None of the crew speak a word as they make dock. No one has dared to. It is many hours before Agni will bless the skies again, and the Prince still waits. He moved, when no one was looking, to just below the crow’s nest, quietly entangled in the rigging and staring at the moon. The side of his face glows slightly, a light in the darkness for the firebenders that cannot rest, feeling as though the sun has just risen and told them to rise with it. The handprint on his back and the rough scale patterns have faded to white scar tissue and blank skin.
No one can deny what they saw, however. Fire burning in gnarled swoops from his spine, the slitted snake pupil of a cold-blooded creature surrounded by pitted, burnt flesh and the perpetually glowing snarls extending from the impact crater of where fire took part of him away. The way his fire followed him loyally and without question.
No one says anything, but they speak volumes with eyes met across the deck, with claps on the shoulder and back. Some of the new recruits seem to be nervous. They haven’t had to deal with a squad of earthbenders trying to kill them. All they think is that they are caught in the middle of a Spirit-tale and they would rather not stay where they could die.
The worst kept secret: they could die everywhere.
Iroh’s men go through their duties and retire quietly to pray to all that they hold high. They have known death and have seen Koh in the corner of their eye seconds before their brethren died. This new creature that came from inside their General’s nephew is less likely to take them to the grave than the warfront is.
By the time the last of their moorings are tied, they have all come to a quiet consensus: The ship is the safer option. It is too late to back out now.
Somewhere between the countless stares and the sky bruising lightly at the edges in preparation for the slow march of the sun, Zuko disappears from the rigging, and from the deck entirely.
He lives in his skin now. It’s a stupid thing to say - when has he ever not? - but this time it is different. He moves through his skin and muscle and bone, simply moves and enjoys the thrill of it. He will never be immobile again, forced to wait inside his own head for absolution. He moves, and when he presses up close enough to the surface, little cracks form into many-sided, interlocking shapes with a thousand colored fires burning inside. It roots itself double, once in the center of the handprint, and once in his left eye, surrounded by scarred flesh.
He diffused through his own body naturally while he danced with the dragon made of fire coiled in the thumb of the handprint, pressing up against both scars and causing the cracks. Afterward, as Tui called him to look and see, he put everything up to second-rooted place and watched her travel across the sky, with the stars she shares with her brother.
Fire is life. Fire comes from within, even the flames already made in the world must be brought to heel by placing your own within. He is fire. He is life. He has always been fire, but now he truly is free, and he has control over another placed in the smooth divots in his skin his mother gave him so many years ago. Two fires in one being. Two lives, for all he has lost.
Then Tui guides him to look, to see, and there is a flash of white beneath the tide. It is second nature, to leave his heights and enter into the water with barely a sound, something hunting with him for lifeless prey.
He can hear the ocean, feel Tui’s husband pushing him out of his waters. He has a purpose, however, and he will not be denied. By the shore, there is a torn cloth- the moon had lit it up beneath the waves, the moon herself giving him a small miracle as though to see what he will do with it.
The current flows over him, pressing down onto him and searching, salt stinging the fresh scar. Nothing truly good in life came without a small bit of pain. Things must be bled for before they truly have worth.
Neither he nor the ocean speak. Only a wordless test of mettle, a pressing upon both of them to resist. The ocean to push him back, and he to continue forward, an urge to ask for forgiveness and not permission as the both of them trespass.
He wraps his hand around the fabric, pinned between two rocks, and pulls. It comes loose easily to his hands, despite its resistance of the ocean currents. He kicks back to the surface, letting the ocean push him away from its hidden depths.
He unfolds the cloth carefully, dripping salt and seawater back into the waves. It is beautiful, he supposes. Red and green designs spiking through in tandem while blue and orange swirl across the white fabric. It’s intricate, edges torn off and thinned by the time spent in the elements and being pulled from the rocks. He wraps it around his wrist and climbs the side of his ship again, quietly returning to another spot on the rigging.
He is fire. One moment, he drips seawater onto the deck, the next both he and the cloth are completely dry.
It ties neatly around his left side, thin fabric barely hiding anything from his sight, with the wild embroidery distracting outside sight of his eye. He can keep the cracks from glowing from within, but his pupil he cannot hide. He can almost see through his left side, anyway, from fire alone. From cold and heat and life and breath.
Satisfied, he jumps down to the deck, skirting behind the crewmember tying and untying a few ropes compulsively. Something about sneaking around makes a part of him very pleased, that he has enough silence and skill to keep others from finding him. He doesn’t like hiding, but he likes to move in silence and live on edges. He likes to hunt, even if he has no desire to go for the throat.
The plateau looms above, and he does not hesitate as he jumps over the side of the ship again, feet soundless against the wood of the dock.
They may follow if they wish, but he must see this through first.
There is only one Spirit of Air, and her name is Fēng. She is the mother of the sky, and stitches gossamer clouds into existence to clothe the spirits of her children in death. She watches over all of her people with no expectations but that they feel her against them and give their wonder at the heavens as tribute. In return, she guides them and guards them from vicious spirits.
She loves all of her children, even the ones that cannot wield her, though many of her children can. All of her young are born in the west and the east, eager to learn, eager to wonder. She loves them, whether or not they can hear her when she calls them.
For those that can speak to her and guide her to their wills, she is split into two aspects.
Zūnshǒu, the one who obeys, the air that obligingly moves around the mountain and gently presses against all, the aspect of tame currents and cold breezes on summer days, ever present to listen to the world and give it what it requires. Those followers live in the South, learning to let the world shape them as the mountains do the wind.
Lì, the one who forces, the wind that shakes the trees and drives them to submit their autumn leaves, the aspect of harsh cyclones and squalls upon the sea, lurking in the background to force the hand of the world and make it submit. Those followers reside in the North, learning from the biting cold winter air to make what they require with their will alone.
For all, regardless of those who carry her blessing, regardless of whose children they are, Fēng has a final aspect.
Tíngzhǐ, the one who ceases, the void from which there is no escape and the stalling of breath, the aspect of vacuums sucking air from lungs and the long drop of empty air between peaks and the ground, silently watching and silently destroying. All are followers of Tíngzhǐ, whether they know it or not, so long as they are mortal. All will die, and all will cease. For the ones who bend the air, they will find their final sacrifice to their mother where they were born, in the West and in the East, with their bones laid to rest in her currents and the long drop to the ground.
Fēng is the mother of three faces and four winds, and she guards her children jealously.
The chasm is wide, and it is a long drop to oblivion.
Agni presses down from above as Zuko stares across the deep crevice running straight through the plateau, sunlight blazing across rocks and swirling the air in currents of heat. There are grasses, sprouts desperately poking out from beneath a layer of stubborn black sticking to the dirt and rocks.
Looking down, it is hard to quantify the knowledge that runs through him at the smell of death on the air. He knows it, he knows it well and intimately in the same way he knows it is a familiar stranger, yet to be discovered. He knows it in concept, only now meeting it in its full glory.
Come here, something says on the wind, tugging on him closer, tell us what you have done, little one. Tell us why you think you are worthy.
He steps forward, to the very edge, rock crumbling beneath his toes and spiraling downward to annihilation. The sun is warm against his skin, and he presses forward.
The Avatar is not here, nor would he expect them to be. He has no proof that the Avatar is dead but it is the theory that makes the most sense. The Air Nomads were killed off long ago, and yet no one from the Water Tribes, no one from the Earth Kingdom, and no one from the Fire Nation, has stepped forward to end the war with the spirit of the world ensconced in their chest, four elements wielded by hands too selfish to decide who dies, and the hundred past lives staring down the balance as they break it.
The war has survived this long, this unbalanced conflict, and if the Avatar is alive it would not. It could not. He must believe that, or else he will rend the sky from its moorings.
It burns that he will likely never get to see his homeland ever again. It matters little if the throne changes hands, it does not matter what happens now. Zuko made a deal with the Firelord, before Agni, before the witness of the Fire Sages.
Zuko made a deal, looked his father in the eye and submitted and allowed him to pass judgment. To break the deal is unthinkable, is impossible. He must bring the Avatar to his father if he wants to return.
So it is simple: he will not.
Never in his life will he be allowed to return home, for as long as there is breath within him to bend and to live by. If the Avatar is dead, so are his chances for return, so is the memory of the Caldera, in all of its burning beauty.
If the Avatar is alive?
The Avatar has a lot to answer for.
He watches over the edge of the chasm again, and wonders how many things died at this summit, in this ravine, in the city below his feet. How many lives were lost that spun air between their fingertips and forced it forward to make tempests and horrors. How many soldiers died with the red light of a comet far above and their fire burning them alive, stoked by the breeze. How many bodies are under his feet in this instant.
Come here, the wind says, tell me your troubles, child. Let the tempest flay them away from you.
What will happen if he goes?
He has nothing to lose, not really. He understands that now. The wind is cold as it whips against his face, ruffling the white fabric tied to him, hiding him, keeping him safe from something in him, drying his tears before they can form with brusque impatience.
He has nothing to lose, because he has lost his home and he will never get it back again.
He has nothing to lose but his faith.
Come here, say the triple aspects of the wind, says the spirit who is all, give us something in sacrifice and I will give you clarity in return.
He adds another dead thing to the count, as he takes in a deep breath and lets out all of the broken shards his wondering has swept up. His hope hardly remains anymore, there is no point for it. There is nothing to truly hope for, only a drive in his very core to find every piece of the handprint on his spine, to fulfill one curse while the other marks his face in shame of what he will never have.
He brings together the last of his hope and tosses it off the cliff, into the howling wind with the dirt crumbling under his toes.
He has nothing to lose.
Come here, says Zūnshǒu and Lì and Tíngzhǐ, says Fēng, let me show you.
He reaches out.
The sky is scarlet, is a shade off of blood, is the color of smashed berries and slit throats. It is passion in the form of waged war, the heavens painted in the massacre the stones live by.
There is an eerie silence for a long moment, the clouds and zephyr gone motionless and still, the world itself paused to show the extent of the horror. Ash halted in the middle of falling, burning leaves in a frozen spiral, those on top of the plateau caught mid-motion with limbs flying, fire in swirls and wind in tangible waves cutting through the raining ash. Below, where the chasm drops, there is a hellish glow, licks of red and orange crawling against the dirt and stone. Smoke stuck mid-rise.
He moves, steps along the edge of the chasm and closer to where two benders are locked in combat. The firebender has a leg extended, flames blooming and stretching out toward the airbender, whose arms are extended forward in a shove, leg braced behind him with air making a block and blowing away the ash in a thick wall.
There are similarities, in the surety of their stances, in the way their movements suggest a corralling of their element before a final, forceful release. In the orange accents of their clothing, in the certainty with which they fight.
Similarities in the way their terror shadows their faces, lit up by flames and red skies.
There are others, a gathering of soldiers on the other side of the chasm facing off against a loose circle of airbenders with staffs cutting through their element. A lone female airbender with a long braid and blue tattoos against two firebenders, not even looking at them, but with eyes shut and hands raised in prayer.
A child, no older than four, clad in yellow and orange, limbs disorderly as she runs in the way small children do, in flails and eagerness. It is tainted with horrible fear - the type of naive fear only children can truly feel, the kind that makes monsters under beds come to life and steal your face as you scream. There is a firebender in a helmet behind her, hands curled into tigers and flames blossoming from her knuckles.
There are others, running, desperately, carrying bundles and bearing no tattoos, bending no air, only trying to escape. Fire spins towards them as well, small gatherings and smatterings of Fire Nation steel decimating the frozen skies with an uncontained blaze.
Time begins its slow march forward, creeping indelicately as ash begins to descend at a crawl, as fire spread through the air like dust from a dropped book, in curls and licks.
The flames start to break through the block of air the Nomad had pushed desperately in a last attempt to save himself. Through the whirl of staffs cutting through the blackened and bloody sky. Through the empty air of a woman whose last blessings are toward the heavens. Through the burnt grasses lining the cliffside, toward a child’s back. Through the heavens themselves.
Zuko makes himself watch as it consumes them, forces his eyes to see and not look away, to know what happened. It would be so easy to look away as an atrocity is committed
but he denies himself that courtesy.
He is Agni’s child, flames against him give vibrant scars and awaken him in chrysalis. Those in Nomad colors are not Agni’s blessed. They burn, and they die. They burn and die and something bigger than anything they have ever known screams for their loss.
If he cannot watch this travesty occur then he does not deserve to wear the colors that spread flame and death. He does not deserve to carry on the legacy of those who destroyed the children of the wind.
If he cannot watch, he deserves the same punishment as the Nomads, scorched and damned and dead on the ground.
If he cannot watch, he will never understand. He must watch. He must know.
(If it can be called that, if it is anything more than massacre)
Fire tearing from below, from all sides, the sky drenched in spilt blood and black destruction, in the color of burnt, lifeless skin. Air fighting back as best as it can and failing, again and again, more corpses the color of autumn leaves drifting to the ground with heavy thumps and agonized screams.
That is the point, isn’t it? They aren’t even fighting, truly, just desperately pushing and defending and running and-
And everyone on the ridge that wore yellow and orange and held the sky in their palms are corpses. All that remains is red, red, red, from the crevice below, from the sky above, in uniforms of the frightened young soldiers of the Nation that has just commited genocide.
Red, like the scar on his face, like the blood seeping from burnt autumn people.
(show me, he begs as blood pools beneath where his footprints should be and spills over the edge of the ravine as morbid rain, show me what i was called for, show me every sin)
Come here, the wind whispers in dirge, the emptiness will not hurt you.
His eyes follow blood sliding across dirt, slipping beneath where he waits and watches and dripping over in rounded, fat drops.
His eyes follow-
(It’s a sign)
drip drip drip drip
(Did you hear?)
and then he follows.
Iroh and the crewmembers he’d thrown together quickly before making their way onto the island make the summit.
Grasses shoot up messily from ash-black dirt, fresh and green with veins of scarlet. Yellow and orange flowers dot the ground in inelegant clusters, with small rivers of red spilling away in starbursts. The sun beats down without mercy. The sky is a strikingly vibrant shade of blue.
In the distance, there is the form of his nephew, kneeling by the edge of the ravine, head bowed to display a hint of brightly patterned cloth and a fuzz of black on the back of his head. Iroh hasn’t talked to him yet, about the scorched phoenix tail, about whatever is within his nephew that presses scales and fire to his skin, about his pain. He hasn’t talked, and now he is brought to silent contemplation at his nephew’s kneeling form, the Agni Kai ring glinting in the light.
Next to Zuko, there is a pile of bones, a tall pyramid, a massive monument. It would have taken ages to bring up and place together, to find every element and bring them all to bear. Some bones are bleached, some cracked and yellowed, some brown and black with dirt, and they are all stacked carefully, almost artfully.
Bones picked clean by carrion and the elements, placed together into something near-worshipful.
The path across the field is long, and Iroh takes it at a slow, unhurried pace. His nephew is a spirit now, and the line between spirit and animal is thin. A startled animal will attack if frightened.
The crew behind follow at the same cautious pace, remaining behind Iroh at all times. It’s both a glowing appraisal of his skill set and an interesting show of slight tyranny by the crew. Good. Iroh likes his men with little respect for an unearned crown.
The grass rustles against his legs, shys away from him, the wind carving a path in a swirl of red leaves and air. It is gentle, infinitely so, as it clears a path through the grasses so his feet will not tread over any of the fresh-smelling sprouts. It gives no such courtesy to him, pushing harshly against his front, pulling back at his clothing, and loosening his hair, still held in the topknot. Obligingly, Iroh removes the golden fabric band and places it in the pouch at his side, letting his hair fall free.
The wind hates the symbols, tries to pluck them from his clothing and rip them from his head, but it can do nothing. Iroh is a child of Agni, a piece of his fire, and wildfires only grow with wind. Iroh presses on.
Zuko doesn’t look up as they approach, head remaining bowed and back straight. His hands are folded in front of him, held in his lap over a glint of white.
Agni beats down upon them all.
Zuko does not move, does not shift, not when Iroh stops a shadow’s length from him, not when the crew behind follow the same, not when the wind shoves, and they all stumble as Zuko remains frozen and still.
Iroh has met many spirits in search for answers, for meaning. He has seen Koh in the shadows of marching feet, ready to claim all that fall. He has stared dragons down and felt them searching for meaning. He has seen the Painted Lady weaving health from sickness.
None have ever quite been like his nephew.
That is the most terrifying thing.
The others are here. Uncle. The crew.
Some of them have killed- Uncle certainly has. There is blood on all of their hands, regardless, as crimson as the sky was as the air screamed for her children.
They did not take the lives of my children, all three of the winds aspects speak, ask them if they knew their old sins or if they stand on the graves of my loves so lightly.
He rises to the surface again, in the hand and the eye, splitting his own skin into chunks of volcanic rock struck through with veins of autumn.
(Did you hear?)
The wind rustles the grass around him- it was not there before he saw death, it was still burnt and withered and carrying the smoke of a hundred years on its destroyed blades. It was gone, razed to the ground with a sky-cloaked people. It grows now, had sprouted upward as he raged and burned within, as the bones cluttered his hands and the ground and the monument to massacre.
He made it grow. The sun within, the rage, the urge to cast aside the death and disharmony, the aching need to make something better.
(Fire is life)
Ask. Lì commands.
Zūnshǒu hums, a deference, a submission, and does not speak.
Tíngzhǐ is silent, and yet says, let it end, all the same.
Will you give me absolution? Fēng questions, with every voice, with her own.
Zuko moves suddenly, like a snake in the grass, twisting around and staring up at Iroh, hands clutching a small ivory object in his hands. It is sudden and disturbing, oil sliding smoothly through water, a snake rising up to strike, and somewhere beneath the stitched patterns and thin cloth, there is a glow. It is so foreign but so fitting against his nephew’s face that it is hard to separate the two.
It is distinctly more threatening than it was on the ship.
“Did you know.” Zuko’s voice is hoarse and sharp and accusing, and he directs it to whoever is bothering to listen, an accusation of no subject. “Did the soldiers know before they came here? Did you know what grandfather did?”
Flames lick the air, sprouting from beneath his shirt and licking through the air like a snake’s forked tongue, tasting the sky and finding it wanting.
Iroh approaches two shuffling steps then sinks slowly to the ground, telegraphing every movement. The fire slinks back to his nephew.
Iroh is gentle and slow, carefully so, as he speaks, “What did they know, Zuko?”
Zuko glances down at the object in his hands then back at Iroh, and heat rises in tangible waves from his spine. Very softly, he turns it and presents it to them as a precious thing.
A skull. Not large enough for anyone above three, heartbreakingly small, with a scorch mark painted over the left eye socket, emptily staring in accusation.
A skull, so small, jaw fused open in a permanent scream.
A toddler’s skull, if barely.
Iroh looks quickly over to the pile of bones.
There are bigger skulls - clearly adults - and longer bones stacked at the bottom, but at the top, there are stacks and stacks of smaller ones, no older than five. Small horrors, with scorch marks and dust coating them, free from the black dirt. Too tiny, so many of them chipped and missing pieces.
So many of them in the first place.
“Fēng couldn’t help them.” Zuko sounds hollow and empty, voice hissing over his vowels, harsh and smoky. “They worshipped her here, with everything- everything they had and she- she couldn’t save them.” His words echo in eerie silence.
“This was where the children were born. Her children.” His lip curls upward, and the skin at the border of the white head cover begins to crack open, fire filling the creases. He laughs emptily, in place of a sob. Laughs emptily, like his sister had smiled while he burned. “They were born, and they were raised, and they were slaughtered.”
Zuko stands sharply, unfolding in quietude and majesty. He stands, and places the skull against an open spot in this stack of death and oblivion carved by carrion. The scales spread over his face, ringing his uncovered eye and stretching toward his unmarked cheek. The wind has gone silent.
Iroh stands as well, waits for a long while, just the two of them with the others behind a mere footnote. This is not their business, not quite. Iroh had responded, so this was Iroh’s burden to bear.
“What, Zuko?” A question met with question, pulling on a loose thread to tear down the whole damned thing.
“Grandfather was here,” Zuko reveals, softly and with poison.
“He led the charge.” He points down, his finger an accusing arrow to the ground itself, below which the Air Temple resides. “First, he killed the mothers that tried to defend. The ones who could bend. He killed them all, and then he killed the ones who could not.” His finger shakes, his form burns under Agni’s light, a pillar of light next to a pyramid of century old bones.
He pauses, collecting himself from the atrocity, and speaks with that same empty smoke as before, “He let one live long enough to see all of the children burn.” Zuko tilts his head, the scales creeping down his neck and up from his back.
“She cried. She asked for mercy, and he gave her flames down her throat after watching them die. After killing all of the children in their cribs.”
There is nothing to be said.
What can be said? Iroh has always known his father was a crueler man in his youth. They say the crown mellowed him, as much as a beast in gold and robes can be tamed. Iroh has always felt he was far too similar to his father for anything good to come of it.
It is one thing to know someone was a monster, another to see their corpses placed together as a monument. One thing to know you share blood, another to see whose they have spilled.
An entirely separate conundrum to know you have killed the same.
Iroh doesn’t know why he never considered the many children of the Air Nomads before. Doesn’t know why he hadn’t considered the mere babes that had to be disposed of in order for the destruction of the Air Nomads to be complete.
He had never been made to consider it, he supposes. It’s no excuse, and yet it is. There is already so much death and loss that he had never even bothered to think of the ones too small to fight, of the young cut short. Much less who did the deed.
There is nothing to be said.
Iroh speaks anyway.
Or tries to, rather.
“Did you know?!”
The last time Zuko raised his voice, it was at the council meeting. The last time he did, his voice cracked halfway through some of his words but he kept going, determined to save the lives of soldiers that were already doomed.
There is a rage there, now. An ancient rage, something that was killed long before man took fire and lives to destroy still. There is a roar below his words, a monster speaking in tandem with every question and implicit accusation, united in every emotion, every bit of fury matched with mania.
The marks on his skin flare, echoing the sun beating down, and the wind howls, harsh and high, ripping and tearing through their clothing, through the grass, through the empty air, whipping and lashing and slighted.
It gathers, it swirls into lattices carrying blades of grass and flowers with them, it gathers and it screams with Zuko. It asks for answers, and it will not be denied.
(There is nothing to be said)
Agni They all abandoned him)
Clouds gather, refusing to blot out the sun, stormy and terrifying, a summer squall charged with lightning and dripping ozone into the air while Agni glares down vengefully.
In spite of the wind, in spite of the clouds and the lightning and the displeasure of the very spirit that gifts them with their element, Iroh only has eyes for his nephew, surrounded by triple helixes of rising wind.
There are tears in his eye, angry and vicious, turning his glare glassy and corpselike, a damned soul asking a question it fears the answer to.
“No,” Iroh whispers.
(No, I didn’t know)
(No, I don’t know why I didn’t)
(I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry)
Zuko closes his eye, his face screwing up in a grimace, a silent sob. He raises his head, volcanic cracks striking through his face in impact craters, in deep destructions of the human spirit.
“Why, then?” He whispers. “Why all the death?”
Iroh looks his nephew in the eye, round pupil glassy with tears and heavy with pain.
“I don’t know, Zuko. I don’t know if anyone knows.”
Zuko bows his head. The wind around him disappears in a moment, the debris caught up in it falling to the ground with no ceremony, drifting and settling and drawing a line of flowers and torn grass.
With the first sob, the wind blows back out, forcing the clouds above to part and separate, pressing against all of them before ceasing to be entirely, leaving them in the sunlight atop a plateau that saw death a century before. The rest follow in the eerie silence now that the zephyr has stopped its endless rush against them, now that all is still and quiet, except for a child that mourns for lives long since destroyed.
There is nothing to be said.
Iroh does not say anything, just steps forward through rippled grasses and wraps his nephew up in a hug, lets him express what he needs through his tears. Heat emanates from the cracks on his face, but it fades as he lets everything out through the medium of heaving breaths and shed tears.
The soldiers behind are staring, of that Iroh is well-aware. The rumor mill of their expedition will be speedy and not lacking material. Every witness to a Spirit-tale thinks themself to be the one that will document it.
The fire of the throne is out.
The fire of the throne is out, and it cannot be re-lit.
They have tried, simmering blazes and harsh blasts of flame, and it has refused to catch, it has avoided the throne like the plague. They tried, and every new tinder and fuel withers and breaks as they add it in vain.
They tried, orange and yellow and red and white and blazing blue, and it has all failed.
The fire of the throne is out, and Azula is hiding in a secret passage behind a tapestry in her room. Azula is hiding.
Father is in a rage. He is quiet in those, deadly and silent and already coaxing ropes of flame around a servant’s throat and tugging tight, leashing corpses to sate the madness in his blood.
He is not quiet in it this time.
Curtains have been removed from windows and stored somewhere in a distant cellar. Precious, burnable artifacts of the Fire Nation have been quietly taken underground to ensure their survival. Servants have left quietly to ensure their survival. Lords and Sages suddenly go on business trips or spiritual expeditions.
Terrified servants who cannot leave clean and tidy and cook and gather together quietly to share gossip like poison in a water supply and die serving the Firelord his meals in fits of rage.
Terrified daughters who cannot leave sit across tables from beasts and gain new appreciations for the scars their brothers bear as those who step a perceived hair out of line are made into infernos.
The news of Agni’s displeasure has already been spread far and wide.
(Did you hear? Did you hear?)
him the crown)
(Did you hear?)
It’s a sign)
The fire of the throne is out, it has been cold for three days, and Azula is hiding in a secret passage behind a tapestry in her room.
It is dark, and she dares not spark a flame, just in case her father can smell her out by stench of blue ash and shared blood. She waits, her breath gusting into the small space uncomfortably loud, in the darkness with only her heartbeat and her exhales for music.
It is dark, and Azula is hiding, and the fire of the throne has been out for three days.
It is dark, and Azula is hiding, and there are fresh red burns on her forearms that she did not put there.
There are burns and there is a deep, endless sense of foreboding mixed in with pain, with anticipated agony yet to arrive to her doorstep. Anticipated agony that already lives in her halls, that sits across from her at an empty banquet table, that once called her daughter.
It is dark, and Azula is hiding, and there are burns on her forearms, and she is afraid to breathe too loudly.
(Fire is breath, breath is life, fire is life)
(Fire is life)
Agni abandoned her whywhywhy what did she d-)
The fire of the throne is out, it has been cold for three days, father is in a rage, and everyone knows.
Everyone knows, and Azula is hiding in a secret passage behind a tapestry in her room, and there are burns on her forearms.
There are burns on her forearms and Azula is afraid to breathe too loudly.
Azula is afraid.
Azula is afraid.
Azula is afraid.
The fire of the throne is out.
Father is in a rage and it burns.
Burns like when he
cradled his/her face and pressed flames to skin, to cheek/forearms the servants were set alight.
Azula is hiding.
Azula always lies
Azula is afraid.
Azula smiled as her brother burnt, smiled because she could, smiled because monsters always bare teeth, smiled because because because
Azula smiled, and now it is dark and she is hiding and Agni has forsaken her and Azula is afraid and her brother isn’t there for her to hurt, for her father to hurt, to protect her from herself and protect her from her father.
Azula smiled and Azula is alone and it is dark and and and and and and and and and and and and
Azula is hiding, because she cannot run.
“What do you need, Zuko?”
The words of the Dragon of the West are soft, are gentle and coaxing and relaxing, and the crew on the plateau could not be anywhere further from soothed. The very elements themselves just rose against them, with no bender to command them, seemingly only leashed by the teenaged boy with scales in vicious patterns up his neck and a white cloth with bright patterns over his eye, and there is nothing to guarantee it will not happen again shortly.
The boy steps back from his Uncle- from the General that broke Ba-Sing-Se, from the once-Crown-Prince, and fumbles for words, like all of the crew have been since they got to the top and were met with Agni’s own rage.
“I don’t need- I don’t know,” the Once-Was-Prince Zuko responds. His eye - the only one uncovered, a blazing, unnerving gold - wanders back to look at the pile of bones and- and surely, there would be less. Surely, there would be pyres for the soldiers that must be in the pile, surely someone would have buried the Nomads.
Surely. But likely not.
“They need to be put to rest,” the Spirit-in-Bender’s-Body announces. And then he raises his hands to the sky - the skin over them breaks again, for a fraction of a second, deep red scoring through the lines of his palm - and prays .
In unison, the crew takes a large step backward.
The wind gusts again, and they clump together in fear. It does not blow for them, however, a rushing gust that is practically a solid block flattening the grass on its journey slamming straight into the pyramid of bones- a monument so large with remnants so small so small so small what in Agni’s name could’ve made that the right thing-
The whole structure, perilously close to the edge of the deep gorge carved into the ground, topples over the edge.
There is no pyre, only a freefall and the thunderous clacking of bone upon bone and the final, distant smash of whole skeletons dashed upon the rocks.
The Spirit that wears the Prince’s face stares after them, long enough to make the soldiers nervous. Then he looks up, and all of the scales that formed against his skin are pushed beneath the surface again, his hands dropping to his sides easily.
“We’re leaving,” Zuko announces, and presses forward as his Uncle turns and walks to follow, “The Avatar isn’t here.”
Somehow, without question, they follow.
Why wouldn’t they?
The ship is alive with rumor as they pull out of the dock.
(He’s Koh’s servant)
(He’s Agni’s child)
(He’s the Avatar)
(He’s- He’s- He’s-)
Lieutenant Jee stands at the prow and ignores the whispers, ignores how they silence as the one in question slinks silently beside him. Ignores them, and turns to Prince Zuko.
Regardless of anything, stripped of succession rights or not, Zuko is his Prince, has been since one of his fellow crewmembers - the friend of a friend of a friend of someone who knew what happened in those war councils fat, rich nobles who have never seen a battlefield are all too happy to participate in - told him that the Prince was challenged to an Agni Kai for trying to defend a batch of good recruits sent to die.
Has been, since he turned under moonlight and burned with Agni’s grace.
“Where to next, my Prince?”
Beside him, Zuko hums softly, a scratchy, broken sound closer to a purr. “To the Colonies. I think you’d appreciate more crew members to wrangle.”
“Considering half of them have turned to gossiping fishmongers already, I’d be absolutely horrified to see what you can do with even more.” This child has been treated too much like a rogue Spirit, too much like something with ancient wisdom.
Jee has met La, in the depths of the sea with his own armor dragging him down, and those things will stay with anyone. The way that Spirits weave under flesh and give impressions, place their own dissatisfactions on the heads of mortals and bending them until they break. Zuko is more than a child, yes, but he does not deserve to be feared.
Prince Zuko laughs. It is harsh and smoky and rough, but it is childish and high all the same. There is relief in it. Hope, maybe, or the ghost of it.
Jee doesn’t chuckle, not really. It’s not proper, not in front of a royal. And according to some rumor-laden sailors, laughing in front of the Prince is a one way ticket to Koh’s Lair. He turns and orders the helmsman, halfway across the deck, “Set course for the Hu Xin Provinces! There’s bound to be willing soldiers there.”
Zuko is looking at him intently when he turns back. That is a quirk of his, an endless stare with infinite weight, not glaring or ignoring, merely looking and analyzing, interested. Then, he reaches up and unties the piece of cloth around his burn scar, draping it over his wrist. He looks up again- and part of Jee wants to scream, in rage, for the pain leveled against this child.
The cracks of scales are still there, faintly, on the edges, but they do not glow. The golden eye, glowing even more than its counterpart, remains slit-pupiled and inhuman. Jee does not care. He does care about the violent starburst of red and pink skin that wraps across his face, gentle against his jaw and mutilating his ear.
Prince Zuko stares at him, for a long, long, moment, looking in his soul to find something. He blinks, slowly, gently, and then grimaces. The cracked edges of his scar split slightly, almost like his scales are reopening, but the only red slipping through is blood, not ethereal light.
Yes. Most decidedly, when the winds from the top of the peaks is calmed, and when the Prince returns back to the one home he can lay claim to still, he is a child. Spirits do not tend to bleed. Children do.
With blood sliding down his face, he looks Jee in the eye and says, “Thank you.”
He is gone before Jee can muster up a reply, before he can offer to help the poor child. Gone in the split second it took to blink.
Someday, Jee will figure out how he does that.