himself relax. The chief is probably just here socially; it probably has nothing to do with Zuko.
Zuko looks back to his cards and rethinks his strategy, because it’s clear that at least two of his opponents are waiting on a card that he’s holding. If he shifts from the catshark to the chamelecat or the catephant, then he doesn’t lose out that much in terms of gameplay, and he can hold both of them back from progressing. But Zuko isn’t sure which to go for, because he’s been playing a different game thus far.
Zuko takes a drink while he considers his options.
“What are you drinking?” Chief Hakoda asks.
Zuko hesitates for a moment, unhappy with the attention, and then looks down at his cup. He looks over to Pok. “What am I drinking?” he asks.
“It’s dragonfruit liquor,” Pok explains, glaring at his own cards. He glances up at the chief. “We cut it with watermelon juice, don’t worry. We’re not getting him drunk and taking all our money back.”
“We’re not taking all our money back at all, apparently,” Amaruq growls. “I have half a mind to ban you.”
“Sore loser,” Pok snickers.
The chief is frowning down at them. “You shouldn’t be giving him alcohol. He’s too young to be drinking.”
“Oh come on, chief, he’s a prince. He was probably raised on plum wine,” Pok insists. “Plus, it actually hasn’t affected his gameplay yet.”
“So you are trying to get me drunk and take your money back?” Zuko asks, abandoning a card he knows nobody wants. There’s grumbling from around the table. “I’ll give you your money back once you’ve earned it. Come on, someone has to at least have a bumblekitten by now. Let’s get this thing moving.”
Chief Hakoda leans in, and Zuko tenses up for a moment before he realises that the chief is confiscating his drink. “No more liquor,” he insists. “Not for the other kids, either. They’re too young to be drinking on my ship.” Zuko wants to glare, but he also doesn’t want to be caught glaring, so he watches Yuka swap out a card. It’s an obvious distraction; he doesn’t even need that suit, let alone that card.
“Chief,” Pok complains.
“I’ll get you some watermelon juice, Zuko,” Chief Hakoda says, leaving the room to head back into the kitchens.
“Hah,” Yuka says, pointing his free hand toward Zuko. “You’re too much of a kid for the chief to let you have a little drink.”
Zuko scowls. “Not too much of a kid to know that you’re not getting that catterfly you’re aiming for, Yuka,” he says.
The whole table lets out a quiet ooh, and Yuka looks furious. “How do you know my hand? You are cheating!”
“Paying attention to what you’re throwing isn’t cheating,” Zuko says, and then looks back to his own cards and hesitates. He looks up at Pok. “Is it?”
Pok shakes his head. “You’re impossible.”
Chief Hakoda returns with Zuko’s new drink before long, and Zuko doesn’t think that he should drink it, but he also thinks that the chief’s reaction at being rebuffed might be worse than the risk. So he drinks, mourns that it doesn’t taste as spicy without the dragonfruit liquor, and then returns to the game.
The chief hovers, but he hovers where Zuko can see him, so it could be worse.
This time the game is a bit of a challenge, since Yuka and Nanurjuk both gave up on the idea of winning and just set out to take Zuko down. But Zuko is the reigning champion and he is determined to defend his title.
Zuko throws his cards down and grins at the table. “And that is a catephant,” he declares. The table groans. “What have you got?” Yuka throws his cards at Zuko instead of onto the table.
“Can we play in teams next time?” Pok asks, shaking his head. “You’d be on my team, right, Zuko?”
“Why don’t we try a different game?” Zuko suggests. “You can teach me something and earn some of your coins back.”
“Boo,” Amaruq responds. “We don’t stop until someone wipes the floor with this royal brat.”
Chief Hakoda straightens up. “Are you done for the night, Zuko?” he asks. “I wanted to walk with you and have a conversation, if you don’t mind.”
Zuko minds a lot, but he thinks that if he insists on another game, the chief might just hover and make him too nervous to enjoy it, anyway. He nods, giving up his space at the table.
“See you tomorrow night, kid,” Yuka says, already dealing the next hand. “Try hitting your head in training to give us a chance, okay?”
“I’ll do my best,” Zuko replies, and waves as he leaves the room.
Chief Hakoda follows, putting space between them in the corridor. Zuko breathes through it, and waits to hear what the chief wants.
“Zuko,” he says, looking ahead instead of at Zuko. “I wanted to apologise.”
Apologise? “For what?” Zuko asks, hoping that it isn’t an apology in advance.
Chief Hakoda shakes his head. “I’ve been making you nervous, and I can’t figure out how to stop making you nervous,” he admits. “I just want you to know that you’re safe here. The men like you - you’ve been helpful and they like playing cards with you. My kids like you, and Toph and Aang. And you have your sister.”
Zuko isn’t following at all. “Okay?”
“And I know we can’t ever really be safe,” Chief Hakoda adds, “not in a war like this. But nobody here is interested in hurting you. I just want to make sure that you know that.” He glances at Zuko, barely turning his head. “Everyone here wants you to be safe.”
“Okay,” Zuko repeats, slightly off-balance.
“And if you want to keep working, well, it’s appreciated,” Hakoda adds, “but it’s not necessary. The other kids don’t do much around the ship. You’re all planning for a war, after all. We’re here to help you with that - you don’t need to be here to help us with the ship.”
“But if you want to, that’s fine. I just want you to know that nobody expects it, and nobody is going to ask you to do anything to pay for your time here.”
Zuko stops walking for a moment, and Hakoda takes a few steps ahead before turning back with a light frown.
“I’m, um,” Zuko starts, “I’m sorry that I assumed you were going to hit Sokka.”
Chief Hakoda’s expression softens. “I’m sorry that you assumed that, too,” he says, “but I understand why you would, in your position. I wouldn’t hurt Sokka or Katara. And I won’t hurt you, or your friends, or any kids at all.”
That’s obviously not true, and Zuko can’t figure out why Chief Hakoda would say it. “What if they deserved it?”
“Children don’t deserve pain,” Chief Hakoda says, voice firm. “Sometimes things hurt because they have to, like medicines can, but children don’t deserve violence. Especially not from the people who are supposed to keep them safe. Anyone who told you otherwise...” He pauses, clears his throat. “Anyone who made you believe otherwise is wrong.”
Zuko wavers, feeling a little trapped in the corridor with the chief’s eyes boring into him.
(There’s a part of Zuko that thinks: he can’t mean this. And there’s another part that reminds him: well, you don’t believe that any child deserves violence, and how many children have you cared for? Maybe Chief Hakoda feels the same way.)
Chief Hakoda turns and starts walking again, gesturing for Zuko to follow. He does, but he feels a little dazed doing so.
They head to the room Zuko shares with Azula, but Azula isn’t there yet when they arrive. Zuko purses his lips, hoping that the chief isn’t planning to stay.
“That’s all I wanted to say,” Chief Hakoda finishes. “I hope that you can try to believe me.”
He looks at Zuko for a long moment, and then nods and turns to leave.
Zuko lets out a long, slightly shaky breath.
That... was weird.
Zuko starts spending more time with them on the deck. It’s still mostly Sokka and Azula doing the planning, whether or not the group or Chief Hakoda or Hakoda’s second-in-command decide to get updates and offer help. But it’s nice to have Zuko there, sitting in the sunshine, wearing Fire Nation reds with his hair up in a neat topknot.
(She won’t admit it, but it’s even kind of nice to see the twisting braid that Katara put there. Zuko isn’t wearing it loose and beaded in the Water Tribe style, and instead has it tucked up into his topknot, but when his hair catches the sun it’s a visible set of woven strands.)
And Azula notices that Zuko doesn’t immediately take off whenever Chief Hakoda is on deck anymore. He doesn’t relax, either - and certainly doesn’t put his back to anything but the side of the boat - but there’s a shift in the air, and for once, it isn’t for the worse.
“We have a plan,” Pok shouts from across the deck. Zuko looks up, surprised. He isn’t sure that he’s ever seen Pok in daylight hours before. “The plan is Eight Card Cat Tie!”
Zuko scowls. “The plan is to give yourselves a headache. Eight Card Cat Tie can’t work.”
“You just wait, Fire Nation. We’re coming for you!”
That kind of threat would have made Zuko tense up a week ago. Now, it makes him roll his eyes with affection.
He turns to Katara and says: “It really can’t work. They haven’t done the math properly.”
It’s actually kind of a lot for Zuko.
Between Azula, the rest of the group, training with Aang, the near-nightly card games, and working during the day - it’s a lot of people. Zuko is used to solidarity. He’s used to finding somewhere to sleep by himself, and staring at the stars in the quiet, or being tucked into the corner of someone else’s home while they ignore him. But this ship is never quiet. Someone is always talking to him. And while it’s usually good - productive, or even amusing - it’s also a lot.
It ends up being too much late one afternoon, and all Zuko can think about is finding somewhere to be alone. But if he goes to the room he shares with Azula, someone might come looking for him. And there seem to be people everywhere else. Between working and playing cards, most of the crew know him at this point.
Zuko feels a jolt of panic when he realises that he can’t escape. He can’t be alone.
And then he finds himself crawling into a space between boxes and pipes, near the back of the ship. It’s outside, but nobody can see him from this angle. He’s cramped, stuck with his back pressed uncomfortably against the edge of a box, but he’s alone.
He can still hear chatter, the noise of the ship, the crash of the waves.
Zuko covers his ears and closes his eyes.
He doesn’t know how long he’s there, or whether he maybe falls asleep, but when he feels like he’s come back to himself, it’s dark.
Zuko breathes deeply and steadily, and calls a flame to his hand for a few moments of meditation. It helps him feel more steady in his body, and less like he’s floating away somewhere on the waves.
He doesn’t want anyone to think that he’s ungrateful. This might be the best his life has ever been or ever will be. But it’s just also a lot.
The sky continues to get darker, and Zuko finds himself slowly relaxing. And then he hears footsteps by his hiding place, and a pause, and then a hesitant: “Zuko?”
Zuko puts the flame out, realising that it’s given him away. “Hi, Sokka.”
Sokka’s face appears between two pipes. “Hey. I was looking for you. I brought you some dinner - when you didn’t turn up, I assumed you were working.” Zuko tenses, and Sokka seems to notice because he adds: “Not because I think you should be working! Just because that’s where you tend to disappear to.”
Zuko waits a moment, and then nods. “Thank you.”
“Should I leave it with you?” Sokka asks, raising the plate. “Do you want to be alone?”
And Zuko finds himself suddenly, crushingly grateful that Sokka has noticed that and wants to respect it. But he’s also been alone for hours now, and thinks that he might be ready for some company. “No, it’s… I did need to be alone. But I think I’m okay now.”
Sokka looks at him for a long moment, and then smiles and nods. “Great,” he says, and Zuko is readying himself to stand and leave his hiding place, but before he gets a chance, Sokka is climbing in. “Oh wow, you found the smallest place on the whole ship, huh?”
Zuko shifts, and Sokka places the plate and cup of water on a low box next to him before sitting in the only spare inches of space available. They can’t avoid touching like this, and their legs end up a little tangled, but it’s… kind of comfortable?
“So guess what?” Sokka asks as Zuko picks up his plate. “Your psycho sister finally admitted that my plan is good. We’re en route to meet with two of the Dai Li now - it looks like the day after tomorrow? We’ll have to leave the warriors behind, because we don’t want word getting out about how we’re disguising ourselves…”
Zuko lets Sokka update him and listens, nodding, as he eats. There’s something comforting about hearing Sokka make plans, because Sokka’s mind is wonderful, but it’s also a little overwhelming after hours without any words. And there have been so many days on the ship now that the idea of leaving - of moving this war forward, closer to having to return to the palace - it’s all a little much. He feels like he’s perched right on the edge of everything ending, like when he was in a good situation and watching the days count down until he had to leave.
Zuko puts the plate back onto the box when he’s done, and lets himself watch Sokka, trying to tune out the details.
It doesn’t take long for Sokka to notice.
“Sorry,” Sokka says, sheepish. “You were probably trying to escape all this, huh?”
“Not you specifically,” Zuko replies. “It’s just…” He tries to figure out how to explain himself. “Um. For a long time, I was always by myself, you know? Even when I was working with people, I wasn’t usually really with them.”
Sokka nods, watching him intently. It’s getting darker now. They’re on the eastern side of the ship, so the sunset is blocked from them, and it’s just the fading blue in the sky giving them light. The light plays on Sokka’s skin, the shape of his cheekbones and his jaw, and it’s almost painfully beautiful.
“So now there’s a whole bunch of people who want to talk to you all the time,” Sokka continues. “That’s got to be intense, right?”
Zuko nods. “It was already hard when it was just you guys.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go?” Sokka asks. “Or I could sit here and be quiet with you?”
Zuko doesn’t want Sokka to go. But he is still feeling a little raw. “Maybe quiet would be good,” he suggests, and Sokka nods and sits back a little. And then Zuko adds: “Thank you.”
Sokka smiles at him, quiet as promised. And Zuko can’t quite see the bright blue of his eyes in the diminishing glow of sunset, but they have a clearness to them, like he’s looking right into Zuko’s soul and he doesn’t mind what he’s seeing there.
Zuko reaches out, planning to touch Sokka’s arm in another silent moment of thanks. The others do this sometimes - use physical contact instead of words - and Zuko is starting to get used to it, starting to understand its significance.
But he misses, and doesn’t realise until his fingers land on skin instead of cloth. He wavers for a moment, unsure of whether he should pull back, and then Sokka turns his hand over and slots their fingers together.
Something in Zuko relaxes in the quiet.
(And part of him says: stop throwing yourself at someone who doesn’t want you, idiot. But another part of him is content to just be here right now, because he’d somehow never known just how good it can feel to touch Sokka’s hand, and he doesn’t want the moment to end.)
They sit there for a long time, skin against skin, cramped into a tiny hiding place, resting in the quiet.
But eventually they have to retire, and Zuko’s legs are starting to ache anyway. Sokka doesn’t let go of his hand when he stands, uses it instead to help Zuko to his feet. And then they’re standing between boxes and pipes, and there isn’t really any room to not be close, and--
And Zuko meets Sokka’s eyes. They’re of a height, and it’s obvious this close. It’s gotten darker again, and Zuko can almost feel Sokka more than he can see him. Zuko swallows, and he can feel Sokka’s breath, and they are just so close--
But last time this happened, Sokka pushed him away and wiped at his mouth. Zuko clearly can’t read whether or not Sokka wants this (hadn’t thought he wanted Zuko when he maybe kind of did; assumed he wanted Zuko when he was disgusted by the idea). So he stays very still, and he looks at Sokka, and he wills Sokka to make himself clear somehow.
Sokka stares back at him, just as unmoving. His eyes flicker away from Zuko’s, but only to sweep over Zuko’s face before returning. Zuko can feel his own heartbeat, heavy and quick in his chest, and they’re so close that he wonders if Sokka can feel it, too.
Their hands are still together, Zuko realises. Their fingers are still wound. Sokka’s skin is warm and soft. Zuko finds himself tightening his grip a touch, and Sokka draws a small breath at that and wavers forward. There’s barely any space between them. If Zuko presses forward just slightly, tilts his head just a little, they’ll be kissing. But he waits for Sokka, and for a moment, he’s sure that he knows what’s about to happen.
And then Sokka blinks, and his eyebrows pull in a little, and then he’s pulling away. Sokka’s hand drops from Zuko’s.
Well, Zuko thinks. That answers that question.
Azula is brushing her hair when her brother turns up, apparently having been walked to their room by Sokka. Azula sighs internally, already halfway through making plans about the legal ramifications of that mess.
(Maybe she can spin that a royal union between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes can be used as a sign of good will between the peoples?)
“Finally,” Azula grumbles. “I’m taking first watch.”
Azula always takes first watch, because she can’t trust Zuko to sleep otherwise. The idiot would guard her all night if given half a chance.
Sokka frowns at her, and then at Zuko. “First watch?”
“What, you’ve forgotten how watches work?” Azula asks, retying her hair. “I take first, he takes second, I beat him up on the deck in the morning.”
“Yeah, but…” Sokka looks from her to Zuko again, and there’s some awkward tension there that Azula isn’t poking with a ten-foot pole, unless it proves to be amusing to do so. “Why is anyone taking watches at all? You know we have people guarding the ship in case anything happens, right?”
There’s a long pause. Azula waits for recognition to dawn on Sokka’s face, because it’s obvious why they’re taking watches, but it never comes.
“Uh,” Zuko says, rubbing the back of his neck. “We’re sort of just… guarding ourselves? This room, I mean.”
Then Sokka’s expression changes. He goes from confused to offended to a little sad. “You two still think you’re not safe here.”
“We don’t know everyone on the ship,” Zuko points out, voice low and reassuring. “It’s not about someone in particular, you just… never know.”
(She notes that the pair of them aren’t quite meeting one another’s eyes. Maybe it would be fun to poke that tension.)
Sokka’s face has solidified into determination. “Okay,” he says. “So let me have first watch.”
(Azula and Zuko rise with the sun. Katara is outside their bedroom door.
“That was underhanded,” Azula says to Katara, who only smiles back at her.)
When Azula reestablishes contact with the Dai Li, she has her own small army of children. They are, however, possibly the most dangerous children in the world.
Sokka insists that they arrive hours early and scope out the entire plain. There will be no room for hiding unless it is created. The water is to their backs, and Appa is nowhere in sight but Sokka is armed with the bison whistle should they need it.
Zuko stands to her right, swords drawn.
(Chief Hakoda does not like this plan. It has taken a lot of time and determination to get it past him, but Azula has reminded him firmly on multiple occasions that this is ultimately her war. He gets this look on his face whenever she says it, a little sad and strained.)
Two Dai Li agents approach, exactly as planned.
It turns out that they didn’t need to be quite so concerned about being betrayed, but Azula thinks it’s good practice anyway.
Ba Sing Se is Azula’s.
“We can’t use the whole army,” Sokka admits later, when they’re back on the ship.
“We can,” Azula contradicts him, and then shrugs. “But we shouldn’t, I agree. There’s too much room for news getting out; too many informants, too much possibility of an internal conflict.”
“But we have the agents, and we can use them for the battle or for a distraction.”
Sokka is leaning over a map when Azula catches her brother watching him from across the deck, where he’s knotting ropes for some mysterious ship-related reason that Azula doesn’t care to know about. Azula almost glares at him, because there are so many political ramifications which nobody but Azula seems to care about, but that’s before she realises that her brother mostly just looks sad. Sad, and wistful, and resigned. And Azula doesn’t like that expression at all.
“So how exactly did you upset Zuzu?” Azula asks casually.
Sokka hesitates, and then looks over to where Zuko is working. Zuko starts and turns away.
Sokka’s jaw tightens. “I, um. I didn’t mean to.”
Azula feels her own expression settling into something dangerous. “Talk.”
“I might have almost kissed him a few nights ago,” Sokka admits, head ducked and cheeks dusted with pink. “But I didn’t! But I’m pretty sure he knows that I was thinking about it. And now things are weird.”
Azula sits back and frowns at him. “Huh. I thought we had a few more weeks of you two dancing around each other.”
Sokka looks up. “What do you mean?”
Azula gives him a flat look. “I am not spelling this out for you if you haven’t figured it out yet,” she says, annoyed. “But whatever is happening, if you could stop making him look like a kicked turtleduck, that would be great.”
“You’re such a softie-- ow!” Sokka rubs his forearm, smoothing out the crescent shapes from her nails digging into him. “Okay, you’re also sharp,” he admits, “like a hedgekitten-- ow!”
“Azula,” Katara shouts from across the deck, “please don’t leave any permanent damage on my brother!”
Sokka shakes his head. “Why are all the girls I know terrifying?”
Zuko is looking over again. He’s too far away to listen in on their conversation, even with his above average hearing, but Azula waits until he looks away.
“So what happened?” she demands.
Sokka frowns, still rubbing at his arm. “I told you.” When Azula only raises her eyebrows, he says: “I almost kissed him.”
“Is that a bad thing?” Azula asks. “Are you really bad at it?”
Sokka screws up his nose at her, and then his expression turns confused. “No, you… you said not to do that. But I already did before - when he was Lee - and it obviously screwed everything up, and he said he didn’t owe me that, and then I tried to do it again, like an idiot, even though you already told us all why it’s a bad idea--”
“Okay, slow down, idiot,” Azula interrupts. “Start from the beginning.”
Sokka starts from the beginning. From the actual beginning, when they met. (Apparently Zuko used to fight wearing a theatre mask, which Azula files away for mocking him later.) And Sokka tells the longest, stupidest story, and by the end of it Azula has heard a lot about how smart and kind her brother is and what he looks like shirtless, and she just about wants to throw up.
When Sokka is done talking, he looks so miserable that it’s hardly even funny.
After a long pause, Azula states: “That was the stupidest story I’ve ever heard.”
Sokka doesn’t attempt to contradict her.
“I won’t do it again,” he promises. “I’m sorry. I was listening to you, before. I just got caught up in the moment.”
“You got caught up because he was holding your hand,” Azula points out. “And giving you pretty clear go-ahead-and-ravish-me signals?”
“But you said--”
“I stick by what I said, because what I said was that your dad shouldn’t hit on him.”
“What? Ew, Azula!”
Azula holds her hands up. “Chief Hakoda wanted to know how to make him relax, and not hitting on him is step one. It was good advice.” When Sokka just continues to look grossed out, she adds: “I can’t believe you’re making me say this. I did not mean that nobody can ever show an interest in my brother.” She draws an annoyed breath. “You do know that I’m not actually planning to marry him, right?”
“Stop being so dramatic. The only problem here is if he thinks you’re trying to coerce him, which you’re not, so communicate that like you’re not a lovesick twelve-year-old like Aang.” Azula closes her eyes for a brief, despairing moment. “Please don’t be as stupid as Aang. I can’t take that, and if I throw myself overboard, you’ll have to force Zuzu onto the throne after all.”
When she opens her eyes, Sokka looks hesitant. “But I…” he starts, and then stops and frowns. “I told you what he said, that first time, about not owing me that?”
Azula tilts her head in acknowledgement.
“You don’t think he still…?”
“Okay, I’ve reached capacity,” Azula states. “If you want to know what he thinks, talk to him about it, not me. With me, you talk about war, not boys.”
“War, not boys,” Sokka repeats, looking a little dazed.
“So. New Ozai,” Azula prompts him.
(Sokka never quite gets his head back in the game that afternoon.)
They end up flying Appa most of the way to New Ozai, with plans in place for meeting up with the Water Tribe afterwards. Meeting with the leadership here is a trickier manoeuvre, because Azula and Sokka decided that surprise is better than planning in this case, since they’re more likely to sell the group out. This way, they have to worry about escape, but not about a planned ambush.
Plus, Mai is in New Ozai, and Azula has reason to believe that Ty Lee is with her. So they already have help escaping if they need it.
Of course things go pear-shaped, as they tend to. Azula should have known that Ba Sing Se was too simple.
“It’s fine, we go off-track all the time,” Sokka tells Azula, who does not appreciate this reassurance at all, especially from her strategist.
“Well well well,” the creepy voice of the former king calls out from his cage. “If it isn’t two groups converged into one!” He laughs, and Azula glares.
“Bumi!” Aang greets him, looking thrilled. “I’m so glad that you’re okay!”
King Bumi is still eyeing Azula. “I see you have found a firebending master,” he says, and then keeps looking at the group. “Or two! And an earthbending master, too. I have heard whispers that the Avatar is nearing full strength.”
“He has a long way to go to full strength,” Azula insists, and she means it as an insult, but Aang beams at her nonetheless.
King Bumi looks to Azula again. “Ahh. I believe I have a message for you, Princess Azula, from an old friend of mine and an old nuisance of yours!” He laughs at himself again.
“Was this guy always this crazy, or is it the imprisonment?” Toph asks from next to her.
Azula sighs. “Unfortunately, he was always like this.”
“I believe it’s time for my escape, so that I can aid you in finding the White Lotus.”
And that changes everything.
Zuko steps forward. “What do you know about the White Lotus?” he asks. “Our uncle told us to find it, but he didn’t tell us what it is!”
“Hold on, back off, I’ll get King Laughs-a-Lot out of there,” Toph says, pushing her sleeves up.
“Aha, no need, my new friend,” King Bumi insists, and then breaks himself out, apparently using only his face to earthbend.
Azula is already tired of this whole endeavour. “You could do that this whole time? Really?” she asks, unimpressed and annoyed.
King Bumi stretches. “I shall take you to the White Lotus camp,” he says.
Azula supposes that this is pear-shaped in a not-completely-terrible way, so she allows it, but she still needs to have an audience with Ukano. However, escaping with their king is definitely going to throw the idea of an alliance into disarray. Azula turns to Sokka immediately, and they talk the situation through in low voices, eventually settling on taking the risk of being open. They have Toph with them to act as a lie detector, and between them, they have the means for escape if it becomes necessary.
They hide King Bumi for the moment, leaving him with Katara for protection that he probably doesn’t need (but at least she can stop him from wandering off), and the rest of the group head to the personal rooms of the governing family.
It doesn’t go terribly, but it also doesn’t go smoothly.
“Dad,” Mai insists, “this is what’s going to happen, whether you want it to or not. You said it yourself: without any heirs, Fire Lord Ozai’s days on the throne are numbered.”
Ukano watches them very carefully, clearly trying to figure out where his loyalties should lie.
“How sure are you that you can win?” he asks eventually, and Azula smiles.
Azula and Sokka talk circles around Ukano. And with Mai and Ty Lee already on their side, and Ukano’s wife clearly leaning in their direction, it doesn’t take long. Toph stays to one side, not saying anything, but carefully nodding or shaking her head depending on Ukano’s honesty. While Azula had been concerned about Toph’s presence in any diplomatic scenario in theory, in practice, Azula isn’t sure how she ever managed without her.
(In the meantime, Zuko is predictably useless. He’s spotted Mai’s little brother, and so he spends most of the conversation sitting in the corner playing with a pile of blocks and making the child giggle. If it weren’t for Zuko’s posture - poised to defend them at any given moment - she would ban him from further meetings like this.)
“I’m going with them,” Mai declares, when it looks like the conversation has been smoothed over. Ukano is not happy about this, but Mai is decisive, and Ty Lee follows her with a wide-eyed expression. When Ty Lee is close enough, she reaches out to squeeze Azula’s hand in the greeting she hasn’t been able to give. “Nobody needs to know that I’m gone. Just say that I’m not feeling great.”
“Nobody needs to know about the king, either,” Sokka reassures Ukano, which then turns into its own thing.
In the midst of arguing about whether or not Azula can take King Bumi and Ukano’s daughter, Azula catches Sokka watching Zuko and Tom-Tom. The child is trying to climb Zuko, who is being surprisingly lenient about this turn of events, smiling softly and offering some basic support. Sokka’s expression is even stupider than it usually is when he looks at Zuko, and, well, at least it looks like Sokka won’t stand in the way of Zuzu’s dream to raise an heir and a few spares.
The conclusion is that Ukano can’t stop them from taking Mai, Ty Lee, and King Bumi, and Ukano is sufficiently convinced that Azula will inevitably win this war that he declares himself an ally. Toph signs off on this, and they share a very vague outline of the plan for war and communication.
It’s a victory in the end, but one that weighs Appa down and makes him slow.
Zuko worries about Appa, who needs to rest, and about Chief Hakoda, who will be expecting them back on the ship much earlier than they will arrive. Appa flies, fortunately, but he’s clearly not too happy about it.
“It’s not even like they’re very heavy,” Azula grumbles, eyeing King Bumi.
Mai shrugs. “I don’t know. I have a lot of knives.”
Ty Lee finally gives up on hugging Azula and rambling about how happy she is to see her, and launches herself across the saddle to Zuko. Zuko freezes, caught off-guard, and holds still as he’s embraced.
“... So glad you’re okay, Zuko,” Ty Lee is saying, and Zuko manages a quiet uh huh and waits to be released.
Azula sighs. “Let go of him, Ty Lee, honestly.”
Ty Lee sits back then, wiping at her eyes, and beams at Azula. “So we switched sides, huh?”
Azula meets Zuko's eyes over Ty Lee’s shoulder. “See? I told you I have better friends than you.”
Katara is clearly gearing up to argue about this when Ty Lee looks around the crowded saddle, smiling and introducing herself. When her eyes land on Sokka, she pauses for a long moment, and Zuko feels his heart sink.
“Oh,” Ty Lee says, “you’re cute!”
She moves to sit closer to Sokka, and Zuko looks away.
“Ty Lee,” Azula says, low and warning.
“What’s your name?” Ty Lee asks. Zuko tries to tune them out, watching the horizon and breathing evenly. It’s none of his business, he reminds himself; this has nothing to do with him.
“His name is Sokka,” Azula answers for him, “and you’re barking up the wrong tree. Sokka dances on the other side of the campfire.”
There’s a brief moment of silence, and then Toph shrieks with delighted laughter. After a moment, some of the other kids join in, and Sokka audibly splutters.
“First of all, what,” Sokka says. “And second of all, at least be accurate in your weird Fire Nation sayings. That’s not true.”
Zuko’s heart rate picks up. He’s pretty sure that Toph can’t tell when they’re sitting on Appa, for which he’s thankful, but he feels his own jaw tightening and his face heating, so it’s probably written all over his face anyway.
But that’s right, isn’t it? Sokka talked about Princess Yue, with whom he’d been besotted, and there was also the Kyoshi warrior. Zuko feels himself curling tighter, trying to take up less space.
That’s… something. Humiliating, maybe. But again, none of Zuko’s business, so he forces himself to calm down and not look at anyone.
“Toph, was that a bald-faced lie?” Azula asks, voice catching somewhere between amused and annoyed. “Because I think that was a bald-faced lie.”
“Not that it’s any of your business,” Sokka replies, sounding honestly confused, “but I dance on both sides of the campfire, thank you very much.”
And that… makes more sense, even if Zuko hadn’t realised it was an option. Zuko doesn’t relax much, but it’s at least good to know that once wanting to kiss him isn’t being written off entirely as an experience.
“What? ” Ty Lee asks, and her voice is filled with wonder. “You can like both? Why did nobody tell me you can like both?”
“I’m guessing because it’s illegal in the Fire Nation anyway,” Mai replies.
“What?” Sokka asks, and this time he sounds a little panicked. “What do you mean, illegal?”
It’s Azula’s turn to sigh. “Don’t get your wolftail in a twist, Sokka, I’m going to overturn that when I’m Fire Lord.”
“I think maybe I like both, too,” Ty Lee declares, and then Zuko does turn to look at her, because she’s kind of his childhood friend and that’s kind of a big deal. Zuko leans forward and touches her arm, just for a moment, and hopes that he’s doing the contact-instead-of-words thing correctly. Ty Lee beams at him.
By the time they arrive back on the ship, it’s obvious that Chief Hakoda has been metaphorically - and possibly literally - biting his nails. His children run into his arms, and he smiles across at the rest of the group, and then hesitates. “Well, you told me we might get two more Fire Nation girls, but you seem to have an addition again.”
King Bumi laughs loudly.
The group gets to work on planning.
The bison needs to rest before they go anywhere, and the bison won’t be able to take the whole group to the camp. They will need to leave some people behind to arrive with the Water Tribe warriors. It’s annoying to have to lose Mai and Ty Lee so quickly after regaining them, but it won’t take long to be reunited, and they can look after one another on the way.
It takes Azula a few moments to realise that Zuko has frozen by her side.
When she looks over at him, it’s to find him looking back at her with wide eyes. Azula frowns and tilts her head in question, and Zuko takes a deep breath and says quietly and very carefully: “I would prefer not to be separated.”
Azula waits for understanding to dawn, but it doesn’t come. “To be separated from whom?” she asks, and then thinks through the people he likes on the ship. Presumably he’s not this anxious about losing his card game buddies. “Chief Hakoda?”
“What?” Zuko asks, frowning. “No, I mean you.”
And that’s maybe a little sweet, which Azula will never admit, but it’s also confusing.
“Why would you separated from me?”
Zuko blinks. “Because you’re leaving some people behind.”
Azula looks to the heavens. “You’re not one of those people, dummy,” she states. “You go where I go, obviously.”
“Oh,” Zuko replies, and then visibly relaxes. “Okay.”
“Why would you even think otherwise?”
Zuko shrugs. “I’m not as necessary as the others,” he says, like it’s obvious.
“You’re generally useless, yes,” Azula replies, trying to keep the irritation she’s feeling out of her voice, because she can’t be the one to tell him that he’s important. But nobody else is listening closely enough to know that they should say it. Ugh. “But you’re not specifically useless.”
Azula isn’t sure that makes sense, and Zuko doesn’t look like he thinks it makes sense, either. But it will have to do. Zuko isn’t getting any more out of her.
(Pok finally unveils Eight Card Cat Tie that night. The rules don’t seem to make any sense, but Pok declares himself the winner anyway. And Zuko laughs, which Pok also claims as a victory.
“Hey, man,” Pok says when it’s time for bed. “Look after yourself out there. I still need to beat you at Five Cards at some point.”
Zuko holds himself back from smiling. And then he stops holding himself back.)
Chief Hakoda is weird about them all leaving again.
Azula stands to one side with Zuko and says goodbye to Mai and Ty Lee, but she has half an eye on the chief. He hugs his children no less than twice, and also hugs Toph and Aang, and then claps King Bumi on the shoulder while having what looks like a very serious conversation. She even sees him pat Momo and Appa.
So it’s obvious what is coming next. Azula shifts closer to Zuko, because she’s almost completely certain that he will have an actual heart attack if Chief Hakoda tries to hug him. He looked spooked enough by Ty Lee yesterday, and Ty Lee has probably hugged him more than anyone aside from Mother.
When Chief Hakoda approaches them, pulling their attention away from the Fire Nation girls, Azula levels him with a stare.
“Hopefully I’ll see you again in a few days,” Chief Hakoda says, looking serious, “but this is wartime. We can’t predict what will happen.”
He lifts his big hands, and settles them very gently, one on Azula’s shoulder and the other on Zuko’s. Azula tenses and feels Zuko tense beside her, but Chief Hakoda stays at arm’s length.
“So I want to tell the two of you how incredibly proud I am.”
Azula blinks. She looks to Zuko to see if he understands, but Zuko looks just as bewildered.
“Sir?” Zuko asks.
“The two of you have come extraordinarily far,” the chief explains. “You’ve gone from the next in line to the throne,” he nods to Azula, “and a runaway just trying to keep himself safe to deciding to… well, deciding to save the world. Nothing about that could have been easy, but you did it anyway.”
Azula swallows, and she isn’t sure why she needs to. But she suddenly feels a little overwhelmed.
“And I am so proud,” Hakoda finishes.
Azula tries to steady her breathing.
(Why is she being like this? She’s made people proud before. She’s proud of herself most days, because there’s a lot to be proud of. She’s been praised and assured and looked up to. She has no idea why Hakoda’s warm gaze is doing this to her.)
“Oh,” Zuzu says, and he sounds faint. “Thank you, sir.”
Chief Hakoda keeps looking between them for a moment, and then squeezes their shoulders. “I know I don’t need to tell you to look after one another,” he notes. “You’re already doing an amazing job of that. But maybe let other people look after you sometimes, too.”
With that, he leaves, and Azula and Zuko stare after him.
“That was…” Zuko starts, and Azula shakes her head.
“Yes,” she responds. “It was.”
(They fly for hours. King Bumi sits at the front of the saddle with Aang, chatting away about what Azula understands to be nothing of importance. Zuko carefully sews up a tear in Toph’s sleeve, while Toph sits with her head on the saddle and her feet dangling off the side. The Water Tribe siblings bicker.
Azula’s stomach hasn’t quite settled since Hakoda’s weird speech, but she feels oddly content to just sit back and watch them all.)
They arrive at the White Lotus camp, and are greeted by a familiar face.
Piandao approaches them slowly, eyes flickering between Zuko and Azula, and then bows deeply.
“Your highnesses,” he greets. “It is an honour.”
“Rise,” Azula states, and Piandao stands again.
Zuko’s breath has gone a little loose in his chest. Piandao stares at him, wide-eyed, and then offers him a small smile. “Prince Zuko,” he says eventually, “it is truly one of the great pleasures of my life to see you again.”
Zuko swallows, and then offers his own bow in return. “I owe you much. What you taught me has kept me safe for many years.”
He rises, and sees that Piandao is eyeing the swords strapped to his back. “It is good to see that you stuck with the craft,” he says. “You always had a great talent for the dao swords.”
“You should see what he can do with them now!” Sokka interjects, grinning. “Zuko invented firebending from swords. It’s awesome.”
Piandao’s eyebrows shoot up. “I had heard rumours,” he admits.
The conversation turns then, thankfully, with Azula standing before the group and Piandao explaining the Order of the White Lotus. Prince Iroh is on his way to join them, as are the Water Tribe warriors, and the group have been welcomed to use this secret camp as a base and to use the White Lotus as allies. Zuko is aware that Azula and Sokka have put a lot of work into planning, and he’s also aware that they’re only semi-confident in their ability to win, even if both of them put on a good front. This will make a big difference.
When the group starts to disperse, ready to be shown their tent and the dining area, Piandao approaches Zuko again.
“I have heard rumours of your survival for weeks now,” Piandao says, “but I didn’t know whether or not to believe them until Prince Iroh sent word to us.” Zuko only nods, because he doesn’t think there’s much more to say. “Whispers are fast-spreading in the Fire Nation, much as the Fire Lord would like to keep this under wraps. You should know that many of your people are eager to see their prince return.”
Zuko nods again, unsure how to respond. He’s glad that Sokka has stuck by him, because between this and the conversation with Chief Hakoda earlier, Zuko is feeling off-balance.
“Thank you,” he says eventually.
“So you taught Zuko his sword fighting?” Sokka asks. “He called you master - are you a sword fighting master?”
“I am indeed,” Piandao responds. “Prince Zuko came to me for lessons as a child.”
Sokka nods. “You must be really good. I’ve been wondering about picking up a close-range weapon in time for the battle. If we have time, do you think you could show me a few things?”
Piandao eyes Sokka for a long moment. “What makes you believe you are worthy?”
Zuko watches as Sokka’s stance wilts and as he looks away. “Yeah. I guess I’m not,” he admits.
Zuko does his best not to keep his gaze from Piandao, because he’s pretty sure that if he does, Piandao will see him look furious. And Zuko knows that he has some power here - that Piandao thinks that his status is meaningful - and he doesn’t want to throw that power around.
“Hm.” Piandao is silent for another moment, and then says: “What was your name?”
“Sokka,” Sokka replies. “I’m from the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Well, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe,” Piandao continues, “we will begin at dawn.”
Sokka looks up, his blue eyes sparkling and bright. Piandao offers him a small smile before turning to leave.
Sokka looks to Zuko then, radiant and ecstatic, and Zuko finds himself smiling back. Zuko reaches out to touch, because he’s pretty sure that he’s getting the contact-instead-of-words thing, and his fingers find Sokka’s sleeve.
Sokka turns his hand and grasps Zuko’s, and the two of them stand there together for a long moment.
Azula is pleased with this turn of events up to their first attempt at a meeting.
There are a half dozen members of the Order of the White Lotus, all aged men, and it becomes quickly apparent that they aren’t comfortable with Azula’s allies.
“I mean no offence,” one of the men states, “but it is most unusual to have children in a war council.”
Azula looks up, and she knows her eyes are flashing. “Excuse me?”
“Princess, of course you must remain - it is, after all, your war council,” another member corrects. “But perhaps the other children can retire for the night?”
In the corner of her eye, Azula can see Katara gearing up to shout. Azula holds up a hand, trying to hold her off, and Katara hesitates.
“Gentlemen,” she says, staying very calm. “It appears that I need to make something clear.”
She looks to the last man who had spoken, and inclines her head. “You are correct that this is my war council,” she states. “On this side of the war, every council is my council. Every strategy is my strategy. And every ally is my ally.”
“We mean no offence,” the first member repeats, and Azula turns her head to level a glare at him.
“I am not a pawn in your war,” Azula declares, because she realises that it is long past time to make this abundantly clear. “You are not fighting a war and then putting me on the throne to do your bidding. I am fighting a war for the Dragon Throne, and you are allies to my cause. My cause, which includes ending this war and freeing your people.”
There is a long moment of silence. Azula is pleased that nobody dares to speak up this time.
“I choose who is in this room. Not you. And before you deem this simply the whim of the next Fire Lord, I will remind you of who the children are that you are insinuating do not belong here.”
Azula begins on her left. “The Avatar, who is almost at full strength at twelve years of age, even though Avatars do not typically begin training until they are sixteen.” Aang beams, which rather undermines Azula’s point, but she ignores him.
To Toph, who is smirking. “The greatest earthbender in the world, inventor of metalbending - also at twelve years of age, master and teacher of the Avatar.”
Katara looks up at Azula with wide eyes. “The only waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, a prodigy in her craft, master and teacher of the Avatar.”
Sokka appears to be avoiding Azula’s gaze. “My chief strategist, the mastermind behind this entire war.” Sokka looks up then, something shifting on his face.
And finally, at her right hand, Zuzu. “The Phoenix Prince, inventor of armed firebending, master and teacher of the Avatar. My brother.”
She turns now to the rest of the council. “Which of these children would you see banished from this room? Because I assure you, if given the choice between allying myself with them or with you, you will not be pleased with the result.”
Silence falls. Azula meets every eye that is turned towards her, and then nods before taking her seat.
“Continue,” she orders.
Once the meeting is in session again, Azula realises that Aang still hasn’t stopped beaming at her.
“What?” she asks under her breath.
Aang shakes his head. “You’re going to be a great Fire Lord, Azula,” he responds.
Try and fill us with your hate,
And we will shine a light.
And the days will become endless,
And never turn to night.
Azula is among the best firebenders in the world. If she isn’t the best already, then she will be there before long. And Aang is a prodigy in general. This all adds to Zuko’s growing frustration, because he just cannot find the words to explain his bending to them.
“I think it’s like… an extension,” Zuko tries, frowning at his sword. Azula is holding her (his?) pearl-handled dagger, but Zuko has insisted that Aang not try this with his highly flammable glider, so he’s holding a stick instead. “When Piandao taught me, he said that the sword has to be an extension of you.”
He’s probably teaching Sokka that right now.
Aang frowns at his stick. He’s started rising with the sun, like a true firebender, and Zuko is sure that if he can do this, Aang can, too.
Minutes later, the stick is a pile of ash. Aang looks disappointed.
Zuko purses his lips. Zuko knows that the problem is Zuko, who has no vocabulary for this, and not Aang or Azula. He sighs.
Azula turns the pearl-handed dagger over in her hands. “Try it with this,” she suggests, holding the dagger out. “We should check that it’s not just the swords that you can do it with.”
Zuko takes the dagger. It feels familiar to his hands, but the weight is alien now, because he’s stronger than the last time he held it. He concentrates and allows flames to lick up and down the blade, just like his hand. He then points the dagger at the nearby rocks and allows a blast of fire to extend from it. He twists his wrist and encourages the fire into a whip. It’s not quite the same as his swords, with which he is practiced, but the theory is playing out in practice.
Azula’s curiosity only seems to grow. “Try a stick?” she asks, and then she has Zuko put his hands on a boulder and set the whole thing alight, holding the fire there without burning the moss. Azula pokes at it with the stick, and the stick catches fire even where the moss doesn’t.
“Intriguing,” she says. “But ultimately, I don’t think it’s useful enough to spend time on right now.” Her eyes flash. “Though I will learn that trick when we have time.”
That’s when they hear the first boom.
For a moment, Zuko thinks that they’re being attacked.
It turns out that one unexpected consequence of Azula speaking her mind the night before is that Toph and King Bumi feel the need to go to battle to see who’s the better earthbender. Azula chooses a seat with a good view and roots unapologetically, albeit slightly threateningly, for Toph. Zuko, on the other hand, knows when a quick escape is advisable, and he takes off to find Master Piandao and Sokka. He thinks that maybe Piandao can give him the vocabulary he needs to make Aang and Azula understand that the sword is an extension of him, but then he realises that Piandao would probably think it’s ridiculous if he tries to claim that the boulder is an extension of him, too.
But Azula is probably right, anyway: it’s not useful enough to bother with in the lead-up to battle.
Zuko finds them in a clearing around the corner from the camp. Sokka has a very serious expression on his face. Zuko can’t seem to stop his own expression from softening when he sees it.
He sits on a box and watches the two of them for several long minutes.
The threat of attack looms in the background. The reality of battle draws ever closer. And Zuko has somehow never been this content.
(He almost feels guilty about it. Surely now, of all times, it’s inappropriate to feel anything but worry. But while that is there, churning under the surface, he has also never been this surrounded by people he cares about before - who seem to care about him, too. Azula is close enough to hear, sitting on a makeshift throne of boxes and rocks as she shouts encouragements thinly disguised as insults. His other friends - friends! - know who he is and that knowledge somehow hasn’t torn them away from him. And Sokka looks very serious as he learns to use a sword, learning from the same man who once taught Zuko.)
When Sokka realises he’s there, their eyes meet, and Sokka hesitates and smiles back at him.
Of course, that’s when Piandao disarms him.
“It is paramount that you do not get distracted while fighting,” Piandao points out, and Sokka goes scarlet.
“Right! Of course. Sorry.”
Piandao looks at Zuko, and then to the skies as if he’s asking for patience. That, of course, is when another boom sounds from the direction of the earthbending challenge. Piandao frowns.
“Toph and King Bumi are having… whatever the earthbending equivalent of an Agni Kai is,” Zuko explains. “Azula is judging.”
“Give me strength,” Piandao requests of the spirits, and then nods to Sokka. “That is enough for today. I will see you here again tomorrow at dawn. You will practice in the meantime.”
Piandao leaves in the direction of the noise.
“Sorry,” Zuko says, looking back to Sokka. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Sokka sheaths his sword, and then rubs at the back of his neck. “Uh, I think that was mostly my fault for getting distracted. And I guess Toph’s fault for beating up a king, but you can’t blame Toph for being Toph.”
Zuko smiles again, and he feels like it comes more easily to his face than ever before.
Sokka smiles right back, and then seems to shake himself. He leans the sheathed sword up against the boxes and joins Zuko, sitting beside him and looking vaguely in the direction of the danger. They can’t see anything from this angle, but the ground occasionally shakes, and Azula occasionally laughs.
“So how was jerkbending with the jerkbenders?” Sokka asks, swinging his legs slightly and knocking his heels into the box he’s sitting on.
Zuko shrugs. “They wanted to learn about what I do with the swords, but I can’t really explain it,” Zuko admits. “I think that was frustrating for Aang. I think I have a vocabulary for the basics, but I don’t have any words for this.”
“Well, duh, because you invented it,” Sokka points out. “There isn’t a technique yet. It’s inside you. Have you tried to get Toph to explain metalbending yet? Because I’m fairly certain some of the words she uses aren’t even words.”
When Sokka puts it like that, it makes Zuko feel less like a failure. “Thanks,” he says, and Sokka turns his head to look at him again.
Zuko shrugs. For making it sound like I’m not an idiot feels a little telling, so he doesn’t say it. “For being you, I guess,” is what he settles on, and then realises that’s just as telling.
Sokka’s eyes are so bright. For a moment, Zuko feels caught in them, drawn to the flame.
And then Sokka’s smile fades, but it also blooms into something new.
“Zuko,” Sokka says. “I want to ask you something. But I want you to know first that… that you don’t have to say yes, and nothing changes if you say no.”
Zuko tilts his head. “Okay?” he encourages.
Sokka draws a deep breath, and then releases it slowly. “Can I kiss you again?”
Surprise shoots down Zuko’s spine, and he sits up straighter. “Oh,” is all he can manage to say. He thought they’d been over this, and that Sokka’s answer had been no - twice: once at the campsite the night after Zuko’s return, and once on the ship. But if Sokka is asking again now, maybe… maybe Zuko misunderstood the answer before.
Sokka sits back, too, and his expression is less bright now. He isn’t looking at Zuko, who has let silence fall between them in his surprise.
Zuko swallows, and then moves his hand to cover Sokka’s. Sokka looks down at their hands, and then up at Zuko - and Zuko gathers all of his courage, and leans in to kiss him.
It becomes abruptly obvious to Zuko that their previous two kisses had been one-sided. This is what kissing Sokka actually feels like. And it feels amazing.
Sokka cups both of his hands around Zuko’s face, and Zuko is suddenly overcome with the need to get as close as possible. He tries to hold himself back, but it’s a challenge. He instead quietens himself by kissing harder, by grasping onto Sokka’s forearms, and is embarrassed by the small sound that escapes him when Sokka pulls back and rests their foreheads together.
Sokka is grinning. “I have wanted to do that,” he says, breathless and almost laughing, “since the day I met you.”
That’s not true, but Zuko doesn’t let himself dwell on it. Instead, he leans in again.
The challenge ultimately comes to a standstill because the adults are concerned that Toph and King Bumi might either kill one another or alert some passing strangers to their camp.
Azula does not like ties. She likes victory. That being said, Toph then gets the idea to build them a battleground out of rock. With Azula’s assistance, she builds Royal Caldera City, its entrances and walls, its palace, down to the finest detail. Piandao comes by to check their specifications, as do two other Fire Nation councilmen. And then Toph builds little figures for their army, and Azula abruptly feels like she is a child playing at war instead of the next Fire Lord.
(She likes her own figure, though. Rock Azula is standing in an attacking posture, hands filled with flame. The figures don’t have faces, presumably because Toph is blind and doesn’t see the need for them, and it makes all the figures that much creepier and more wonderful.)
Sokka finally enters the tent, long minutes after Azula has called for his presence. Toph is working on little Fire Nation army figurines while Azula places their fighters in the city.
“Oh good,” she says, “you finally let go of my brother’s face long enough to strategise with me.”
Sokka goes red immediately. “What-- How did...?”
“I have spies everywhere,” Azula responds, moving around the table with the model of the city.
Sokka huffs. “Toph! You’re the worst!” he complains, and Toph laughs. “Wait, is this what I think it is?”
Azula looks up with a grin. “Royal Caldera City,” she explains, and then finds the Sokka figurine and hands it to him.
Sokka looks like he might cry. “You gave me a little boomerang! Toph, you’re the best!”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a genius,” Toph responds, still grumpy from the lack of clear victory earlier in the day.
Azula rearranges a little, and then says: “Let’s walk through Scenario One.”
Scenario One is the least likely version of this battle, in which everything goes according to plan and nobody turns traitor. They’re halfway through the scene, Toph moving the armies while Azula and Sokka give directions, when Sokka raises a hand to pause them.
“Whoa, wait. Where’s Zuko?” he asks, looking over the board. The rest of the team are entering the palace now. Azula rearranges her Dai Li, and then points down to where Zuko’s piece is situated. “He’s not with us?”
“He’s with Chief Hakoda and the Water Tribe warriors,” Azula responds. “So if we’ve set this up correctly, this is the moment that the sun disappears.”
“Um.” Sokka is squinting over at Zuko’s figurine now, placed carefully next to Hakoda’s. Zuko’s figurine has one sword extended forwards and the other behind him, creating a blast of fire over his own head. Azula thinks that is not a useful move at all, but it looks good. “Why?”
“Because we said that entering the palace would be the most effective timing for it,” Azula reminds him. “It gives us the biggest lead for an altercation with my-- with the Fire Lord.”
“He means: Why isn’t Zuko with the rest of us?” Toph corrects.
Sokka nods. “He’s a heavy hitter with or without the fire,” he points out. “He should be part of the palace team.”
He goes to pick up Zuko’s figurine. Azula extends a hand, stopping him. “No. Zuko stays with Hakoda.”
Sokka is staring. Azula looks up with a glare, because he needs to remember that this is her battleground, whether or not Sokka is her chief strategist, and her brother, whether or not Sokka is stupid and lovesick over him.
Eventually, Azula states: “Your dissent is noted.” And dismissed, she doesn’t add, but she’s sure he hears it.
The old man arrives the next day.
Azula is firebending when it happens. Aang is finally starting to master some of the more complicated forms, and while Zuko still can’t explain the weird bending he’s tapped into with the swords, he’s at least practicing it in a way that might be useful. And then King Bumi is approaching them to let them know that Prince Iroh will be there in minutes.
Azula finds space for them to meet, and then sighs to herself in annoyance as she prepares tea.
“I didn’t know you like tea,” Zuzu says, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“I don’t,” Azula replies. “But he’s only going to request it once he gets here. Might as well get it over with so that we can move onto planning.
(Azula doesn’t like tea, but she drank a truly inordinate amount while living in the palace. Iroh was a constant annoyance in her life, like a fly buzzing around her ears offering meaningless sayings like they were nuggets of wisdom. Azula is sure that she has never once enjoyed a session with him. But she also kept taking them, for years and years, so she knows how he likes his stupid tea.)
When Iroh arrives, she and Zuko stand.
Zuko goes to bow, and Azula goes to offer a greeting, but they’re both interrupted by Uncle Iroh drawing a very loud breath and declaring: “My dear niece and nephew. Look at you.”
“Uncle,” Zuko says carefully, like he’s still testing out the sound of the word in his mouth.
“Zuko,” Iroh says, turning to him. He holds out his arms, but Zuko doesn’t come to him; he lets that go quickly and elegantly. “It is such a pleasure to see you alive and well.”
Zuko bows. “And you, Uncle.”
“And Azula,” Iroh says, offering the same hug to her. Azula doesn’t approach, either, but she also offers a bow, which she thinks is more than sufficient. “The future Fire Lord herself. How magnificent to see you.” His eyes slip behind her, and he beams. “And you have prepared tea for an old uncle!”
Zuko gives Azula the slightly panicked look of someone who isn’t used to being in Prince Iroh’s presence. Azula sits down and allows Iroh to serve the tea, but she doesn’t bother drinking; she knows that she won’t like it. Zuko does drink, eyeing both of them over his cup. Uncle Iroh looks elated as he sits across from them.
“I am so pleased that you located the White Lotus,” he says. “I had worried that it was a most difficult task, but we had no time for anything else.”
“You’re part of a secret organisation planning to bring down my father,” Azula states, because it needs stating.
Iroh’s eyes move to her. “No, my dear. The White Lotus is not traditionally a political organisation. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the war will not end under the current Fire Lord. And it is suffice to say that your stories have travelled far and wide.”
“What stories?” Zuko asks.
Uncle Iroh smiles. “The lost prince - ah, Azula, I understand that you bestowed a title?”
“The Phoenix Prince,” Azula says with a smirk, because she knows that Iroh will understand.
Uncle Iroh chuckles. “My brother will not like that,” he says. “Yes. A prince and princess pulled apart. A war tearing through the world. The prince and princess reunited, and taking their terrible father’s throne in the name of peace.” Iroh smiles serenely. “It helps, of course, that your people already know you to be strong, Princess Azula. To that strength, you have added loyalty, love, and the pursuit of peace.” His eyes sparkle at her the way that they sometimes have in their regular meetings. Azula used to ignore it. Now, she doesn’t. “The reign of Fire Lord Azula will be legendary. I am sure of it.”
Azula only nods.
Uncle Iroh drinks. “But first, we have a battle to fight for the throne. Unlaid eggs are uncertain komodo chickens.”
Azula rolls her eyes.
Uncle Iroh turns his smile to Zuko. “Has your sister explained the, ah, intent behind your new title, nephew?” he asks, and Zuko only responds with a confused glance in Azula’s direction. “Your father-- the Fire Lord,” Iroh corrects, as if he doesn’t want to think of Ozai as their father at all. “He has longed for the title Phoenix King for some time. His plans for the comet - his plans to reign over the broken world - are to culminate in bestowing the title Phoenix King upon himself.”
Zuko turns to Azula. “You didn’t tell me about those plans,” he points out.
Azula shrugs. “Sokka and I decided that it wasn’t worth worrying anyone. We’re planning to strike long before the comet. We didn’t want to put more pressure on Aang.”
Zuko’s face softens at the mention of the Avatar. “Okay,” he agrees, and apparently lets it go.
Azula would have told him if he would spend more than minutes in planning meetings. But it seems to Azula that Zuko doesn’t really want to know those ins and outs. And anyway, she has Sokka for this.
Iroh looks between the two of them. “Perhaps I should tell you about the royal court in your absence,” he suggests.
Azula nods. “Are you going back there?”
Iroh looks thoughtful, and then stalls by taking another drink. “While the Fire Lord thinks I am on a diplomatic mission,” he says carefully, “I don’t doubt that he is suspicious of my loyalties. I think I should not return to court until it is by your side, niece.”
“Then tell me about how the court has fallen apart without me,” Azula suggests, and Uncle Iroh smiles.
Azula prefers to take the first watch.
The most significant reason that Azula prefers the first watch is that this group like to chat before going to sleep, and it is endlessly annoying. They will lie there for an hour, easily, just talking about nonsense. It makes Azula miss the quiet room she shared with Zuko on the ship, in which they would not entertain small talk because small talk is inherently stupid. Now, however, they are sharing a tent with the whole group.
(While she and Zuko had spent many nights guarding one another, the truth is that Azula hasn’t really had to take watch before this situation. The few situations in which she has been without guards at night, Azula has stayed awake. There were some nights alone with Mai and Ty Lee, but they were few and far between. The new normal of sharing watch with a group still doesn’t sit well with her.)
The first watch allows Azula to extract herself from their inane conversations, but it also means that some of the White Lotus members have yet to retire to their own tents. She watches from a distance as Iroh converses with another robed member, and she wonders about his loyalties.
Azula doesn’t doubt that Iroh would betray Father. Father deserves the betrayal, after all. Uncle Iroh had adored Zuko.
(Just like with Mother, Zuko had been Iroh’s favourite. It hardly mattered at the time, because Azula was the talented and intelligent child, and she was Father’s favourite. Being Father’s favourite meant a lot more than Mother’s love or Uncle Iroh’s affection.
At the time, at least. Now, being Father’s favourite simply means that Azula has more leverage to twist the knife in his back.)
What Azula does doubt is Iroh’s loyalty to her. Iroh is, after all, a legitimate contender for her throne. Zuzu is, too, but she believes him when he says that he doesn’t want it. Iroh is harder to read. And the White Lotus are loyal to Azula only through Iroh.
Silently, Azula begins to plot out the possibilities of Scenario Six. She will need to run it through with Sokka tomorrow, but she has the time to draft an outline right now, so she does.
(There’s also a scenario in which the Avatar and his friends join the White Lotus against her. Azula thinks this one is less likely, but complacency topples empires, so she knows that she will have to plan for the possibility anyway. Sokka cannot help with that particular plan, of course, but Azula doesn’t doubt that Sokka knows that there will be a plan.)
Iroh joins her at the entrance to the group’s tent and offers her a bow before sitting next to her.
“You’re guarding your friends?” Iroh asks.
“I’m taking first watch,” Azula corrects him.
Iroh nods, and the quiet stretches out between them. Most of the councilmen are retiring now. Azula reaches out to bring the fire of the closest torch higher, casting more light for her watch.
“There is something I believe you should know, niece,” Iroh says, watching her in the dim light.
Their conversation about allies and the royal court lasted hours. Azula wonders why her uncle would approach her at night and alone, and then turns her mind to her brother and her strategist; at least one of them had been present at all times. Perhaps this is something meant only for Azula’s ears.
“Then speak,” Azula commands.
Iroh continues to watch her until Azula meets his eyes, and then he continues: “I had wondered about telling you years ago,” he admits, “but I always assumed that you would not see this as useful to know. You were loyal to the Fire Lord, before Zuko rose from the ashes.” Azula narrows her eyes, and Iroh looks thoughtful for a moment before continuing: “But you being here now, with the Avatar, ready to take the place of Fire Lord - I do believe that this is destiny at work.”
Azula rolls her eyes. “Destiny,” she repeats, unimpressed.
“I know that you are aware of our family tree,” Iroh continues. “You know the names of all your ancestors on your father’s side. Each Fire Lord before you, the second and third children, the wives. Perhaps even the names of the parents of the Fire Ladies. What you may be less aware of is your mother’s heritage.”
Iroh is correct, of course. Why should Azula know more than her grandparents’ names? She has never even met them.
“Are Mother’s parents alive?” Azula asks, assuming that this is why Iroh is bringing them up.
“I am afraid not,” Iroh responds in a kind tone, as if he thinks that Azula will care. Jinzuk and Rina are just names in a book to her.
“Then what does mother’s heritage matter?” Azula asks.
Iroh sits back slightly, gaze unwavering. “Azula, you know that your great-grandfather was Fire Lord Sozin - the man who began the war that you are set on ending.” Azula raises her chin, refusing to pay attention to the weight of her ancestry on her shoulders. “What you do not know is that your other great-grandfather - Rina’s father - was Avatar Roku.”
That information takes a moment to settle.
This means that Azula is the descendent of the Fire Lord who started the war, and the Avatar who died trying to stop it.
She looks away from Uncle Iroh toward the sky. The weight of her ancestry is still there, but it has perhaps… shifted.
“This is why I think that your reign is destiny, Azula,” Iroh continues, voice gentle. “You were born with potential to walk either path. Potential for great power to crush the world, or to heal it.”
But Azula is doing what she wants to do with this war, not what her ancestors set her up to do. Regardless of who those ancestors are. Azula is not a pawn in anyone else’s game.
Azula slants a glare toward Iroh. “I don’t believe in destiny,” she decides.
Uncle Iroh smiles. He often smiles at her, but his expression has shifted from their meetings in the gardens and tea rooms of the palace.
“You found the Avatar and joined him of your own volition, without knowing that his predecessor is your ancestor. In the midst of searching for the Avatar to bring him back to your father, you found your brother, who has been lost to us all for years.” Uncle Iroh’s smile broadens. “You may not believe in destiny, Princess Azula. But I do suspect that destiny believes in you.”
Azula looks to the skies again. “Wow, Uncle. You really outdid yourself there.”
Uncle Iroh chuckles, and then stands and bows. Azula watches as he retires from the evening.
Azula will still plan for the possibility of Iroh’s betrayal, of course.
(But she expects that she will not need it.)
“Do you think you could set the tent on fire?” Azula asks.
Zuko lets the fire licking the ground around him die down. He also studiously ignores where Toph is excitedly chanting flaming boulders, flaming boulders.
“Yes, obviously,” Zuko responds, “but I don’t think the White Lotus would like it very much.”
Azula gives him a long, flat look. Zuko knows that this means he is being exceptionally slow. “I mean ,” she drawls, “could you set the tent on fire without letting it burn down?”
Zuko looks at one of the tents thoughtfully. If he could do it with a boulder without burning the moss…
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” he says, and Azula’s face lights up.
(Several people are not happy about this experiment. In Zuko’s defense, he doesn’t burn the tent down after all.)
Azula spends the afternoon sparring with Katara. Katara is clearly antsy about when her father is going to arrive, and what it means if he doesn’t. Azula is filled with spare energy from last night’s conversation with Uncle Iroh, trying to figure out what to do with the information about Avatar Roku.
(It’s obvious to Azula that she cannot ever tell Aang, because he will definitely be annoying about this information. She isn’t even sure if she should tell Zuko, whom she basically has to lure back to the royal court like a spooked flutter bat. Hopefully Uncle Iroh won’t try to talk to him about destiny anytime soon.)
Once Azula and Katara are both bruised and tired, they take their leave of sparring and go to rejoin the groups. Azula goes to the planning tent to see if Sokka is there. They still haven’t ironed out the fifth scenario, and Azula is starting to be concerned that they need to take it back to basics.
She isn’t expecting to find Zuko in the tent.
Zuko is standing on the opposite side of Royal Caldera City, looking down at where they are midway through the fifth scenario. It can’t mean much to him, because Zuzu has avoided any serious planning, but he’s frowning down at the board nonetheless.
Zuko’s eyes flicker up to hers, and then back down. “I, uh,” he says, and then reaches up to fix a nonexistent issue with his topknot. He gives up after a moment and lets his hands fall to the edge of the rocky scene. “I thought I should get a little more involved.” Zuko’s mouth pulls downward as he looks down the board at his own piece. “But I see you don’t agree.”
“We’re halfway through a scenario we’re running,” Azula explains. “This isn’t going to make any sense to you.”
Zuko hesitates, and then nods. He’s still looking at his own little rock player with his twin swords and fire. “I’m trying not to assume that you’re just getting me out of the way, down there.”
It’s a bad assumption, and Azula suspects that Zuko knows that’s the case. Well then. Cards on the table. “I’ve kept you with Chief Hakoda.”
“And away from the palace,” Zuko continues, looking up the board to where Azula’s team have just entered the palace. “And away from you.”
Azula hums and reaches out to shift the Avatar on the board. “Do you object?”
She pays careful attention to his face, but Zuko doesn’t give much away. He does, however, draw a breath just deep enough to sound like a sigh. “Not if you think I would get in the way.”
“Good,” Azula replies. She wonders if she should tell him about Avatar Roku; she wonders what will happen if Aang and his company do turn against her, as unlikely as it is to happen.
Zuko’s shoulders fall slightly, and he doesn’t look up at Azula. But then his face shifts, tightens, and so does his posture, and he meets her eyes before stating: “You said that I go where you go.”
Azula did say that, didn’t she? She meant it in the context of their travels, not in the context of battle, but it’s an easy extrapolation. And because Azula was already considering what happens in the wake of a rebellion from Zuko’s friends, she finds herself asking:
“What if I left?”
Zuko blinks, clearly caught off-guard, and says: “What?”
“What if I decide that this isn’t for me, after all?” What if Azula decided to make her own destiny? “Would you go where I go then?”
Azula is expecting an answer - honestly, she’s expecting Zuzu to say ‘yes’ whether or not he means it, because it would strengthen his protest to the battle strategy - but she doesn’t get one straight away. Instead, she watches as Zuko’s expression turns surprised, and then - very, very slowly - the muscles in his face relax. For a moment, Azula is off-balance, because she doesn’t understand that reaction, and she thinks she’s getting pretty good at understanding her brother. Zuko’s bright eyes go a little duller, and then he looks away from Azula and nods once, decisively.
Zuko clears his throat. “Can I say goodbye?”
“What?” Azula asks, still trying to sew together the threads of this conversation. “To who?”
Zuko goes to frown, and then apparently thinks better of it. “To everyone,” he explains. His voice is rougher than usual.
He still isn’t looking at her.
And then abruptly, Azula understands Zuzu’s stupid reaction. She sighs, annoyed, and knocks her knuckles against the rock city to get his attention. “Hey, idiot, stop brooding. I’m not actually suggesting that we leave.”
Zuko hesitates, and then closes his eyes with relief so palpable that it’s honestly a little insulting. “Oh.”
Though Azula is insulted by his relief, something in her has also calmed a little at the realisation that Zuko really would leave with her. He would leave this whole life he’s built for himself from scraps. His friends - possibly the first friends he’s envisioned an actual future with. Whatever is happening with Sokka. He would leave it all behind if she asked him to.
That’s a lot of power that he’s handed over to her.
Abruptly, Azula realises that she hasn’t actually considered planning for a scenario in which Zuko betrays her. That’s an oversight, and it’s completely ridiculous, and she’ll have to fix it.
This also serves to solidify her decision to keep him out of the battle.
“It’s not a slight,” Azula explains. When Zuko looks up at her, apparently still recovering from their misunderstanding, Azula nods back to the board. “Hakoda will look after you. That’s all.”
Zuko scowls. “I don’t need looking after,” he insists. “I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time now.” But his scowl is somehow less troubled as he looks back and forth between Azula and the rock city. “And I’m not going to be safe, you know, wherever you put me in the battle.”
It feels a little like Zuko is seeing her too clearly, even when he isn’t looking directly at her. Azula crosses her arms. “You’re safer with Hakoda than you would be at the palace.”
“Barely,” Zuko argues.
Azula narrows her eyes. “You’ve almost died twice in that throne room. Are you really looking to test it a third time?” Zuko winces, and Azula presses where she’s found weakness: “You basically had a meltdown at the idea of the crown, and now you’re ready to pluck it from Father’s head? You’re not going to panic and become useless the second--”
“Azula.” Zuko’s voice cuts through hers, and it’s only then that Azula realises that her volume and pitch have risen. Zuko crosses his arms too, and then breathes deeply. He closes his eyes. “You don’t need me as much as you think you do.”
Anger flashes. “Who says I need you at all?”
Zuko opens his eyes. He looks angry now, too. “If I left,” he says, and then holds up a hand when she goes to interrupt him. “If I left, and you didn’t know where I was, and you became Fire Lord without me - would you still end the war?”
“You wouldn’t have, before,” Zuko points out. “You said that your entire reason for ending the war was because I wanted you to. Is that still true?”
Azula goes to say ‘yes’, but it trips up in her mind, and she thinks.
She thinks about the Air Nomads, Aang’s people, who no longer exist because of Fire Lord Sozin’s war. Because he killed them all. Azula was taught that the Air Nomads did it to themselves, that they were taking up arms against the Fire Nation - but Azula knows Aang now - stupid, pacifistic, dripping-with-kindness Aang - so she knows enough to doubt that claim. Sozin obliterated the Air Nomads to get to the Avatar, and for no other reason.
She thinks about the Water Tribes, and how Katara is a prodigy at her bending, but she grew up with nobody around to teach her. She thinks about how Katara and Sokka's mother was killed on the suspicion of being a bender, how Hakoda and all the men had to leave them behind. That they grew up in a cluster of villages, a home slowly dying before their eyes. Azula was taught that they were backwards savages, but the Water Tribe warriors accepted Azula and Zuko onto their ship because they were children in a war, even though they should have considered them enemy combatants.
She thinks about the Earth Kingdom, where Zuzu grew up hungry because there wasn’t enough food for families, let alone a strange, scarred runaway. Where the people are being crushed under the weight of the war. Where Toph is expected to return while it crumbles beneath her feet. How Azula was taught that her nation’s war was an attempt to improve the world, but all the Earth Kingdom knows from it is death and hunger.
And finally, Azula thinks about her own kingdom. Her control of the Fire Nation. How many people that will be, depending on her while losing their children to a war built on lies.
Azula closes her eyes, irritated at herself and at Zuko, and says: “I would still end the war.”
She hears Zuko’s breath as it escapes him, and it isn’t words, but it still sounds like ‘I thought so’.
Azula opens her eyes and looks across the board at her brother. Zuko looks back at her.
“You don’t need me, Azula,” Zuko continues, softer this time. “You said you need me to be the heart, but you don’t need that. You have a heart. I’m not sure why you think you don’t.” The corner of his mouth pulls down, and he adds: “I think maybe Mother didn’t help there.”
“Just because I don’t need you to tell me to end the war doesn’t mean you get to die,” Azula snaps.
Zuko nods. “I don’t plan to die,” he says. “But I do plan to fight by your side.”
He reaches out to his own piece, the miniature Zuko posed for battle, and plucks it from its place with the Water Tribe warriors. He places it instead next to Azula’s figurine.
Azula watches this happen, arms still crossed, and then looks up to Zuzu again.
“If I die,” she says, because if she has to hear all this then so does he, “then you should take the crown.”
Zuzu flinches. “I don’t want the crown.”
Azula shrugs. “You don’t have to want it. But Uncle Iroh is right - part of what will keep the Fire Nation together is a good story. They’ll idolise you if you let them. And it will help end the war.” Zuko doesn’t look happy, but he also doesn’t object again. “And yes, you’ll hate it. So convince Sokka to marry you and… figure out how to make babies happen. You can abdicate before long.”
Zuko huffs a breath at that, and it’s almost a laugh.
“Try not to die,” Azula orders, and leaves Zuko’s figurine next to hers.
Zuko goes to leave the tent as Sokka is approaching it.
Zuko is still trying to put out the flames of his conversation with Azula, and when Sokka smiles brightly at him, it provides the best distraction from the mess that Zuko has left behind. They haven’t found a chance to be alone since… well, since yesterday morning. They’re sharing a tent with the whole group, and between planning and training and helping out with the running of the camp, there just hasn’t been time.
(And maybe Zuko has found reasons to be busy whenever he isn’t, because nervous energy is thrumming beneath his skin. Maybe every time Sokka looks at him and smiles, Zuko’s heart rate picks up. Maybe Zuko doesn’t know what any of this means and he’s worried that if he tries to figure it out, it will unravel.)
But when Zuko leaves the tent and Sokka goes to pass him, when Sokka looks up at him with an even, bright smile, all of the reasons to keep busy fall away.
Zuko reaches out and catches Sokka’s hand as he goes to pass. Sokka turns, smile widening, and Zuko hesitates only for a moment before nodding to behind him with his eyebrows raised.
Sokka doesn’t hesitate at all. “Well okay then,” he says, and immediately goes to follow Zuko.
Zuko leads them back behind the camp, behind the boxes, to the space that Sokka and Piandao have been using for practice. “How’s the training going?” he asks as casually as he can.
“Good,” Sokka replies, but he’s clearly distracted. Zuko spares him a glance over his shoulder, all but dragging him the rest of the way to relative privacy. When they’re behind the boxes and Zuko turns around properly, Sokka nonsensically adds: “Yeah.”
When Zuko last kissed Sokka, it was after being invited to. He’s less sure this time. Facing Sokka while holding his hand again, mostly hidden from view by boxes again - it reminds Zuko of being on the ship, of being so sure that Sokka was going to kiss him and then finding out that he was wrong. And abruptly, Zuko is thinking of their makeshift camp again, of being pushed away.
Zuko swallows and looks Sokka in his (blue, blue) eyes, hoping that he isn’t wrong this time.
Sokka’s expression is soft, and maybe a little wondering. And it seems that Zuko doesn’t need to worry after all, because Sokka asks: “Can I kiss you again?”
Zuko huffs a breath that is almost a laugh, and says: “You don’t have to ask every time, you know.”
It’s apparently enough of an answer for Sokka, who grins and then leans in and brushes his mouth against Zuko’s.
Zuko’s mind goes blissfully blank as he kisses back. He finds himself grasping at Sokka’s biceps without noticing that he’s moving, finds that he doesn’t want to hold himself back from pressing close, and feels Sokka sigh in response. Zuko isn’t sure that anything has ever felt as good as this.
And then talking in the distance cuts through, and they pull back and look over toward the camp.
They haven’t been noticed yet, but they’re not hidden enough for true privacy. Zuko wonders about wandering over to the stream nearby, but then Sokka tugs at his arm. When Zuko looks over, Sokka sits down against the rows of boxes, back to the camp. The boxes are stacked high enough that he’s hidden from that angle.
“Smart,” Zuko admits, and Sokka flashes a grin in his direction.
“That’s why I’m the plans guy,” he responds.
Zuko wants to be closer than they’ll be if he sits next to Sokka. Because he sees no reason not to, Zuko lowers himself down into Sokka’s lap, facing him, hidden from the camp.
Sokka goes pink. “Maybe you should be the plans guy,” he mutters, and Zuko smiles before cupping Sokka’s jaw and kissing him again.
And maybe Zuko should be the plans guy, because this is even better than before. Zuko can press close now, and his added height shifts the angle in a way that something primal in him really, really likes. Zuko loses the thread of time, as kissing Sokka goes from being careful and new to being messy and a bit desperate. He presses his hands against Sokka’s shoulders and then bunches the material of Sokka’s shirt in his hands, and Sokka sighs into the kiss. He feels Sokka thread his fingers into his hair, and it causes a small sound to escape from Zuko, and he presses closer still--
Sokka pulls back a little, breath coming faster, and says: “Okay buddy, maybe we should slow down a little.”
Zuko doesn’t want to slow down at all. What he wants is closer closer closer , but he swallows and sits back a little, letting Sokka catch his breath. And Sokka apparently takes this distance as an excuse to slip his hands up Zuko’s shirt, hands brushing and then settling against Zuko’s ribs. Zuko inhales shakily before leaning back in, and the kiss is less desperate this time, but Zuko can feel his fire burning beneath his skin.
Sokka’s mouth leaves his to trail instead down Zuko’s neck, which is-- okay, wow, he didn’t know it could feel like that. Zuko breathes out a point that really needs to be made: “We don’t have to slow down.”
Sokka pulls back again, shifting Zuko away from him by his waist and simultaneously pressing his forehead against Zuko’s shoulder. He lets out a huff that is close to a laugh and says: “Are you trying to kill me?”
Zuko lifts a hand to the back of Sokka’s hair, and then lowers it to trace the soft skin of his neck. He hums in question.
“We’re literally outside,” Sokka points out. “And there’s nowhere to go for privacy here. All it takes is someone walking around the corner there…”
Face burning in embarrassment, Zuko interrupts: “Okay, okay. Bad idea. I get it.”
Sokka pulls back from Zuko’s shoulder and rests their temples together, and it somehow feels even more intimate to be this close while ignoring the simmering heat between them. They stay there for several moments, allowing themselves to calm down. The part of Zuko’s mind that was insisting on closeness is quietening, now, and this feels like more than enough.
“You feel good,” Zuko admits, because it’s suddenly important that Sokka knows that.
Sokka’s hands slide out from under Zuko’s shirt. Zuko gasps a little at the sensation and then the loss, and Sokka grins as he cups Zuko’s face. Sokka kisses him again, soft this time, and then traces a thumb over Zuko’s bottom lip.
“You’re so beautiful,” Sokka replies, and the smile slips from Zuko’s face. Disappointment settles in his stomach.
He pulls back a little. “Don’t do that,” he requests, and then tries to distract from this conversation by kissing him again.
Sokka accepts the contact for a moment, but draws away to ask: “Don’t do what?”
Zuko does not want to have this conversation. He finds himself frowning, and maybe this would be less awkward if Zuko wasn’t literally straddling Sokka right now, but it feels like it would be too dramatic to pull away completely. Zuko feels the muscles in his back tensing.
Well. Zuko came here for a break from talking about life and death with Azula. This isn’t life and death; he can say it.
“Don’t say things you don’t mean,” he requests. “Not with me. I don’t want that.” When Sokka just frowns up at him like he’s trying to translate Zuko’s words, he adds: “I… like you a lot. And I’d like for us to be honest with each other. If that’s okay.”
He feels raw again now, like he’s revealed more than he intended to.
Sokka’s eyes narrow thoughtfully. “Do you think I wasn’t being honest when I said that you’re beautiful?” he asks, the tone of his voice confused, like this wouldn’t make sense as an option but he can’t find another one.
Zuko restrains himself from rolling his eyes. “I know what I look like, Sokka,” he says. “Just… Let’s pretend you didn’t say it.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound very honest,” Sokka points out.
Zuko does go to move away at this point, but Sokka’s hands fall gently on his forearms. They’re not constraining him, just making it clear that Sokka doesn’t want him to go.
“Okay,” Sokka says, carefully. “I’m not sure how to… handle this one. But Zuko, you must know that I think you’re beautiful. I have not been subtle about that.” Zuko frowns. “The first time we met--”
Irritation flickers. “I remember how you were when we met,” Zuko points out. “You were weirded out about the scar. And that’s fine, I get it - it’s disfiguring, people react--”
“Zuko, seriously, the first time we met Katara realised that I - ah - dance on that side of the campfire just from the way that I looked at you.” Sokka winces at the memory. “Uh. I maybe also realised that. From the way that I looked at you.”
Zuko blinks, and then looks for dishonesty in Sokka’s face.
Sokka just looks uncomfortable. “I don’t know how you missed it. The whole thing became Toph’s favourite joke, you know? You can literally ask any of our friends. Or - really, really embarrassingly - your sister.” At Zuko’s confused frown, Sokka adds: “I may have gotten carried away when talking to her about you. Uh, specifically about that time that you decided to strip and bathe in front of us all.”
Zuko recalls the day and tries to read it through a different lens. “I did keep my underwear on,” he points out.
“And thank the spirits you did, because otherwise I might not have lived to tell the tale,” Sokka jokes. “And then, you know, I kissed you.” He shrugs. “Like I said: not subtle.”
“You pushed me away,” Zuko points out.
Sokka stares for a moment, incredulous, and then replies: “Yes, because I was mad at you, and you tried to use the fact that I liked you to distract me from that.”
Zuko just stares as he tries to filter this information. “Oh,” he says eventually, because he thinks he’s supposed to say something. “Sorry. About that.”
Sokka’s expression turns suspicious. “What did you think was happening here, if you didn’t think that I…?”
And Zuko isn’t even sure what he thought. He supposes that he mostly didn’t think; he just let himself be swept along with the tide. And maybe a part of him had assumed words like convenient, but those thoughts don’t stand up to much scrutiny.
“I guess I just didn’t think,” Zuko admits, in the name of honesty.
Sokka chuckles. “Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t be the plans guy,” he says, and then tugs Zuko a little closer.
Zuko goes easily this time. And maybe he’s still a little confused by how this happened, but he can be confused and happy at the same time.
The Water Tribe warriors join them later that day, led by Chief Hakoda, and accompanied by Mai and Ty Lee. Azula catches Zuko’s eyes and drags him after her without physical contact, until the Fire Nation children are close. Ty Lee hugs them both. They both put up with it.
“I trust everything was well on the ship?” Azula asks. It’s intended to sound like small talk, but Azula doesn’t do small talk; she wants to know if the Water Tribe crew were different without royalty aboard.
Mai understands this, and reports back: “It was completely boring.”
Ty Lee, of course, never quite understands Azula’s subtleties the first time around. She spins tales from the ship, most of which are as boring as Mai claimed, but come with a hint of adoration of Chief Hakoda and several other members of the crew.
Satisfied that her friends are well and her allies have yet to betray her, Azula leads Mai and Ty Lee to the group’s tent. Mai is, of course, singularly unimpressed at the idea of having to share sleeping quarters. And Ty Lee is, of course, delighted.
Azula and Zuko are both untrusting by nature.
It makes a conversation about running through plans with their allies a long and stilted one. Zuko listens carefully, but through most of the discussion, he finds himself off-kilter. The problem is that the nature of their distrust is not the same. Zuko’s is born in violence, and hunger, and pressing advantage. Azula’s experiences might look prettier, and the dangers of court may be subtler, but the threat of betrayal was constantly lingering in the shadows.
(Zuko thinks that her world seems so much more complicated than his. In Zuko’s experience, people will hold what you owe them for their advantage, and they will take food from your plate, and they won’t care if you live or die; in Azula’s, the blades are hidden in beautiful smiles and careful words.)
The sun goes down during their conversation. Azula and Zuko sit far enough from the camp that they cannot be overheard, and close enough that they can see exactly who might be trying to overhear. They cup fire in their hands for light.
Their friends will be in the room. Largely, Azula insists, because Sokka knows almost all of her plans anyway. If they turn against them, they will likely do it together.
“And you trust Sokka,” Zuko insists.
Azula rolls her eyes. “Just because you’re semi-permanently attached to his face doesn’t mean I trust him,” she replies, which is unfair.
“He’s your strategist,” Zuko responds, firm. “And your friend.”
Azula doesn’t deny this, which is enough for Zuko.
Uncle Iroh doesn’t make the cut.
Zuko is a little sad about this, because Azula speaks about meeting Prince Iroh for tea regularly in the palace; Zuko thinks that Iroh sounds like he was the only person in the palace who cared about her because she was Azula, and not because she was the princess. But Iroh is also loyal to the White Lotus, and has a claim to the throne, and these two facts disqualify him.
Zuko looks out, back toward the camp.
“What about Chief Hakoda?”
Chief Hakoda seems a little bewildered, at first, to be the only adult in the room.
He tries to bring Bato with him, which is quickly shut down. She has mostly agreed to Hakoda's presence because there are two ways in which the Water Tribe could betray Azula. The first is from the bottom up - a coup against their chief. In that case, it doesn't matter what Hakoda knows. The second way is that Hakoda betrays them directly, in which case... well, perhaps he would betray Azula and Zuko, but he won't betray his own children. If that treason happens, it won't matter whether or not he was in the room.
Azula situates herself behind the rock city and looks out to her friends.
“War is on our doorstep,” Azula explains, head held high. “As much as the adults of this camp might see us as children, we are all well aware that there are no children in war.” She pauses, looking to Sokka, who nods at her.
“I have a great many allies to this final battle. But the more allies, the more opportunity for betrayal.”
“So,” Sokka takes up, sounding unduly cheery for the moment. They’re going to have to work on that. “Between my planning and Azula’s innate distrust of anyone and everyone, we have come up with multiple scenarios. If you’re in this room, it’s because you get to know all of them.”
Azula’s mouth curls into a smile. “ Almost all of them,” she corrects.
Sokka looks up at her with a grin. “Almost all of them,” he agrees, “minus the one in which we all betray Azula and she… probably beheads us.”
Azula shrugs. He’s not that far off.
“You will need to memorise the scenarios," Azula explains, "though not all situations will call for a change of action for you personally. And you will need to know how changes of plan will be communicated. We will begin with Scenario One, in which everything goes according to plan. The Dai Li--”
“Nope!” Sokka interrupts. Azula turns a frown on him. “Sorry, Your Fireyness, you don’t get to tell the stories.” Azula ignores what sounds like a half-laugh from her brother and widens her eyes at Sokka. “You’re great! Really looking forward to you being on the throne, buddy. But you are not good at telling stories.”
Azula glares. Sokka wilts a little, and she finally sighs, relenting. “Tell us about Scenario One then, Water Tribe.”
They stay in the tent for hours, protected by Toph’s feet ensuring that nobody is close enough to hear. They run through scenario after scenario, test their friends to ensure that they understand their roles in situations of ever-shifting sands, and take questions and pointers. Through this all, Azula is very aware that Chief Hakoda has said nothing. He watches with his arms crossed, nodding slightly from time to time.
“Nobody else gets to know all the ins and outs?” Aang asks, standing at the head of the board. He’s looking down at himself in the throne room with most of his friends. He’s frowning, but it looks like it’s thoughtful rather than worried.
“They will know what they need to,” Sokka responds. “So if something has to change for them, they can change. But only we know the extent of it, and because nobody else knows the whole picture... we know who betrayed us based on how things go wrong.” Sokka grins again.
Azula looks up at Chief Hakoda again, only to find that she’s being watched. She squares her shoulders.
“Okay,” Aang says. Azula is pleased; Aang may be a ridiculous child, but they need the Avatar for this to work. “I like it. It’s clever! And I like that I don’t have to kill the Fire Lord.”
“This would have been so much simpler with a little murder,” Azula grumbles.
Chief Hakoda finally clears his throat. The children look to him.
If he undermines her, it will be bad. Azula is aware that Chief Hakoda is the only adult in the room, and some of these children will take his word seriously simply based on that fact. She holds herself very still as Chief Hakoda prepares to speak.
“First,” Chief Hakoda says, “I would like to extend my gratitude for being allowed into this room. I do not take that lightly. Thank you.”
Azula slants a glance to Sokka, who is beaming, and then to Zuko, who’s doing the making-himself-small thing in the corner.
“I also want to say that this is a brilliant plan,” Chief Hakoda continues. “I know that you… joked? About not trusting anyone. But to build a plan in which you win even if you are betrayed, and weed out the betrayal while doing it - it speaks volumes to your preparation, and to your intelligence. Both of you.” Hakoda smiles at his son, and then at Azula. Azula holds herself back from rolling her eyes, and firmly extinguishes whatever strange, stray emotion tries to spark to life inside her.
“However,” Chief Hakoda continues, and Azula feels her face fall into a glare. This is where it’s going to get complicated, then. Chief Hakoda moves closer to the rock table again, looking down into the city. “I think I spotted a weakness in Scenario Five. Can we move it back to… before you get to the throne room?”
Ugh. Scenario Five. Azula hates Scenario Five.
“Yeah,” Sokka admits, moving the pieces back to position, “we know. We’re trying to figure it out. We have a couple of minutes - it’s really not long! - in which Ozai could potentially act. He could leave out of the back of the throne room, here.” Sokka points. “And he won’t get far, because the Dai Li have barricaded the routes to evacuation, but it would still throw a spanner in the works.”
“We need a distraction,” Hakoda says, staring at the board and tapping his index finger against his chin. “Preferably something that could get rid of some of these guards, too.”
“But Ozai’s fire comes back then, so it’s… got to be a less-flammable distraction. Azula’s stuck here,” Sokka points, “with me, and Zuko, and Toph. Toph definitely needs to stay, because we needed to ensure that she gets there. Katara would be perfect, but if she leaves her station…”
“Yeah, I see it,” Hakoda continues. Azula has been through this before, and frankly, if Sokka can’t fix this hole in the plan then Azula isn’t sure it’s fixable. They might need to go back to the drawing board.
Azula feels a presence approaching, and looks up to see that Zuko has unfolded himself from the corner. He’s watching the movements on the board with a troubled look on his face, as if he cares enough about their planning to be fully engaging in the annoying mess that is Scenario Five. And then Zuko looks up and meets Azula’s eyes, and he looks…
“I, uh,” he says, awkward and stilted, but it makes the Water Tribe pair stop talking and look up at him. Zuko takes a breath. “I know how you fix it.” He looks back toward Azula. “But you’re not going to like it.”
Sokka steps back to give Zuko room to approach the palace on the board, and he does.
Zuko picks up his piece from next to Azula’s, looks at it for a moment, and then places it squarely in the throne room.
It’s not happening, Azula insists, up until the moment that Zuko shows exactly how effective he can be as a distraction. Amidst the screaming panic to follow, Azula laughs and thinks: well, yes, this could work.
There is a brief period of time in which everyone is kind of angry at Zuko. Even Azula seems annoyed with his intrusion on her plans. Zuko is expecting them to ignore him, or perhaps to berate him - he did, after all, not think through the ramifications of his demonstration at all - but instead, after a few moments of annoyance, everyone seems to… shrug it off.
Well. Chief Hakoda does look at him and say quite firmly: “Zuko, please do not do that again.” But afterwards, it’s like it doesn’t matter.
Zuko spends the rest of the night waiting for the fallout. For someone to give him the cold shoulder, or for him to be told he should sleep outside, or for Sokka to look at him without smiling. It doesn’t happen.
Zuko doesn’t understand these people at all. But where not understanding them used to be its own source of worry, he now feels himself relaxing into it.
The days draw in and in toward the battle. Azula feels that she can map out time in everyone’s muscles, how everyone gets increasingly tense as the hours pass.
Azula stays very, very calm.
(And she trains very, very hard.)
The day before they leave for the battle, Zuko thinks about being on Azula’s ship. He thinks about how he accepted the inevitability of death on that journey. It had been almost calming to accept death, to know that his promise to Azula meant that he wouldn’t even fight it.
Zuko is less calm now that he wants to survive. He’s less calm, now that he cares about so many people. Now that losing even one of them would tear at his soul.
They’re all quiet that night.
War doesn’t come for them. They go to the war.
Look, guys. Let's be honest. It's been clear for chapters now that I have no control over the length of this story. I keep trying to move the plot forward, but these kids want to work through their issues instead of fighting in their war.
(Post-chapter summary: Willingly, Zuko heals and Azula plans. Less willingly, Azula heals and Zuko plans.)
We raise our voices,
And let our hearts take flight.
Get higher than those planes can fly -
Where the stars do not take sides.
Azula has always been lucky. Winds turn in her direction. Secrets are revealed to her in the nick of time. Spirits, she found her long dead brother when searching for an entirely different legend.
But there is a difference between luck and loyalty. Luck is important in the tides of war. But loyalty is more important.
Fortunately, the tides of war turn with Azula’s will. Her Dai Li block the exits on time; this means the few allies who knew the true timing for the beginning of the siege have not betrayed her. Scenario Two - following the Fire Lord into the bunker - would have been such a terrible bother.
They make their way through the city, and fight their way into the palace.
Sokka suffers a slice to the thigh that will seriously hurt once the adrenaline dies down. But Sokka isn’t going to bleed out from it, so he keeps fighting by her side. He’s a little slower, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Katara wants to stop to heal him, but there is no time for stupid ideas. The group splits, and Katara and Aang peel off, flocked by Mai and Ty Lee.
Azula is starting to feel that Scenario One will hold them all the way through, up until the realisation that Mai’s father has fed the Fire Lord information. Because Azula is distrusting and Sokka is a genius, Ukano has only been able to give Ozai very incomplete information. And it appears that Ukano is trying to play both sides, because he has given Ozai less information than he actually holds.
This is unexpected. Azula looks to Sokka in the brief moments between fights, and sees her own hesitant puzzlement mirrored back at her.
If Fire Lord Ozai knew that they were entering the palace, but had the timing of her Dai Li and the direction of entry wrong, that means...
Azula feels her heart drop. She wasn’t aware that her heart was capable of doing this until now. She turns wide eyes on her brother, and she’s hoping that he hasn’t realised, because there might be time to salvage this if--
But Zuko has already launched himself further up the hall, ready to fight his way, fire free, through the oncoming sweep of guards.
Azula watches him, and Zuko looks back for just a moment.
She should never have agreed to this. She should call for him to come back, but Azula knows he won’t listen, because there’s no other plan for this modified version of Scenario Five. But at this rate, Azula doesn’t know how long it will be before they manage to catch up.
She feels her lips going slightly numb.
“Look after the next Fire Lord,” Zuko calls back - not even to Azula, to Toph and Sokka. And then Zuko is gone, and if the idiot dies, those are going to be the last words Azula ever hears from him.
Azula is furious.
She also gets a hold on herself, because trouble is coming, and she needs to work her way through it to the throne room.
(Azula is the best liar that Toph has ever met. She regularly overstates, understates, and spins sarcastic diatribes, and her heart rate never suffers for it.
Being a good liar, however, doesn’t mean that Azula’s heart rate never picks up. Her heart doesn’t ever go wild like Zuko’s does, and it only picks up when Azula is fighting in a way that is natural for the physical response. But her heart does beat a little faster when Zuko is in danger.
Toph doesn’t really notice this until she’s standing in the planning tent with Azula and Sokka, having unveiled her incredible rock city creation. Toph mostly sticks around for the praise. She is the greatest earthbender in the world, and once they are outside of this war, she will beat King Bumi into dust to prove it!
But then Sokka questions whether Zuko should be a part of the palace team, and Azula’s heart starts knocking at her ribcage, and Toph thinks: huh. That’s a thing. And she doesn’t fight Azula on the Zuko front, because if Sparky is the thing that might throw Fire Hazard off her game, then, hey. Maybe Zuko should stay away from the main play.)
Toph feels Zuko disappear around the corner as the battle strategy starts to crumble a little around them. And she feels Azula’s heart react to this, even though it has been a calm and steady presence through the whole battle so far.
This might be bad.
When Zuko makes his way into the throne room, he takes down four guards before Ozai rises from the throne.
“You,” Ozai says, his voice deep and filled with spite.
The guards have backed up now, presumably to give the Fire Lord what he wants: an opportunity to finally slay his son.
The plan is a little sideways. Zuko doesn’t know exactly how long they have until the firebending is back, and he doesn’t know how long until either team gets here. He keeps his swords raised, ready for a blow, and responds: “Hello, Father.”
Fire Lord Ozai huffs. “You’re here to attempt to steal my crown, I presume?” he asks with an air of curiosity, as if Zuko is simply an interesting artefact to cast his eyes over before moving on.
Zuko’s hearing is excellent, so he knows that one of Ozai’s guards is creeping behind him. The guard will attempt to attack him from behind, lacking any honour at all. But Zuko is ready.
“I would be happy to steal the crown,” Zuko says. This is good: Ozai thinks that he’s stalling Zuko, waiting for the guard to strike or the firebending to come back. But Zuko’s only aim here is to keep Ozai in the room. This is a game that he doesn’t mind playing. He knows Ozai’s hand, but Ozai doesn’t know Zuko’s, which is just how Zuko likes it. “For my sister.”
Ozai laughs. “Really? You’re not even strong enough to attempt to usurp me for yourself?”
“I’m just an Earth Kingdom runaway,” Zuko responds. “What interest would I have in the crown?”
The guard goes to strike. Zuko ducks and rolls, comes up to a clash with another guard, and twists in a complicated manoeuvre that knocks both of them out.
The other guards hesitate. They haven’t been told to strike, and presumably at this point, they’re interested in seeing how this plays out. Zuko looks up at Ozai and raises his eyebrow.
“You don’t want to fight me yourself?” he goads. “You managed to beat me before. Admittedly, I was a child, and you had grandfather hold me down.”
Ozai’s eyes flash. “Why don’t you come here, if you are so brave?”
Just in front of the throne is the stretch of dark, beautiful stone on which Zuko was held down and burned as a child. Zuko puts this from his mind, because he’s going to need to be as calm as possible for what’s to come. And he’s certainly, suddenly, that they only have seconds.
“Azula is going to be the best Fire Lord that the world has ever seen,” Zuko states. “She is going to bring your war to an end and restore the honour of the Fire Nation. And it will be my privilege to serve beside her,” Zuko feels the sun coming back, and strikes the final blow, “as the Phoenix Prince.”
Agni is with them again.
Zuko’s father’s hands fill with flame. He braces himself, swords before him in a blocking gesture which is an attempt at provocation and not at defense.
Fire rushes towards him.
Zuko draws it in, makes it his, and accepts it.
(It’s kind of impossible for Katara to be angry with Zuko nowadays.
It came easily to her before, when she felt betrayed and hurt and anxious about how he’d almost died because of his own dishonesty. But the way Zuko responds to anger is with acceptance, as if he just… thinks he deserves it.
So when he almost gives her a heart attack, Katara reminds herself that shouting at him - well, more than she shouted on pure instinct - is not going to be helpful. Instead, she gathers water to her palms and insists on checking him over for injuries.
“I’m fine,” Zuko insists, eyeing her as if he’s waiting for the fallout.
Katara looks over to Dad, seeking adult intervention. But honestly, Dad kind of looks like he’s hoping for adult intervention, too. So Katara looks to Sokka instead, who is standing by Zuko’s side. Sokka has one hand on Zuko’s back, like he can’t bear the idea of not touching him, but he’s also staring wide-eyed into the distance in a way that tells Katara that he’s not going to be helpful.
Katara sighs. “We’re not actually doing that, are we? We can’t actually do that.”
Azula catches her eye from across the tent. Her mouth is still set in a smirk, as if she hasn’t quite settled from her previous burst of laughter. “Do you have a better idea, waterbender?”
Katara sighs again, returning her bending water to her pouch. It’s only one unlikely scenario, after all.)
A gong sounds. The firebending is back.
Katara looks to Mai, who’s poised with a knife between her index and middle finger, eyes sharp as she looks for movement around them. Katara thinks they’re safe now - or as safe as they can be, briefly, in the midst of battle - when she realises where the pieces have fallen in battle.
Mai looks up at her. Her mouth pulls downwards.
“Is this Scenario Five?” Katara asks, hoping she's wrong. Mai hesitates, and then nods. Oh no. “Zuko.”
Zuko is knocked to the floor by the force of the fire.
But he gathers and gathers and gathers, accepts it, makes it his own. Zuko is his skin and he is his sword and he is the flames. His heart beats jackalope-fast in his chest, because the truth is that Zuko hasn’t practiced using someone else’s fire to do this. But he gathers and he owns, and eventually his Father stops the stream of fire, presumably assuming he has won.
Zuko is the fire. The fire is Zuko.
Slowly, Zuko unfolds his arms, stretching out his swords. The flames lick at him, steady and controlled, and his. Zuko can feel the heat of the warmed air close to his skin, but the fire doesn’t burn him.
Zuko stands, ablaze.
The Phoenix Prince, he hears, but it feels far away, distant in the rush of fire at his ears.
Zuko looks toward his father. He can barely see through the fire that surrounds him, swirling and delighted, licking even at the eyelashes of his right eye.
Zuko lifts his chin, staring. Fire Lord Ozai stares back, paused with surprise.
The shock won’t last long. This scenario has gone slightly sideways, as far as Zuko understands; he doesn’t know how long he needs to keep Ozai in this room.
And it would be really useful to get rid of some of those guards.
When Ozai’s face draws down in anger, Zuko acts.
He lifts his arms, raising his swords slowly.
Zuko is the stone floor.
The fire spreads.
Zuko is the pillars.
The fire catches and climbs.
Zuko is each individual thread of the Fire Nation banners, each fiber of rope, Zuko is the ceiling, Zuko is the throne itself.
There’s screaming. The guards are escaping out the doors, and they won’t get far before they are caught in battle, but importantly: they are leaving. And Zuko is every dancing flame, so he knows when he catches on a trouser leg and when he melts a boot, and nobody is dying but nobody knows that will last.
Zuko is a circle around his father, trapping him before the throne. He feels as Fire Lord Ozai blocks flames, trying to create a path for himself, but Zuko’s fire laughs and stays fast to its place.
But Zuko knows that he cannot hold this for long. He is spread too thin, his flames are too many, he is starting to feel too warm.
(Where is Azula?)
“You are an abomination!” the Fire Lord spits, vicious. “And you will die in this room, boy!”
Loud roars the fire.
Ozai throws more toward him, and Zuko catches it, integrates it.
Zuko breathes deeply and evenly, and the air is starting to feel too hot.
(Where is Aang?)
Zuko cannot be the ceiling anymore. He pulls back his flames, hoping that Father will not notice that he has faltered.
Fire Lord Ozai is sweating and snarling.
Azula isn’t here. Aang isn’t here. Zuko is alone.
Some of the guards have remained. They are loyal and true, and Zuko does not blame them for it. But they must also realise by now that Zuko does not wish for anyone to be swallowed by his fire.
Father notices. He looks to his guards, looks around him, and says: “All of this power, and still, you are a coward.”
If neither Azula nor Aang show up soon, Zuko has two options: kill or be killed.
But the war ends with the Avatar, Zuko thinks. The Avatar restores balance. It isn’t Zuko’s destiny to kill his father, and if he does - who is to say that the war can end as it is supposed to?
Fire Lord Ozai’s hands flash white. Lightning.
What did Uncle Iroh say about redirecting lightning? He didn’t want them to practice, and Zuko doesn’t know that he can hold his fire and handle Ozai’s lightning at the same time. He’s not supposed to become the lightning, is he? Zuko’s self is so spread out that he can’t remember, but Uncle Iroh said...
Zuko’s arms tremble. Zuko cannot be the banners anymore. He pulls back from them, detaching himself from every stitch.
Fire Lord Ozai smiles.
(Aang has three firebending masters, and it’s so cool. Zuko is his original master, of course. Zuko is the one who got him to the point that he’s no longer afraid of his own fire. And Zuko is patient and kind, which Aang loves about him, but his firebending technique is pretty unique - and so far, Aang hasn’t been able to copy him.
So it’s amazing when Azula joins them and takes up a post as his teacher, even if she won’t admit that she’s his teacher. Azula is precise as a blade - and sharp as one too, sometimes - and Aang grows with her. It’s going to be amazing, once the war is over and the princess and prince take over the Fire Nation.
And then comes Uncle Iroh, who insists that Aang calls him Uncle Iroh. Uncle Iroh has been a master for decades, and has met actual dragons, and as far as Aang can tell, he knows everything there is to know about firebending. And he gives amazing hugs. Aang loves Zuko and Azula - like honestly, truly loves them - but neither of them seem to appreciate physical contact unless it is purposefully telegraphed and has an obvious intention. They’re both getting better at it, but Aang is pretty sure that he isn’t getting a hug from either of them anytime soon.
Plus, Uncle Iroh tells stories! And teaches them forms so dangerous that they can’t even practice them!
“If you let the energy in your own body flow,” Uncle Iroh explains, repeating the motion, “the lightning will follow it. You must create a pathway from your fingertips up your arm to the shoulder, then down into the stomach.” He continues to explain about the chi, and Aang thinks that he has the technique.
Azula apparently disagrees, because she corrects his form.
“Oh, I think I get it,” Zuko says, copying Uncle Iroh’s motion. “When I bend with my swords, it’s like… it’s like my swords are a part of me, and the fire is a part of me, so they work together. So redirecting lightning is making the lightning part of you too, right? Taking control of it?”
Uncle Iroh pauses, and then looks at Zuko with a very serious expression. Aang backs off a little, still practicing. Azula sighs, impatient, and corrects Aang’s form again. He beams at her.
“No,” Uncle Iroh says. “Nephew, this form is about letting the lightning go through you. You must never attempt to take control of someone else’s lightning. You absorb it, but only allow it to follow a particular path.”
Zuko is frowning. “But if you absorb and control its path, how is that different to making it part of you?”
Uncle Iroh continues to explain, and Azula eventually seems to approve of Aang’s form. Eventually, Uncle Iroh calls for a break for tea - which Aang’s other teachers never do - and Aang follows him happily.)
Aang finally reaches the throne room. Mai and Ty Lee are dealing with the guards, and Aang and Katara slip by with the aid of an ice wall and a bit of flying.
When they get inside, everything is on fire. Aang coughs and tries to sweep some of it away, and it’s… like the fire hesitates, unsure of if it should let Aang through, before it relents.
Fire Lord Ozai’s hands are crackling, and then lightning strikes.
Azula bursts into the throne room in time to see it happen.
The fire draws back in the moment before lightning strikes, only sparse flames left licking at the floor, and Zuko is visible just for a moment. His eyes flash gold, and Azula strikes out at Father, but it’s too late.
Lightning strikes. Zuko backs up and falls into the correct form, and Azula’s heart is in her throat, and Azula’s blue flames fly to Father, and--
The lightning stops, Father is forced to block Azula’s flames--
The lightning flashes back out from Zuko, he has redirected it, thank Agni, Azula can breathe.
And Zuko goes down, hard.
For a moment, time freezes still.
She knew that he would go down in this throne room. Nobody survives three attempts on their life in one cursed room, nobody, let alone her unlucky brother. She should never have allowed this to happen. This is on Azula. Azula let Zuko be taken away from her that first time, knew it was going to happen and did nothing but mock him for it. Azula accepted that he must be dead without any true evidence, and left Zuko to rot in the Earth Kingdom. Azula led Zuko to his death a second time, dragged him in chains to kneel before the father who had already attempted to murder him. And Zuko has followed her here, too, to finally die in a blaze of fire and lightning at the hand of Ozai.
Azula thinks that she screams.
She finds herself on the floor, hands on Zuko’s chest. She finds herself here, doesn’t remember moving, has no memory of abandoning her own battle.
“He’s alive,” Katara insists, her voice low and steady. “Azula, he’s alive. I have him. There isn’t anything you can do for him, you need to go.”
Azula snarls. Something inside her has come loose, and if Katara thinks that she is leaving her brother to die alone again, then she is utterly and completely mistaken.
Another pair of knees hit the floor beside her.
Azula looks up. It’s Sokka, blood dripping down his face from a blow he’s taken to the head. His eyes are wide and haunted as he stares at Zuko.
“He’s alive,” Katara insists again, and Sokka all but sobs. “Azula. You have to go back to fight.”
Katara gathers water to her hands. A guard rushes behind her, and Sokka strikes out to protect them.
“Azula,” Sokka says, voice sharp. “I’ll guard them. Katara will heal him. You need to help Aang and Toph.”
Zuko won’t die alone, Azula insists. He won’t die alone.
Zuko’s eyes flutter open, and he looks first to Katara’s healing water and then up to Azula. He coughs, shakes his head, and then takes in the room.
“What’s happening?” he asks.
“You redirected lightning,” Katara snaps, pushing his shoulders back when he tries to sit up. “You didn’t get all of it, I think. You’re going to be okay. Tell Azula to go back to the battle!”
Zuko coughs again, and then looks up at Azula with a hint of a smile. There’s blood on his lips. “Azula,” he says, “don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing?”
Zuko won’t die alone. Because he isn’t dying today.
Azula stands and calls fire to her hands.
(Sokka can’t come up with a better alternative for Scenario Five. He continues to spend hours on it, even more feverishly after Zuko’s very bad idea, but Zuko really is the best option. If they can shave off even a minute of the fighting on the way there, they’ll get there just after the firebending comes back, and then Zuko can stay not-on-fire. That seems to be their best shot.
On the night before the battle, Sokka and Azula look over each scenario again. Azula is very calm, which honestly makes Sokka feel less calm.
They run through the scenarios like clockwork. At this point, Sokka thinks that he and Azula might be reciting these plans in their sleep - so it’s a good thing they sleep in a tent with the people they trust most in the world.
Eventually, it becomes time to retire. Azula looks up at Sokka, and her eyes narrow.
“There’s one scenario we haven’t planned for,” she admits.
Sokka looks back to the rock city. “There is?”
“Yes.” Azula stands, brushes her hands down her clothing, and then looks Sokka square in the eyes. “What happens if we lose.”
Up until this moment, Azula has not entertained the notion of losing. Sokka stares up at her, surprised by this turn. “Well. I mean, I guess…”
“Yes,” Azula interrupts. “We almost certainly die.”
The air hangs heavy between them.
“In which case,” Azula continues, “I wish to say one thing. You will not repeat this.”
Sokka nods. “Yeah, okay,” he agrees, feeling off-balance.
Azula falls into a shallow bow, making the sign of the flame.
“It has been an honour working with you,” she says. Her voice is firm and steady, as are her hands. She rises again, the perfect picture of the future Fire Lord. And then half of her mouth curls into a smile, and she adds: “And being your friend.”
Sokka releases the breath he didn’t know he was holding, and then stands. “Okay, I’m hugging you now,” he says, and then gathers Azula in his arms. She goes stiff for a moment, because Azula barely knows how to be a person, but then she relaxes.
When Sokka pulls back, he makes sure to look her in the eyes and say: “But we’re not going to lose.”
When they get back to the tent, everyone is gathered in what is almost but not quite a pile. Sokka slides in next to Zuko, and Zuko doesn’t even flinch when he fits an arm around him anymore. Instead, Zuko just turns to smile at him, tense and nervous, and so painfully beautiful. Sokka uses the moment to lean in and rub noses with him.
It startles a half-laugh from Zuko, who pulls back and asks: “What was that?”
Sokka explains, because it’s a distraction, and Zuko leans into his side. Sokka looks around at all of their friends, each finding their own distraction from the tension building in the air, and he smiles.
They’re going to be okay. He knows it.)
Sokka stands guard over Zuko and Katara, sword raised.
The guards are mostly down, and Mai and Ty Lee are taking care of the rest. Toph is blocking a swarm from entering the room. Azula is approaching her father, determined and furious, hands brimming with blue.
Zuko is down, but he’s talking - that has to mean that he’s okay. Sokka can’t entertain the thought that he isn’t okay.
Aang and Azula fight together, fast and forceful.
The Fire Lord pushes back and back, and there is lightning again.
Sokka blinks and waits for the light to clear.
(When Azula and Zuko are children, Azula pushes Zuko off a roof near the hanging gardens. It goes like this:
Zuzu has been paying Azula inadequate attention for days. He’s starting sword lessons, because his firebending is pathetic and he’s never going to catch up with Azula. But where Zuzu should find this shameful and embarrassing, he’s instead having fun playing with his stupid swords.
So Azula lures him up to the rooftops where they like to climb. Azula is faster, obviously, and she stretches her arms out in the sunshine. Zuzu joins her, and when Azula points out that she won, he crosses his arms and says that it wasn’t a race.
Zuzu doesn’t even look put out about it. Suddenly furious, Azula pushes him.
Zuzu falls off the roof, and Azula goes to laugh, but then she hears the thump as he hits the ground. He cries out loudly upon landing, and then falls abruptly silent. Azula steps to peer over the edge, checking to see if he’s still alive, but she overshoots in her haste and finds herself overbalancing.
Azula turns her fall into a jump, and lands hard on her feet.
“Are you okay?” Zuzu asks, and Azula looks over at him. He’s lying on the ground, paler than Azula has ever seen him. He looks like a ghost. And oh, gross, his wrist is twisted all wrong. Tears are streaming down his face, but he hasn’t made a sound. “Azula! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, dummy,” she replies, and that’s when the adults arrive.
Azula tries to follow when Zuzu is whisked off, but Mother stands in her way. And Azula has seen Mother upset before, but now she looks at Azula with more than a little horror.
“What did you do? ” Mother asks, accusatory. Azula glowers, because it’s hardly her fault that Zuzu has bad enough balance that one little shove made him fall off the roof. But then Mother adds: “Do you not care at all? Sometimes, Azula, I think that you just don’t have a heart.”
And with that, Mother turns and rushes after her favourite child.
Azula waits there for a long time, staring.)
Azula takes her Father’s lightning, draws it from her fingertips and through her stomach, never touching her heart.
She flings it back, and the Fire Lord blocks it.
But it takes all of his concentration to block her lightning, and the Avatar attacks.
When Father is bound at her feet, Azula seriously considers killing him. It would be easy, and it would calm the raging storm inside her. It would be revenge. It would be justice.
But Azula gave her word to Aang, so she relents.
“The war is over,” she declares.
The war is over.
Zuko is flocked by the Southern Water Tribe. Katara only leaves him for brief breaks, usually either to collect her strength or to heal someone else. Sokka slipped under the covers with him in the first hour of his forced bed-rest, and has been tucked up against him ever since. Hakoda has apparently taken up position as their guard.
Zuko slips in and out of consciousness for what feels like hours, before Azula finally joins him.
“I think,” she says, sitting down on the edge of the bed, “that being the Fire Lord is going to be very busy.”
Zuko laughs at that, and it hurts a little.
“Don’t laugh,” Katara insists.
“How is he doing?” Azula asks, and Zuko glares.
“He’s right here,” he reminds Azula. “I’m doing fine.”
Katara smiles at him, exhaustion pulling at her features, and then looks to Azula. “He’ll be fine,” she insists. “I think I can work on him once every hour or so now, and he’ll be back to normal by tomorrow, maybe the next day. Do you have anything that needs healing?”
“Barely bruised,” Azula insists. Zuko knows it isn’t quite true - she’s favouring her left side - but he’ll leave Katara to wheedle the information from her later. “Naturally, Zuzu had to be dramatic.”
Sokka slips his arms around Zuko’s middle, and Zuko curls into him. Sleep would be nice.
“When’s the coronation?” Zuko makes himself ask.
Azula hesitates. “We can wait until you’re healed,” she says. “It will give us time to clear up the palace, anyway. Battles are so messy.”
Aang joins them then, looking just as harried as Azula, and immediately plants himself face-down on Zuko’s bed. “Okay,” Zuko accepts, and reaches over to pat the Avatar’s head.
“How is post-battle just as tiring as actual battle?” Aang asks into the pillow.
Toph isn’t far behind him, and someone must have forced her to bathe, because she was coated in a thick layer of dust last he saw her. Mai and Ty Lee come to take Azula away, but instead, somehow everyone ends up on Zuko’s bed.
“Let’s just sleep for a while,” Katara suggests. “Sleep is good for healing.”
“Mm hm,” the new Fire Lord responds, and that’s the last thing Zuko knows for a while.
Fire Lord Azula smiles politely, and tries to figure out how to extricate herself from this incredibly boring conversation. Luckily, Sokka apparently knows what this face means, because he sweeps in as if he has something important to tell her. When Councilman Boring has left, he says: “Maybe it’s time to slow down on the parties.”
“I wish,” Azula replies. “But we’ll be gearing up for another week of them as of tomorrow. On that note, where is my dear brother?”
Azula is trying to get used to the fact that Zuko isn’t always in grabbing distance nowadays. It’s a process.
“I’m going to give you three guesses as to what he’s found,” Sokka says, smiling over Azula’s shoulder.
Azula turns. Completely on form, Zuko is cradling what appears to be a rather new infant against his chest. His face is lit up, and the smile on his face is easier than it tends to be.
“Wow,” Azula drawls. “How long until he starts giving you doe-eyes about this?”
Sokka goes red. “Azula,” he says, low and warning. Azula rolls her eyes. Yes, yes, they’re too young, whatever. As if Sokka hasn’t already had a whole conversation with Katara about when would be an appropriate time to talk about the possibility of maybe proposing. As if Katara wouldn’t have immediately told her this.
Zuko spots them and heads over, apparently having just stolen this very small child. Azula gives him an unimpressed look.
“Fire Lord,” Zuko greets. He’s walking tall, now. You would never guess that he’d been shot full of lightning less than a month ago. “Do we really have to do this again tomorrow night?”
“Of course not, Zuzu,” Azula responds. “It’s going to be much worse tomorrow night.”
The parties have slowly calmed down since Azula’s ascension to the throne. They now only consist of the most important figures in the Fire Nation. And anyone Azula sees fit to invite, of course.
Tomorrow is Zuko’s coronation as Crown Prince. He’s still awkward about it, because Zuzu would rather run around like a feral street child than wear a crown, but it’s better for the nation this way. Zuko knows it, and he’s willing to accept it for the greater good.
Tomorrow’s party will be much worse. It will be the celebration of a new era, sure, but it will also be the celebration of the rebirth of the Phoenix Prince.
Azula glances around, checking on her friends. Ty Lee is clinging to Mai’s arm, beaming at the Avatar, who’s apparently partaking in some kind of convoluted, high-energy storytelling. Whatever it is has Katara planting her face into her own palm and Toph snorting with laughter.
“Go see your sister,” Azula suggests to Sokka. “I’m going to take my brother for a stroll.”
“Oh, maybe you should take Faiza,” Zuko suggests, lifting the quiet bundle of joy from his chest. “Isn’t she adorable? She’s the daughter of… um.”
Zuko continues to arrange the infant against Sokka’s chest as if he didn’t just trail off. Sokka looks a little lost, but he accepts the load with careful hands, and then Zuko stares at Sokka holding a baby with big, stupid eyes, like it’s the best thing he’s ever seen.
“Zuko, did you forget the names of the parents of the baby you stole?” Azula asks, amused. “The parents who are important enough to attend this palace function?”
Zuko glances at her, a little guilty. “I guess,” he admits, and then he looks back at Sokka and Faiza.
“Completely hopeless,” Azula mutters, and she’s not even sure if she’s referring to Zuzu’s behaviour in the royal court or the way that the boys are looking at one another with stars in their eyes. She nudges Zuko with her elbow and nods to the doors, and Zuko accepts a brief kiss from Sokka before walking away.
(Azula has only just managed to push that change of law through, because it proved trickier than expected, even for a Fire Lord. Where she would normally roll her eyes at the display of affection, right now Azula is pleased that those who didn’t support the change have to see it and can’t do anything about it.)
Azula and Zuko leave the noise of the party behind them and walk down the hallway toward the royal paintings.
Azula is allowing the royal portraits of Sozin, Azulon, and Ozai to remain here. They are, after all, her predecessors. But the paintings glorifying the war have been taken from this spot to a room close to the library, where they will be viewed as a part of historical context, and not a point of pride.
The only painting remaining here of Father, aside from his royal portrait, is of their family united.
Azula remembers this being painted. She was eight at the time, and Zuko was ten. Azula had stayed very still, the perfect child, while Zuko tried desperately not to fidget.
Azula also remembers her eyes catching on this painting through the years, because it was the only public portrait of her dead brother. She remembers growing older than Zuko was in the painting, and telling herself that she felt nothing about it.
“Azula?” Zuko asks. Azula looks over to him, but Zuko’s eyes are still on the painting. He probably hasn’t spent as much time looking at it as she has. “What are we doing here?”
Azula turns her head forward again, looking to the two of them as children. Zuko’s face is whole in the painting, and he looks eerily similar to Azula.
They aren’t children anymore.
“That night,” Azula says, her voice quiet enough that it won’t carry if they’re followed, “did you fight back?”
“Which night?” Zuko asks.
Azula pauses. “The night you were to die.”
Zuko hesitates, and when Azula looks toward him, he’s frowning. “I don’t remember much of it,” Zuko admits. “I don’t know if that’s because of the injury, or if I just… don’t want to. But I remember being told to kneel. I didn’t fight then.”
“You didn’t know what was happening,” Azula extrapolates.
“Yes,” Zuko agrees.
“And when you did?” Azula asks.
Zuko looks over at her. “Of course I fought back,” he says. “Grandfather had to hold me down. He burned me too, in the end - my shoulders and arms - but those healed. But I was a child, I wasn’t going to be able to escape.”
Something in Azula relaxes. She looks up at her brother, and then nods once, decisively.
“Why?” Zuko asks. “What does it matter?”
Azula glances at the painting again. “I wondered,” she says, looking at herself in a more innocent time. “I remember hoping that you fought to the end.”
When Azula looks back to Zuko, he’s still wearing a puzzled expression. Instead of clarifying, Azula reaches to her belt and pulls off the sheath for the pearl-handled dagger. She slides the blade out, and holds it up so that Zuko can see it.
“Never give up without a fight,” Zuko reads, and smiles a little.
Azula smiles, too. “This was what convinced me you were really dead,” she explains. “I knew you would never leave it behind. So I hoped that you didn’t give up without a fight.”
Zuko hums, and Azula lowers the blade. She slides it back into its sheath, and then holds it out.
“It’s yours,” Azula states. “I suppose I didn’t know, but I was just holding it on for you until you came home.”
Zuko looks at her for a long moment, and then takes the dagger. “Thank you,” he says, awkward and rough, and places the dagger in a pocket of his robe. And then he moves closer to her, and to Azula’s horror, she realises that he looks like he might cry. “I’m happy to be home.”
Zuko reaches out, and it’s so unlike Zuko to do that Azula barely realises what’s happening until he’s embracing her.
Azula hesitates, and then folds her arms around him, and she breathes very deeply.
When Azula is fourteen, she discovers that she was never an only child.
When Azula is fourteen, she plucks the crown from her Father’s head and stops a century-old war.
When Azula is fourteen, she welcomes her brother home.
Whew. Guys! This has been a blast - thank you for coming on this journey with me.
And to those of you who guessed that Zuko becomes an Angry Burning Bush: very nicely extrapolated, and your comments made me laugh a lot!