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Sleep Your Troubles Away

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Five Times Zuko Was Caught Sleeping On Appa (And One Time He Did The Catching)

i.

The Western Air Temple gets colder as the day grows old. Zuko has to pay a little more attention to his breathing than he normally would, considering he’s been traipsing through warmer climates these days. It’s not a surprise, this high up, where the air is thinner and cooler than he likes. Not a surprise, but irritating all the same.

He runs over the day’s events in his mind, grinding his teeth as his campfire stutters in the wind. It’s not quite dark yet, the evening hovering near the horizon. He wishes it had gone better, greeting the Avatar and his friends.

“Zuko here,” Zuko scoffs to himself. “Seriously?”

He hunches down, swallowing back the fresh burst of humiliation as he remembers the meeting. It’s not like he expected it to go any other way… but, foolishly, he had hoped all the same.

A badgerfrog leaps from the bruised gloom of the woods.

“Oh, hi,” Zuko says. “Come to laugh at me? Have at it, buddy.”

But the badgerfrog croaks quickly, almost panicked, and then jumps away. Zuko blinks, startled, as more of the little creatures come flying out of the bushes. Some of them are dripping with water, but all of them move with speed, sporting the same wide-eyed, bulging expression of fear.

Zuko scrambles to his feet, reaching for his blades.

A rumble seeps through the earth. He thinks of the Beifong girl, at first, but it doesn’t feel like earthbending. He catches sight of a shadow and stiffens, gripping the hilts of his blades tightly.

Something is lumbering through the undergrowth. Except, even with the way the ground shakes and the trees bend as though bowing, it cannot quite be called lumbering. The creature coming towards him is big, no doubt, but there is some grace to its movements.

And then the shadow fades from black to grey, and then to a somewhat muddy white.

“Appa,” Zuko says, lowering his blades in disbelief. “Huh.”

Appa lows. It’s a sound of intent, like the Bison is on a mission, and Zuko seems to be in the way of that mission, if the way Appa stomps towards him is anything. Zuko’s teeth rattle in his mouth. He recalls Appa’s hatred of fire and sweeps his foot in a circle, dousing the flames in his campfire before Appa can draw too close to them. The last thing he needs is to lose any hope of connecting with the Avatar by setting his Bison’s tail on fire.

“Not to be rude, but you probably shouldn’t be here. It’s not sensible to walk into your enemy’s camp.” Zuko stares directly into Appa’s eyes, and then throws his hands out, suddenly panicked. “Not that I’m your enemy anymore! I was telling the truth, you know. I need the Avatar to see that I’ve changed…”

Appa says nothing. But he does lick the side of Zuko’s face with his huge, flat wet tongue again, almost lifting him off the ground.

“Thanks,” Zuko says, wiping his cheek, to no avail. “Good to know I’ve got at least one ally out here.”

A huge, rumbling sound escapes Appa. Then he flops to the ground with enough force to shake Zuko’s small camp, and dirt rises up around him in a little halo. Hesitantly, Zuko reaches out and pushes one hand into Appa’s fur. It disappears up to his wrist. He marvels at the softness, at how much there seems to be, eyebrows rising as he shuffles closer. Appa lets him.

Zuko wakes up feeling warm, and it has nothing to do with his fire, or his breath. The wood in his campfire is charred and blackened, not a single wisp of smoke rising from the dark embers. He blinks, aware that he seems to be covered in some sort of thick, comfortable blanket. The only person that might do that is Uncle, and Uncle… isn’t here.

The blanket rumbles, almost petulantly. Ah. Zuko rubs his eye and sits up, pushing away from the softness of fur that surrounds him. He remembers now. He made the mistake of leaning against Appa for a bit, and apparently the price for that is a nap.

Another petulant noise from Appa makes him turn around, and he comes face-to-face with the Avatar’s winged lemur. It stares at him with big, buggish eyes, unblinking. Then it makes a small, chittery sound that feels vaguely accusatory, and goes back to tugging on Appa’s ear.

Eventually, Appa groans and stands. Zuko scrambles out of the way to avoid being flattened by Appa’s tail. The winged lemur skitters about, complaining in its own language, and narrows its gaze at Zuko before climbing on board Appa.

Appa stomps closer, leaving grooves in the earth with his big, cumbersome paws. He licks a fresh path of slobber up Zuko’s cheek, which he bears with grace, and the winged lemur leans down over Appa’s snout to stare keenly at Zuko. There is something very unnerving about those eyes.

“Listen,” Zuko says. “I’d appreciate it if you didn't tell the Avatar that I was sleeping on his pet.”

The winged lemur pokes out its tongue, flicking one ear. Zuko is not entirely confident that his message has been received, but he steps back to let them fly off anyway. There isn’t the same fear in his heart from earlier as he watches Appa’s shadow soar across the sky, illuminated by the high moon.

He immediately misses the warmth of Appa’s fur, and the peaceful sleep he’d had tucked into it, but there are more pressing things to worry about. Night has pressed in while he napped, and he needs as much sleep as possible before he approaches the Avatar and his friends again tomorrow.

Rubbing his wet cheek with a faint smile, Zuko ducks inside his tent.

ii.

“Oi, sparky.”

Zuko swats away the annoying fly perched on his cheek, but it comes right back. Then it digs in harder, and he jerks awake with a scowl already in place, one hand halfway to his belt.

“Woah!” Sokka, the Water Tribe idiot, jumps back with his hands in the air. “Take it easy, jerkbender, I just wanna talk.”

In one of his hands, there’s a boomerang. On his face, there’s a smug, irritating smirk. Zuko isn’t sure which one of those things makes him feel like setting fire to something, but he suspects it’s a combination of the two.

“What do you want?” Zuko snaps.

Sokka examines his boomerang patiently, the smirk still infuriatingly present. “Hey, no need to get cranky with me. You’re the one taking up valuable sparring space. Did you know that you drool in your sleep?”

Immediately Zuko swipes a hand across his mouth. He only clues in on the joke when Sokka starts snickering to himself, and by then it’s too late. Years of growing up with Azula, and Zuko still hasn’t learned. Although perhaps that has something to do with Azula being more fond of severe bodily harm and emotional maiming, rather than harmless practical jokes.

“I’m not cranky,” Zuko says, rising to his feet. But of course, that only makes him realise just exactly where he’d fallen asleep; in the middle of the space they’d cleared out for sword-training, curled up against Appa.

Zuko stiffens. They’d given him a room far away from them, though not too far that they couldn’t keep an eye on his coming and going. It’s only been a few days since the Avatar agreed to let him teach Fire-bending, and Zuko’s barely slept. He rises with the sun, but he fails to fall with the moon. He finds himself sitting on the ground more often than not, thinking of Uncle and what he might say to him, or practising his bending.

This is the first time he’s fallen asleep without trouble, and it’s the middle of the day. And Sokka saw him.

“I thought you’d be harder to sneak up on, honestly.” Sokka twirls his boomerang over his fingers in a casual, expert move. It’s strange, how he can appear so confident when he’s not paying attention, but act like a complete fool the rest of the time. Zuko still isn’t sure what to make of him.

But he knows he hates that boomerang.

“You didn't sneak up on me, you disturbed me. If you wanted to show me how bad you are at sword-fighting, you could have waited until I was awake.”

Sokka lets out an odd squawk, his body rippling indignantly. “Hey! I trained with Piandao! You’ve seen me fight!”

Zuko shrugs. It’s an elegant, dismissive shrug that only serves to enrage Sokka further. He looks like he’s gearing up for a rant, or perhaps a challenge, but Appa takes the opportunity to yawn widely and loudly, rolling over onto his back with a thump. Tufts of fur float up in the air, and he makes a sleepy huff before settling.

The fur looks very soft. Zuko twitches, but stands his ground. He aches for sleep, but he just woke up, and he’s used to going hours without rest. Travelling with Uncle wasn’t a walk in the gardens, and it’s not like he ever slept entirely peacefully in the Fire Nation. It was always best to sleep with one eye open when Azula was around. Appa seems to be the only place where Zuko can fall asleep easily, without meaning to, and that probably says more about Zuko’s life so far than it does about Appa in particular.

He glances up to find Sokka watching him, his mouth set in a frown. He seems to have completely deflated from his rant, and now he’s watching Zuko like he’s realised something. Zuko would much rather he didn't.

“Hey, I get it,” Sokka says, looking uncomfortable but determined. “Appa’s the softest thing in the world - you know, besides clouds and Aang’s positive outlook on life. You’re not the first one to fall asleep on him.”

Zuko raises one shoulder in another shrug, but this one is awkward and slightly embarrassed. “He’s comfortable.”

Hesitantly, Sokka smiles at him. It’s not a particularly friendly smile, but it’s not overtly hostile either. “He sure is, jerkbender.”

Zuko manages a brief smile in return.

The vulnerability hits him a moment later, and Zuko rearranges his face in a scowl, stomping away from the training ground. He decides to avoid the Water Tribe boy and the Air Bison for the next few days, but even in his head, Zuko knows he won’t last long.

iii.

Zuko is not prepared to find the Avatar sleeping a few inches away from him.

He blinks. Then he blinks again, taking in the lax, snoring figure in front of him. Aang’s face is peaceful, his expression entirely relaxed as he sprawls over Appa’s back. He’s shifted closer to Zuko in his sleep - presumably, but Zuko doesn’t know for sure, because Aang wasn’t here when he lay down for a quick nap, and it would be just like Aang to curl up next to Zuko and pretend it happened while he was asleep. If there’s one thing that Zuko’s learned about Aang, it’s that he likes to be close to his friends.

The most surprising part about that is that Zuko counts as one of those friends now.

Aang lets out a vicious snore that blows away all preconceived notions of Air-benders as peaceful people, and Zuko wrinkles his nose. He sits up, aware that his hair is sticking up on one side, and that he probably has creases on his face from Appa’s fur. Not that he minds, not when Appa’s fur is soft and pillow-like. And there’s nobody around to judge him for his lack of decorum.

Zuko moves to rise, but a hand darts out, faster than lightning, and strikes him in the collar.

“Wuh!” Zuko says, as he’s pulled back down, blinking in bewilderment. “Aang?”

Aang pats him on the chest and wriggles closer. “Stay right there, please. You’re warm, and so is Appa. It’s like the best of both worlds.”

For a minute, frustration rises in Zuko. Frustration at Aang, for being so trusting, for letting his guard down so easily when Zuko’s only been on his side for a little while. Frustration at himself, because if this had been years ago, or even months ago, Zuko would have taken this vulnerability and exploited it. He would have thrown it back in Aang’s face, determined to regain his honour through whatever means necessary. Frustration at himself, because it had taken years and months to get to this point, and it could have been so much easier. If he had stopped to think, if he hadn’t been blinded by the views of others, the desperate darkness in himself, and the longing to be home, then it could have been so much easier. It could have been softer, the road that he took to find this friend.

But it wasn’t. And in his heart, Zuko knows that the path would always have been rocky. If it hadn’t been, he might never have got here either, and even if there had been an easier way, there was no way to take it now. Everything that’s happened has already happened, and what he needs to do now is to find the right road to fix his past, to make amends.

Maybe, he thinks, as he settles down against Appa tentatively, sinking into softness and the Avatar’s trust for him. Maybe this is a good enough start.

iv.

Appa has very big paws. The soft pads of his toes, when upturned, look vast and bear-like. Zuko shifts closer in the dirt, exhausted, and reaches out to touch one. Appa has them turned over to clean the dirt and blood out from between them, and he fixes Zuko with a steady, appraising look, before going back to his licking.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” Zuko murmurs.

He feels numb to his core, and his core feels faintly fried. There’s work to do, he knows, and with the Fire Nation in disarray and the Fire Lord and Princess in chains, there isn’t really time to sit and think of nothing. But that’s precisely what Zuko does. He leans against Appa’s fur - Toph keeps trying to get him to call it ‘floof’ and though he agrees with the general term, he won’t use it - and watches his friends. Sokka is being tended to, his leg propped up on a cushion while Hakoda fusses around him like a giant, nervous bird. Katara bends water from her flask, her expression gaunt but serious, focused on easing her brother’s pain. She needs to rest too, but Zuko knows she won’t. Not while she can still help.

There’s no sign of Aang, but Zuko thinks there’s a shadow near the bridge, a small, hunched shadow.

Toph interrupts his staring, sitting cross-legged in front of him. Her vacant eyes are no longer unusual to him, and he regards her as warmly as he can.

“Can’t believe you got hit by lightning,” Toph says. “Really living up to your nickname there, Sparky.”

Zuko huffs out a breath that might have been a laugh, in other circumstances. His head hits Appa’s flank, almost immediately consumed by fluff. It’s a heavenly respite that he intends to take full advantage of, but Toph makes a small noise. Almost like she wants to say something, but can’t quite bring herself to.

That, in itself, is worrying. Toph always says what she feels. No matter how rude, crude, or downright tactless, Toph always speaks.

“What’s wrong?” Zuko lifts his head to frown at her. “You seem off.”

“Says the guy who got hit by lightning.”

That’s the second time she’s mentioned it, and it deepens Zuko’s frown.

“Katara helped me. She says I’m on the mend, though it might take me awhile to get back on my feet.” Zuko can’t help but add, a little testily, “And I redirected lightning, technically.”

He reaches up with an arm that feels wooden and rubs his chest. He can recall the searing pain and the white light that filled his vision. The feeling of floating. The agony of existence, in that very moment, that felt like a trillion paper-cuts applied to every cell in his body, and doused in sour fire.

Toph snorts roughly. Then she wipes a hand under her eye, and the movement is so uncharacteristic that Zuko almost stops breathing. She looks so young, all of a sudden, small in a way that is unlike her. He forgets, sometimes, that as powerful as she is, as mighty as she can be, in other ways, she’s still just a girl.

“I heard your heartbeat change. It’s still wrong, even now.”

Beneath his hand, his heart seems to stutter. But the rhythm picks up again, and he keeps his hand there to feel its strength.

Zuko swallows. “Sorry.”

Toph sniffs. She straightens up, her eyes dry, and shakes her head. Then she reaches over and punches him. Lightly.

“Idiot. Just don't do it again.”

Zuko finds his mouth twitching, and they sit quietly together until Aang comes back from the bridge.

Zuko wakes to the cool touch of water on his chest. He opens his eyes to find Katara frowning down at him, and doesn’t remember falling asleep. The last thing he recalls is Aang murmuring about the palace, and what they should do next.

“You fell asleep.” Katara moves her hands in a smooth, circular motion. “Stay still. You’re still badly burned on your chest, and Toph mentioned that your heartbeat is still a bit different.”

Zuko stays still, and quiet, taking in the scene behind her with hazy eyes. Then he frowns.

“We’re in the palace,” Zuko says.

“Yes.”

“How did we get in the palace?”

“Appa picked you up by the scruff of your neck and carried you in through the front door. You curled up in his floof and stayed asleep.” Katara’s mouth twitches into a flat line. “I can’t believe Toph has me saying that too.”

Zuko snorts, reaching out to pet Appa’s fur. He gets a sharp look from Katara, but he only shrugs mildly in return, still petting Appa. They seem to be in one of the halls, the only place big enough for Appa to lie down in. If he sits up properly - which he does, despite the glare he gets - then he can see bright pillows and blankets on the tiled ground. There are lanterns flickering on the walls and side-tables. Sokka is snoring on a small futon, his leg wrapped in bright white bandages, sticking out like a glow-worm in a heap of mud. Momo is curled up on his chest, tail wrapped around himself. There’s drool near Sokka's mouth, and Zuko files the information away for later.

“Where’s Aang?” Zuko asks. “And Toph?”

“Toph’s getting water, and Aang is… up there.” Katara’s voice softens, and her eyes flick upwards, towards Appa’s back. Zuko follows her gaze, spying a hint of Aang’s robes hanging over the lip of the saddle. His heart clenches. Something twists inside him, and he thinks of his father, of Azula’s crazed laughter, but the memories are too raw. Too present. He pushes them away, and hopes that Aang can sleep.

“There,” Katara says hoarsely, sitting back on her haunches. “That should be fine for a while.”

“How long have you been healing people for?” Zuko watches her keenly. “You need to rest. And you need to eat something, too, or you’ll run out of energy.”

“But—”

“We’ll be fine until morning.” Zuko prods her gingerly until she falls sideways, landing against Appa with a surprised look on her face. “Everyone could use a nap, and then we can think about what needs to be done. Speeches, and I’ll need to sort out the prisoners, and we’ll have to withdraw our armies from wherever they’re stationed. Not to mention, Uncle will want to start planning a coronation already. And my father’s advisors will want—”

Toph comes out of nowhere and clamps her hand over Zuko’s mouth. He frowns, but he’s somewhat grateful for the break in his gradually-more panicked thought process. Katara is already deeply asleep.

“There’s time for all that later,” Toph says. “Take your own advice, follow Katara’s example, and sleep all your troubles away.”

Then she slides down on Zuko’s other side, yawning widely and elbowing him on purpose as she gets comfortable. Chief Hakoda opens the doors to the hall, and Zuko cannot help the way he goes rigid, waiting for an attack, but there are no enemies in this room. Chief Hakoda shoots him a searching look before inclining his head, and then his gaze turns to his sleeping daughter. A moment later, Zuko gets a good look at the figure beside the Chief, and he relaxes. The weight of the day collides with him, and slides off him all at once.

“Uncle,” Zuko says, and if his voice cracks on a sob, then everyone is kind enough not to point it out.

Uncle rarely hurries, but he moves with speed now, rushing across the room to kneel before him. He takes Zuko’s chin in his hand and turns his face this way and that, both of their gazes shining with tears. Zuko pulls himself up with Toph’s help, and falls forward into Uncle’s embrace.

“Oh, nephew,” Uncle says, holding him close. “Forgive an old man his tears, but I have never been more sorry, nor have I have ever been more proud.”

v.

Life is not all turtle-ducks and roses. The messages grow in number, day by day. Some are from the colonies, some from angered generals, and most come from the higher-ups in society, anxiously questioning his motives and next steps. It’s overwhelming. Zuko takes to sitting in the private garden, where the pond runs deep and the grass is dewy, and he reads. Sometimes Momo joins him, hanging from a branch by his curled tail, a question mark that Zuko doesn’t know how to answer. Aang hasn’t left yet, but Zuko knows that the time is drawing closer. He both dreads and craves it. He wants to keep his friends at his side, but he also wants to prove that he can do this, that he can thrive as the Fire Lord without anyone holding his hand.

It’s a tricky situation, and Zuko solves it by soaking up as much of their attention as he can before they decide to go, and decidedly dodging the question of when.

The Fire Nation requires urgent attention. The mountain of scrolls that obscures Zuko’s desk seems insurmountable, but he is determined to climb it. He scrawls words in polite brushstroke long into the night; a few tired, bewildered advisors offer unsure advice over biscuits. Most of it is passed over. One day, Zuko will have the patience to point them towards the thought process he needs them to have. The Fire Nation is important, yes, but it is the people within it that come first. Not the picture they have been told to make.

But all of that is for inside the palace. In the quieter moments, Zuko retreats to the garden, where he sits and unravels the scrolls that are deemed the least urgent. He doesn’t bring tea with him. Uncle travelled to Ba Sing Se two nights ago, and will be there for the foreseeable future, and there is nobody he trusts enough to make tea for him here.

The most recent scroll, the one he holds in his hands, is from Mai. He hesitates to call it anything but urgent, but his advisors probably wouldn’t agree. Still, he’s not quite sure what to make of the almost bland way she demands to know whether he’s really okay.

Rotating his neck to ease the stiffness, Zuko rolls up the scroll and stands, cracking his back. Agni, he feels sore. The fight with Azula had left its marks, and he still finds himself aching, even with Katara’s frequent healing.

A palace servant skirts the edge of the garden, almost unseen. A few clumsier soldiers stand just out of view, near the pillars leading back into the palace. They could take lessons from the staff on how to be stealthy, invisible.

He makes his way through the garden, until he finds a wide open space that hadn’t quite escaped the way. The grass is flatter here, though the trees are still in full bloom. The pond isn’t far; Zuko can hear the faint quacks and the babble of water, and the noises feel like a distant friend.

A long, heavy lick to the side of his face makes him jerk in surprise. Appa descends the rest of the way into the garden, only just fitting between the trees. Zuko’s not quite sure how he missed the giant Air Bison, but he finds himself grinning as he wipes his face.

“Hi, buddy.”

Appa rumbles, rolling about in the grass. With a soft whump, he flicks his tail and flattens it on the ground again, turning big, soulful eyes on Zuko. He rumbles again. Zuko takes the hint, chuckling as he moves closer. He falls face-first into Appa’s fur, and Appa’s rumbling takes on a steady, consistent pace, like thunder. Like he’s purring. Zuko grins into his fur and spins around, sinking down to sit on the ground, half-buried in fluff.

“I missed you too,” Zuko says, although it hasn’t been long. “Wanna hear something crazy? I can’t tell what it’s supposed to mean, but maybe you have better luck with girls.”

Appa huffs out a long breath in agreement, shaking his massive head up and down. Zuko nods seriously, hiding a grin.

“Yeah, I thought so. It’s either you or Sokka, and I think my chances are probably better with you.”

Zuko carefully unrolls the scroll again, reading Mai’s words. Above, in a blossoming tree, Momo chomps down on a plump piece of fruit. When he chitters happily at the sweet taste, the bough shakes beneath his clawed feet, and leaves come falling down. One lands on Zuko’s shoulder. He reads and talks of unimportant things until his eyes grow heavy. Appa feels warm and comforting, and the soft hum of his rumbling voice puts Zuko at ease, dragging him under.

“Fire Lord Zuko.”

Zuko snaps upright, suddenly wide-eyed. There are more leaves in his hair, on his shoulders, resting on his abandoned scroll. He’s sunk sideways into Appa’s side at some point, and he rubs his eyes and fights not to fall back asleep.

The voice belongs to Amaya, a member of the kitchen staff. She stands stiffly on the path, her hands clasped respectfully. Zuko can barely see her face, bowed as it is. He doesn’t remember her from his days in the Palace - both before the War Council Meeting, and after.

“Yeah?” The he straightens up and adds, “Is everything alright?”

If she is surprised by the casual address, she manages not to show it. “Cook has asked me to gather your requests.”

“Requests?”

“You skipped today’s meals, sire.”

Zuko frowns. Appa snores gently in his sleep, disturbing the leaves. More billow down in a flurry, and Momo chatters in irritation as he climbs down from the tree, flopping on top of Appa’s head.

“Uh, right.” Zuko staggers upright, and starts dusting off his robes. His crown is perched oddly on his head; he is still not used to the weight, and he doubts he ever will be. He rights it, and when he looks up, he finds Amaya smiling faintly at the ground.

She is older than him by many years. There are wrinkles in her papery skin, and her eyes gleam with stories. Zuko likes her hands; they look capable and friendly. He still marvels that he hadn’t woken at her first arrival, but there is something mystical about the way the palace staff move so silently.

It should be worrying. But Zuko fell asleep in broad daylight, in the gardens, and not a hair on his head has been touched. He glances sideways, and finds the guards still standing in position in the entrance. There are more palace servants nearby, quiet as mice, and the silhouettes of several people talking can be seen in the above window.

They had the chance to attack while he slept, or to step aside while someone else did the job.

Zuko picks up his scroll and steps forward, smiling gently at Amaya. This time, her shock is plain on her face.

“I’d better come with you. I don't think the Cook knows just how much I like spice in my food. Not to mention, I’d like to meet my staff, if possible. I know you’re all very busy, so I won’t bother you for long, but I should like to introduce myself at least.”

Amaya’s shock fades into warmth, and surprise. She hesitates, before bending her wrinkled frame in a short bow, and when she comes back up, she’s smiling.

“This way, sire.”

Zuko pats Appa, and as he follows Amaya, the quiet of the garden seems to stay in his chest.

vi.

Izumi is a slippery thing. She swims like a fish and moves like an eel, evading his every grasp. She is just as tricky as her father, scaling every available surface and climbing through things she shouldn’t. Zuko couldn’t be more proud. Even the thought of her brings a ray of warmth and love rushing through him. But it doesn’t make it any easier to find her when she wants to be invisible.

Bath-time in the Fire Nation Palace is something of an adventure.

Zuko tries the kitchen first. The servants duck out of his way as he glides through the corridors, his robes billowing behind him. His hair is a mess, but his crown is still in place, and they smile behind their hands as he passes. Zuko nods a few times, asks a few questions, but mostly he keeps a keen eye on the shadowy parts of each corridor.

“Not here, Fire Lord Zuko,” Hina chirps, when Zuko appears in the kitchen doorway. The room feels like an oven itself, hot with the many stoves that are working away. Hina is elbow-deep in preparations for the Avatar’s visit, kneading a ball of dough with precise motions. “Have you tried the Throne Room? Sato said he saw her there last.”

Zuko raps his knuckles against the door-frame and nods sharply. “Thanks, I’ll have a look.” Then he hesitates, and adds, “Mind if I…?”

Hina casts a furtive look at the door, behind which Amaya can be heard humming and rustling around, and then reaches over with sticky hands to push a basket of sweet-cakes his way.

“Thanks,” Zuko murmurs, and snatches up two before Amaya can come out and scold him. He beats a hasty retreat, turning right at the end of the corridor. Two Guards latch onto him, following at a sedate pace as he marches towards the Throne Room.

But Izumi isn’t there. She’s not hiding behind the huge curtains, draping herself in them while she puts on a deep, funny voice and frowns heavily, before bursting into giggles. She isn’t curled up on his throne like a cat, either. The thought makes Zuko quirk his lips into a smile, before he lets out a frustrated groan and knuckles his temple.

“Come on, Izumi. We can’t do this every time.”

The Guard on his left coughs slightly, unobtrusively. “If I might, Fire Lord Zuko, I believe it might be a good idea to check the garden.”

“This late?” Zuko furrows his brow, but it can’t do any harm to try. “May as well, I suppose. Anything beats admitting defeat to Mai.”

The Guards snicker, but they do so quietly.

The trip to the gardens takes mere minutes, and Zuko busies himself by breaking up the sweet-cakes and sharing them with the Guards. They take a slice each, still baffled by his attention even years into his rule, which never fails to make Zuko grin and shake his head.

Of course, they regret his generosity only a few seconds later, when the first hint of spice touches their tongue.

“You’re Fire Nation,” Zuko says, mildly reproachful, as they reach the pillars leading out into the garden. “Surely you can handle a little heat.”

The gardens are quiet. Lanterns light the way, and it;s not quite dusk yet, so the sky is lit with a myriad of colours. Pink and yellow and a deepening blue. Zuko breathes in the crisp air and steps onto the grass, ears pricked for a familiar giggle.

He won’t admit to being worried, but he is. He trusts everyone in his palace, having vetted them all personally, and earning their respect over the years, but he still doesn’t like Izumi running off. There doesn't have to be dangerous people around for her to find trouble.

But then he turns a corner, and the worries flee him. His mouth turns up in a grin, a fierce, wistful feeling filling him from head to toe. He needn’t have worried.

In a familiar patch of grass, now ringed with even more trees and flowers, is Appa. There’s no sign of Aang or Katara, but Sokka has taken up root near one of the trees, staring down at Appa with an amused, somewhat wry smile. He looks up when Zuko draws near, and beams, pulling him into a bone-cracking hug. Then it softens into something comfortable, and Zuko finds himself relaxing as he draws back.

“I figured it wouldn’t be long until you showed up,” Sokka says. “Aang and Katara stopped by the rest of the city first, and Toph is with your Uncle. They took the front door instead, but Appa wanted to be uncivilised, and who am I to discourage him?”

Zuko shakes his head with a quiet laugh. “You’re more of the encouraging type, I agree.”

“Ha. She barrelled towards me, gave me a hug, and then ignored me completely because Appa is here. I get it, but I don't have to like it. I even brought her a present.”

“If it’s another boomerang, I’m throwing it out the window.”

“How many hits in the head does it take? Haven’t you learned by now that they just come back?”

“Not if they’re on fire.”

Sokka snorts, nudging him. They watch Appa snore peacefully for a while, a tiny ball of red robes and fluffy black hair curled up at his side, and then Sokka says, “Well, I gotta say, this brings up memories.”

Zuko leans against the tree, remembering those first steps along this path. First Momo, and then Sokka, followed by Aang. So many people had caught him at his most vulnerable, and he can’t say that he minds. But he prefers this memory, if he’s perfectly honest.

“Like father like daughter, eh?” Sokka claps him on the shoulder with a grin. “You might want to keep a better eye on her. She’s just as much trouble as you are.”

Zuko elbows him gently. “I dare you to watch her for an hour.”

“I’ll pass, jerkbender.”

“Your beard is an embarrassment.”

Sokka makes an amusing bird-like sound, but it’s far too loud for the quiet of the evening. He eventually sidles off in search of food, but only after Zuko promises to join him for a quick sparring session later. Zuko stands in the garden for a while longer, watching Izumi sleep against Appa the way he used to, and then steps up to stroke Appa’s nose.

“Hi, buddy,” Zuko whispers. “Thanks for looking out for her. And for me. Sorry it took so long to tell you.”

Appa huffs in his sleep, rumbling deeply enough that Izumi stirs. Zuko stares down at her, unable to keep his frown on when she looks up at him with wide, apologetic eyes.

“Sokka’s right. You’re going to be a whole heap of trouble when you’re older. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Izumi peers up at him sleepily, her tiny face crinkled in a smile. There’s a tuft of fur on her left eyebrow. Zuko reaches down and strokes her hair back, pressing a kiss to her forehead, but when he moves to pick her up, Izumi and Appa let out twin whines.

He stands up, surprised. Appa opens one big eye and stares at him, almost mournfully. When he glances down, Izumi’s gaze is almost identical, paired with a pout that turns him into the most soft-hearted fool known to mankind.

“Alright,” Zuko says, chuckling slightly. “You win. Bath-time is officially an hour later today, but only because Appa says so.”

Appa rumbles in agreement.