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Book 1: Water

Zuko thought about the water nation boy when he went to bed that night. 

First, he tossed and turned, seething over his loss at Kyoshi Island, hearing the screams of children in his mind- his eyes flashed, showed houses burning, and his own reflection, helmet on his head, scarred eye beholding a terrifying fury as he destroyed everything he could find, rage fueled by the Avatar’s betrayal at the South Pole; his only respite from the visions of his destruction was the image of the male water tribe warrior in a Kyoshi dress. 

Ridiculous, he thought to himself. And he snorted, a weird rumble that was one jump away from a laugh.

Weeks later, Zuko had more-or-less cornered the Avatar and his friends when one of his firebending crewmates got an eye full of sand and started blasting fireballs anywhere and everywhere in a full-blown panic. The water girl started frantically throwing streams at his men, a handful of them began yelling and retreating, the rabbitmonkey howled and was clawing at someone’s helmet, the Avatar created a windstorm, his uncle was trying to reach the panicked soldier, and one of his own fireballs hit the side of their tank, sending it reeling. Zuko had only a moment to gasp in horror, that was a rental!, before he and another body were hit by the wildly spinning metal contraption and knocked off the mountainside. 

One moment he was staring up at the air, arm reaching out to the sun, and in a second the ground rushed up in front of his eyes like a wall was being raised from nothing- but he was falling. Zuko was spinning down and below he can see nothing but darkness. In a panic, he shot flames from his feet, but they didn’t do anything to halt his fall. He was so wrapped up in the shock he didn’t even think about how he was going to die until after he landed in icy cold water.

Zuko’s trajectory forced him deep under, and something hard slammed into the side of his head. He kept rapidly sinking until his feet hit the bottom of the pond. Pain shot out across his body, from his feet to his head, and Zuko involuntarily gasped in the water, taking it into his lungs. And then he knew what drowning felt like. His body seized up in the cold, trying to throw up, trying to breathe; pain rattled in him causing shocks he couldn’t control. He felt his back gently touch hard stone in the pool, and he looked around but his vision was blurred- there was no light- there was no up... he was going to die.

Something grabbed him by his ponytail and yanked him in an unknown direction. The next seconds that passed were agony, an eternity, and yet were blurred.

Zuko’s cheek was touching hard rock and there was air around him. He was slapped, repeatedly, on the back, until his throat opened up on its own and water was heaving out of his mouth. When his eyes stopped watering and the coughing slowed Zuko realized just who his rescuer was. Zuko jumped to his feet, causing the water tribe warrior to squeal in fright, and readied his fists in front of himself. “Don’t touch me,” Zuko seethed. 

The water tribe warrior let out a noise like ‘ack’ and stood up, scrambling for his own weapon. “If I hadn’t ‘touched you’, you’d’ve died in the river!” He gesticulated wildly, boomerang in hand.

Zuko narrowed his eyes at him. “If you-“

And they heard a clanging from above, a noise that sounded as if metal was being torn apart, and Zuko realized just in time that his fire nation tank had been hurled into the crevasse as well. Without a moment to think, Zuko grabbed the water tribe warrior and jumped, throwing a fiery blast with his feet that propelled them out of the way. They flew several meters back before landing again in the freezing water, just as the tank screeched to a sparking halt, trapped by the ceiling, right above where they’d just been. 

“Well,” the water nation warrior said. 

The entirety of the front armor of the tank fell off and slammed, cracking rock, into the ground where they’d stood moments before. Zuko jumped at the wretched noise of metal tearing and slamming into rock and the water tribe warrior did as well. If they’d stayed, they would have been sliced clean in half. 

It wasn’t until the dust cleared that they both realized they were clinging to each other.  Zuko shoved as the water nation warrior started pinwheeling his arms and they both ended up splashed back into the icy cold black water. For one moment they stared at each other, dripping.

UGH,” Zuko groaned. He turned around, trying to get his bearings. The cave was even darker than before as half of the metal tank was covering the small amount of light that could get through. Only little slivers of sun were shining through the mechanisms. All around them was a gentle, black river that continued onward both to the right and left into pitch black nothingness, the only dry place was a small outcropping where there was now smoking remains of a fire nation tank. Zuko made a snap decision, chose to go right, and started to swim in that direction. 

“Wait!” The water tribe warrior said. 

Zuko reached for the wall of the cave, getting purchase on a rock that jutted outward slightly, and turned with a sneer. “What?”

The water tribe warrior’s mouth dropped. “You can’t just- how do you know where you’re going?!” 

Zuko had no reason to justify himself to the water tribe warrior. He turned his back on him. “You spared my life. I spared yours. Now leave.”

“Where?!” The water tribe warrior moved closer. 

Leave!” Zuko yelled. He threw his arm out from him in a circle sending a fire whip skimming across the surface of the water. 

The warrior ducked under the water to avoid it and when the darker boy resurfaced he had a scowl on his face. “Listen to me for one second!” He shouted. 

Zuko threw two more furious fire whips, but in doing so lost his position in the water and ended up ducking into the icy cold himself. 

They both broke surface and glared at each other. 

“This is the Liudong River,” the water tribe warrior said sternly, “it travels underground through the entirety of this mountain range and doesn’t resurface until Shan Pass. Do you even know how far away that is?”

Zuko gritted his teeth. “Yes,” he lied. 

“And what are you going to do? Swim the whole way,” the warrior gesticulated wildly, “you almost drowned! Your head is bleeding!” Zuko raised a hand to his forehead, taking it away and noticing, yes, there was a considerable amount of watery blood on his palm. “Listen,” the warrior said with a pained look, “we can’t get back up with that tank blocking the way so the only way out is through, but if you fall asleep or get dizzy, you’re dead, and I can’t make it through this cave without a light to guide me. Can we just... go together, you insufferable fire nation jerk?”

Zuko glared at the warrior for a long moment. “No,” he said.

The warrior dropped his jaw with a stupid look on his face. 

Zuko turned and swam deeper in the cave, only to discover his feet touched ground. He could stand a bit later, the freezing water only coming to waist height, and he lit a torch in his palm. He trudged forward, noticing that one of his feet was having difficulty stepping solidly, but due to the freezing nature of the water he couldn’t feel any pain. 

The water tribe warrior, loudly, followed with grumbles and splashes. “Well, I’m going this way too,” he said stubbornly. 

“Fine,” Zuko said. 


After a few moments walking deeper in the cave, Zuko started to shiver. He took a deep breath, concentrated his chi, and blew hot air from his nose, drying out the part of his body that wasn’t submerged in water. It wasn’t a technique he had mastered yet but it helped a little. The warrior was suddenly right at his side, teeth audibly chattering. “Can I get some of that?”

Zuko frowned. “No.”

Jerk,” the warrior mumbled. 

Zuko, after several more paces, opened his mouth to order the water nation warrior to move away from him when his bad foot hit a hole in the water and he stumbled. The light went out, arms grabbed him by the stomach, and Zuko didn’t fall into the water. The water tribe warrior had caught him. 

Zuko relit the flame in his hand and pulled himself out of the warrior’s arm with a cough. He took a step forward, heard a shiver from the boy behind him, and rolled his eyes. Then, trying not to think about it, Zuko sent a gust of hot air to his side to dry off the warrior. They continued forward after that, both not saying a word, both shivering less.

At one point the water got deeper, which was worrisome, and they were wading up to their armpits. Zuko was forced to hold his hands high above his head so they could still see, but after several minutes the water was at waist height again. It was just as the water tribe warrior said, the tunnel continued onward with no end in sight. Nothing but blackness ahead, blackness below, freezing water, and Zuko’s flame showing the way. 

“So,” the warrior said. 

Zuko tensed. 

“This sucks,” the warrior continued.

Zuko trudged onward, not looking at the water tribe warrior, but nodded. 

“I mean, of course this happens to me. Stuck in a tiny, dark, horrible cave with the biggest fire nation jerk in the world,” the warrior lamented.

Zuko rolled his eyes. 

“If I can just... stop for a second,” the warrior said, as if the words hurt him to say, “your... face is looking bad.”

Zuko turned sharply. “What?!” He snapped. The flame in his palm surged, shooting out massive swirls of outraged fire into the sides of the cave walls.

“The- not the...” the warrior spurted, “I mean the bleeding on your head!” 

“Oh.” Zuko’s flames died down awkwardly.

The warrior took out his boomerang from his belt and, with a labored sigh, ripped a stretch of blue fabric from the bottom of his shirt. He held it up. “I’m just going to wrap it.”

“I can do it myself,” Zuko said with gritted teeth. 

“And what, turn off the torch and leave us in the dark? Or burn the other half of your face? Just stop whining.” 

Zuko was not accepting help from an enemy. He turned his back and continued forward angrily, until his bad foot slipped on nothing and he fell again. This time, he splashed down entirely into the water, extinguishing the torch and freezing himself. When he resurfaced, the warrior was laughing.

Zuko couldn’t feel the rag wrapped around his forehead after awhile. As they continued down into the mountains the air around them grew colder, and the rudimentary heating technique Zuko knew was doing little to help with their waists still submerged in freezing water. They were walking close enough their shoulders occasionally brushed against each other, but they both seemed to have silently agreed not to mention it. 

“And,” the warrior said, teeth chattering as he spoke, “I- when my d-dad found me in the s-snow drift that night he was like, ‘Sokka! Did you forget how to make an igloo?’ A-and I-I was just...”

“Wh-what’s a Sok-Sokka?” Zuko asked, shivering. 

The warrior snorted. “My n-name.”


“An-any-anyw-way I w-was...”

After some time, long enough that Zuko sensed the sun had gone down, they found a small outcropping in the cave. Shivering heavily, Zuko managed to pull himself up on the first try. The warrior, Sokka, took a couple attempts, Zuko didn’t help him, but he eventually pulled himself up as well. 

Zuko dried them both off, expanded the fire to both of his palms, and sat cross legged down. Sokka sat across from him directly in front of the fire. A few minutes passed, the flame beginning to warm them, as their eyes watched each other with suspicion. Eventually the two teenagers finally felt the shivers leave their body with twin sighs of relief. 

“This is just like the time I got lost halfway through winter when I was eight,” Sokka said.

“You told that story already.”

“Oh.” The water tribe warrior held his palms up to the fire, warming them. “Your turn.”


“Jerk. Fine. Should we- get some sleep?” Sokka asked reluctantly.

Zuko narrowed his gaze at the other teenager and frowned. “You first,” he warned. 

Sokka slapped his forehead in frustration.

Clearly, neither one was going to forget the other was an enemy. They continued onward into the cave a few minutes later, abandoning the idea of rest.

It was late in the afternoon of the next day when the cave began to grow brighter. A few more minutes of walking and they both saw light at the far end of the tunnel. Zuko grinned at Sokka and Sokka jumped up with glee, grabbed Zuko’s shoulders, and let out a water tribe war cry. 

Exactly a second later they both remembered who they were and jumped apart. 

Zuko coughed into his shoulder. Sokka started to whistle. They walked the final thirty minutes out of the cave, the water steadily growing lower and lower until it was only to their knees, until they stepped out of the dismal darkness into a bright forest illuminated by a beautiful afternoon sun. Zuko blinked blearily, eyes adjusting to the light, and Sokka must have too because they both stood still in the center of the river for a long moment. 

“Where’s Shan Pass?” Zuko asked. 

Sokka pointed. 

Zuko left without a word.

The next time they saw each other it was attempted-murder-and-kidnapping-of-the-Avatar-as-usual and neither one mentioned the incident in the Liudong River again.







Chapter Text

Two days after Zuko cut off his hair, he found a bloody blue rag in the bottom of his pack he’d forgotten he had. He kept in in his pocket for an hour until an idea for its use came to him. Zuko washed the rag and wrapped it around his wrist and hand like the hand wrap of a fighter.

Uncle Iroh raised his eyebrow at it, but didn’t say anything. Small mercies. 

“Freedom Fighters?” Zuko repeated. 

And Jet, the weird, shaggy Earth nation orphan, jutted out his lower chin and smirked. “Yeah, c’mon I mean, you want to do some good in Ba Sing Se with us?”

The answer had to be ‘no’, Zuko knew it. He couldn’t risk discovery. He and Iroh were full traitors to the fire nation now, if the fire nation got hold of Zuko, or Iroh, or even the Blue Spirit, they were dead. If the earth kingdom found out who they were? Worse than dead. Zuko had had a twitch in his side whenever a soldier walked near his uncle, certain they’d be recognized. 

Jet grabbed Zuko’s arm and pulled him aside behind some boxes. It was perfect timing, as Zuko saw his uncle had just begun to firebend his tea. In public. His jaws clenched, but Jet had pulled them away too quickly to have seen it. Jet flashed him a lopsided grin, took the reed out of his mouth and twirled it. He put his other hand against the wooden box, right beside Zuko’s ear, effectively trapping him in that confined space. “Listen,” the wild teenager said, “I got a- let’s just say... a sense for these things."

In the back of Zuko’s mind, he knew he should be angry for being pinned the way he was. But the rest of him, the part in control at the current moment despite Zuko’s better judgement, was more than fine with their extreme closeness. 

Jet leaned closer in a conspiratorial fashion and Zuko felt his heart begin to race. “I can tell you’re like me,” Jet told him. 

Zuko’s eyes widened. “You can?”

Jet nodded. “You’re a fighter. You’re not like those nancy, pansy, born with a silver spoon jerks, you’ve had to fight and scrape for everything you got,” Jet said with complete confidence. He pointed between the both of them. “You and me? We’re the threat they don’t see coming until it’s too late.”

Zuko had no response to that. 

“Look,” Jet said with a smile as he sided up next to Zuko and put his arm around the other’s shoulders. He looked out at nothing, tugging Zuko’s shoulders in his arms as he spoke. “I get it. You’ve still got that old man to take care of, but it doesn’t mean you can’t still run with the little guys. We work well together.”

Zuko looked away from Jet. “I can’t. He’s my uncle he’s-“

“All you have left,” Jet finished his sentence for him with an annoyed tone. “Look, when you’re ready, I’ll be at the Pia and Shen.”

“I shouldn’t...”

“Lee,” Jet said. The gap between their faces closed, for the briefest second, as Jet brushed his lips onto Zuko’s cheek. Zuko’s breath caught in his throat. Jet, his eyes staring into Zuko’s, smirked. “Think about it.”

Zuko stared. 

Jet put the reed back in his mouth and stepped backward. Zuko’s throat went dry and he nodded. The rebel turned around quickly, raised a triumphant hand in the air, and left their hidden spot, likely to join up with his friends. Zuko watched him move out of sight. 

Zuko looked down at his hands. He clenched them tightly at his sides. He felt the heat boiling in his chest, powerful, ready to be unleashed with only the barest urging on Zuko’s part. With only the smallest push of his chi Zuko could have firebended right then and there on the train to Ba Sing Se. Jet is dangerous, Zuko concluded; but the thought, instead of inspiring caution, send a shiver of thrilled anticipation down Zuko’s spine.

He took a deep breath. 

When he eventually returned to his uncle, Iroh put his hand to Zuko’s forehead and asked if he was feeling flushed.

Sweeping up in the tea shop left Zuko with too much to think about. It was humiliating, first of all, for him to just to be there, moving dirt away from the feet of merchants and craftsmen and all sorts of lower class earth nation citizens. When he tried to explain it to his uncle, reminding the man that they were royalty, he’d only been told ‘arrogance invites ruin’ and pushed toward the dirty dishes. After a full day of scrubbing plates, cups, taking out garbage, delivering orders, and the worst, sweeping, his mind wandered to all sorts of places. Like how much nicer the tea shop would look burnt to ashes. Or Jet.

Zuko could feel warmth on his face every time his thoughts went to the earth nation boy. He’d clench his fists, scowl, and tense, but it wouldn’t stop that feeling from surfacing at the tip of his head and trickling along his body. Absentmindedly, Zuko would look at the couples, few and far between in this lower class establishment, and his traitorous brain would imagine himself sitting in one of those chairs. 

Zuko was no stranger to the concept of...

He’d been exposed to the existence of effeminates at an early age, with tutors and trainers chiding and insulting his progress and his manliness as he progressed at a snails pace while Azula flew. There’d been the taikomochi, clowns to entertain court, who were men dressed as women that existed as the laughingstock of the palace. And then, there were the sailors, making bawdy jokes about the thinnest members of the crew, or water and earth nation soldiers, and even once, a large, one-legged member of the crew told Zuko to his face he’d like to ‘bend your little scarred face over my bunk and show him what a man could do’.

Obviously, Iroh had beaten the man to a pulp, tossed him overboard never to be seen again, and quickly implemented a strict code of conduct in public areas of the ship. 

It hadn’t stopped a young Zuko from being curious. He overhead conversations in the mess, men complaining about his leadership, discussing their plans when they hit shore, insulting each other in ways that could have been jokes or not depending on any number of social cues. At one point, the crew seemed to unify in their scorn towards a single member of the engine room who’d apparently been caught with a man on a shore leave. The next time they hit land, the object of their derision was gone. 

It wasn’t just a hypothetical, then, or a joke to titillate courtiers, there were men like that (and according to some bawdier comments, women as well). There was only one, most important fact Zuko knew about those sorts of people, they were honorless. Jesters. Fools. Shameful. 

However, three days into his time in Ba Sing Se, he served two heavy-set, gruff women who greeted him with bright smiles and, as they left the shop, kissed each other with the ease of a long-term love affair. And the patrons of the shop gave them no mind. Made no comment. Clearly the rules in the Earth Kingdom were different than Zuko had grown up with. 

“You’re quiet today, nephew,” Iroh had commented later. Zuko just nodded at him. 

Zuko... was honorless. He’d lost any chance of his old glory and- he was Lee, of the earth nation. Lee of the earth nation could be a lowly, pathetic, shameful effeminate if... he wanted. Zuko already served the dredges of Ba Sing Se society; there were no rules or expectations for Lee.

Besides that of his uncle. The person who knew him and would know what Zuko had done. 

That night, Zuko collapsed onto his bed and curled on his side. His head ached. His uncle came into the room, shut off the light, but before Iroh went to his bed, he ran a gentle hand along Zuko’s hair. Calming.

Zuko turned away from him. 

He approached the door of the bar when a figure waved at him from a side alley. Zuko faced him, one hand on one of his swords, when he saw the familiar face of the Duke in the shadows. 

The area of the city they were in was desolate, no one on the streets but beggars and people rushing to leave, so he felt no need to be cautious of being watched as he stepped closer into the dark alley. The Duke hopped down from a barrel and raised a hand in a mock salute, lowering with a toothy grin. “About time!” He exclaimed, and he rushed forward and grabbed Zuko’s shirt. The Duke urged Zuko forward, making him stumble, but the boy was enthusiastic enough that Zuko didn’t protest. “Jet’s been wondering where you were.”

“I can’t,” Zuko said awkwardly, “stay. I’m just...”

“C’mon!” The boy interrupted. He pulled them toward a nondescript door. The Duke let go of Zuko to knock. Pipsqueak, the large Freedom Fighter, opened the door with a scowl on his face that only grew deeper when he saw Zuko. 

“Uh. Hi,” Zuko said. 

Pipsqueak rolled his eyes. The Duke ran under the large teenager’s arm to enter the building and, after a short glaring contest, Zuko ducked under Pipsqueak’s arm to get inside too. 

The inside wasn’t what Zuko had expected from a rebellious militia. It looked like an abandoned shop, a large, single room, with three beds of various sizes thrown up along various walls. There was a small fireplace in the farthest corner where some tunics were hanging to dry, and a good amount of random items, a carved duck, fliers for help wanted, shoes, and weapons haphazardly lying over the floor. In fact, it appeared more like a ramshackle home for lost children than a covert operation. However, Zuko forgot that quickly when he spotted the most interesting part of the room. Directly across the door, sitting on one of the makeshift beds, Jet sat up with a smirk.

There you are,” Jet said, with the confidence of a person who had never doubted that Zuko would be arriving at all.

“I can’t stay,” Zuko repeated. 

Jet shrugged. “Gotcha.” He reached into the pile of pamphlets, pulling out something indistinguishable from the rest before crumbling it into a ball and tossing it at Zuko. Zuko caught it with ease, unfolding it as Pipsqueak walked behind him with an angry grunt. 

“An exhibition for... an earth bending art show?” Zuko read, puzzled. “Why?”

“It’s a party for a bunch of fat cat noble earth benders that bought their way out of the war,” Jet said with scorn. “Instead of using their talents and money to defend their country, they play pretty games behind the walls of Ba Sing Se.”

“The earth kingdom has benders who aren’t drafted?” Zuko asked with surprise. The Fire Nation would never have allowed that, to participate in the war was an honor. Not a single member of the royal family had avoided conflict for as long as he’d known. It was a point of pride for all the people of the Fire Nation; their leaders would never demand something they wouldn’t do themselves. While in reality it wasn’t the same, the royals were always captains at the very least, they still saw combat. The Earth Kingdom... Zuko might have been forced to make his home here but he wasn’t a fan of what he’d seen.

Jet nodded. The hatred and rage in his eyes was... familiar. “And we’re going to make them pay.”

Pipsqueak crossed his arms, stepping in between them. “You and him,” he said stoically, “just you. Not us.”

“Can’t I...” the Duke began to protest. 

No.” Pipsqueak frowned at Jet. 

Jet looked furious for a moment, but his anger melted away as suddenly as it came and he passed it off with a noncommittal shrug. “I’m sure you’ll be wanting your share in the gold, though.”

“Jet,” the Duke said sadly. 

“Whatever!” Jet yelled, grabbing his weapons and hitching them to his belt. “I don’t even care.” He stormed forward, stopping at the doorway to glare back at his Freedom Fighters. “Let’s go, Lee. Looks like you’re the only one who can handle real revolution.”

Zuko took a long look at Pipsqueak, who was making an expression that Zuko didn’t know him enough to understand, before leaving the shabby home and stepping into the dark alley alongside Jet. Jet nodded at him and began storming off in the opposite direction Zuko came from. Out of the dark alley and into the mostly abandoned street. Zuko jogged a few steps and then matched the teenager’s pace. “What’s wrong with them? I thought this was... a group?”

Cowards,” Jet spat. 

Zuko raised his eyebrow in surprise. “Hm.”

Jet sighed and slowed his pace to a normal walk. He shook his head, his wild, tangled hair bouncing along his ears and shoulders. “They just...” he said, frowning, “they don’t want to risk anything here. They just don’t- realize, this place isn’t any different than out there! The only difference is a wall. Just because we’re on the other side of it doesn’t mean we’re going to be safe or that we can relax.”

Zuko nodded at him. 

“Alright,” Jet said, raising his head slightly over the curve of the roof to again look at the outdoor exhibition hall. It was a rectangular compound, with large covered rooms around it that opened to a dirt floor. Under the awnings were areas for seating, and at the far end was a locked area with the set up for a bar. As it was late, the area was abandoned besides a single guard who was lazily patrolling the outside. The front of the building advertised tomorrow’s display, the sons of two rich men were going to perform a competition of their earth bending skills, and this was the exact poster that had caught Jet’s ire. “Just in case,” Jet said, reaching into his bag, “I got myself one of these.” He pulled out a mask. It was wood-carved, looked handmade and hand painted, and it was a copy of Zuko’s. “You got anything?”

Zuko reached to the string around his waist and took out the mask of the Blue Spirit that he kept hidden under his shirt. “This,” Zuko said, eying Jet’s replica mask with surprise. 

Jet smirked at him. “Knew it,” he said with appreciation, “there’s been a lot of us popping up.”

Zuko blinked. “Blue Spirit...s?”

“Yeah, you think you’re the only one who wants to copy one of the Fire Nation’s most wanted?” Jet slipped his lower quality mask over his head. “You know what to do,” he said. Without a glance to the guard that passed by underneath him, Jet ran and leaped into the air. His body flew from one building to the top of the exhibition hall, landing almost soundlessly on the structure. 

Zuko put the mask on and followed. When his feet hit the next roof he tucked his head forward and rolled, and his body dropped downward to the dirt grass inside of the hall without a noise. Jet was beside him in a moment and gave Zuko an appreciative slap on the back. Then he was off to the first pillar.

Zuko went in the other direction. He paused for a long moment, his eye peering between the hole of the mask as Zuko tried to figure out what to even do. ‘Make trouble’ was not exactly a clear instruction. 

There were posters of former fights along the walls of the exhibition hall and Zuko tore a few of them down before deciding to make his way to the bar. Once there, he jumped over the counter. There was a grate in the floor for dumping liquids and that seemed as good a starting point as any. Zuko recognized some of the more expensive alcohols and opened them, pouring them straight into the sewer. It was quiet and certainly would cause the owners trouble, Zuko rationalized, even if it didn’t feel like much.

Jet was planting something under seats and reeling a long string along the ground- Zuko bet it was an explosive but Zuko wasn’t opposed to it. In fact, destroying property in the Earth kingdom was something Zuko had always been good at. 

Jet passed by him at one point, nodded behind the mask and pointed to one of the wines, “Save some,” but continued on. Zuko knew what the most expensive bottles were and he pulled three aside before continuing to pour out the exhibition hall’s entire stock. Jet was wrapping the wire alone a support beam now, and Zuko walked over with the wines and stuffed them into Jet’s bag as the other teenager worked. 

“What now?” Zuko asked. 

“We just need to get a safe distance,” Jet said, “before this goes off.” He gestured to the wire in his hand. “There’s probably some money in that office to the front.” Jet stabbed a knife into the pillar and used it to pull himself up higher to continue to wrap the wire. 

Zuko nodded. He ran forward quietly, reaching a door on the farther end. It was locked, but, with the blue hand wrap on his right hand he felt confident enough to punch into the glass. It shattered, not cutting him, and Zuko reached inside and unlocked the office. There were a few desks, cabinets, and a safe that he clearly wasn’t going to be able to unlock. Zuko rifled through the drawers quickly, pulling everything out, but there was nothing important. Names of people, dates, bets placed, lost, and paid, all the sorts of ways that rich people would entertain themselves. Nothing salacious, no bet was very large and none seemed outstanding by the end of the day. He had opened another drawer, found a box containing a key, right when he felt the shadow of a person behind him. “I might,” Zuko said, fingering the key in hand and glancing to the safe, “have found the-“

Hell are you doing?” A man’s voice demanded. 

The guard. Zuko reacted before he even turned around. He threw the key into the air and jumped, spinning, and hit the object backward. It hit the center of the Earth kingdom guard’s forehead and the man stumbled backward in surprise. Zuko rushed him, grabbed the side of the man’s head and slammed his ear into the doorframe. Then, as the man reached his hands upward, Zuko slapped the wrists away and gave him a hard kick to the face. The guard dropped, unconscious. 

Zuko found the key, ran back to the safe, and the key didn’t open it. He decided to pocket it anyway. At least the loss would be annoying for the owner. He jumped over the fallen Earth guard and raced back to Jet. 

Jet was on the roof of the exhibition hall now, waving. Zuko leapt up, propelled his body higher by hitting his foot against a pillar, and grabbed Jet’s outstretched hand. Jet pulled him up with a groan and then pushed Zuko’s shoulder playfully. “Good work with the guard,” Jet complimented. 

Under the Blue Spirit mask, Zuko’s cheeks felt a little hot. “Thanks,” he said. 

“Okay,” Jet turned back to face the exhibition hall. He reached into one pocket and pulled out a match, the other holding the wire that was strung out all over the building. “After I light this,” Jet warned, “we need to run."

The two of them sat atop some barrels in an alley, looking at one of the sections of Ba Sing Se’s many inner walls. Jet passed Zuko the bottle of wine he’d already taken a swing of. 

His hands trembling slightly, Zuko raised it to his lips and took a sip. “The guard, do you think...” Zuko started to ask. 

“He’ll be fine,” Jet dismissed. The makeshift mask was pulled off his face and resting on the top of his head and it fell a little as he shook his head. “And who cares? That guy makes a living walking circles around an empty building while other people actually fight for something.”

Zuko held the bottle out to Jet who took it. “Even the ones who do,” Zuko said, remembering, “not all the soldiers out there are protecting people. I was in this village... the soldiers were extorting the people for money. Threatening to take children away to fight.”

Jet, his eyes twitching in anger, nodded and took another drink. “That what happened to you?” One of his fingers twitched to point at Zuko’s face. “Sometimes Earth soldiers take kids away from home, make them fight and split the salary amongst themselves. I’ve seen it before.”

“I...” Zuko felt his chest tighten as he struggled to remember his backstory. “No. I had to... protect my uncle.” What was it Iroh had said earlier? “Our village was destroyed by the Fire Nation. That’s where I got the scar. We made our way here afterwards."

“Hm,” Jet took a long, second swallow and passed the bottle back, “and now you sweep floors in a tea shop. That old man’s holding you back, Lee. With skills like yours you could actually do something.”

Zuko frowned at his hands and nodded. 

“If you stick with me,” Jet said carefully, leaning forward to look in Zuko’s eye, “we could make some kind of difference around here. I’ll make it worth your time, too. I’ve seen what you’re like.”

Zuko’s hand froze with the bottle in the air by his face, ready to drink. “What... do you mean?”

Jet chuckled. He reached out a hand and his knuckles just barely touched Zuko’s cheek. “I know how to have fun,” Jet informed him with an expression on his face that was utterly manipulative and sent a shiver down Zuko’s spine. “Know what I mean?” Zuko handed him back the wine and Jet took it, his gaze never leaving Zuko’s face. 

“I have to go,” Zuko said sternly. 

“See you tomorrow.” Jet lay back down on the barrel, wine held to his lips, and smirked. 

Zuko left at a pace that was nearly a run.

Zuko jolted awake when something was thrown at his head. He sat up with a yell, his palm reaching outward and the other a fist at his side, ready to unleash a blast of fire, before he saw his uncle across the room and realized the object thrown had been an apron. “If,” Uncle Iroh said as he casually dressed in the lowly clothing of a tea shop employee, “you have the energy to be up all night it shouldn’t be a problem for you to wake up early, should it, nephew?”

Zuko glared at him. He stood up and changed. 

The day at the tea shop passed exactly like the other day at the tea shop had. Zuko was given orders by customers, brought them back to the kitchen, carried out the orders, cleaned up after the customers, and any time he wasn’t he was sweeping the floor. At a point in the day, after the lunch rush, he was given some bread and tea and Zuko ate it in the alley outside before returning and continuing the routine. Occasionally, his uncle passed by and said something encouraging about menial work and meditation being good for the soul; Zuko resisted the urge to kill him. 

The shop closed up when it was dark outside, the owner giving them his compliments and leaving the finishing work to the two of them. Zuko returned the broom with a sigh of relief. 

“Ah, nephew,” Uncle Iroh said, “come help me sort these leaves, I can barely tell my lavender from the coriander.”

Zuko looked out the window, at the darkness beginning to creep inside indicating night was falling. There would certainly be more work to do. Uncle Iroh appeared to be relishing in every mind-numbing project he could get his hands on and appeared adamant to bring Zuko in as well. He knew exactly what would happen the rest of the night. They’d do any work they could find and then Iroh would suggest a walk or a board game and after they’d go to sleep. Then they’d wake up and do it all over again.

Zuko pulled off his apron and dropped it on the nearest table. “I’m going out,” he said, determined. 

“Zuko, wh-“

Zuko slammed the door of the shop closed as he left.

Pipsqueak had directed Zuko toward a warehouse district and that was where Zuko headed. He passed by plenty of Earth citizens and guards, keeping his head down and shoulders slumped and no one bothered him. By the time he made it to the destination Zuko was actually starting to wonder if he’d become invisible. 

There were plenty of grown men walking along, carrying boxes or lazing about, one asked where Zuko was going and Zuko mumbled about an uncle and that seemed to do the trick. They let him pass by as if he was as inconsequential as a street dog. Zuko kept a look out between the buildings for a flash of blue or wild brown hair, but the object of his search came at Zuko from his blind side. 

Jet grabbed Zuko’s arm and pulled him into the shadows. “Finally,” Jet grumbled. He knocked Zuko back against a wall with one hand and leaned outward, eyes darting back and forth along the road to make sure they hadn’t been seen. After a moment Jet seemed satisfied and he stepped outward into the alley behind the two buildings, waving at Zuko to follow. 

Zuko did, letting the other teenager lead the way. Jet reached a ladder and climbed upward, ignoring the slight creaking as the well-used metal groaned a bit in protest under his weight. At the top was a door and Jet took some tools from his bag to unlock it before slipping inside. 

Zuko followed him to the top level of the warehouse, alongside a railing that was overlooking the center of the largely empty building. A few boxes and barrels provided cover and they leaned against it. 

Jet breathed a sigh of relief. “Alright,” he said. He sat up a bit just to look below them at a single, solitary man on the lower floor. The man was in ratty, Earth-nation garb and appeared close to falling asleep. “So there’s this group that meets here,” Jet whispered, sliding closer to Zuko’s side, “a bunch of refugees. They check on everyone coming in to try to find anyone who might be Fire nation and they get together to steal food from the big houses in the city above and bring it back.”

Zuko’s heart skipped a beat. “Fire nation...” he said slowly.

“Don’t worry about it, they haven’t found anyone. No Fire nation spy is stupid enough to come here,” Jet said, his eyes looking between two boxes to the floor below him. “They call themselves ‘the Spirits’.”

Zuko felt his mind forced into a whiplash from the original panic of realizing there were people who’d be hunting for himself and his uncle and then to the strange sense of pride that so many troublemakers in the Earth Kingdom had adopted his Blue Spirit persona as a symbol. “So,” he said, moving closer to Jet’s side until their shoulders were touching, “what’s the play? Are we asking to join?”

Jet’s nose crunched up as his face twisted in a snarl. “No,” he said with anger, “apparently they don’t ‘allow children’. That’s why we’re here.”

Zuko couldn’t see through the crack in the boxes as Jet did, so he just kept his face close. “Alright,” Zuko said. His eyes were focused on Jet’s face, somehow not shamed by his own staring since Jet didn’t appear to notice. “You want to know where they’re planning to strike next so we can beat them to it.”

Jet grinned. His hand reached out and clapped Zuko on the shoulder. “Exactly.

The hand stayed there. Zuko watched as Jet stared at the warehouse floor, heat slowly rising in Zuko’s face as he began to notice the way Jet’s shaggy hair danced along the teenager’s forehead. “Wh...” Zuko, awkwardly, adjusted himself to move the swords hidden in his left pant leg in a more comfortable position.

“Here,” Jet sat backward and fumbled through his bag. He pulled out the remaining two bottles of wine. “One for you,” he said, passing one to Zuko, “and me.” Jet took a knife out and quietly uncorked the bottles for them both. Then he sat down, back against one of the boxes, and closed his eyes with a sigh. “I bet I’ve bloodied more Fire nation scum than these jerks combined,” he mumbled, “it’s ridiculous.”

Zuko copied Jet’s motion and lay back against the barrels. “Yeah,” Zuko said thoughtfully, stomach clenching as he did, “I’ve caused a lot of trouble for them myself.”

Jet nodded in approval and took a drink. “Now we’re here, getting drunk on rich, draft-dodger wine and those idiots are plotting away in the off hours that they aren’t filling noble coffers.”

Zuko, wondering if the alcohol was an unusual addition to the nights or part of Jet’s normal routine, took a long chug before continuing the conversation. “I heard,” Zuko said, speaking from experience, “rich women fill bathtubs with milk to bathe in.”

Jet raised an eyebrow in amusement at him. “Why would they do that?”

“For their skin,” Zuko explained, “I think it makes it softer.”

Jet shook his head. “A bathtub,” he clicked his tongue on his teeth, “I bet that’s true. Nothing those assholes does could surprise me.” His shoulder pushed against Zuko’s in a friendly gesture. 

Zuko felt the blush growing hotter on his face. “A- and,” Zuko continued, “servants aren’t even allowed to eat leftovers from meals. They have to bring it to the pig-goats and the poultry so they’re fattened up for the next feast.”

Jet’s lip curled. “Ugh.” He met Zuko’s eye with a shake of his head. “You know what’s always really pissed me off?”

Zuko shuffled even closer without thinking about it. “What?”

Jewelry,” Jet said with scorn, “it’s like... a pretty rock on a finger that could feed an entire town for months but what do the fat-asses do? They put them in boxes and let them gather dust rather than help people.”

Zuko had never hated jewelry. He fondly, in fact, remembered running into his mothers room to steal her favorite pieces after she was gone and he’d hidden them under his mattress, taking them out when the pangs of missing her were too much and he needed something to remember her by. He’d always been grateful for the few rings, the gold and jeweled necklace, and single pearl earring he’d managed to smuggle away, as at night they’d given him some comfort and feeling that maybe somehow her spirit still lingered with him. But, as he looked at Jet’s tan skin, wild hair, and muddy brown eyes, Zuko agreed, “Yeah. What’s with that?”

Jet chuckled to himself and he leaned forward. His face was close enough that Zuko could feel the other teenager’s breath. “We should rob every noblewoman in Ba Sing Se,” Jet decided. 

Zuko, blood rushing to his head, nodded. 

“Yeah,” Jet said to himself, looking behind him at the warehouse floor. “Forget these jerks, let’s show them what real anarchy looks like.”

Zuko barely managed to grab Jet’s hand. The other teenager groaned in protest, nearly letting Zuko fall, before somehow gathering enough strength to pull them back. The two of them toppled over, Jet’s elbow hitting Zuko in the stomach and Zuko’s knee into the side of Jet’s head, and they rolled off the tilted roof of the building. Their bodies fell and landed onto an abandoned stall that collapsed under their weight. Zuko hit his back hard on the floor of the ground beneath him and Jet landed on Zuko’s sternum, knocking the air from Zuko’s lungs. 

After a moment of slow recovery, the two of them blinking with confusion as they tried to recall what had happened, Zuko raised a shaking hand upward to reveal the silver-encased jewelry box. Jet whooped in joy, grabbed the side of Zuko’s face, and kissed him. As his lips touched Zuko’s, Jet’s deft hands reached out and snagged the jewelry box out of Zuko’s grip.

Jet was off of Zuko in a second and pulling him to his feet. “C’mon,” the other teenager slurred, yanking them out of the broken stall roof with unstable footing. 

Zuko’s eyes were wide and staring at nothing. He felt phantom pressure on his mouth. 

“Let’s go.” Jet forced them into a run down the street.

Jet pushed Zuko toward the door of the teashop as he walked away and left Zuko to sort himself out. Without his arm around Jet’s shoulder, Zuko’s balance was completely shaken. He spent a very long time, that immediately slipped sway from his memory into nothing, attempting to put a key into the door that didn’t fit until he realized the door was unlocked. 

Zuko pushed the door open, immediately began to stumble, and was only able to get the door shut by leaning on it with his back. Using the various upturned chairs on the tables for purchase, and sending two of those scattering to the floor, Zuko managed to guide himself up to the stairs leading to the upper room. His hands slapped against the walls, giving him balance and focus, as he lifted his feet and began to climb. 

His entire body felt like black silk that had been left to lounge in the sun. He was hot, smooth, languid, like a liquid being with something like happiness bubbling in his chest. Zuko climbed slowly and then faster, not even caring when he slipped and his knee slammed hard into a step because he couldn’t actually feel it hurt. Zuko reached the door to his and his uncle’s room and pushed at it. 

He eventually remembered he needed to turn the handle and he did so then, chuckling at himself as he stumbled inside. A light was still on and Uncle Iroh was sitting on a chair facing the door, his arms crossed. 

Zuko, slowly, attempted to be casual. He reached up and rested an arm and the doorframe. “Good...” he started, but he couldn’t remember if it was morning or night so Zuko faltered. He leaned his weight against his arm and found himself unstable and his body lurched forward, taking several steps before Zuko righted himself. “Hello,” Zuko mumbled as he held his arms out in front of him for balance. “I’m just-“

“Are you drunk?”

Zuko’s legs shook underneath him as he forced them to guide himself to his bed. When he was close enough, Zuko fell on top of it. Most of his body even managed to reach, only one of his legs was still spread out on the ground having missed the mark. “No.” Zuko’s face was pressed against the floor. 

Kind hands reached out and straightened his leg, pushing Zuko into a more comfortable position. The hands slid under Zuko’s stomach and flipped him slowly until Zuko was lying on his back. 

Zuko closed his eyes and took a deep breath in. His head was swimming a little bit, the world feeing unsteady and uncomfortable. He protested wordlessly against the hands that turned his head to the side but otherwise he was too limp and relaxed to resist. 

“Zuko,” Uncle Iroh’s voice said with quiet rebuke. 

“Mm fine,” Zuko muttered. He raised one hand and covered his eyes in the crook of his elbow. 

“What were you doing?”

Zuko tried to fight the giggle bubbling up inside his chest but he failed. “Stealing,” he said, a half-truth as he could still feel the press of foreign lips on his own. 

Three boys ordered jasmine tea and sat loudly in the corner, discussing their skills during sparring practice. The one on the right was attractive.

A woman sat with an annoyed look on her face as her husband, an earnest, well-built man with an enticing smile attempted to lure her into conversation. 

A large man laughed uproariously at the antics of his silly, childish daughter while his well-groomed, handsome son rolled his eyes at the both of them. 

Zuko noticed each and every one of them with a feeling of utter dread creeping into his chest. 

Chapter Text

Iroh was either very disappointed or very angry at him and Zuko wasn’t actually sure of the difference. The look he gave Zuko the next night when he began to walk out the door was enough that Zuko actually stayed, but his uncle didn’t make an offer for the two of them to play pai sho or another game. They ate their dinner in silence, Zuko looking at his hands and Iroh’s eyes on Zuko’s face, and then when they went to their room Iroh bent over a book he’d borrowed and stayed like that until he went to sleep.

Zuko felt the silence between them like the drumming of a soldiers march, getting louder and louder until it was near unbearable. If he wasn’t so tired from the hangover he wouldn’t have slept at all. 

Clearly, if Zuko wanted to break back into his uncle’s good graces he would simply keep his head down and do what he was told until the inevitable ‘conversation’ his uncle would have with him, which had originally been an exceptionally foreign experience. It always leave Zuko anxious and feeling like whatever had happened was incomplete. Uncle Iroh was rarely this quiet for this long and any time he had been before Iroh had always started the ‘conversation’ with an apology, explaining he’d been trying to find the right words to express himself or hoping Zuko would explain himself first. Zuko’s uncle had made great pains to bring the point home that no matter his anger or disappointment in him, Iroh was never going to act like Zuko’s father. Problems between them were solved with talking and, whether Zuko wanted it or not, a hug. 

Iroh had made the switch almost immediately as they’d set out together. Which was an important one, because before Iroh made it clear he.... actually loved Zuko, Zuko had been certain his uncle was on the ship to whip him into proper shape ordump Zuko’s body in the middle of the ocean. It wouldn’t be the first time a relative had wanted Zuko dead... but Iroh didn’t know about Azulon’s order and Zuko had never told. 

When they’d first gathered the crew for the ship, Zuko had ranted to his uncle about their lackluster and clearly substandard companions, and Iroh had yelled an order at Zuko to be quiet. Zuko, afterward, had kept his mouth shut the entire day, following his uncle as a silent spectator, until they’d gone to their chambers for the night wherein Zuko had bowed down, lifted his shirt, and waited for a beating that never came. Iroh didn’t raise his voice like that again.

So, despite Iroh’s silence and clear disappointment in Zuko’s actions, Zuko knew the end result would be nothing but a serious conversation and a reassertion of love.

Therefore, Zuko wasn’t afraid of Iroh’s wrath. Zuko left the teashop the next day at noon.

Zuko didn’t know what Jet was doing with the jewelry and gold. He wasn’t sure he exactly wanted to know. It was obvious when Jet had shown back up that he was wearing new clothes but the other teenager didn’t mention it, only guided them toward the home of a rich author whose family was visiting the palace. The place was locked but not guarded, there was a dog roaming downstairs that Jet quickly locked in the basement after luring it with a handful of meat, and then they were searching through the house. 

Jet didn’t ask how Zuko seemed to have a sixth sense for exactly where a wealthy person would hide valuables so Zuko didn’t ask what Jet was doing with the things they stole. It was a mutual understanding. It was clear as well that Zuko was there for a different reason. He pocketed some spare coins but everything else went into Jet’s bag. 

Zuko wondered why this didn’t feel wrong. He was acting as a common thief. He didn’t know anything about these people, just that they belonged to the enemy, but after everything he’d been through Zuko knew that just because someone was Earth Kingdom didn’t make them worth hurting. He’d seen plenty of innocent and good people in these lands. 

But he stole, and it felt good, and it felt better when Jet clasped his hand on Zuko’s shoulder and said farewell with a wink.

Zuko opened the door to a dark, candlelit shop. The sun was fading outside and only added to the orange glow on the wood of the floor as he stepped inside, his shadow long on the ground and reaching upward until it touched an occupied table to his left. Uncle Iroh was sitting in front of the only table that still had a tablecloth and a teapot. His eyes were closed and his arms folded. 

Swallowing his nerves, Zuko shut the door behind himself and walked to him. He stood awkwardly in front of the chair facing his uncle. “This... are we having tea?” Zuko asked. 

Iroh nodded. 

Zuko sat down and only then did his uncle open his eyes. Iroh leaned over the table to the teapot and poured two steaming cups for the both of them. He set them down in front of him, added one sugar to his, a lemon to Zuko’s, and held it out. Bowing his head slightly, Zuko took it. Iroh took a sip and Zuko mimicked his movements. 

“Genmaicha,” Iroh said, breathing in the scent from his teacup, “with a hint of sweet mint to balance the earthy flavor. Very distinct. It was popular today.”

“It’s good,” Zuko said, and he meant it. He held the cup in his hands, enjoying the slight warmth of it as his stomach churned in nervousness.

“And, my beloved nephew,” Iroh said gruffly, somehow managing to be aloof, “what did you steal today?”

Zuko set the teacup down. “It’s...” one hand clenched the fabric at his knee, “some rich man... jewelry, I suppose. Some money. I was thinking... I thought...” he struggled as his reasoning sounded pathetic to his own mind but Iroh waited patiently for him to finish, “we could buy some... better mats. For the beds.”

Iroh raised an eyebrow, curious. “Saving up for that, are you?”

“I... should be able to afford it. I could get them tomorrow,” Zuko told him.

“And these friends of yours, who enjoy stealing and blowing up buildings-“

Zuko’s eyes widened. “You heard about that?”

Iroh snorted. “Are you enjoying yourself with them?” He asked, “When you imagined a different life, did you imagine yourself a thug?”

Zuko slammed his palm down on the table. The dishes clinked and shook at the force. “I didn’t imagine a different life at all!”

Iroh met Zuko’s gaze with his own, sage determinism. Zuko hated that look. “This is where we are, Zuko,” he said sternly, “you can choose to make this time mean something or you can use it to continue to sow destruction. After all, that’s worked out so well for you in the past.”

Zuko seethed. “And this is what you want, Mushi? To spent every day serving tea to people who should be bowing to you?”

Iroh frowned. “Bowing to me?”

Zuko stood up. “You could have ruled this city once!”

“And yet,” Iroh told him, “here I am.” He gestured for Zuko to sit down. Zuko crossed his arms. Iroh gestured, again, a little more forcefully this time, and Zuko, grumbling, sat back down in his chair. “Fate has brought us here now, to a place with a roof over our heads, safety, and food. Where we can live quietly. Perhaps there is something the both of us need to learn from Mushi and Lee.” Iroh sipped his tea and sighed. “I, for one, have discovered,” he smiled, “I very much enjoy making tea!”

Zuko kicked at the side of the table and frowned. “would enjoy a nicer bed.”

“Aha, so Lee enjoys the finer things,” Iroh said thoughtfully with a playful smile, “but not working for them. He’s lazy. Very hot-headed. And is driving his poor, old uncle crazy by sneaking out at night.”

Zuko scowled and turned his head away. His arms were still crossed but he pushed them together tighter. “I don’t play games, uncle, I’m not,” Zuko took in a deep, angry breath, “going to waste my time playing pretend.”

“Ah, poor Mushi,” Iroh said sadly, “his dear, beloved nephew is running off and joining the gangs. It breaks his heart.”

Zuko’s eye twitched. “It’s not a gang, it’s just one... it’s just one boy, alright?!”

“So easily corrupted, Lee,” Iroh mused, “and even so he barely even brings anything home. Even drinks all the wine himself without any thought to his poor uncle.”

Zuko glared. “We made plenty I just let Jet take most of it,” he defended. 

Iroh seemed surprised. The fun, goading air he’d been putting on faded. “Why?” He asked curiously.

Zuko felt blood rushing to his face. “He, he said he’d... buy food for people with it or something. I don’t know. Help people, I guess.”

“And,” Iroh gave him a knowing look, “does this mean Lee is a kind-hearted soul who only wants to help the poor?”

“No!” Zuko snapped, “Of course not!”

Iroh leaned forward and looked at him. A pit fell in Zuko’s stomach. Iroh looked at him. Zuko’s skin lit up with goosebumps as his blood ran cold. Iroh looked at him. Iroh tilted his head and frowned. “So, Lee is the kind of boy who destroys buildings and steals from strangers just to impress another stranger,” Iroh said, “is this really the kind of friend you want to make, nephew? The man you wish to be?”

Zuko turned away. He watched the steam flitter outside of the teacup, condensation beginning to drip along the edges. “It’s better than staying here and being a servant.”

“Hm.” Iroh leaned back. “It’s strange Lee has so much pride when he and his uncle were only poor Earth Kingdom farmers.”

Zuko’s hands clenched tightly into his arms, knuckles turning even whiter than his already pale skin, the blue hand wrap on his right actually hurting him from the pressure. “I don’t want to be Lee forever,” Zuko said, “I don’t want to be someone I’m not.”

“I don’t think it will be forever,” Iroh assured him, his voice sad, “We’re pieces in this game; sometime soon we’ll be back in play. Can you try to enjoy the break for a time, Zuko?”

“Yeah?” Zuko asked harshly, “And when this is over? When you’re a general again? How do you think people would feel knowing you were making tea for the lower classes of Ba Sing Se?”

Iroh frowned. “I don’t have any shame in this,” he said sternly, “providing for my nephew and myself? Doing good, honest work? If that’s your concern, Zuko, do you want your people knowing their Crown Prince is a thief?”

“It’s better than doing this!” Zuko gestured angrily to the shop around him. “And it’s Lee who’s a thief, right? According to you!“

“You’re talking in circles,” Iroh chided, “which are you now? Zuko or Lee? Which actions reflect on your character, nephew?”

Zuko grabbed his head, fingers twisting in the longer, untidy hair, and yelled in frustration, “I don’t know!

“Which do you want it to be?”

Zuko’s brow furrowed tightly in confusion. “I can’t- I can’t just be Lee and do whatever I want!”

“Of course you can’t!” Iroh pointed out, “Lee should be a law-abiding citizen or his uncle will be very disappointed.”

Zuko glared at him in annoyance. “Maybe Lee is just a thug and a thief,” he grumbled.

Iroh sighed. “Poor Mushi has his work cut out for him raising this boy,” Iroh said, “but as long as Mushi and Lee stay together...” he appeared to purposefully let his voice trail off. 

Zuko’s eyes widened. “I’m not going anywhere, uncle,” Zuko said immediately.

Iroh smiled. “Good. And it’s your turn to clean the shop. Mushi had to do it yesterday all alone.”

Zuko muttered a curse under his breath.

“There!” Jet said excitedly. His hand was clasped tightly onto Zuko’s wrist, pulling him forward. “Ha! This is perfect!”

Zuko lifted his masked face, eyes widening as he saw smoke lifting behind some of the buildings up ahead. “I don’t-“ he started to say. 

Jet dragged him along eagerly, not listening. “They won’t notice us and once we slip in they’ll have to let us join,” Jet said. He forced them down the road, passed a series of fleeing citizens and some bystanders standing frozen in shock. 

The path eventually opened onto the scene of the attack. There were twelve men, all wearing various wooden masks and dressed in ratty green clothes, each holding makeshift weapons of wood, steel bars, or chains, furiously fighting a handful of Earth nation guards. The building in front of the skirmish had a large sign, which had been hit badly and appeared close to falling over, indicating this was a private, guarded home. Hing Gu Mong, Tax Collector. 

Jet let go of Zuko’s arm and howled, racing into the fray. One of the guards was raising his hands, the earth riding along with it when Jet threw his weight into the man’s side and knocked it over. Another one of the Spirits hit the guard as he passed with a club. A huge rock went spiraling out, passed Zuko, and it slammed into a shop behind the fray. 

Zuko followed the path of the destruction with widening panic. This was exactly the sort of thing he shouldn’t be doing. Petty theft was one thing but this was a street brawl. At any moment, more Earth kingdom guards would be rushing in the area to arrest any troublemaker that couldn’t get away. 

“Hey!” Someone was screaming, as a few Earth citizens rushed into the battle, attempting to stop the violence. Some were immediately thrown aside, others grabbing onto the masked mob to try and help the Earth guards. The Spirits, despite how Jet had insisted they were working to help the people of Ba Sing Se, retaliated with violent force. 

Zuko heard a motion at his side and turned quickly, raising his swords to block an attack. An Earth guard’s weapon slammed down into them, but the strike didn’t hit. The man leaned forward, breathing heavily, and pushed their blades apart. 

Zuko let the motion carry himself several paces backwards, his mind reeling, wondering what he should do when he heard a scream to his left. He turned immediately to look. 

A girl, perhaps five or so years old, was standing too close to the fight. Her eyes were wide in fear, arms reaching upward. In front of her, two Spirits rushed at an injured guard. The guard, his motions unsure and jerking, dropped his hands to the ground and sent a series of stones flying up in the air in a line. The earth bending sent the two reeling backwards. The stones continued to rise, heading directly to the girl. 

Zuko ran. He tossed his swords into one hand, his body filled with adrenaline that gave his muscles speed he didn’t know he had. Zuko flung himself at the girl, grabbing her to his side. He wasn’t fast enough to completely avoid the Earth benders attack but it was enough. The stone slammed into his back, but it pushed him farther outward into the road. Zuko curled himself around the girl, protecting her, and let his body slide against the road to stop their fall. 

He sat up, groaning but throwing the pain to the back of his mind, and the girl wrapped her arms around his neck. Zuko lifted her, turning back to look at the danger. The citizens, guards, and furious masked mob were engaged with themselves. Rocks flying for heads, weapons going for the kill, screams to stop the violence ringing through the air as dust clouds swirled frantically around the scene. Zuko held the girl tight to his chest. He saw a woman, shaking, slowly stand up out of the side of the wrecked building, dirt streaked across her face. She appeared injured and dazed but the moment she spotted the girl in Zuko’s eyes she cried in relief. 

Zuko ran toward her, setting the girl in the shaking woman’s arms. Her tear-striken face looked up at him. “Thank-“ the woman started to say. 

“No time,” Zuko ordered, grabbing her shoulder and pushing her away, “get out of here!” She met his eyes, one hand cradling the back of the girls head, and nodded. 

This was bad. Not a single one of the men were paying any attention to the destruction they were causing. Earth was torn up and thrown, crashing into buildings, makeshift knives and weapons were thrown around the place, citizens who were trying to stop the fighting were thrown down without preamble by either side. There was no order or method to the madness, just furious refugees and frightened guards out to kill without a thought to the innocents caught between. 

Zuko ran in the middle of the fray, using the dust as a cover, to grab at a form he saw lying in the dirt. There was a heavy-set man, no guard uniform or mask, lying down unconscious. Zuko grabbed the man by the armpits and pulled. It took all of his strength to get him slightly away, so much so that he missed a swinging fist that came at him from his good side. 

Zuko was knocked backward, letting go of the innocent man, but as he raised his swords to attack he paused. Another man, in ordinary Earth garb, grabbed at the one Zuko had been rescuing and continued to pull him to safety. Clearly they’d been aiming for the same goal, but considering Zuko was wearing a Blue Spirit mask just like the unruly mob, Zuko couldn’t blame the stranger for the hit. 

He saw one of the Earth bending guards raise a large stone rock, the size of a door, into the air, his fist rearing back to hit into an attacker that was standing in front of a crowd. Zuko stepped forward, realized he was too far away to stop it, but before he could come up with another solution something appeared to hit the bender’s shoulder and stopped the attack. Good.

“The soldiers are coming!” A Spirit yelled out in panic.

It appeared to invigorate the four guards who were already there fighting for their lives. Stones began flying through the air with a fury. Zuko jumped through the air, doing his best to deflect the attacks from running citizens. He helped a few injured men to their feet, defending their escape, his swords whirling through the air. Someone at Zuko’s side yelled at him to go left, and Zuko turned quickly to see a woman fighting with a Spirit, neither aware of the ground shaking beneath them. Zuko jumped in that direction, flinging himself, and only barely managed to knock all three of them to the side before a large sinkhole opened up in the ground. They were still for a moment, until the woman screamed at the Spirit, “Yoshi! Get out of here! Come home, now!” She grabbed the Spirit by the scruff of his neck and the masked man ran out of the battle along with her. 

Zuko’s stomach began to clench with panic. He could hear the loud, rumbling noise of Earth benders speeding their way toward the battle. Without any time to loose, he ran to the next person in danger he could see. Two Spirits were slashing at a blue figure, advancing menacingly. Zuko rushed between them, throwing his swords to parry the attack and then twisting his wrists to knock the weapons out of their hands. He grabbed the person behind him by the arm and ran into the street.

He had to get out of here; he had to get everyone out of here. This wasn’t right. This was violence, destruction without care for innocent life. It was hatred unleashed that missed the real target and did nothing but cause more pain. 

Holding firmly onto the citizen, Zuko ran through some of the crowd. Hiding himself in the mess of people that were running for their lives. He knocked into some of them, not bothering with an apology, as his feet were possessed by a fear of their own and carried him as far away as he could. The ringing of battle was loud in his mind, but far in his ears, when some part of the anxiety managed to let up. Zuko pulled himself into an dark alley, hiding in between two sets of stacked barrels, and pushed his back hard against the wall of a random building. 

He was breathing so heavily. The part of the mask that was touching his face was hot on his skin from his staggered breath.

“What the...” a foreign voice said. 

Zuko tried to control the jump of panic at the sound. His swords dropped to the ground and he flung himself to a ready position, turning his head to see... how?

Dirt streaked across his face, hair disheveled and falling along his head, the wide-eyed Southern Tribe warrior was standing in front of him. Sokka.

Sokka leaned forward, looking down both sides of the alley for danger, before he breathed a sigh of relief and rested his back on the wall. “Sheesh, you go looking for walruscow jerky one time,” he said, easing tension in his shoulders, “thanks.”

Zuko carefully took a step back, his seeing eye trained on the enemy’s face, and bent down slowly to pick up his swords. 

“You’re not with those guys,” Sokka said. He shook his head. “I saw you. Don’t worry, I’m not with them either.”

Zuko swung the swords in his hands and adjusted his grip to hold them ready for battle. 

Sokka raised his palms up in a gesture of peace. “I mean it! I’m not, I mean, look at me!” He gestured to his blue tunic and pants.

Zuko had no idea what to do here. The Avatar was in Ba Sing Se? Why? They had come to Ba Sing Se to get far away from the Avatar, meaning as far away from Azula, as possible, and now, in the flesh, the Avatar’s teenaged water tribe bodyguard was standing right in front of him. 

“Do you know-“ Sokka started to say. They paused, both hearing the rattling of armor as Earth kingdom guards were running down the street. Sokka grabbed Zuko’s shirt and forced him into hiding behind the barrels. They waited until the sound disappeared into the distance before Sokka continued. “Do you know what they wanted?”

Zuko realized something very clearly in that moment. Sokka had no suspicion of him. Even though Zuko was wearing a Blue Spirit mask and holding two swords, the water tribe warrior was acting as if they were two mutual allies that had just met. Which, obviously, meant that the Avatar hadn’t told his crew that Zuko was the Blue Spirit. Why?

“You okay?” Sokka asked. He stepped in front of Zuko and reached up a friendly hand to pat him on the shoulder. “Maybe,” he said with a grin, “you recognize me?”

Zuko didn’t move. 

Sokka chuckled to himself. “Yeah,” he stepped backward and reached both his hands to the back of his neck in an arrogant pose, “I’m Sokka. I travel with the Avatar. No big deal.”

Zuko opened his mouth to say something like, ‘I am Lee and I am completely inconsequential and definitely an Earth kingdom farmer’ when the words caught in his throat. Because, Zuko knew for a fact that it would immediately give him away. Zuko didn’t exactly have the most nondescript voice. With a single word this enemy warrior could immediately clock him for who he was. 

“Uh, right,” Sokka looked awkward, “um, thanks for the save back there. And helping me get those people out of the fight.”

Zuko, slowly, eyes wide, nodded.

“Alright, cool!” Sokka reached a palm out. “Teamwork!”

Zuko stared for a moment but then high-fived him.

“Great,” Sokka said, turning to leave, “this has been-“

Zuko watched as the teenager froze, as if in sudden realization, arms tense at his side. Then, Sokka turned around sharply with his mouth open. Oh no, Zuko thought. He readied his chi for a fight. 

“Wait a second!” Sokka grabbed Zuko’s hand and held it up. “This is-! This!”

Zuko realized, with a pit in his stomach, that Sokka was holding up the hand with the blue hand wrap made from Sokka’s own clothes.

“This is dyed polardog leather!” Sokka said, eyes wide in amazement. “You’re from the Southern water tribe!”

Panicking, Zuko nodded. 

“Oh man!” Sokka dropped Zuko’s hand and slapped his own forehead. “I can’t believe it! When did you get separated from my dad? How long have you been the Blue Spirit- wait! You’re the real Blue Spirit, aren’t you?! Of course! Blue! It's so obvious, I can't believe I didn't put it together before!” Sokka face burst into a grin in amazement. “I can’t believe this!”

The water tribe warrior surged forward and wrapped his arms around Zuko’s shoulders in a hug.

Zuko, stiff and unsure what to do, let him. Sokka squeezed Zuko tightly, filled with the warmth of familiarity, his body shaking slightly as he chuckled with happiness. It was... different.

Sokka pulled away, hands on Zuko’s shoulders, and smiled brightly at Zuko’s mask. “Don’t leave me waiting! Come on! Are you Koa, Bidoq?” Sokka looked at him. The happiness faded slightly from his face. “Why aren’t you saying anything?”

The hands on Zuko’s shoulders, despite himself, felt comforting. It was strange. From Sokka’s reaction, so over-the-top, so full of joy, a part of Zuko actually felt like he was greeting a long lost friend. Which was impossible. Zuko didn’t have any.

“Hey, are you... able to talk?” Sokka asked sympathetically.

Jumping onto the excellent excuse, Zuko shook his head. 

Sokka’s eyes widened. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

Zuko shrugged. 

“You’re still alive, though, that’s amazing,” Sokka reached his hand for Zuko’s chin, “let me just see-“

Zuko punched Sokka in the gut. 

Sokka doubled over, face turning green. He wheezed, “O-kay. Mask stays. Jeez. I bet you’re Voak, you sure hit like Voak.” Sokka pressed one hand into his stomach, slowly recovering from the hit with a peeved look on his face.

This was too much. This was dangerous. Zuko pushed passed the water tribe warrior, sliding his swords into place against his hips. His eyes caught a means of escape and he jumped on top of the barrels, reaching up to grab a hold onto a window. Zuko used that to throw his body up higher, getting a better hold on the roof, and then he stood on it. The route back home was straight east, he could get there-


Sokka’s voice was filled with so much desperation that Zuko nearly fell. He got a hold of himself and looked down.

Sokka had jumped onto one of the barrels, looking upward, one hand reaching toward Zuko. The face the teenager was making almost hurt to see, as Sokka’s eyes were wide with longing. “Please,” Sokka said quietly, “we grew up together, I can tell something happened to you but... you’re going to come back, right?”

Zuko’s heart was drumming in his chest. 

Sokka, slowly, stood upward to his full height, eyes boring into Zuko’s with powerful emotion. “If you’re scared I get it, I won’t tell anyone, but please don’t just go away.”

Zuko felt blood rushing to his face. He nodded.

Sokka’s body relaxed with utter relief. He grinned, thrilled, at Zuko. “Thanks.”

Zuko nodded again and then ran as fast as his legs would let him.

Chapter Text

Zuko knew his actions had put their safety in danger. It hadn’t seemed like it would be an issue to follow some angry, Earth urchin around as the Blue Spirit but, because fate was a sick witch, Zuko had been thrown directly back into the fire. The Avatar’s water tribe bodyguard knew about him and that was going to lead to would have dire consequences. It also meant Azula wasn’t far behind, but Zuko had no idea how to tell his uncle that without confessing the rest. 

Whatever Zuko had been doing, fumbling around as Lee/Blue Spirit, had grown out of hand within the span of days. It was up to him to avoid Sokka by any means necessary. So, obviously, he should throw out the blue hand wrap. 

‘Lee’ didn’t want to throw out the blue hand wrap. 

He also should stop seeing Jet, or at least confront the jerk about whatever the hell that mess had been. ‘Lee’ however, the next time they met just mumbled something to Jet about ‘not liking the Spirits’ and was back to thieving at the shaggy teenager’s side within moments.

Lee, Zuko concluded, was an asshole.

Because Zuko didn’t care about the Avatar’s stupid water peasant. He never had before and whatever was bubbling up inside him had to be the fault of this identity-game Iroh was playing. Zuko would never see three teenagers greeting each other on the street and flash back in memory to the face of an enemy. Zuko would never lie awake at night remembering the hopeful, longing look of another boy’s face. And Zuko would never sit behind the counter of the tea shop, staring at a young couple lovingly looking into each others eyes, as his fingers absentmindedly traced the blue hand wrap on his wrists. 

“Lee,” Iroh said, nudging Zuko’s shoulder. 

Zuko yelped and jumped out of his reverie. “I- what?”

Iroh, a sneaky expression of understanding on his face, flicked his head toward the young couple. “Someone needs to take their order.”

“Right, yeah,” Zuko scrambled around the counter and found his notebook, “got it.”

Jet peered around the side of the alley, eyes glancing to the apartments above. “He should leave for the bar... there we go.” 

At the final apartment on the second floor of the building, a door opened and a large man walked out. He was an wearing Earth soldier uniform, which was ill-fitting around his broad shoulders, and by all respects he was huge. The face he had seemed permanently tightened up in a scowl. 

Zuko frowned, looking at the series of apartments and back to Jet. “This isn’t what we normally do,” Zuko said, confused. 

Jet waved his hand dismissively, his eyes trained on the large soldier like a hawk watching a mouth. “Don’t worry about it.”

Zuko’s eyes narrowed and he lifted the mask up from his face. “What would he have that’s even worth stealing?” He demanded, “I think after what happened before I have a right-“

Jet backed up when the man grew closer, throwing his arms against Zuko’s chest to push them back against the wall. “Shut up,” Jet whispered. 

Zuko fumed. He waited, grinding his teeth together, until the soldier walked by and was enough out of hearing range. Then he pushed Jet away from him as far as he could. “I’m out,” Zuko told him, “this is-“

Jet stumbled from Zuko’s shove but regained his balance. His eyes widened for a moment at Zuko’s words but he regained his composure. “Okay, look, I’ll explain, promise.”

Zuko crossed his arms.

After,” Jet added, “we follow the guy to a dark street and rob him.”

Zuko stared for a moment. “We’re... you want us to mug him? That guy?” He couldn’t believe it. “He’s basically the size of both of us put together. And he’s a soldier.”

“That’s why I need backup, c’mon,” Jet turned to look back down the road. Without looking back at Zuko he started stalking forward, his footsteps quiet but fast, sticking to the shadows. 

Zuko didn’t want to follow him. Also, he knew that Jet was strong and quick but a direct blow from that strong soldier would knock Jet out in a single punch. And... Zuko could help. He had fought bigger men before, more than one at a time, and even without his firebending Zuko was confident in his abilities. Unfortunately, he didn’t know enough about Jet to feel the same about his skills.

Zuko forced himself to follow, hating it as he did. This may have been fun, exciting even, at the start, but it was increasingly apparent that Jet was using him to fill the role of ‘obedient lackey’.

Jet carefully hunted the soldier, taking short cuts through alley ways and once through an abandoned building. His eyes were darting around, checking out the few civilians they passed as they went, clearly calculating. Eventually, something clicked into place.

Jet ran up a stall, jumping to a roof, and onto another, stopping to lean along the side of the building and wait. His hands went to his pocket, grabbing a reed and putting it to his mouth. 

Zuko slid up beside him. He pulled the Blue Spirit mask over his face. The soldier walked, with the confidence of any large man in uniform, briskly into the dark alley without a care in the world. He came directly under where Jet and Zuko were lying in weight. Then he took two steps forward. 

Jet blew harshly through the reed. A dart leapt out and implanted itself directly into the soldier’s neck. 

The soldier grunted in surprise and grabbed his neck, just as Jet jumped down the alley behind him. Jet grabbed the back of his uniform, tugging, and the large man lost his balance and fell to the floor. The man snarled. He reached for his weapon. Zuko fell from the roof, landing on the soldier’s forearm and instantly breaking bone. 

The soldier opened his mouth to yell and Jet stuffed a rag inside before he could make a sound. “Ha,” Jet said with wicked triumph. He grabbed his knife, sending a start of anxiety into Zuko’s chest, but then slammed the dull handle of the weapon against the soldier’s forehead. Then again. And again.

Zuko grabbed Jet’s elbow and forced him to stop. 

Jet, not phased, sighed and put the knife away. He walked around the man, kicking lightly at his side with his foot. The soldier groaned at the touch but as clearly immobile or unconscious. 

“Okay,” Jet said, shaking his head, the wild brown hair whipping around his face, “we have to pull him to the side so no one sees and get his uniform off.”

Zuko, glaring, grabbed the man’s ankles. Jet took the arms and the two of them, straining at the effort, painstakingly moved the large soldier against the wall and a pile of trash, out of view of the street. Afterward, Jet immediately started to strip him. “What is this about,” Zuko asked, seething.

“You got that key on you? From the exhibition hall?” Jet was working quick, hands deftly unclasping buttons and getting the uniform off. “I figured out where it goes.”

Zuko stepped back, crossed his arms again, and waited.

“Gah, don’t give me that,” Jet mumbled. He managed to pull the soldier’s shirt off and started on the boots. “There’s a general who puts together all the deals for those draft dodgers,” he explained, “collects the money at that show from the parents. That key goes to his secret lockbox where he keeps all the names of the poor Earth bender kids in the city that could take the rich jerks place. Problem is, the office is guarded.”

Zuko nodded. “I take it this is a guard?”

“Yeah, new one. So, the plan is I put on the uniform, get in the office and open a window. You drag in a line for our escape, we get those papers and can let all the poor saps whose names are on the list know they’re a target,” Jet finished stripping the man of his uniform. He sat up, grinning at Zuko and clearly pleased with himself. “You in? Or are you gunna keep moping?”

Zuko’s hands clenched at his sides. “I am not-!” 

Jet pulled the large soldier’s tunic over himself and shrugged into it. It was too large, but would work well enough as a disguise from a distance. “Good. We don’t have a lot of time before this idiot wakes up and warns everyone. Let’s go.”

Zuko shot the dart through the window the moment it opened. He felt tugging on the end, indicating it was moving, and then three hard yanks. 

He whipped a rope around his hands, holding it tightly over the steel wire, and then pushed off the building. Zuko zipped over the wall, passed a few soldiers doing a nightly round on the compounds grounds, and his feet hit the side of the windowsill. He quickly pulled himself up, entering the room, as a uniformed Jet looked up at him, grinned, and then resumed rummaging through a cabinet in the corner.

The room was filled with maps, the first thing Zuko noticed. He saw, eyes widening, green lines drawn around the border of the Earth Kingdom, arrows indicating movement, and the trace of the Fire Nation’s blockade in red. Another map showed the more rural area to the south, red lines showing troop movements through the area along with green ‘x’s indicating where battles had been fought. He was directly in the middle of a strategy room- with this information he-

“Focus!” Jet hissed at him, “Someone might have made me, we don’t have time.”

Zuko turned sharply. “You were seen?!”


Zuko’s eyes flashed around the room. It was orderly, wide, display cases set up with trophies and weapons. At the farthest side was a large oak desk and Zuko ran toward it. On top of the desk were scattered missives, along with the photo of a man, woman, and three smiling children. Zuko resisted the urge to throw the letters into his pockets, along with all the other useful information, and, his mouth tasting bitter, began opening the drawers looking for a box. 

Footsteps sounded from down the hall. There was a shout. Jet ran to one of the trophy cases, attempting to push it toward the door. “It’s bolted to the ground!” He yelled at Zuko, “The doors only locked it wont hold for long! Hurry, did you find it?”

The final drawer held a small, metal box. Zuko pushed the key inside and heard a click, but there wasn’t enough time to open it and look inside. “Here!” He tossed the box with the key to Jet.

Jet grabbed it, stuffing it into his bag while the footsteps grew louder. “Let’s go,” he said, racing to the window. 

Zuko, first, ran to the door. He clamped two hands on the handle. He let his chi surge through his fingers, the inner fire inside of him coiling into his palms. Then he let go, the iron of the handle white-hot beside him, and raced to Jet’s side. 

Jet was already throwing his rope over the zip-line and kicking off. It wasn’t as easy this time, the angle went upward from where Zuko had come in, but it gave him enough force to slide toward the wall of the compound. Jet used one foot to find some purchase as someone yelled, “Up there!” and pulled himself to stand. 

Zuko took a look behind him, heard someone yell in pain, “The handle’s hot! I can’t open it!” before gripping the rope in his hand tightly. He jumped on the window sill and kicked outward with all of his force. Something was thrown at him, glancing off his leg, but Zuko slid onward. He reached Jet, one hand reaching out for Jet’s hand. 

Jet grabbed his hand. Jet’s foot went to Zuko’s stomach.

Zuko’s breath caught with surprise. He was leaning back, one hand holding the rope to the zipline, his feet unable to stand on the side of the wall. His hand in Jet’s was the only thing that would keep him from falling. “What are you doing?!” Zuko yelled. 

Jet leaned his face close to Zuko’s mask, eyes flashing with loathing. “I saw that,” he snarled. 

Zuko’s stomach lurched behind him as the shouts underneath grew louder. “Jet,” he warned. Zuko recognized that look. He’d seen it on many faces before. 

Jet’s face twisted in hatred. “Firebender.” He let go of Zuko’s hand and kicked.

Zuko’s hand lost grip on the rope and he fell. His back hit the floor hard, stealing all the air out of his body. His legs and arms landed at his sides, having been too shocked to even try to stop his fall. No. He could see, just barely, through the hole in the mask as Jet jumped off of the wall and out of sight into darkness. 

Feet came near his body and stopped, soldiers looming over him. Zuko couldn’t clearly see any faces but he felt their presence. He was caught.

A hand grabbed Zuko’s shirt by the neck and lifted his limp body upward. “What are you waiting for?” A gruff, hoarse voice yelled, “Go after the other one!” The force of the motion knocked Zuko’s Blue Spirit mask slightly, sliding it upward to where he couldn’t see out. He felt different hands grab for his, pulling them behind Zuko’s back, and a rope was tightly bound around his wrists. The hand on Zuko’s shirt let go and Zuko fell to his knees. 

Not for the first time in his life, Zuko had the thought, I really should have listened to my uncle.

A hand grabbed his shoulder, jerking him to his feet. “What should we do with this one?”

“Get him inside,” the commanding voice said, “the general’s coming.”

Zuko, who’d been pushed into a chair, was finally able to see when someone took off his mask. He did his best to keep the fear from showing on his face. 

He was in the general’s office, where he’d just been robbing. Two soldiers were standing at his side, their presence intimidating, and in front of him, sitting at the desk, was a man with a large beard and gray hair. The man was wearing the decorated uniform of an Earth kingdom captain, which was strange since Zuko’d expected a general, but the other soldiers didn’t appear phased. Either ‘the general’ was wearing the wrong uniform or this draft dodger operation was so underground that all of these ‘soldiers’ were valor stealers. It made a bit more sense, who else had the experience and lack of moral fiber to help others shirk their duty than men who did it themselves and yet still wanted credit.

The ‘captain’ of the operation leaned forward, anger on his face, and held out a hand. One soldier stepped forward obediently and gave the man the Blue Spirit mask. Zuko knew he wasn’t getting it back. The captain fingered it in his hands for a long moment before his eyes looked up to glare at Zuko. “So,” he said in a grave voice, “you troublemakers decided to target me.”

Zuko’s heart pounded in his chest. “No... sir,” he said. Something inside him physically hurt as he said the honorific but Zuko couldn’t think of a way out of this except to grovel. He could, however painful, give these honorless scum some empty platitudes if it meant he wouldn’t be thrown in prison. “I’m not with them. I was just hired.”

“And you didn’t see a problem with breaking into my office? That doesn’t help you,” the captain said harshly. “What were your people after?”

“I don’t know,” Zuko lied, hoping ignorance would play into his story. He wasn’t the best liar, and generally found it distasteful, but the last few months had been a crash course in the practice. “I’m quick on my feet, they said they’d pay me to do this job.”

The captain snarled, lifting a single finger. One of the soldiers stepped in front of Zuko. He reared his fist back and punched him in the face. On Zuko’s good side. The fist hit directly against his cheekbone, narrowly missing his eye, and sent a jolt of pain along his face.

Zuko’s body jerked in the chair as he took the hit, but he raised his head again defiantly. “I can tell you who hired me,” Zuko said, feeling vindication in his stomach as he did. There was one, satisfying, way he could cover up this mess with Jet; Zuko was going to make these soldiers do the work for him. The captain leaned forward with interest as Zuko continued, “His name is Jet, he smuggled himself into Ba Sing Se with a bunch of actual orphans. He’s in the warehouse district.”

The captain frowned, tilting his head. “Go on.”

Zuko smirked. “He wants to join the Spirits so he hired me to help him do this job. He figured this would catch their attention,” and, Zuko added, “the Spirits have meetings at the seventh warehouse on the leather-market side. Late at night.”

The captain chuckled, darkly. “I see,” he gestured for a soldier to come near him. The captain wrote something down on a piece of paper and gave it to the man who promptly left the room. “Anything else you want to tell me, young man, will greatly increase your chances of walking out this room.”

Zuko nodded. He searched his mind for any more information and made as much of it up as he felt he could get away with. “There was something about wanting to stop a recruiting operation,” Zuko told him, “and pawning a bunch of jewelry... to make their own army. They wanted to launch an attack somewhere in the city.”

“Any idea where?”

“I’m not sure, I was only hired for this,” Zuko said. Then, his stomach reeling slightly, he did his best to look sorrowful. “I’m a refugee to the city, I was just trying to get food for my elderly uncle,” Zuko’s voice wasn’t sad or scared enough, but he was trying, “I won’t do this again, I swear.”

The captain sighed. “Name, boy?”

“Lee,” Zuko said. The captain looked up, waiting. Right. Most people had last names too. Zuko, without any thought to it, blurted out, “Earth...en...?”

“Lee Earthen,” the captain said, not appearing to notice anything weird, “thank you for your cooperation. If you think of anything else, feel free to tell us. Shin? Luon Gen? Take the intruder out.” The two soldiers at Zuko’s sides bent down and untied his ankles from the chair. Zuko breathed a sigh of relief. It worked. Jet would be targeted by the Earth kingdom and they wouldn’t believe the ramblings of a criminal; Zuko and Iroh could very likely be safe. 

“Oh,” the captain said as an afterthought, “and make sure to teach the boy a lesson.”

Zuko, summoning the language of the sailors he’d spent several years growing up around, thought, fuck. His hands were still bound behind his back but he was able to walk, the two soldiers- if they even were soldiers- pushed him out of the office. They had blank looks on their faces at first, which slowly began to twitch into a smile. “You’re a real stupid bastard,” one of the soldiers said.

The other laughed as he stepped forward and opened a door for the three of them. “Guess that’s what the Spirits get for hiring kids,” he told the other. He grabbed Zuko’s shirt as Zuko stepped by him and shoved him forward for no reason. “Glad we won’t have to worry about those assholes much longer.”

They led Zuko down the stairs, one of them absentmindedly shoving him just to make the walk harder, and then down the hallway and out to the grounds. It was dark outside, lit with various torches and the stars, the walls outside the compound standing ominously in front. What exactly was it with Ba Sing Se and walls?

One soldier left, fetching a different guard in better armor, and they gestured for the other to bring Zuko toward a training area. There were straw dummies around, archery targets, and weapons on stacks. It looked a little too official for a group just playing soldier. The swords were definitely sharp. 

Zuko also, with annoyance, saw that his swords had been added to a pile. 

He was untied and pushed toward one of the straw dummies. “Man, I bet when-“ the soldier at Zuko’s left started to say. 

Zuko jabbed his elbow into the man’s stomach. The man doubled over, crying out in pain and alerting the others. Zuko ran quickly out of the reach. He dropped to a slide, one hand out, and swiper his swords from the pile. With a forward roll he was back on his feet. 

“You’re kidding me!” A soldier raced forward, hand reaching for his scabbard. 

Zuko jumped, kicked the man in the head, and used that momentum as he ran to the wall. He turned, facing the started men, his swords at the ready. They were recovering, looking extremely angry. One of the soldiers started shouting orders and the group gathered into a semicircle around him. Zuko glanced to his sides. There didn’t appear to be any structures against the wall from the inside. That left only one way for Zuko to get high enough to jump out. 

One soldier raced at him with a howl. Zuko slashed at the man’s helmet, knocking him off balance, and kicked him in the shoulder to fling him back. Then he raced forward, stepping on the man, toward another. He dodged a swipe from a lance, slid under one soldier’s knees, his swords slicing against the leather-guarded ankles as he did. When that man fell to his knees Zuko jumped on top of his back. 

Quickly, he leaped outward. One foot found the top of a helmet and Zuko pushed up. His hands outstretched. They connected to the top of the wall. 

Zuko grinned, pulling himself upward. The soldiers underneath were shouting in anger, utter chaos, as Zuko stood on the wall. He turned to the other side, eye mapping out the best route of escape, and jumped off. 

He was dropping easily through the air for a split second before something knocked him down. Zuko was sent sideways. He landed badly on his right arm, slammed into stone. A horrible pain shot up through his body from his arm and shoulder. 

Grimacing, Zuko forced himself to stand. He didn’t have time to be in pain. He could hear metal screeching behind him as a gate was opened. 

Zuko ran into the streets. He ducked into dark alleys, running outward in a meandering pattern as fast as he could. He needed to get far away but he also couldn’t let himself be followed. 

He kept going, far after he could still hear the yelling behind him. There weren’t many people out in the streets this late at night with allowed him to run by without notice in his dark clothes. Zuko’s left side ached with each movement, clearly something was wrong, but it took him a long time to be satisfied enough to stop.

There were some houses, ramshackle thrown together, and Zuko slipped in between them with a sigh. When his feet finally stopped moving they shook, completely exhausted, and Zuko could barely stand. He stumbled backward, right hand grabbing at a laundry line hanging between the homes, and he leaned his back toward the wall to try to rest. 

Long before his back touched stone, his shoulder screamed at him in pain and something else had hit the wall. Zuko fell to his knees.

He raised his shaking, right hand up to his shoulder. He could feel an arrow sticking out of him.

“Great,” Zuko growled to himself. One of the soldiers had gotten him with a lucky shot as he was in the air. He pulled the bloody hand back, looking as the fabric at the palm of the blue hand wrap was wet with blood, and sighed. If, Zuko promised himself, the soldiers don’t take care of Jet, I will.

He grabbed at a hanging shirt, still a little damp, and wrapped it around his chest like a sling. All the while Zuko was calculating exactly how much time he had before the sun started to rise. The only place to go, for now, was back home to his uncle where there was a distinct possibility Jet already was. At least Jet wouldn’t be expecting Iroh to be able to fight. Zuko pulled the sling tight around him and eased his injured arm into it as he heard something. 

A whistle.

Zuko turned his head to the side. Walking in the middle of the street, alone, looking like he was searching for someone, was Sokka. 

Zuko didn’t even have the energy to be shocked. He just felt exasperated. After everything that he’d just had to go through... this? Agni had a grudge against him and this was another pebble of proof on a sixty-foot pile. Zuko pressed his palm against the ground, his eye tracking the blue warrior. He could do this. Sneak past, easy. Zuko pushed on his palm and forced himself to his knees. He set one foot down on the ground, reached his right arm out for purchase and grabbed a low-hanging brown scarf on the clothesline. 

Sokka had stopped in the road, looking down at something with curiosity. He bent down, pressed two fingers onto the stone, and raised the red fingertips in front of his eyes. 

Zuko glanced over to his right hand, with the bloodied palm from his shoulder, and realized he had left a trail. Of all the- he swallowed up the rage building inside him and yanked the shirt off the clothesline. There were two loud ‘ping’ sounds as the clips came undone. 

Zuko forced himself to stand. He could hear Sokka say something behind him but he forced himself in the other direction. Awkwardly, moving quickly, Zuko threw the scarf over his head. He wrapped it around his neck, unable to make a knot with his single shaking hand. At least it covered him slightly. The fabric was brown and the night was dark but it was worn thin from use, Zuko couldn’t see well out of it but the shapes in front of him were enough. 

“Hey!” He felt, and heard, as Sokka ran up behind him and stopped. “Are you,” the Avatar’s bodyguard asked with concern, “is it you?”

Zuko walked forward and then his foot hit something hard. It stung, the way only a stubbed toe did, filling him with a second of pain that made him want to scream before it was gone. Zuko had to bite his lip to creep from cursing. He sighed. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely you,” Sokka said, “only you’d be this weird when there’s- an arrow in your shoulder?!” A hand grabbed Zuko’s right forearm. “What happened, Voak?”

Voak’? Zuko paused for a moment as his mind tried to figure out the connection. Oh. It was one of the other Southern water tribe warriors that had gone missing. Right, that was the story. Zuko was supposed to be a missing fighter from the south. 

He saw the blurry blue image of Sokka step in front of him and his chest clenched in anxiety for a moment, but the tone of concern never left the warrior’s face. At the very least, and in no way making up for this nightmare of a day, Zuko’s face was hidden. “Look, that’s bad,” Sokka told him, worried, “I can help.”

Zuko felt something warm in his stomach. And then, as if to torture him, his memory flashed back to the look of loathing on Jet’s face. Zuko wasn’t safe with Sokka, of all people, and it was ridiculous that his traitor of a body even felt that way. Zuko stepped forward, pushing Sokka to the side with his good arm and continued. 

As the blurry, blue and tan image in front of him disappeared everything else became a nearly imperceptible vision of black and deepest browns. Shit. Zuko reached his arm out, feeling his way like a blind man. His steps shifted, moving slightly to the side until finally they contacted a wall. He sighed in relief. 

“I mean it,” Sokka said sadly. “Don’t you remember me? I’m Sokka, the chief’s son?”

Zuko hadn’t known the Avatar’s companions were the children of the Southern tribe leader, which was an interesting fact at the least. It didn’t amount to much, judging from all Zuko had heard and personally seen of the South Pole the tribe appeared to be a handful of igloos. There were more people living in a block of Ba Sing Se than the entirety of that village. He took another step forward, knuckles grazing along the wall and guiding him. 

“I was always following you around, you and the older hunters,” Sokka was clearly following him, his steps slow but only half a pace behind. “Do you remember when Bato took you out to hunt your first puffin seals? You all got so close and then I fell down from a snowbank, because I’d been following you and the noise scattered all the animals? And Bato’s face got so red- I mean he was so mad at me.” 

Zuko snorted. The image of a tiny, bundled-up, boomerang wearing Sokka chasing after a bunch of tribesmen on their first hunt was amusing. 

“Yeah,” Sokka seemed encouraged by Zuko’s reaction. “It’s just me. Little Sokka. You can trust me.”

Zuko felt the end of the street and paused. He could really use a stick. He could use it to feel the ground in front of him and it would make it much easier to walk away from this guy but- Zuko took a deep breath in through his nose. Sokka wasn’t going to just let him go, and Zuko couldn’t out run him with the scarf effectively making him blind. He clenched his right hand into a fist against the wall and leaned against it. 

Slowly, Sokka stepped back in front of him. A blur of blue and tan, completely nondescript but with a voice that was earnestly expressive. “You’re... well, you’re clearly having a bad day,” Sokka sympathized. 

Zuko bit his lip under the mask. Yeah. It was the worst. He nodded. 

“Lost your mask, you’ve got an arrow in your shoulder, but-“ Sokka said.

Zuko frowned, looking up into the tan vision with confusion. But, he encouraged Sokka to continue in his head. 

“You’ve still got your swords and you’ve got me,” Sokka said, determined. “And I can fix you.”

He must have salves or bandages on him, a smart move considering what had happened last time Sokka and Zuko had met. Zuko pushed his weight off the wall, standing upright. Okay. He reached his right hand behind his shoulder, finding the arrow in his fingers. He gripped it tightly. Three, two-

Don’t pull it out!” Sokka yelled frantically. His hands reached out and grabbed Zuko’s arm, holding him still. “I mean- I meant, I’m not a healer but my sister is!”

Absolutely not. That was not happening. Zuko, with as much force as he could put into it, shook his head. 

“Don’t- she’s good at healing, she’s a waterbender, remember?” Sokka defended. “I’ll just take you to her-“

Zuko stepped a foot forward, against Sokka’s ankle, and pushed. The force knocked Sokka unbalanced enough that he let go of Zuko’s arm. He didn’t let himself think about the next part. Zuko pulled the arrow out.

He yelled in pain, wincing hard as he did so, but he’d pulled with enough force that the arrow was gone before Zuko lost his nerve. Panting, Zuko brought his hand back down, clutching the arrow. He could feel the trickle of newly released blood sliding down his back. 

“Wh- yo- I- such a- ugh!” Sokka shouted at him, his blurred form moving wildly in front of Zuko’s eyes. It grew a bit closer, mostly tan, as Sokka apparently leaned forward and said with a disappointed tone, “You’ve changed, you were never this stubborn.”

Yeah, Zuko was, but he didn’t know a thing about this ‘Voak’ person so the accusation was likely true. Zuko pushed the arrow out, until he felt his fist contact Sokka’s chest, and dropped it. It clattered to the stone floor. 

“Can I at least help you get where you’re going?” Sokka asked, sounding very disappointed. 

Zuko shook his head. Definitely not.

“I bet you’re not even Voak, Voak was funny,” Sokka said, accusing, “you must be Bidoq. Bidoq was a bully.”

Zuko made the mistake of attempting to shrug. The pain that wracked through his body had him bending over, panting from the sensation. 

A gentle hand reached for his arm, lifting it. Sokka, slowly, carefully, slid his body to Zuko’s side. His one arm went to Zuko’s waist, offering his support and helping Zuko stand up straight. “Okay,” Sokka said, “next time I see you, I’m bringing some ink and paper. And you’re gunna talk. I can’t keep calling you Koa/Bidoq/Voak in my head.”

Zuko, despite himself, chuckled.

“I can bring you out of this area, drop you off at the main street,” he said helpfully, “so you can go sulk in your secret Blue Spirit cave or whatever. But I have one condition.” It didn’t seem that serious a condition because Sokka had already started walking. He was lifting half of Zuko’s weight without protest, guiding them forward. “You know the library in the second district? There’s a perfectly nice, tree-covered sitting area out back. You. Me. We can make it late too, since I only seem to be able to find you when it’s the middle of the night.”

Zuko shook his head. 

“Oh, come on,” Sokka pleaded. 

No. There wasn’t a single world in which that made sense for Zuko to do. He had already rained a storm down on himself and his uncle tonight, invoked the wrath of a secret recruitment operation and Jet, the absolute stupidest thing he could do at this point would be to meet the Avatar’s bodyguard in a clandestine meeting. A person who, now that they were close, smelled very strongly of fish.

“I won’t help you,” Sokka warned even as he continued to walk, “or I’ll...” his voice trailed off but then came back with ecstatic energy, “I’ll tell everyone about you.”

Zuko’s foot stumbled. He wouldn’t dare...

Sokka chuckled darkly to himself. “Yeah, all my friends. The Avatar too. You want to stay secret for- whatever reason? Then you’re gunna meet me tomorrow, Koa.”

Zuko’s inner fire surged inside him as his face twitched in rage. 

“Nah. That doesn’t seem right, Koa was too big,” Sokka mused. He shook his head, the movement of which Zuko could feel against his shoulder. “Anyway, tomorrow. Behind the library. You in?”

Zuko, his lip curling, nodded. 

Sokka let out a whoop of triumph.

Chapter Text

Zuko was standing extremely still. He held a rag in one hand, his left was still pulled into the sling, and he felt... stuck. Frozen. His mind had become an utter blank state of confusion.

“...and,” the woman continued, “for my son, can we get the walnut cookie without the walnut, and the jasmine tea cold?” She looked up and met Zuko’s eye. She held out the pamphlet with the menu. “Thanks so much,” she said dismissively as she turned back to her table. She was sitting with two other older women her age, along with a very young boy, all three of them had books on the table, indicating they were planning to be around for a long time.

“Ah,” Zuko said, his mind reeling to make sense of what he’d just heard, “a lemon tea... with oranges and mint, but not the one on the menu,” he frowned as he was thinking, “then... six pumpkin rolls with light pumpkin, a cold pot of tea without ingredients, a walnut cookie without the walnuts, and cold jasmine tea.” He had no idea where to begin with this order. Everything was wrong. Was he cursed? Was this a nightmare?

The woman rolled her eyes with exaggeration at her friends, one of whom giggled, and met Zuko’s eye again with a sigh. “Maybe you need to write it down?” She said with the air of an adult speaking to a toddler.

Zuko had taken an arrow to the shoulder the night before. He’d fought an entire compound of fire nation soldiers. He had found the Avatar when no one had seen him in a hundred years. Surely he could survive this conversation without burning Ba Sing Se to the ground. “I heard you,” Zuko said, forcing himself to speak slowly and as calmly as he could manage, “I think... we... need to clarify... that.”

One of the other woman snorted. “We should have gone to Tea Lily.”

The first woman ‘shushed’ her and turned back to Zuko, her voice sickly, patronizingly sweet, “What aren’t you understanding?”

“A pot of cold, ingredientless tea is just a jug of water, for starters,” Zuko said, his lip starting to curl.

No,” she told him, “I want a pot of plain tea. Chilled.”

Zuko gritted his teeth. “That’s water.”

“Is there someone else I can talk to,” the woman asked, frowning.

Iroh was in the back, making tea or something, and the owner hadn’t come in that day. “No,” Zuko said, wishing more than anything there was, “it’s just me.” He set the rag down, feeling his eye twitching with annoyance, and pulled out the notepad. “One jug,” he said, writing angrily, “of water.”

“That is not-“

Zuko interrupted her. “A mint and fruit rind tea-“

“That’s lemon tea with-“

“Some pumpkin rolls and plain rolls-“

Light pumpkin-“

“A round circle of tasteless bread-“

Excuse me-“

“And a cup of water with a sprig of jasmine in it,” Zuko concluded. He practically stabbed the notepad with the charcoal in his hand when he finished. “Great. Thanks for the order.”

The woman glared at him, steam practically coming out of her ears with her rage. “You are extremely rude!”

“Well, I hate you,” Zuko told her, “so fine with that.”

One of the other woman at the table gasped while the first, horrible woman, stood up at the table and slammed her hands down. “I want to see your supervisor,” she demanded. 

“And I don’t want to see you,” Zuko said, “it works for us both. I’ll bring him out.”

“You better!” The woman said angrily, “I’d heard good things about this place, I can’t believe they’d let someone like you work here!”

Zuko, seething, leaned forward to meet her eyes. “It was clearly nepotism,” he snapped, “because I don’t have any patience for idiots!”

The woman gasped, one hand slapping her own chest. “You!” She raged. 

A door behind Zuko opened and he could here, from behind him, his uncle’s pensive voice asking, “Everything alright?”

“Oh,” the woman’s face was turning red with fury, “my husband is a drill sergeant,” she snapped, “you just wait until I tell him about you and this horrible tea shop!”

“Please do!” Zuko yelled at her, “I’ll tell your husband what a stupid, horrible little-“

Iroh’s hand clamped down on Zuko’s good shoulder and pushed him backward. “Ah, my poor nephew, perhaps you’d better go upstairs,” he said calmly.

The woman crossed her arms with a smirk on her face. “Are you the supervisor?” She demanded. 

“Ah, yes,” Iroh said solemnly, “I apologize for my boy. He was raised by wolves.”

Zuko felt like he was seconds away from blowing the entire shop into ashes. “Uncle,” he said, gritting his teeth, rage surging inside his entire body, “this woman-“

Iroh carefully stepped slightly in front of Zuko. “So many apologies,” he said, raising his hands out and taking the woman’s in his own, “he has no idea how to talk to ladies of such refinement.” 

The woman blushed in appreciation. “Why, you have your hands full with that one,” she said, her voice suddenly shifting to a pleasant tone, "I don't know how you can find the patience. Teenagers nowadays are such brats."

“Ah,” Iroh nodded with a sigh, patting her hand gently, “that I know.”

Zuko seethed. “Are you serious?!” He stepped forward to glare at the both of them, “She was-!”

“Ah, nephew,” Iroh said lovingly, “I think you need a nap. Let me take care of these fine young ladies.”

Zuko’s fist clenched at his side, his body shaking slightly with rage. He stood for a long moment, his lip curling upward in hatred, before he stomped away, throwing the rag and notepad on the counter as he left.

If this was how Iroh wanted to play it then fine. Zuko didn’t want to work in the stupid tea shop. He had enough on his mind to worry about- even though every time he tried thinking about the possibility of imminent death at the hands of his sister his mind would jump back and he’d be filled with rage because a pot of cold plain tea was JUST WATER!

Zuko slammed his right hand, holding the rag, on the table as he cleaned them. It was annoying enough cleaning the place when he could use both hands. Now his left was unusable as he was healing and the entire process was agonizingly slow.

Iroh, casually, walked passed him to the door to switch the sign to ‘closed’. “What a pleasant day,” he said as if to himself, out loud, where Zuko could hear him.

“I’m going out tonight,” Zuko said stiffly, glaring at him.

Iroh jumped and turned around. His eyes widened. “What?”

Zuko dropped his head down to the table and tried to rub out a black tea stain on the wood. He purposefully didn’t answer. If Iroh got to piss him off than Zuko was going to give it back.

“Do you remember what happened the last time?” Iroh said. The pleasant demeanor he’d had the entire day dropped. He sounded angry. “I had to stitch you up, Zuko.”

Zuko, with his good shoulder, shrugged. “I’ll be back late. Don’t wait up.”

Iroh stepped forward, his face drawn tight into a hard frown. “Like I did yesterday?” He said, “When you came home bleeding?”

Zuko met his uncle’s eyes and glared. “Why don’t you go hang out with those customers of yours?” He pointed out, “Or worry yourself here. Obviously this shop is so important.” Zuko flung the rag down on the table. 

Iroh raised his hand to his nose and pinched it, sighing. “Considering how often you’ve benefitted from good customer service, Zuko,” he said, annoyed, “I think you’d at least recognize when it was needed. This job is keeping us afloat.”

“Not for long,” Zuko said with disdain, “and at what cost!” He slammed his fist into the table. The movement sent a wave of pain along his back that made him wince.

“The cost is for our safety,” Iroh countered. He stepped closer, crossing his arms over his chest. “Which you don't seem to care about!”

“I was careful,” Zuko said harshly. His shoulder twitched painfully in the sling. “And who are you to tell me what to do?! You’re not my father!”

Iroh stared at him. His hands slowly dropped to his sides, his expression hard as stone. “No,” Iroh said, “I am not. care about you.”

Zuko breathed in air to his nose, meeting Iroh’s eyes with his own. He let the words sink into his mind, hurting as they did like nails boring into skin. “Well,” Zuko said slowly, “that’s your problem.”

Iroh stepped to his right, standing in front of the door. “I see,” he said, nothing in his face or voice revealing how he was feeling. 

Zuko clenched his jaw, glaring at the door. “Are you making me your prisoner?” He challenged.

Iroh, who could beat Zuko in a fight on a normal day, much less when Zuko’s left arm was useless, shook his head. 

Good,” Zuko said, pushing past him to the door. “I’ll be back later.”

Iroh didn’t say anything back.

Zuko couldn’t do anything about the sling, and the black clothing he was wearing the day before had not been washed. Along the back of the left side it was still with blood. He decided not to bother cleaning it, since it wasn’t the most important thing he needed. He found a stall, one that sold plenty of knickknacks and baubles, and bought a mask. It wasn’t a copy of the Blue Spirit mask but it worked, he could see through the right eyehole and his eyes weren’t visible through it. The yellow would probably give him away as Fire nation. 

He pulled himself over the first of Ba Sing Se’s walls, slipping past a watchtower without being seen, but his landing was harder than expected. Zuko at least didn’t injure himself. He asked a friendly looking woman with a child where the library was and followed her directions. The building was in the middle of the street, directly in front of what looked like a contained forest, and that was obviously where the meeting was supposed to be.

Zuko, struggling a bit, pulled himself up onto a tree in a shady corner, flipped the mask over his head, and leaned back. He was definitely on time enough, the sun was just finishing setting, and Zuko decided to leave the responsibility of finding him to the Southern tribesman. It wasn’t as if he was eager for this interaction. 

Clearly, the best plan was to reinforce that he was this ‘Voak’ person, tell Sokka he was leaving town, and then never interact with him again. If it wasn’t enough, Zuko did have a plan to fake ‘Voak’s’ death, and he didn’t even feel bad about it considering the man was likely already dead. He could cover a mask in blood and throw it in a river with a note saying something like, ‘Sokka, fellow water people, oh no, I died, don’t look for me’. Flawless. The problem would be wrapped up nice and quietly and Iroh never had to know how much Zuko had royally screwed up. 

And Iroh would forgive him. Hopefully. 

Zuko winced to himself, his mind forced to remember his uncle’s slumped shoulders as he walked out of the door. 

Zuko sighed, pushing his head and the right side of his back against the bark of the tree. Iroh was the one... and Zuko had never asked for him to come with him. Zuko hadn’t expected Iroh to come along with the banishment; at the time they’d barely even known each other. Iroh had always been off commanding the armies, he sent gifts home, sure, but Zuko had known Lu Ten much better at the time. Zuko had been fully prepared, at fourteen, to indenture himself to a merchant vessel for passage to the colonies and gather a crew of his own to hunt the Avatar- Iroh had signed up for this journey. Zuko hadn’t. So Zuko should...

Be grateful, Zuko thought to himself miserably. He closed his eyes.

Iroh may not have received the throne he’d expected but his life in the Fire Nation was still luxurious. If Iroh had stayed, he would have been safe, wealthy, and with a job on the Firelord’s council, instead he had chosen to live on a boat for two years and to tramp across the Earth Kingdom, living in squalor, with Zuko. A prince who was so useless that two generations of their family had wanted him dead. 

Zuko opened his eye, looking at the leaves around him. They shook gently in the wind, some falling about, fading into the blindness of his left peripheral vision or disappearing to the ground below. 

Lu Ten had been kind. Lu Ten had been strong. Lu Ten was a prince that fit every definition of a prince of old. The people of the Fire Nation, from soldiers to nobles, had adored him; he had had a good humor, a handsome face, and the born character of a leader. Zuko wondered, as his eyes followed a single fleck of green that flittered in and out of his line of sight, if Iroh had hoped that Zuko would be like Lu Ten. Maybe Iroh had hoped he could take the son Ozai rejected and turn him into his own. Instead he got an angry child with a scarred face who could hardly fire bend to the level of skill Lu Ten and Azula had managed. If this was true, how much longer would Iroh's patience for Zuko last? 

Zuko raised one knee and leaned forward to press his chin against it. He didn’t know what his journey would have been like if he’d done everything alone. Zuko would probably have screwed everything up as badly as he was doing now.


The noise came from below him and Zuko jumped, startled. His shoulder twinged with pain and he grimaced, hard, before looking down. 

Sokka was standing on the ground, looking up at him. He was dressed in the casual, blue Southern tribe clothes he’d worn before, hair pulled into a short ponytail, the sides of his head haphazardly shaved, a shell necklace on his neck, and he was holding in his hands a thick scroll along with a rod of charcoal. “It’s me,” Sokka said, even though that was obvious.

Zuko glanced around them, seeing no one nearby. The spot he’d chosen was shady and covered enough, there were sounds coming from the street but it didn’t appear there was anyone else in range. Zuko jumped down from the tree. He landed beside Sokka but walked away, leaning on the bark of the tree he’d just been sitting on.

Sokka set the scroll down on a nearly flat rock at his feet. He pushed it, unrolling the blank parchment. The scroll ran outward for several yards. Apparently, the water tribe warrior was expecting a lot of answers. “Okay,” Sokka said brightly, holding the charcoal out in front of Zuko, “who are you?”

It was time to lie. Zuko took the charcoal, grabbing it sharply out of Sokka’s hand, and knelt down on the left side of the scroll. Sokka went to the other side, sitting crosslegged and leaning over with interest. Zuko shook his head, forcing the musings about Lu Ten out of his mind, and pressed the charcoal to the blank parchment. ‘Voak,’ he wrote. Zuko hoped he’d spelled it correctly. 

Sokka clapped his hands together, delighted. “I knew it!” He reached out, grabbed Zuko’s shoulder, and shook it. “Voak! Buddy!”

Zuko slapped Sokka’s hand away and wrote, ‘Ow.’

Sokka’s hands went to his face. “Right,” he said, wincing in sympathy, “your shoulder. Sorry. No more touching.” Zuko nodded. Sokka looked at him, then back to the paper, then back to him. “So...” he gestured to the scroll, encouraging Zuko to write. Zuko didn’t. “Okay, okay, I mean...” Sokka said, sounding a little peeved, “I figured you might have some questions about me hanging around with the Avatar, you know, and fighting off Fire Nation armies, but fine! I’ll ask the questions.” Sokka clicked his tongue against his teeth, thinking, and his face lit up when he thought of a question. “Why did someone shoot you with an arrow?”

Right down to it, Zuko thought, annoyed. He wasn’t here to play interrogation, he needed to get Sokka off his back. ‘Enemies in the city,’ Zuko wrote, ‘I'm leaving tonight.’

Sokka’s eyes widened. “What?!” He yelled, loud enough that a nearby bird took flight in fright. “Where are you going?”

Zuko couldn’t think of anything good on the spot. He just wrote, ‘Away.’ Zuko hoped that sufficed. 

“You... why aren’t you coming home?” Sokka asked him, “Everyone thinks you’re dead!” 

Probably because Voak was, in all likelihood, dead. And that was awkward, as Zuko thought a bit more on it. He had stolen the identity of a dead man. Not sure what to write, Zuko’s hand stalled on the paper until Sokka spoke again.

“Your mother thinks you’re dead,” Sokka said softly.

Something in Zuko’s chest hurt. 

“I know she misses you.”


“She’ll just want you to come home.”

Wouldn’t that be nice? For the first time since coming to Ba Sing Se, Zuko actually imagined what it would be like to be someone else. If he’d grown up in the Southern water tribe, he’d have lived surrounded by young people his age, part of a community. They’d hunt together, survive winters together. He could have even been a waterbender, building homes and catching fish. They might have loved him, there. As a part of a family. The only expectations being to provide for others and come home alive. Zuko wondered if it was a good life. It was a simple one, sure, but simple seemed a lot better than the hell of politics he’d grown up in. Perhaps in the South, he’d have had a younger sister like Katara, instead of Azula. She could have been a better bender than him, a stronger fighter, but why would that have mattered when they were both working for the same goals? United. With a mother to come home to. 

Zuko hoped, with his whole being, that Sokka never told the poor woman that ‘Voak was alive’. He couldn’t think of anything more cruel.

This was wrong. It was completely and utterly wrong.

Zuko stood up, not even realizing he’d done it. He dropped the charcoal and turned to leave. 

Sokka’s hands were suddenly thrown around his waist and holding him still. “Wait,” Sokka urged. Zuko, with great difficulty, took a single step forward, dragging the warrior with him. “I’m sorry, that was a low blow, I won’t bring up Sarri again, promise.”

Zuko attempted to take another step forward but Sokka was holding him tight. Zuko pushed Sokka’s arms off, sighing. He returned to the scroll and picked up the charcoal again.Slowly, methodically, keeping his eye on the warrior, Zuko wrote, ‘You smell like you need a bath.’

Sokka leaned forward to read the word I’m and then scoffed. “I do not,” he protested. He lifted his tunic to his nose and took a deep breath. Then he blushed. “Okay, but just a little.”

So you admit it.’

“It’s not my fault! Ba Sing Se is a backwards place, no one has the right supplies to clean leather!” Sokka protested, throwing his arms in the air. “Last time I let Joo See take some of my clothes they came back scrubbed so hard they lost their color!”

You saying you don’t wash your clothes?’

“I do!” Sokka defended haughtily, “But it’s not like it’s easy, and Katara won’t help.”

You can’t do it yourself?’

“Of course I can!” Sokka yelled, outraged. “It’s just a new... ugh. I’m willing to bet you never learned to do laundry either.” Zuko wasn’t being the slightest bit fair, and true to form he had no clue how to do laundry himself either - certainly would have no idea how to even start with clothes like Sokka, but he’d clearly somehow touched a subject Sokka was quite defensive about. It was... kind of fun. “You are so mean,” Sokka said. He sat down, his expression a playful pout. “Pick on the Sokka. Everyone’s favorite game. Did I mention I travel with the Avatar now?” 

Zuko, smirking, wrote, ‘Still need to wash your clothes.’

“You’re worse than Katara! I am very clean, I’ll have you know, it’s Katara’s fault for hoarding all the good soap.” Sokka said, clearly irked. He slapped his hand to his forehead. “I should never have brought this paper. You’re going to make fun of me this whole time, I know it.” Then, the frustration fading, Sokka laughed. 

Zuko felt the corners of his mouth lifting as well. ‘So,’ he wrote, feeling a lightness returning to his stomach, ‘what do you do for the Avatar? Carry his bags?’

“I'll have you know,” Sokka said, jutting his chin outward proudly, “I happen to be an accomplished warrior. And strategist! Don’t forget strategist!”

‘An expert,’ Zuko wrote, ‘in the art of boomerang-bending.’

“Yes! A boomerang is a great weapon,” Sokka defended, “I dare you to fight me when you’re healed up. You’ll see.”

Zuko had already been clocked in the head enough times by Sokka’s boomerang to know it was true. Somehow, the warrior had turned an item Zuko had assumed was a toy into a valid tool of combat. The memories reminded Zuko to get back on track. ‘Why are you in Ba Sing Se?’ He asked. 

“Ah, couple reasons,” Sokka said, “searching for Appa. Sorry- the Avatar’s flying bison. And trying to get the Earth Kingdom to put their army together for an invasion.”

Zuko’s eyes widened. Excited, he wrote, ‘Invasion?’ and immediately after, ‘The flying bison’s missing?’

“Yeah,” Sokka said, his playful tone becoming serious, “it’s taking awhile. There’s something wrong here. No one in Ba Sing Se wants to even admit there’s a war going on. We can’t find anyone to help.”

Perhaps that was why those rich earth benders were so easily able to buy their way out of the war. Ba Sing Se was so confident the war would never enter their walls. But Zuko was willing to bet good money that wasn’t true. If he and his uncle had been able to get inside, there was no question Azula had too. ‘When,’ Zuko wrote. 

“When what?”

‘When,’ Zuko added, ‘is the invasion?’

“There’s this eclipse,” Sokka said, and then he continued to explain, which Zuko tuned out because he already knew exactly what Sokka was talking about. The eclipse of the sun had been documented and watched by the monks in the fire temple, the entire nation would be on guard and it lasted only a few minutes. It was one of the worst possible times to attack. 

‘That sounds great,’ Zuko wrote. 

“Ha, yeah, I think so,” Sokka said, a small blush on his face, “I actually found the library with the information. While we were there, though, that was when people took Appa.”

Zuko raised his right hand to his chin, thinking. The Avatar cared about that bison of his. If Zuko could get a hold of it he could lead the Avatar into a trap. He could catch him before Azula. It was perfect, this was... this had worked? Zuko sat back, looking upward at nothing in amazement. Somehow, this mess had worked in his favor. He’d tricked the Avatar’s friend into giving away valuable information, and he could get more. 

Grinning under his mask, Zuko pressed the charcoal to the parchment and wrote, ‘How do you even fly that bison?’

“It’s easy,” Sokka bragged, and then he proceeded to explain.

Zuko couldn’t immediately go after the bison. He’d been shot in the shoulder the night before, and he was still weak from it. It didn’t stop him from walking around the city, leaning in dark alleys behind guards and shady looking citizens, listening for any hints. He had several leads before he even headed home. 

By the time he reached the tea shop and opened the unlocked door, locking it behind him, his mind was entirely occupied with plans. He could check out the underground group in the sewers the moment he could raise his arm over his head, in the meantime he could stake out the Lake Laogai place, getting a feel for the pattern of the guards so that when he was healed he’d be able to sneak inside with ease. Zuko pulled the mask off his face, smiling to himself. Everything was working, for once.

He heard the sound of someone clearing their throat to his left. 

Zuko turned sharply, his one hand grabbing at his waist for a sword. 

His uncle was sitting at one of the tables, leaning over it, his head turned to face Zuko. His shoulders were shaking slightly, like he was trying to move, and there was a dart in his neck. Jet, sitting in the shadows behind him, had his feet crossed on top of the table in front of Iroh’s face. He was leaning back, balancing the tip of his knife on his finger. 

Jet looked at Zuko’s arm in the sling and smirked. “They got you good,” he said, his eyes narrowed and dark. “Not good enough though.”

Zuko raised his sword upward, stepping into a fighting stance. “No,” he said sternly, “not good enough.”

Jet leaned forward and patted the top of Iroh’s head. “So,” he said, “this is the old guy you couldn’t get enough of. Funny.”

Iroh, his face screwed up with pain, said in an extremely calm voice, “Ah, boys, perhaps this is a matter that can be talked over.”

“I’ve had enough of your proverbs, old man,” Jet sneered. Zuko felt a bit of pride knowing his uncle, even unable to move, had annoyed the hell out of his captor. “I know Lee’s a firebender.”

“I’m not,” Zuko lied. A terrible attempt. 

“Is this old guy even your uncle?” Jet gripped his knife tighter in his hand, knuckles whitening. “Or some poor farmer you hired to get you in here? I should just...“ He pressed the knife against Iroh’s neck. 

“No!” Zuko ran forward. He dropped the sword to the ground. Zuko threw himself at Jet’s hand, grabbing his arm and stopping the attack. “Wait, Jet-“ Zuko said, gripping his arm tightly in panic.

“Okay. So he is your uncle,” Jet said coldly, “that means you’re both on the chopping block.” Jet kicked the table hard. 

Zuko lost his grip as the movement sent Iroh tumbling down on top of him. The table clattered to the floor and Jet jumped up. His hand slashed down toward Zuko’s face. 

Zuko barely managed to roll Iroh off of him in time to block the knife. He used the mask, catching the blade in the wood. He turned it sharply, dislodging the weapon from Jet’s hand and tossed the mask and knife away. Jet’s fist came down on him then but Zuko rolled over. 

The motion had him rolling onto his wounded shoulder and Zuko groaned in pain. The split second that allowed had Jet on top of him, his fist immediately punching into Zuko’s face. Zuko took the hit. He jabbed his knee upward, hitting Jet between the legs. Jet yelled in pain and Zuko managed to push him off of him. He scrambled backwards far enough that he was able to stand to his feet. 

Panting, clearly even more furious, Jet stood up as well. “You’re fucking dead,” Jet snarled, his eyes flashing with loathing.

“I don't know,” Zuko said, straightening himself up and grabbing his other sword, “I’m feeling pretty alive right now.”

Jet roared with rage and ran at him. His hands grabbed another knife at his side and he blocked Zuko’s sword, the other hand grabbing Zuko’s forearm and yanking it out of the sling. As the pain shot through Zuko’s body, stunning him, Jet kicked his knee into Zuko’s stomach. Zuko doubled over and Jet’s fist slammed onto the top of his head, knocking him to the floor. 

Zuko twisted, knowing time was of the essence. He moved out of the way of Jet’s knife exactly as it pierced the ground where his head had been. He swung his lower body, feet kicking into Jet’s ankles, and knocked the teenager to the ground. Zuko used the momentum to flip himself over his back, attempting to get himself to stand, but the weakness of his shoulder wouldn’t cooperate and he lost the balance. He fell back to the ground, his face inches from Jet’s sneering smile. 

Zuko blocked a knife that went to his chest. Then again as Jet flipped it toward his chin. Jet’s other hand went straight to his shoulder and squeezed. Zuko yelled out in pain.

“You’re dea-“ Jet said triumphantly, raising the knife again, just as a chair came down from the sky and slammed into his head. 

Zuko, panting, looked up and saw Iroh, wobbling, standing over him. There was heavy sweat on his uncles face, clearly moving with whatever paralytic toxin in his body was painful. “Careful,” Iroh warned, gasping, just as Jet lashed out again.

Zuko raised his sword just in time to block the attack. Jet used the momentum of the parry to kick himself back, standing to his f et. He was breathing hard, his eyes narrowing as he looked between Zuko and his uncle. “I don’t have to kill you,” Jet said angrily, “all I have to do is turn you in.”

“Yeah,” Zuko said, shakily standing to his feet, “the guards are already looking for you. I’m sure they’d be happy to see you.”

Jet backed up farther until he was touching the wall. “You turned me in?!” He snapped, furious.

Zuko glared. “You tried to kill me,” he retorted, "twice!"

Firebender scum,” Jet cursed, raising his knife in front of him for the attack, “I’ll-“

The door to the tea shop swung open. All three of them turned as a scrawny young man, dirt on his face, stood in the doorway. The young man’s eyes looked over the scene, his jaw dropping. 

“Ah,” Iroh said, wincing as he straightened himself, “Luoneng, thank you for being so prompt with the herbs. Would you find fetching a guard? We’re being robbed.”

The young man stared at the scene. Then, scrambling, he ran away as quickly as he can. 

“You,” Jet shouted. He slashed his weapon at Iroh. 

Iroh, slightly slower than normal but still unexpectedly quick, shoved his foot in between Jet’s feet, knocking him off balance, and grabbed his wrist. With a quick twist of his hand he grabbed the knife and then punched Jet in the stomach, knocking him to the floor. 

Jet looked upward in shock. His eyes widened as he looked at Iroh, realizing in an instant that Zuko wasn’t the only threat. He sat up slowly, his eyes trained on the both of them. Then, wincing as if he was in excruciating pain, Jet raised his palms up in a gesture of surrender. 

“Okay,” Jet said, backing toward the door.

Zuko stepped forward quickly but Iroh held his arm out, stopping him. “Young man,” Iroh said seriously, “you’d better go quickly. The guards could come any moment.”

Jet’s lip curled with loathing. “You’ll see me again,” he promised as he spat to his side. 

“I hope not,” Iroh told him. “A hand consumed with hatred will bring the whole body to its end.”

Jet, giving them one last sneer, turned quickly and ran out the door. He was gone so quickly it almost felt like he hadn’t been there at all, if it wasn’t for the wrecked furniture and the terrible pain in Zuko’s shoulder. 

Iroh, relaxing, sighed sadly to himself. “Now I have to throw out some tea,” he said, his mouth twitching into a deep frown, “so it looks like he stole something.”

Zuko, hearing the despair in his uncle’s voice, decided not to say anything.

Chapter Text

Iroh finished cleaning up Zuko’s shoulder, setting the wet rag in the red tinted bowl. He dried the wound off with gentle hands before wrapping it with a long bandage, over his shoulder and around the armpit, and tied it tightly. “Better?” Iroh asked. 

Zuko nodded. He stood up, stepping away from him. Zuko picked up the blanket on the mat of his bed, it was still a bed for peasants but at least more comfortable thanks to his purchase, and wrapped it around his back and head. The blanket rested on his forehead, slightly covering his eyes, and he sat crosslegged down in the center of the floor. His uncle brought the bowl and bloodied rags to the bathroom, draining them and rinsing them off before he returned. Iroh walked over to his bed, kicked off his shoes, and lay down with a contented sigh. 

“What should we do?” Zuko asked. 

Iroh took his book off of the floor and opened it to his marked page. “Hm?”

“About Jet,” Zuko clarified, frowning.

“Ah, yes,” Iroh said calmly. He flipped a page. He sighed.

“Yes,” Zuko encouraged, annoyed, “we could have held him until the guards came. That would have taken care of the problem. You let him go.”

“Suddenly, you’re interested in my opinion,” Iroh said. He turned to the side, still holding the book. “My, the wildly changing minds of the youth are difficult to grasp.”

Zuko glared at him. He clutched the blanket tighter. “I asked, didn’t I?”

“Not the many times you went off to break the law with your criminal friend,” Iroh pointed out, “you only ask now, when the consequences of your actions have come.”

Zuko clenched his jaw. “And? Isn’t that what you do?”


Zuko frowned. “No,” he said harshly, “you’re right. Before I was banished we spent plenty of time together.”

Iroh set down the book and looked up at him. He was clearly thinking, piecing together what Zuko was saying... even though Zuko wasn’t actually sure what he was saying. There was a point to this, Zuko knew, some truth was brewing in his head that he still hadn’t made sense of yet. He’d been pondering it ever since they’d come to Ba Sing Se and it mights be taking awhile, but it was twisting his insides up and every piece of the puzzle was slowly coming together.

 Iroh moved closer, sitting crosslegged on the floor, his hands on his knees, and took in a deep breath. “No,” he said with a quiet voice, “I’m afraid we didn’t spend much time together before. I would have liked to, Zuko.”

“You were always off,” Zuko reminded. His stomach was churning with discomfort. “As a general in the war, you had responsibilities.”

“Yes,” Iroh started to say.

And you had Lu Ten,” Zuko interrupted. 

Iroh’s eyes widened slightly. His expression hardened; he nodded. “Zuko,” he said softly. 

Zuko stood up, dropping the blanket on the ground. “I shouldn’t have done what I did,” Zuko said stoically, looking his uncle in the eye. “That’s what you want to hear? But you told me to try and make a life here. It’s not my fault,” his voice rose with anger, “I picked the wrong person to try to make a friend. Fine. Now what do we do about it?” 

“Maybe, Zuko,” Iroh said. He had an emotion in his eyes Zuko couldn’t read. “You could have asked for help if a friend was what you were looking for.”

Zuko’s eye twitched. “What?”

Iroh shrugged. “I’m good with teenagers,” he said proudly.  

“No you’re not,” Zuko protested.

“Of course I am,” Iroh said, “I bet we could find some friends for the both of us.”

“I don’t want your help finding friends!”

Iroh, smiling to himself, folded his hands in front of his face and rested his chin on them. “Plenty of young men need help from their elders-“

“That’s a lie and you know it!” Zuko accused. 

Iroh chuckled to himself. “We’re both new here, Zuko,” he assured, “let’s have a good time. We could throw a tea party.”

Zuko’s eye twitched with frustration. “You’re kidding,” he said with gritted teeth.

“It’s a great equalizer,” Iroh told him with a nod, “sitting down with others over a quiet cup of tea was the start of many of my negotiations. There’s no better way to get to know someone than over a good pot of tea.”

“We already work in a tea shop,” Zuko mumbled, “how much tea do you need?”

Iroh pressed a finger on his chin. “How much tea?” He thought out loud. “Hm... how much tea?”

Zuko threw his right arm up in the air and groaned. “I’m not having a tea party!” He yelled, “I want to talk about what we do about Jet!”

“There’s nothing to do,” Iroh said calmly, “the boy is a criminal and has no evidence for his accusations. I am a well liked member of this community, with plenty of connections among the merchants and a noble or two, and have a reputation of a kindly, harmless old man who takes care of a troublesome nephew. His word will mean nothing against us.”

Zuko froze, blinking for a long moment. “Oh,” he said.

Iroh’s eyes had a twinkle in them as he says, “It pays to be good at customer service, nephew.”

Since Iroh had apparently been busy securing their situation and reputation in Ba Sing Se, Zuko felt it was better to leave the man to it. He had his own goal.

He needed this to go right. If everything went perfectly... Zuko could practically see the look on his uncle’s face when he revealed he had caught the Avatar. Zuko could go home and Iroh wouldn’t be obligated to stay away either. They would receive a hero’s welcome when they returned; Zuko would grow his hair long, the sun would rise and set on their rooms in the palace and everything would be the way it should be. Iroh would be a grand general again, and with the Avatar’s capture the other nations would be demoralized; Zuko knew it wouldn’t take long for his uncle to restore his reputation from his former loss at Ba Sing Se. Ozai would be proud for Zuko and Iroh to be at his side. 

Zuko would be the next in line for Fire Lord again. He’d have finally beaten Azula at something. He’d finally proved to his family he was worth his mother’s sacrifice; he was worth being alive. After one-hundred years of searching, the Fire Nation would have control over all the elements and the spirit world. Zuko would win.

And all he had to do was exploit this Southern water tribe peasant. All the groundwork was set. In fact, Zuko didn’t need anything else from him. He could avoid Sokka and concentrate on surveillance and healing.

So, of course, that didn’t happen. 

“Alright,” Sokka said, leaning forward over the rock again to look down at the silent lake. There was a patrol of two sets of six guards, all walking along the sand, but besides that there was nothing suspicious. It was a dark night, very cloudy but not yet raining, and the lake lapped gently on the shore as Dai Li soldiers paced in the grass. “What are we doing?” 

Zuko, who was sitting above him on a tree branch, arms crossed and contemplating just how suspicious the Avatar would be if his bodyguard disappeared, glared at the blue-clad warrior below. Had he asked for Sokka to come? No. But had Sokka, as he’d been making his way here, mysteriously appeared and followed him regardless? Of course. Zuko may have appreciated Sokka’s gift but that didn’t make his presence welcome.

He sighed, one leg dangling slightly off the branch for a moment, and glanced through the leaves that concealed him to the lake below. Sokka clearly wasn’t a person who liked to be ignored. And, Zuko reached his right hand up to touch the new Blue Spirit mask on his face, Sokka was going to be expecting something in exchange. Zuko slid off the tree, landing quietly, and walked to Sokka’s side. He rested his right shoulder on the boulder and picked up the clipboard. ‘Nothing,’ he wrote, handing it to Sokka.

Sokka read his words and frowned. “We’re... staring at a lake? Why is it guarded by the Dai Li?”

No idea,’ Zuko wrote, tapping the charcoal on the parchment in a way he hoped conveyed his annoyance. ‘Why are you here?

Sokka snorted. He turned from Zuko and looked over the rock again at Lake Laogai. “You know the rules,” he said, sounding chipper, “no one hunts alone.”

More Southern water tribe customs Zuko didn’t know about; he rolled his eyes. ‘I don’t need a bodyguard for a stakeout,’ Zuko wrote. 

“A stakeout?” Sokka said with interest. He grinned. “That makes sense.” He leaned over the rock, resting his forearms down and his head on top of it to keep his eyes on the lake below. “So, Dai Li agents have a secret headquarters here, right?”

Zuko kept having to remind himself that however friendly and annoying Sokka was, the warrior wasn’t an idiot. Sokka had outsmarted him and Azula on separate occasions. That just gave this and all other interactions between the two teenagers even higher stakes. The moment Sokka figured out who Zuko was, Zuko had to subdue him or everything was done for. 

“Okay,” Sokka said thoughtfully, “it makes sense. The Dai Li could have Appa, that’s what you’re thinking, right?”

Zuko nodded.

Sokka smirked. “Smart.” He turned his eyes back to the lake. 

It was a strange feeling, sitting so close together in the night and having the warrior be so calm in Zuko’s space. There wasn’t a hint of tension in Sokka’s shoulders. Last time they’d been alone together they’d been a mile underground in a tunnel, freezing and injured, neither one willing to put their guard down. 

“I knew you’d help,” Sokka said quietly, “you wouldn’t just run off. Thanks.” He smiled softly. “And this sure beats wandering the city by myself. I kept walking into poetry schools, or baking competitions, or that street brawl we were in.” Sokka chuckled. “It’s nice to have a plan.”

Zuko, cautiously, wrote, ‘Have you told the Avatar?

Sokka read it and shook his head. “I haven’t, and I won’t until we find some solid proof,” he said.  

Zuko felt relief easing the tension in his entire body. ‘Good,’ he wrote. 

“Yeah, I can’t get his hopes up if it turns out to be nothing,” Sokka said. He rested his chin on his hands again, eyes looking up to the cloudy sky. “He’s not handling it well. Sometimes I forget, y’know, he’s really just a child. And he lost so much so quickly, his home, friends, his entire culture... losing Appa too is just too much.”

Zuko, despite himself, could empathize. It wasn’t comfortable. ‘He’s still the Avatar,’ Zuko wrote, defending his own actions, ‘he’s thousands of years old.

Sokka shook his head. “No, people keep thinking that, but,” he explained, “he may be able to... I don’t know, talk to all his past lives but he didn’t live them. The Avatar’s thousands of years old. Aang is just twelve.” Sokka paused and scratched his nose. “Or one-hundred and twelve? I can’t decide if those years count.”

Zuko really didn’t want to acknowledge he’d been fighting a twelve year old, and losing, so he wrote, ‘Still the Avatar.’

Sokka shrugged. 

They stayed where they were for awhile, Sokka watching the lake absentmindedly and Zuko... wasn’t. 

Sokka dressed and looked strange, not like anything Zuko had ever been used to, and not even like the Northern water benders. His ponytail was short, apparently purposefully, and the sides of his head were cut tight to the head but not shaven, giving him an all-around strange and wild haircut. He wore a necklace of seashells, which were utterly worthless, but Sokka still wore them prominently on his neck with pride. His skin was much darker than Zuko’s, and his jawline, eyebrows, nose and ears thicker than anyone from home. His clothes were dyed leathers and animal skins, even though they were light for the Earth kingdom heat. Sokka still, by all accounts, looked exactly like a young savage from the South as described in all the Fire Nation propaganda. 

Zuko wondered, absentmindedly, if Sokka could spear fish in a river. Zuko hadn’t been able to figure it out. 

Zuko didn’t know much about the Southern water tribe, and, of what he did, Zuko figured he should doubt. It had been clear over the course of his travels that the Fire Nation had their own version of ‘truth’. He’d learned that lesson only a week into his banishment, when Zuko had traveled to the abandoned Air ‘Fortress’ near home and had found only evidence of a peaceful people. What he did know to be true was that the Fire Nation had all but wiped the Southern tribe out. They left a few alive, the older people and the children, and every dozen or so years a regiment would be detached to the South to cull the water-benders. According to the Fire Nation, the Southern water tribe was little else but a farm that grew workers for the steam rooms in their warships and tanks.

Perhaps that was why he’d underestimated them. Or maybe he should accept Iroh’s interpretation that Zuko had just been arrogant and as unprepared as the Avatar. 

“Do you miss snow?” Sokka asked suddenly. His voice snapped Zuko out of his thoughts. 

Zuko reached for the parchment to write the answer, had written ‘no’ before he realized that was an incredibly suspicious. He rubbed the charcoal into the word, erasing it in a large black smudge, and replaced it with, ‘Sometimes.’

“Yeah,” Sokka said, nodding with understanding. “It is nice out here. Fun to go swimming. See different animals. But it’s hard to fall asleep. It just feels weird, and hot, all the time.”

Zuko had, since the moment he’d felt the Fire Nation, always felt a little cold. Right now as well, as the air below them sent up a chilly, lake-scented wind to the cloudy sky above. He could regulate the heat around him with his inner fire, but unless he was utterly freezing there didn’t seem much point in wasting the energy. He put the charcoal down to the paper and, writing without thinking, wrote, ‘I feel cold here.

Sokka raised his eyebrow at that. “I guess you’ve been away a lot longer,” he said, “and it’s colder than the desert.” 

‘You’ve been to the desert too?’

Sokka nodded. “Not that long ago, actually. It was weird.”

‘Lots of sand. A beach that goes on forever.’ Zuko wrote, ‘The ocean’s the best part of the beach.

“I miss the ocean,” Sokka said longingly. 

My mother used to sit for hours and stare at the ocean, reading to me,’ Zuko wrote. Immediately after, he stared at the words in horror. He didn’t know why he’d felt the need to write that, why had-

“It’s beautiful,” Sokka said, closing his eyes, apparently relieving a memory. “I loved sitting in my canoe, watching the sunset reflecting on the ice as I fished. Something about the ocean is peaceful.”

Sometimes, Zuko thought. His mother had loved the ocean, she’d bought two houses on beaches and would bring them down whenever she could. Most of the time it would just be her, Zuko, and Azula. That had been the best. That ocean was soft, safe, back then, yet that was a face it didn’t keep. The ocean hadn’t stayed a safe haven, not when Zuko had sailed on it away from home, that ocean was full of storms, angry, having to constantly be tamed. There was no peace in there. Zuko didn’t know how to explain that concept, how something that could soothe brought pain.

“The ocean also took my mother away,” Sokka said softly, “it takes with the tide. It doesn’t ‘give back what it steals and it only gives a little in return’, that’s what my father says.”

Zuko stared at him. At the solemnity on Sokka’s face. He nodded. ‘I understand.’

“It took you too, didn't it,” Sokka said. he turned himself to look at Zuko, his eyes moving around the mask for a moment before settling on a place to stay. “Brought you far away from home. Until something bad happened.”

Zuko’s chest ached. He raised his right hand, slightly shaking, toward his face. 

“What was it?” Sokka asked. “What happened? You don’t have to say, but... we’re friends. It’s okay.”

They were friends. Except they absolutely weren’t. Under no definition of the word were they close to friends. Zuko had never been allowed to have friends in his life and even he knew this was the exact opposite.

It was still nice to imagine.

I,’ Zuko wrote, watching the slow motion of his own fingers along the parchment, ‘was burned.’

“A firebender,” Sokka said, his voice and expression pure sympathy.

Yes,’ Zuko’s hand shook slightly, ‘he put his hand to my face and he burned me. He wanted...’

Sokka’s hand gently reached up, touching Zuko’s left shoulder. It was close to his neck, avoiding the wound, and was an expression of support. “I’m sorry,” Sokka said.

He wanted to teach me a lesson,’ Zuko wrote. His face twisted with pain under the mask. ‘I questioned him. He burned my face.’

“He’s an asshole,” Sokka said. Immediately after, he cringed, and then after a long moment his eyes widened and he relaxed. “I’m so used to being around all these younger kids,” he said, chuckling, “I forgot I can curse.” Sokka grinned brightly and said, a humorous look on his face, “Damn. Dung. Bastard. Asshole. Ah.... that’s nice. It’s the little things.”

Zuko, his mind blindsided by the emotional whiplash, couldn’t stop a bark of laughter. That bit of laughter turned into a series of giggles as he tried to stop himself. Sokka clamped his hand over his mouth, and laughed too, the sound muffled. His eyes were bright, happy, and he laughed until it turned into a wheeze. The two of them sat in silence for a moment, still feeling the humor between them like it was a tangible substance in the air. 

From far below and away from them, down a long cliff and past a hill, they heard the very quiet voice of a man saying with alarm, “Did you head that?”

Zuko and Sokka, quickly, looked down at the lake. One of the Dai Li agents had stopped and was looking upward in their directions. A second man turned to him and asked, “Hear what?”

“I thought I heard something,” the suspicious agent, who had way too good of hearing, said.

“Ugh,” the second Dai Li agent said loudly, “I swear, Lee, if this is about the ghost again.”

“I actually heard something!”

From the other side of the lake, a man cupped his hand and yelled, “Stop talking about ghosts, Lee!”

“I wasn’t...” ‘Lee’ the Dai Li agent said, his shoulders slumping. “Oh, never mind.”

Sokka looked back at Zuko and had to hold both of his hands against his mouth to stifle his laughter.

Zuko had been seven years old when children his age stopped visiting the palace or their home. Azula still had playmates come by, girls her age, and she’d evaluate each and every one in a strange series of tests in the manner of a draconian five year old. He had assumed he had outgrown friendships, until Azula reached his age and nothing changed for her. His father had simply decided Zuko wasn’t allowed to interact with people his own age. Play was over, and it was time for work. 

The more Zuko was outshined by his sister the more Ozai emphasized the point. Zuko had rigorous schedules, daily training in weapons and fire bending. If he had a moment of rest, it was a moment where Zuko was failing his father. Their mother had protested that, giving Zuko games or books of adventure when their father wasn’t looking, but there wasn’t anything she could do to convince Ozai that Zuko was anything more than an extension of Ozai’s own self that wasn’t behaving correctly.

Sometimes, Zuko had his cousin. He’d been obsessed with Lu Ten. The, at the time, Crown Prince had been a grown man but had always made a point to spend time with Zuko. He taught Zuko to play Pai Sho, all the time making funny faces as he’d tell stories of his adventures on the battlefield, he taught Zuko how to use his firebending to create amusing shadow-stories on the wall, and Lu Ten had always been full of encouragement. He would always tell Zuko, ‘little cousin, don’t worry, it can take time for a flame to grow’. He’d promised too, when Zuko was old enough to be drafted in the army, that he’d have Zuko in his own personal regiment. Until Zuko was ten years old, he’d imagined growing up as Lu Ten’s second-in-command.

Then he was ten. Lu Ten died. Azulon ordered Zuko dead. His mother disappeared. Azulon died. Zuko had replaced Lu Ten as the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. 

Zuko had never had anything close to a friend again. Sometimes Azula and her companions would be around, but she was jealous and she knew how to hurt. Without his mother, and without Lu Ten, the only kind pieces of his world had gone away. 

If, Zuko guessed, he had had a friend his own age, it would be like this.

“...crazy!” Sokka was saying, throwing his arms up in the air as he walked. The way back to the city from Lake Loagai was a short run, and a long hike, but the two of them were making their way through the woods without any attempt to make good time. They were wandering back, deep in the shady trees, as the sky above sent down single droplets of water every dozen seconds. “She’s twelve and blind and she’s a master of Earth bending. No one even taught her! She learned it from badger moles!”

Zuko was holding the clipboard, gently, along his left forearm. He used his right hand to write, careful not to jostle his wound anymore than he already had that day. ‘Some people are geniuses,’ he wrote, feeling slightly bitter, ‘they don’t even have to try to be the best.’

“Not fair,” Sokka whined. He rubbed his hands against the back of his neck. “It took me years to learn how to throw my boomerang. And you don’t want to know how long it took me to figure out how to track animals.”

‘In the snow?’ Zuko wrote, amused, ‘Don’t they leave prints?’

“Hey! You know it’s not that simple,” Sokka protested. “And I had to figure a lot of it out on my own when you guys left. It’s not easy being the only man left in charge when you’re thirteen.”

‘No other men left in the tribe,’ Zuko wrote, leaving out the question. That would explain why Sokka had been the only warrior to confront him when he’d arrived. 

“Yeah,” Sokka said, nodding. “Everyone else leaves to fight the Fire Nation and I’m stuck at home.”

‘That’s not safe,’ Zuko wrote. In fact, it seemed a reckless move. Even though the Fire Nation’s arrival was predictable, every dozen years, a disaster could have struck of any kind. Pirates or worse. 

“I could handle it,” Sokka said proudly. Then he sighed. “It was just a little lonely, you know? Me and all the old ladies; I basically just had Katara and we really started getting on each others nerves. Besides, it’s not like we expected to find the Avatar and have the Fire Nation jerk-Prince to show up.”

Under the mask, Zuko’s eye twitched. ‘Jerk-Prince,’ he wrote humorlessly.

“That guy’s the worst,” Sokka said enthusiastically, “not as bad as his sister-“

Rude, Zuko thought defensively, I can be just as bad as Azula. Maybe.

“-but still a grade-A dick,” Sokka finished. He reached into his bad, pulling out a long, dried stick of meat and took a bite. He continued as he  chewed, “That family has some issues. I mean, I’d be pretty mad if I had a birthmark like Zuko but I wouldn’t burn down a village.”

Birthmark? Zuko’s mouth dropped open. What birth... his scar?!

“Plus, they seem to want to kill each other as much as they want to kill us,” Sokka mused, “I guess that’s a good thing. I’d hate to see what they did if they worked together.”

Sokka was lucky. Zuko and Azula had never, and would never work together. The volcanos of the world would freeze over before they managed to get along. Zuko, starting to get pissed off, didn’t notice Sokka holding the stick of meat in front of him until Sokka waved it in front of his face. Zuko grabbed it, lifted his mask slightly, and took an angry bite. He chewed. 

Zuko froze. The food inside his mouth was the worst thing he’d ever tasted. It was salty to the point of shriveling up his tongue, there was a foul aftertaste to it like chewing grass, and it was smoked as if over hot candle wax instead of a real fire. 

“I know, right?” Sokka said. He took the meat back out of Zuko’s hand and took a generous bite. “So good. It’s not exactly toothfish-squid but it’s close.”

Zuko, taking in as much air as possible, let Sokka pass in front of him. The moment Sokka. couldn’t see him, he spat the meat out of the floor, rubbing his tongue with his shirt to try and get that taste out. It was horrible. Agony. Zuko wanted to fill his mouth with the hottest pepper spices to burn his tastebuds permanently to get rid of it.

“Just a little bit of home,” Sokka said happily as he walked in front. 

Zuko got the mask back on his face and stepped forward quickly back to Sokka’s side, as casually as he could manage. 

“No one here does meat right,” Sokka said, with confidence he shouldn’t have. “Aang doesn’t even eat meat, and Katara’s all ‘we should respect his culture, blah blah’, what about my culture? I like meat. It’s my thing. I’ve got, like, two things.”

‘Fish is barely meat,’ Zuko wrote, fuming. He could still taste that crap on his mouth.

Sokka looked at his words and gasped, horrified. “Not you too!”

Yes,’ Zuko wrote, pressing down hard on the parchment, ‘real meat is better.’

“Oh,” Sokka said, his eyebrows in a frown but his mouth twitching in a grin, “so that’s how this is gunna go? You want to challenge me to a food-off?”

Zuko stared. What?

“I accept, buddy!” Sokka said enthusiastically, poking his finger against Zuko’s chest. “Tomorrow’s stakeout I’m bringing you my own personal best dish, you just wait. You’re challenging the King of Meat!”

Zuko, who knew he should refuse but also kind of wanted to see how this played out, wrote, ‘You’re on.’

“Ha!” Sokka’s fist reached out like he was going to playfully punch Zuko’s shoulder but it stopped when he seemed to remember Zuko’s injury. Sokka shrugged that off, his enthusiasm not abated. “I’m gunna have your mouth watering.”

‘What are the rules?’

Sokka curled a finger under his chin in thought. “We have to make it ourselves,” he said, “I think that’s it. Free reign.”

‘Prepare to lose,’ Zuko wrote smugly.

Sokka read the words, let them sink in, and narrowed his eyes with a huge smile on his face. “Oh, you’re in for the meal of your life buddy.”

By wearing a cloak over his head, Zuko lessened his chances of being spotted by one of the not-soldiers or the Avatar’s crew, though it did mean the shopkeepers gave him suspicious looks. But it wasn’t as if that was unusual, Zuko was used to being stared at. As he walked toward a butcher shop, with dead chicken-cats hanging from behind the window and the head of a beaver-boar drawn on the sign out front, he passed a woman holding the hand of a small child. The child looked up at him, his jaw dropped, and he pointed at Zuko’s scar. He opened his mouth to say something right as his mother saw, and she put her hand over the boy’s mouth. “Sorry,” she apologized, pulling the frightened child away, “how many times do I have to tell you not to point, Bami?” Yeah. Zuko was used to being stared at. 

He walked into the butcher shop, greeting the pretty young woman in the bloody apron who owned it with a nod. She was chopping up an order for someone else so he took the time to look at the meat in the shop. 

There was a good selection. Zuko had snuck into the noble ring of Ba Sing Se for this. He knew a good meal only came from the best of ingredients. There were cards around each display, indicating exactly where the meat came from and when it was cut. All Zuko needed to do was pick one. 

“Need any help?” An older man stepped toward him, also wearing an apron, wiping his hands with a rag. 

Zuko opened his mouth to say absolutely not as a knee-jerk reaction but thought better of it. “I need... meat,” Zuko said awkwardly.

The older man gave him a sympathetic smile. “What kind?” 

“Something... easy to cook,” Zuko said, frowning, “and good. Expensive.”

“Not experienced in the kitchen I take it?” The older man said, his expression jolly. “Gotta be careful, don’t want to put your other arm in a sling, or burn the other half of your face!” He laughed. 

Zuko had to restrain himself from committing murder. “Just... what’s the best you have?”

The older man, still smiling, guided Zuko to the displays on their right. He began explaining, talking about how certain meats were imported and others grown by artisans in the city, gushing over the entire process with a significant amount of information Zuko didn’t need. “Nothing here is more than eight silver,” the man said as he continued on his monologue.

Zuko froze. Eight silver was nothing. He’d never blinked at even ten, or fifty silver pieces in his life. Except, currently, Zuko didn’t have close to that amount of money. The only funds on his person were the tips he’d received at the tea shop, which was barely anything. 

Zuko couldn’t afford a single thing in this shop. 

He turned to the farther wall and pointed. “Is that ostrich-deer?”

The older man turned, “Yes. That’s a very special...” he jumped into another explanation. 

Zuko grabbed the nearest cut of meat and ran out the door.

He was halfway down the street when he heard a door slam open behind him and the older man yelling, “Thief!” but Zuko was faster than any response. This wasn’t a part of town where guards frequented, or where the ones who were present were expecting any trouble. He quickly ducked behind an alley, weaving through side streets until he was far enough away to climb onto a roof. He kept running until he reached the other wall, and ducked underneath part of the roof. Zuko knew from experience he needed to wait, watch the guards patrol, and couldn’t cross until he saw an opening. 

Keeping his eye on the wall, he pulled the cut of meat out of his bag. The label on it said it was chicken-cow. That wasn’t the fanciest of foods but it would certainly taste good. As long as-

Something heavy landed on top of Zuko’s head and chirped. A thin, furry arm reached down Zuko’s face toward the meat. 

Zuko grabbed the package close to himself and looked upward. 

Big, dumb blinking eyes stared back at him. The head tilted, huge ears fluttering slightly with anticipation. “Mrrp?” The Avatar’s winged lemur asked. 

“This can’t be happening.”

Chapter Text

“You stupid monkey,” Zuko mumbled, “I should cook you up, feed you to the Avatar.”

Momo, from his position under Zuko’s shirt and held tight by Zuko’s crossed arms, chirped. Zuko felt a lean, furry arm begin to crawl down toward his pocket again. 

Zuko jumped in the air slightly, moving the flying lemur higher on his chest and held him tighter. “No!” He looked down his shirt and saw wide eyes on a tiny face blink up at him. Zuko glared down at him. He was almost back to the teashop. He still had no idea what to do. 

Momo’s head peeked upward slightly, tilting. “Rrrfp?” The animal stared up at Zuko.

“I caught you,” Zuko reminded him. 

“Hnaft?” Momo’s hand slipped down again trying to grab the meat in his pocket.

“I can’t... augh,” Zuko lifted one hand to slap himself on the forehead. “What do I even do with you?” Momo’s fingers touched the edge of Zuko’s pocket from his place under the shirt. “Stop that,” Zuko ordered. 

Momo’s hand reached up out of Zuko’s shirt and grabbed his nose. 

Gah, you just-!” Zuko flung his arms open to let the lemur go. 

Momo fell from under his shirt and onto Zuko’s feet. The lemur looked confused for a moment, blinking at its surroundings, and then its eyes went back to Zuko. Zuko took a step back. Momo curled its tail around Zuko’s ankle and held onto his leg. 

“I can’t even get rid of you now?” Zuko said, frustrated. 

He was standing in the middle of a busy street of Ba Sing Se. Three separate people stopped to watch him. 

Zuko paled, realizing he was making a scene with the Avatar’s pet. “Okay, enough,” he said harshly, lifting the leg Momo was clinging to and shaking it, “off, now!” The lemur hung tight. “Fine!” Zuko raged. “You want to come back with me? I will skin and cook you!”

A woman and her very small daughter were walking by him as he said that. The daughter started to cry. The woman grabbed her daughter, picking her up and glaring at Zuko before stomping away. 

Zuko nearly pulled his hair out with frustration. He grumbled, to himself, cursing under his breath, as he took a step forward. When he moved the leg Momo was on, the lemur hissed at him. 

“It’s not my fault!” Zuko yelled at it, “If you want off get off!” He moved his leg again and the lemur hissed. This time its claws dug slightly in. Zuko almost screamed with anger. He forced himself to close his eyes and take a deep breath in through his nose. This was fine. It was perfectly acceptable. The Avatar was just as likely to walk into a trap for the lemur as the bison, it was just another opportunity. All Zuko needed was to restrain from killing the thing, which had suddenly become obsessed with him.

Momo blinked up at him, mouth open, and chittered. Zuko stepped forward and Momo, using his claws again, let Zuko know his disapproval. 

Off my leg,” Zuko ordered. “I will slam my ankle into a wall, I swear.” Momo tilted its long ears in confusion. Zuko sighed. “I’m threatening an animal now,” he mumbled, “that’s what this has come to.” Zuko bent down, doing his best not to move his leg, and attempted to peel Momo off of him with just his right hand. He pulled off the paw, then went for the other. The paw returned. He tugged on the tail, Momo’s claws dug in deeper. Zuko tried to grab it by the ear but the lemur kept moving them out of reach. Zuko threw his arm up in the air in frustration. “You stupid little-“

“Here, let me help,” a pleasant voice said from Zuko’s side. A young woman about Zuko’s age was pushing a melon cart, but she set it down. She had long, black hair in a loose bun and a bright smile on her face. “Maybe he’s just hungry.” She knelt down in front of Momo, holding out a melon. “Are you hungry, little fella?”

Momo, narrowing his eyes with suspicion for a moment, leapt out and grabbed the melon. He started eating it immediately, scarfing it down like the lemur hadn’t been fed in years. The girl picked Momo up from the armpits, meeting no resistance as the lemur was completely consumed with his meal. She giggled. “I think he likes you,” she said cheerily to Zuko, “what’s his name?”

“Uh,” Zuko said, awkwardly. He shuffled his feet, feeling relief now that the lemur wasn’t clawing into his leg, and itched his wrist from under the sling. “It’s Momo. I’m pretty sure.”

“Momo,” she said, holding him up in the air. “My name’s Jin. Nice to meet you.”

“You can have him,” Zuko told her.

Jin laughed like Zuko had just made a joke. “Aw, I can’t keep this cutie away from his nice daddy, Lee. Poor little guy,” she said soothingly, apparently not caring that the lemur looked like a ravenous monster with the red melon juice dripping all down his body.

Zuko had to take a long moment to understand what she had just said. “He’s not mine,” Zuko told her after a long pause, “and how do you know... my name?”

“Huh, he belongs to a friend? No wonder you can’t control him.” Jin tucked Momo under her arm and walked a step over to her heard, picking up another, smaller piece of fruit and giving it to the lemur’s greedy hands. “And,” she said, looking back at Zuko with a smile, “I know you, you serve tea at my favorite tea shop!”

“Oh,” Zuko said, “yeah, I do. I guess.”

“I can help you bring this guy home,” Jin offered, “if you help me with the cart. We can each use one hand.”

Zuko looked at the lemur, now sticky with fruit juice and frowned. The creature was definitely more trouble than it was worth, but it was worth something. “Yeah,” he said, “thanks.”

Jin seemed thrilled. 

The lemur was clearly not happy about the cord Zuko had tied to its foot. It had run around in circles, attempting to fly indoors, and bitten anything it saw for a good hour until it gave up. Now it was sitting down, methodically chewing its way to freedom in a way that would be near impossible given the strength of the leash, giving Zuko pissed off glances whenever it could. 

Zuko had tied the other end of the cord to the support pillar in the center of the tiny kitchen, and was standing next to the animal, having watched it flail and freak out with an increasingly uncomfortable feeling. He’d never been able to handle seeing what Azula did when she ‘played’ with animals; this time it was Zuko’s fault. Killing for food was one thing but this was... agonizing. If his mother was alive, Zuko knew she would be disappointed in him.

From behind him, Zuko heard his uncle calling out goodbyes to the last customers. 

Only a moment later, Iroh was at Zuko’s side staring down at the sad lemur. Iroh was wiping his hands with a rag, his face tight in concentration. 

“So,” Zuko said clumsily, rubbing the back of his neck, “I caught the Avatar’s monkey?”

Iroh nodded. “How?”

Zuko felt blood rush to his face with embarrassment. “He... it jumped on my head. And wouldn’t let go,” he explained, mumbling.

Iroh lifted a finger and rubbed his chin, contemplating. “How long did you know the Avatar was in Ba Sing Se, Zuko?”

Zuko looked up at the ceiling. “So,” he started. 

Iroh sighed loudly. 

“I have a plan.”

“Of course,” Iroh said, shaking his head. “What is it?”

Zuko let the final pieces of the idea come into his mind, fitting the lemur inside in a way that made sense. “The Avatar’s lost his bison, I’ve narrowed it down to two places, I can take it, set a trap, and tie a message to the lemur to give to him. Then,” Zuko said, his mouth twitching upward in a semblance of a smile, “I can capture the Avatar.”

Iroh grunted. He crossed his arms, looking down at the sad lemur that blinked back up at him. “Too bad you don’t have that friend of yours to help, was that part of the plan the whole time?” He asked, frowning. 

“The plan only just came together,” Zuko confessed. “But-“

Iroh looked at him, disapproval written all over his face. 

Zuko wasn’t phased and continued eagerly, “I have someone else. Someone who can fly the bison.”

Iroh furrowed his eyebrows with confusion. “Who?”

Zuko smirked. “The Avatar’s Southern warrior friend,” he explained, “it’s perfect.”

Iroh, disgruntled, snorted at him. “How?”

“He thinks,” Zuko said, leaning forward enthusiastically, “that he’s working in secret with another warrior from his tribe. I’ve been using the Blue Spirit mask, he has no idea who I am.” Zuko gestured, excitedly, with his right hand as he emphasized his words. “I already have him working in secret with me,” he said, “I can trick him into flying the bison to the location of the ambush and then disable him while he’s off guard. The lemur brings a letter to the Avatar, telling him to come alone, maybe we say it’s from some good soldiers or those Kyoshi fighters so he’s unprepared, and then we’ve got him!

Iroh closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. “I see,” he exhaled. 

Uncle,” Zuko said, stepping closer to him, “it’s perfect. It’s like everything finally... it’s finally coming together; can’t you just imagine it?”

“Yes,” Iroh said solemnly, “I can. And it could work, Zuko.”

Zuko set his right hand on his uncle’s shoulder and smiled brightly. “It can, can’t it?” Zuko felt those words, hitting a chord deep inside his chest, and he could have cried. “We’d go home.”

Iroh slowly reached his hand up, setting it gently on top of Zuko’s at his shoulder. “My nephew,” he said softly, “what do you imagine your life back home would be?”

“It’ll be perfect.”

Iroh’s face fell. “Why do you think that?” He asked, his voice at a whisper. 

Zuko felt himself freeze. Iroh’s tone wasn’t happy, or proud of him, he was sad. That wasn’t right- it wasn’t what Zuko’d expected. He pulled his hand away from his uncle’s and stepped back, staring at him in confusion. “I,” he said, his eyes wide, “that’s... that’s what we want. That’s what we’ve been doing. We want to go home.”

“Zuko,” Iroh confessed, “that’s never been what I wanted.”

Zuko backed away from him. “Of course it is,” he said.

“No,” Iroh told him sadly, “Zuko, that place was never safe for you. A home should be filled with love and warmth. Your father has never-“

“I know he doesn’t care about me,” Zuko interrupted angrily, “why does that matter? I’m the prince, this is... why were you helping me if you didn’t want me to go home?”

“Zuko,” Iroh took a step toward him. 

"Were you helping me?" Zuko immediately stepped backward. He stared at his uncle with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Have you,” Zuko asked, feeling ill, “been sabotaging me?”

Iroh froze. “I-“ he said.

Zuko’s stomach dropped with horror. “You have?!”

“No,” Iroh shook his head, his face pained, “not that way, Zuko, but I’d always hoped...”

Why?” Zuko asked. He stepped backward again, until his back hit the wall and there was no where else to go. “Is this...” he stammered, his mind reeling with thoughts that were making him dizzy, “a trick? Were you... did my father ask you to do this? Was this a game... I don’t...”

“Zuko,” Iroh said softly, “I had hoped you would grow to realize that that place, with them, it’s not home.”

“But a teashop in the slums is? Or an old, junked warship?” Zuko took a deep shaking breath. “No, you,” he said, staring at the floor, “you... you were mad at him,” he realized, “my father. You lost a son but he threw his away; you wanted Lu Ten back. So you took my father’s garbage.”

Iroh flinched as if he’d been hit. “No,” he said, crossing his arms in front of him, “Zuko, it was never...”

Zuko felt clarity coming to him with every breath he took, clarity mixed with rage. “I think you did. Well, it didn’t work!” Zuko clenched his right hand into a fist and it began to glow red. 

Zuko,” Iroh said, carefully, “I need you to listen.”

“I have listened to you,” Zuko snapped, “I’ve listened to you for three years!” He swung his right arm to make his point and a fire whip cascaded outward, burning into the wall of the kitchen beside him. “And if I’d listened to you in the South Pole I never would have found the Avatar in the first place!

“Instead you listen to your father?” Iroh demanded, “When has he had your best interests in mind? How many times has he purposefully hurt you?”

Everything my father did has made me stronger,” Zuko snarled.

Stronger?” Iroh’s mouth dropped. “You were a child, you still are a child, Zuko!” 

“I’m done with you,” Zuko said firmly. 

“The Fire Nation has never been safe for you,” Iroh said angrily, “if I’d known earlier I would have taken you both away long before! Look at everything that has happened to you, nephew! You and Azula were children once, happy! I’m sorry-“

“I’m done,” Zuko realized, widening his eyes with shock at his own words. 

“Zuko, listen to me,” Iroh pleaded, “my brother is a cruel and sadistic man. He will hurt you again and he’ll do it because he enjoys it!”

Zuko looked down at his hand, opening the palm. “I’m done with you,” he said, as if speaking a vow. It wasn’t like before when he’d left his uncle, this felt... final.


Zuko looked up into his uncle’s tear-stricken eyes. “You’ve been lying to me,” he said, too shocked to even emote the turmoil he was feeling inside, “and ruining my chances of getting my honor restored and going home. I’m done.” Iroh reached out for him and Zuko knocked his hand away. He walked passed his uncle, not sparing him another glance. 

Zuko pulled the hood over his head, opened the door to the teashop, and left.

He had forgotten the lemur, Zuko realized, as he was halfway through carelessly cooking the unseasoned meat with his hand. The idea of going back for it, though, was too hard to even contemplate.

Yum?” Sokka said while grimacing. He held up a piece of the food Zuko had brought. “Charcoal is... a way to cook. It’s probably edible?”

Zuko was lying down, his back to the rock that overlooked Lake Laogai, and grunted as a response.

“Uh,” Sokka said, looking at the charred meat for a moment and up to Zuko’s mask. “Not that it’s bad!” He said quickly, “It’s the thought that counts.”

Zuko crossed his arm over his chest and snorted. He turned his head to the side, looking at a random patch of grass. 

Sokka, carefully, wrapped the burned food in a cloth napkin and picked up the basket he’d brought with him. He crawled, on the ground, over to Zuko’s side and sat down with a huff. “Hungry?” Sokka asked, eagerly, opening up the basket. “They have all kinds of these spices and juices here, way more than just salt and iceberries.” Inside the basket were several wrapped items, and when it opened the aroma was extremely pleasant. He’d clearly spent a lot of time on this.

Zuko glanced at the basket and shook his head. 

Sokka blinked at him. “Is that... is that a ‘wow, thanks Sokka’ head-shake or a ‘gross, I hate you and don’t want to eat’ head-shake?”

Zuko slapped the lid down on the basket. He stood up, walked three steps away, and sat back down.

Sokka looked like he was about to burst into a rage, but he raised his head and swallowed it. He stood up, giving a glance to the lake to make sure things were still normal, and reached into his bag for the clipboard and charcoal. He walked over to Zuko and dropped it at his feet. 

Zuko didn’t move to pick it up. 

Sokka, frowning, picked up the clipboard again and held it out in front of Zuko’s mask. “Jerk face,” Sokka said, “talk.”

Zuko took the clipboard out of his hands. Then he held his arm out far to his side and dropped it in the dirt.

Sokka’s face turned red with annoyance. He was clearly holding his breath so he didn’t scream and alert the Dai Li at the lake below. He walked to the other side of the clearing, raised his arms, kicked the dirt, and then his shoulders slumped. Sokka turned back and knelt at Zuko’s side. 

Zuko stared at him. 

“Are you okay?” Sokka asked. 

Oh no, Zuko thought, heat rising in his chest. He wasn’t doing this. Not with him. Zuko stood up, sidestepping away from Sokka. He turned, toward the road back to the village. This was not-

Sokka’s hand clamped down on his shoulder to stop him. The left, injured, shoulder. 

Zuko twisted quickly, backhanding Sokka’s face. He kicked at Sokka’s thigh, sending the warrior stumbling back. “Ow!” Sokka yelped, grabbing his nose. 

From far in the distance, they heard, “Did you... oh never mind.”

C’mon, Lee, the ghost again?”

Zuko and Sokka stayed still for a full minute, listening to the Dai Li agents until, with some unspoken communication, they knew they were safe. Sokka raised a finger up to Zuko’s mask, clearly pissed. “You,” he said. 

Zuko waited for Sokka to continue but apparently that was it. He grabbed Sokka’s wrist and pushed his finger away from his face. 

“Okay, okay,” Sokka said, frowning, “we’re warriors and we don’t talk. You definitely don’t talk. But if there’s anything I can help with... I’m here, Voak.”

Zuko had really stepped up in the world, hadn’t he? He’d traded the one person who cared about him for Sokka, who he’d manipulated and tricked into a fake friendship born entirely from lies. Zuko turned sharply, about-face, and walked away from the lake on the path back to the village. 

This time, Sokka just scrambled to grab his things and jogged up to his side. He’d placed the clipboard and charcoal on the top of the basket, clearly holding it somewhat in front of him so Zuko could grab it if he wanted to. They walked for about ten seconds in silence before Sokka couldn’t help himself. “I can see why you haven’t contacted anyone else,” Sokka said, rolling his eyes, “with your people skills being this good.”

Zuko’s right hand twitched slightly, wanting to grab the clipboard and write something foul in response. He held himself back, concentrating on just walking. 

Okay, Voak,” Sokka said, sighing, “you know I can be annoying. You might as well say something.”

Zuko glanced at him through the mask, shook his head, and kept walking. 

Sokka groaned, slapping his forehead and stopping for a moment as Zuko continued on. After a moment he ran back up to his side, muttering under his breath. This next period of silence lasted a lot longer, they were halfway through the trek in the woods, on their way back to the city, before Sokka spoke again. “Hey, Voak,” he said quietly, “you can always come back with me. We’ve got a place in the upper ring of the city. Katara would be happy to see you.”

Zuko walked slightly faster. 

Sokka wasn’t letting him leave that easily. He kept at Zuko’s side, holding the basket in his hands and playfully jostled Zuko’s right shoulder with his own. “Bet you’d be great in Team Avatar,” Sokka said.

Zuko skidded to a halt. His entire body froze, in utter perplexity. What?

Yeah,” Sokka elaborated with a grin. He stepped in front of Zuko. “You can be our grumpy, masked mascot; I think you and Toph would get along great, you two have absolutely no way of communicating since she can’t see and you can’t talk, but somehow I see you friends.”

Zuko stared at him in confusion. 

“Aang likes everybody, you two would definitely be friends.”

Aang had once asked Zuko to be his friend. The real Zuko. Even after knowing him and what he’d done- but things had changed since then. 

“Katara’s a total hot-head but she’s nice at heart, I’m sure you remember her but we’ve grown up since then,” Sokka continued cheerily, “and she’d love having someone else from the Water tribe. Plus, it gets annoying being the oldest and the only non-bender; we could train together.”

Zuko, slowly, reached out and took the clipboard. Sokka beamed with joy. Zuko pressed the charcoal to the paper, wrote his sentence, and turned the clipboard over so Sokka could read, ‘What have I even done that gave you the impression I want to join your stupid team?’

Sokka frowned. “Sheesh,” he scoffed. He turned away from Zuko and marched forward down the trail. “You can’t just stop being a jerk, can you? You realize I’m talking about Team Avatar, as in, the group that continually kicks Fire Nation butt? If you stuck your burned head out of your ass for two seconds-“

Zuko seethed. He surged forward, kicked his foot to Sokka’s ankle to turn him around and slammed his forearm against Sokka’s neck, pinning him to a tree. He glared, through the mask, his face inches from Sokka’s, a clear threat in his posture. The basket fell down to the ground, the clipboard as well landing on a rock with a clatter. 

Sokka, despite being suddenly attacked and held in a vulnerable position, didn’t flinch. He glared into Zuko’s mask. “If you keep refusing help nothing is going to change for you,” Sokka told her sternly, “you’ll be by yourself forever.”

The blue eyes narrowed, eyebrows furrowed, and met Zuko’s gaze with firm intensity. Zuko pushed at him sightly with his forearm, and Sokka let him, standing still against him, a tree at his back. Waiting for Zuko’s next move. 

Sokka didn’t smell as strongly of fish this time. It was smoke from a fire, the scent of various spices, the smell of a person who’d been cooking over a fire for a long time. He was close enough to Zuko, in this position, that Zuko could feel the subtle warmth of another human body that close to him. Sokka stayed there, impassive, strong, not showing an inch of intimidation. For one, terrible, horrifying moment, Zuko wanted to push closer against him, let Sokka wrap his arms around his shoulders - hold him. He wanted to feel like he wasn’t alone.

“Voak,” Sokka warned. 

Zuko breathed in heavily in through his nose, trying to control his swimming brain. Sokka wasn’t Jet, and Jet had been a mistake; no matter how badly he might want to seek comfort there would never be any to be found. Especially not like this. Zuko stepped back from Sokka quickly, wincing. His feet moved behind him, one after the other, and after the several steps back they just kept going. Away from warmth and into the cold. Zuko didn’t need anyone.

“Voak?” Sokka said, stepping forward. 

Zuko was already gone.

Zuko’s life had several distinct characteristics. He was, and had always been, unlucky. Zuko figured that was due to him, as his father had said, using all of his luck by managing to be born. The next was that the world seemed to enjoy making him suffer the more miserable he was, like a snowball rolling down a hill packing on more misery as it went. The third, he could always find some action; Zuko would always have someone to fight.

So, as he lay in an alley in the rain, cloak over his head to shield himself, Zuko saw three men in Spirits masks walk into the road, one using earthbending to open a manhole, and they glanced around suspiciously before slipping inside. They clearly hadn’t noticed him, or just skimmed their eyes over his presence as any homeless person was more likely to be seen as scenery than a threat.

The bison was, as Zuko had figured, either in Lake Laogai or the underground, sewer-like series of tunnels below Ba Sing Se. He’d planned to wait a bit longer for his shoulder wound to heal, but now that didn’t seem as reasonable. Zuko needed to act, and act soon.

He stood up, slipping the Blue Spirit mask over his face. Zuko straightened the scabbard beneath his cloak, tightened the sling on his left arm, and carefully moved to the manhole. Zuko knelt down, narrowing his eyes. The rain falling around him was pooling around the cracks except in one place where the water was trickling underneath. Zuko pressed his fingers into that place, slipping underneath, and his hands found something that felt like a handle. It made sense, whatever organization this was had to have made their entrances accessible to everyone and not only to their earthbenders. 

Zuko pulled on the handle, hearing something click, and then he lifted upward. The manhole rose up an inch and then fell back down. 

Shit. Zuko was one-handed, in terrible shape, and this manhole cover was meant to be lifted by full-grown, adult soldiers. He closed his eyes, listening to the rain all around him and gathered up what power he could. Zuko gripped the manhole cover and yanked it upward, it went up about three inches and he thrust his foot underneath. With his foot and right hand he was able to keep the handle slightly raised, and then he pushed, his muscles straining, until he finally dislodged the manhole from its place. From there, Zuko was able to kick it out of the way enough that he could slip inside. 

He lowered himself down onto a ladder, in a dark tunnel, and realized as he heard the sound of rain slapping onto still water below him that he wasn’t going to be able to close the manhole. Zuko’s one useful hand was keeping him in place and even with all his strength he doubted he’d be able to pull the heavy metal back into place. Zuko just had to hope no one came by and saw. Which was likely to happen, since Zuko was unlucky.

Zuko lowered himself down to the ground, the bottoms of his boots stepping in about an inch of water. He’d have to continue slowly to avoid being heard. He was in a large pipe, which continued onward in two directions, and he could clearly hear the echo of footsteps in one so he followed. 

It was dark immediately but firebending a light was too much of a risk. Zuko placed his hand on the wall instead, walking forward like a maze. Occasionally his feet would touch something solid and he’d have to step over it, or the wall would be slimy to the touch, and Zuko was actually grateful he couldn’t see to know what was there. He dragged his feet along the ground to avoid splashing as he stepped, and, after awhile, he was the pinprick of a light up ahead that took a sharp right out of sight. Zuko kept going, eventually the wall opening up to his right with the pinprick of light far in the distance. He could hear the muffled voice of one of the three men complaining.

Zuko stalked after them, going slow enough not to loose sight but never getting too close. Eventually, the tunnels began to grow lighter due to some illumination in the distance and he was able to see more, he could see the men up ahead so he hung back, making sure not to be seen. The tunnels changed from being bricked up to solid stone, obviously built by earthbending. Passages to the left and right began to grow more prominent and he proceeded forward with caution. Eventually, the men went left, leaving a huge open grate in front of them. 

Zuko walked forward to look through the metal bars, which opened up on a large, open room, several other pipes leading into the area, splashing small streams of water around a slightly raised stone platform. There were three of the ‘soldiers’ there, with two kneeling people in front of them, bags over their heads. Next to the soldiers were Spirits, armed to the teeth. They weren’t standing as if they were enemies, like Zuko had been led to believe. They were standing like they trusted each other. Part of the same group. 

Zuko leaned forward, hidden behind the stone wall, just enough to see outward through the mask. He made sure the hood was still low over on his face so the blue color wouldn’t be spotted. 

The three men in Spirits masks that he’d been following jumped out of an opening to the left, one of them falling into the water but pulling himself back out, and approached the others. The one in the center walked forward, lifting up the mask, and said to one of the soldiers, “Think you got the right ones this time?”

Zuko recognized that voice. And it was even more clear when the man turned around, glancing at the various soldiers and Spirits around him. It was the captain. The valor-stealer who called himself a general and wore the wrong uniform. 

Zuko wasn’t surprised when one of the soldiers pulled the hood off a prisoners head and underneath was Jet.

The Spirits hadn’t refused Jets offer to join because he was ‘a child’, there had never been a group of rebels to begin with. These pretend soldiers made money by gathering up young earthbenders and conscripting them in the military instead of the rich sons of Ba Sing Se; Zuko was willing to bet the Spirits were the ones who figured out who the poor earthbenders were in the first place. The attack on the guards and citizens at the tax collectors had likely been the result of some other scheme, extortion or bribery; it was clear none of these men possessed any honor. They were allowed to roam free in the lower level of Ba Sing Se because they provided a service the rich people wanted, and as a result all of the poor and the refugees were under their thumb.

“This one’s Jet, that you asked for,” one of the men in a Spirit mask said. He grabbed Jet’s hair, forcing his face upward. Jet glared, his face was bruised, mouth bloodied and one eye swollen shut but he still looked ready to fight. He spat blood down on the ground, in front of the captain. The same guard went to the second prisoner and lifted that hood off at well. It was someone Zuko didn’t know, another teenager his age, with short dark hair. He seemed, unlike Jet, absolutely terrified. He was shaking, visible even from the distance Zuko was watching this from, and a single tear rolled down his face. This teenager seemed utterly normal, and unfamiliar, but had one distinct characteristic, he had a large, red scar over his left eye. It was vertical, about an inch wide, looking like he’d been burned by a hot object and not firebending.

“Hm,” the captain said, looking at the boy with the scarred eye, “close enough.”

Zuko’s stomach dropped. That was an innocent teenager, likely a refugee, who was clearly supposed to be Zuko. They’d been trying to find him and had settled for a blameless bystander that fit Zuko's vague description. 

The boy whispered something and one of the men, roughly, kicked him in the back. He dropped his head to the ground, shivering, staying still. Jet wasn’t cowed, he kept his gaze on the captain and said loudly, “That’s not Lee. The real one is a firebender, that kid is innocent!”

“Someone’s going to pay,” the captain said. He knelt down in front of Jet. “If you didn’t want to make trouble, you and your friend shouldn’t have messed with my business.”

Fuck you,” Jet sneered, “fuck all of you!”

The captain stood up, gesturing to the two men who Zuko had followed in. The men reached for their sides and each pulled out a standard-issue, Earth kingdom sword. They stepped forward. 

Zuko moved to his left, faster but still as silently as he could. The men were talking louder now, one of them must have made a joke because a few of them burst into laughter. Zuko walked quickly to one of the openings. It was about ten feet up from the platform, he’d have to jump outward to avoid the water. 

A man with a sword held the blade under the chin of the crying teenager and lifted his face upward. “What,” the man mocked, “scared?” He lifted the sword up as the teenager nodded, “You should be.”

Zuko threw one of his swords in the air. It hit the man’s weapon and knocked it out of his hands, falling yards away onto the stone platform with a clatter. 

Zuko jumped in. He couldn’t give any of the men a second to prepare or get on guard. He slid downward on the ground, slashing his sword at the captains ankles, and the movement propelled him past the now unarmed soldier. Zuko kicked out, flipping himself over his back, to knock the man off balance while he got to his feet. He was face-to-face with another soldier and slammed the blade of the sword into his metal helmet. The soldier fell over with a yell; it gave Zuko just enough time to rush behind Jet and the other teenager and cut their bindings. 

The other soldier rushed at him, punching out into the air as a rock flew out behind him toward Zuko. Zuko ducked downward, dodging it, as the man kicked in a familiar attack - the stone in front of the man rose in a line heading straight for him. Zuko jumped upward, unsteady and off balance, and only just managed to have his feet land on the rock while it was still in the air. He threw his right shoulder forward, forcing his body into a roll, and as he landed on the ground his body absorbed the fall for the most part. 

Leave him,” Zuko heard Jet’s voice say but Zuko couldn’t turn around to look until he’d taken care of the earthbender. 

Zuko raced toward the man and kicked, spinning the helmet in front of his eyes. With a sharp punch holding the hilt of his sword, he jabbed his fist into the earthbender’s chest and knocked him backward. The soldier, unsteady and blinded, flailed backward until he fell off the platform and splashed into the water a few feet below.

A hand grabbed Zuko’s left shoulder, clenching tight and sending shockwaves of pain through him. Another hand was reaching upward with a sword toward his face. Zuko kicked backward with the force of both his legs, slamming his back into the attacker trying to pin him. They both went down, Zuko on top of him, and he rolled out of the grasp. The captain, fuming, met Zuko’s eyes and snarled, and instantly after a rock wall flew into place between them. 

Zuko looked up, finally able to see his surroundings. One of the Spirits was encased in a rock formation, rendered useless. Another man was just down, leaving only four of the men left to fight. The teenager, looking panicked, was standing with his legs spread wide and arms out in an earthbending stance, looking directly at Zuko. “Thanks,” Zuko said to him, breathless. 

Jet had managed to grab one of the soldier’s swords as well as a helmet, he was fighting off two at once, protecting the teenager. A soldier swung out, getting in a shot and slashing at Jet’s side, but Jet used the man’s forward lunge against him and managed to knock him back into the water. 

Zuko, painfully, forced himself to his feet. His left shoulder was screaming in pain from the effort of the fight but he couldn’t let himself feel it. “You,” Zako shouted to the earthbender, “make a platform around the three of us and get us up!” 

The teenager, eyes wide in fear, swallowed and nodded. 

Jet, who’d backed up toward the teenager, turned around sharply in shock. He glared at Zuko, lifting his sword in his direction. Their earthbender began to lift his arms though and Zuko didn’t have a choice, he ran in that direction. He just managed to be close enough to make it on the small circle of rock that was lifting in the air. 

Zuko knelt down against the edge, ordering, “Higher!” His eyes caught an exit to the tunnels up above them, the highest one in their reach. “We need to make that jump!”

Jet, loosing his balance from being lifted by the unexperienced earthbender, stumbled down onto his knees, losing his sword in the process. “You fucking-“

“Get ready,” Zuko said, “close your eyes and jump!” He closed his, taking in a deep breath. Zuko’s inner fire burned inside him, bright and angry, the turmoil of the day begging to be released- he called the power into his mouth and it raced to great him, desperate to be unleashed. He opened his mouth and fire blasted out from it, surging downward to the water below. The flame hit the water at an instant boil, sending steam shooting into the air. In barely a second, everything around them was white. 

Zuko jumped. His right hand scrambled out for purchase. He landed on something metal and hard but his feet were unsteady, he felt himself falling backward, his stomach dropped in his chest, but then he was caught. A hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him forward into the tunnel. Zuko didn’t know if it was Jet or the earthbender and there wasn’t time to guess, they needed to run.

Chapter Text

Zuko leaned against the wall, panting. He had never learned the fire breath technique besides the rudimentary efforts his uncle had taught him to warm himself. He’d known using it as an offensive attack was possible but not how much it would take out of him. His breath was coming out hot, steaming the normal air like it was the middle of winter. The three of them had kept moving through the tunnels, the earthbender sealing the tunnels off periodically behind them, until they started to slow down. Everything around them was dark, just trickles of light from tunnels around them that allowed their eyes to adjust to a world of gray. 

Zuko trailed to the back of the group and now, had leaned against a wall, hoping the other two would go on ahead and lose him. That, however, appeared to be too much of an ask for the universe. 

Jet stopped and grabbed the earthbender’s shirt to force him to stop too. He turned around. His eye was swollen shut, his lip cut, but otherwise Jet appeared in far better shape than Zuko was at the moment. He may have lost his sword but he was still wearing the helmet on his head; and Zuko knew Jet had many ways of making himself dangerous. The other teenager, the not-Zuko earthbender with the scar on his face, looked back with wide-eyes. 

There was a long silent moment between the three of them, as they all seemed to recollect their thoughts and remember where they were. Zuko’s own head was more than a little confused. The exact reason why he had done what he did was escaping him; Zuko held no allegiance to Jet, owed nothing to the innocent earthbender, and had had nothing to gain but everything to lose by stepping in to stop the execution. And now he was here, tired, hungry, weak, with only a single working arm against a furious Jet and a barely injured earthbender. 

“Lee,” Jet said, breaking the silence in the air. 

Zuko forced himself to kick off from the wall. He felt unsteady, his shoulder was aching, but if he needed to fight again Zuko wasn’t going to hold back. “Jet.”

The earthbender looked between the both of them in amazement. “You know the Blue Spirit, Jet?” He said, awed, and then looked at Zuko, clearly putting the pieces together, “The Blue Spirit... is a firebender?”

Jet stiffened. “He’s not the real Blue Spirit,” he said, his lip curling.

Actually,” Zuko said, feeling a bit protective over his own alias, “if you’ll remember the first time anyone saw the Blue Spirit it was in a Fire Nation colony and he had swords just like these.” Zuko tapped his right hand on the hilt of his weapons and then wrapped his hand around one, ready to pull them out to fight.

Jet’s eyes widened slightly. “Huh,” he said. Jet, which Zuko didn’t expect, actually seemed to believe him. 

“I...” The earthbender walked forward, holding out his hand toward Zuko. Jet threw out his arm, stopping him from walking any closer to shake Zuko’s hand, so the teenager let it fall. “Thanks,” the teenager said to Zuko, “I’m Paong. You saved my life.”

Jet sneered. “He put your life in danger in the first place.”

“I remember picking a fight with the so-called soldiers was your idea,” Zuko pointed out, “and was it a smart idea to pick another pawn who happens to look like me?”

Jet stepped closer, glaring at him. “I found an earthbender so next time I saw you he could crush you into dust!” Jet slapped his hand down on Paong’s shoulder. “Crush him!”

Paong, looking confused, didn’t do anything.

Zuko grinned. “Guess you inspire the same loyalty you give out,” he mocked.

“I don’t owe any loyalty to you!”

“I helped you!” Zuko unsheathed his sword and held it between them. “You left me to die!”

“You’re a firebender!” Jet turned his head to spit on the ground.

“Gross,” Paong muttered.

“You’re a no-good, rotten, baby-killing, town-burning, family-murderering, invading colonizer,” Jet snarled, “My only regret is that you’re still breathing.”

“Wait!” Paong held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “The Blue Spirit isn’t loyal to the Fire Nation,” he said, “he’s a wanted man, right? And he just saved my life!”

Jet took a step back, his face impassive and impossible to read. “You actually think there are good firebenders?” He said, shaking his head, “Sure. There are good firebenders. They’re six feet underground and not breathing.”

Paong’s eyes widened and he moved toward the wall, away from the them both. “I just, I almost died,” he said quietly, “I want to go home.”

“I’ll take you home,” Jet said, watching Zuko like a predator. “As soon as you become a good firebender.”

Zuko lifted his sword to his left shoulder, sliding the blade under the sling. Slowly, he raised the weapon, audibly slicing the fabric apart. His left arm dropped; the pain in his shoulder amplified, and he couldn’t stop the groan of pain as he did so. Zuko gathered himself up, clenching his left fist, letting the chi of his inner fire flow through him. “You think,” Zuko said, wincing, “I won’t fight back?” 

“I was hoping you would,” Jet snarled. 


Zuko’s body was thrown backward. His back landed in the inch long, disgusting water of the tunnel. He flung himself upward to his feet, eyes widening in shock, and saw Jet was doing the same. Paong was standing between the both of them, his fists spread out in the air, having earthbended the two of them away from each other. 

“We need to get out of this tunnel,” Paong said, his voice shaking with fear as he spoke, “those soldiers could come after us at any time.”

“Fake soldiers,” Zuko said.

Jet stared at him. “How do you know that?”

“It’s obvious,” Zuko told him, “they’re wearing borrowed uniforms and invented a fake riot group to infiltrate any actual attempts at rebellion; they’re some sanctioned group of Dai Li loyalists without any official power.”

Jet narrowed his eyes, and nodded. “Yeah. I broke into the Spirits base to learn their next moves and realized they were working together,” he explained.

Paong, looking nervous, slowly lowered his arms. “Maybe you two could work together?”

Jet sneered, “I’m not working with a firebender.”

“And I’m not working with some earth peasant filth.”

Peasant?!” Jet’s mouth curled in loathing, “Oh, you fucking liar. I bet you-“

The tunnel quaked underneath their feet suddenly, sending dust and a spray of water into the air around them. Zuko’s surprise left him scrambling with his feet to stay standing, and Jet looked to be in a similar vein. They both looked behind them but the latest wall Paong had put up with still standing. “They’re on their way,” Paong said, his voice high-pitched with fear.

“Fine,” Jet said gruffly, turning sharply away. “I’ll kill you when we get out of here.” He started running down the tunnel, and after a second of hesitation Paong followed to. 

Zuko slipped his sword back into his belt, grabbed his left arm with his hand to keep it steady, and ran as well. He didn’t have a clue where they were going, and doubted Jet or Paong either had an intricate knowledge of the underground tunnels of Ba Sing Se. The most important part was getting the enemies off their tracks, so Jet was taking right turns and then left whenever there were openings, keeping them going steadily farther and farther away in a zig-zagging pattern. The light eventually disappeared but Zuko raised his left hand and made a flame, illuminating their path so they could continue to run.

After a good long while, enough that Zuko was sweating hard with exhaustion, he saw the roof of the tunnel open up. Jet and Paong had run past, seemingly without noticing, but Zuko stopped. There was another ladder, leading upward, toward a closed manhole. “Hey,” Zuko said. 

Paong skidded to a halt, splashing the filthy water, and jogged back over to Zuko’s side. He looked upward. “An exit,” he said with relief, “Jet, there’s an exit!”

Jet walked, slowly back, and looked up with the rest of them, his eyes darting over toward the flame in Zuko’s hand. “The firebender goes first.”

Zuko frowned. “I can’t open it myself,” he said, shrugging a gesture toward his mostly useless arm.

“Paong,” Jet ordered. 

“I... it’s not painted stone like the other entrance,” Paong said, “that’s metal. No one can bend metal.”

Fine.” Jet, grumbling to himself, grabbed a rung of the ladder and pulled himself upward. He climbed the ladder, braced himself on his feet, placed both hands against the manhole and pushed. 

There wasn’t even a creak. The manhole stayed firmly in place. Jet, not giving up, continued to shove at it, his fingers wildly touching at the sides looking for any sort of latch to use for an exit, but this clearly wasn't like the other entrances. The manhole was meant to be opened with tools and brute strength, neither of which their group of three, tired and injured, teenagers possessed.

“I... I think I have an idea,” Paong said quietly.

Jet gave one last heave at the manhole and then stopped, sighing. He moved down the ladder until his feet touched the ground, his head turned away from the both of them. “What?”

“You can heat up the metal,” Paong said to Zuko, “it’ll expand and wont fit as well, then if I hit it with a rock column we could dislodge it.”

Jet pressed his forearm against a rung of the ladder, leaning against it. “You want the firebender to firebend?” He snapped.

“It could get us out of here,” Zuko said.

“Jet, you should get behind us,” Paong said awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable giving an order. 

Jet turned his head, glaring from underneath the shadows of the helmet he was wearing. He walked between the two of them, purposefully bumping his shoulder against Zuko’s injury. Zuko wasn’t able to keep himself from hissing in pain and Jet chuckled. He was behind them though, letting them go ahead with the plan.

Zuko stood underneath the manhole cover and raised his right hand upward. He slid his left foot backward and then punched upward into the air, releasing a stream of fire from his knuckles. It was difficult to keep the fire going steadily, his inner fire was tired from before, but Zuko gritted his teeth and kept up the flame. Having held back from firebending for so long and now using it so much in the span of a short time was taxing.. It took a few minutes, far longer than it would have taken Azula, but eventually the metal was glowing red. Zuko stepped backward and Paong took his place. With determination, the earthbender widened his stance into the ground, lifted his arms up over his head, took a deep breath, then through them downward. The stone below them crashed upward as a pillar, throwing itself directly into the manhole above. They heard a crack, something dislodging, but the manhole still remained. Paong repeated the motion, again and again, sweat dripping down his face until something above them gave. The manhole, with a wretched shriek, bent under the assault and lifted slightly upward. Paong laughed, and pushed again, and the manhole flew upward and out of sight. He raised his hands and the pillar of stone crumbled downward onto the ground. 

“Yes!” Paong said, jumping in the air in triumph. “Yes! Thank you!” And he reached his arms out wide and grabbed Zuko’s waist, holding him tight in a hug. 

Zuko froze. 

Paong let go of him, running to the ladder, but Jet cut in front of him. Jet grabbed the rungs of the ladder, moving quickly, and flung himself upward out of the tunnel without a word. 

Paong went next, shaking from exhaustion. He was a lot slower climbing out than Jet was, and Zuko followed him. Paong pulled himself up from the tunnel with a groan, he looked back at Zuko. “Do you need help?” Paong asked, reaching his hand down. 

Zuko shook his head, using his right hand to keep himself steady and his feet to climb. He reached the top, throwing his right hand outward to grab onto the edge, and felt the sensation of a boot stepping on his fingers. Jet hovered over him, glaring downward, as Paong dropped his jaw in shock. 

“Bend the rocks from the road,” Jet said, “bury him.”

Paong stood up. He walked to Jet’s side and grabbed his arm, pulling Jet off of Zuko’s hand. 

Zuko moved quickly, taking advantage of Paong’s actions to throw himself up onto the street. He fell down on the stone ground, suddenly feeling the chill of the cool night air against the sweat on his body. 

It was extremely late in the evening and the moon and scattered stars were brightly visible overhead, there were only scattered stars and a single faded streetlamp. By some twist of fate, the manhole they escaped from seemed to be in the center of a main street, all around them was shops and temporary booths that appeared closed up for the day; the street, clearly in a nice neighborhood, due to the late hour was entirely empty. The only people here were the three of them, covered in sweat, dust, and grime, looking exactly like anyone would expect a person who’d spend a few hours down in a sewer would look.

Paong was still holding Jet back, who was looking straight at Zuko like he was contemplating all the many ways he wanted to kill him. “We’re out,” Paong said quietly, “the Blue Spirit saved our lives, we can let him go.”

Jet pushed Paong off of him. He pulled the helmet off of his face, throwing it to the ground where it clattered against the paved stone, and wiped a dirty hand against the moisture on his forehead. “Answer me one thing,” Jet said to Zuko, clenching his fists, “are you loyal to the Fire Nation?”

Zuko raised himself up to his knee and reached for his sword. 

Paong loudly drew in a breath, his jaw dropping as he looked at Zuko in shock. “You can’t be...” 

Jet sneered. “No answer? You’re a terrible spy, you can’t even lie right,” he said angrily.

Zuko, his body trembling with the effort, slowly stood up on his feet. The sweat on his face was irritating beneath the mask, and he lifted it upward on his head, looking out from beneath the mask for the first time that evening. “I saved you,” Zuko reminded him, “so leave my uncle alone.” Paong, as it was the first time he’d seen Zuko’s face, gasped.

Jet took a step forward, clenching his fists at his side. “Are you,” he repeated angrily, “loyal to the Fire Nation?”

“My uncle isn’t,” Zuko told Jet, “so leave him alone.”

“What about you,” Jet snapped.

“Yes,” Zuko said stoically, “I am.”

Jet turned to Paong. “He’s still weak,” Jet said, “look at him. The two of us could bring him down.”

Paong took a step backward, his eyes widening with fear. He lifted one hand toward his left cheek, touching the edges of his scar. His eyes were trained on Zuko’s face, not meeting his gaze but looking at him; it was clearly clicking in his mind, the soldiers had mistaken Paong for Zuko and that was why he’d nearly died. “He saved my life, I, I-“ he said quietly.

“Why did you,” Jet asked Zuko, “why save us? What could you possibly want from us? What is in this for you?”

Zuko’s stomach clenched with nervousness. “I told you, leave my uncle alone,” Zuko said.

“You expect me to just let two Fire Nations spies wander around Ba Sing Se?”

“He’s not a spy,” Zuko protested angrily, “he’s an old man in a tea shopLeave him alone!”

Jet, curiously, tilted his head and smirked. “Okay, if you do something for me.”

“I already saved your pathetic, worthless life,” Zuko growled.

“I could still use you,” Jet told him.

“That’s all you do with people,” Zuko gritted his teeth, “use them to get your way. You used me, and you’re using him.” Zuko nodded to Paong, who was slowly backing away from the two of them, his eyes shifting to Zuko’s sword and Jet’s face with nervousness.

“I want these assholes gone, I want them off the streets,” Jet said, narrowing his eyes, “and I think you can’t stand them either.”

“I already helped you,” Zuko said angrily. He stepped forward, raising the sword again. “You should be dead. If you want to keep going after this plot, until you die again or get captured by the Dai Li, be my guest.” His lip curled upward in a snarl. “I wanted a fight, you should be grateful I chose to make it yours.”

Jet narrowed his eyes. He rolled his eyes, lifting his hand up from a pocket and sticking a toothpick in his mouth with a crooked grin. “Don’t forget, Lee,” he said confidently, “I know something about you that I don’t think your Fire Nation pals would be too happy to learn.” Jet, mockingly, pursed his lips.

Zuko flinched. He stepped backward, not even realizing he had done it, his eyes staring at the taunt on Jet’s mouth. “You don’t even know my name,” Zuko defended, as a bit of anxiety roiled up in his chest. 

“Bet I’ll figure it out,” Jet said cockily.

Zuko turned sharply around, walking away down the alley. It still didn’t stop him from hearing the sound of Jet’s scornful laughter.

He knew Jet wasn’t following him based on that sound, though each bark of mirth echoed somewhere in Zuko’s mind like a curse. Zuko walked forward, his feet moving slowly, until suddenly they were running without any provocation. 

It seemed, these days, Zuko was doing a lot of running.

His shoes slapped on the cobblestone floor of the market, wet from the sewer and covered in grime. The air rushed past his face, through his clothing, chilling his sweat-covered skin and drying the salty water on his face like a crust. He was moving swiftly. His feet thrown out forward, one after the other, as though they’d never done anything else, as if Zuko had never known anything but to run. He heard the tapping of his own feet on the stone, but not the feeling of the strain in his legs or thighs, his right hand still clutched onto the handle of his sword and his left shoulder was sending stabbing pains through his body with every jolt. 

Jet had to be eliminated. Zuko needed to kill him. Jet was the only one who knew, the only person Zuko had ever allowed to know. Zuko had to stalk him, had to find him, get him, yes, he had to get him while he was sleeping, snuff the light from Jet’s eyes before that mouth told another soul, had to die, had to die, it could be easy, Zuko could make it easy, he could kill Jet the same way his mother had killed Azulon-

Zuko’s breath shot out of him with a gasp. His feet kept moving, running, running, running, and he was panting, desperate for air, unable to stop.

Honorless. Those kinds of people were honorless.

No captured Avatar would cover this flaw. Like a diamond in an offering of mud. Zuko could conquer the known world, he could bring it to his father with his head bowed in reverence, all the wealth and power and glory there was to offer, but that wouldn’t cover up the stain of imperfection that wrapped around the core of his being. Ozai wouldn’t allow a laughingstock to live; the people of the Fire Nation would riot they bowed before a man like that

Why was he so stupid?! 

As if the world wanted to remind him, Zuko ran into a wall. In his blind, fevered run he’d followed the road straight into a dead end, practically throwing himself at a stone border surrounding a property. He didn’t even realize until he hit it. His chin and right knee took the brunt of the impact, slamming into the wall and knocking Zuko backward with so much pain and force he was too shocked to react. His body fell in a heap and Zuko just stared.

“Ow,” he rasped, the first coherent thought as his body was agonizing. Zuko felt himself, twitching, as his chin, shoulder, and knee sang with pain; he hadn’t, by some miracle, dislocated anything, but this was not going to help him heal faster. 

Zuko swung his leg under himself, pressing a scraped palm to the stone ground and forced his trembling body to its feet. He looked around, blood rushing to his face, but there was no one nearby. The road appeared to be a collection of town homes, everyone inside fast asleep. after he made it to his feet, he instantly lost his balance and stumbled backward to the wall, having to use it to hold himself steady. His right leg was shaking badly, clearly unsteady from the sudden hit it had just taken. Zuko, catching his breath, looked up at the mainly blank night sky, just him and the moon, and muttered, “Why?”

He then, abruptly, remembered that he’d helped try to kill the moon and his terrible luck made more sense. Zuko, thinking back on it, had likely made enemies out of countless spirits and they were only exercising their powers to deliver swift revenge as Zuko walked along a path of his own shitty choices. 

“Do you think,” Zuko said to the empty night air, “one of you might give me a break?” 

The still, silent world chirped back the sound of insects and gave no answer. 

Zuko pressed his right palm against the wall, taking a tentative step forward. It took him a moment to get himself under control but he managed to step forward. Then again, and again, with better confidence. He used his hand to guide him along the border wall, taking in deep breaths as he went. Zuko, sniffing, wondered why such a nice neighborhood smelled so utterly foul until he realized the smell was all him. His dark clothes and cloak might hide the stains but he could feel the grime itching against his skin. Zuko had never, in his life, felt so disgusting; the feeling wasn’t just coming from his smell and clothes though, there was something rotten curling in his mind and sinking into the pit of his stomach, shameful, angry, full of loathing directed at himself. 

He reached the opening of the border wall, looking down a scenic other road, more houses along this one, nicer ones with tiny gardens. The compound with the wall opened up to a long, luxurious lawn. There were several, manicured blossom trees along with a fairly deep looking pond that appeared to stretch back as a river to the other end of the property. Zuko barely thought about it as he made his way there. 

He slid down on his knees in front of the pond, but his sore knee protested and he forced himself back to his feet. Then, feeling like there was no better way to wash all the outward filth on him, Zuko stepped forward and walked into the water. The pond, at its deepest, came up to his waist. As he moved forward he could see, from the light of the moon, the water around him darken from the grime. Zuko lowered his hands into the pristine water and cupped it upward to his face. The cool water was refreshing, sliding away the dry salt on his face, he scrubbed it inward, getting rid of all the sweat, his fingers moving from smooth skin to the tough, calloused, unfeeling scar. 

Zuko lifted the Blue Spirit mask off of his head and dunked himself under, holding his body under the water. He shook his head, hoping to wash away anything in his hair, and raised himself up with a gasp. Zuko slid the mask back, resting on the top of his head, and ran his hands up his arms, scrubbing at his clothing. He made slow work of it, wringing out his cloak and the rest of his clothing, feeling no pressure to hurry in the dead of night.

The moon was reflected in the water in front of him, a blank white face. As the dirt slid off of his body, blackening the water, it appeared to melt into nonexistence into the reflection of the lunar object. He felt somewhat entranced by it. The ripples of the motions of his body sliding into the image, distorting it but never changing, as the ripples continued onward and onward until they reached the black reflection of the night sky. The sun, the sun had always been his, his light, his source, but in this moment, Zuko’s hand shockingly reached out to the image of the moon, something deep inside him yearning for an unknown connection. The tip of his forefinger touched the reflection, causing a solitary ripple to slide around the face of the moon, and something like a chime rang in Zuko’s mind. 

“Not to disturb you but-“

Zuko slammed the Blue Spirit mask and turned around in the water, splashing it around him. His hand dropped immediately to his sword. He hadn’t realized he’d been feeling peaceful until the anxiety rushed back into him.

The blue figure raised her hands upward in a gesture of peace and said softly, “It’s okay. It’s me.”

It was. Zuko tried to step backward but the back of his heel touched a rock and halted him. 

Katara looked different from any other time Zuko had seen her, her hair was down, entirely flat, she was wearing a long blue dress and sandals, clothing that appeared more ready for sleep than combat. Her eyes were wide, blue, and filled with compassion Zuko didn’t understand. “It’s Katara,” she whispered, “I know I look different but it’s still me.”

Zuko felt a gentle urging at his legs, like a wave guiding him forward, and he would have sworn it was waterbending if not for the face Katara hadn’t moved. Regardless, somehow, somewhere deep inside of him, Zuko knew whatever force compelling him forward wasn’t a threat. He let himself, feet dragging in the muddy sand, to slide slightly closer. 

“Hi,” Katara breathed, a soft smile on her face, “it’s just me, Voak. So, what are you doing at our house? Taking a bath?”

Zuko, sharply, looked up at the house to his right with shock. It couldn’t... really? The tunnel he had come out of had led him here? To the Avatar’s home in Ba Sing Se? Was this luck or something worse? Zuko didn’t know what to believe, or what to trust, but the water was lapping at his sides, urging him onward, and in his exhaustion he followed its path. Zuko stepped out of the water, only when he was standing on dry land realizing how pathetically his clothes and cloak were clinging to his skin.

“Right,” Katara said gently, “you don’t talk anymore. I’m sorry.” She reached her hand out toward him, palm upward, and waited. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”

Zuko wasn’t a wounded, rabid animal, but for some reason he felt a bit like one. He lifted his right hand, shaking slightly, and lowered it onto Katara’s. Her fingers, soothingly, wrapped around his own. She pulled gently, guiding him forward, and then down, leading him to a stone in the lawn. Zuko allowed her to. He sat down on the stone, only now feeling the pain from his exhausted legs. 

“Don’t be angry with Sokka, he only told me,” Katara told Zuko, “I forced it out of him. Your secret is safe with us, Voak, tribe’s honor.” She lowered their hands, setting Zuko’s down on the stone. “I know you’re injured. I’m a healer. Will you let me heal you?”

Zuko had no strength to relish in this moment. In the utter success of his deception. He was tired. In every possible way a human could be tired. He looked up at Katara through the mask, just tired, and nodded. 

Katara nodded back at him. She raised smooth hands into the air, sliding her left foot backward, and waved her arms. Her hands moved toward the pond, guiding a stream of water in front of her. She manipulated the water, twisting it elegantly around her into a circle. Then, still spinning the water in front of her, she raised her head to something beyond Zuko, past his back and toward the house, and nodded. 

Zuko turned his head sharply, his hand dropping to his sword, but as the door of the house opened the only figure that stepped out was Sokka. He relaxed. Zuko didn’t know why. 

Sokka looked similarly like he was ready to sleep or had been woken up. The hair that was normally up in a wolf tail was down, framing his face, and he was wearing a brown shirt and loose, blue pants, his feet were barefoot as he walked toward them on the grass lawn. Sokka had a serious look on his face, walking over to Zuko’s side. He nodded at his sister who nodded back, and said in a whisper, “Toph and Aang are asleep.”

Katara raised the water toward Zuko, and Sokka gestured to Zuko’s left shoulder. The water sank over him, gliding into place like a soft silk sheet over naked skin. Zuko could feel it against the arrow-wound but somehow it didn’t hurt, and then, with steadily increasing light, the water began to glow blue. 

Zuko felt something, like his skin growing harder and pain disappearing, and he sighed. 

Katara kept the water on his shoulder for a long time, her face tight with concentration as she worked on healing him. Sokka moved to stand behind her, keeping a watchful eye on what was happening. They all stayed there, still in the night, the glow of healing water illuminating two faces and one mask, until with a gentle exhale Katara pulled the water away. 

It wasn’t like all the pain in his body was gone, though the worst of it had certainly gotten better. The rest of his body still ached with exhaustion and pain, his knee a persistent annoyance, but as her hands left his left shoulder, Zuko twitched his arm and hand and felt nothing more than the strain. He nodded at her, as she let the water fall onto the grass. He could feel his hunger and thirst again, which was a good sign.

“Thank you, Katara,” Sokka said softly. He put his hand on his sisters arm. 

She smiled at him, happy, familial. “Of course.”

Zuko felt something in his chest ache. He stood up, for the first time actually noticing his closeness to the two. Barely two feet apart. They were standing nearby with the ease of allies and friends, and for some reason Zuko was too. 

“The offer still stands,” Sokka said, looking at Zuko, “you can come inside. Is that why you came?”

Zuko shook his head. 

“It’s alright to ask for help,” Katara told Zuko kindly, “we’re happy to give it.”

“Well,” Sokka said, “he can’t ask for help.”

Katara, her eye twitching, said in a harsh whisper, “You know what I meant.”

Sokka, shrugging his shoulders, said, “I’m just saying.”

Katara rolled her eyes at her brother before turning back to Zuko. “I can get you some food,” she said, “is that alright?”

Zuko, feeling somewhat nauseated, nodded. 

Katara smiled at her brother and walked away, past Zuko and toward the house. She opened the door slowly, careful not to make a sound, before slipping inside and leaving them alone.

Sokka stepped a bit closer and smiled at Zuko. “You are soaking,” he said, chuckling to himself, and as he got a bit closer his nose wrinkled, “and you kinda smell.”

Zuko, more than anything, wished he could respond with a jab about how badly Sokka tended to smell like fish, but he had to stay silent. He pointed at Sokka, which was the best he could do.

Sokka shrugged at him. “So,” Sokka said, his face looking darker around his nose and cheeks, “I went to the library. I’ve been studying.” He flattened his hand, pressed it against his chin and then out, then made a fist against his hand, pressing the other palm against it, and ended with a two finger gesture against his chest. “See?”

Zuko had no idea what he was doing. He tilted his head, hoping it conveyed his confusion.

“Do you not know- it’s okay,” Sokka reached out for Zuko’s hands. “I can show you the basics. If you take your thumb and forefinger and press it on your chin, that mean ‘yes’, and then you kinda pinch by your nose and throw it away, and that’s ‘no’.” He guided Zuko’s hands through the motions. Zuko didn’t quite understand the point when a simple headshake or nod would do, until Sokka elaborated, “I can keep learning and teach it to you. We could learn together.”

Zuko pinched the air in front of his nose and tossed the hand toward the ground. 

Sokka grinned. “Yeah, that’s it, and you’re still a jerk,” he said. 

Sokka was looking right at him, his eyes shining, his smile wide. He wanted to learn to sign because he though... Voak was mute. Sokka wanted Voak to stick around long enough for them both to learn a new alphabet. He was standing in front of him, in the middle of the night, having done his best, over and over again, to reach out, and now was doing it again with a happy look on his face. 

Zuko lowered his eyes, looking at their hands. Sokka was still holding onto them, they’d just dropped down between them. And Zuko realized he hadn’t let go either. A shiver slipped down along his spine, sending sparks into his skin. Zuko wondered.

Zuko turned his right hand over, against the side of Sokka’s, and swept his thumb along the warrior’s palm. 

Sokka looked up at him, curious, but didn’t pull his hand away.

Zuko kept his hands holding onto Sokka’s, a sudden heat filling his stomach. No. It was the same mistake coming after him again, this time slower, this time he couldn’t blame it on Jet’s flirtations and pretend his lack of response meant he didn’t feel anything. It was the feeling that had come over him when he’d first taken stock and noticed the other teenager’s appearance, when they’d been sitting next to him and he felt the heat of the other body like shivers, and when he’d pushed Sokka against the tree and felt an urge to wrap himself around him and hold tight. It was Zuko.

As heat rose onto Zuko’s face, and a pounding drum began sounding in his ears, Sokka’s right hand shifted along Zuko’s left until Sokka’s thumb brushed against Zuko’s gloved palm. 

It didn’t mean nothing because Sokka was blushing too. Zuko looked at Sokka’s face with wide eyes as the drumming just grew louder. Zuko liked this. Zuko could feel it in every core of his being. His body attuned and on edge, all troubles, aches, and pains, thrown to the side. He liked Sokka’s face. He liked his hands. He liked his smile. Zuko liked him.

Sokka looked downward at their hands, moving his knuckles slowly along Zuko’s glove. His face was red but his expression was calm. The loose hair that framed his face fell along his cheeks, one strand long enough to brush the edges of his mouth. “When,” he said, his voice high-pitched. His blush flushed harder on his face and Sokka coughed, clearing his throat, before continuing in his normal voice, “When do you want to meet up again, Voak?”

Zuko had made this mess. He’d crafted it on his own, weaving together a machination that would bring him toward completion of his actual goal, so it shouldn’t hurt. It still did. Zuko liked Sokka, the weird Water Tribe bodyguard that traveled with the Avatar and had been a consistent thorn in his side for the better part of a year. Sokka, it seemed, liked... Voak, a dead, fabricated, illusion of a thing, a corpse Zuko had hoisted over his face and wore with disgrace and slander. 

Why, Zuko thought to himself as his heart sank, do I do this? He was the puppetmaster of all of his troubles. This was only the latest in a long hike downward. 

Zuko slid his hands away from Sokka’s. Sokka didn’t resist, only allowing his fingers to gently trail along Zuko’s gloved as he did so. The warrior looked up at Zuko with a hopeful expression, one corner of his mouth twitching with the desire to become a smile. 

Katara returned with a basket. There was a cloth napkin over the top of it, covering all the food but a small loaf of bread sticking out of the top. She handed it to Zuko. 

He took it, gave them a nod and a slight dip of his shoulders, the barest hint of a bow, before walking away. Zuko stopped before he left, turning at the edge of the wall to look back at them. Katara had already started to go inside but Sokka was watching him. Sokka raised his hand in a greeting and smiled, his eyes looking saddened, like he didn’t want Zuko to go.

Zuko’s ears pounded with a rhythm of a beating war drum, reminding him with a sinking feeling in his stomach, that he was jealous of a dead man.

Chapter Text

Zuko woke up to something being thrown on the ground beside him. He sat up from his place in the alley, having assumed he’d be completely out of sight behind a couple wooden barrels in a run-down part of town, when he looked upward to see an angry, bearded man throwing trash into a nearby crate. The man, whose goal it seemed to have been to wake Zuko up, sneered at him before opening a side door in the alley and walking inside. 

Zuko had to disentangle his arms from his cloak, having used it as a kind of makeshift blanket to escape the cold, misty air, and forced himself to his feet with a yawn. He stretched out his arms; his left shoulder was sore and stiff, but no longer unusable. His stomach was full from the meal the night before, and he could feel the sun’s presence beginning to rise, indicating he was waking up when he normally would anyways. Zuko didn’t feel that stiff or uncomfortable despite sleeping in an alley, it was plenty similar to all the caves or dirt beds he and Iroh had been sleeping in the last few months. 

He woke himself up, shaking his hands and legs, evaluating the soreness. Zuko could hear the signs of other people in Ba Sing Se beginning to stir, servants for the nobles heading off to their duties long before the time their masters would wake, merchants gathering their goods, craftsmen starting the routine to open their shops. While the majority of the city still slumbered, the most downtrodden and poor people of Ba Sing Se began the preparations to ready the day for the rest.

Zuko headed out himself, throwing the hood down from his eyes to avoid looking too suspicious. He secured the Blue Spirit mask against his back, where the cloak would hide it. As he walked down a cobblestone and dirt road, this area of the city had long had its infrastructure abandoned, Zuko raised his forearm to his nose and sniffed. 

He needed a change of clothes. Or soap at the very least. Zuko began to calculate exactly how far away he was from any shop that would sell what he needed when he stopped himself abruptly. 

No. Zuko didn’t need soap. He needed to make a trap. Zuko stopped in the middle of the street, slamming his fist to his palm. “Yes,” he said to himself, eagerly. A woman who had opened her window to hang out some laundry looked at him and rolled her eyes. 

Zuko ignored her. He took a moment to reorient himself in the city and then figured out where he needed to go. Between the tea shop and Jet’s home by that bar, there had been an even more decrepit part of town. Before, he’d simply walked through, his hand on his sword; but if there was any place in Ba Sing Se he would find the tools he needed to capture and hold the Avatar it would be there. 

Zuko knew when he arrived at his destination because this part of the city was the one area of Ba Sing Se that was permanently in shadow. The placement of the walls and watchtowers, on both sides of the market, meant that there was always shade, along with a large building that stood tall in the center, formerly some kind of temple or holy place with wide extending balconies. The temple was now abandoned, fully bordered up and illegal to trespass in, though the homeless of the city had made it a place to stay. This was a shantytown, spare tents thrown up against a wall, broken down buildings homing operations that only existed when the Dai Li weren’t nearby; an open grate and small trickle of water that constituted something of a river ran through the area, on stone paths worn by time, the water that was pure and sweet at the highest hill of Ba Sing Se slowly grew brown and filthy as it made its way here. It was still early and in this part of the city very few people were stirring. The shantytown was always awake and yet not; these were the people that existed when the need arose but otherwise let life pass them by. 

Zuko pulled the collar of his black shirt over his mouth and nose, covering half his face. He walked by alley ways and tents with people passed out on the ground, in drug or alcohol induced comas, passing by large, surly men with weapons standing around together waiting to be hired, and all manner of low-life criminals who had chosen Ba Sing Se as a place to be. They didn’t bother him. They hadn’t before. With his clothing, weapons, and the huge scar on his face, Zuko looked like he belonged. 

He passed a surly fortuneteller, a woman with inch long fingernails who was flipping an open sign over her door, and a butcher who was sitting on a makeshift booth, meat held up with fishhooks to sway in the breeze and drip blood on the ground, who wasn’t bothering to swat away flies. A skeletal man was rolling a blanket out on the ground, reaching into a bag to dump all manner of trinkets and items that were clearly stolen. Zuko passed them all, making his way to the one place that had stuck out in his mind before. 

Zuko opened a door to a shop, one with borded-up windows covered in graffiti, and entered a dark, noxious smelling bar. Instead of tables there were crates, and the bartender was lying on his own counter, seemingly asleep, as a filth ridden customer reached behind him to serve himself. Zuko passed the scene, walking toward an armed woman standing by a door in a corner. She looked at him, taking in his appearance, and nodded. She pushed the door open for him and Zuko stepped inside. 

The door opened into a destroyed room, half the wall broken down into rubble and replaced with a tarp, but all along the walls were weapon racks filled with various items of war. A single man, looking bored at a desk in the corner, glanced up when Zuko entered and gestured to him with a yawn. Zuko nodded at him, and perused the shop. 

Iroh hadn’t liked Zuko’s tendency to visit the underground parts of the world but it had always been necessary. As their old warship sank a year into their travels they had needed replacements. New parts, new weapons, and the best way to get that without completely draining their resources was on the black market. Zuko had also, as any teenager would, found enjoyment in the company of pirates and thieves; Iroh had always indulged him, if remaining glued to Zuko’s side during these excursions, but the results had spoken for themselves when they’d begun chasing the Avatar and had the resources and equipment to keep up. Zuko may not have succeeded but he’d certainly given the Avatar a challenge.

The affordability of the items was going to be an issue, but thankfully Zuko knew where his skills lay. The underground of the world tended to prefer bartering and Zuko had plenty of experience as a thief. He put that to the back of his mind as he looked around. There was an animal trap, meant for larger creatures and made of metal, that could definitely come in handy; obviously manacles would be useful; but if Zuko was going to do this he needed something foolproof. Or Avatar proof. Something like that woman, June, had possessed in that animal’s tongue that would keep the Avatar docile as long as Zuko needed. He lifted his head to the bored seller and asked, “Paralytics?” 

“You’ll want an apothecary for that,” the man grumbled. 

At least he pointed Zuko in the right direction. Zuko walked up to the man and asked, “Any jobs?”

The man, snorting, opened a drawer and flipped through a notebook. He glanced at Zuko, mumbled something like “scrawny” under his breath, and asked, “Pickpocket?”


The man handed Zuko a piece of paper. Zuko took it, not bothering to even look, and stuffed it into his pocket. “Apothecary?” Zuko asked.

The man rolled his eyes, muttered, “Ain’t a tourguide,” and Zuko figured that was all he could get out of him. 

Zuko left, taking the paper out once he was in the clear to give it a read. Someone just wanted a bracelet off of a merchant’s wife; easy enough and seemed to pay well. Zuko walked the entire length of the shantytown looking for the apothecary, before he traced his way back and stopped outside the fortuneteller he’d seen earlier. There was a tiny opening between the boards on the windows showing various vials, and Zuko figured that meant he was in the right place. He reached his hand out to open the door and the door swung open before he could touch it.

The woman he’d seen before was there, thin and wrinkled with patchy hair, wearing clothing that seemed far too expensive for someone of her station. She had sharp, intense eyes and her fingernails were inch-long, slightly curled, and painted a deep red. She smiled a crooked smile at him and nodded, stepping back to let Zuko inside. 

This ‘shop’ was as dusty and disheveled as it looked on the outside. It opened to a single, wide open floor, on the right there were torn and dirty tapestries hanging over the walls, incense burning a foul stench, and a large round table with seers stones scattered around. To Zuko’s left were shelves filled with jars of ingredients, some plants Zuko recognized, others appearing to be body parts of animals, and a long bench ran through the length of that side, vials and jars of liquids scattered around with no particular organization. Zuko, trying to ignore the old woman’s piercing gaze on his back, walked toward the liquids. They didn’t have any labels. “I’m looking for something that will paralyze a person,” he said, “or make them unconscious for a long period of time.”

The woman smiled brightly. Half her teeth were black. “You want to catch a big fish,” she said in a guttural voice that shook with the tremors of old age, “perhaps you should seek counsel from a fisherman.”

Zuko’s eye twitched in annoyance. “I have had enough proverbs in my life,” he said through gritted teeth, “I’m here for a potion not a reading.”

The old woman chuckled. She picked a silken shawl up from a rack to her side and wrapped it around her shoulders. She walked over to the right side of the shop, taking a bowl filled with strange ingredients and setting it on the table. “You have the face of a boy who needs advice,” she said, sitting down and tracing a bony finger alone the edge of the bowl, “wouldn’t you like to hear from an expert?”

She had every appearance at a con artist and Zuko snorted. “There are no living experts for what I’m doing,” he told her.

The woman’s piercing eyes flashed as she smiled. “Not living,” she repeated.

Zuko stared at her. “Yes,” he said to himself, “not living.” A year ago he’d have stormed out of there, likely breaking half the items in her shop for her audacity to attempt to trick him, but a year ago Zuko hadn’t seen what he’d seen. Zuko was well aware the world he lived in was full of spirits and strange things; he’d seen the Avatar evoke power beyond anything a mortal person could possess and he’d seen the moon die. As he looked at the old woman, who looked like every description of a witch that had ever been recorded, Zuko couldn’t rule out the possibility she could contact the spirit world. And Zuko was all alone. He needed all the help he could get.

The woman held out her gnarled hand and, as if reading his mind, said, “The first one’s free.”

Zuko walked toward her and sat on the table across from her. “Can you speak to the dead?”

“If they care to speak back,” she rasped, lifting her front lip in a distorted smile, “it can be difficult to focus on one soul.”

Zuko’s heart beat quickly in his chest. “If there was a person I wished to contact, could you do it?”

“I’d need an anchor,” she told him, “something that connects him to this mortal plane. An item of significance. A bone from his body. Blood.”

Zuko looked down. He pulled the glove off his right hand, exposing the bare fingers and blue hand wrap and extended it outward on the table. “Blood of a descendant?”

The old witch chuckled from deep in her body. The movement causing the hair to fly wildly around her face. “Yes, boy,” she reached out, seizing Zuko’s hand harshly. She forced his palm over the bowl and her nails dug inside his skin, piercing into him. Zuko winced but didn’t pull away. She held the hand over the ingredients in the bowl and gripped tightly until Zuko’s blood dripped over it, holding him steady until several drops had spilled over unidentified leaves, then she let Zuko’s hand go. He clenched it against his chest. The old woman narrowed her eyes at him. “The flint and stone can be weary on these old bones,” she said with a voice like sandpaper, “light the bowl for me.”

Zuko gave her a long look but reached outward, extending a light from his fingers to the bowl. Connecting to the Spirit World was just as taboo as a firebender in Ba Sing Se; and it wasn’t like this woman seemed the type to go running to the Dai Li. Zuko lit the contents on fire and she breathed on it, coaxing the flame until she blew it out, leaving the ingredients smoking like incense. The old woman placed her hands, palms outstretched, on the sides of the table and Zuko took them with his own. “Who do you seek, boy?” She rasped. 

The smoke was pungent, instantly making Zuko lightheaded. “The Avatar-slayer,” Zuko said, “Fire Lord Sozin.”

The old woman looked into Zuko’s eyes. Her gaze was hypnotizing, like pools of black that, with each inhale of the smoke, grew wider and wider until it encompassed everything. 

Zuko was standing in the inner chamber of the temple on the Crescent Isle. It was like it had before, as if the lava the phantom Avatar Roku had summoned months ago hadn’t destroyed everything the Fire Sages had built. Zuko looked down at himself, shocked to see he seemed... normal, despite his body feeling lighter than air. The dull red light of sunset shone around him, despite the chamber being closed off to the world besides a tiny sliver of light above the closed door, and the images and carvings on the walls around Zuko were unstable, blurred, as if swimming in his eyes like he was awake within a dream. Avatar Roku’s statue stood strong above him, dark and unknowable, and from behind the image Zuko heard a muted sound.

Aang stepped out from behind the statue. He was there, the colors of his body muted, and in his hand he was holding something that didn’t exist. Zuko rushed at the Avatar.

Zuko’s body phased through and he stumbled outward, falling to the ground. He looked up to see Aang walking past him as Aang’s foot stepped through Zuko’s forearm, unaware of Zuko’s presence at all. The Avatar seemed to be somewhere else, he was interacting with things and people that Zuko couldn’t see. Zuko sat up on his knees, watching Aang walk as the boy gestured to no one, pressing a hand to blank space and placing invisible papers onto invisible walls. The Avatar walked forward and passed through Roku’s statue. When he came back in sight, he wasn’t Aang.

Zuko scrambled to his feet. His eyes widened and he threw his hands to his swords out of instinct only to realize they weren’t there. 

Avatar Roku was tall, imposing, he stood at the height and size of three men, an impossible giant; his eyes and face as firm as stone, he walked toward Zuko. He could see him.

Zuko tried to walk away but Avatar Roku raised a hand and Zuko’s feet froze in place. “You have not come for me,” Avatar Roku said thunderously. His voice rang out through the chamber, echoing along the walls with a commanding tone that send shockwaves of fear through Zuko’s body. The spirit, the dead Avatar, was standing, his body glowing faint blue, in front of Zuko. “Yet here I am.”

Zuko raised his forearms to protect his face. He closed his eyes.

Zuko heard an exhale, a great sigh like a summer breeze rippling through the chamber. He opened his seeing eye, looking through his arms, and saw that Avatar Roku had changed.

The Avatar was sitting, crosslegged on the floor, the size of any regular human man. His hands were resting on his knees, palms upward, and while his body was still glowing gently blue he looked almost... human. “You have come to the Spirit World, not by the power of others but by my request,” Avatar Roku said. His voice was still loud and commanding but it no longer shook the walls of the chamber. “Sit, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, and let us speak.”

Zuko, slowly, lowered his arms. He wondered if Avatar Roku might have called him there to kill him, after all, all the Avatar’s were one soul and Zuko had done plenty to Aang that warranted revenge. 

“You are in no danger from me,” Avatar Roku told him. 

Zuko flinched with surprise. Avatar Roku had heard his thoughts?

The Avatar gestured to the ground and Zuko, anxiety clenching his chest tight, sat down. Avatar Roku’s gaze was looking in to him, there was something there that Zuko didn’t understand, something other than hatred. “I called for Fire Lord Sozin,” Zuko told him, feeling stupid as he said it. If Avatar Roku could read his mind then knew who Zuko had been looking for.

“And yet he was not the one who answered,” Avatar Roku said. “You seek advice, child, and I am here to answer you.”

Zuko nearly laughed at the absurdity of that situation. “Advice? I came to learn how to capture the Avatar,” he said sourly.

A breeze passed through the room that send a shiver down Zuko’s spine. “I know.” Avatar Roku’s face and body were as stable and fearsome as stone.

Zuko stared at him. “So...” he said, pathetically, “how do... capture the Avatar?”

“Is that what you truly wish?”

“So you aren’t here to give me answers,” Zuko snapped at him. The moment the words left his mouth his body froze in fear. 

Avatar Roku, instead of punishing Zuko for his insolence, closed his eyes and sighed. “The answers I hope to provide you, Prince Zuko, are not to the questions you long to ask,” he said.

“Proverbs,” Zuko muttered. Why did people keep speaking to him in riddles?

“Sozin was my friend,” Avatar Roku told Zuko, “I believe you know this already.”

“And you betrayed him and the Fire Nation,” Zuko remembered. 

Avatar Roku didn’t seem phased by the accusation. “Sozin grew up knowing he’d be the leader of one of the four kingdoms. He was given everything he wanted. He had power, wealth, and fame, and Sozin grew up not knowing what it meant to desire something he couldn’t have,” Avatar Roku said, his eyes closed as he spoke, “until the day came he realized there was one thing he wanted that would never belong to him. Sozin kept that disappointment inside him like a flame, coaxing it with hatred until it consumed the boy I once called my friend and turned him into the man he was.”

“Sozin was a great man,” Zuko said stiffly, “you’re accusing him of being a petulant child. Sozin brought the Fire Nation to prominence. He killed you.”

“Yes,” Avatar Roku said, opening his eyes to meet Zuko’s. 

“So,” Zuko began to say but he struggled to finish his point. Avatar Roku, for some reason, waited patiently as Zuko put his thoughts together. “You called me, here, in the Spirit World,” Zuko said, his forehead wrinkling in confusion, “to insult my great-grandfather to my face?”

A deep sadness crossed over Avatar Roku’s eyes. “Sozin chose to wallow in what he could not have and that turned him into the monster he became,” the Avatar told Zuko, “should you make that same choice, child, you could follow Sozin’s path and be as he was.”

Zuko felt a thousand feelings at once cross him, all scattered over each other like leaves on a forest floor. “I could be...” he said quietly, thinking, both elated and afraid, “like Sozin.”

“Sozin had an unhappy life,” Avatar Roku continued, “but it was the life he chose. I lived differently.”

“You were killed,” Zuko reminded. 

“I failed,” Avatar Roku told Zuko, saying the words casually like a person who had said them over and over again, “I disregarded the advice of past Avatars and lived blind to Sozin’s change. I allowed the friendship of the past to feed my own ignorance. Because of me, the world suffered. My family suffered.”

Zuko frowned. “Why did you call me here?”

“I lived a happy life before my death, a life that I had chosen,” Avatar Roku said. His head lowered, bowing toward the floor like a great weight had been placed upon it. “I loved. I had a child.”

Zuko had no idea how to respond to this moment. This... absurdity. He was speaking to a dead Avatar. To Roku. He'd wanted to learn how to capture the Avatar and the only spirit to respond to him was the Avatar. Nothing was making sense, none of this was helpful, it was just confusing. “So I choose to live like my great-grandfather, I get power and respect and I live to die at a natural age,” Zuko pieced together, “but you want me to live like you. Happy and a failure.”

“I tell you this as a warning, child,” Avatar Roku said, “I have seen the stirrings of Sozin’s turmoil inside you, the love that turns so easily to loathing, I do not wish to see more of our family fall to the trappings of hate.”

“What does that mean?”

“I had a daughter,” Avatar Roku told Zuko, lifting sad eyes to meet his, “and she had love. She had a daughter who found love as well; but my granddaughter was stolen from her family by the orders of Fire Lord Azulon.”

“Is this revenge? I don’t understand-“

“My granddaughter, Ursa, was given to your father, Ozai,” Roku said, “and she had children of her own.”

Zuko stood up. He stared down at... Roku, Avatar Roku, his eye as wide as it could go. Something in his stomach twisted, harsh, making him feel sick. “That’s not true,” Zuko said.

Avatar Roku met Zuko’s gaze and held it. 

“She would have told me,” Zuko said harshly.

“She was taken from her family, forced to abandon all she knew,” Avatar Roku said quietly, “you know your father’s tyranny extends to his own family. You wear that truth upon your face.”

“That’s not true!”

“Ozai believed the bloodline of an Avatar would strengthen his own,” Avatar Roku explained. 

“You’re trying to trick me,” Zuko said, stepping backward, “that’s what the stories say. The Spirit World is full of tricks and lies.”

“These are the answers your soul is seeking,” Avatar Roku told Zuko, “two paths lie before you. The steps you take will be your own, Prince Zuko, and I hope the life you live will bring you peace.”

Zuko shook his head. Peace. Like he’d felt under the moon, like he’d felt near the warrior- “You don’t know,” Zuko said angrily, “you don’t know what I want! I called for Sozin!”

“Sozin did not answer,” Avatar Roku said. 

What do you want from me?”


Zuko sneered at him. “If you were really my family you’d have an agenda; you want me to stop chasing you, stop hunting the Avatar, because you know I’m getting close,” Zuko snapped at him. He stepped forward, anger feeding into his bravery, to stand in front of Avatar Roku. “Why should I listen to you?”

Avatar Roku was calm. He nodded, and said, “I’ll leave you with two parting pieces of advice.”

Zuko frowned at him. “Why should I take advice from you?”

“Don’t do any more drugs, Zuko, and listen to your uncle.”

Zuko felt like death. He stumbled out of the apothecary, ignoring the old woman’s calls for him to stay, his hands scrambled at the walls to support him as he moved. The moment he stepped outside- it was so loud. The world was spinning, a thousand colors in a thousand different places, twinkling out and reaching for his eyes. He tripped on his own feet, repeatedly, as he walked away, his body thick with discomfort. Zuko could feel his own brain. He hated this- whatever was happening- he hated it. 

People passed by him like shadows and their gazes stuck in his mind, pouring into his skin like knives. Zuko blindly etched his way forward on the stone paths, utterly lost and confused. There was so much information in his head, so much to process, he wanted to go to his uncle... he wanted to go to Sokka.

Zuko found some space against rubble and a door and sank down into it, grabbing the sides of his head and shaking as he waited for the drugs to wear off. Every noise on the street was amplified as they passed him, wheels crushing against the stone roads, people screaming in calm greeting; he plugged his ears with his palms and held tight, screwing his eyes shut. It was bad, so very bad; the fragrance she’d had him inhale, whatever it was that had opened his soul to the Spirit World, had allowed everything else in the world in too. Zuko could feel the shifting of the air like burning on his skin; he moaned to himself and it rumbled through his organs, twisting him up inside. 

His vision from Avatar Roku had certainly left him with one truth, Zuko was never doing this to himself again. 

It was just like him, wasn’t it? Every single decision he made, for any reason, backfired with disastrous consequences. Fuck that, fuck this, and fuck Roku; if the dead Avatar was really his great-grandfather the man could have sent him a message some other way, couldn’t he? Instead of hijacking Zuko’s attempt to get advice from Sozin. Why couldn’t he have come to Zuko in a dream, like in all those fantasy stories, and saved Zuko the trouble? Of course, that didn’t fit the pattern of Zuko’s life, did it? It was as his father had told him, nothing would ever come easy, suffering was always meant to be Zuko’s greatest teacher.

Zuko barely managed to steal food to eat that night, his head was still swimming and his body felt strange. He walked back through the city, heading down familiar streets, until he was standing in front of a place he hadn’t wanted to be. 

He looked at the tea shop, frowning at the fact it was closed despite the sun only barely going down. There was a piece of paper tacked to the door and Zuko approached to read it. ‘Temporarily closed, help wanted.’ Zuko knew what that meant. Iroh had moved on. Maybe somewhere else in the city, or somewhere else entirely. 

Zuko still felt strange from the drugs, and as he read this new information he didn’t feel anything. After the initial hell his body had been through, Zuko had a better idea of why people used drugs. He felt light all over and at ease. Zuko looked up at the light hitting trees, and the sunset, and it all felt new. Maybe it was. For the first time in years, Zuko had a map to the future. Zuko felt... hopeful.

Avatar Roku might haunt him for the rest of his life but Zuko had gleaned that vision for the only advice that mattered. Sozin the Great, Sozin the Mighty. Sozin the Avatar-Slayer; he may not have answered Zuko but Zuko still learned something from the man's story.

There was a chittering noise to his right and Zuko turned slowly, his reactions slightly deadened by the substances still lingering in his system. He saw a tail. A lemur tail. Zuko walked after it, the tail disappearing to the area behind the shop.

It was dark back here, but seldom visited, and clearly Iroh had guessed it would be a safe place to leave supplies. The Avatar’s lemur was there, unbounded, but on top of one of the barrels was a pile of food that appeared to have kept the animal humanely occupied. Momo hissed when Zuko drew closer to him but otherwise ignored him, focusing instead on the bounty of fruit. Trust Iroh to find a way to capture an animal while keeping it happy and content, after all, he’d done the same to Zuko for years.

Zuko’s Earth kingdom clothes were folded up nearby, along with the rolled up sleeping mat. There was a bag as well and Zuko opened it, finding inside some money, dried pieces of fruit, soap, a single pai sho tile, and a letter. Zuko pulled the letter out, looking at it blankly. 

He raised the letter up and burned it to ashes without reading it. 

The flying lemur shrieked, activating its wings and used them to propel itself up to the roof of the building. It glared down at Zuko, clearly not friendly, and cackled an animalistic warning. 

Zuko kept an eye on the creature as he changed, slipping the dark clothes into the bag with the rest of the items. He could wash his clothes the next time he had a moment, but now it just felt good to change. He would look less suspicious too, in the Earth kingdom clothing, when he completed the job for the criminals. Iroh might have tossed a few silver his way, but Zuko was going to need a lot more to capture the Avatar. Zuko slung the bag over his shoulder, shaking out his hair, and looked up at the lemur with a smile.

Zuko stepped toward the pile of fruit. He picked up a mango, tossing it between his hands with a neutral expression. Momo hissed at him. Zuko raised the mango to his mouth and saw the flying lemur’s hackles raise. “You want this?” Zuko asked, holding the mango upward. 

The flying lemur came swooping downward, grabbing for the fruit. Zuko gave it to him, and unwrapped the blue handwrap from his hand and used it to tie around the creature’s chest, just below the arms. The lemur didn’t even know it was trapped until Zuko tightened the leash.

Zuko raised his palm, lighting up the area around him. He’d been able to trace his way back to the underground location by using its proximity to the Avatar’s home and backtracking from there. 

Zuko dropped the metal cage, housing the spitting mad lemur, and clapped his hands together to survey his location. It had been left seemingly untouched since the fight with Paong and Jet, there was plenty of rubble and tossed rocks on the ground, the water surrounding the main platform had dried up, a few leaking pipes slowly working on refilling the reservoir. All of the entrances and exits would be a problem, but Zuko had planned for them. He took out the small bags of explosives and went to work, shutting off this area from the rest of the sewer system. After this place was compromised, the ‘soldiers’ and Spirits wouldn’t dare to return, meaning this was the perfect place for Zuko to place his trap. 

Zuko worked through the night and into the next day, he melted chains along the roof of the room to make flying difficult, he spread flammable liquids and all of the excess explosives into the now dry moat of water. This was going to work, Zuko told himself, wiping sweat from his face as he kept going, it has to work this time. 

He walked by the flying lemur and it clawed a paw to his feet. Zuko stepped away from it, frowning. “It’s your fault you’re here,” Zuko said to Momo. 

He knelt down, looking at the spitting mad face of the creature. “I don’t know why you’ve been trusting me.” Zuko reached out a finger to poke the lemur’s tail and the animal snatched it away, shrieking at him. Momo clutched its tail to his stomach and slid backward in the cage, its ears downward and eyes wide. Cowering. In fear. At Zuko.

Zuko watched Momo, guilt crawling in his chest. “Here,” he said. He reached into his bag, finding another piece of fruit, and slid it through the bars of the cage. “It’s food.”

The flying lemur took a long moment, its hackles raised, but eventually one long, curious arm slid forward to accept the offering. Momo raised it to its mouth, sniffed, and then began to eat. Its ears and tail perked up, Zuko noticed with relief. 

Zuko sat down next to the animal, adjusting himself to be more comfortable. “I won’t hurt you,” Zuko promised, “and I’ll set you free the moment I catch the Avatar.”

Momo’s nose twitched. 

“Don’t look at me like that,” Zuko said to the lemur, “I like animals, I’m not like my sister. It’s not exactly fun for me to see you like this.” He slid his hand into the bag for another piece of fruit. He held it between the bars of the cage and Momo’s tiny hands reached out and took it from his. “If you wanted, I bet I could keep you,” Zuko mused, “there’ll be plenty of food in the palace.”

Momo made a curious noise as it stuffed his face.

“I’m going to get the bison too,” Zuko said, “capture it, get the warrior to show me how it flies, and bring it down here. Once I have the Avatar, I’ll use the bison to take him back home.” He confirmed the plan in his mind, speaking it out loud for the first time. It was a good plan. It could work. “We used to have plenty of animals in the palace,” Zuko told Momo.

The lemur moved closer in the cage as Zuko continued to feed it. 

“They’ll probably kill the bison,” Zuko realized, his stomach churning. 

Momo, as if it knew what he’d said, hissed. It continued to chew on its food though.

“I can’t think about that,” Zuko said to himself. He sighed, his head dropping. Zuko clenched his fists, trying to control the turmoil in his mind. “Sozin wouldn’t. I have to...” what was it Roku had said? “deny myself... the things I want.”

Zuko frowned. “But I never had the things I wanted, shouldn’t I already be like Sozin if that’s true? I wasn’t spoiled; I had to fight everyday just to prove I have the right to exist!”

Momo reached a hand out for more fruit. 

Zuko, closing his eyes, pressed his forehead against the cool metal of the cage. “You’re lucky you don’t have a father,” he muttered. 

Momo chirped.

Zuko walked right into her. It was entirely an accident. He hadn’t planned on it and she seemed just as surprised as him, but when Jin saw Zuko she smiled brightly. “Lee!” Jin said, excited, “I haven’t seen you around in awhile.”

Zuko stared at her for a moment. He had a bag slung over his shoulder, the last of the supplies he was bringing down to his trap, and she was holding a basket in her hands full of melons. Somehow, in their wandering paths through Ba Sing Se, they’d met each other again. It was the Earth kingdom girl, from before, with the bright smile and wild hair. “Jin,” he said with a nod.

“I heard you and your uncle moved up in the world,” Jin said. They were in the middle of a main street in the city, and even though it was getting dark there were still some people and carts walking around them. Jin had to step aside for someone to pass, and Zuko did too. 

“Ah, yeah,” Zuko said awkwardly. He frowned at a cart that passed by.

“That’s great!” Jin said cheerily.

Zuko’s eyes widened as he looked down at her. They didn’t know each other. They’d met one time, but she not only knew his name but remembered things about him... she liked Lee, for some reason. With a twisted joy that sunk like a pit in his stomach, Zuko forced himself to smile at the Earth kingdom girl and asked, “Do you... want to get something to eat? With me?”

Jin grinned up at him. “Well, it’s getting late,” she said, adjusting the basket in her arms, “Do you want to walk with me while I make my delivery?”

Zuko swallowed, hard, and nodded. 

She walked past him, turning her head to smile, and Zuko, after a pause, jogged up to her side to walk with her. The citizens of Ba Sing Se were performing the last of their chores of the day. A man passed by them, holding a large stick with a flame at the top, slowly lighting the lanterns on the side of the road one by one. People in fine clothing wandered leisurely about, beside bent over, exhausted bodies of poor workers trekking the long way home. “Are you still taking care of the little lemur?” Jin asked him.

Zuko thought back to Momo’s sad eyes as he’d left him caged and winced. “Yes.”

“That’s really nice of you,” Jin said. Zuko nodded and she looked at him for awhile as they walked. “Have you been in Ba Sing Se for awhile? You’re a refugee, right?”

“Not long,” Zuko told her. A group of younger people walked past them, laughing, and it only reinforced the awkwardness Zuko was feeling. He took a deep breath in through his nose, hoping to calm himself. “You... sell fruit?”

Jin snorted. It was an undignified sound, something none of the woman Zuko had ever known would have made. “Yeah, I sell fruit,” she said, “it’s a living, you know.”

“Sure,” Zuko said. 

They walked past a shop that was closing its doors, the shopkeeper giving Jin a wave that she responded to with a smile. “Are you liking it here?”

“It’s... complicated,” Zuko said honestly, frowning. “It’s not home.”

Jin playfully pushed her shoulder against his. “I was a refugee when I was little,” she told him, “when we came here, I was pretty lost, but my brother told me home is just where your family is.”

Family. Zuko winced. “My family... is...” he didn’t finish the thought.

Jin waited for a moment, looking at his face with kind eyes, before asking, “You still have your uncle.”

Zuko wasn’t sure that was true anymore. And this wasn’t going the way he wanted to. Family was the sorest subject in the world, now made all the more confusing knowing Avatar Roku was a part of it. He didn’t want to walk around with this Earth kingdom peasant girl and talk about feelings. Zuko had something else to prove. “I had a weird day,” Zuko said, “but it’s... nice to see you.”

Jin grinned. “It’s nice to see you too.”

Zuko didn’t give himself time to think. He reached out, putting his hand on her cheek, and brought his head to hers immediately. Zuko kissed her. 

Jin stilled, as if frozen, and Zuko kept his mouth against hers. He closed his eyes. He felt like... there was pressure against his mouth, lips on lips, and that was it. Nothing else. There were no sparks, or blood rushing to his head; the physical sensation of a kiss was there and Zuko could feel only that. Nothing like any of the poets described. None of the immediate, nervous shell-shock that happened when Jet had kissed him. Zuko pressed his mouth against hers and that was it. It was hollow.

Zuko felt a hand on his chest gently push him backward and he did, leaving the kiss with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Jin softly pushed him backward, the two of them standing in the middle of the road. Behind them, Zuko heard a cart passing by and a man give a low whistle in their direction.

“Um...” Jin’s face was an explosion of red, a blush so strong it looked like warpaint along her cheeks, “what was that for?”

Zuko’s eyes widened and he didn’t know what to say. He was... disappointed. 

“I, uh,” Jin coughed, clearing her throat. “I think maybe... that wasn’t for me. Was it?”

Zuko’s eyes widened and his breath caught in his throat. Jin was a pretty girl, there was no doubt about it. She had bright, kind eyes, her hair was a tangled mess but it scattered around her head in a wild pleasant look; she was slender, and fair, and all of the right things. Zuko should like her. He wanted to like her. How could... how could he make himself like her?

“It’s okay,” Jin told him, reading something in the expression on Zuko’s face. “I’m not mad. Surprised, sure, and don’t do that again, but I’m not mad.”

Zuko swallowed hard. “I didn’t... I’m sorry, I was...” he wasn’t sure if he was apologizing to her or himself.

Jin gave him a knowing look, one that sent shivers down Zuko’s back. “You know, after my sister’s husband died, she moved in with this friend of hers,” Jin said quietly, “turns out they’d been together for awhile. I might know better than most people what you’re going through.”

Zuko’s stomach dropped like stone. “You...”

“So...” Jin bit her lip, “I think you’re a nice guy. You’ve clearly been through a lot.” She lifted an arm off her basket, scratching the back of her neck. “If you want to talk about it. Maybe I can help?”

“How did they stop?” Zuko asked her, the words tumbling out of his mouth on their own.

Jin seemed surprised. “Stop what?”

“Stop being like...” Zuko’s hands clenched at his sides. “Like this.”

Jin blinked at him. “Lee, I... I don’t think you can.”

“I... someone has to have... at some point...” Zuko said softly, feeling desperation clutching at his chest. 

“My brother says,” Jin told him, “the spirits make some people different for a reason. That loving different types of people is part of our nature; just like... having an allergy to nuts or...” she blushed again, “sorry, I’m not, I’m not really sure what to say.”

Zuko frowned. He knew what point she was making and in the core of him it felt true, but he didn’t like it. 

“Have you told your uncle?” Jin asked. She stepped closer, placing a kind hand on Zuko’s shoulder. 

Zuko shook his head.

“You should tell him,” Jin advised awkwardly, “he seems like a wise man. And he clearly loves you a lot.”

Zuko’s chest hurt. “You...” he said with a sad chuckle, “you’re the second person to say that to me recently.” Although, he wasn’t sure if a long-dead Avatar counted as a person.

“Then maybe we have a point.” Jin, after a moment of hesitation, raised her arms and pulled Zuko into a hug. Zuko let her, standing still and not moving to return it, but Jin didn’t seem bothered by his lack of response. She held him tightly.

Her hold only reminded Zuko that if he was normal he would be feeling at least something when a pretty girl hugged him. Instead, it was simply a hug. An expression of comfort between two acquaintances. One of whom knew far too much.

“Good luck,” Jin said to him as she pulled away, “I wish you the best.”

Zuko nodded at her and said, pathetically, “You too.”

Chapter Text

The hours counted down in Zuko’s chest like heartbeats, reminding him with every breath that the time to act was now. The longer he delayed action the more likely the bison was to be recovered without him; the more likely Azula was to be in Ba Sing Se, with every new shadow growing along the ground Zuko was more and more likely to fail. Urgency was essential. There was no time to waste. 

Sokka, finishing the series of gestures, used his hands to put Zuko’s right hand into a fist with the thumb pointing at the sky. “And that’s my name,” he said proudly. 

They should be having this meeting at Lake Laogai, where Zuko would wait until the earthbenders opened the tunnels and he could slip inside with Sokka. From there, Zuko would navigate the underground until he found the bison, and he’d use the Water tribesman to fly the bison out and into the abandoned warehouse he’d outfitted with chains. Then he’d knock Sokka out. Lure the Avatar to his trap in the sewers; and when the Avatar was incapacitated Zuko would fly the bison home. Which was why they should be meeting at Lake Laogai.

They were in the clearing behind the library instead. 

It was a bright day, mid morning, and the first time Zuko had met Sokka in the sun. The area around them was full of trees, covered in shade, but far off in the corner of the garden that they could be sure no one would stumble on them. A few bushes along with the trees blocked from from sight, and it was just the two of them, sitting on grass, surrounded by dark green leaves casting soft moving shadows with the breeze. Zuko felt somewhat ridiculous in the day dressed head-to-toe in black, and Sokka had even made a joke about it; but otherwise left it alone.

Zuko had found Sokka in the morning. Zuko had slipped Sokka a note for where to meet. Zuko had chosen not to be at Lake Laogai. Because... the moment they stole the bison, this was over. He would never allow himself to indulge in these feelings again, for the rest of his life, and... the idea of leaving without anything truly good to remember hurt.

Zuko raised his right hand, repeating the motions. S-O-K-K-A, he signed. 

Sokka chuckled, and reached out and pushed Zuko’s shoulder playfully. “Look at us! A couple of polyglots,” he said brightly. 

They’d initially been sitting a bit away from each other, the clipboard to Zuko’s right and a basket of food to the left, but as the time had gone on they’d both been leaning closer. Zuko slipped his hand to the charcoal, sliding it across the page that already contained a plethora of messages, and wrote, ‘Are you trying to impress me with vocabulary?’

Sokka’s face lit up with a fierce blush. “No,” he protested, clearly lying. “Why- I am smart, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. You should have seen me in the spirit library.” He crossed his arms, frowning, even though there was a twitch of a smile on the corner of his mouth. 

Sokka was funny. He was amusing to be around, he seemed to have no shame in being the subject of a joke if it made someone else laugh, and at the same time he wasn’t a fool. Zuko knew just how smart the warrior was from their many interactions before, the fact Sokka seemed to have learned nearly half of a new language in two days only solidified that point. The Fire Nation had clearly lost their collective minds when they’d called the Southern Tribespeople simple savages; Zuko bet Sokka was naturally more intelligent than most of his childhood tutors. 

Zuko raised his hand upward again, attempting to mimic the phrase Sokka had jokingly taught him, ‘You’re a jerk’, but he forgot what he was doing halfway through. Sokka leaned forward and helped, taking Zuko’s hand in his own and finishing the phrase with a chuckle. Zuko wondered if Sokka had come up with these lessons as an excuse to hold his hands, considering it was the reason Zuko was allowing them to continue. Every time they touched, Zuko wished he could take off his gloves, actually feel without the fabric between them, but that was another impossibility. The Southern tribesmen were brown-skinned, as Sokka was, and one glimpse at Zuko’s pale hands would make it immediately clear Zuko wasn’t Voak.

“There,” Sokka said, finishing the phrase, “‘You’re a jerk’.” 

Zuko turned his palm into a straight line and pressed it on his forehead, signing ‘Bastard’.

Sokka laughed. “That you remember, huh?” He shook his head, grinning to himself, and then pointed to a tree. “Oh look, a pigeon-squirrel,” Sokka said.

There was no pigeon-squirrel. No animal at all, not even a rustling of a branch, but Sokka moved closer on the grass, looking out toward where he’d pointed, until his shoulder was pressed against Zuko’s. “Wow, nature, huh?” He said, scratching at his ear, carrying on with the lie.

Sokka’s shoulder was gently pressed against Zuko’s, their arms near each other but not quite touching, and it sent a pleasant shiver of nervousness across Zuko’s skin. Zuko pretended to look out at the nonexistent animal, but he wanted to look at Sokka, which wasn’t possible with his mask slightly obscuring his peripheral vision. He had to turn his head, making his gaze obvious, but at least glad Sokka was pressed against his good side so Zuko could see him better.

There was a saying, in the Fire Nation, one that was often spoken at funerals. The brightest flames burn out the quickest. 

Agni forgive me, Zuko thought as he leaned his shoulder into Sokka’s. He would indulge in the flame today, stare at it to remember, and then Zuko would snuff it out. And, if Avatar Roku had been correct, that would be the impetus that brought Zuko to greatness. 

Sokka let out a sharp exhale when Zuko dropped his head to rest it on Sokka’s shoulder. Zuko’s hair kept him from feeling Sokka’s skin but he could feel his warmth. It was nice.

If this worked, Zuko would always be grateful to the Southern Tribe warrior. Still, as Sokka rested his palm on his own thigh and Zuko gently lowered his hand into it, Zuko didn’t fully understand how this was going to change him for the better, how letting himself feel the tender strings of romance would teach him to be ruthless. 

“I bet it’s not that bad,” Sokka said quietly.

Zuko sighed against Sokka’s shoulder. The mask was moved slightly from the angle, but not any amount that Zuko needed to worry. Closing his eyes, Zuko held out his left hand to make the sign for ‘what’, but he couldn’t remember it so he just let the hand drop onto the grass. 

“I... I’ve seen a lot of injuries, I’ve been in battle,” Sokka said, his voice sounding unsure, “your face won’t scare me.”

Zuko simply signed ‘No,’ pinching the air by his head and tossing it. He stayed where he was, resting on the warrior’s side. Zuko hadn’t felt this close to a person in years, not since he and his mother would sit by the pond to feed turtleducks. With his uncle there had been moments of physical affection, and however awkward Zuko’d felt he’d always indulged his uncle in a hug when he’d opened his arms; it felt so good to be close to another person, to feel them against himself and to rest beside them. Zuko had always craved touch even after he’d learned to avoid it. Now, in this quiet moment that was so reminiscent of the best days of his childhood, Zuko was sure if the world stopped turning he’d be fully content to stay in this moment with Sokka for eternity. 

Sokka shifted against him, moving Zuko slightly, but his arm only went to rest behind Zuko’s back, allowing Zuko to slide closer against him. 

It was wonderful. Even if Zuko allowed himself to speak he wasn’t sure he’d be able to; there was a lump in his throat that made swallowing and breathing difficult. 

“You four, you know, you, Bidoq, Turg and Nukkak, I never thought you noticed me much,” Sokka muttered. It was only then Zuko realized Sokka’s chin was resting on his head, as his breath brushed along Zuko’s hair like a tiny breeze. “Two years older, at least, I was kind of the kid that always tagged along. Then when my father asked the four of you to go with, and not me... well... I guessed you would have forgotten about me.” Sokka sighed against Zuko’s hair, apparently not bothered by Zuko’s lack of response. He continued, “I just want you to know... I always admired you. I mean, you’re Voak, you were always cool.” 

Lucky Voak, Zuko thought sourly. The warrior didn’t sound a thing like Zuko, he seemed strong, admirable, probably handsome too, and lucky... except, of course, for being dead. 

“I’m just saying, however bad the...” Sokka swallowed, continuing slow and cautious, “what the firebender did to you was, you’re still Voak to me. It’s not going to change anything.”

Strangely, Zuko didn’t doubt him. Sokka was, after all, strangely honest. As someone who’d grown up in a world where every spoken word had a double meaning, and every compliment doubled as a stab in the back, Sokka was the antithesis to that entire concept. It was funny. Zuko was sure he could trust what Sokka told him even while Zuko was giving nothing but lies and deceit in return. 

“So, you can take off the mask,” Sokka said.

Zuko’s eyes widened. He lifted his head up, dislodging them from each other, and looked at Sokka. The other warrior was smiling at him, his eyes gentle. 

“I promise,” Sokka told Zuko, “I won’t be... scared off or anything.” He raised his hand, slowly like he was asking for permission, toward Zuko’s mask. 

Zuko grabbed Sokka’s wrist and held him still. Sokka was ruining this, changing this whole moment. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. He felt a familiar flare up of anger and he shoved Sokka’s hand away from him. This was supposed to be Zuko’s moment to remember, his last indulgence, he didn’t need the constant reminders about what this wasn’t.

Sokka looked away, frowning at the ground. The warriors hand reached out, picking and tearing at some grass at his side. “There’s always something,” he mumbled to himself.

Zuko walked over to the clipboard, grabbing it and writing down his words quickly. He finished and held the note out in front of Sokka’s face. 

Sokka looked up at what Zuko had written and the disappointment on his face was clear. “‘Why’,” Sokka said bitterly, reading Zuko’s words out loud, “‘can’t you just pretend?’”

Zuko nodded at him.

Sokka sighed and stood up. “Well, why can’t I just have something normal,” he said, gesturing his annoyance with his hands, “everything in my life is already so crazy. I mean, first I had Yue and she died and now you won’t-“ his words seemed to catch in his throat. Sokka looked down at his feet.

Zuko was still angry. He felt the curl of quiet rage inside him but it wasn’t directed at Sokka. It was still there... it always was, but it stayed at a simmer as something else overtook it. He reached out his right hand, setting it down on Sokka’s shoulder, hoping it was some kind of comfort. It struck him, in that moment, that Sokka was also a person

The fact that that revelation even had to occur to Zuko left his stomach twinging with guilt. 

Sokka raised his own hand up, setting it on Zuko’s at his shoulder, and kept looking at the ground. He was upset, clearly, and his eyes were flashing with unspoken thoughts. Zuko didn’t know what Sokka was thinking about, didn’t even want to guess. The warrior wasn’t, however much Zuko had hoped he would be, a stepping stone toward getting Zuko what he wanted, he wasn’t just a male body that Zuko could indulge in holding until it was time to discard; Sokka was a boy too. He had feelings, a past, and a far kinder heart than Zuko. Sokka was in pain, thinking back to an old memory, and Zuko wondered if he had been responsible for whatever Sokka was remembering.

Zuko understood, suddenly, how Sozin’s method worked. Because Zuko actually felt like a monster. 

Sokka sighed, lifting his head to meet Zuko’s gaze, and signed the words, ‘I’m sorry’. That only had Zuko feeling worse. Out of the two of them, Sokka had no need to be apologizing. Zuko was the one playing with an innocent boy’s emotions like a child twisting a puppet’s strings. 

Zuko sank to his knees. Was this truly what it took? To become ruthless, to be the Crown Prince again? Why was this lie the only one Zuko seemed to be any good at telling?

“Voak,” Sokka said, making Zuko flinch. The warrior knelt down in front of him. “Do you... want to go ice fishing with me sometime?”

Zuko blinked at him. 

One of the corners of Sokka’s mouth twitched upward in a smile. “When we get home, what if we went on a hunting trip? Like you and the guys used to, but just you and me camping out on the ice, stalking the polardogs, sleeping under the stars next to a fire?” He shrugged, his eyes sad. “I never got to go with you. You left before I was old enough.”

Hunting a dangerous animal in the frozen tundra, it sounded terrible. Zuko would have loved to go. He raised his hand to his chin, signing ‘Yes’. Sokka smiled at him and Zuko nearly smiled too.

“I was hoping,” Sokka said. Then he bit his lip and didn’t finish what he was saying.

Zuko took the clipboard, writing his words down, and turned it to Sokka. ‘Do you want to just lie here, in the sun?’

Sokka’s nose twitched. “And do nothing?”

Zuko nodded.

“I’m not,” Sokka chuckled, “that good at doing nothing.”

‘Me neither,’ Zuko wrote, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever done nothing before.’

“Then, I guess let’s try nothing together,” Sokka said. He moved on the grass, using his arms to lift himself up slightly, and lay down. He rested the back of his head against his hands, bending them above his shoulders, and though his head was facing the sky his eyes were looking at Zuko as a blush crossed his tan cheeks. 

Zuko lay down next to him, his head beside Sokka’s elbow. Their heads were apart but their knees were pressed up against each other. Zuko didn’t pretend to look up, he kept his head turned to Sokka’s face watching him from beneath the mask. It was nice to look at shadows sliding across the grass as the trees shook with the breeze, the world in it’s various shades of summer green. Do nothing. Enjoy the moment. Memorize it. Lie in the grass with a boy from a distant land, enjoy it, and remember it’ll all end.

Zuko told himself to stay still. Told himself to look.

Sokka turned his head toward him. A small shadow trickled the pattern of a leaf across his head, and down his cheek, and Zuko watched it pass by with interest. The shadow slipped from his face, with the shaking of the trees, before it returned. “From my perspective,” Sokka said, “this is more than a little weird.”

Zuko raised an eyebrow at him, forgetting Sokka couldn’t see his face. 

“I mean, you’ve got tusks,” Sokka reminded. He reached a hand, poking at the wooden Blue Spirit mask. “I’m trying to picture your face, but I really can’t. Trying to imagine what you might look like.”

Zuko reached upward and poked the corner of Sokka’s mouth, the same place Sokka had touched on his mask. Sokka chuckled at him and swatted Zuko’s hand away.

Wanting, something, maybe to get closer, Zuko rolled onto his side, supporting himself on his elbow. He was looking down at Sokka now. Zuko was close enough that... with a single twist of his wrists, he could kill him.

Sokka didn’t appear to be thinking the same thing Zuko was, because Sokka smiled. “I’m not shallow or anything,” Sokka told him, “at least, I don’t think so.” He narrowed his eyebrows together, apparently thinking hard before he said, “Just because Yue was... wait.”

Sokka looked suddenly worried. One of his hands reached out to his chest. “I didn’t... wait, are you... I guess I assumed but I didn’t ask- oh no,” Sokka slapped his hand to his forehead, “ugh this is embarrassing.” Zuko had no idea what Sokka was thinking. And without allowing himself to speak he couldn't ask, he was forced to wait for a good minute as Sokka’s face went through a mystifying variety of emotions, apparently trying to figure out what to say. The blush that was building on Sokka’s face made him look as red as a lobster-crab.

Eventually, Sokka appeared to figure himself out. Zuko watched him take in a deep breath, steeling himself for whatever he was about to say, before Sokka opened his eyes with determination. “Are we flirting?” Sokka asked.

Zuko frowned. Were they? He’d been trying to.

Sokka sat up, biting his lip. Now he was the one looking down at Zuko. “Uh, it’s just I kind of got that impression?” Sokka explained, his voice growing higher-pitched with every word, “I don’t want to freak you out. Maybe you’re just extra cuddly today? Was I-“ Sokka groaned. “This is really awkward because you can’t talk, I bet I could just ramble on forever, like, hey, Sokka, why don’t you shut up? Oh man.” He seemed worried. “Am I just being that awkward Sokka again? Like you just wanted to hang out with someone from the tribe and I made it so weird, I mean, I followed you to Lake Laogai and I asked you to cook me food, I mean, that’s weird? I’m weird, aren’t I? Should we forget it?”

Zuko laughed. He didn’t mean to, especially not to make a noise, but the slow-building panic and expressions on Sokka’s face was somehow hilarious. It wasn’t even that amusing. It just was, somehow, funnySokka was funny. Agni, Zuko liked him. 

Sokka pouted, a vein ticking in his forehead. “Hey,” he said, clearly annoyed. He opened his arms out wide. “I’m trying to... open up here, or something. I’m doing my best!”

Zuko took one look at Sokka’s peeved face and laughed again. He raised a hand to the front of the mask, to stop himself, forgetting it was even there. He couldn’t stop it, and the more he laughed the more angry Sokka looked.

Sokka raised his arms in the air. “Pick on the Sokka!” He said, exasperated, “I can’t believe-“

Zuko reached out and grabbed Sokka’s shirt. He pushed him down on the grass, forcing him down, and then pinned him down. His legs holding Sokka’s waist tight, hands pushing the warrior down so he couldn’t move. Zuko was chuckling, and then even moreso at the look of shock that crossed Sokka’s face.

“...okay?” Sokka said. His palms were at the side of his head, open in a gesture of surrender. 

Zuko lifted one hand from Sokka’s shirt and pressed his fist against Sokka’s cheek, playfully, a symbolic gesture, as if to say I won, but then he felt Sokka’s body twitch under him, and Sokka’s mouth opened slightly, and Zuko felt as if his heart had stopped. Everything stilled. All of the sudden, he could hear every blade of grass swaying in the wind, every tiny crack of a branch, even the distant sounds of the city. This was it, Zuko realized. This was the moment he had to remember.

“So,” Sokka swallowed, “is this flirting?”

Zuko’s eyes widened as far as they could go. He opened the hand against Sokka’s face, gently cupping the side of Sokka’s head. Sokka had a nice face, Zuko mused. Strange, nothing like what Zuko was used to, but pleasant. Zuko liked Sokka’s nose and the thick eyebrows, but the eyes were just fascinating. Blue.

Sokka looked confused for a moment, but then realization seemed to come to him. “If this isn’t flirting,” Sokka said, his voice more confident, “you’re really bad at being casual.”

Zuko chuckled. He slid his gloved fingers across Sokka’s face, as if hypnotized, until he dropped his fingers to the edge of Sokka’s mouth.

“You should take your mask off,” Sokka said. He wasn’t making a move to take it off himself, he seemed content to stay still. 

Zuko shook his head. 

“I promise not to scream,” Sokka joked nervously.

Zuko raised his hand over Sokka’s face. His heart was pounding in his chest. This moment felt real, the kind of real where his mind was so present in the moment it almost hurt, but unlike every other time that happened to him, unlike every other powerful memory forged by force into Zuko’s essence, this one was good. He didn’t deserve this. He wasn’t sure he wanted to continue. A strong part of Zuko was desperate to run away.

Zuko pressed his palm against Sokka’s eyes. 

“Okay,” Sokka said, with a tone of voice Zuko couldn’t read.

That seemed to be some kind of encouragement. At least, he wasn’t pushing Zuko away. That was a good sign? Zuko didn’t know. He’d never bothered to learn what to do in a moment like this, he certainly had done wrong with Jin; he spent most of his teen years on a boat filled with old sailors and it wasn’t like Zuko had bothered to ask anyone. Romance and first kisses had never come up, not with Zuko’s single-minded focus on finding the Avatar. And... this was his moment. This was the only thing Zuko got before he ended it all. 

Zuko pressed his hand tighter against the top of Sokka’s head, covering his eyes, making sure the warrior couldn’t see. He took in a deep breath. Zuko lifted his other hand to his mask and pulled it away.

Zuko bent his head down, keeping his eyes open, and pressed his mouth against Sokka’s. His mouth was slightly open, and Zuko kissed at Sokka’s lower lip, just touching, but something inside himself felt brave; Zuko turned his head slightly, and felt like his body exhaled into the kiss. Zuko softened, from his head to his toes. 

His nose was pushed against Sokka’s and he shifted his face, getting more comfortable, catching Sokka’s upper lip with his mouth. Sokka’s lips moved too, pursing and then chasing at his own, and Zuko got it. 

There was a reason poets and songwriters seemed to care so much, why the world itself appeared so fascinated by a touch so simple. Zuko didn’t feel hollow; he was warm, a bubbling of energy inside him as he moved his mouth against Sokka and Sokka did the same. He didn’t want to stop. Zuko turned his head slightly, opened his mouth to take some of Sokka’s lower lip in his, and then let go, moved up a tiny margin, to the side, and then the specifics of what he was doing as he was kissing now faded into the buzzing urgency in his body that thrummed with heat and just wanted to keep kissing Sokka. 

He dropped slightly, thighs sliding down along Sokka’s, close enough to feel warmth there, and then their bodies were flush against each other and Sokka was warm like the sun and Zuko wanted to kiss him more but there wasn’t any way to do so besides keep going, giving into a pounding rhythm in his chest that was beating faster and faster and moving along with it. When Sokka’s mouth softened and dropped open, just a little, Zuko felt his body surge even closer. His upper lip pushed against Sokka teeth and he sucked at his lips, worrying one part of his mouth and then grasping for the next. It was so... warm.

It was near crippling, the disappointment, when Sokka’s hands nudged at Zuko’s shoulders to push him away. 

Zuko lifted himself up. He kept his hand on Sokka’s face until he found his mask again, which had fallen into the space between them, and, once it was secure once more, hiding his face from the world, Zuko stood up. He didn’t look back. He wasn’t going to. Zuko stepped away on shaking legs. That was it. It was over.

He heard Sokka scrambling to his feet behind him and Zuko stilled. When warm hands wrapped around his chest, holding him tight, Zuko didn’t resist. 

“So,” Sokka said, his voice quiet and a bit hoarse, “I’m pretty sure you’re flirting with me now.”

Zuko took a deep breath. Think, he told himself. And, as he pushed everything down, he felt a moment of calm detachment. The moment wasn’t alive anymore. Zuko was going to kill it. Burn down every bit of himself stuck inside the imperfect body of his until he rose from within, embers from the ashes that sparked a bonfire. 

Zuko reached his hands to Sokka’s around his waist and pulled them off. Sokka’s hands left willingly. Lingering. Confused.

Zuko walked to the clipboard, grabbing the piece of coal, and wrote, his handwriting strangely slow as if it took extra effort to focus on what he was doing, ‘I’ll find the bison tonight. When I do, will you help me fly it to a safe place?’

Sokka’s eyes narrowed. He seemed... Zuko didn’t care. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Sokka read his message and nodded. “Thank you,” Sokka said, like Zuko was doing him a favor.

Zuko, as if this had been a simple business exchange, bowed. He left without another word and he didn’t look back.

Zuko followed after the other Dai Li agent, dressed in the same costume. He doubted the now unconscious man he’d left tied up in the woods would wake up before he was noticed. 

He kept his head down, standing off to the back as the agent used his earthbending to open the tunnel. Zuko had seen them do it before, raising earth out of the lake, water streaming down the sides of the contraption, so he wasn’t surprised. He kept his hands in his sleeves, walking forward, nondescript, and did his best not to panic when the entrance closed behind him. 

“Can’t believe those idiots in the lower sector caused us so much trouble,” the Dai Li agent in front of him said.

Zuko stared at the walls. Expertly carved bricks, somehow a perfect dungeon hidden under a lake. This area had clearly been around a long time, forged by earthbending masters to create a secret headquarters; he could only wonder all of the sinister things the Dai Li used this for. If Zuko knew anything about war, the truths that people tried the hardest to hide were always the most terrible. “Yeah,” Zuko responded to the agent. 

It was cold in here, the stone providing a cool temperature like the deepest of dungeons and prisons. The route was lit up with green stone alone the top of the walls, along with an occasional lit torch by different doorways. The Dai Li agent in front walked purposefully along and Zuko followed him, glancing out of the corner of his eye to keep track of the route he was taking. The agent stopped at a door, raised his hand to a stone in the wall and the door slid downward into the earth and out of sight. 

Zuko watched carefully as the Dai Li agent went down the smaller tunnel without looking back. Clearly, Zuko wasn’t expected to follow, so he didn’t. The door closed again, now impossible for Zuko to open, and Zuko took a breath. 

The Dai Li clothing was cumbersome, but had hidden his weapons well. Zuko found a dark area of the tunnel, keeping his ears out for the sound of anyone coming by, and stripped down. He slid the Blue Spirit mask over his face, strapped his scabbard to his back, and stuffed the uniform in to a grate. It wouldn’t be seen by a casual observer walking by. He raised his hands upward, taking in a deep breath, and lowered the light from the scattered torches. The darker it was, the easier it would be to hide. 

He moved through the tunnels, mapping the way in his mind. Due to the time he’d spent in the sewer Zuko could tell the patterns the earthbenders had used here were similar. Long, winding paths, with earthbender-only small routes between them, that circled along the length of the lake. There were several doors, clearly opening to larger rooms. As he passed by the first he snuck down beside it, opening it an imperceptible amount to see nothing but a tall, warehouse sized area with rounded walls and wide pillars that was empty of anything important. At the next, the room seemed to be full of weapons, but that wasn’t much help, until he saw that there appeared to be another door in the back. Zuko slipped inside this second, huge cavern, leaving the door open slightly behind him to prevent noise. He skirted along the outer wall, gently stepping one floor in front of the other, always in a fighting stance. As he grew closer, rounding some rock-created hand shaped weapons on chains, Zuko heard a creak from the door behind him. 

He jumped, throwing himself down into the nearest dark corner, behind a weapon rack. Zuko lifted his hand to cover the left side of his mask, where he couldn’t see anyways. His other hand raised up on his shoulder, grabbing the handle of one of his swords but staying still. As long as no one looked directly at his hiding place he would be unnoticed.

A Dai Li agent walked inside, followed by a woman in Earth soldier clothing. The agent closed the door carefully after them, whispering something to her, and she nodded. They walked down the length of the room, stopping only a few yards from where Zuko was hiding.

“Shohing,” the woman whispered. She was a strong woman with wide shoulders, a light scar cutting one eyebrow in half, about a head taller than the Dai Li agent in front of her. She carried herself differently from the not-soldiers Zuko had encountered before and Zuko felt more on edge. Clearly, she was dangerous.

The Dai Li agent turned to her, raising a finger to his mouth. “Quiet.”

Zuko watched them with renewed interest. 

“I can’t thank you enough,” she said softly, casting her eyes back to the door. The two of them appeared worried. 

“He’s my son too,” the Dai Li agent reminded quietly.

“I know, but... thank you,” the soldier said to him. 

The Dai Li agent crossed the room, taking a key from a ring at his waist and slipping it into the door. He went inside and came back a moment later, holding folded Dai Li robes and a hat. He handed them to the woman. “We won’t have much time,” he urged her. 

“I know the risks,” she said bravely. 

Zuko cleared his throat and stood up. 

The Dai Li’s weapons shot out at him instantly but Zuko slashed them with his sword, knocking them to the ground. His steel shattered one of the rocks and it slammed into the weapon rack. “No!” The soldier yelled. The weapon rack shook, unsteady, and began to fall. It was metal, full of swords, bows, an other items that would create a huge noise if it hit the stone floor. Zuko reached out with his hand and stopped it. 

“Careful,” Zuko said darkly, “we don’t want the guards to come running, do we?”

The Dai Li agent paled, stepping backward, but the woman stood firm. She nodded at Zuko. “The Blue Spirit,” she recognized. 

Zuko raised his sword in front of him, pointing to the Dai Li agent. “I need information,” he ordered. 

“You saved my son before,” the soldier asked, “are you hear to help?”

Zuko did a double-take, looking at the woman with surprise. “I... what are you talking about?” He said, confused. 

“My son, the Dai Li took him from my mother’s home and brought him here,” the woman explained. She took a step forward. “He said he got in trouble with the recruiters in the lower sector but the Blue Spirit saved him.”

Zuko blinked. “Paong? The earthbender with the scar on his face?”

Yes,” the Dai Li agent said, his eyes widening, “do you know where he is?”

Zuko frowned. “I... stop.” He walked forward, passing the soldier and pressed the tip of his swords against the Dai Li’s chest armor. “I’m here about the bison.”

The man and woman shared a look. “I know where the bison is,” the Dai Li agent said.

“Great, tell me where he is and I won’t give you away,” Zuko threatened. 

The Dai Li agent swallowed. “You’ll need an earthbender to get there quickly. If you help us free our son, Hoya will...” he trailed off.

The soldier nodded. “I’m an earthbender,” she told Zuko, “I’ll help you if you help us.”

Zuko frowned, glancing from the woman and back to the Dai Li agent. “Why don’t you know where he is?” Zuko asked. 

“He’s either in the prison or the re-education chamber,” the Dai Li agent told him. “They’re not far. We were going to split up.”

Re-education chamber? Whatever that was, it didn’t sound good. “I’m doing reconnaissance,” Zuko told the agent, “get me a map of the facility with the bison marked on it and you have a deal.”

The Dai Li agent sighed with relief. “That I can do,” he said.

The woman began to strip, taking the armor off and sliding the Dai Li robes over herself. “You should go with Shohing, he’s intelligence, not a fighter. I’ll go to the prison,” she said. 

“I work alone, the two of you go to the prison. I’ll take the re-education chamber,” Zuko said stiffly. He slid his swords back into their scabbard. “Map. Now.”

The Dai Li agent looked to the woman for confirmation. “How... how will we know you’ll fulfill your end?”

Zuko grimaced. “I’ll swear,” he vowed, “on my honor.”

The Dai Li agent gave him a strange look, but the soldier walked upward, placing a hand on his shoulder. They shared a moment between each other and then the agent went back into the room, coming out with a small scroll. He took a piece of charcoal, making several notes, before circling another room like the one they were in, this one at the opposite end of the compound. “That’s the bison,” he explained, and then he drew an ‘x’ on a long tunnel just off to the center, “that’s the chamber. If we meet back here, let’s give us thirty minutes,” he circled another area of the map, one not labeled on the original but that he’d drawn in himself, “there’s an exit here that leads to the palace. We can use it to escape.” The Dai Li agent rolled the scroll up and held it out. 

Zuko snatched it away from him. “I won’t wait for you,” he told them, “if you’re late, or caught, you’re done.”

“Thank you,” the Dai Li agent said, his eyes wide with relief. 

“He’s going to be alright,” the soldier assured. She reached out her arms and pulled the Dai Li agent into her arms. The man gripped her tightly, closing his eyes.

Zuko turned his face away, unable to look at them. He felt an aching in his chest that, no matter how hard he tried, Zuko couldn’t make disappear. 

The closer he got to the re-education chambers the more frightening the shadows seemed to become. The walls rounded up at the top, like they were closing in, and the water trickled down between the stones was black as pitch in the darkness. Zuko kept his hands tight on his swords as he walked. 

The hallway, instead of opening up, grew smaller as Zuko arrived. It was only length of five men standing side-by-size. There was a room to his right, along with two others. Three cells in total, as had been drawn on the map.

Each door had a small window with metal bars and he looked through them, noticing each was empty. Zuko opened the door last door in the row. The door was metal, ill-fit to the stone below and it loudly shrieked as Zuko moved it. He did his best to keep quiet, making careful glances around him to be sure no one had heard.

He was barely able to see what was inside from the bars on the windows and Zuko’s morbid curiosity propelled him further. There was a metal ring, wide in the center of the room, its purpose indecipherable. At the far end of the room was a chair. A chair with shackles at the arms and feet. A chair with a long, dark stain trailing from the top down to the bottom, into a pool of dried liquid no one had bothered to clean. 

Torture happened here. Torture, brainwashing, and murder. Zuko could feel it; as if spirits of dead souls were reaching out to him to beg for help, and his skin crawled with anxiety. There was something so terrible about this place. Something haunting. Zuko raised his hand to his chest, feeling the map in his pocket and took a breath of relief. He was going to be fine. He may be honor-bound to help Paong but if things went wrong, Zuko already had what he needed. 

He heard something. A yell, one distorted and made hollow through the echoes of the chamber. It grew closer, forming some kind of words that the tunnel swallowed into nonsense.

Zuko slung downward into the cell, hiding his body behind the chair.

He waited, listening carefully as three hard footsteps walked down the stone hall, dragging something along with them. Judging by the shouts, what they had was a person. It was a younger man, Zuko could tell from the tone. Zuko barely had met the boy but he had a pretty good idea what his voice was like, still, the strange echo in this place made it difficult to be sure.

Thankfully, he saw the hats of Dai Li agents pass by his door, going into a room beside him. There were three of them, Zuko realized, clenching his teeth. Three was going to be difficult to fight off. If Zuko was going to do this, he needed to be sure. He couldn’t risk his life for nothing.

The door to the other cell slammed shut as a man laughed.

Zuko lifted himself from the ground, slinking forward to his door. He carefully slid his fingers along the edges of the cracks, his motions as slow as careful as he could. The last thing he needed was a stay creak to let the agents know he was there. The prisoner was yelling, something about-

Zuko had only opened his cell door an inch when he realized. His body froze, eyes widening as he took in the sounds he was hearing. A young man screaming to be set free, for people to listen, and an older man mocking him, his voice filled with scorn before it dropped to a low tone. The voice wasn’t Paong. 

It was Jet.

Zuko could time his slow opening of the door by Jet’s pleading. The order of noises was almost hypnotic, the Dai Li agent repeating his phrase in a low tone, Jet growing silent and then, as the words ended, lifting his voice to yell his objection. There is no war in Ba Sing Se.

Zuko winced when Jet’s next shout was wordless. Fear. There was panic in Jet’s voice that Zuko had never heard before. He scraped the door to his cell forward another inch, nearly able to slip out.

There is no war in Ba Sing Se.

Zuko pushed the door open the last of the way as Jet cried out. He slid his body through carefully, keeping himself to the side of the wall. Once outside, Zuko froze again.

He turned his head to the other door beside him. There is no war in Ba Sing Se. There was a green light, something flashing out of the window, sending a sickly glow along the stone floor. 

Jet yelled something and his voice cut off suddenly. Zuko flinched. 

Now, listen to my words. 

Zuko looked down the tunnel, in the direction of his exit. He took a single step that way. 

There is no war in Ba Sing Se.

The green light flashed behind him, lighting the tunnel with muted colors. The black liquid on the stone walls was like fingers of a spirit monster, creeping out into the word, ready to grab, ready to devour. This was a horrible place. A horrible place where something horrible was happening.

Zuko’s eyes were wide, his face feeling hot and wet. He should move forward. One of his feet moved slightly upward, sliding across stone only a few inches in front. Zuko was supposed to be ruthless. He wasn’t supposed to care anymore, about anythingSozin wouldn’t care!

You’re listening to everything I tell you. You’re an obedient boy.

Jet was an enemy. There wasn’t a bit of Zuko that even liked the boy anymore; Jet had been willing to let Zuko die and he should return the favor. Roku had said... Zuko had hoped...

His heart pounding in his chest, his stomach sinking, and his whole body feeling sick, Zuko lifted his arms to his scabbard and pulled out his swords. Slowly, Zuko turned around to the light. He didn’t need to do this. He shouldn’t. There were three Dai Li agents and Zuko could die.

He stepped toward the cell.

Chapter Text

Zuko threw open the door, the metal screeching against the stone floor, and slammed the handle of his sword into the interrogator’s head. The man collapsed down, and may have been alright, if the corner of his head hadn’t slammed into the metal ring. There was a sickening crack and the interrogator fell, either unconscious or... lifeless.

Zuko’s eyes widened in horror. He stared down at the limp body at his feet. In just as much shock as the other two Dai Li agents in the room.

There was a lamp, a yellowish green one, sliding along the metal ring with an eerie noise; Jet was standing between the two agents. He was shackled to the chair, with a rock ring around his forehead holding me back. The lamp made another pass around the room and Jet, slowly, blinked. 

“Intruder!” The left Dai Li agent yelled. He threw his hands forward and a stone claw shot out of his sleeve. 

Zuko ducked downward, slashing his sword above him as he did. It made contact with the claw, knocking it away. He twisted his body under the metal ring and thrust his arm upward. Grabbing the green and yellow lamp as it passed, Zuko threw it into the other agent’s face. Glass shattered. The man howled in pain.

Zuko didn’t waste any time but neither did the left agent. The man shot a stone from the wall out at Zuko that he only just managed to roll away from. The man growled in frustrstion. In this confined space, bending wasn’t going to be easy. Without the room to perform katas well, the agents motions were limited, but Zuko knew other ways of fighting and took advantage of the space. He slid through the metal ring, grabbing it with one hand to support himself, and kicked the man in the face, knocking off his stupid hat as he did so. The second agent, recovering, held a piece of yellow glass in his hand and stabbed outward with it but Zuko knocked it away. He wrapped his leg around the outstretched arm and slammed the man’s forearm into the metal ring. There was a sickening crack. Zuko pushed himself off; getting behind the left agent just as the man was recovering, and punched him hard in the back of the head. The second man was down, the third howling in pain and clutching a broken arm. That Dai Li slid his legs into a stance, as if to bend. Zuko vaulted off of Jet’s chair and slammed his knee into the man’s nose. He fell down with a groan.

Zuko, panting, took stock in the room. The interrogator was still down, unmoving, the left agent seemed unconscious as well and the third was twitching, moaning, but incapacitated. Closing his eyes, exhaling, and centering his chi, Zuko felt a rush of satisfaction. He had actually done it. Three special agents of the Dai Li, and Zuko had taken them all out in a minute. Was the Blue Spirit mask just lucky? Or was Zuko only bad at fighting when it came to the Avatar and his friends?

Jet moaned and Zuko refocused on the moment. “It’s me,” Zuko said. The rocks had fallen from Jet’s forehead, and his head was falling slack. There was still the matter of the shackles but they were metal. Zuko made his way to the interrogator, patting him down- relieved to hear the man moan, indicating he was still alive, and found a set of keys. “Got it.” Raising the keys, Zuko moved to Jet and started with the shackles on his hands. “I got a way out, don’t try to kill me this time and you can come,” Zuko said. His hands finished unlocking Jet’s feet from the chair and Zuko looked up.

Jet’s eyes were nearly completely black, his pupils blown out to an impossible proportion. The teenager’s face, for once, was utterly blank. No satisfied smirk, no dangerous twinkle in his eye, just… nothing.

Jet?” Zuko whispered. 

The boy’s mouth moved slightly, not forming any words, an echo of speech. 

Zuko grabbed a handful of Jet’s shoulder and shook it. “Get up,” he snarled, “you asshole!” The body beneath him limply went along with Zuko’s motions, like a sack of grain. Zuko slapped him in the face and Jet didn’t respond. Not even a flinch.

Zuko stepped away. The small of his back hit against the metal ring. Jet’s eyes didn’t follow him. 

Fuck, shit, fuck,” Zuko said, swearing like the sailors on his ship. He turned to look at the exit and then back to Jet. Then he looked at the exit again. “I bet if I leave you like this they’ll kill you,” Zuko reasoned, “and I already… agni!” He pressed two fingers to the forehead of his mask, wincing. “I don’t even like you anymore, Sozin’s method should have stopped me from…” Leaning down and lifting his mask, Zuko looked Jet directly in the eyes. “Look at me,” he ordered. 

Jet’s eyes weren’t focused. Zuko harshly grabbed the teenager’s chin and forced him to meet his gaze. “Jet,” Zuko snapped at him, “blink twice. Now.”

There was something . A tiny flash of emotion. Jet’s eyelids blinked down, slowly, once. Then twice. 

“Alright,” Zuko felt relieved. “This could be temporary. That’s good for you. Probably bad news for me but…” He grabbed Jet’s arms, hauling them over his back with a grunt. Zuko bent down on his knees, yanking Jet forward. He had Jet on his back, unsteady, but if he kept leaning forward it… could work. “When have I ever had good news,” Zuko mumbled. 

He took a shaking step forward, making sure Jet wasn’t sliding off, and then he felt Jet’s knees tighten at his sides. Slowly, with shaking hands, the effort painful to watch, one of Jet’s hands reached out and grabbed his own wrist over Zuko’s shoulder. He was holding on, Zuko didn’t know how long Jet would be able to keep it up, but for now it was helping.

Zuko walked out of the room into the tunnel, shutting the metal door behind him. His hands, as he walked, held onto Jet to ensure he wouldn’t fall. Jet may have been trying to help but that appeared to be all he was capable, his head was limply bobbing against Zuko’s shoulder as he moved. It was hard to walk, especially considering how much weight Zuko had lost since the North Pole, but he still managed to move quickly. 

Down the tunnel, until it opened back up again and the creepy interrogation row was far behind, through a wide stone hall, and back into the large circular passages that made up the perimeter of the base. He had only just stepped in that main tunnel when Zuko saw torchlight trickling into view from in front of him. 

Zuko rushed to the wall, beside a pillar. He dropped Jet’s dead weight onto the ground, standing over him with his hands ready to grab the sword. 

He was only just in time. Five Dai Li agents ran down the passageway, one holding a torch. They were in a rush and, as Zuko held his breath, none of them turned to look in their direction. Zuko kept still until the men were gone, watching their light fade from view. 

Zuko exhaled. He grabbed Jet again, hoisting his body over his shoulders, and continued. 

The Dai Li had been running in the direction of the prison, which meant the other two infiltrators Zuko had conspired with were likely caught. Poang and his parents. Good riddance, Zuko lied to himself. He had the map. He didn’t need them.

Unless their secret exit was only accessible by earthbenders. Which it was.

Zuko dropped Jet’s limp body on the ground and stared at the wall. There was a small crack along the edges of the stone, only visible if a person had been looking for it, indicating this area had been opened by bending before. But otherwise it was just a wall. Stone. Zuko traced his palms along the pattern but found nothing he could use, nothing to push, no outcroppings, no hidden levers of buttons. He had no way to open the way without an earthbender. 

Grumbling to himself, Zuko dragged Jet over to the darkest area of the room. He doubted his trick of just hiding in a dark corner would work twice but it was the only option. Zuko needed to wait. Either Poang and his mother would come, or he’d have to kidnap a Dai Li agent that could bend. With whatever commotion was happening in the other direction, moving around more and attempting to leave the way he came in would be impossible. 

Zuko sat down, his back to the pillar, his good eye facing toward the way they’d come in the direction of the prison. He pulled one of his swords out of his scabbard and rested it on his lap.

He had the map. All Zuko needed to do was get out of here. Everything was going to be fine.

He pushed the back of his head against the stone. While his eye was focused on watching for enemies, and his body tensed and ready for a fight, Zuko’s mind wandered. 

He wondered what had changed at home. If Father had finally gotten rid of his mother’s garden, with the dragonlilies and the turtleducks. Would the servants still be gossiping in the kitchen, where Zuko could spy on them from a grate in the unused section of library? Were the walls of the palace as tall as he remembered, or had he outgrown them? Had his father finished his official portrait? Had Azula missed him at all?

They played together once. Zuko and his tagalong sister getting scraped knees on the temple steps, finding sneaky corners in the palace to hide in, running around the grounds together and playing games they made up on the spot. Friends. Siblings. Then one day Azula learned she had more fun when someone else was crying.

Home wasn’t going to be dragonlillies and turtleducks. Even when it had … it hadn’t been. Happiness had come in fleeting moments, in words or praise from his mother, in occasional gifts, like grains of sand hidden on a beach of mostly shattered glass. Zuko knew they would be the same, his Father and Azula. Zuko was the one who needed to change. He had to adjust. Had to be perfect . The Fire Lord demanded flawlessness. Or else. Zuko lifted his hand to the left eye of the mask, hovering over his scar. He was flawed. Zuko had known he was a failure his entire life, it had always been evident, it hadn’t even needed to be said aloud although it had. Often. But now… Zuko knew more than ever that he was inferior. He didn’t even have to look at Jet in front of him to remind himself of that, this afternoon with Sokka had proved it without a measure of a doubt. Was he destined to face judgement again at the hands of his father? Could he survive?

Iroh didn’t think he could. Or maybe he did but he just didn’t want to see what Zuko would have to become.

Jet twitched. He was leaning against the wall in the shadow, his body slumped over and nearly falling, his head limp at his chest; but the head lifted slightly for a moment before falling again. 

A good sign. Hopefully Zuko wouldn’t have to carry the jerk out of here. 

Zuko lifted his sword casually, pressing the tip against Jet’s chest. The other boy’s reaction was delayed but came all the same; Jet’s chest began to rise and fall quicker, a clear sign of anxiety. “I bet if I kill you, you’ll cause me a lot less trouble,” Zuko mused. 

Painfully, Jet’s head rose up. His pupils were less dilated now, finally having some life inside them, but Jet’s expression was still blank. He appeared to be using all of his strength simply to raise his head and breathe.

Zuko felt a little bit better now that he was threatening his helpless enemy. “So, Jet,” he said quietly, “should we revisit the topic of you leaving my uncle alone?” Zuko smirked under the mask. “Oh wait, I guess we don’t need to. Looks like the people of Ba Sing Se aren’t interested in what some filthy, uneducated, peasant revolutionary has to say.”

Jet’s eyes flashed with both anger and hurt.

Zuko used his other hand to lift up the Blue Spirit mask so Jet could see his smug grin. He tilted his sword, sliding it several centimeters up Jet’s chest like a spider crawling on a wall. “I’m guessing the Fire Nation won’t be interested in what you have to say either,” Zuko told him. “And who would believe you? You, a slug-eating worm, kissing the Crown Prince?”

Jet lurched forward. But the movement did nothing. He only flopped outward onto the ground, ungainly and broken like a marionette dropped onto a floor. 

Zuko leaned over Jet’s ear. “You’re nothing,” he snarled, the echoes of his father’s voice in his mind, “and you will always be nothing. You don’t even deserve to live.

With a surprising show of strength, Jet slid one hand under his chest, using that to lift his neck and stare Zuko directly in the eyes. There was fire in that look. The passionate determination of a righteous cause.

“It feels good to win,” Zuko said. It did. “And I’ve beaten you. In every possible way, and now your life is indebted to me twice over. You failed. You thought you could bring justice to this city all on your own? The Avatar can’t even find his stupid pet in this backwood excuse for a capital city. I’m going to win this time. All on my own.”

Jet glared at him. Zuko smirked back. 

“You’ll go back to your shack, and when I bring Sozin’s fire back into the world, you better remember,” Zuko said to him, “that I won.”

As Jet struggled to stand, his body betraying him at every turn, shaking furiously with his eyes beginning to water from pain, Zuko felt like a monster for the second time that day. And that was a good thing. It was what he wanted. 

Was it?

Footsteps began to sound from the tunnel. The clap of armored feet with a soft pattering following.

Zuko stood up, kicking Jet’s body back into the shadows. He pulled the Blue Spirit mask down, raising his swords, before lowering them again as the two figures came into view. It was Paong, with his arm wrapped around his mother, as the woman supported them both. 

Paong’s eyes widened with surprise when the two of them grew close enough to see Jet and Zuko. He glanced between them, and then, a huge smile crossing his face, turned to Zuko. “You found him,” he said hoarsely, “I knew you could.”

“Hurry,” the soldier-woman said, “Shoshing is making a distraction but we don’t have time.” She tossed Paong to Zuko, who grabbed the boy by the shoulder only and used that to steady him. With practiced and confident movements, the woman circled her arms and drew them in front of her chest. Then she punched out, with her left foot and fist, and the stone covering the doorway shot into the ceiling. “Thank you,” she said, her face and voice heavy with relief. She took Paong back and made her way into the tunnel.

Zuko stared at them for several seconds. Far too long than was prudent in this situation. He felt something… warm inside of him. Zuko shook his head, releasing the spell, and grabbed Jet.

As the earthbender shoved the final piece of rock away, bringing them into the middle ring of Ba Sing Se, she lowered her hands with a long sigh. Her arms were shaking from the effort of their escape. Carrying a useless body through the narrow tunnel and then making a path from the palace back into the city, it had clearly taken its toll. It was an impressive feat of bending but the soldier was still standing. She still carried Paong’s weight across his shoulders, despite her weakness, and her eyes were firm. 

Paong was looking bad but filled with joy. He stared up at the sky with a grin, his eyes shifting between the open air of his freedom and his mother beside him. 

Jet looked far worse, his eyes were still half black, one swollen, and Zuko hadn’t exactly been careful as he’d lugged his body along. The teenager had several new scrapes and bruises now, but no one had mentioned it. Even now, Jet’s arms were over Zuko’s shoulders but his feet were dragging uselessly on the ground behind him. 

The soldier nodded at Zuko, who nodded back. “I have to get Paong out of the city,” she told him, keeping her voice down, “he and his friend might have exposed the recruiting ring but the Dai Li are out for revenge.” Her eyes were alert, despite her exhaustion, scanning the alleyway for the sounds of anyone coming by. It was late evening but the sun was barely dipping over the horizon. The people of Ba Sing Se were still moving, still obstacles to be avoided. “He’s going to need a healer,” she said, gesturing her free arm to Jet, “someone who won’t run to the guards. He’ll need to be kept warm, given smelling salts, it’ll take nearly a day to get him back to normal.”

Zuko grunted in reply. Jet, helplessly against Zuko’s shoulder, made a nearly indecipherable noise like he was trying to talk but still couldn’t summon the strength.

“Thank you again, Blue Spirit,” the soldier said to him. Her stern, war-wrinkled features smoothed out and she smiled. At Zuko. “You saved my son. As a mother, I’m sure yours is very proud.”

Zuko froze. 

The soldier let out a huff, adjusting Paong to a more comfortable position, and walked along the wall into the night. They were slow moving, careful, keeping an eye out for guards… but they were still long gone when Zuko was able to breathe again.

Zuko was good at hunting and tracking people, it was a skill he’d spent three years teaching himself, which was why it was so annoying that the universe made it this easy. The upper middle ring of Ba Sing Se, so many walls, was plastered with advertisements for the Jasmine Dragon, the oh so special amazing new teashop . Clearly, his uncle was in favor of obnoxious advertising methods. That, or Iroh wanted to leave a glowing sign in the city for where he was in case Zuko wanted to find him again. 

Zuko ripped one of the posters off the wall. He heard a noise from Jet, who was lying on the side of the road. Jet was getting paler, his eyes only able to flicker open for moments at a time. The shaggy teenager was getting worse the longer it was taking Zuko to decide.

Grimacing, Zuko moved to the next poster and ripped it down as well. Then the next, and one after that, tearing into the posters and scattering flakes of parchment along the stone. Jet needed a healer. Zuko needed somewhere to hide until the Dai Li were no longer on high alert and he could get back to his scheme.

He crumbled the final poster in the street in his hand, filling his fist with a glowing fire and then opening it to let the ash fall to the stone. Zuko walked to Jet, a scowl on his face, and lifted the other teenager over his shoulders with a grunt.

He headed outward into the night, narrowing his good eye as he did. Iroh would heal Jet. He’d get the jerk up and conscious again, likely instilling some proverbs to stick in Jet’s head and hopefully get Jet to stop bothering Zuko. Iroh would offer Zuko a place to sleep, Zuko wouldn’t even need to ask , and food, tea, and kind words. 

Zuko couldn’t allow himself to get swept up in it again. He told himself, as he hauled Jet’s body through side-streets and alleys in a careful pattern toward the Jasmine Dragon, that he wasn’t going to fall for it. Iroh betrayed him. He had lured Zuko in with understanding and care, with training and patience and games of pai sho; Iroh played the part of a loving, doting old fool and always called him prince while at the same time Iroh had never wanted them to go home. Zuko was angry at him. He was furious.

And then he saw Iroh sitting on the porch of the teashop, in soft green clothes, holding a steaming tea in his hand, and Zuko felt something hot behind his eye. 

The tea shop was very nice. A low, symbolic wall around the compound of a two story building, pretty cloth signs along the edge, a cobblestone walkway toward the building decorated with pretty seedlings of plants that had yet to take root. There was a little wooden engawa around the front of the building and Iroh was sitting there, on a chair he seemed to have brought out himself. Waiting. Eyes closed. Head bowed. Basking in the shade as the finally setting sun covered the world in soft yellow light and gentle reds. The picture of a man in meditation, at peace, saying a ritual farewell to the sun.

Zuko steeled himself, adjusting Jet on his back, and took a slow step forward. He passed the walls and entered the compound, his feet taking easy steps forward on the cobblestone. He was halfway to Iroh when Iroh opened his eyes. 

Zuko froze.

His uncle’s eyes widened and then seemed to trace over Zuko’s appearance, taking in the Blue Spirit mask and the body slung over his shoulder. Iroh just looked and Zuko itched under his gaze. Then Iroh set the tea cup down at his side. He sat up, groaning, stretching his back, and went to the door of the Jasmine Dragon. For a moment, Zuko’s heart stopped but Iroh opened the door and stepped aside, waiting for Zuko.

Zuko’s legs were shaking as he walked the rest of the way forward. He didn’t let himself look at his uncle’s face, forcing himself just to keep going. 

He walked inside, noticing there were two benches beside the entry doors, and Zuko dropped Jet onto one of them. He took a second, looking at the shop. There were small oil lamps on round birch tables decorated with a white lotus embroidered cloth, seats with delicate cushions set atop the tables for the floor to be swept. The walls were painted, soft images of tea leaves and other plants, with some traditional Earth kingdom green trimming around the roof. It was five times the size of the previous place and clearly much nicer. Iroh had done well. 

Jet’s hands fell onto the floor, his body half turned over on the bench. His eyes were closed now, unmoving. He looked nearly dead if not for the movement of his chest as he breathed.

Zuko tensed as he heard the door shut and felt the air move behind him with the creek of wood under sandals. Iroh walked to the end of the bench, resting his hands in his sleeves. He grunted. 

Zuko turned his head away. He didn’t take off the mask. “Dai Li,” he explained stiffly, “needs to be kept warm. Rest.”

“I can do that,” Iroh said softly. “There is food in the kitchen.” 

“I…” thank you

He gathered some food slowly, finding bread and meat in the icebox for reheating. Placing them on a metal plate, Zuko rested his elbows on the counter of the kitchen and held the plate in his hands, heating the food up himself and turning it around on the hot surface to cook. He didn’t bother with anything else, despite the kitchen having a plethora of herbs, spices, and all other kinds of ingredients or pastries. He kept the meal plain. Simple. 

Zuko had to remove the Blue Spirit mask to eat, so he lifted it up on his head, resting it against the top of his hair. He pulled off the gloves, taking the bread in his hand and tearing off a piece. As he stuffed it into his mouth, the blue hand wrap on his right hand caught his eyes. 

His breath shook as he set the bread down on the hot plate. With his left hand, Zuko unwrapped the tight binding of the polar dog leather. He rotated it off his wrist and hand, gathering the long piece of material into his fist, and then it was all off, just a clump of fabric in his palm. 

There was a bin by the kitchen door. Zuko walked to it and dropped the blue wrap in the garbage. 

He returned to his meal. Zuko ate slowly, not wanting to overload his stomach with food. Besides the fruit he’d shared with the lemur this morning he hadn’t eaten; Zuko had learned as he’d traveled the Earth kingdom that the hungrier he got the better it was to take food in slowly. So he ate, tearing pieces one by one, forcing himself to take a long time chewing, as he could sense the sun dying down and night coming into the world. 

He was halfway done, and licking some of the meat juices off his thumb, when the kitchen door opened. Zuko paused for a moment before continuing to eat.

Iroh walked immediately over to one of the many jars on the shelf. He opened it, taking out herbs and dried fruit, and folded them into a teabag. Then he took a pot and set it on the counter, lighting the fire underneath to warm the water. It was only after Iroh had the tea starting that he turned to look at Zuko. “What happened?” He asked. 

Zuko swallowed. He picked up the bread, ripping off a piece. “Found him while looking for the bison,” he said gruffly. He stuffed the bread in his mouth and chewed. 

“You took a break from your search to help a friend,” Iroh said quietly. There was a question in his tone.

“No, I found the bison first,” Zuko defended, annoyed.

Iroh frowned deeper and nodded. 

Zuko wondered, as Iroh’s disappointment crossed his face, if his uncle knew that despite how different they were on the inside, he shared an undeniable resemblance to Zuko’s father. Zuko swallowed. Words he wanted to say were caught in his throat, words like I didn’t know where else to go and have you been doing well.

“There are things,” Iroh looked down at his hands and sighed, “our last conversation…” He closed his eyes and looked pained. “I lost my temper, Zuko, but not with you.”

“I don’t care,” Zuko replied immediately.

“I do,” Iroh lifted his sad eyes to meet Zuko’s. “I worry about your safety, I don’t want to stop you from doing what you must but… I only want you to be happy.”

Zuko scowled at him. “You and Roku,” he muttered with annoyance.

Iroh’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped. “What?”


‘Nothing’,” Iroh repeated with disbelief. Zuko frowned and shoved another piece of bread in his mouth. “I see… let’s…” his uncle coughed to clear his throat and shook his head. “Well, your friend is going to be alright.”

Zuko swallowed hard and glared. “He’s not my friend,” he snapped, “I can’t stand him.”

“But you saved him?”

Zuko closed his eyes. “They were… brainwashing him,” he said, “I had to… what kind of nation brainwashes their own people?”

Iroh gave Zuko a knowing look. “What kind indeed.”

“I was already helping someone break out to get the information I needed,” Zuko defended himself, “I just took him while I was at it. Besides, if you save his life then he won’t bother you again.”

“You don’t need to worry about me, nephew,” Iroh told him gently.

I don’t,” Zuko lied.

Iroh raised an eyebrow. The teapot behind him began to sing a low tone and his uncle moved to carefully tend the fire, using tongs, while Zuko ate some more food. It was quiet for a long moment, before Iroh, still turned away, asked, “Do you have a place to sleep?” Zuko didn’t answer and Iroh continued, “There’s a place for you here.

Thank you, uncle burned on Zuko’s tongue but he didn’t say it aloud. He suddenly realized he shouldn’t be here. Because he wanted to. “I can’t stay,” Zuko said. 

Iroh turned around, holding the tea pot, and set it down on the counter. His face was hard, his mouth trembling as it tried to curl downward. “The Avatar is still out there,” Iroh mused sadly. He took two cups from the cupboard beside the counter and set them down, raising the pot over them to pour a sweet smelling tea.

Zuko nodded. “I have to go,” he said.

Iroh’s palm rested gently on the table. “No,” he contradicted, “you don’t have to, Zuko.”

Zuko bristled. He leaned forward and glared at his uncle. “I don’t? My mother died so I would be prince, should I just throw her sacrifice away?!”

Iroh looked at him strangely. “Your mother,” he said quietly.

Zuko’s breath was hot in his mouth. He slammed his hand against the counter. “I was there the night Azulon was supposed to have given my father his blessing,” Zuko explained, raising his voice, “do you actually think that’s what happened, Uncle?! You were the favorite!”

Iroh stared at him. “Zuko?”

Zuko felt his face grow hot. “We weren’t supposed to know,” he said stiffly, “but Father loves to brag to Azula.”

Slowly, Iroh absorbed the information, closing his eyes. He sat down on a stool, his hands folded on the counter in front of him. “You’ve never told me this before,” he said quietly.

“No,” Zuko said.

“My father's death was sudden,” Iroh said.

“My mother killed him,” Zuko told him, his voice soft. He felt a churning pit of nervousness in his stomach.

“I knew your mother, Zuko, she was a gentle woman-"

“Father needed an assassin Azulon would trust,” Zuko explained, staring down at his hands on the counter. “Who would suspect my mother?”


Zuko pushed a nail into one of the stone creases on the counter. “Mom cared about me, so why not put me in danger,” he said, his voice down to a whisper, “brag to Azulon about how his heir lost a son while Father still had his. Let Azulon’s temper get the better of him. Make it so either Azulon died or… I did.”

Iroh’s hand reached out on the counter for Zuko’s but Zuko pulled his hand away.

“Grandfather’s last order as Fire Lord was for me to die,” Zuko explained, his throat clenching tightly. He could feel his lips trembling, his good eye growing wet, but he tried to crush that emotion down. “My mother killed him to save me. So that I’d be the prince. If I give up I’m only tarnishing her memory.”

Iroh’d hand stayed halfway across the counter, there for Zuko if he needed it. When he spoke again, his words were soft. “I didn’t know you knew what happened that night,” Iroh said, “I had hoped you wouldn’t be burdened with that knowledge.”

Zuko frowned. He pressed his nail harder against the stone, attempting to make a scratch. “You already knew then,” he realized, “did you know about Roku too?”

“I- I did… yes,” Iroh said. He sounded apologetic. 

Zuko couldn’t bring himself to look, he kept his eyes fixed on the stone counter. “You keep a lot of secrets, Uncle,” Zuko muttered. “About our family, what you’re doing… that pai sho tile.”

“I will tell you. If you like.”

“You act like we should talk all the time, that I’m expected to be honest with you, but why should I,” Zuko said. His nail clicked against the stone, finally making a visible white line. “At least Father was honest about what I am.”

He heard his uncle take in a sharp breath and Zuko flinched. He was hurting him. Zuko didn’t want to be. 

He still couldn’t look up, couldn’t drag his eyes to meet Iroh’s face. “You act like I don’t have to prove that I deserve to live,” Zuko said, his voice growing cold and lifeless, “you said I still have honor. You’re wrong.”


Zuko closed his eyes, his face screwed up in pain. “You shouldn’t have wasted your time with me, uncle.”

“It wasn’t time wasted,” Iroh said softly.

“It was.” 

“That is not true, Zuko,” his uncle said, carefully, like he’d planned his words and was trying to make a speech, “I have never once regretted the time I’ve spent with you. You have always been worth…”

“You don’t know me as well as you think you do!” Zuko slammed a fist down on the counter and stood up. He moved quickly, not wanting to have to see his uncle’s face. He was at the door of the kitchen in moments, before a hand on his shoulder stopped him dead in his tracks. 

“I want to say something to you,” Iroh told him, pleading, “please look at me.”

Zuko raised his fist to the door and pressed it hard against the wood. His teeth grinded together. “I can’t.”

“That’s alright,” Iroh said gently. His hand reassuringly squeezed Zuko’s shoulder. 

Zuko screwed his eyes shut tightly, his mouth in a snarl as he tried to force the tears threatening to come from his eye away. “I can’t.”

“You are precious to me, Zuko,” Iroh said, holding Zuko’s shoulder tight, “and you always will be. You have nothing to prove. I knew your mother, I know she would not have wanted you to live an unhappy life.”

Zuko’s shoulders shook. His words were staggered, catching with emotion in his throat. “I owe her,” he said through his clenched teeth.

“No, her sacrifice was a gift not a contract,” his uncle told him. “The life you live belongs to you, no one else.”

“I have to…” his breath hitched, catching on the final word try . He leaned forward, his fist clenching as tight as he could until his nails were digging painfully into his palm. Zuko wanted to be alone. He felt like he was a thread away from breaking .

Iroh held on tight. “You are strong ,” he said sternly, clenching Zuko’s shoulder tight as he emphasized his words, “you are stubborn and good-hearted . I have never seen you give up; whatever life has thrown at you, Zuko, you have always stood to face it. It’s time for you to take that inner fire inside of you, that loyalty , and direct it to yourself.”

Zuko leaned his forehead against his fist and clenched his teeth so tightly it ached. “You don’t understand.”

“I may not,” Iroh said, reaching his right hand to Zuko’s other shoulder. “Or maybe I do. Duty is often used to… trick honorable people into… terrible things.” His uncle drew in a shaking breath. “I was a good general. For so long I was blind to the pain I caused. My eyes only opened when I felt that pain myself; I was a fool and my son paid the price.” Iroh’s hands trembled slightly. “I do not want that pain for you.”

“I could be great,” Zuko mumbled, feeling moisture growing under his eyelashes. “There’s a way. I could be like Sozin.”

“I don’t…” Iroh stopped for a few moments, apparently collecting himself before he spoke again. “You’ve seen what my grandfather has done. The Air temples, the south, you’ve been all over the Earth Kingdom… do you truly want to leave the same mark on the world?”

Zuko gritted his teeth. “It’s better…” he said, his voice quiet and bitter, “than what I am now.”

“I am proud of the man you are, Zuko. Now. In this moment and all the rest,” Iroh said kindly, “I love you. I always will. You will never have to prove you deserve it, or change to keep it, I love you. Zuko.” His hands held Zuko’s shoulders tightly and Zuko felt the tears beginning to fall from his eye. Once they came there was no stopping it, like a stream of salty shame sliding down his cheek. 

You,” Zuko choked, “you don’t know…” he pushed his forehead against his fists so hard his fingers were hurting, “everything about me. You can’t say that when…”

“Love that comes with conditions isn’t real, Zuko,” his uncle said softly, “I do love you.”

It was like something inside Zuko snapped. He shoved Iroh’s hands off his shoulders roughly, twisting around to face him. The tears in his eye made his vision swim, and Zuko’s mouth was open, teeth clenched, his chest roiling with every emotion he’d ever felt in his life. Zuko could feel the inner fire inside of him screaming to let out, to explode and destroy and he gritted his teeth and wanted to scream

Angrily, his hands still clenched into painful fists, Zuko flung his arms around his uncle's shoulders and buried his head against his neck. He clung to him, holding Iroh tight, his face buried in the curve of his uncle’s neck and the coarse hair of his head and beard. 

Iroh was still for a moment, his body flinching in shock, before he seemed to realize Zuko was hugging him. His hands reached up, gripping the back of Zuko’s shirt and squeezing back. 

Zuko broke. That was when the sound came, the hitching breath and sobs that he just couldn’t stop, the pain wracking his body with humiliation. His body was shaking, tears falling down his face and he was weeping in his uncle’s arms.

“I love you,” Iroh promised. 

“Please,” Zuko whimpered as his body was betraying him. He pushed his face tighter against his uncle’s side, already able to feel the hair and fabric of his uncle’s shirt wet with tears, “stop talking.”

Crying was exhausting. Zuko was pretty sure the last time he’d cried was years ago. It was embarrassing. He took ages to let go of Iroh even after his body had expelled all the tears and hollow sobs it could manage, solely because his face was blushing bright red from mortification.

Iroh never complained. He stood there for ages and let Zuko cry, holding him tight as Zuko’s messy sobs got all over his hair and shirt. He hugged him until Zuko finally pulled away, and then Iroh asked if Zuko wanted his tea.

Chapter Text

Zuko woke up already rubbing his scarred eye, feeling an itch there he couldn’t quite get out. He winced, picked himself up, and squinted blindly as he walked around the room he’d found himself in, until he found the lavatory with a bowl of water over a drain. He splashed the water in his face, relieving the dryness on his face, and took a deep breath in. Then out. 

Zuko opened his eye to find he was face-to-face with a mirror. 

He stared. Water droplets clung to his face and dripped gently down onto his shirt, his scar looked angry, irritated and red, and his good eye was swollen from crying. Zuko looked terrible. He looked like some mange-ridden raccoon-cat wallowing around in the rain, half-dead and pathetic. 

Stepping back into the main room, he glanced around and noticed it was much nicer than the one they’d lived in before. Sun was beaming in through a wide window, illuminating the two beds, seperated with a patterned room divider, there was a desk by the window that was covered in pai sho tiles, and a nice, oak table on which was a tray of food. Zuko walked over to the table and sat down with a huff. There was a note. His uncle’s handwriting, clean and concise, telling him, I closed the shop today. There is virtue in rest; much can be learned in an afternoon of quiet contemplation that can’t be understood in a lifetime of activity.

Zuko rolled his eyes. He crumpled the note up and tossed it to the side. The food and the tea were cold, which meant Iroh had left them out a long time ago. Zuko narrowed his eyes at the sun glaring through the window and realized that, for the first time in almost six years, he’d slept in past dawn. 

His hand was on the door when Iroh came out of the kitchen. Zuko found himself staring directly at his uncle without meaning to, feeling a startled anxiety like a rabbit-deer making eye contact with a hunter. His fingers stilled on the door handle and Zuko just blinked. 

Iroh wiped a rag over his hands and nodded at him. Zuko swallowed. “Nephew,” Iroh began to say.

“I have to feed the lemur,” Zuko interrupted. 

Iroh seemed taken aback but then he smiled. “Perhaps you should let it go,” he advised. 

Zuko’s stomach dropped in his chest. “I… yeah.”

“The decision is yours, but acts of kindness beget kindness,” his uncle said softly.

Zuko turned away from him and opened the door.

Zuko set the chittering creature’s cage beside him. He sat down in the alley, hunched between a barrel and some trash that had been haphazardly thrown out, hidden in a quiet corner of Ba Sing Se. He was close to the Avatar’s home, not close enough to see it but he could still feel the idea of its presence in the back of his mind. He pulled the metal cage onto his lap. 

Big, curious eyes stared back at him, tilting its head and giant ears along with it. Someone in a nearby house was yelling orders to a cook, someone else was shouting back even louder at them to be quiet, but for one moment all of the blood rushed to Zuko’s head as he met Momo’s eyes and felt lightheaded. The animal opened its small mouth, making an odd ‘mrrp’ noise. If Zuko hadn’t been on the receiving end of a good amount of scratches from the lemur he would have called it cute. 

“Letting you go doesn’t have to mean anything,” Zuko said softly. He pressed a finger on one of the metal bars and Momo sniffed at it for a moment before attempting to bite him. Pulling his hand back, Zuko scowled. “It’s not like I need you to capture the Avatar. You’re just helpful. I could let you go like Uncle wants and…”

Moving away from his goal. It hurt, like the burning of his skin, to take one step backward. Zuko had spent his life at the bottom of a hill, crawling upward, shoved into the mud by angry hands every time he tried to raise his head; he’d measured his existence by every inch forward he’d managed to climb. Zuko’s self-worth entirely based on how far he had come, by how much closer he was to his destination where he’d finally be welcome to bow at his father’s feet. The only thing he’d ever known to want was what everyone wanted, the highest honor in the land, to be favored by the Fire Lord. From servants to generals, noblewomen and peasants, everyone wanted the Fire Lord’s eye, everyone had their own struggle for his approval, and Zuko, the grandson and then the son, had the hardest journey of all. 

It would be so wonderful to finally have his approval. To have the one thing he’d so desperately strived for. Zuko’s soul had craved to be welcomed home for so many years that even the thought of giving it all up sent waves of anxiety through his chest. He wasn’t sure who he even was without the destination.

Yet, in an act of bravery that sent a sickening shiver along his spine, he slipped his thumb across the latches of the cage, pinching the metal bindings apart, and set the lemur free. And when Momo climbed out, hissing and spitting, and then lifted its arms and rose up in flight, Zuko felt his stomach sinking as if he was falling. The creature rose up, clearly ecstatic to be free, and Zuko stared after it, wondering if Iroh was right and everyone else he’d ever known was wrong.

Iroh slid a white jade tile four spaces from the mid gate into the red section on his right, forming another harmony. He chuckled to himself, taking a long moment to glance at his strategic pattern on the pai sho board. 

Zuko, at random, dropped his hand onto a tile and moved it forward. 

“Rose tiles have to begin at the foreign gate,” Iroh reminded him. 

Zuko rolled his eyes, moved the tile to Iroh’s side of the board, and purposefully slid it directly into the path of one of Iroh’s free tiles. 

Iroh took a boat piece, placed it on Zuko’s rose tile, and moved it against another piece on Zuko’s side, forming a harmony for him. “Despite how many times you’ve played,” Iroh commented, “you’ve never developed a taste for pai sho, have you?”

Zuko grunted an affirmative and moved a knotweed tile next to his own harmony, disrupting it. No matter how hard he tried to lose the game, however, Iroh was somehow managing to keep it going. His uncle appeared to enjoy this particular challenge, finding a creative way to manipulate Zuko’s own pieces into an attempt at winning. Iroh was smiling to himself as the game grew on longer, foiling all of Zuko’s attempts to end it, only taking breaks to bring them some more food and tea. Zuko groaned when his uncle managed to move a white lotus tile onto his own harmonious sets, disrupting them, and ending his own advantage to bring the game back to a standstill. 

“This is a pleasant day,” Iroh said, “peaceful,” moving a white lily to a blank area of the board. An utterly useless move that forced Zuko to take initiative. 

Zuko felt a vein in his forehead twitch. Peaceful? “How can you think that?” He grumbled, pushing the rhododendron tile six spaces forward. Iroh, wordlessly, pushed it one space back to correct his move. “Azula could be in the city any day now. It’s only a matter of time.”

“Yes,” Iroh pinched his chin with his thumb and forefinger, thinking, and moved his white lily tile close to Zuko’s gate. 

“What are you going to do?” Zuko asked. 

“What can I do?” Iroh said, “It’s your move.”

Zuko frowned deeper. More metaphors. It was, however, his turn. He slid the rhododendron into a disharmony. 

“I see,” Iroh said, taking some kind of meaning out of Zuko’s play. “Would you indulge an old man in answering some questions?”

Zuko glanced around the empty tea shop, looking at the noon light shining through the window, and wondered if he had any plausible excuse. Then again, he could always just leave. Iroh had never stopped him before. “Do I have a choice?” He grumbled. 

“Of course you do,” Iroh said. He placed a wheel tile and rotated his own pieces around it. “In fact, nephew, I’d say you’re spoiled for choice. Just like that tile in your hand, whichever space you chose to place it and wherever it goes from there, that decision is yours.”

Zuko flipped the tile between his fingers and glared. “Fine.”

“If you could do anything with your life, what would you want to do?” Iroh asked casually. 

“I’d stop playing pai sho,” Zuko answered bitterly.

“Hm,” Iroh said, “that’s so sad.” He looked at the board, clearly waiting for Zuko to make a move. Zuko kept the tile in his hand, wondering what his uncle would do if he just stalled forever, until he remembered Iroh had far deeper reserves of patience and would probably just wait an eternity without complaint, so he set the flower tile down. “Is there anything here in Ba Sing Se you’ve liked?”

Zuko felt heat rising to his face and he coughed into his hand. Waiting until his uncle played his tile, Zuko grabbed a random one of his and set it on the board and let Iroh adjust it into the right place. 

“I see,” Iroh said, his voice having the pleasant tone of someone smiling, “I’m very happy to hear that.”

“I didn’t say anything!”

Iroh hummed a random tune and played another flower tile. He put it against one of Zuko’s, setting it up for Zuko to take. “Maybe it’ll be best for us to leave when Azula enters the city,” Iroh said, “there are a number of small, thriving communities in the east. Perhaps one of them will want a tea shop.”

“Is that what you want?” Zuko asked sourly, taking the bait and attacking Iroh’s tile. He looked at his uncle, with his gray hair in Earth kingdom style, wearing casual green robes, and his face wrinkled in a pleasant expression, a man who looked both the same and yet so different from the General Iroh Zuko had always known. “Are you…” Zuko asked, frowning, “happy here?”

Iroh nodded. “Yes,” he said, chuckling to himself as if he’d said an inside joke Zuko didn’t understand, “I’m very happy.” He placed a tile on a neutral space on the board. 

Zuko was able to make a harmony with two flower tiles and did so reluctantly. “Weren’t you… happy before? Wouldn’t you want things to go back to how they were?”

“They can’t, time passes and things change. Our happy memories are a blessing but not a guidebook,” Iroh said sagely, still with a twinkle in his eye, “Consider, one of the happiest memories in my life.” He placed one of his tiles by Zuko’s, matching in a way that would have been a harmony if they weren’t playing against each other. “My wife was just starting to be sick, I was on leave to see her and my family visited yours on the beach. Azula was still a baby, but a lovely little thing, and you had just started to crawl around. I took Lu Ten to the beach to make sandcastles when Azula started to cry, your mother dropped you in my arms to take care of her. Lu Ten tried to teach you how to play in the sand and you just giggled at him.” Iroh’s eyes narrowed slightly, remembering, but the smile on his face stayed. “I can’t go back to that time, Zuko, but it is still a part of me and it warms my heart. Memories are beautiful things but time marches onward. Yes, I am happy now.”

Zuko took Iroh’s tile, sliding it off the board to fall on the floor. “Why?”

“Happiness is something that comes when a person is content,” Iroh explained kindly, “I have a home, a comfortable living, and my family has come back.”

Zuko looked at him, confused. “Your family?” He repeated.

Iroh lifted his tea, taking a sip and sighing. “Yes, you, Zuko.”

“And everyone else? Father and Azula?” Zuko asked him.

“Family can be chosen,” Iroh explained. “When a family member tries to kill you, or harms you on purpose, that is when it is time to let go. You are my family, Zuko.”

Zuko winced, remembering the look on his uncle’s face every time he’d left, when he’d screamed at him… when he’d accused Iroh of… “What if I hurt you?” He asked quietly.

“There’s a difference between lashing out because you’re a teenager in a difficult situation coping with the pain of your past, than attacking with pure malicious intent,” Iroh said, setting the tea down. He moved a wheel tile near Zuko’s pieces, setting Zuko up for another harmony. “You are different from your father and sister, I know that upsets you but I believe it’s some of your best-“

“I can be malicious,” Zuko interrupted.

Iroh appeared to have to force himself not to smile. “Yes,” he said.

“I could,” Zuko defended, “if I wanted and… I’ve done plenty, of… things.”

“Are you proud of those ‘things’?” Iroh asked. 

Zuko frowned and leaned back in his chair. He crossed his arms, thinking. Iroh had a talent for talking Zuko’s head into circles and trying to get Zuko to glean something out of it; his uncle had always been the only person not to patronize Zuko as a slow learner, but sometimes Zuko almost wished for his old instructors painful methods. It had been easier to figure out what he was supposed to say; Iroh wanted Zuko to make his own conclusions.

He couldn’t remember whether it was his or his uncle’s turn in the game and glared at the board, moving a tile to a random place just so he could delay answering. “Roku told me to listen to you,” Zuko said bitterly, “how can I when I’m not even sure what you’re trying to say?”

“So… you spoke with Roku,” Iroh said slowly, “how?”

Zuko looked up at him, saw the concern on his uncle’s face and sighed. “I just did.”

“I…” Iroh frowned. “I’ve done a lot of research into the Spirit World, connecting with the beings there is not easy. And to speak with one of the past lives of the Avatar is… did you fight him?”

Zuko squinted. “Did I fight Roku?”

“No, Zuko, did… did you force the Avatar into the Avatar State? Alone?” Iroh seemed to pale. 

“No,” Zuko told him. Iroh relaxed. “It was some kind of opiate.”

Iroh’s eyes shot up to his, widening. “You what?!”

Zuko shrugged. “I think he wanted to talk to me.”

“Using hallucinogens to talk to the Spirit World is dangerous!” Iroh’s palm slapped on the table as he leaned forward, looking terrified. “The Spirits could have possessed you or taken you away forever! Why would you do that?”

Zuko frowned and leaned back farther in his chair. “They didn’t,” he pointed out.

“They could have,” Iroh scolded, his eyes wide, “that was reckless, even for you!”

“Yeah, well I didn’t even get what I wanted,” Zuko said angrily, “I was trying to talk to Sozin and Roku showed up instead, telling me I needed to choose a path and to avoid trappings of hate and…” he groaned, “he’s just like you. Saying I need to be happy.”

Iroh, slowly, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. He appeared to be re-centering himself, forcing his body to calm down, even while he still appeared distressed. “I…” he said before taking several more moments to calm down. Finally, he opened his eyes, still looking worried but appearing mainly normal. “Is happiness a bad thing?”

Zuko tossed a tile onto the board and frowned. “If it comes at the expense of honor, yes.”

“I don’t believe you’ve ever done anything to lose your honor,” Iroh told him.

Zuko looked down at the pai sho board, purposefully not meeting his uncle’s eyes, and realized he’d taken his turn twice in a row and Iroh had let him. “How’s Jet?” Zuko asked. 

“I suppose he’s doing well,” Iroh said, “he left this morning.”

Zuko dropped the tile in his hand and stared at his uncle in shock. “He’s gone?”

“Yes, he seemed eager to leave but grateful you saved him,” Iroh said.

“You just let him go?” Zuko said with disbelief, “He knows too much, we should have… held him prisoner or- or something.”

“I am not a jailor,” Iroh said, “Zuko, you saved that boy’s life, I think he has his own soul searching to do. I felt it best to let him go.”

Zuko glared at him. He threw three tiles haphazardly on the board and Iroh’s eyes went back to the pai sho game. In an almost terrifying display of memory, Iroh moved the pieces back in order to the place where they had left off and continued to play. 

Zuko wasn’t sure what he was doing anymore. He was a day behind in his plans to capture the Avatar, he had the map to the bison in his uniform upstairs, but here he was with a mop in his hand cleaning the floor of a tea shop. He needed time to think, about everything, to figure out what he was even doing anymore. Zuko needed to meditate, he needed a long time alone to organize his brain and figure out…. what was it Iroh had said, ‘what he wanted’, yet it wasn’t as if this decision was in a vacuum. The world moved on as Zuko was thinking, and that was agonizing, leaving him constantly worried he was going to miss his chance, he had to take advantage of every moment but at the same time… Zuko didn’t want to disappoint his uncle, it was as if his entire being was being pulled in two different directions and all he wanted to do was sit somewhere quiet and organize the jigsaw puzzle of his thoughts. 

Which is why he was about to say ‘no’ and was completely thrown off when he heard Iroh, enthusiastically, yell from behind him, “He’d love to!”

Jin was standing in the door of the tea shop, her wild hair falling around her face but dressed in nicer clothes than what Zuko had seen her in before, and at Iroh’s words she grinned brightly. “You’ll have fun,” she assured.

Zuko stared blankly at her. 

Iroh stepped up to Zuko’s side and clapped a hand on his shoulder. He smiled at Jin. “You didn’t tell me you’d made friends with such a lovely girl,” he said to Zuko.

Jin blushed and chuckled. “Thanks.”

Zuko turned to his uncle, still holding the mop in his hands and gestured to it. “But you asked me to clean-“

Iroh grabbed the mop from him and pushed Zuko’s shoulders. “No, no, no, you go out,” he insisted. 


Iroh practically shoved Zuko out the door and shut it closed with a wink.

Zuko’s mouth dropped open, staring at the shut door of the tea shop with concern. What was Iroh playing at? Why did he want Zuko out of the house?

Jin laughed from behind him. “Your uncle is so funny,” she said, wheezing.

Zuko wiped his hands on his Earth kingdom robes, glaring at the closed door of the tea shop. He could see through his peripheral vision Iroh peeking out of one of the windows and watching him. He sighed. It was late afternoon and not yet dark, and Jin had shown up out of nowhere with an invite for Zuko to come meet some friends of hers. He turned around, steeling himself, and looked at Jin with confusion. “Why… do you want me to come with you?” Zuko asked her. 

“Oh, come on,” Jin said, reaching forward to grab Zuko’s arm and pull him down the cobblestone pathway. Once they were down the steps she adjusted her grip and Zuko, a bit unsure, fitted their arms together more comfortably. He looked back at the tea shop to see Iroh waving from the window and glared, but then Jin pulled him away from the building and down the street. “I’ve actually been thinking about you a lot.”

Zuko snapped his gaze to her. “Why?” He asked, surprised. 

Jin knocked her body against his playfully and said, “I remember what it was like to come here, having to adjust and make new friends. And I think you’re nice.”

Zuko raised his eyebrow at her in disbelief. “‘Nice’?” He repeated. 

Jin grinned as they walked down the road, passing a vendor she knew who nodded at her. “Yeah, and everyone can always use new friends,” she said brightly, “and I could use one who’s from outside.”

Zuko glanced around the road, suddenly paranoid he was going to be spotted but there was no sign of anyone he recognized. He lowered his head anyway, shaking his hair so it fell over his forehead. “Um… who…?” His voice trailed off.

“My friend, So Mih, she works with me, her family’s been here for generations,” Jin explained as she continued to lead Zuko along, “and my cousin, Chisho, he was born here. They’re both really nice.” She didn’t seem bothered as Zuko remained silent for the next leg of the journey, only occasionally grinning and pointing out a nice shop she knew, or waving to a random person on the street. “My cousin’s single,” she added.

Zuko stopped dead in the street. “ What?!”

Jin tugged on his arm to force him to keep walking. “C’mon, Lee, it’ll be fine,” she assured, “no pressure.”

She led him down to a fancy part of town, stopping in front of a two story building with its own garden out front. Zuko’s heart was beating fast, from anxiety and plain discomfort, but he followed Jin inside and into the walled-off backyard of the house.

There were a few benches in a meditation area, tightly shorn grass with a bird feeder, some manicured bushes with flowers that had yet to bloom, and a blanket was laid out in the middle of the yard. Two other teenagers were sitting there, a pretty girl with a long nose and soft brown hair and a stocky boy with big ears and narrow eyes, who both looked up when Jin walked over and waved. 

The girl stood up and reached her hand out directly to Zuko. “Hi! Lee, right?” She said.

Zuko swallowed and shook her hand. Was this what Iroh wanted from him? Was this normal? 

“Welcome to Ba Sing Se,” the well-built teenager said, his voice gruff. He had an Earth kingdom headband around his neck and his hair was shorn neatly on his scalp. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt and his arms flexed when he leaned down on the grass to give Zuko a look. Zuko felt uncomfortably like he was being sized up. 

“Thanks?” Zuko said. 

Jin pulled Zuko along to the blanket, sitting down and guiding Zuko to sit next to her. “Okay, So Mih, Chisho, this is Lee, Lee this is So Mih and Chisho.”

Chisho raised a lazy hand and So Mih did the same. The girl sprawled out along the grass with a sigh, reaching to the basket in the center of the blanket and taking out a piece of fruit that she nibbled on. “Jin told us you were cool,” So Mih said with a shrug, “man though, did you trip on a bonfire or something?”

Zuko blinked at her. 

So Mih,” Jin warned. It took Zuko a moment to realize she was referring to his face ; it was only the chastised look So Mih had after Jin scolded her that clued him in.

So,” Chisho said loudly, changing the conversation. “Jin thought we should all hang out, they’re trying to cheer me up,” he explained, “I had this big earthbending exhibition but some weirdos blew the hall up.”

Zuko raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“Yeah, I’m a bender,” Chisho bragged. “Have you ever met a bender before?”

Zuko frowned at him. “Yes,” he said stiffly. 

“It’s pretty cool,” Chisho said, appearing like he wasn’t even listening to Zuko. He grabbed a rock from the ground and held it up, hovering it a few inches over his palm. 

So cool!” So Mih encouraged, clapping her hands. 

It was the least impressive bending trick Zuko had ever seen. He shot Jin a look, who gave him an apologetic shrug, and he turned back to Chisho who appeared to be waiting for a compliment. “Cool,” Zuko said awkwardly. 

Chisho flung the rock up in the air and caught it with a grin. “Yeah. I know. You should see me perform sometime, I’m top of my class.”

“I thought Homing was top of the class,” Jin pointed out. 

Chisho shot her an annoyed look, a blush rising on his face, and corrected, “I’m top of the class after Homing. It’s still impressive.” Leaning back, he kicked his feet out onto the grass and said, “I’ve already learned the third level of katas; I’m on purple tier.”

Zuko didn’t know what that meant, so he just nodded and hoped his facial expression was correct for the situation.

“You ever been in a fight?” Chisho asked Zuko.

So Mih giggled. “With a torch,” she muttered under her breath, quiet but enough that everyone could still hear her. 

The scar. Right. He should explain it. “It was a firebender,” Zuko said, “when they attacked… my uncle- and my village.” That was the story, wasn’t it? Zuko couldn’t quite remember which pieces of his backstory belonged to Lee or Voak.

Chisho leaned forward, looking at Zuko’s face with approval and Zuko bristled under his eyes. “It’s badass,” he said, “can you see out of that?” He pointed to Zuko’s scarred eye.

“Um… not really,” Zuko told him. “Some shapes, I guess.”

“Hey, anyone want some of my raisin bread?” Jin said loudly, “I baked it myself!”

“Oh man, that reminds me,” So Mih launched into a story about a strange customer she had that day and Zuko was able to take a break from everyone’s attention. He looked at Chisho, feeling annoyance brewing in his stomach. This was one of those earth bending draft dodgers. A remorseless, far-too confident teenager who spent evenings lounging around his backyard talking about nonsense. 

Jin nudged Zuko, handing him some of the food from the basket and he took it. He held it in his hands, watching as So Mih clearly exaggerated her story for comic effect while the other two laughed, and felt extremely out of place. He didn’t like those two. Jin, he… found her nice to hang out with, perhaps he wouldn’t feel so much like running away or blowing something up if it was only her; she was the only person in Ba Sing Se that Zuko could stand … except…


This would be a lot nicer of an evening if Sokka was there, Zuko realized. That sent a sudden chill through his body and Zuko stared ahead blankly. 

Oh, he thought. Zuko finally knew the answer to Roku’s riddle. 

“Lee works in the Jasmine Dragon tea shop,” Jin said after the conversation lagged, “I bet you have funny stories.”

Zuko’s mind was running circles in his head, connecting the dots and he barely heard her. When Roku had brought it up, happiness at the cost of failure, as if that was worth it, he hadn’t listened, he couldn’t take it seriously, but now that… what if capturing the Avatar wasn’t what Zuko wanted? What if he was selfish? What if he wanted to stay? What if he decided giving up on honor was worth it?

Zuko wasn’t sure how to process the idea of his life if it didn’t revolve around his father. Without a guiding star a ship wouldn’t be able to find their way west, without a trail a hunter couldn’t track their prey, and without a river to follow in a forest a traveler would be lost forever. These three other teenagers, did they live their lives like driftwood loose in the ocean? Letting the whims of their own current carry them along, making choices based on their own needs and coming up with their own plans as they lived? A life belonging to himself, that was a concept just as freeing as it was terrifying.

“Lee?” Jin asked, shoving him gently to knock him out of his reverie. 

Zuko jolted up, started. He looked at Jin, who was watching him with concern, and the amused and annoyed faces of the other two. “I… what?”

So Mih laughed. “You’re kind of spacey, aren’t you,” she said, grinning, “I feel like all of you people are; Jin gets that way too.”

Zuko looked at Jin for clarification and she explained, apologetic, “She means the refugees.”

“I don’t see why everyone tries to make it a big deal,” Chisho said to So Mih, “I mean, the Fire Nation and our soldiers have a couple skirmishes and all these random people run to Ba Sing Se.”

“Overcrowding,” So Mih said with a nod. She leaned back and nodded at Zuko. “Not you, of course, you and your uncle are actually contributing. It’s just that some people act like it’s the end of the world.”

Zuko narrowed his eyes, frowning. “Don’t you remember when the moon died?” He pointed out. So Mih and Chisho shared a look like they thought Zuko was crazy and Zuko felt rage curling in his stomach.

Chisho chuckled. “Okay, you’re one of those, huh?”

“One of what?” Zuko asked, aggravated, “one of the people who aren’t brainwashed into believing there is no war in Ba Sing Se?”

So Mih raised her eyebrows and gave Jin a skeptical look. “Uh huh,” she said. 

“The war is going to hit Ba Sing Se,” Zuko said, growing angrier as he saw Chisho roll his eyes, “any day now. If anyone can break the walls of this city it’s her.” He stood up, frowning especially at Chisho. “This isn’t a joke,” he said bitterly, “people are dying every day; the Fire Nation launched a full scale invasion on the North Pole and the only one who stopped it was the Avatar. The Earth Kingdom is the last stronghold to stand against him. It’s people like you that are the reason the Fire Nation has been able to chip away at your lands piece by piece. You sit back, protected by your walls and do nothing.”

Chisho glared at him. “You sound,” he said, his teeth gnashing, “like an idiot.”

“And you’re a coward,” Zuko snapped, “using your earthbending to play games at home instead of defending your lands.” He glared at the group, Chisho’s face reddening with outrage, So Mih’s jaw dropped in shock, and Jin… who was nodding at him. 

“The Avatar isn’t even real,” Chisho said, standing up and stepping toward Zuko as if his large, muscular frame was a threat in and of itself, “if you actually believe in fairy tales I think that ugly scar on your face melted your brain.”

He raised up his hand as if to flick Zuko on the forehead. Zuko snatched Chisho’s hand out of the air, twisting his wrist to make his hand go backwards, until pressure was placed on the arm. The earthbender shouted in pain and was forced to drop to his knees to avoid breaking his wrist. Zuko glared down at him and kicked the man’s stomach with his foot. “They don’t teach you to defend yourself at exhibition school?” He mocked, “You wouldn’t last a second in a fight against a Fire Nation soldier.” He let Chisho’s wrist go. 

So Mih had jumped to her feet and was staring at Zuko with wide eyes. “You need to go,” she ordered. 

Chisho’s eyes flashed with humiliation as he held his wrist to his chest. “Yeah, it’s my house,” he growled angrily.

Zuko snorted. “Until the tanks come,” he said under his breath as he left.

Jin caught Zuko as he was walking away, running across the street toward him and yelling at him to wait. Zuko stopped, crossing his arms awkwardly over his chest. 

“Sorry,” Jin said, running a hand through her hair to push it out of her face. She had a twinkle in her eye, which Zuko found extremely surprising. 

“You’re apologizing to me?” Zuko asked, confused. 

“I… yeah,” Jin said, glancing back at Chisho’s house for a moment before her eyes returned to Zuko. “I forgot… um, how intolerable they could be sometimes. It’s-“ her mouth twitched, stuck between being amused and remorseful, “they’re not bad people but they’re really stupid.”

Zuko scowled back at the house. “Aren’t they?” He asked. 

Jin, sheepish, rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s like… no one in Ba Sing Se likes to admit there’s a war and they grew up with that,” she explained. “And honestly, I used to yell at them about that stuff too.”

He looked at her, realizing she’d come out here to make amends and, for some reason, Jin was continuing to give Zuko a chance. Zuko felt a sudden stab of worry in his chest. “You should get out,” Zuko told her.

“I mean, they’re still my friends but-“

“Of Ba Sing Se,” Zuko explained, “you should get out of the city.”

Jin tilted her head and frowned at him. “You really think the Fire Nation will attack?”

“I’d… bet everything they’re already in the city,” Zuko said to her, wincing. 

Jin gave him a sad smile and reached out, placing a hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “They’ve tried before. I know it’s hard to adjust to life here, Lee, but it is safe,” she assured him. 

Zuko stepped closer to her and placed his palm between them. He glanced for a moment at both sides of the road, but as the sun had started to go down this residential area was deserted. “I’m not a refugee,” Zuko told her, slowly, “I… know things, I know who’s coming, and I know that a few walls aren’t going to stop her. It isn’t safe.” Drawing in a shaking breath, Zuko lit a flame on his index finger. 

Jin gasped but didn’t move. 

“It’s…” Zuko said, watching her reaction carefully. He wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do, and considering his track record it most definitely wasn’t, but… he wanted to warn her, and if that was the new instinct he was going to follow he might as well start now. “I’m on the run from the Fire Nation too,” he explained at a whisper, “but they’re coming and the next royal to attack isn’t going to follow the rules of battle.”

Jin’s eyes narrowed. She lifted her hand up and closed it over Zuko’s, extinguishing  the flame. “Are you sure?” She asked, looking Zuko in the eye with determination on her face. 

“If I’m here, she can get in too,” Zuko explained. He bit his lip, frowning. “You’re a good person, you could… get out of here, find somewhere remote and safe.”

Jin’s mouth twitched downward. “There are a lot of good people in this city,” she whispered. 

Zuko nodded. “I know,” he said, and he meant it.

“Couldn’t the Avatar save us,” Jin asked softly, “like you said he did at the North Pole?”

“He’s… he’s not ready yet,” Zuko told her, “he’s powerful, but, I know him. He’s a child. The Avatar can’t beat the Fire Lord and…” he looked downward at their hands. “I don’t believe anyone can stop him.”

“You really don’t think there’s hope?” Jin asked. She clenched his hand tight in her own. 

“I don’t know,” Zuko said honestly. “The Fire Lord is so strong he…” he felt a lump in his throat and he swallowed, trying to get rid of him, “Even the Avatar can’t stop him.”

“Maybe,” Jin said thoughtfully, “maybe the Avatar will. When he’s finally ready.”

“He hasn’t even learned firebending,” Zuko told her sourly.

Jin snorted. She nodded down toward their hands. “Know any firebenders?”

Zuko shook his head. “I’m not even good at firebending, I haven’t-“

“I’d bet you’re better than you think you are,” Jin interrupted. “I mean… Lee, I sell melons, I’ve never held a weapon or done anything to fight back, but maybe…” she reclasped her hands on Zuko’s to hold him tighter and looked at him with a serious expression. “I bet you can help. And even if you can’t, you have to try.”

“Even if I fail,” Zuko mumbled. 

“At least you tried,” Jin assured him. “I think trying is all anyone can ever do.”

Zuko chuckled. “You have no idea how ridiculous that idea is,” he said.

“More ridiculous than meeting a cute boy being attacked by a lemur, going on a walk with him and finding out he’s gay, then inviting him to come yell at my friends and learning he’s a firebender who met the Avatar?” Jin asked with a crooked grin on her face. 

Zuko blinked at her.

“The world is filled with magic,” Jin assured him, “maybe you came into my life to save me and my family and maybe I came into yours to give you a push in the right direction.” 


“Maybe,” Jin repeated. She let go of Zuko’s hand and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulling him into a hug. “Hey, if we both live, we should get tea sometime. Look me up one day, it’s Jin Li Boh, of Cheneng.”

Zuko swallowed and reached his hands up to hug her back. “I’m… Zuko,” he said awkwardly, “the- Prince of the Fire Nation.”

Jin’s hold stilled on him for a moment. “Really?” She asked into his good ear.

Zuko grimaced. “Yes.”

“Okay,” Jin mumbled to herself, “okay. So… if we survive, you’re paying.”

“Alright,” Zuko said. He realized, the moment bittersweet, that he’d just made the first and only friend he’d ever had in his entire life.

Iroh was waiting up in their room, apparently attempting to be casual with a book but he jumped to sit up when Zuko entered, his eyes bright with interest. “How did it go?” Iroh asked.

Zuko thought for a moment, furrowing his forehead as he did. “It… went well,” he said slowly, “I told her to get her family and leave the city.”

Iroh seemed confused. “I see?”

Zuko nodded to himself. “Yeah, it went well,” he repeated. “I…” he met his uncle’s eyes and bit his lip, “I think I need to- think. About things.”

“You do?” Iroh said, looking pleased. 

Zuko gestured the sign for ‘yes’ without thinking about it. “About what I want,” he said, speaking slowly.

“I’m proud of you.”

Zuko rolled his eyes at him and snorted. “Go to sleep, uncle.” He laid down on his own bed and turned his body away.

“I’m sorry,” Iroh said quietly, “I know you liked her but… I’m glad that you chose to warn her too.”

Zuko stared ahead of himself, looking at the wood patterns in the wall and tracing one of them with his eye. “Mhm,” he grunted. After a few moments he could hear his uncle stand up and walk around the room, closing the curtains and extinguishing the flame of the candle. The room instantly grew darker, nothing but some fading light of the muffled sun illuminating the space around him. “Uncle?” Zuko asked, still staring at the wall.

“Yes, Zuko?”

“Do you think the Avatar could actually defeat Father?” Zuko asked, feeling something in his chest flutter with nerves. 

“I do,” Iroh told him.

Zuko wrapped his arms around himself and held them tight. “Good night,” he mumbled. 

“Good night, Zuko.”

Chapter Text

Zuko felt as if the ground beneath his feet was about to disappear any moment. He didn’t feel light, or even happy, he actually felt so much heavier than he normally was that everything seemed slightly unreal. He felt different when he woke up, different when he changed into his clothing, different when he ate, different, different, different.

Iroh seemed to be walking on eggshells around him. Bringing food upstairs, making several jokes while watching Zuko’s face carefully for a reaction, and just hovering nearby even though he had the tea shop to run. He could probably sense something in Zuko had changed but it appeared Iroh wasn’t sure whether the change would be good or bad. For Zuko’s part, neither did he. It was ridiculous. Why should he feel so utterly new and strange when he hadn’t even committed to a course of action? But then, as he sat in the room attempting to meditate, a question came into his head that sent the flame on the candle in front of him flaring into the ceiling. What would a man without honor do ?

Zuko took a breath to calm the fire before it burned the candle to the wick and then stared at it. “I’d do,” he whispered into the empty room, “what… I want.” He felt blood rushing into his cheeks as his mind supplied the image of exactly what it was he knew he wanted. Zuko thought about the summer clearing with shade from tree leaves, bushes rustling from peaceful wind, a moment chosen for doing nothing, and a brown-skinned warrior who made Zuko feel like laughing.

He stood up, searching the room and finding his swords thrown haphazardly against the wall, the Blue Spirit mask trapped in his sheets, and patted his chest to remind himself the map to the bison was still in the pocket there. Zuko slipped everything into place and glared out at the window, realizing it was the middle of the day which would severely limit his travel. He could find a way. Zuko always did.

A man without honor could steal a pear from a cart. A man without honor could make a rude gesture to a woman who flinched at his scar. A man without honor could hide on the roof of a stranger’s home, listen to a chef woman singing to herself, and casually eat a pear with a grin on his face while staring at a door until Sokka walked out. 

Zuko had failed in every way possible, slow and a coward and- there he was.

Zuko felt an instant burst of excitement as he watched Sokka step outside of the house, raise a hand over his eyes to squint at the morning light and then kick at the grass in front of him. He was dressed still in blue, the short sleeves and long tunic as normal, looking exactly the way Zuko had pictured him except for the dark circles under his eyes and the scowl on his face. He adjusted a strap over his shoulder where the boomerang was fastened over his green bag and then stepped out of the house, down the path to the street alone. 

It was perfect, as if they had planned it, Sokka walking down side streets, aimlessly making his way toward what appeared to be the library. Zuko stalked after him, hidden on rooftops, waiting for Sokka to be alone. Sokka frowned at one seller, just setting up their shop, who stopped in front of him and tried to engage Sokka in a conversation while holding some trinkets as if to bargain, Sokka gave him a bow and then side-stepped effortlessly around him, shoving his hands in his pockets and continuing to walk. Covered by shadow, Zuko hesitated for a moment looking at the shopkeeper and wondered if he should bring Sokka something. What did he like?

Sokka kept moving, having a bit of a long walk to get to his destination, and Zuko followed while thinking. 

He didn’t know enough about Sokka. Zuko was sure he’d avoided that knowledge on purpose, expecting more-or-less to use the warrior and then knock him out, but now that the plan was… possibly… dead in the water he wanted to know more. Curious, like a lizard-cat with a cricket. He slipped along roof tiles, following the shadows of steeples and roof accents as he did, staying unseen by the blearily-eyed morning workers of Ba Sing se, and ran the facts through his head. 

Sokka liked food, that was obvious, and also his tribe; he seemed to miss his home and had fond memories of it. The Avatar was also someone Sokka liked, after all, the warrior had left that village of his to travel the world and be the Avatar’s bodyguard, but that information wasn’t exactly helpful. Things to do with the ocean? Seashells and animal leather. Unusual weapons too, Zuko had never met anyone before who used a boomerang in a fight. He did know Sokka was smart, exceptionally so, but Zuko didn’t even know where to begin when it came to that, books of history, war, fiction, poetry? He hadn’t bothered to ask before. 

There wasn’t exactly anything between where they were and the library that seemed to work, and Zuko wasn’t sure where this sudden desire to bring Sokka a thing came from but it was itching at him. He kept following, spying down at any booths or shops they passed which weren’t many in the residential area. Sokka kept walking, slowly forward, his shoulders hunched over, and the sight made Zuko feel a bit worried. Was he tired? Unhappy?

Had he figured it out?

He felt a stab of concern cross his mind but it dissipated when he smelled fresh bread and saw Sokka’s head turn toward a shop. The warrior stopped for a moment, closing his eyes and sniffing, before continuing onward. That was it. 

He waited until Sokka turned the corner and then pulled off the mask, swinging down from the roof to the door. Zuko glanced around carefully, being sure he wasn’t watched and then approached the bakery. The windows were open, with some pastries cooling on the side, and he debated just grabbing them until the door opened and a heavily pregnant woman stepped out with a basket of fresh bread in her arms. From behind her an eldery woman in an apron waved, wished her well, and then she saw Zuko and her face wrinkled up along the laugh lines on her cheeks. “Hungry?” She asked.

Zuko patted his side, finding the bag with the meager few coins he had left. He pulled it out, spreading them on his palm, and as he remembered the last time he’d attempted to buy food in this area of the city he frowned. “Do you-“

“I can work with that,” the elderly woman said gently, her eyes looking at Zuko with an expression that reminded him of his uncle. “I’m not open, wait out here, sweetheart, and I’ll be right back.”

Zuko held his palm out with the coins but the woman disappeared inside without taking them first. He frowned, looked down the road where he’d last seen Sokka and fidgeted.

She wasn’t long, Zuko could hear her fussing in her shop, and she came out a few moments later with some items wrapped up in a thick yellow cloth. “Here you are,” she said, passing the warm pastries into Zuko’s arm. “You be careful out there.” 

Zuko held the coins out to her but she shook her head. He frowned, pushing his hand out closer, “I insist,” he told her.

She gave him a smile and nodded, accepting his payment. “You’re a good young man,” the elderly woman said with approval.

“Not really,” Zuko muttered under his breath, returning the pouch to his pocket. He adjusted the very warm, and delicious smelling, baked goods in his hands and could tell from the sheer size that this was far more than he should have been able to afford. “Thank you.” He said and then, after a moment of hesitation, gave her a small bow.

The elderly woman chuckled at him and fluttered her hand toward the road. “Off you go,” she encouraged, her voice trembling with age and amusement, “if you have any hungry friends make sure they stop by after hours next time. I can’t have the folks here knowing I give food for free.”

Zuko lifted his head from the bow and nodded at her. 

He was back on his path after a moment, quickly seeing Sokka’s blue form disappear into the library. With a careful look around him, Zuko slunk around the side of the building and made his way to the clearing where they had met before, making a guess that Sokka might come out here to read. He set the baked goods down on a rock and then paced back and forth between two trees. His body trembled slightly with energy but the movement seemed to only increase a ball of anxiety in his stomach. He grabbed a low hanging branch and then threw himself up onto a tree, finding a comfortable spot to lay down, one hand on his knee and the other dangling down, and observe the clearing below him. 

A squirrel-pigeon flew down and waddled toward the package but Zuko gave a yell and clapped his hands, sending the creature off into flight. 

That old woman had been kind. Paong was kind. Paong’s parents were kind, Jin was kind, the man who offered his shop to Iroh was kind, the merchants who delivered their tea supplies with a joke and a laugh were kind, the people who’d tried to stop the violence of the Spirits were kind… there was a decent amount of good souls in Ba Sing Se. People who’d be hurt if the city fell victim to whatever Azula was planning.

He was, Zuko mused, raising a hand under the mask to poke at his chin, without honor. He could help. He wouldn’t… he couldn’t put himself in Azula’s way, everytime Zuko fought her his blood ran cold, but if the Avatar left Ba Sing Se then Azula would follow, and the people would be safe. 

Except Sokka would go too, of course. 

What was Zuko expecting? This was always going to be temporary. He liked Sokka, absolutely, he could feel his whole body leaning toward him, and Zuko wanted to spend time with him, of course, and perhaps by making this one change he could add a few more hours... but it would be moronic to expect any more. This stupid infatuation was doomed from the start; the least that Zuko could do was ensure it was a happy memory for the both of them. 

It was like a play his mother loved, the Willowfly , where the woodcutter and the woman of trees met only for a night and parted never to be seen again after she had convinced him to spare her forest. She’d read it to him and Azula when they still shared a room, making enough funny voices to keep Azula entertained and smiling as Zuko leaned forward to try to read over her shoulder. This reality was not nearly as romantic, or poetic, as the play, especially considering the amount of time lately that Zuko had spent in the sewer, but the principle could work. As long as he stayed in character, and the truth never came out, Zuko could leave Sokka with the memory of a pleasant, momentary dalliance with an old friend and-

Zuko could stop feeling guilty about what he’d done.

Zuko groaned and pulled his knees up to his chest, pushing his back against the bark of the tree to stay balanced. He blinked through the mask, frowning and watching a bug on a nearby leaf crawl from one to the other, growing increasingly annoyed as he watched. 

He quickly lost patience sitting in the stupid tree. Sokka wasn’t coming and that needed to be fixed, after all the food was hot.

Jumping down, he adjusted the mask to his face and walked along the side of the library, looking inside through the windows that had been thrown open to catch a morning breeze. The inside was cramped, rows and rows of scrolls and books, but there were scarcely any people. He saw one scholar fast asleep in a pile of tomes, a woman with a cart diligently reorganizing a shelf, but after he circled the left side Zuko went back to check the right and eventually saw blue. 

A single candle at the head of the table, two tomes open in front of him with a paper and inked up brush hovering over it. The ink dripping drops as Sokka hunched forward, reading something in a book with his free hand tracing the letters, forehead furrowed in concentration and teeth worrying his lower lip as he concentrated. 

Zuko slinked up to the window, rested his arms on the frame and dropped his head down, staring. 

Sokka eventually lowered the brush to the page, writing something down without looking at it. Some of the hair from his wolftail had fallen onto his forehead and he blew up at them, pushing them back, as he opened his mouth to wordlessly repeat whatever it was he was reading. His posture was terrible, back strained out over the table, one leg tucked under the chair, his elbows and arms fully resting on the surface in front of him. Sokka didn’t look particularly attractive in that moment, more like a clown than the object of anyone’s affection with his body splayed out and his face screwed up in such a serious yet comical expression, but Zuko liked it anyway. There was something so interesting about how Sokka just was himself and seemed to shrug off societal convention without a care.

Sokka sat up quickly, reading something on the page that had him exploding in a grin. He swiped his hand on the table, knocking the ink bottle to his left and spilling it onto the paper. He cursed, under his breath, which Zuko couldn’t quite hear, and picked the bottle up, wiping at the rest of the spilled ink with the white wraps on his forearm. He mumbled something under his breath, lifting the paper up, and then his eyes jumped to Zuko at the window. 

Sokka abandoned the table immediately. He scrambled out of the chair, limbs flailing, and rushed over to the window. In a moment he was there, ducking downward and wrapping his arms around Zuko’s shoulders in a hug. “Voak!” Sokka yelled. 

Somewhere in the library a person made a ‘shushing’ noise but Zuko didn’t care. 

Zuko gripped Sokka’s sleeves tight, holding onto him. When Sokka pulled away he stared, watching the warrior’s overjoyed, relieved face with amazement. 

“Where have you been?” Sokka said loudly, pulling Zuko in for another short hug before leaning back to smile at him. “I just-“ he ran a hand over his head, tossing the loose hairs on his forehead back and shook his head. “I mean, I’m not one to say it but thank the Spirits, Voak,” he sighed, closing his eyes for a moment and when they opened they were looking at Zuko’s mask as if he could see right through it. “You scared me half to death!”

Zuko was focused almost completely on the blue in Sokka’s eyes that his words barely registered. The warrior had to shove him backward so that he could climb out the window and join Zuko on the grass. 

A librarian walked passed, glaring at Sokka when he was half out the window, raising her eyebrow at the ink on the table, but she just huffed, stuck her nose in the air and walked away. 

Sokka had a blush on his face as he jumped the rest of the way, but he shook it off and rolled his eyes, pointing behind him with a grin as if to say ‘what’s wrong with her?’ Then he stuck his tongue out toward the library and threw an arm over Zuko’s shoulder. “Sheesh, look at you, you always show up when I least expect it,” he said, kicking playfully at Zuko’s ankle. 

Zuko snorted. He shrugged Sokka’s arm off his shoulder and stepped forward, gesturing for him to follow him. Sokka raised an eyebrow, said, “Okay,” and did.

Zuko walked quickly back to the clearing, only a few yards away, and clapped at a squirrel-pigeon that was inching toward the bundle. He snatched it from the ground and held it up to his chest. 

Quietly, Sokka slid up next to him, looking bemused at the choice of location and glanced to the bundle. “What’s that? Don’t tell me it’s Appa, I know what he looks like,” he said, curious.

Zuko handed him the pastries, watching with a steadily growing smile as Sokka unwrapped them and his face lit up with excitement. “These smell great!” Sokka’s hand reached down to immediately grab a coconut bun. He bit into it recklessly, the filling falling out onto his face, but Sokka just wiped it off his chin and cheek and licked it off his hand. “Hmf,” he said, chewing, “s’cond breaffast?”

Zuko watched Sokka, feeling a thrill creep up his body from the bottom of his feet to the tip of his head, because he liked it. For the first time in ages, as Sokka stuffed his face with fresh pastries like a starving street urchin, Zuko felt proud of himself. He did something right. Sokka finished off a tart right after the coconut, taking a longer time with this one to chew, and held the bundle out to Zuko. There were still three pastries left. It took Zuko a moment to realize Sokka was offering him one. 

Zuko shook his head, pointing at Sokka. 

“No?” Sokka asked. He wiped his hand on his shirt, looking at the pastries again before taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, as if he had to force himself to stop eating. “Okay,” he opened his eyes and wrapped the bundle back up with a sigh. “Um… care to explain?”

Zuko pointed at the pastries and tilted his head, confused. 

No,” Sokka said, slapping his face, “shoot. I need paper. Wait!” He set the bundle down and pointed at the ground. “Wait right here. Don’t move. Okay? Sit, stay, got it?”

Zuko crossed his arms and frowned at him. 

“Don’t give me that, you’re literally always running away, just-“ Sokka held his palms out, “I’ll be right back and don’t move.”

Zuko sat down on the ground, crossing his legs, and watched Sokka’s face light up in a smile.

“Right back!” Sokka yelled, before turning. He ran two steps, looked back as if to check for sure that Zuko hadn’t moved, and then rushed off toward the library. 

Why was this… so much fun? No. That word wasn’t right. Zuko straightened his back, resting both his hands on his knees in his meditation pose and waited, looking at the space between the trees where Sokka had left. Jet had done this too, just by his presence made Zuko feel giddy and light-headed, wanting to do anything to keep that feeling even if it came at the cost of violence and clear manipulation; Sokka’s… effect was different. It had a way of making everything else disappear. Of making Zako want to laugh.

Sokka was back, as he’d said, as quickly as he could. He dropped a clipboard with some parchment, hastily ripped off to make several pages, and a long piece of coal down in front of Zuko. He fell on the ground, leaning back and sighing as he got his breathing under control, having clearly pushed his body to the limit just to run.

Zuko took the items and wrote ‘Good morning’ before turning it over so Sokka could see. 

Sokka grinned and then narrowed his eyes. He rested back on his hands, legs stretched out, and kicked toward Zuko’s foot but missed by a good measure. “What happened?” He asked, something tense in his voice Zuko couldn't place.

Zuko made the sign for a question, indicating he didn’t understand what Sokka meant. 

Sokka sighed and leaned forward, dropping his hands in his lap. “You tell me you’re going to find Appa and I… I waited up all night,” he reminded. 

Zuko blinked at him, not understanding until the realization hit him with a jolt. He’d told Sokka he’d find the bison that night. That was two days ago. ‘I’m sorry,’ Zuko wrote.

“Don’t be,” Sokka told him, exasperated. 

Zuko stared at him in confusion. 

“I was… I was worried,” Sokka explained, tearing at a piece of grass beside his leg, “I thought the Dai Li got you, you wouldn’t believe what Long Feng was saying to us. That man would do anything to keep his stranglehold on the city; I’m sure he has Appa, and when you were just missing I-“ He closed his eyes, clenching them closed tightly. “I just kept thinking about how no one hunts alone… I should have gone with you.”

Zuko realized, as he thought back to his plan of helping Sokka and then disappearing, that he’d entirely forgotten about the possibility Sokka would worry about him when he was gone. Agni, his instructors were right, Zuko was half-witted. 

“You should have heard him,” Sokka continued, sighing, “the Earth King has no idea what goes on in his own city. Long Feng has everyone under his thumb; he rules while everyone else pretends there isn’t even a war.”

There is no war in Ba Sing Se,’ Zuko wrote, showing it to Sokka before crossing it out and writing underneath, ‘brainwashing.’

Sokka nodded. “Exactly! It’s like brainwashing!”

It is brainwashing,’ Zuko wrote, ‘the troublemakers go to Lake Laogai for re-education, there's a secret chamber with some strange device and hypnotism techniques.’

Sokka read his words thoughtfully, his mind clearly putting the pieces together. He sat up, crossing his legs under himself and rested his elbow on his thigh, pressing his chin to his fingers as he was thinking. “Did you go down there?”

Zuko took a moment, trying to figure out how to explain, and settled on the closest thing to the truth he could. ‘Went to explore, found a Dai Li agent and soldier conspiring to free their son, helped them in exchange for information but also had to save an acquaintance. Had to rest.’ He showed the writing to Sokka while pulling the scroll out of the pocket in his chest, setting it between them and rolling it out to show the map. 

Sokka picked it up, looking at it with interest for a good long minute. He examined the marks with his finger, studying it, before setting it down. “What’s this tell us?” He asked. 

Zuko wrote ‘Bison’ on the parchment and then pointed to the circled area on the map.

Sokka’s eyes widened. “He’s there?”

Zuko nodded. 

Sokka let out a shout of triumph, raising his fist to the sky and yelling, “I knew it!” He scooted closer on the grass, his eyes lighting up, and asked eagerly, “Long Feng had Appa all along, that lying jerk - sorry, asshole.” He gave Zuko a bright smile. “Let’s go get the others.” Sokka stood up as if he was going to leave.

Zuko jumped to his feet and grabbed Sokka’s shoulders, holding him still. Others, he realized, his stomach clenching. Zuko signed ‘no’.

Sokka blinked at him for a moment before nodding. “Should we wait until night?” He asked, “We should still get everyone ready.”

Frantically, Zuko grabbed the clipboard and wrote, ‘No one else!’ and shoved it into Sokka’s face. 

Sokka frowned, put his hand on the clipboard to lower it so he could peer at Zuko’s mask with curiosity. “Are you serious?” He asked, clearly confused, “You want us to get Appa alone?”

Zuko signed ‘yes’. He nodded, stepping closer to Sokka to write ‘Just us,’ on the clipboard Sokka was now holding between them. 

“That’s… first of all, going underground like that without an Earthbender is risky, and stupid considering we have the world’s best Earthbender,” Sokka said, a vein in his forehead twitching, “and I’m guessing there isn’t going to be just a handful of Dai Li down there.”

We don’t need them,’ Zuko wrote, his stomach sinking as he desperately tried to find an excuse.

“We’re not benders,” Sokka told Zuko, “we can’t fight the way they do. Sure, one or two earthbenders we could probably throw off, but the moment they outnumber us we’re done for; we’ve only got two hands each, benders can do all sorts of magic tricks and crap.”

No!’ Zuko wrote, snatching the clipboard back from Sokka. ‘We don’t need them.’

Sokka glared at him. “Maybe!” He conceded, “But what if we do! One earthbender gets a lucky shot and sinks us into a pit and we’re toast!”

I’ll protect you,’ Zuko wrote urgently, ‘I don’t want them coming, I don’t want anyone else-'

“And I’m saying I do,” Sokka interrupted, “it doesn’t make any sense not to use the others when we can.”

Zuko worried his lower lip with his teeth, biting down hard in nervousness. He had to convince Sokka; he couldn’t be anywhere near the Avatar or the blind earthbender, they’d both know who Zuko was immediately. ‘It has to be just us,’ he wrote.

“It really doesn’t,” Sokka said stubbornly. He jabbed at Zuko’s chest with his finger, frowning. “If you have an Avatar you don’t put him on the bench.”

Zuko’s eye twitched with annoyance, mainly focused at himself for not anticipating this. ‘No,’ he wrote. 

Sokka narrowed his eyes. “Yes. I may not be a bender but I know something about strategy,” he defended, “five people sneaking around isn’t much different than two , and when one of those people can break through walls or make a tunnel to get us around…” he let his voice trail off on purpose. Sokka crossed his arms. “Is this a tribe thing? I can vouch for Toph and Aang, and Katara is a damn good fighter now.”

Zuko gritted his teeth, trying to think. Tribe thing … maybe he could use that? Throw on a hatred for benders for good measure? Or… he felt a jump of excitement as an excuse came to mind, the same one the Spirits had used to refuse Jet. ‘Too dangerous for children,’ Zuko wrote. 

Sokka raised an eyebrow at that. “You’re seventeen,” he pointed out. 

No children,’ Zuko wrote, reemphasizing his point.

Sokka sighed and ran a hand through his hair again. “Really? You sound like my dad- I’ll have you know that those children have put more of a mark on the Fire Nation in months than you did in years,” he said sourly. “And don’t think you could actually beat Toph or Aang in a fight.”

Without a trick up his sleeve, definitely not; Zuko knew how powerful Aang was and he wasn’t keen to fight the child Earthbending prodigy either. He leaned down, picking up the scroll and rolling it back up. Ignoring Sokka’s annoyed grunt. 

“Okay, well what about Katara?” Sokka asked, “She can’t come because she’s a girl? You know, in the real world that’s actually a ridiculous thing to think.”

Zuko signed ‘no’.

“She’s the same age you were when you left,” Sokka pointed out, “and you- why am I even entertaining this? The whole team is coming!” 

If they come, I won’t ,’ Zuko wrote. 

Sokka frowned. For a long moment he just looked at Zuko. “You’ve been inside before, you’re sure it will be safe,” Sokka asked. 

Zuko sighed with relief. He signed ‘yes’.

“You’re sure?” Sokka repeated. 

Nodding, Zuko wrote down on the clipboard, ‘It’ll be easy. Just you and me.’

Sokka, thoughtfully, stroked his chin. “Okay. You. Me. And Katara.”

Zuko couldn’t stop the burst of rage that came out of his mouth in a groan. He had to grit his teeth to stop from yelling. ‘ No .’

“Katara’s coming, I’m not fighting the Dai Li without a bender and I’m not letting you either,” Sokka said sternly.

Zuko raised his hands to the sky with another groan. 

“And if Aang and Toph happen to follow us…”

No! Zuko rushed forward and grabbed Sokka’s shirt, pulling his face close to his mask. He realized his mistake that he couldn’t angrily tell him ‘no’, but the peeved look on Sokka’s face showed that he understood.

Sokka clasped his hands on Zuko’s wrists but didn’t push him off. “Are you that eager to jump into a situation where you could be hurt?” He said, his voice angry but his eyes wide with something like concern, “Tell me you’re not stupid enough to break into a military compound alone; there’ll be dozens of Dai Li down there if we’re lucky.”

Zuko was plenty stupid enough to break into an enemy base alone, he’d done it three times in less than a year. He let go of Sokka’s shirt, turning sharply and picked the clipboard up again, writing angrily ‘I’ll get the beast myself.’ and underlined ‘myself’ twice for good measure. 

Sokka frowned. “You think I don’t remember the map you showed me?” 

Fuck. He could be bluffing but if there was anyone Zuko knew could probably look at a map for a few minutes and have it memorized, it was Sokka. He lowered his head, taking in a deep breath and thinking. 

He didn’t notice Sokka’s hands until they were nearly at his face, which was why he flinched backward so violently. Zuko took several rapid steps backward. He stared at Sokka’s outstretched hands. 

Sokka raised his palms. “I wasn’t taking the mask off,” he told him. 

Zuko took another step backward. 

“I…” Sokka looked exactly the way Zuko felt, aggravated but also worried. “I’m the plan guy, okay?” He explained, “I’m good at it. It’s pretty much the only thing I do. So when I tell you that going into that compound under Lake Laogai without any benders is a needless risk, please listen to me. I…” he swallowed, “I know you’ve been hurt and… that’s not a reason to be more reckless. I know it’s not more firebenders but that’s no reason to underestimate them. Fire burns; rock breaks bones.”

Zuko knew that benders were dangerous. That wasn’t the issue . Except he couldn’t tell Sokka the actual issue. Mentally cursing up a storm in his head, Zuko picked up the charcoal again and wrote, ‘Katara. Not the others.’

Sokka frowned thoughtfully. “Toph could be really helpful,” he pointed out, sounding more or less resigned. When Zuko signed ‘no’ again, Sokka just nodded. “Water Tribe only, huh?” 

The tell-tale pangs of guilt shot through him again as Zuko wrote, ‘water tribe only.’

Sokka nodded solemnly. “Can I see that map again?”

This hadn’t gone how Zuko had… wanted. Which was annoying considering he was supposed to be doing what he wanted and the universe wasn’t falling into line; then again nothing ever did go right for him. Still if Sokka stuck to the plan, just the waterbender, it could still go the way Zuko wanted. Sort of. Or at least the pieces could fall in the correct way that minimized damage to Sokka and himself and sent the Avatar on his way to go fight Father far away from here . Away from him. It was a strange feeling to be happy about half of something and sad about the rest. 

Zuko pulled the map out and handed it to Sokka. ‘We’ll go tonight,’ he wrote on the clipboard, ‘for now, stay?

After he opened the map and looked at it for awhile, Sokka glanced up and saw the words Zuko was holding in front of him. He smiled. “Yeah. I’m staying,” he said.

Good,’ Zuko wrote. 

Sokka looked at the map, tracing it with his finger. Some animals nearby chirped. The trees swayed with the wind. Zuko watched Sokka memorize the map. 

It was boring. Not at all the fun ‘doing nothing’ from before. 

Zuko adjusted the scabbard on his back, crossed his arms and frowned, looking at the clearing and trying to figure out… what he wanted. He wondered why he was so bad at interpreting his own mind because he didn’t know. He wanted to be around Sokka, except right now it was rather dull, he wanted to fight something to relieve the tension from their conversation except there wasn’t anyone here to fight but Sokka and that was something he didn’t want to do, and, if he was honest, there was a not-so-insignificant part of him that still very much wanted to capture the Avatar. 

What if he captured them both? Zuko mused to himself, looking at Sokka’s studious face with curiosity. Capture the Avatar and kidnap his bodyguard. There was a fun thought, but not one with any basis in reality. While his mind could conjure up the idea of himself, re-crowned and back home, with Sokka in Fire Nation uniform as a personal guard just to keep him around, the possibility of it actually working was unthinkable. Sokka tolerated him for one, glaringly obvious, reason; he didn’t know he was Zuko. Sokka would never give up his tribe, customs, and his role in the rebellion for the person who had consistently attacked him.

Zuko had invaded Sokka’s home and threatened his entire tribe; Sokka had wanted to leave Zuko in the North Pole to freeze to death. As much as Zuko would want to bridge that gap now... the path to peace between them was well and truly burned ; doubly more so considering just what Zuko had done lately.

He walked to the edge of the clearing, planning to lean against a tree, when Zuko heard a familiar sound that had him stop.

“Voak?” He heard Sokka ask.

Zuko, shaking his head to unfreeze himself, moved closer toward the noise and pushed a branch of a bush aside. There was a nest. Seven eggs half covered in dirt, twigs, and some random knickknacks that ranged from the stub of a paintbrush to a noblewoman’s broach. Beside the nest, huddled against the corner of the nest, was a green shell. 

He turned his head sharply to look at Sokka, who was still standing on the other end of the clearing holding the map but was looking up at Zuko curiously. The bundle of pastries was sitting on the rock between them and it gave Zuko an idea. Moving silently, he walked over to it, unwrapping it and tearing off a large piece of flaky bread, and returned to kneel in front of the bush. With slow, careful movements, the way his mother had shown him, Zuko slowly set the piece of bread in front of the shell. 

There was the sound of a scroll rolling up behind him, and then cautious footsteps until Zuko felt the presence of Sokka at his side. It was right then that a beak poked out from underneath the shell with a curious, quiet honk. He could hear Sokka chuckle by his ear as the curious turtleduck slid the rest of her head out, blinked black eyes to them and then the bread, and then, with the lack of fear of an animal very used to being fed and watched by humans, she snapped her orange beak over the pastry and tore off a tiny piece raising her head and extending her neck to swallow it. 

“Aang would love this,” Sokka said. Zuko turned to look at him, curious, and realized Sokka was tearing up a piece of the pastry as well. The warrior tossed it into the bush, landing beside his own and Sokka grinned when the turtleduck let out an excited squawk. “They're so cute,” he said, which was the last thing Zuko expected anyone else to say.

He nodded at Sokka, who shoved Zuko’s shoulder playfully with his own. “Too bad they’re so delicious,” Sokka said, with the air of a joke but also somehow meaning it at the same time. He reached out with his finger, putting it front of the turtleneck. The animal gave him a look for a split second before lurching forward. Yelping, Sokka only just managed to avoid getting bit. "Okay!" He said, holding his uninjured hand to his chest, "You're not delicious! Sorry!"

Zuko chuckled. 

He kept his hands tight into fists at his sides, his knuckles white with the force of his own anxiety pressed into himself with all his strength. No matter how many deep breaths Zuko took, his worry grew worse with each passing moment as he waited for Sokka and Katara to arrive. There were a million complicated feelings, all jumbled up and scattered, mixed with one another and thrown into chaos inside his head, too much for him to get a handle on. 

Pacing, back and forth, Zuko stopped every three of four turns to grab a sturdy tree branch and lift himself up, taking another look at the guard around Lake Laogai. It hadn’t changed yet, thankfully, because the changing of the guard was the only moment they could take advantage of to sneak inside. The sun was still up in the sky, aching down toward the horizon but not close enough to signal the arrival of the night shift, still it was close. 

He was more than relieved when he heard the snapping of twigs from nearby and looked up to see Sokka emerging through the trees. The look on Sokka’s face, however, had Zuko’s hackles raised. 

Stepping under a branch, his body tense and clothes strapped tight for battle, Sokka approached with a deep frown on his face. He took a glance backward, sighed, his eyes flashing with anger at something behind him, before he returned his gaze to Zuko. “Someone happened,” Sokka said with clear annoyance. 

Zuko raised his arm to his scabbard. 

“No, it’s…” Sokka shifted his eyes from the sky back to Zuko. His shoulders tensed. “I remembered what you said. No Aang or Toph, but when I went back home to see Katara someone was already there. Uhm. The thing is…”

There was more snapping as Katara, her steps more gentle on the ground, entered into view with another person following behind her. 

Sokka turned sharply and glared. “I thought you were going to let me explain,” he snapped at her. 

Katara rolled her eyes and gave Zuko a smile. “Voak, good to see you,” she said. Her hair was pulled up, one hand on the water jug at her hip and her eyes clearly ready for battle. She didn't seem at all intimidated by the fact she was about to break into a secret, underground and underwater, violent organization filled with skilled fighters.

Zuko felt like he’d been hit in the stomach, winded, all of the air knocked out of his body as he stared at the worst case scenario in front of him. 

“He’s an old… friend,” Katara explained apologetically, glancing to the smirking figure beside her, “he said that he knows the Dai Li compound as well and.. he wants to help.”

“No need for introductions,” Jet said with a lopsided grin. He tilted his head, his brown hair falling alongside his face with wild abandon and placed a confident hand on his hip as he met Zuko’s eyes fearlessly. “We know each other.”

“You do?” Sokka asked, looking sharply between Zuko and Jet.

Jet chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. He swaggered forward into Zuko’s space, uncomfortably close. “I’m glad we can work together again,” Jet said smugly, “this is going to be… fun, won’t it?”

Katara rolled her eyes at Jet and Sokka glared at the back of his head, each of those expressions indicating familiarity. They knew each other. Jet knew them. Jet knew the Avatar.

Jet knew who Zuko was.

“What?” Jet asked with a shit-eating grin, “No ‘hello’ for your old pal?”

Chapter Text

“Don’t tell me you’re still mad at me,” Jet said, making a show of sulking, “or are you speechless?” He was standing only a few yards away, only just out of the treeline. The hooked swords that Zuko had only seen one before were out and resting on the belt at his middle and Jet was leaning on one foot, seemingly relaxed, one hand against his waist and the other dangling at the hilt of the sword. Twitching. Ready for a fight. 

“That’s not funny,” Katara told him. 

“Isn’t it?” Jet asked, turning his head to look at her, blinking. “I wasn’t exactly joking.”

“He can’t talk,” Sokka said, stepping forward and purposefully bumping his shoulder into Jet’s. Walking over to Zuko’s side he stood beside him and glared back at Jet. “I don’t know why my sister decided to give you a second chance and believe me, I’m not happy about it,” Sokka said to Jet, audibly grinding his teeth as he spoke, “so help out or get out. I’m not letting you bullshit me this time.”

“Sokka!” Katara warned.

“Ah-“ Sokka snapped his eyes to her, frowning, “Aang isn’t here! I can say what I want.”

Katara folded her arms over her chest. She frowned. 

“Yeah, Sokka,” Jet said smugly, “control your language in front of a lady.”

“A lady ?” Katara repeated, her eyebrow twitching.

Jet gave her a look, clearly realizing he’d said something wrong. “I didn’t mean-“ he started to say, raising his palms up in a gesture of peace.

Zuko grabbed one of his swords from the scabbard. He thrust it forward. It was under Jet’s chin before anyone had a chance to react. 

“Whoa!” Sokka yelled. 

Jet’s eyes widened and he looked down at the sword, his eyebrows furrowing. “Aren’t we past this?” He asked angrily.

Katara moved to Zuko’s other side and looked at Jet suspiciously. “You said you were friends with the Blue Spirit,” she pointed out.

The two Water Tribe fighters were at Zuko’s shoulders, making a visible stand that they were on his side, but it wasn’t comforting at all. His weapon might have been at Jet’s throat but Jet was still the one with all of the pieces to play. He knew it too, there was a twinkle in his eye that Zuko hated to look at. “Hey, easy now,” Jet said softly, looking between Katara and Zuko and grinning, “scar face and I go way back, I owe him one. Or two, the way he tells it.” He pressed a finger against the duller end of the blade and pushed at it. Zuko, hesitantly, moved the sword from Jet’s neck. “It’s like you said,” Jet said directly to Zuko, “the people of Ba Sing Se aren’t going to listen to a peasant like me. So, when you mentioned my old friend the Avatar was in town, I thought maybe he could help me. So. Peace?”

Jet held out his hand for Zuko to shake. 

His head reeling, on the brink of panic, Zuko slid the sword back into the scabbard and stared at him. 

“Well?” Jet encouraged, “Say something.”

“He can’t talk,” Sokka said sharply, a threat clear in his tone.

Jet’s mouth opened in shock for a moment before he closed it, watching Zuko carefully. “I see,” Jet said.

Zuko did not like that expression on Jet’s face. 

“Katara,” Jet said, tearing his eyes away from Zuko’s mask. “I made you a promise. I want to help the people here, and you’re my best chance. Let me help you.” He had that look on his face, the strong, confident expression with wide eyes that had gotten Zuko to fight with Jet in the first place, now directed onto Katara. “There are people down there, good people getting tortured just for speaking out against the war. I was one of them.” 

Katara and Sokka shared a glance, both looking worried. 

“It’s okay,” Jet said, his voice dripping with honesty, “our friend Lee saved me.”

“Who?” Katara asked. 

Jet frowned. “Lee,” he repeated, pointing at Zuko, “unless… well, buddy, what name are you using this time?”

Sokka stepped forward, one arm in front of Zuko. “His name is Voak,” he explained, “he’s from our tribe.”

There were several seconds of silence as that news was processed. Then the realization hit. Jet doubled over, grabbing at his stomach. He seemed to be in pain, until Jet clapped a hand over his mouth and wheezed with stifled laughter. “Oh! Is he?”

Zuko bristled with anger. Surging forward, he grabbed Jet by the collar and forced him to straighten up. He pushed them back, several paces away from the others until he could slam Jet against a tree. Holding him harshly, Zuko hoped he was making his warning clear. Shut up . Shut up, shut up, shut up! Jet glanced behind them, past Zuko’s head, and then leaned forward, his voice at a whisper so soft Zuko barely managed to hear it. “Careful,” Jet said, too quiet for the others to hear, “Your Majesty.”

Zuko pulled his hand off Jet as if he’d been burned. He stumbled backward, stopped only when Sokka’s hand clamped onto his shoulder and steadied him. 

Jet recovered quickly. “Voak, it’s a pleasure,” he said, his mouth twitching upward, “I hope you’ll give me the honor of helping you free the Avatar’s bison.”

Shut up , jerk,” Sokka mumbled. He pushed Zuko’s shoulder, turning him around until Zuko was facing him and Katara, huddling next to each other. “Okay, Katara,” Sokka said, raising his free hand to his sister’s shoulder, “it’s not too late to leave this loser.”

Katara raised her hand to Zuko’s other shoulder, squeezing him comfortingly. 

Zuko looked behind him to watch Jet smirking at them. Jet raised an eyebrow, and winked. A wretched pit of churning anxiety began to build in Zuko’s stomach, made worse as he tore his eyes away from Jet and back to Sokka.

“We have to give him a chance,” Katara said, sighing as if she didn’t mean what she was saying. Raising her head slightly, she gave a look back at Jet with concern on her face. “We have to hope people can change.”

“No we don’t,” Sokka said stubbornly, “if Zuko showed up asking for a second chance would you give it?”

Zuko’s throat felt suddenly very dry. 

“Of course not ,” Katara defended angrily, “but this isn’t Zuko.”

“Jet’s still a jerk.”

“A jerk who at least was on the right side… maybe just, misguided,” Katara said, “and if Voak thinks Jet was worth rescuing, well-“

“Okay,” Sokka interrupted, “ fine. But your ex-boyfriend is your responsibility.”

Katara’s mouth dropped open. “Excuse me!” She pushed her palm against Sokka’s chest, forcing him to take a step back from the huddle.

What? Zuko felt blood draining from his face. He looked at Katara, who for all accounts was an extremely pretty girl, and then at Jet’s aggravating face. Katara and Jet? That was his ‘in’ with the Avatar’s crew? Was that how Jet gathered his more-reluctant sycophants? And Zuko had just been the latest idiot to fall for it?

“Everything good, Water Tribe?” Jet called out.

Katara took a breath, flipped her hair over her shoulder and when she opened her eyes her expression was filled with a commanding determination. She walked up to Jet, pressing a finger against his chest, and said stiffly, “You listen to what I tell you, understand?”

“Absolutely,” Jet said, his eyes flickering to Zuko before returning to Katara. He grinned. “You have my word, princess.”

Zuko had planned for two. Just him and Sokka- it would be so much easier, slide in behind the Dai Li’s backs during the guard change and sneak along the outer walls, hiding in shadows until they reached the bison’s chamber. One other person would be easy to handle.

Four was not. 

Right as they snuck past the guards, using the water to disguise their footsteps, one man was close and Jet surged forward. He slammed the hilt of his crooked swords onto the man’s back, dropping him off the platform with a splash into the water below. 

As if in slow motion, when the man fell all the other Dai Li turned around to see what had happened. 

Jet!” Sokka yelled at him.

Jet stood on the center of the platform, the compound to his back and facing the ten Dai Li agents with a scowl on his face, unafraid. “What?” He snapped, swinging his hooked sword in one hand to ready his grip, “You know what they do to people!”

Katara raced down the platform next to him, her eyes flashing. She ran outward with her hands outstretched, swinging them along her side at the same time the Dai Li agents snapped into action. She created a wave, pushing the waters of Lake Laogai into their enemies, but three of them were able to thrust their arms upward and create a rock formation to cover everyone in the group but one. “I told you to do what I said,” Katara said angrily, jumping downward to call more water to her aid. 

Jet screamed something back at her, using his swords to block a rock that went flying toward her face, but Zuko was already moving. 

He grabbed Sokka’s wrist and ran into the compound. The warrior sputtered with shock, tripped on his feet for a moment, but Zuko held on. He raced them down the stone pathway, the familiar rounded walls and dripping ceiling, putting as much distance between them and the others as possible. 

Then they were at a complete stop. Zuko lurched forward, unsteady, held upward only by his grip on Sokka’s wrist, and turned back with anxiety pounding in his chest. Except Sokka was fine, they hadn’t been attacked. Sokka had just thrown his boomerang into one of the pillars and was holding onto it, having forced them to stop. 

“What are you doing?! They’re in danger!” Sokka yanked at his weapon, having to put his foot against the pillar to force the boomerang back out of the stone. He seemed slightly more uncoordinated with Zuko’s hand on his wrist but Zuko wasn’t letting go. He looked back at Zuko, astonishment and confusion on his face.

Zuko wished he’d learned more of the sign language. The paltry amount he’d managed to glean from his conversations with Sokka wasn’t nearly enough to explain himself. Tugging on Sokka’s wrist, Zuko took another step deeper into the compound. 

“Hey!” Sokka said. He yanked his arm out of Zuko’s grasp. “You can’t-“

There was a huge splashing sound from where they’d left, along with a chorus of grown men yelling. For a moment the light from outside that still lit the stone hallway was blocked off, and then water trickled down the path in a slow wave. Aftershocks of whatever attack Katara had done. 

Zuko bit his lip in frustration. He pointed back toward the others, lifted two fingers and then made a gesture he hoped signaled an explosion, then pointed to himself and Sokka and traced his two fingers along his forearm. 

Sokka furrowed his forehead in thought. “They… are a distraction while we sneak inside?” 

Oh, thank Agni. Zuko nodded enthusiastically.

“No,” Sokka said. “They don’t know where they’re going and I’m not leaving my sister alone with Jet.”

Then you shouldn’t have brought him in the first place! Zuko thought angrily. He groaned, wanting to grab his hair and yank or hold onto Sokka’s shoulders and shake him until he understood just how much Zuko hated this

Sokka took a step back and Zuko jumped forward in his path. ‘No,’ Zuko signed, and then… fuck. There was no paper to write on and Zuko knew only a handful of words and phrases, there was no way he’d be able to convey, She can take care of herself and Jet is definitely trying to kill me or worse, he hadn’t even learned the sign for please. They heard the screeching of rock against rock, and the light from the outside was beginning to fade in the chamber. 

Sokka took off running back the way they’d come. 

Zuko watched him, his hands clenched into fists at his side. He was shaking, he suddenly realized. This was bad. Very bad. With furtive, hesitant, disjointed steps Zuko followed. This wasn’t fair.

Zuko saw the mess at the front, one Dai Li had reached a mechanism by the door and was holding the group off, using his bending to knock anyone back who got close. Jet was on the floor but jumped to his feet, Katara was at the edge of the platform using her bending to hold the rest of the agents at bay. Running at full speed, Sokka swung the boomerang and let it loose. He shouted, wordless, at the Dai Li agent who raised his head in confusion before appearing to begin an earthbending move, and right then the boomerang slammed into his head and knocked the agent unconscious to the ground. 

Jet jumped to his feet. “We need to shut this!”

“We wouldn’t have if you hadn’t fucked it all up!” Sokka yelled at him. 

“Sokka!” Katara shouted back, but she didn’t say anything else. She was concentrating, water flying around her like the tendrils of an octopus-mantine, in an extremely impressive display of bending as she fought off two earthbenders at once. 

Sokka ran to the mechanism, shoving the unconscious Dai Li off. “Give me a second to figure this-“ he started to say.

Zuko threw one of his swords. It went where he’d aimed, slamming into a chain past Sokka’s shoulder and breaking it in half. Instantly the platform started to fall. 

Sokka turned to look at Zuko, a grin of approval on his face, before he jumped over the mechanism and ran toward his sister. With only seconds to spare, he grabbed Katara by the waist and flung them backwards into the compound just as the platform slammed upward and closed them all off. 

For a moment, the four of them were still. 

Zuko walked over to the mechanism, pulled his sword out of the wall, and looked at the Dai Li agent curiously. They could take the man’s uniform but they’d only have one- and those robes were bulky on purpose, full of hidden armor, whoever ended up wearing it would be at an immediate disadvantage from the weight they weren't used to. He left the man, walking out to the hallway and frowned as he went back to the others. 

“What were you thinking?” Katara raged. She ran forward up into Jet’s face, holding one finger in front of his nose with her face in a surprisingly scary scowl. “You completely blew our cover!”

Jet frowned at her. “I told you,” he snarled, “I came here to make the Dai Li pay!”

Sokka stepped beside his sister, eyes narrowed. “We aren’t here for you,” he reminded angrily, “we’re here for Aang.”

“I didn’t-“ Jet said, gritting his teeth. “I didn’t mean to I just-“

“You didn’t mean to attack that guy and put us in danger?” Sokka said with disbelief. 

Jet stepped backward. “You don’t know what they did to me,” he said, in a tone of voice that gave Zuko pause. He looked at Jet, noticing for the first time that Jet seemed… unsettled. “They got in my head they- all I wanted was to help people but that was too much- and they,” Jet’s voice was stuttered, halted, his eyes wide and worried, “I would’ve… lost myself.” He turned sharply, glaring at Zuko. “I had to get saved by him,” he spat. 

“And you’re lucky for it,” Sokka snapped at him. He stepped away from the others, looking down the hallways and frowned. “We have to get moving.”

Moving forward, Katara placed her hand on Jet’s shoulder and he appeared to snap back into himself. Jet swallowed, avoiding looking at Zuko, and hooked his swords against his belt. “Which way-“ he started to ask. 

Zuko walked down the hallway, keeping to the side, and paused only to gesture back at the others to follow him. The stone hallway seemed even more ominous now, with the puddles on the ground making gentle ripples along to unknown disturbances in the farther reaches of the compound. Katara was right behind Zuko, with Jet following her and Sokka watching their back. 

Leading them along, he found his way to the first chamber that he remembered was empty. Regardless, Zuko pushed the door open sightly just to double check. He was glad he did. 

The room had found a purpose since last time Zuko had been there. Someone had bended out the floor, leaving a square brick opening in the middle suspended on a pillar, upon which was a rack, chains all over it starting at the farthest wall and ending in shackles. It was reminiscent of the same room Zhao had used to contain the Avatar- and Zuko realized that was exactly what it was.

Katara looked over his shoulder into the chamber, her eyes narrowing. “Pretty intense cage,” she whispered sourly, “for a very strong bender.”

Zuko had some notes for improvement. Now wasn’t the time. He shut the door and gestured for them to keep going. 

“What did that mean?” Jet asked. He was a bit too loud, thankfully Sokka shushed him. 

As they gingerly walked forward, Zuko could hear noise from behind them. It wasn’t too loud, it sounded like only one person. Either the Dai Li from before was waking up or someone had stumbled on the scene at the door, clearly the alarm had yet to be raised in the facility but that was only going to last so long. They had limited time. He raised his eyes to look at the torches they passed, wishing he could do the same trick as before and fade the flames down to create more shadows, but with present company the idea was too risky. 

“I think,” Katara said softly after a few moments of them walking, “Long Feng didn’t just want Appa.”

“You think that was for Aang?” Sokka whispered. 

“Who else?”

“Fair point.” Sokka turned sharply, making everyone pause. He looked behind them at the silent corridor and then nodded back, whatever he had heard had been nothing. 

Sokka was on edge, Zuko could see it in his face. He was nervous, eyes darting back and forth and shoulders tense. His hand clenched tight onto his boomerang and the other was in a pocket at his waist, holding onto something Zuko didn’t know what. Their eyes met, Sokka looking at a mask and Zuko looking into blue, and Sokka gave him a weak smile.

Zuko nodded at him. He felt something in stomach churn with unease and he tried to push that feeling away. 

They kept moving. When they reached the next chamber Zuko could hear a footstep approaching from the front and pushed the door open, ushering everyone inside and they hid until the man passed. They were back in the hallway a few moment later, making the long trek along the stone pathway until they finally reached the chamber Zuko had been waiting for. He stopped at this one, turning his mask to the others. 

Katara clenched her jaw and nodded at him. “This is it,” she said, not a question, and her thumb popped the cork off of the water jug at her side. 

“Wait,” Jet said. 

Katara turned to frown at him, while Sokka clearly glared at the back of Jet’s head. 

“Look,” Jet said, raising his palms in the air. He glanced down the hallway, as if double checking no one was following or hiding in the shadows, and turned back. “I need to say something.”

Zuko’s hand stilled on the door. 

Meeting Katara’s eyes, determination in his gaze, Jet continued, “This could be a trap. The Dai Li may have set this all up, maybe they knew the Avatar would come for the bison sooner-or-later, or… maybe this Voak of yours is working with them.”

The words hung in the air as Zuko felt a shiver cross his spine. Katara didn’t react, looking confused more than anything, but Sokka sprung into action. 

“What do you know?” Sokka demanded. He grabbed Jet’s shoulder and spun him around, pushing Jet against the stone wall. “After everything you’ve done you think we would trust you?”

Quiet, Sokka,” Katara warned. 

Sokka lowered his voice but that didn’t stop the fiery anger in his tone. “I would sooner believe you’re springing a trap,” he hissed, “after all, you show up out of nowhere asking for help in the middle of Ba Sing Se-“

“Just like him,” Jet interrupted. 

Sokka wasn’t deterred. “You put us in danger on purpose, you lied about being friends with Voak, and you promised Katara you were different,” he pushed his hands against Jet’s chest, leaning forward, “I can tell you’re up to something. I’m not an idiot.”

Jet raised his eyes lazily to meet Zuko’s. “I think you are,” he said simply.

Sokka’s eyes flashed with fury. “I am sick of you,” he snapped, pushing Jet once more before stepping backward. “I don’t want you here, I don’t like you and no one else does. You better-"

They do,” Jet told him. He flickered his eyes between Zuko and Katara and then, as if he couldn’t help it, smirked. 

Katara crossed her arms. “We don’t have time for this,” she said to Sokka.

Sokka glared at her, clenching his fists tight at his side. “You’re really,” he said angrily, turning his head back to Jet, “overestimating how much-“

“I,” Jet interrupted again, not seeming to care how much angrier that made Sokka, “just want to know how much you really trust your newfound friend. Maybe you should listen to me, Sokka. I know him a lot better than you.”

Katara snorted. “I doubt that,” she said, casting a knowing glance in Sokka’s direction. 

Sokka’s nose and cheeks darkened. 

“I know him a little better than I knew you,” Jet pointed to Katara. “And I know better than to trust,” he gritted his teeth, “anything he says.”

“And I know better than to trust you, ” Sokka retorted. 

Katara gave Zuko a look that Zuko really didn’t like. “Do you?” She asked. 

“Look, I’ve got a really simple solution,” Jet told them sternly. “To prove this isn’t a trap, he takes off his mask.”

Zuko pushed at the door, noticing it was locked. He grabbed one of his swords, sliding it between the edge and felt two bars holding it tight. Somewhat frantically, he knelt down and spread his palms on the door, feeling for a keyhole that he eventually found. A lock. He needed some tool to pick it, and thankfully that wasn’t hard to make. 

“Don’t you dare,” Sokka said to Jet, “you don’t know what he’s been-“

“I know,” Jet interrupted again.

Sokka gave a groan of frustration. “Could you stop doing that-“

“I know exactly what he looks like.”

Zuko pulled his sword out, sliding it against the wood of the doorframe. He quickly cut a sliver off, held it between two fingers and assessed it, before making one more. He pushed the first into the lock, holding down the end, and raised the other wooden pick, this one curved at the top, and gently pressed it inside, feeling at the top for clicks. 

Katara pushed Zuko’s shoulder and moved him aside. He did, looking at her concerned, before he saw her raise her hands in a bending stance. Oh. That would certainly be faster than picking a lock. 

She lifted a thin slice of water to her eye level, raising the edge of her hand and then stepped forward rapidly, swinging downward. The water, like a knife, cut into the side of the door, slicing the wood directly next to the lock in two. 

A far easier solution. Zuko pushed at the door and felt it give. Looking back, he nodded to Katara who smiled at him. 

“Just stop talking,” Sokka said angrily.

“I will when you listen to what I’m saying!”

“I don’t believe-"

“Sokka!” Katara hissed, interrupting. “Let’s go.”

Zuko didn’t let himself look at the other two. He didn’t want to see them. He didn’t want to acknowledge what Jet was trying to do. 

He wanted Jet gone. Now. He wanted this over with. Zuko pushed the door open quickly, giving himself no time to evaluate the situation and stepped inside the chamber. He raised his hands to his swords, ready for a fight. 

There was some sunlight from above, peering in from metal bars along the ceiling. This chamber was underneath the forest, not the lake. The limited, green-tinted light shone like a beacon, directly down to the center of the floor where thick, hand-sized metal was woven into gigantic chains, all piled on the floor and sealed tight. The light blinded him for a moment, sending a wave of worry through him as Zuko thought, for a horrible moment, the chamber was empty. Then his eyes adjusted and he heard it, a snuffling noise loud enough to seem close but in reality was from a creature so large its quietest noises echoed in the room.

At the far wall, hunched into a corner, was a ragged mess of white and brown fur, nearly forty hands high. There was a heavy chain around the middle, three more extending outward from the massive creature and bolted to the wall, another three behind it bolted to the other. 

It raised a head from the tangled, wretched mess of hair and from beneath ragged fur two huge, intelligent black eyes blinked. The Avatar’s animal spirit guide sniffed, loose fur shaking down from its wide dark nose, and locked its sad black eyes onto Zuko. 

It reminded Zuko of the lemur, locked in the cage Zuko had placed it into, miserable and confused. He felt a pang of sympathy that turned to fear when animal slammed a foot down on the ground, opened its mouth and roared loud enough that Zuko took several steps back. Zuko’s heart skipped a beat, guilt weighing down on his stomach. Quickly, Zuko tried to step forward with his swords drawn, planning to cut the chains at their locks, when the beast snarled at him and he paused. 

Sokka and Katara were in the room, running forward quickly at the noise. Without any fear they crossed the room, arms wide and grabbed onto the beast. “Appa!” Katara yelled, hugging him and then stepping away to pinch her nose and grimace. 

Sokka wrapped his arms around the bison’s neck, only stepping back when the creature shoved him playfully with its face. “Buddy, hey-“ Sokka said, cut off instantly when the creature rolled its huge tongue out of his mouth and licked him. “Ugh! Appa!” He flicked his hands at the ground, scowling while still having a twinkle in his eye. Then, wiping drool off the side of his cheek with his forearm, Sokka turned his head to look at Zuko and smiled wide. “You did it,” he said, his eyes shining with something like pride, “you found him, thank you.”

Zuko found himself frozen in place, staring at a drool-covered, non-bending peasant boy dressed in hand-made animal skins, and felt warmth rising from his toes to the top of his head. Sokka was… he shouldn’t be able to do this, make Zuko feel like the world had stopped just by looking at him like that, but he did. Undeniably. Agni, Zuko wished he could keep him. 

He didn’t notice Katara coming up on his blind side until her arms were around his neck. Zuko flinched, violently, but held still as the waterbender hugged him. Squeezing him tightly once, Katara let go, her hands on his shoulders and a grin on her face. “Thank you,” she said, looking right into Zuko’s mask, her voice gentle, “you have no idea how much… how much this means.”

Zuko had opened his mouth to say ‘you’re welcome’ before he caught himself and swallowed the words. He could only nod, awkward, and accept it when Katara gave him another swift hug. 

Katara left to join her brother at the bison’s side. She pulled water from her jug as Sokka gave her instructions, pointing out where to freeze the water to break the locks. After a moment, Zuko stepped forward to join them before he thought better of it. The churning pit in his stomach reminded him of who else was there. He turned to look at Jet, standing in the doorway. Jet was staring straight at him, a scowl on his face. 

The warmth Zuko had been feeling left immediately, replaced with a chill down his back. 

Jet cleared his throat, getting the attention of everyone. “You’ve got your animal,” he said, putting a hand on his hip, “now it’s my turn.”

Sokka’s smile instantly faded. He stood up, putting a hand on Appa’s nose when the bison raised its head to make a confused nose, and frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You have what you came here for,” Jet said, “and you got me in here. You can let it free and take it back to Aang.” He looked at Zuko, narrowing his eyes. “Now it’s my turn. There are people imprisoned here and you’re going to help me get them out.”

Sokka clenched his fists. “What gives you the right to make orders?”

“C’mon, hot stuff,” Jet said, his mouth twitching upward in a smirk while his eyes flashed with anger, “you’re coming with me.”

The inner fire inside of Zuko coiled and bristled, furiously pushing to be let out as Zuko felt rage building. His jaw clenched as he glared back at Jet, everything else in the room forgotten. 

“I didn’t come here to play bodyguard,” Jet said sternly, “I’m here for the prisoners and you’re going to do what I tell you.”

“I gave you a second chance,” Katara said angrily, her voice emphasized as she slashed down with her bending as metal clanged apart and a chain broke beside her feet. “You said you were here to help us and you’ve done nothing for it. All you’ve done is get us in a fight we could have avoided and argue!”

“Believe me, I’m the good guy here,” Jet said, keeping his gaze trained on Zuko. “The water tribe got what they wanted. You’re coming with me.” He tilted his head. “Unless you want me to start talking.”

Zuko’s hands clenched tight on the hilt of his swords. 

“Okay, this is over,” Sokka interrupted. He stepped forward, his eyebrows wrinkled into a furious scowl, as he raised his hands between Zuko and Jet in a peacemaking gesture. “Jet, if you really want to help those prisoners you should come with us . Once we bring Appa to Aang we’ll have enough proof to bring to the Earth King to stop Long Feng for good. And we don’t have time to waste here, the Dai Li will come running any moment.”

“I don’t trust royalty to do what’s right,” Jet snapped. “Get out of here, Sokka. This is between him and me.”

Sokka’s jaw clenched. “No. You have a problem with Voak, you have a problem with me.”

Jet raised an eyebrow. “With Voak huh? How about this? Tell him to take off his mask. Tell him to talk.”

“Boys!” Katara yelled from the other side of the room, “We don’t have time for this!”

The distant shout echoing from the hallway they’d just exited proved her point. This chamber was going to be discovered soon and they’d have a full army of the Dai Li coming after them. Katara whipped her hand out, creating a firm pole of water that pushed against the chamber door, shutting it. She glared at the three of them. “Listen to me,” she said firmly, sliding back into a neutral stance, “Jet, I’m sorry. We have to get Appa out of here. We’ll come back for the prisoners-“

“I’m staying,” Jet snapped at her. He lifted his hand, the hooked sword held tight, toward Zuko and added, “And if you want me to keep my mouth shut you’re staying too.”

There was a final slam of a harsh water whip against a frozen lock, and the bison gave a low roar of approval. It stomped a foot on the ground, still wearing manacles but appeared like it could sense the fact the chains were gone. “Get on Appa, all of you,” Katara said angrily, “now.”

Sokka nodded and reached out to grab Zuko’s arm. 

Zuko stepped away from him. 

For a moment, Sokka didn’t seem to realize he hadn’t grabbed Zuko, there was a split second where he’d turned toward the bison as if he was bringing Zuko along before the realization crossed his face and he stopped. Slowly, confusion melting into his expression, he looked at Jet. “You…” Sokka said before cutting his own voice off.

Katara had grabbed onto the bison's fur and used that to climb onto the unsaddled creature’s back. She carefully seemed to center herself, resting a palm flat on the bison’s forehead in the center of the brown arrow. “All of you,” she said sternly, “it isn’t safe here.”

Right,” Sokka sharply whipped himself around to look at Zuko, “I told you. Plan guy. Jet can be an idiot but let’s go.”

Zuko felt a deep calm come over him. The opposite of a reaction he knew he should be feeling. If they all were in danger from the Dai Li, Zuko was moreso . In this moment there were enemies everywhere and the best way to ensure he didn’t die was to run, except he couldn’t- not without- he owed nothing to Jet, not after saving his life twice, but he owed Sokka the lie. Zuko couldn’t let Jet take that from him, he wouldn’t let Jet reveal what Zuko had done, especially… he knew how much it would hurt. 

Besides. Zuko had a very good idea of just how strong Katara was and the last thing he needed was to be trapped, underground, alone with a waterbending master, a huge flying monster, two non-bending fighters and a horde of Dai Li agents all out to kill him. 

He took a breath, steeled himself, and walked toward Sokka. Zuko grabbed Sokka’s shoulder. He pointed to the bison. Then he shoved Sokka in the direction of his sister. 

Sokka’s eyes widened. “Voak, we need to go ,” he urged, “Jet doesn’t have a plan, this is idiotic-"

“Sokka!” Katara shouted. 

“Listen to me, okay, whatever game Jet is playing you don’t have to-“


Give me a minute!” Sokka lurched forward and grabbed Zuko’s forearm, looking at him with worry all over his face, “You’re not going anywhere, right? That’s what you said this morning. So stick with me and let’s leave.”

Zuko, the motion somehow painful, reached his hand to Sokka’s and peeled it off his arm. He swallowed, and then spoke, “Go.”

Sokka’s eyes widened. 

Now,” Zuko urged, his voice even more hoarse and tense than it normally was. 

Something Zuko didn’t understand crossed Sokka’s face. He turned to his sister, his shoulders tense, and didn’t even wince as a loud noise crashed into their ears- an earthbender was getting close, the Dai Li were coming, but Sokka raised his head up and stood firm. “Katara,” he said.

Sokka,” Katara answered, looking worried. 

“Get Appa out of here,” Sokka continued, “you need to bring him to Aang and you need to get an audience with the Earth King. Now. I know you can do it.”

Katara grabbed fistfuls of the bison's fur as the creature raised its front, clearly nervous. “You want me to-"

“You’ve got this,” Sokka told her, “Don’t let anyone stop you. We’ll be the distraction that keeps the Dai Li occupied. Now is the only chance so take it.”

The bison walked closer into the light, showing Katara in full view, her arms shaking but her face firm and determined. “You be careful,” she said, sitting back on the animal. She reached her hand to the water jug, uncorking it again.

“You too,” Sokka said with a soft smile. 

No ! Zuko moved closer, pushing Sokka in the back toward the bison. He pointed at the creature, his movements sharp, trying to convey to him to get out of here- but Sokka just shrugged his shoulders. 

Before Zuko could do anything more about it, Katara called out “Yip yip!” and the bison roared, loud enough to shift the air in the room and surged upward toward the ceiling. It slammed its horns into the stone above them, sending rocks falling to the ground with a loud clatter. 

Zuko ran backwards to the outer wall and so did the other two, Sokka at his side, to avoid the debris. 

Sokka raised his arm up over Zuko’s chest, pushing him back into the wall as if he was protecting Zuko with his body, as Appa fell to the ground and then jumped up again. Katara used her water to shield herself and then finally, with one final burst as the shouting grew louder, the ceiling crumbled to the floor in a big enough hole that the bison was able to fly out. 

There was a strange thing about flying things. One moment a huge, gigantic furry monster was there and the next he was in the sky and completely gone, leaving a room full of rubble and broken chains feeling oddly empty.

“Hurry,” Jet said loudly. Sokka and Zuko turned to look at him. The ruffian wasted no time. He ran to the side wall, hooking his two swords around a metal grate and then leaned backward hard, pulling. 

Sokka rushed to join him, grabbing one of the swords from Jet’s hands. He dropped the full weight of his body on the sword and then there was a crack as the grate slid outward. “How do you,” Sokka said, groaning as he pulled the metal bars away, “know where this goes?”

Jet snatched his sword out of Sokka’s hand. “You have the map,” he said cockily, lowering himself down, “you tell me.”

Sokka gave Zuko a look but there wasn’t anything they could do. They had seconds to follow before they were discovered. Sliding in after him, Zuko lifted the grate back into place as best as he could just as Dai Li agents burst into the room.

They were huddled down underneath the chamber. This was some kind of water system, appeared to wrap around only this room and emptied out into further drains on the floor, there was a three inch high collection of hay, fur, dirty water and other unmentionables, though at least this area appeared to have been watered down somewhat regularly. It appeared to be some kind of water system that would flood and shut along with the opening of the gate, keeping the compound dry. On the farthest edge of the tunnel was another grate, leading to a much smaller tunnel, and Jet had instantly started working on opening it. 

The Dai Li, above them were talking, furiously switching between yelling at each other and wondering what to do. They weren’t, thankfully, looking for anyone else- after all there was a missing flying bison and a giant hole in the ceiling; the agents that were still there and hadn’t left to work on reopening the compound or gone to send a message to Long Feng were, with loud voices, worrying if this incident would affect their paychecks. 

Zuko kept an eye on the chamber as Jet worked, and Sokka stood between them. 

Sokka was watching Jet’s back, his face furrowed into a scowl filled with concentration as he was thinking. Zuko, as he kept glancing to look at the warrior, could practically see his eyes whirring with thoughts as Sokka… Zuko didn’t want to speculate what Sokka was thinking. 

Zuko had spoken. Just a few words, and painfully tight in his throat but- he had still spoken. 

Why had Sokka stayed? He should have left with his sister, joined the Avatar in confronting Long Feng but instead he was here with Jet and Zuko, hidden in water run-off pipes beneath a compound filled with deadly enemies. 

“Almost,” Jet whispered, his voice nearly swallowed up by the loud voices of the Dai Li above them. “We’ll get everyone out the same way I did.”

“Which is?” Sokka mumbled. 

Jet slipped his swords onto the band at his waist and leaned down, taking out a dagger. He pressed the dagger against the edge of the loosened grate, against a nail, and began to carefully unscrew it from its location. “I don’t know. Could barely open my eyes. Ask him.”

Sokka raised an eyebrow and turned his eyes to Zuko. 

“Two more,” Jet told them. 

Zuko felt awkward in his body as Sokka kept looking at him. Watching Zuko like he was puzzling out a mystery. Zuko clenched and unclenched his hands into fists, biting his lip, and when that did nothing to soothe his nerves he crossed his arms and turned his face away. 

“One more.”

Zuko hated Jet. Hated him more than anyone else, more than Zuko hated himself. For one, excruciatingly satisfying moment he pictured himself as they were the last time he’d been in this compound, he imagined Jet helpless underneath his sword once again, and he truly, truly wished he’d left Jet to the Dai Li. This would never have happened. Jet was as honorless as Zuko, repaying a life saved with blackmail. It wasn’t fair. Not to Sokka. 

“There we go,” Jet whispered finally, pulling the final nail off of the grate. Carefully, he lifted the metal bars away, revealing the pipe opened up before them. It was extremely narrow, it looked like they’d have to crawl forward but at least this appeared to go farther into the length of the compound. It would be a safe way to travel underground. “Who first?”

“You.” Sokka stepped forward. 

Jet frowned at him. “You two have the map,” he pointed out. 

Sokka put a hand on the wall and the other on Jet’s shoulder. Instead of an expression of comfort, he used that hand to push Jet down toward the pipe. “I’ll tell you where to go.” Sokka ordered, “Get inside.”

Jet gritted his teeth, casting his eyes to Zuko, but surprisingly didn’t argue the point. He slipped his knife back into his boot, adjusted the strap on his waist and bent down. After taking a deep breath he crawled inside the pipe, muttering something but moving forward nonetheless.

When Jet’s feet lifted from the ground and went inside, Sokka lifted the grate from the floor and put it back in place. 


“Keep moving,” Sokka interrupted him, keeping his voice low.

“The hell do you-“

Sokka knelt down by the grate, looking inside and slapped his hand on the wall for emphasis. It wasn’t loud enough to give them away but, judging by Jet’s grumbling, enough to annoy him. “We’ll be along, give us a second.” Jet said something in protest but Sokka interrupted him again, “Keep going until you hit a turn. Just give us a moment to talk.”

Zuko walked farther back in the tunnel, his eyes trained on Sokka as Sokka stood up. The warrior turned to him, an unreadable expression on his face. 

There were several minutes of silence. Enough that the Dai Li lingering in the chamber had finished whatever they were doing and left. 

“Can I see the map?” Sokka reached out his hand. 

Zuko narrowed his eyes beneath the mask. The map would be all Sokka and Jet needed to get the prisoners out. Without the map, they wouldn’t need Zuko

His hand outstretched, Sokka took a step forward and Zuko took a parallel step back. “The map?” 

Zuko raised a nervous hand to his face, pinching the air and gesturing out the hand sign for ‘no’. 

Sokka closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Listen,” he said. He opened his eyes, wide and blue and looked right at Zuko as if he could see through his mask. “I get it. Something’s up. Fine. I’m not that much of an idiot, okay.”

Zuko wanted to tell him he wasn’t an idiot at all , but he couldn’t. He just stood, silent, his whole body tense, watching Sokka’s face with more intensity than he’d looked at anything before. 

Sokka nodded at him, piercing eyes burning into Zuko’s. “There’s only one thing I need to know,” Sokka took a breath as if to steel himself “okay. So here it is,” he said seriously, “do you like me?”

Flinching, Zuko felt confusion hit him like a wave. What?

“Because,” Sokka continued, standing strong in front of him, “nothing else matters. Does it? If you care about me and I care about you. Whatever secrets or whatever crap Jet has over you- I like you. I kissed you. And I am…” his voice trailed off for a second. He looked down, shook his head, and then lifted his chin and met Zuko’s eyes again, even more determined than ever. “I’m not losing this time,” Sokka said solemnly, one fist clenched at his side, “I’m not losing anyone else I care about. Do you like me?”

Agni, yes . Hesitantly, Zuko stepped forward. The warrior was still, not raising his body or tensing like he was about to attack, though Zuko half-expected this to be a trick as he raised his hands to Sokka’s face. His gloved hands slid against his brown skin, Zuko’s motions slow and cautious, and rested his palms against Sokka’s neck and cheeks. 

Sokka’s eyes softened. “You do, then? You care about me too?”

Zuko’s hands were shaking slightly. He felt a familiar churning in his stomach, the shame and discomfort he’d been carrying since the moment he’d arrived at Ba Sing Se, but for once Zuko didn’t want to dwell in it. Taking a deep breath in through his nose, Zuko nodded, but it wasn’t enough. He swallowed, his heart pounding, and said, “Yes.” Still not enough. “So much.” It wasn’t enough. “Sokka-“ 

“It’s okay,” Sokka said. He grinned. 

The pit of turmoil in Zuko’s stomach melted at the sight. 

“C’mon,” Sokka said. Zuko felt hands on his waist, wrapping around him and then pulling him the final step closer into Sokka’s arms. His own hands left the warriors face and moved to hold him by the shoulders, and Zuko held on tight. 

Things might be okay, Zuko hoped. Maybe. But for the moment Sokka didn’t hate him and that was enough.

Chapter Text

It was oppressive in the pipe, hard to see, hard to move. Crawling on his hands and knees. If Zuko raised his head it touched stone, if he lowered it would do the same. Jet in front of him, Sokka behind, nowhere to go. No place to run. Zuko could move when Jet moved and he couldn’t go backward, and that stung in his head like a wound. 

Sokka stopped them, finally, finally, and Jet moved to the next grate, this one far more rusted than the one before. He managed to get it off, bringing them into the runoff tunnel underneath another room. Zuko shoved Jet out the moment the way was open, not caring as Jet shouted obscenities at him as he was, for the first time in an uncomfortable length of time, able to stand on his own two feet. He stepped quickly away from the others, taking in a deep breath as if he had been holding it. 

“Where are we?” Jet said from behind him. 

“A room right before that prison, I think,” Sokka told him. There was the sound of his feet splashing into the pooled water at the tunnel as he jumped out of the pipe as well. “As long as the map is right.”

“Let’s find out,” Jet said. 

Zuko heard, after a few seconds, the tell-tale sound of metal scraping on metal again, but he didn’t turn around this time. His hand was pressed on the stone, flat, as he kept his face turned away from the others. Not for the first time, he felt a stunningly oppressive miniscule gleam of hope like a crack bringing sunlight into a black room. All Sokka had needed to know. That had been the only thing if-

It couldn’t be that simple. It wouldn’t be. This was going to explode in his face the way everything always did. Sokka had forgiven Voak, for his secrets, for whatever lies he’d been keeping; he hadn’t forgiven Zuko, Zuko didn’t have any delusions about that. It had felt… amazing to hear those words. However untrue Zuko knew they would turn out to be.

At least this wasn’t another failure. Zuko had set out to do exactly what he had planned to, only somewhere along the way he stopped aiming for the same result. He came here to free the bison for Sokka, or for the Avatar, whatever, but the point remained; he had done what he’d said he’d do. Even though Zuko had been lying when he’d first promised... he’d changed his mind in time to actually help. And he had. The only thing that remained was getting Sokka out alive along with the other innocents of Ba Sing Se trapped in this underwater prison. 

“You need a better angle, not more force-“ Sokka was saying. 

“I don’t need your help!”

“I’m just saying, it’ll be easier-“

“I got this!” Jet raged. 

“Fine!” Sokka grunted and took a few loud footsteps over to Zuko. He was in Zuko’s sight in a second, by his side, and leaned against the side of the tunnel with a heavy scowl on his face. “Asshole,” he mumbled under his breath. 

Jet continued his work, Zuko finally turning around to see him a few yards away hacking at the sides of their final grate, releasing it from the stone with a furious expression. He was sweating, kept wiping at his forehead, and shot an occasional angry glance back at the two of them. “What?” Sokka said smugly, crossing his arms, “You said you ‘got this’? Do you want help?”

Jet’s face turned red with fury and he grimaced, exposing his teeth, but turned back to hack at stone without a word. 

“How many prisoners were down here last time?” Sokka asked. 

It took Zuko a moment to realize Sokka was talking to him. He didn’t know. After a minute of hesitation, Zuko shrugged. 

Sokka raised an eyebrow at him. “Any idea of the defenses the Dai Li will have?”

Zuko shook his head. 

“Okay, cool,” Sokka said calmly, “here’s a random question, care to explain why you can talk?”

Zuko swallowed, hard. He shook his head again. 

“Because he’s a liar,” Jet snapped, shooting a glance back at them. 

“Hey, ‘I got this’ guy, this is a private conversation,” Sokka chided. 

Jet clenched his fist around the sword he was using, appearing to seriously consider attacking, before he turned his head back to his work. After a moment he seemed satisfied enough to hook his sword back to his belt and take out the dagger again to work on the nails. 

“I’ll explain first, I guess,” Sokka gave Zuko a glance out of his peripherals and then sighed. “We met Jet and a bunch of other kids a couple months back, Jet was the leader of a group of… ruffian orphans.”

“The Freedom Fighters,” Jet muttered under his breath. 

Sokka ignored him and continued, “He was set up outside this Fire Nation town, right underneath a dam. Jet had the bright idea that justice meant he could flood and kill an entire town of Fire Nation citizens. Children, too.”

Zuko’s stomach went cold. 

Jet turned to look right at Zuko. “Not my fault if they can’t swim,” he said coldly. 

Zuko didn’t realize he’d moved forward until Sokka’s hand was on his chest, stopping him. “He didn’t,” Sokka said quickly, “we stopped him.”

Zuko let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. 

“Traitors,” Jet mumbled, twisting the dagger and letting a nail splash into the puddle below his feet, “you’re perfect for each other. Should run off and play patty-cake with all the other ashbringers; you two and dear old dad.”

Zuko flinched while Sokka gave Jet a confused look. “Anyway,” Sokka said, one eyebrow raised, “Jet is clearly an unstable, murderous asshole who used my sister to get an ‘in’ with Aang.”

Jet’s jaw dropped and he turned his head sharply. He looked, strangely, confused. 

What?” Sokka demanded. 

“I didn’t use her,” Jet said, his eyes wide before something snapped and his expression returned to glaring. “I liked her, Sokka, I don’t… I liked her, alright? I’m not like that- I wouldn’t do that!”

“Right.” Sokka rolled his eyes. 

“I liked her,” Jet said angrily, “and I liked him too! Fuck you, by the way,” he pointed at Zuko, jaw clenched with rage, “if you’re going to accuse anyone of ‘using someone for an in with the Avatar’ look to your left!”

Sokka, as if he couldn’t help it, glanced at Zuko before turning back to Jet with a slight blush on his face. “What do you-“ Sokka cut himself off, an odd expression. “Wait…” Then, suddenly, his voice was might higher pitched, almost a squeak, “You and Voak?”

Jet snorted, as if shrugging it off. The hatred however, that he cast in Zuko’s direction made it clear he wasn’t actually so casually dismissive. There was a twitch in his fingers, as he held the dagger and twisted it along the final nail. Zuko could feel his body tensing in response, ready for a fight. 

“Uh,” Sokka slapped his own forehead with his palm. “I’m just going to ignore… ugh, with Jet …”

Jet’s mouth curled upward. “Didn’t expect this from you either, Sokka, I’m the one who should be surprised,” his eyes had an amused gleam to them. “You haven’t even seen his face, I mean… you’re that desperate?”

“I- will you shut up,” Sokka’s fists clenched at his side. Zuko could see, even from behind, how Sokka’s ears tinged dark with embarrassment. 

“Don’t worry,” Jet grabbed the nail with his fingers and pulled it out of the wall. He held it in his hand, tossing it a few inches in the air with a smirk on his face. “He’s pretty; first thing I noticed was his face.”

Now it was Zuko’s turn to feel heat rushing into his cheeks as he blushed. He felt something like a wave of embarrassment break along the top of his head and shiver down his body, and his hand reached for the scabbard, grabbing the sword on instinct. Zuko pushed past Sokka. He slammed the sword into the stone, next to Jet, and leaned forward, glaring from behind the mask. 

Jet didn’t flinch. He looked from the sword, to Zuko, and back to Sokka, “If I were you though, I’d take a hint.”

Sokka narrowed his eyes. “What hint?” He asked angrily. 

Jet lowered his sword and grabbed the grate with his free hand, yanking it hard. “If he doesn’t want you to see his face, he probably doesn’t like you that much.”

Zuko gritted his teeth. 

Jet pulled the grate off of the wall with a groan. While he was holding it, Zuko snaked his foot by Jet’s ankle and kicked. Jet’s foot was pushed, off of balance, and then a hard punch into his stomach knocked the teenager completely off. Jet fell, the grate on his chest, into the disgusting puddle of water below. 

Zuko smirked at him from beneath the mask. “Careful,” he warned, “slippery.”

They only had to make their way around one or two Dai Li guards, which of course meant that Jet rushed at them the moment he saw them. Thankfully, they were easy enough to handle as they continued forward, though each time Jet saw an agent and attacked with utter recklessness, Sokka shot a nervous glance to Zuko. 

They were walking along a tunnel when the side of the wall opened to look down on a large room different from the others, like the balcony in a theater but on display was only weary souls wrapped in chains. There were about twelve people, all chained to the wall with thick metal shackles or, in the case of three, shackled by the feet to the center of the room. This prison appeared to be at capacity, the three extra shackles seemed to have been hastily put in place, but none of the prisoners were attempting to escape. 

The three of them ducked down in the tunnel, looking over the stone railing below. 

“Six guards,” Sokka whispered. 

“Where?” Jet asked, eyes darting around the floor. Zuko had the same question, he couldn’t see anyone. 

“Two windows,” Sokka said, pointing toward the prisoners and then, Zuko could see it. Two windows in the wall, one half obscured by shadow and the other completely, which shifted ever so slightly indicating whoever was behind them was living. “There’s a balcony on the other end, I’m willing to bet this side has the same set up, and there are doors on either end of the wall; best to plan for six and hope there’s less.”

Jet grabbed the hilt of his swords. “Let’s go.”

Wait,” Sokka hissed, “let me think of something!”

Zuko looked down, frowning. The chains on the prisoners would be easy to break with a well-placed swing of his swords but the commotion would be loud. The element of surprise would be their best bet. He had an idea. Unfortunately, he was going to have to… explain it. Taking a deep, hardly steadying breath through his nose, Zuko turned his mask to meet Sokka’s curious eyes. “I can…” he swallowed, hard. 

“You have an idea?” Sokka asked. 

“Then fucking say something,” Jet said angrily, “I’m getting sick of this game you’re playing.”

Zuko glared at Jet before looking back at Sokka. His mind hurt, filling up with nervous energy sparking along all sides of his head as he tried to figure out if he should speak more- he’d already talked too much. His voice was distinct, far too distinct, the more he spoke around Sokka the more likely Sokka was to figure things out and Zuko didn’t… want to be the one to ruin everything.

“Well?” Jet urged impatiently. 

“Wait,” Zuko said. Then stopped. 

Sokka frowned. “Just ‘wait’?”

Zuko nodded. 

Backtracking along the route wasn’t hard, he was able to find his way to a small path behind an outcropping of stone that led downward. Zuko took a step down, into the darkness, and took a look behind him. He was alone. 

He raised the mask off his face, wiped the sweat that had built up on his forehead, and took an unobstructed breath. Good. 

Putting the mask back on his head he continued forward, taking each step with the front pads of his feet only, heels raised and ready to run. As he continued downward the small prison became clear, Zuko reached a large door that clearly led to the main chamber, unguarded, and continued around to see two more doors leading to what appeared to be a guardhouse. Sokka was right, there were two on each side, however only one was occupied. 

Zuko lowered his ear to the bottom of the door, listening carefully for a long moment. There were voices inside, at least three male and one female, talking in raised, annoyed voices. 

They’d been underground in the water run-off pipes long enough that news had traveled, these Dai Li had apparently abandoned their post to gossip amongst themselves about what had happened. Four intruders entered the compound, taking out all of the guards at the front, breaking the entry mechanism so it had to be replaced, and stealing the bison right out of their noses. One of the men was worried about what punishment Long Feng would have for them, another assured him that their group, as prison guards for the re-education facilities, they couldn’t possibly have been expected to have helped, and the woman was furious she’d missed all the action. Zuko counted five voices, which meant five or five plus a few less chatty guards. 

He grabbed the item he’d doubled back in the tunnel for. A Dai Li robe, and tore it into two pieces. Zuko stuffed the first piece under the crack on the door and then carefully walked to the other side and did the same. When everything was in place, he felt satisfaction and worry twisting at his stomach but forced himself to continue. 

Grabbing the handle of the doors, he lit the metal white hot. Then he bent down and lit the fabric beneath the doors on fire. Finally, when the robes had caught fire, he blew them out until a smoldering, building smoke remained. 

Zuko sent a silent prayer to Agni that this would both work and cracked his neck. He took a deep breath.

He ran through the doors to the chamber, not allowing himself a moment to stop before he reached the prisoners and swung his sword to the locks, snapping the metal at the thinnest point. There were three men, older and in ragged clothing, who looked up at him confused as Zuko continued to the wall. There were two thumps behind him, which he knew were Jet and Sokka jumping down; Zuko continued onward, trusting them to take care of the rest. Not sparing a time to look at the confused prisoners staring at him, Zuko sharply broke their bindings, leaving only manacles and some chains which could be broken at a later date. 

“We’re here to rescue-“ Sokka started to say. 

“Homur, Xamung,” Jet interrupted, “can’t say I’m surprised to see you here.”

“You know them?” Sokka asked. 

Zuko stepped backward, toward the door, a careful eye on the window to the guardhouse. There was stirring, possibly, but the clanging of chains from the prisoners was drowning it out. “Let’s go,” he urged, throat tight, except no one seemed to hear him. 

Eight of the prisoners crowded around Jet, looking confused but pleased to see him, while the other four hung back, rubbing at the manacles around their wrists and looking behind them toward the doors with nervous faces. 

A man with a very bushy mustache clamped Jet on the shoulder and chuckled. “Can’t believe it’s you,” he said, jetting his chest out like a proud teacher. 

Jet shrugged the man’s hand off with a scowl. “Guess you regret not letting me join now, don’t you?”

“I had good intentions,” the man said, casting a glance to a sorry looking companion at his side, “we thought the Spirits were doing good for the city, we had no idea our own organization-“


Everyone in the room froze, eyes widening with shock. 

Everyone but Zuko. “Let’s go!” Zuko yelled angrily, “Do I need to remind you pathetic idiots we’re escaping!”

Sokka’s head jerked up. 

Zuko held open the door with one hand and gestured toward it, and that was enough to spur everyone into action. One younger prisoner ran out first, mumbling a wordless scream under his breath as he fled almost too fast away, and then the others began to follow, Jet along with them. Jet urged everyone out, just as the Dai Li guards began to yell louder, finally realizing their station was being smoked out. 

Amid the chaos, Zuko raced to Sokka’s side and grabbed his arm. He pulled the warrior to the door, who resisted only for a moment, grabbing the club at his side with his free hand, looking behind him with curiosity, before Zuko’s urging snapped Sokka back into the present and Sokka was running alongside him. 

They were at the back of the group, but still reached the stairs a few moments later before Sokka grinded to a halt. “Wait!” He said, jerking his head backward to look down toward the smoking guard door, “Are they going to be alright-”

The door slammed outward. A huge rock pushed it with a clang into the side of the wall, shaking the very foundations of the compound with its strength as it did. 

“Nevermind!” Sokka gripped Zuko’s hand tighter and this time he was the one pulling, “Hurry!”

When it came right down to it, running was running. The Dai Li had their earthbenders but thankfully there were two among the prisoners as well, Zuko managed to get to the head of the group, leading them toward the same exit they’d been through before while Sokka and Jet helped at the back. He heard explosions, commands ordered, but kept his focus where it was needed. He got the earthbender beside him to the hidden exit, ushered him through, and at the halfway mark, as best as he could figure, issued an order to tunnel upward. The tunnel they’d exited before led to the palace, which was why exiting along the middle was the only safe option. 

As he lowered his hand into the tunnel, grasping Sokka’s in his own and pulling him into the open air, Zuko was struck with a pang of anxiety. This had been easy. 

The freed prisoners gathered around the tunnel, one of the earthbenders closing it up behind, and that was the final noise of rock crushing against rock. Now there was a bird chirping, the swaying of trees in the breeze, and it felt… strange. The prisoners were free. No one had died. No one had even been hurt besides whatever had transpired earlier. This wasn’t the way the world worked, at least not for Zuko. 

Sokka let go of Zuko’s hand, raised his arms over his head and stretched with a grimace. He was, like everyone else, covered in dust but seemed overwise alright. 

“Homur,” Jet said, breaking the silence of everyone in the forest gathering their breaths at once, “I guess you weren’t lying when you said you weren’t working for the recruiting operation.”

Zuko took a look around, at the haphazard group of adults, manacled but still clearly dangerous, and Jet standing in the center of them with a smug look on his face. He took a step closer to Sokka. His hand twitched at his side, the hilt of the weapon within his grasp if needed. 

“Recruiting operation?” Sokka asked curiously.

“We didn’t know when Ling was doing,” a well-built man with a sheepish look on his face explained, “when the Dai Li decided the recruiters were making too much noise, our own leaders in the Spirits set us up. We took the downfall. Even them.” He pointed to four other men, who dressed and looked the same as the others but were standing a bit farther from the back. 

“We didn’t know either,” one of the other man said solemnly, “I thought we were helping the city, by the time I knew the General was working with you Spirits-“

“Not all of us,” the first man interrupted. 

“We,” the other man said, looking downward, “we were set up just like the rest of you. When we refused to let the General go free after he learned he was controlling all of us… that’s when the Dai Li took us.”

One of the others glared at that man. "You're all just pretend soldiers who were after a quick buck, are we supposed to feel bad for you?"

Jet took a step between them. He was a head shorter than everyone there but somehow his presence carried enough weight that everyone looked to him. “I get it,” he said, “Spirits or soldiers, it didn’t matter which side, you were the handful of people actually trying to help Ba Sing Se. That’s all I wanted to do.”

The men, at different intervals, nodded and let Jet continue. 

“I’ve put my life on the line for the Earth Kingdom more times than I can count,” Jet said, raising his voice, “and what did I get for it? I’m left to starve. Imprisoned. Brainwashed. Just like you.”

A slightly fatter man sheepishly took a step backward. 

So,” Jet continued fiercely, “what are we going to do about this?”

Zuko seemed to be the only person who’d expected this. The eleven men turned, looks of confusion and shock on their faces to the teenager standing in the center of them, and Zuko nudged Sokka’s side. 

Sokka gave him a look, eyebrows narrowed and confused, and Zuko pointed behind them. Sokka shook his head. Zuko pointed again. 

Sokka stepped forward, clearing his throat, calling the attention to him instead. “Listen, I know you might not want to hear this, but you guys could actually help,” he said, eyes passing over each man as he addressed the group, “right now the Avatar is confronting Long Feng. He’s going to tell the Earth King everything that happened. With your testimony, you could help set things right in Ba Sing Se.”

“Interesting,” Jet mumbled. 

Homur, the only man whose name Zuko had managed to catch, looked contemplative at the group. “Why would the Earth King care? He hasn’t before.”

“The Earth King has no idea what’s going on,” Sokka explained, “and I know that really doesn’t inspire any faith in him-" a couple of the men grumbled in agreement at that, “but I’m not asking you to have faith in the Earth King.” Sokka straightened himself up to his full height. “I’m telling you to have faith in the Avatar.”

“The Avatar isn’t real,” one of the men said. 

Another one snapped his head up, glaring, “Yes he is. Haven’t you heard the stories? The Avatar is back.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“It’s not!” Sokka urged, “I know him. I travel with the Avatar. He’s in Ba Sing Se and he’s working to help.”

“Sokka’s right,” Jet said, “The Avatar is here in Ba Sing Se.”

“If what you’re saying is true,” a man with comically large ears asked, frowning, “how do we even know the Avatar will help us?”

“I’ll vouch-“ Sokka started to say. 

Jet interrupted. “I have an idea. Prove your loyalty to him.”

“You don’t have to-“ Sokka continued, but Jet raised his sword over his head and continued, louder, “Don’t you want to free this city?”

One of the men yelled “Yeah!” and then looked around sheepishly as the rest merely mumbled in agreement. 

“You want to free Ba Sing Se from the Dai Li,” Jet took quick steps forward toward a rock in the clearing and jumped onto it. “But there’s a bigger danger in the city! I’ve seen it with my own eyes and so have you!”

One of Sokka’s eyes twitched in annoyance as he looked at Jet. “The Avatar will-“

“The Fire Nation has infiltrated Ba Sing Se!” Jet shouted, “They’re here, right under the noses of the Dai Li! And right,” he turned his eyes to Sokka, “next to the Avatar.”

Fuck it

“The Fire Nation is in Ba Sing Se?” Sokka asked, concerned. 

“Isn’t that what your group formed up to fight in the first place? To protect this city from the enemy?” Jet continued, grinning as the prisoners nodded along with his words, “I think it’s time for payback, don’t you?”

“Where,” one of the men walked closer to Jet, his eyes narrowed and fists clenched. 

Zuko reached his hand outward, as slowly as if trying not to catch the attention of a rampaging moose-lion, and the tips of his fingers brushed the coarse strange on the end of Sokka’s wolftail. Then he pinched, keeping his eyes fixed forward, and tugged gently. Sokka, confusion on his face, turned to look. 

“Hey,” Jet said smugly, “what do you think you’re doing?”

He slid his foot back on the heel, meeting Jet’s fierce eyes with his own, and as Zuko stepped back he raised his hand to the hilt of his swords. 

“Running away?” Jet snapped, his voice harsh and angry despite the grin spreading along his face, “Got something to hide?”

“Okay,” Sokka stepped between the two of them, arms raised as Jet jumped down from the rock. He looked just as perplexed by Jet’s behavior as everyone else. “If you guys want to help I think the best you can do for the Avatar is try to maintain order in the city while-”

Jet stomped forward, shoving Sokka aside as he did. “Sorry you got wrapped up in this, Sokka,” he said. 

Zuko’s eyes jumped from Jet toward Sokka as his mind raced to figure out what to do. He didn’t know. He should have left earlier, shouldn’t he? Was he supposed to stay? Could he leave now? What did the expression in Jet’s eyes mean and was Sokka safe here alone? Zuko certainly wasn’t. 

“Everyone,” Jet announced, raising his sword to point at Zuko, “here’s the firebender.”

It appeared that Jet, just like Zuko, had expected that information to instantly spark all the prisoners to attack. Jet had raised his chin smugly and, after a few seconds passed by, turned his head to look at the other men with a scowl. Someone laughed. A few chuckled nervously. 

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Sokka said, breaking the silence. He walked forward, shoved Jet’s shoulder, and glared at him. “Voak is the Blue Spirit , enemy of the Fire Nation and my tribe; you’re so blind with hate you’re starting to see firebenders where there isn’t any.”

One of the prisoners sighed with apparent relief. 

Jet’s eyes widened at Sokka’s words. He opened his mouth, then closed it, his thoughts trapped in his throat before he violently shook his head. “I’ll prove it,” he snarled. 

Zuko pulled his swords out of the hilt with a metallic scraping noise as Jet did the same. 

“Give it up!” Sokka said, grabbing his club and standing in front of Jet, a threat in his posture that Jet, who didn’t even acknowledge him, clearly didn’t take seriously. “You’re pathetic, you know that? What happened? He broke up with you and you go crawling to my sister, hoping she’ll beat him up?”

Jet scowled. “Fuck you, you actually think-“

“He saved your life, didn’t he?”

“Exactly,” Jet said angrily, “so do you think I’d accuse him of something like this if it wasn’t true?”

Sokka took a step backward. “Well… honestly. Yes.”

Jet sneered at him. “C’mon,” he said loudly, turning around to face the prisoners, “I rescued you from-"

Sokka took a few more steps back, gave Zuko a glance, and reached his hand out from behind his back while Jet continued to implore the prisoners. The hand, behind Sokka’s back, wiggled and pointed to the woods. Then, right as Jet said something about ‘good firebenders are dead firebenders’ Sokka bolted. Quick as a rabbit-jackal escaping a trap. 

As everyone in the clearing looked toward the shaking tree branches where Sokka had fled, Zuko took three long seconds to realize he was supposed to follow him. The scrambling run he did to follow Sokka could not have been dignified as Zuko nearly tripped over his own feet as he sprinted away. 

Zuko followed Sokka. The warrior was quick, faster and more sprightly then even Zuko as he twisted through the alley and found obstacles for them to jump over or worm through that quickly left Jet, and the few prisoners who had joined in the chase, behind. They could hear noises still, when Sokka stopped in the middle of the road and grabbed at a manhole. 

“Those are heavy-" Zuko started to say, bending down to help, when Sokka pressed something on the side, shoved his boomerang under, and pulled the large metal disc up onto the side of the road. 

“I got it.” Sokka pushed the manhole out of the way and lowered himself down, sliding on the sides of the ladder. Zuko followed him into the tunnel, replacing the manhole cover after them before he too dropped to the sewer floor. After taking a moment to look around, and peering at the miniscule amount of light coming from above, Sokka sighed and rubbed his chin as he glanced right and left along the pipe, as if deciding where to go. “We should get lost,” he said finally. 

Zuko couldn’t help feeling annoyed to be back down in the sewers but he held back his frustration. “I know the way back to your house,” he told Sokka. 

Sokka, looking down the pipe, nodded. “Let’s go then.” He didn’t look back at Zuko to confirm which way to go, just took a step to the side and kept looking past them. 

The boomerang was in Sokka’s hand, Zuko noticed. “Is that…” Zuko asked, looking at the stern expression on Sokka’s face with worry, “where you want to go?”

“I have to get back to the others. They’re probably at the palace confronting Long Feng right now,” Sokka said stiffly. 

Zuko swallowed. He pointed to the left, and took a few steps in that direction before he paused and looked back. After a few seconds, an unreadable expression on his face, Sokka followed. “This way,” Zuko told him. 

Sokka nodded. He stopped. 

Zuko waked forward and then Sokka continued. He was walking behind him. Sokka in the back; Zuko leading the way. 

Sokka with a weapon in his hand that he wasn’t letting go of. At his back. Where Zuko would be blind to an attack until it was too late. 

His pace faltered for a moment but then Zuko kept going. The sewer system of the city followed roughly the same pattern as the main roads, extending outward from the center of the ring like a multi-wheeled spoke with smaller, slightly raised hallways leading through the center. One came up and Zuko turned down that was, marching them farther toward the center destination as the pipe grew slightly smaller. They passed a larger chamber at one point, a massive drainage center for floods; all he had to do was keep going toward the center until he found one of the markings he’d made in the wall. He could trace his path from the slums into the chamber where he’d set up his trap and then he’d have Sokka back. 

Sokka wasn’t saying anything. The longer the only noise in the pipes was the slow drip of water and quiet splashing of their feet. Zuko’s anxiety grew. 

He’d talked too much. He shouldn’t have talked at all … Jet’s accusations; Sokka was putting all the pieces together. Zuko knew it, beyond any measure of a doubt. The water tribe warrior had figured it out or was one stray pebble from collecting enough weight to form a rockslide. The footsteps that followed him pounded in Zuko’s ears as he kept careful track of how close Sokka was to him, focused on keeping an eye out for any change in pace that could indicate an attack.

“This is disgusting,” Sokka eventually said, kicking at something in the sewer, when Zuko had finally found one of the markings on the wall. 

Zuko led them along the path and didn’t answer him. 

Eventually they reached one of the pipes Zuko had closed out with his makeshift bombs and he knew the chamber was nearby, meaning the exit was as well. He found the way in with little trouble, until they reached the first location where Zuko had saved Jet’s life. 

Saving Jet had been a continual mistake. Zuko had a massive list of colossal fuck-ups and keeping Jet from death? Twice? He was putting that in the top five. 

“What the fuck is this?” 

Zuko, halfway across the chamber and making his way toward the rope he’d hung from the higher pipe, two stories up that they needed to climb, turned around to see Sokka had only just jumped across the moat onto the main platform. He was staring at the scene around him in shock. 

One entrance, one exit. Chains melted onto the ceiling. Manacles resting haphazard in the center of the floor. A single table, food and assorted weapons resting on top along with a whip suitable for taming only a huge creature. The entire chamber smelled heavily of flammable gas, as it had been resting along the bottom of the moat for several days just waiting to be lit. 

Sokka’s eyes snapped back to Zuko’s. “What is this?” He asked again, more forcefully this time. 

Zuko pointed to the rope hanging off the exit. “This way,” he said in lieu of an answer. 

Sokka’s eyes flickered up to the chains on the ceiling, eyebrows furrowing as Sokka was clearly thinking. “No point in that…” he muttered, “except…”

Zuko bit back a series of poor lies threatening to come out of his throat, opting instead to just urge, “Let’s go.”

“It would keep someone from flying,” Sokka finished. He lowered his head back to look at Zuko. “I can only think of only one person who flies.” 

Zuko, heart pounding in his chest, watched Sokka take another step forward, and to the right, as Sokka bent down to the ground and raised a small tuft of white fur in his hands, before leaning down to examine some animal droppings on the floor. Fuck.

“Momo was gone for a few days,” Sokka mused, “he tends to run off though so we weren’t…”

Clearing his throat, Zuko caught Sokka’s attention and pointed to the rope again. 

“That pipe leads right by the house we’ve been staying in?” Sokka asked. 

Zuko nodded, gesturing for Sokka to come closer. “Yes. Almost there.”

“Why,” Sokka asked, with an expression on his face indicating he didn’t want to hear the answer, “would this place be right by where we’ve been sleeping.”

Zuko felt almost paralyzed as he could see all the pieces clicking together in Sokka’s mind. He raced through the lies in his head, trying frantically to figure out if any would be even slightly plausible. 

“This is for Aang,” Sokka concluded. “A trap. To lure him down…” his eyes flickered to the manacles and rope, “and capture the Avatar.”

Zuko swallowed. “The Dai Li-" he started to say. 

“The Dai Li had their own chamber for holding Aang,” Sokka said, a flash of emotion crossing his eyes that Zuko couldn’t interpret, “and they wouldn’t need this. They were providing all of our food and water. They wanted Aang out of the city; the prison was a last resort. They’re an army.” He raised his chin, straightening his shoulders and his grip adjusted on his weapon. “But you knew about this place.”

Zuko’s breath seemed to shift in his mouth, from short and anxious to slow, deep, and hot. Taking a step forward, he adjusted his own feet into a stance. He didn’t bother taking his swords out of the scabbard, only clenched his fists and waited. 

“I’m a fucking idiot,” Sokka said angrily, “and you’re a piece of shit.”

“I didn’t use this place, did I?” Zuko snarled at him, “I gave your rat back and the bison!”

“Okay,” Sokka said. 

“I’m taking you back,” Zuko continued, gesturing one hand back toward the rope while keeping himself in a fighting stance, “alright?! Stop thinking about it and get up!”

Sokka took a deep breath. “You’re who I think you are, aren’t you? You’re...” he said, “and Jet was warning us.”

“What does it matter who I am?” Zuko demanded, clenching his jaw as he spoke.


“It doesn’t, right?!” Zuko continued, not letting Sokka speak, “Isn’t that what you said?! Just forget this and let me show you the way back!”

Sokka took a step forward, mouth curled unpleasantly on the edges. “The fabric, it was blue polardog leather,” Sokka asked furiously, “where did you get it?!”

Zuko paused for a moment, feeling confusion hit him like a snap in the face. 

Realization crossed Sokka’s mind after the silence held in the air for several seconds. “Liudong River,” he muttered.

“You forgot,” Zuko understood. Surprisingly, despite the flood of rage and anxiety in seemingly every part of himself, Zuko felt a pang of embarrassment. Remembering how many times his mind had wandered back to that moment. How he’d held onto the wrap Sokka had given him. Without even knowing why. Zuko knew ‘why’ now. Why that single incident had held such a prominent place in his thoughts; a worthless scrap of torn leather kept tucked into his pocket because it had meant something before Zuko even knew to question it. Important. First time he’d ever spent any time at all interacting with a boy until Jet. And for Sokka it had been a footnote, buried amongst a thousand far more meaningful experiences. Zuko was pathetic. 

“Take the stupid mask off,” Sokka ordered. 

“No.” Zuko watched Sokka’s eyes flash with anger at that. 

“What’s the point of keeping it on?” Sokka asked, walking closer. “Zuko.”

“Let’s keep going,” Zuko said. 

Sokka frowned deeply. “You’re not even going to deny it?!”



Zuko glared at him. “Fine, go up here, pass three pipes to the right and you’ll reach one exit that’s already loosened, you can find your way back from there.”

“What’s your plan?” Sokka stepped to his right, crossing one foot carefully over the other, and did it again. He adjusted the boomerang in his hand, raising it upward. “How did you infiltrate the city?!”

Zuko side-stepped to his left, countering Sokka’s careful circling of the chamber. If they kept going, Sokka’s back would be toward the exit he needed to take, and Zuko’s would be back the way they came. 

Answer me!” Sokka demanded, “What was the point of all of this? Why did you do it?!”

Zuko kept moving, mirroring Sokka until he passed beyond the rope at his back and continued. Zuko stopped and Sokka didn’t. “ Stop !” He raised his hands in the clear beginning of a firebending stance and Sokka froze. “Turn around,” Zuko warned, “go back to the others.”

“Is she waiting there?” Sokka asked angrily, “You all snuck into the city together, huh, you figured out some kind of deal and you’re working with your sister!”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“I don’t put anything past you,” Sokka snarled, “not after this.”

“Fine!” Zuko shouted, lips curling over his teeth in anger, “You told me the bison was missing! I knew if I captured the creature for myself I could lure the Avatar into a trap; I was going to use you to teach me to fly the thing so I could capture him and bring the Avatar to the Fire Nation!”

Sokka flinched. 

“But clearly,” Zuko snarled, “I changed my mind!”

Right,” Sokka yelled, “you, Zuko, of all people, just changed your mind one day and decided to help the Avatar instead of trying to kill us!”

“Of course not!” Zuko snapped. 

Sokka’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “Well, what the fuck!”

“I was helping you,” Zuko explained, taking a step forward and clenching his fist tighter, “And clearly I did! This isn’t what was supposed to happen, just leave!”

Sokka glared at him. “What was supposed to happen? You pretend to be my dead friend and then what?! Take off the mask!” He raised his hand, and Zuko wasn’t prepared for an attack, his mind reeling with emotion, so he was caught off guard when the boomerang came flying toward his face. 

It hit, knocking Zuko down. His hands stopped his fall onto the slimy stone floor of the chamber and his ears rang from the noise. Just in time, he heard a foot slap on the ground beside him and he lashed out with his feet, kicking in a circle to knock Sokka down. Zuko lunged where his feet had connected, hitting hard enough to hurt himself as he connected with an ankle. There was a loud grunt, Zuko found a hand and grabbed the wrist tightly. 

The motion shook the mask enough his eye could once again see through, just in time to see sharp metal swinging toward his face. Zuko didn’t have time to avoid it. The boomerang hit, with the sound of cracking wood, directly into the mask. 

He didn’t feel pain, but he was stunned, and when Sokka pulled the boomerang back and took the mask with it Zuko didn’t stop him. The weapon was lodged into the mask, having protected Zuko’s face, although as he felt the slight chill of air hit his bare skin Zuko winced as if he’d been punched. 

Sokka dropped his arm to the side and stared up into Zuko’s eyes, his jaw visibly clenched, eyes wide and forehead furrowed in anger, but somehow still as he looked upward. 

Zuko moved quickly. Raised his hand to his scabbard, pulled the swords out with an audible screech of metal, and surged forward onto Sokka, his knee on Sokka’s chest, knocking the air out of his lungs and his weapons against the warrior’s neck. “Stop,” Zuko ordered. 

Some of the pipes dripped water, miniscule droplets of liquid from far away, landing on barely formed puddles, yards from where they were but the silence in the chamber had it echoing like a drum. Sokka shifted slightly, leather scraping on stone floor, and Zuko’s gloves crinkled as he adjusted his grip on the hilts of the swords threatening Sokka’s skin. 

“Don’t fight me,” Zuko said. 

Sokka’s mouth twitched, like his face had tried to smile but was unable to. “Really?” He asked, his voice tense from a clenched throat, “You?”

Zuko frowned down at him. He could feel a bead of sweat rolling from under his hair down his forehead and, for the first time in a very long time, knew Sokka could see his expressions. After all this time without having to worry about Sokka seeing his face, it was as if he was on stage in front of him, observed. Dizzying, almost. “I’m not,” Zuko said, awkward, trying to force his face to stay neutral, “planning anything. Just the bison. I- got it back. For you.”

“Get off of me,” Sokka ordered. 

“Not until you promise not to kill me,” Zuko spat back.

Sokka snorted. “Like you’ve never tried to kill me.”

Zuko frowned at him. “I haven’t,” he said defensively, “why would you think that?”

Sokka glanced down to the swords at his neck and back to Zuko. 

Tentatively, Zuko pulled the swords back as he felt shame sliding down from the top of his head along his spine. “This isn’t-"

Sokka punched him in the stomach. He gasped, frozen for only a split second when Sokka pushed his shoulder, hard, knocking Zuko to the floor. In only a moment, Sokka was now above him, one hand grabbing Zuko’s to pin down and the other held the boomerang which he slammed with his strength against the side of Zuko’s head, except it was still stuck in the mask, so instead of a more serious blow the wooden mask just sort of bonked against Zuko’s right ear. Sokka looked confused. Then, regaining himself, raised the boomerang up and glared. “Okay, well now you’re helpless…” he started to say. 

Zuko raised his eyebrow and breathed out, sending a few sparks into the air. A reminder that even without weapons he was nowhere near helpless, and Sokka’s eyes widened as his next words caught in his throat. 

The position was almost an exact reversal of how they’d been in the clearing behind the library, the good memory. Before Zuko had decided to help instead of betray him. Although now Sokka was enraged, holding his makeshift bludgeoning weapon, clearly intent to do something but still trying to figure out what it was. “Is…” Sokka began to say and then stopped. 

In any other circumstances, Zuko’s traitorous mind thought, this might have been nice. This closeness. The weight of someone else. Now though, despite the image conjured up in his head, his heart was racing the same way it did in every other battle. “You can’t beat me alone,” Zuko told Sokka seriously, “but… you don’t have to. Just get up. Leave.”

“Is Voak alive?”

Zuko blinked at him. “I don’t… I don’t know.”

“Did you ever meet him?” Sokka asked, something frantic and worried coming across his face. 


“Then it was you,” Sokka concluded, “the whole time. You.”

Halfway through, Zuko was sure that he could have had a more reasonable reaction than spitting sparks toward Sokka’s face and punching him when Sokka’s grip relaxed out of shock. His knuckles still connected anyways. Just because he regretted it didn’t mean he stopped. Zuko punched Sokka in the face and then kicked out with his knee, dislodging Sokka from above him and spinning away. He was at his knees, a few feet away, while Sokka was still rubbing his cheek looking pissed. 

The blue-clad warrior lifted himself by his elbows and frowned at him, eyebrows furrowed and eyes flashing. “Why,” he started to say, “why of all the ways-“

Zuko realized Sokka didn’t know his way back through the tunnel. He lifted his eyes to look behind Sokka, judging the distance.

“What was this? Why with me? I mean… I can’t understand…”

A few steps to the right and it was a straight path back the way he’d come. Sokka’s boomerang was still lodged in the mask; he didn’t have anything else to attack from a distance unless he threw his club. 

“I just…” Sokka’s voice was strained, “He’s not alive, is he? I gave you the name and you just took it…”

It would be a quick escape. Zuko adjusted his feet under him and clenched his hand on his knee. He looked back at Sokka.

The warrior’s eyes were redder but the anger was still there, along with a heavy amount of disbelief. He was still on the ground, not having moved himself into any fighting position as he stared at Zuko’s face. “It,” Sokka said softly, “kind of feels like you killed him again.”

Zuko swallowed, hard. He should say something. Should he? That would make it worse. How much worse could it get? Was there anything anyone had ever done worse than this?

“The last person I cared about died too,” Sokka said, taking in a shaking breath, “couldn’t you have picked someone else? Why did you go so…”

“I’m… sorry,” Zuko said painfully. 

“No you’re not!” Sokka shouted, “If you actually had feelings you wouldn’t have done this! You burn villages and threaten grandmothers and… and you…” Now he was moving, lifting himself off the ground. 

The back of Zuko’s mind was screaming to run. He knew how, knew he could, but for once his body wasn’t complying. 

Sokka stood up on shaking legs. He snatched his boomerang from the floor and pulled, angrily, until the mask came off with a creak. Sokka threw the scarred face at the ground between them. 

The Blue Spirit face was cracked. Along the left eye, from bridge of the eyebrow, across to the cheek. Barely a mask now. More like a mirror. Zuko looked at it, and stayed sitting on his knees. 

Eventually Sokka’s feet came into view, directly in front of him, but Zuko didn’t look upward. “What’s wrong with you?” Sokka asked him. 

“Quite a lot.” 

Sokka took a step back like he hadn’t expected Zuko to answer and it had thrown him off, but the stance shifted as he regained composure. “Fine.” A shadow crossed the mask, too long and oddly shaped to be anything but the club, but as quickly as Sokka had raised it he lowered again. “What is this? What are you doing?” Sokka asked him, and Zuko only shrugged in response. “I… I never want to see you again, understand? If you come anywhere near us, anywhere near my sister, I’ll… you don’t even want to know what I’ll do.”

“You won’t see me again,” Zuko promised. 

After a moment of hesitation, the feet stepped out of view. Zuko could hear Sokka, carefully, walking toward the rope that led out of the chamber. 

“The fourth tunnel, to the right,” Zuko reminded him. 

“I heard you earlier,” Sokka called back angrily from across the chamber. “You know, you were almost likeable when you didn’t talk!” Then grumbling, words that almost became words but were taken over by others, half understood mutterings stumbling over one another, until Sokka just stopped. 

Zuko stayed where he was, even as he heard Sokka grunting as he pulled himself upward, and the clang of metal when he reached the pipe. Footsteps echoed from far away and above until they were drowned out by the dripping droplets of water. Zuko counted them for a long time, kneeling at the chamber, before he finally looked up to confirm he was truly alone. 

He sighed, picked up the cracked mask, and stood up. Then he walked, one foot in front of the other, marching his way back. 

Chapter Text

He saw the shadow of the body while he was still far away, and as Zuko grew closer he could even make out the color of the gray hair and dark green robes framing the slumped figure on a chair outside of the tea shop. If it wasn’t for the rumblings of snoring he might have been worried. 

It was late. It hadn’t been before. Now though, when Zuko had finally made his slow way back, it was dark. Clouds hung in the sky, long, thin strands half connecting to each other, a few scattered stars shining through the small open slivers, casting muted light down on him. As if the world had become gray as a black ink painting, a lighting that matched so well with the cold, roiling guilt in Zuko’s chest he didn’t even notice it. 

Iroh had a candle at his feet that had gone out, his arms were folded over his large stomach and his chin pressed into his chest, his beard poking up from his neck at a right angle and long, gray hair tangled from whatever breezes had passed through as he’d slept. His snores were, as always, guttural, slightly uneven and loud, but familiar enough to be calming rather than an annoyance. Zuko took the Blue Spirit mask he’d been holding in his hand and tucked it into the back of his pants as he knelt down by Iroh’s knee. He brought his hands to his uncle’s feet, slipping off the Earth Kingdom shoes and gently setting them aside the chair. At least he smells better , Zuko thought to himself, thinking about the state of his uncle’s last pair of sandals - here, unlike at the ship, Iroh had a bath available everyday. Not that his uncle’s feet didn’t still stink, just a bit less, covered up by the scents of florals and herbs from the shop.

The man snorted in his sleep, and Zuko thought he had woken up until Iroh just shifted his shoulders slightly and continued to dream.

There was so much feeling inside Zuko’s chest he felt he could suffocate on his own guilt; to drown in it, or sink slowly like quicksand until the oversensitized emotions swallowed him whole. He could see, in the window behind them, his own reflection against the black, empty glass; shaggy black hair, unkempt and wild like a peasant, a face ruined by the shape of a palm of fire pressed into an eye until skin had melted like wax - a handprint that had grown with age as Zuko had. He wasn’t a boy any longer. Nor was he a prince. He was honorless, and whatever little he had left, to lift up Lu Ten’s legacy and respect his mother's sacrifice… Zuko had well and truly given it up. 

And he only realized it now. At his uncle’s feet. 

Zuko let his head fall onto Iroh’s leg, pressed his forehead onto the thigh, and his right hand reached for his uncle’s ankle, holding it softly. It had creeped up on him. The twitch on the edges of his mouth that curled to a smile, unexpected but somehow fitting. Somehow Zuko was smiling.

Iroh was a great man. A fool, sure, a ridiculous man that Zuko was more than often ashamed to be standing next to - especially when his uncle flirted or felt the need to display his lackluster talent with instruments. He was also the last Dragon, a decorated and esteemed General and strategist, the once-heir to the throne, more titles and achievements as well that Zuko could vaguely remember but had never paid enough attention to recall now. His clothes now smelled like jasmine, cardamom, and sansho. The smell of a man who’d spent the day inside a tea shop. 

Taking a deep breath in, Zuko felt his body relax against his will as he closed his eyes and leaned more against his uncle’s knee. Why did he say the things he did to his uncle? Why was he still angry Iroh had lied to him? Why did Zuko resent him for taking him in, a disfigured, disgraced, disowned boy, humiliated in front of the entire palace, wracked with fever and not expected to survive, when by any interpretation he should be grateful?

A hand pressed down, hesitant at first before resting down flush on the crown of his head. The thumb brushed through Zuko’s hair, gentle, and Zuko raised his head to see Iroh had woken up. 

His uncle was smiling at him, though looking worried. “Are you alright?” 

“Yes, Uncle,” Zuko said to him, the words so natural it didn’t even seem like lying.

“Where’ve you been?” Iroh's hand was so gentle, running through Zuko’s hair, that he could almost fall asleep. 

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Zuko promised. Reluctantly, he stood up. “You shouldn’t sleep there,” Zuko said, reaching his hand out for Iroh’s to help him up, “Let’s go upstairs.”

“Ah,” Iroh groaned loudly as he raised himself from the chair, cracking his back with a loud series of grunts, “yes, that will be nice.”

Zuko bent down, picking up Iroh’s shoes to bring inside and held the door open for him. Iroh gave him an odd look, but said nothing about it. 

Sleep was impossible. Despite Iroh’s snoring, and the rhythmic flapping of the wooden curtains on the half open window, or the deep darkness all around him, any moment Zuko closed his eyes or felt a lull in his consciousness something would come to mind. Mother. Azula. Zhao slipping into the water. Jet. Azula again. “Zuko?” Iroh looking terrified. Sokka at the South Pole. Lightning. Eighty familiar faces watching with amusement as his father walked slowly down the tournament floor. Sokka with Zuko’s hand covering his eyes. Mother. 

And then that face. The screaming had stopped, his throat sore, hands grabbing a wrist pressed against his cheek because he had nothing else to hold onto, as Father lifted his hand to see what he had done and the corner of his mouth curled upward in miniscule degrees like steady clock-work ticking into the shadow of a smile. He couldn’t see or feel the hand lift from his face, the left was tapered off and hidden, as it would be forever now, but Zuko felt his father’s arm rise and despite the pain, and the blackness seeping in, he clutched to hold his father close with every ounce of strength he had left. 

Zuko sat up. Changed back into his clothes for the day, and went to the kitchen. 

Tea shops had pastries, but they came in the morning. Didn’t require effort to cook. Not what he wanted. The ice box held some items that could be useful, milk and eggs, fish, some vegetables. Were there recipe books? The tea shop had some food options, there had to be a chef - yes. 

Zuko found three books and rested them on the counter. He flipped through them, studiously, scanning every page with relentless concentration. It was still late. This was good. Plenty of time. Cook. Then clean. Spotless. He wasn’t going to tolerate anything less than perfection.

Iroh woke just as the pastries had arrived, Zuko had just collected them at the front door when his uncle, yawning, finished walking down the stairs. Zuko brought the pastries into the kitchen, setting them down on the far edge of the counter, not sure exactly where to put them, when his uncle followed inside. 

“Did you make breakfast?” Iroh asked, scratching his stomach and looking at the food in front of him with surprise. 

It wasn’t right. Zuko had burned the first salmon, and dropped the second on the floor, rice had turned out near impossible to figure out how to cook - it took an hour to realize he should’ve been using a pot and not the flat pan, at least the fermented soybeans had been ready-made, and his skills with a sword had apparently translated into using a knife to cut the vegetables, maybe not in initially identifying the vegetables but he’d figured it out eventually. “The egg,” Zuko started to say. Iroh, however, had already cracked the raw egg left beside the bowl onto the dish. 

“Thank you, Zuko,” Iroh said, giving him a bright smile. 

Good. That was good. Zuko bowed, dropping his head far lower than he ever had before, and only raised himself up after a few seconds. “What I can do to prep the shop before opening?” 

“Oh, no,” Iroh told him with a smile, “the other workers will be around in an hour or so. Not much left but to put the chairs down and open the windows. Come sit.”

The chairs down. Open the windows. Zuko nodded and left to do the chores.

He didn’t know these other workers his uncle had hired, though they all had extremely cheery dispositions and greeted Zuko with enthusiasm. After the initial niceties, though, they left Zuko alone which was what he’d hoped for. 

People came in, he swept up after their feet, brought them water, let the others take the orders so he could keep cleaning the tables, it was easier, and the outer path could be swept as well; dishes always needed to be cleaned, orders brought to proper tables, there was something that could be done at every time and if there wasn’t, Zuko figured something out. Iroh checked up on him, often, the only time Zuko would lift his head up, but Zuko assured him he was fine, no he didn’t need to sit down, he wasn’t hungry, no, he was fine, how were you? 

He didn’t realize it was over until a family of three left and one of the other workers cheered. It was then Zuko turned, knuckles white as he gripped to his broom like a lifeline, and saw there were no more customers in the shop and the light outside had been dimming for hours. 

An older woman in the same uniform, her hair in three buns along her head, walked up to Zuko, gave Iroh a glance, and held her hand out for the broom with a smile. “Now now, this place is spotless,” she said brightly, “you’d better let me finish here or I might be out of a job.”

Zuko handed her the broom, went to the kitchen, tried to go to the sink for the rest of the dishes when one of the cooks cut in front of him, grabbing the plates before he could get close enough to do them himself. She lifted her triumphant face to Zuko and gave him a toothy smile. 

The chef insisted he could finish up himself. The lanky male waiter ran at full speed to the garbage before Zuko had even turned to try to take it out himself. The rags he’d been using had been gathered up in the laundry pile already and before he could even think about working on that, the triple-bun woman from before walked past him and loudly remarked how it was her job to bring the laundry to the cleaners after work. That just left Iroh at the register, counting the profits of the day and checking copies of receipts, a ledger opened up at his side. 

As Zuko approached, Iroh, still looking at the receipts, patted the stool at his side and Zuko obediently sat down. 

And then promptly, for the first time that day, Zuko actually felt the soreness in his entire body and dropped his arms onto the counter, rested his head, and sighed. He stayed there, forehead pressed into cool wood, arms up on the counter encircling them, as Zuko caught his breath at the same time his mind caught up to him. The air spilled from his lungs like water escaping a dropped pot and Zuko had to raise his head to breathe again. 

Iroh’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. He squeezed, tight and affectionate, and left his hand there as he continued to count and write numbers down in the ledger. 

“I could do that for you,” Zuko told him. 

“No, no,” Iroh answered. He flipped the paper with his free hand while his other remained on Zuko’s shoulder. 

Zuko studied his uncle’s face carefully. Saw the tension in his forehead, the slight tightness across his eyes. “What else can I do?”


“What?” Zuko blinked at him. 

“You can do less, Zuko,” Iroh replied kindly, shifting his eyes from the page to meet Zuko’s, “it was exhausting watching you today. You should rest.”

No,” Zuko snapped. 

Iroh chuckled at him. 

The lanky man from earlier approached, slipped the apron off of his uniform and tucked it under his arm. “Ah,” he said.

“Bohin, good evening,” Iroh said brightly, “say hello to your wife for me.”

Bohin grinned brightly, blushing and rubbing the back of his neck. “Thanks!” Iroh took a bag from below the counter, filled it with a pile of coins he’d set aside, and handed it to the man who gave him a respectable bow. “It’s nice to meet you, Lee,” the man said as he tucked the bag into his shirt, “your uncle told us a lot about you.”

Zuko didn’t reply, initially, until five uncomfortably long seconds passed and he realized he was expected to answer. “Thank you,” was all he came up with. It apparently worked. Bohin smiled at him and left. 

Then there was the chef. His assistant. The three-bun’d waitress. All collecting their money with bright smiles and something extra to say. “You should give me some pointers, Mushi, my little girl’s the laziest thing you’ve ever seen.” “I’ll pick up fresh fish on my way in tomorrow - just promise to let me wash my own dishes, ey Lee?” “I can’t wait to see how you work on a busy day. Have a good one, boss.”

And it was just them. Iroh got up to lock the money and ledger in a safe and when he returned the pai sho board was in his hand.

“Are you hungry?” Zuko asked him. 

Iroh shook his head, went into the kitchen, and came back with two ready-made bowls. He set them both down on a table, a bright smile on his face. “I asked Fan to cook us up dinner before she left.”

“I could’ve-" Zuko started to say. 

Sit,” Iroh ordered. 

Zuko swallowed and then got up from the counter, going to the table with the pai sho board, and sat obediently down in the chair. His uncle got up once more, and Zuko unfolded the board and sorted the pieces by the time Iroh returned with a steaming pot of tea and two cups. 

“We’ll start after you eat and drink something,” Iroh told him. His uncle sat down with a huff, grunting and rotating his shoulder. 

“Do you want me to-"

“Eat? Yes.”

“Your shoulder, if it’s-"

Zuko,” Iroh said, raising his voice, “eat.”

Zuko rolled his eyes and did. He raised the bowl, intending to eat with better manners than he did until he took the first bite and his stomach grumbled with hunger. From there, half the food was down in a few short minutes and Iroh seemed satisfied enough to start on his own. For a long moment, Zuko just ate, watching carefully as his uncle did too, while the wooden shutters of the tea shop fluttered along to late afternoon breezes. Eventually, Iroh cleared his throat. 

“The other day,” Iroh began, picking up his tea cup it seemed just to hold in his hand as he talked, “you left early with your weapons. Something happened.”

Zuko nodded. 

Iroh raised his eyebrow at him. “What happened?”

Zuko opened his mouth to reply and his throat involuntarily clenched so tightly he felt as if he was choking. He clenched his hand on the edge of the table, slowly forced into a fist, as he tried to make himself relax.

“Zuko, please,” Iroh said softly, “if you let me in on what you’re doing I can help you.”

“There’s-“ Zuko shook his head, his longer hair tickling at his ears now, itching, uncomfortable, and forced himself to swallow. “It’s done. That’s… all.”

What is done, nephew?” His uncle urged, “You haven’t told me anything of your plans or what you’ve been doing. I want to be a part of-"

“I set the bison free,” Zuko interrupted. The words, loose and frantic, spilled from his mouth after that. “With the water tribe. At the lake. Brought them there. Freed the bison. Some prisoners. Left. So he’s back. With the Avatar. I gave him to the girl. The bison, not Sokka. I’m not- and the bison, I set it free. And that’s it. That’s the end of it.”

Iroh’s eyes widened. He set the cup of tea down on the pai sho board. “You set the Avatar’s bison free?” He asked, seeming shocked. 

Zuko nodded and swallowed hard, despite his mouth feeling dry.

“Oh. Well. Oh,” Iroh said to the table. He blinked at it, for several long moments as he appeared to be processing that information. His eyes, eventually, returned to Zuko’s that had been staring at him. “You brought the Avatar’s friend back to him, is that the end of it?”

“End of what?” Zuko demanded.

“Your plan,” Iroh asked softly, “will you leave the bison with the Avatar?”

“That’s where he wants to be,” Zuko said tensely.

Iroh looked confused. “Yes. But you aren’t going to go after him?”

“Of course not!” Zuko stood up suddenly, the bowl and cup on his side of the table shaking from the quick movement. “I’m done!”

“You are?” His uncle’s jaw dropped, eyes wide. “You are… finished with the Avatar? Entirely?”

“The Avatar can have him,” Zuko snarled, “I don’t need him.”

“Yes, of course,” Iroh said, “what use would you have for a giant bison in this apartment? The cost alone-"

“And- and I’m,” Zuko continued, anger building in his stomach, “sick of it! All of it! Azula can have the war and this city and the Avatar if she wants!”


“Let Ba Sing Se burn to the ground! I’m tired about caring about this wretched place or anything else,” Zuko’s chest heaved, “And I won’t! From this moment on I’m done with it!”

“With?” Iroh urged, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

Caring,” Zuko snarled.


Anything,” Zuko vowed, looking directly into his uncle’s eyes, “anything but you. Everything else is dead to me.”

Iroh dropped his head in his hands. 

Zuko frowned down at him in surprise. “Uncle?” His hands, pressed into fists on the edge of the table, relaxed ever so slightly. 

Iroh sighed deeply, running his hands through his hair and straightening up. Then he looked at Zuko and sighed a second time, closing his eyes. “Tell me again?” Iroh asked.

“I…” Zuko frowned, confused, but obliged. “I’ve decided not to care about anything. Except you, of course.”

Iroh’s elbow rested on the table and he pressed his forehead into his knuckles, staring at the pai sho board in front of him with a deep frown. “Right.”

“That’s…” what you want, Zuko frowned also. He didn’t… no it was fine. He sat back down in the chair, folding the robes under him as he did so, and picked up a chrysanthemum tile and setting it down, before sliding it across the wood into place to begin the game. 

Iroh met Zuko’s eyes again. Zuko smiled as best as he was able to manage. “I see,” Iroh said, and then shook his head almost violently, “no I don’t. Zuko you… what?”

“Do you want to play pai sho?” Zuko asked him. “I could fetch you a book if you’d rather-“

“Wait, wait,” Iroh said, raising his hand. He took a deep, heavy breath, letting it out as if he was counting the seconds of his exhale. “Let’s just… you decided to stop trying to capture the Avatar. Yes?”

Zuko nodded.

“And now you’ve… nephew,” Iroh’s hand reached across the table for Zuko’s, “there is plenty more to life besides that version of your destiny.”

“I know.”

“Okay.” Iroh was talking slowly, like he was choosing his words with utmost care. “Now would be a good time to experience that, don’t you think? You could find your own path in the world. Be the man you are inside. The one you want to be.”

“I…” tried that already, “No.”


“Yes,” Zuko told his uncle solemnly, “That’s done.”

Done? How long did you even try?!” Iroh demanded, “How many hours did you even live without your goal before you decided… what? To give up on the rest of the world forever?”

Zuko lifted his free hand to where Iroh was holding his, and held all three of them tightly together. “I’ve… decided,” Zuko said calmly, “to…” Wait. He was trying to explain his choice, though it was more of a feeling in his chest, a hardening formed of guilt around places where he’d once cared. Just not entirely. He cared about his uncle. It was more. “You’re the only…” person who stays, person who I care about who doesn't hate me, the only… “person who matters.”

Iroh brought his last hand into the group, leaning slightly over the table. “Is this about the girl?”

“Jin?” Zuko asked, before he realized . “N- no. What?”

Iroh’s shoulders relaxed ever so slightly. “She left the city, as you advised her to?”

“I…” Zuko’s mind, which he’d shoved to the back of his consciousness for most of the day, “I think so. Why?”

“Having your heart broken is no shame, Zuko,” Iroh said calmly, seeming somewhat pleased, “to have tried at all is a testament to strength.”

What. “What?”

“Nephew,” Iroh patted Zuko’s hand, absent-minded, clearly thinking, “there’s no need to give up on everything because of a failed romance, although…”


“If we need to leave the city, perhaps we could join her family,” Iroh considered, “where were they going?”

For a solid moment, Zuko considered accepting the premise and lying to his uncle, first it seemed to make the man happier, second it appeared Uncle would be happy to leave the city to follow Jin out and Zuko was more than ready to get out of this place and abandon Ba Sing Se forever, and third, it was so much better than the truth. But he couldn’t lie about her honor. “Uncle, Jin was a friend,” he said, “she has nothing to do with this.”

“She doesn’t?” Iroh asked, frowning.

Something in Zuko’s chest clenched so painfully it hurt. “Are you disappointed?” 

It was only a single moment before Iroh answered him, but it felt like forever. 

“Ah,” Iroh said softly, “I had hoped when you’d been leaving you might have experienced a bit more from life than fighting gangs and hunting the Avatar.”

Zuko felt his skin bristle with sudden sensitivity, his ears could hear the blood pounding in his neck, individual flecks of dust sank down along the dim beams of light from the windows, as everything in the world sank to a pinpoint moment. Like a spyglass focusing on the world already clear until everything was too much. “Is that what you’d like from me?”

Iroh met Zuko’s eyes and frowned, like he was confused but trying to put pieces together. “Zuko, if I could do anything to give you a normal childhood I would,” he said, slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. 

“I’m not a child, Uncle,” Zuko reminded him.

Iroh sighed.

That had not been the right thing to say, Zuko realized, annoyed at himself. “What if…” I pretended, “what do…” normal people do? “If you tell me what you want me to do, Uncle, I’ll do it.”

“I’d like you to find happiness and joy out of life and grow into a kind man,” Iroh answered immediately. 

Zuko blinked. “I meant… more like ‘fetch your slippers’,” he amended awkwardly.

Iroh chuckled. “I guessed as much,” he said with a slight smile on his face that didn’t reach his eyes, “I am… I am glad, Zuko, that you no longer wish to capture the Avatar.”

Zuko not only didn’t want to capture the Avatar, he wanted to be as far away from him and… the Avatar’s bodyguard as possible. He felt that so deep and painfully in his stomach that Iroh’s praise washed over him, useless.

“I suppose it might take time to adjust,” Iroh decided. He slipped his hands out of Zuko’s and stood up. “You have to find a new goal for yourself, a new destiny.” His uncle walked across the table to Zuko’s side and raised his palm to Zuko’s forehead, holding it there as if checking for a fever. “Are you feeling alright?”

“I’m fine,” Zuko told him, “and I already know what I’m going to do.”

Iroh turned the back of his hand to Zuko’s forehead, as if he was confused that Zuko wasn’t sick. “And what is that?”

Zuko brushed his uncle’s hand off of his face and met Iroh’s eyes seriously. “I’m going to follow you.”

Iroh looked at him, confused. 

“Like Roku told me to,” Zuko explained, “and if…” what was the best way to… “I’m not serving my father anymore, so- I can’t think of anyone better to follow than you.”

“Have- have you considered following yourself?” Iroh asked.

Zuko flinched. He turned his face to the pai sho board. 


“It’s your turn. Don’t you want to play?” Zuko asked his uncle. He was surprised at the cool, steady tone of his own voice, considering internally his stomach and chest were pulled so tight it was as if his ribs would crack any moment.

“It’s… a ship… or a flower, the stem, it has to hold itself up? Needs its own rudder to steer…”

“Uncle,” Zuko didn’t look, but reached behind him to find his uncle’s sleeve and tugged him toward the table. He took the chrysanthemum tile back from play. “You can go first. The white lotus tile, right?”

“It’s… I think we should talk more about this,” Iroh told him. He did move back though, slowly, back to his seat on the other side of the table. 

Iroh didn’t lift his hands to his tiles so Zuko leaned over, found the white lotus and placed it in the center the way his uncle often started his games. Then, especially considering that move was useless, Zuko was free to make his turn without worrying about a counterattack. He couldn’t remember any of those strategies his uncle would often explain to him, having never cared enough to learn, but in time Zuko was sure he’d get it. For now, he took a rose tile and planted it at the gate in front of him.

There wasn’t a single shred of Zuko that was confident he’d be able to even cope with talking more, so he only nodded and kept his eyes to the game board.

“What happened when you released the bison?” 

Straight to the point. He should- he wanted to start listening to his uncle but he just- “Your turn.” I can’t.

Iroh, reluctantly, pushed his next tile onto the board. 

He asked three more times that night. Zuko played the best game of pai sho he ever had in his life. Iroh didn’t seem happy.

The next breakfast was a lot easier to make with some experience under his belt. Although, after Iroh sat down, Zuko wondered if making the same thing every morning would get boring and vowed to do differently tomorrow. 

He kept up the same pace he did yesterday, even taking some orders to add more to his plate. Zuko learned the names of the other four workers twice, each time immediately forgetting as he kept his mind focused on maintaining spotless floors and tables.

Iroh gave him a meal and ordered him to eat, and Zuko did, sitting at the stool on the counter and pausing only to get up to clear tables, or sweep after the customers, or… Iroh ordered him to stay seated while he ate. That was difficult, his body was thrumming with the urge to keep himself busy, but the food was gone eventually and he went back to the kitchen to clean his plate, and found more dirty dishes there so he was hard at work cleaning when the chef said something that caught his ear.

“-‘nother one, think they’ve got a nest in the wall somewhere.”

“Ugh, really?” 

Zuko was wiping his hands with a rag and by their side in an instant. “What’s wrong?”

The chef’s assistant gave him that same toothy grin again. “Ant-bees.”

Zuko looked down at the counter, seeing the squashed and mangled body of a truly disgusting insect. “Are they bad for the shop?”

“Not great,” the chef said with a shrug, “but this is an old building. We just have to keep an eye on them.”

Zuko glared down at the dead insect, his mouth curling into a snarl and vowed, “I’ll eradicate them.”

“They’re not that- oh he’s gone.”

Zuko emerged, hours later, from the underside of the building covered in dust and dirt but triumphant. The insects had truly dug themselves in deep in the building, but he’d tracked them to the hive which now was nothing more than flakes of ash along his forearms. And he’d only been stung twice. 

The shop was closed. He’d missed the rest of the shift. But, at least he’d solved a problem, one far more tricky than the endless war of the dirt on the floor.

Iroh was sitting at the table, eating a bowl of food with another one waiting beside him, and raised his eyebrow at Zuko when he entered. “Did you have fun?”

Zuko frowned at him, confused. “I took care of the problem.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“I’m going to take a bath.” Zuko took a few steps toward the stairs to the apartment and then had a sinking feeling in his chest and looked behind him, realizing he was bringing in more dirt. “I’ll clean that after,” Zuko promised. 

When he came down, once again clean, the dirt Zuko had brought into the shop was already gone. Zuko stared dumbly at the floor. Clean floor. Swept and, it seemed, even mopped. His fists clenched tight at his sides as everything in Zuko’s body tensed. “I said,” his teeth clenched tight, “I was going to clean that.”

“Ah, well, I did it,” Iroh said pleasantly, “ready for dinner?”

“I said I’d do it!” Zuko shouted at him.

The loud noise, sudden in a tea shop that was so empty and still, didn’t seem to phase his uncle at all. Iroh meant Zuko’s eyes seriously, then gave him a smile. “It’s done. Come sit down.”

“I was going to clean that!” Zuko turned around sharply to meet his uncle, pointing angrily at the ground. “You could have waited!” 

“I didn’t,” Iroh told him.

Zuko groaned loudly and grabbed his hair in frustration, glaring at his uncle, at the clean ground, at everything . “All you had to do was sit and wait,” he seethed, “and I would have taken care of it!”

Iroh, stoically, turned in his chair enough to face Zuko and cross his arms. “And what can you do? Make the floor dirty again just to clean it yourself?”

“Of course not! But if you’d just-"

“It’s already done, Zuko,” Iroh said, “getting angry about something you cannot change only hurts yourself.”

Oh. There was a correct response to this. At least, Zuko had always answered Iroh’s ridiculous out-of-pocket lessons over the most basic things a similar way every time. He would roll his eyes, tell his uncle enough of the proverbs, and promptly dismiss whatever ‘wisdom’ was to be learned from a knotted sail, or a leaky ceiling, or the tenacious barnacles sticking to the ship - because any meaning to be gleaned from such mundane, stupid metaphors was hardly important and had never struck. This was different. Iroh clearly knew it too as his eyes widened as Zuko’s face changed. Zuko didn’t know what he looked like. Only that suddenly the wind was knocked out of him like he’d been stabbed in the chest and the back of his eyes burned. 

“Zuko?” Iroh asked, starting to stand up.

“I want it to hurt,” Zuko sneered at him.

Zuko turned sharp on his heel and back upstairs the way he came, because downstairs was dinner and Iroh and he couldn’t- couldn’t.

He took the stairs quickly, reaching the door to the apartment and slamming it shut. Then he stood over his bed, looked at it, and lay down. The scar facing upward, his head to the ground, so that all he could see with his eyes open was a sliver of the wood floor.

He’d avoided this place for two days. Hating it, the stillness in the air and the dark that forced him to think, to remember all the things that squirmed in his stomach and made his heart race and his body tense. Now though, he thought he’d been going at it all wrong. Why avoid it? Not if he could face this. Stay in the dark and think about everything he’d done wrong until maybe, somehow, he could wipe the pages of his life clean and rewrite himself into someone better. 

Zuko heard the door open and would have sighed if his body wasn’t too tense. “Go back downstairs, Uncle.”

The footsteps didn’t listen. They stopped at Zuko’s back and Zuko could feel Iroh’s robes brushing against his own as the old man sat down on the floor. “I’d rather be here,” Iroh said kindly.

Zuko shifted, uncomfortable, closed his eyes and didn’t protest further. It wasn’t as if there was anything he could do, besides perhaps scream enough abuse his uncle left him alone - which wasn’t an option. Anymore.

A hand came up and rested flat on his back. “If you just let me, Zuko, I will help you,” Iroh told him.

He already was . Some of the anger boiling in the center of Zuko’s forehead was already starting to fade. “I’m fine,” Zuko lied.

Iroh hummed in disagreement and patted his hand on Zuko’s back once before letting it rest again. “I’ve had a long life, you know, seen a good many things,” he said gently, “I doubt you’ll surprise me.”

Zuko wasn’t so sure.

“I know you’re struggling with something, I can feel the war raging inside you,” Iroh said, “you can shoulder it alone, Zuko, or I can help you.”

“I said I’m fine.”

Iroh shifted on the floor, until his side was leaning against Zuko’s; warm, heavy, obnoxiously there in a way Zuko couldn’t ignore. “I’ve seen many young soldiers deal with despair, only a few years older than you,” Iroh said, “and old men too, battle-hardened soldiers brought down by the things they’d seen, or the deeds they’d done. It can feel like there’s nothing left that matters, but that’s a trick our mind plays on us. There’s always a light, somewhere, waiting for us to open our eyes and see it.”

Zuko considered putting his hands over his ears and humming to avoid listening. He didn’t though, and Iroh kept talking.

“I had… for me, I wasn’t sure how I’d survive, couldn’t think of anything worse,” Iroh continued, his voice so quiet Zuko shivered, “I spent weeks out of the sun. Even months searching for answers in the spirit world. I had thought I was fulfilling my destiny when I set out to conquer this city, but when-"


Iroh’s hand reached out to brush Zuko’s hair. “My light was you, nephew,” he told Zuko lovingly, “there’s no reason to be worried, I’m not going to stop being there for you.”

“That’s not guaranteed,” Zuko informed his uncle coldly. Emotionless. He opened his eyes, looking blankly at the floor in front of him. “Nothing can ever be certain. You taught me that.”

“I know my own mind, nephew.”

“You’re lucky then,” Zuko said.

“Perhaps you’ll be lucky too,” Iroh offered, “I’d say the odds are in your favor here.”

“I used all my luck a long time ago.”

“My nephew, I don’t think luck-"

Zuko found the blanket and pulled it up higher, closing his eyes again, and did his best to let Iroh’s next words wash over him, unheard.

Four days went by and Zuko was perfect. Mostly. Refraining to answer Iroh’s questions was simply part of the sacrifice required to keep everything going smoothly; the only part that mattered was ensuring Iroh’s life was as comfortable and easy as possible. 

He’d figured out two breakfast recipes at this point, steadily getting better and finally managing to cook rice that looked more like the real thing and less like a paste. After conversing with Bohin, who was unhelpful, he asked Fan, the older woman in the shop with the three hair buns, how to clean a yard properly and, after she laughed at him for using the word ‘clean’, she returned the next day with a book on the basics of gardening. The difference between a weed or another plant was difficult for Zuko to figure out, but he kept trying. Zuko was especially proud of one trick he’d found, with a rudimentary bending motion he was able to make an object in his hand hot without burning it, and from then on Iroh woke in the morning and put toasty warm slippers onto his feet, had heated towels like those used at a spa, and it was also extremely useful when Zuko spent an evening cleaning grout from underneath the bath. He wasn’t sure if there was any other possible way to be more helpful, after all he was certainly picking up plenty of new skills he hadn’t had only two months back. The day he patched up the roof with a new board, and the result came out almost clean, the nails slightly bent but it was sturdy enough, Zuko was actually somewhat proud of himself. He would never admit it, but the mindless rote work was somewhat meditative. His mood did improve throughout the day, rising and fading along with the sun until it was time to lie down again in darkness.

It was noon, the shop was pleasantly bustling, and Zuko brought a heavy bag of garbage out to the back of the tea shop when he turned one corner and there was Jet. 

Zuko, calmly, nodded at him and placed the garbage in its crate before turning around to see what he wanted. 

Jet seemed… twitchy. His hair was wild around his head, worse than just its general unkempt image, and he had heavy dark circles under his eyes. His hands were clenched onto the swords he held by his waist but he was standing still, chin held high, in the center of the walkway at the side of the shop, clearly waiting for Zuko to approach. 

A quick glance to his left told Zuko that the shutters on this side of the shop were closed, likely to avoid glare from the sun, so he approached. Taking several steps closer to Jet, all the time painfully aware the tea shop uniform restricted his movement and he didn’t have a single weapon on his person.

“Surprised to see me?” Jet asked him. His fingers adjusted their grip.

“No,” Zuko answered honestly, “you want me dead and you knew where to find me.”

Jet’s eyes widened for a moment and then narrowed intensely into a look of loathing. “I’m so… so fucking sick of you,” he snarled, “I know what you are, I know who you are, and every fucking time I try to tell someone-" his words caught in his throat like a sob.

Zuko stared at Jet in shock.

“You’re-" Jet’s swords lowered, like he didn’t even know he was doing it, as his face contorted with pain, “you’re a firebender, you’re a monster, you’re the reason everything in the world is like this - your family, your father, you’re responsible!

Zuko saw a tear fall down Jet’s cheek and blinked at him, speechless, barely able to even understand what he was seeing.

“My family is dead because of yours,” Jet’s shoulders were shaking, “and my friends' families, and my entire village is ashes and no one is listening, it’s like no one cares. Smellerbee and Longshot and Pipsqueak and… and even Duke, they won’t help me- the Dai Li imprisoned me, the others laughed-"


“The Avatar won’t even see me, no one cares,” Jet lowered his head, shadows deep on his face, “no one fucking cares… and here you are-" he raised a sword toward the teashop, “safe, happy, living it up with food and shelter and your fucking family right in front of my goddamn face. What’s so special about you? Huh? Answer me that! Why do you matter and… why don’t I?”

The breeze that passed between them in the silence sent a shiver between them both. 

“J-“ Zuko was almost grateful when Jet interrupted him, he had no idea what he could possibly say.

“I need to fight you,” Jet raised his eyes, slightly red, to meet Zuko’s with determination. “I don’t care where. I don’t care the rules. I don’t care. Fight me. One on one. The winner is whoever is left standing and if that isn’t me…” his voice trailed off, but he didn’t need to finish. Zuko knew what he meant.

Jet wanted a duel. A fight, regardless of the consequences, death on the table; a final, fair match between the two of them to put the matter, or their lives, to rest once and for all. It was an Agni Kai in all but name. “Yes,” Zuko answered. 

Jet took a step backward. 

“I accept the challenge,” Zuko told him. “Tomorrow evening.”

Jet raised his swords slightly and shifted his weight on his feet. “Where?”

Zuko picked the first place that came to mind. “Do you remember how to get to the chamber where you and Paong were nearly killed?”

“Yes,” Jet said stoically. “How do I know you’ll be there?”

“I swear,” Zuko’s voice faltered before he finished the words. He couldn’t swear on his honor. Not when he had none to wager. 


“I swear on my mother’s grave,” Zuko vowed, meeting Jet’s eyes coldly.

Jet’s gaze flashed with renewed anger. “And I’ll swear on mine.”

Zuko brought his hands together in front of his chest, the sign of the flames, and leaned forward in a careful and shallow bow.

Jet sneered at him and slammed his swords back onto his belt. For a split moment he looked at Zuko, something unknown flashing across his gaze, before he turned and marched away, pushing aside two guests just arriving at the shop with loud cursing under his breath as he left. 

Zuko was still for a moment, let the wind toss about the hair on his head, before he made his way back inside.

Chapter Text

Two-headed ratviper, Zuko realized. Why?

He had sat up, sweat on his face, and was holding his left forearm tightly with his hand, as if to keep a non-existent wound steady as the aftermath of his dream still hung in the air. Zuko closed his eyes. He breathed. And the images began fading away, swallowed up by darkness and typical memory loss. Brushing his thumb against the smooth skin where he’d been bitten in the dream, Zuko blinked out at the room around him, a world devoid of color except where slim gray light trailed from between cracks in the window shutters. The room was dark, but not still, Iroh’s snoring could have wakened the dead and the old man turned, fitfully in his sleep, grunting along to whatever story was playing out in his head. 

Zuko had a fond smile on his face, he hadn’t noticed it was there until it appeared, as his uncle scratched his wide stomach in his sleep and long gray hairs floated around his face, buffeted by his loud and heavy breathing. If Zuko was anything like his uncle, he should make note of the dream. Take it as an omen.

He didn’t. Zuko doubted any dream held anymore significance than to repeat events that already happened with just enough embellishments to bother the dreamer. Still. It was going to be a long while before he slept again, if at all.

The blanket pooled in his lap as he sat up all the way, resting his arm on his knee and the other on the elbow. He was going to fight Jet today; the ring of finality in his head only had Zuko more determined to see it through. Zuko was as certain as anything in this decision, and as resolute as he was in the fight, he was also determined not to lose. Jet would kill him if he did.

So, for whatever remained of his dignity, and to protect his uncle, Zuko was going to fight Jet. For that same reason, Iroh couldn’t know about it.

If he wasn’t going to sleep he might as well prepare himself. 

He was dressed, swords strapped to his back, knife tied to his ankle, the scarred Blue Spirit mask hanging on his neck, as he felt the sun beginning to rise and left the kitchen, the breakfast he’d made for Iroh waiting on the counter behind him. 

It was hours before the fight, but Zuko had learned the hard way never to be underprepared for a duel.

The footsteps were quiet, but in a still chamber where the only noise was the repetitive drips of distant water, Zuko heard them like a gong echoing through his head. He adjusted his position on the floor, restless, shifting uncomfortably in his meditation stance, legs crossed, dual dao swords balanced at his knees. 

He forced himself to take a deep breath and open his eyes, looking in the direction the noise was coming from. 

And the water dripped. Onward. Ongoing. Unfeeling. Like the cold, curious eyes of noble men and women leaning forward to catch a better glimpse of a spectacle. 

Footsteps hesitated as Jet’s swords glinted in the distant dark. The flickering light shimmering off of tempered steel. Jet slowly came into view now, emerging from blackness into a room lit by blinking red and yellows, still far away but close enough that Zuko could read the shock on Jet’s face as he saw the fire. 

Zuko had lit the moat around the platform the moment he’d heard Jet coming, and he sat in the center of the chamber, all other items removed, with the glittering chains far above his head and the rope to the only other exit removed. Ready. Everything in this room answering Jet’s challenge, telling him Zuko was ready, that Zuko wasn’t going down easily. No way out.

Jet’s face hardened with every step as he walked closer toward the heat. His scowl deepened by the dancing shadows. He stood at the edge, for barely a moment, showing no sign of weakness before he jumped. Both of his feet landed inside the makeshift tournament ring and Jet drew his swords. 

With a nod, Zuko grabbed the hilts of his swords and stood onto his own two feet. He raised one hand to the top of his head, connecting with wood, and lowered the scarred Blue Spirit mask onto his face. He stepped backward. 

Jet answered that with a step forward. “You really thought this out,” he said sourly, flipping one of the hooked swords along his side, “just couldn’t wait to get your ash-cursed hands on me, huh?”

His left foot slid slightly backward, balancing his stance as Zuko prepared for Jet to rush him. “Duel’s require ceremony,” he answered, “or there’s no honor in it.”

“I’m sure you’ll appreciate the ceremony when you’re blood’s spilling over the floor!” Jet yelled, let out a wordless cry of fury, and rushed forward. 

Zuko blocked the sword with his own, quickly pivoting to the side as he did, saving his life as Jet spun his body around, the other weapon slashing where his face had once been. The risky movement staggered Jet slightly. Zuko took advantage, dropping his other sword purposefully into the crooked edge and pulling hard forward. Stumbling inward, Jet raised the right sword to meet Zuko’s, but failed to block an elbow strike to his shoulder. 

The fire flickering around them seemed to spark something desperate in Jet’s eyes, something crazed. 

Jet pushed into Zuko hard, forcing them away from each other so he could regroup. Zuko didn’t give him the chance. He stepped in, swung both swords around his head for momentum and down toward Jet’s chest. The opponent ducked, out of the way, responding with a slashing attack of his own that Zuko parried, twisting his body around to jab toward Jet’s back, who moved quickly enough to counter it himself. They circled each other, metal glistening between them and crashing with a noise that echoed loudly through the empty chamber. A foot twists right to balance the body for an upcoming hit. One shoulder quickly changes direction to bring a weapon to the center of the chest like a shield. And again. 

Jet’s game was tricks. Cheap shots, round attacks, head facing to the left as he slashed with his right hand. Unpredictable but not indefensible. Zuko couldn’t follow his movements but he could counter, rely on the stances and katas he’d burned into his muscle memory from training to block, then attack, cover himself and respond in kind. He understood swords, how a twinge in the forearm could change a direction, how the barest flick turned a pass back to a pivot, how every single strike had the potential to kill if one wasn’t careful. 

The wild-eyed opponent took a step back, arms raising, and Zuko ducked low to avoid a bash from the top, thrusting the sword upward where, though Jet quickly moved position, it still connected, slicing a long shallow cut along Jet’s left side. 

Jet gasped but the swords he’d raised still flew downward with force. Zuko raised a knuckle on his hand and slammed it into Jet’s ankle, hitting, he hoped, somewhere near a pressure post and then rolled his body into it. The jolt of pain and weight of Zuko centered directly onto his foot threw Jet to the ground and he landed hard, something cracking, but as if the pain hadn’t even registered Jet kicked out with his knee into Zuko’s stomach, pushed him to the side, and the true edge of his swords rushed toward Zuko’s throat. Zuko crossed his swords just in time and took the hit, grunting, while Jet’s lip curled with loathing and frustration. 

Jet forced the weight of his chest down onto the swords, his body shaking as Zuko held up the block. “Firebend,” Jet snarled at him. 

Zuko lifted his wrists to slightly change the angle, shedding Jet’s swords from his own as he used Jet’s own thigh to push his body outward, narrowly escaping a hit when the hooked weapons cracked down onto the stone with a near deafening ring. Panting, Zuko took several long steps away, giving himself time to recover and Jet to lift himself back up from the ground. 

Jet was breathing heavily too, making no effort to hide it. His eyes flashed, the shifting firelight around them exposing snarled teeth as he caught his breath. He opened his mouth to speak, just as Zuko began to carefully step to the side, and while his eyes followed Zuko he made no effort to mimic the movement. “What are you waiting for?” Jet demanded, “I’m here to fight a firebender.”

Zuko’s voice was calm. “I’ll firebend when I need to.”

Jet’s eyes widened. He screamed, the uncanny volume filled with righteous fury as he raced toward Zuko again.

“‘And as the masked villain taunted the brave warrior, the hero raised his shield and shouted with all the voices of his ancestors! Resolute and unafraid!’”

“Ha! No one can stop the Dragon Emperor!”

“Hush, Zuko, don’t you want to hear the rest?

Zuko’s instincts saved him as his mind faltered. He blocked Jet’s attack and skidded backward, losing ground, while Jet seamlessly turned and swung to his right with full force. 

Zuko ducked, low to the ground, the attack flying uselessly above his head, and punched outward with the hilt of his sword as he flung himself back to his feet, the hard combination of blunt object and his fist plunging hard into Jet’s stomach. Jet doubled over, unable to stop himself, and Zuko raised his leg to kick him hard in the shoulder. It connected. Jet cocked his head to the side and slammed his fists into Zuko’s leg, taking the blow but using it also to gain an advantage. 

“‘Dark Spirit, foul creature, perversion of the natural order of life itself, take your powers and bend them onto me, you shall see I am not broken!’”

He giggled, sheets pulled up to his nose. “Your voice is silly.”

“Oh? Is it? What if I ‘taaaalk like thiisss’?”

“Stop it! I wanna know what happens!”

“So impatient. Well, ‘as the Dark Water Spirit hears those words he trembles in fright’-“

Jet’s weapon passed in front of Zuko’s face, slicing into the barest tip of the mask as Zuko threw his body backward with all his strength. The grip on his leg loosened as Jet stumbled forward and regained his balance and Zuko’s hands landed on the ground, just long enough to push upward and over, turning his body in the air once until his feet connected back to solid stone. 

The hooked swords were right there again, slashing outward with a menace as Jet screamed a wordless warrior cry of rage. Zuko blocked three, and on the forth twisted his sword along to slam into the guard of Jet’s weapons as the extended edges nicked his opponents wrist, drawing the slightest bit of blood. Jet’s other sword crashed into them both, knocking their weapons apart, before he went for an empty fade, appearing to draw back as his weapon swung downward along Zuko’s left side toward his feet. Zuko jumped in time to avoid a cut, but the upper edge of the hooked sword caught the sole of his boot. Jet yanked and Zuko’s ankle went with it, folding forward and dropping Zuko to the stone harshly onto his elbow. Zuko yelled. Flung his arm outward with fury to force Jet back, but he advanced instead, knocking one of his swords away while the other held Zuko’s foot captive by the shoe. 

“-‘for the full might of the Dragon Emperor stands before him, hero of old, strengthened by the nobility of his cause as he fights for justice, he fights for love!’ He giggled again, and she was so much bigger than him, her arms wrapped around his middle, holding him tight in her lap, and she laughed when he giggled and rubbed her nose against the back of his ear. 

Zuko blocked with one hand as his free foot slammed into Jet’s sword holding him tight, giving him enough leverage to slip his foot out of the shoe and also slash his arm across Jet’s face. The forearm connected. Harsh. Directly above the ear and Jet shouted in pain. Jet’s hand, holding the hooked sword, lashed out on reflex and Zuko could only duck his head enough that the fist connected to his mouth, avoiding the blade but still hitting him hard enough that he could taste blood. 

Zuko had a realization. Jet relied on the hooks of the swords to pull his opponents off balance. He could use that. 

Kicking upward with all his strength, he swung his body further down and brought the swords with him. Jet had to jump back to a standing position to avoid having his arms sliced open. Still above him, Jet crossed both his swords as he rushed them toward Zuko’s chest; with quick movements Zuko slid his weapons into the crooks of Jet’s swords, connecting them, and yanked. Jet followed, Zuko lifted his now shoe-less foot. It connected with Jet’s stomach. Zuko kicked and Jet went flying over him. 

Jet hit the ground hard on one of his shoulders, the momentum carrying him a few more feet in that direction. He groaned as his body slid. Then his feet were over the edge. 

Jet’s hands grabbed the stone. His eyes widened with panic. The swords were gone from his hands and his fingers grasped violently for purchase on the rock.

Zuko’s heart skipped a beat but as the lower half of Jet’s body slipped over the side of the platform toward the fire, somehow Jet had found the strength within himself to stop. He yelled, not quite a scream but close, and propelled himself forward on his forearms, one over the other until his body was back on the cool stone, the fire below him no longer a threat. 

Zuko stood back, the hooked swords still wrapped around his own dao, and watched as Jet with firm resolve brought himself back onto the floor. Then, shaking and breathing heavily, Jet raised himself up from his knees. Defiance written across his face. 

Jet curled his weaponless hands into fists and waited for Zuko’s move.

“You know… I- I think I still have some old masks somewhere.”

“I want to see!”

“Alright. Just don’t tell your father.”

Zuko lifted his weapons, letting Jet’s fall to the guards of his swords, and shifted one to the other to take Jet’s swords in hand. He could throw them into the fire. Or use them, take Jet’s own weapons and have them work against him. 

He held them up while Jet watched him carefully.

“It’s scary! It has teeth!” His very small hands traced the Dark Water Spirit’s face, brushing along the uniform white eyebrow and the blue color of the wood.

“It’s meant to be scary, darling, it’s a mask for a villain.”

Zuko let Jet’s swords go. They fell to the floor by his feet, loudly clattering against stone. With his bare foot, he kicked the swords by the handle across the ground and they stopped right in front of Jet. 

Zuko took several steps backward to the center of the floor. Putting space between them. Letting Jet recover.

Raising an eyebrow, eyes firmly trained onto Zuko, Jet lowered himself carefully to the ground to pick up his swords again. He raised himself back up, swinging the weapons once at his sides. “Interesting move, your majesty,” Jet said, catching his breath. He crossed his left foot over his right, slowly, the fire directly at his back. 

“Highness,” Zuko told him. 

Jet narrowed his eyes. 

“‘Majesty’ is… never mind.” 

“Oh, no, tell me, your highness,” Jet scorned, “what is the proper way to address you? How low should I bow? How many more lives do you want as tribute!” His hooked sword was behind his back and then flew outward in front of him, flashing red and yellow. Zuko realized too late what Jet had done, using the sword to reach to the moat below and gather flaming gravel to fling toward him. 

Zuko stumbled back, the pieces flying toward him and raised his arm. He unleashed a blast of flame, knocking the gravel back from him. It was only a short blast, a second of firebending as a shield in front of his face. 

The flame was split apart by Jet’s enraged face as he rushed Zuko. With renewed energy, a full second wind, Jet was a fighter possessed. His attacks were wild, ceaseless, each one with a force behind it that send jolts of pain into Zuko’s wrists as he blocked the blows. Jet was forcing him to move, Zuko unable to get any headway against the attack as the jarring speed and force was hard enough just to counter. He was manipulated into stepping to the side. 

His bare foot pressed down on a flaming scattering of rocks and Zuko cursed in pain. He stumbled backward, supported only by the heel, scrambling to get distance between them but Jet relented no ground. 

He had to put the burned foot back on the stone, needing any leverage he could get. Zuko was defending himself but clearly losing before the onslaught, barely able to move his swords from a block on his left as Jet swung his blades to the other side to keep from being cut in half.  

“I have the other masks somewhere,” she said, looking back toward the closet as she absentmindedly rubbed the discolored skin on her wrist.

Zuko clutched the mask to his stomach and leaned back into her, pushing her arm aside so he could curl up in her lap again. “You haven’t finished the story,” he reminded, pouting.

On the next pass around his face, as his heart was pounding faster and faster, Zuko caught the string of the mask with the edge of his own sword. It dropped from his face, he jolted slightly to the side so it would fall to his right.

“Oh? What do you think happens?”

“The Dragon Emperor slays the Water Spirit!”

“Is that so?”

The mask fell at exactly the right place, the next swinging attack Jet made hit it. The hooked swords slammed into Zuko’s side, the mask becoming a shield to prevent Zuko from being cut but the force of the impact still had him gasping in pain. The moment of reprieve, however, the shock and hesitation from Jet, was all he needed. 

Zuko’s bare foot slid back, stinging in agony all the while, lifting onto his toes, and he punched his right hand out hard, unleashing a ball of fire directly into Jet’s chest.

All the bad guys are supposed to die in the end, right?”

“Hm,” she hummed thoughtfully behind his ear, catching some of his long dark hair in her fingers and twirling it around her hand. 

“I think so,” he said stubbornly, pushing back into her chest with a huff, “if the Dragon Emperor and Empress were in love, and the Dark Water Spirit made them go apart, he’s a bad, bad guy. He’s gunna get killed, right mom?”

The dark locks of his hair gently brushed along the blue blemishes slowly blossoming on her wrist, the shape of fingerprints, and she answered, her voice distant like her mind was far away, “If only.”

A door slammed farther off in the wing. His mother startled in surprise. Zuko raised his head upward, wide-eyed and nervous, but she turned her head downward to meet his and smiled, her hair falling from her shoulders and over Zuko like a curtain. “There’s nothing to be scared of, sweetheart,” she told him, holding him tighter in her arms.

“He’s mad.”

“Oh, Zuko,” she whispered, her eyes twinkling. She lowered her head just enough to place a kiss on his forehead. “Your father is never going to hurt you. You think I’d allow it?”

Zuko grinned and tucked himself deeper into her lap, legs curled underneath himself, finding the blanket to pull back up under his chin, as she continued, picking up the well-worn script, “Now, where were we in the story?”

The mask clattered to the ground beside Zuko. The impact from the stone and cracks in the wood were all that it could take; as it fell to the ground it broke into two halves. 

Zuko exhaled. 

Jet was simmering, quaking shoulders and groans as he thrust one hand out to the side, slamming his sword into the ground. He shook as he raised himself up, using the weapon to support himself. The front of his clothes was dark now, burned, a few spare flakes of ashes falling to his feet alongside heavy droplets of sweat from his forehead. 

As he stood his body swayed, off balance, and he had to correct his footing quickly to even stay standing on his feet. Jet only had one sword left in his hands, but he held it in front of himself, raising his eyes to meet Zuko with an expression that clearly said he wasn’t done yet.

“You’re right,” Zuko said.

Jet narrowed his eyes and adjusted his pose. His hands both gripped the hilt of his hooked sword tight in front of him. Light flickered along the stone walls, the only thing in the chamber that was moving as the two of them looked at each other. 

Zuko inhaled through his nose, slowly. “You’re-“

“I don’t need you to tell me I’m right!” Jet screamed, his voice cracking. He slammed the sword downward, sending a loud clanging noise into the air. “I know I am!”

“The Fire Nation…”

“Murders! They’re going to burn the world if that means they can rule over the ashes!”

Zuko winced. “I know.”

Jet took a step backward, raising his sword to waist level as he did. “Well I…” he swallowed, narrowing his eyes again with renewed anger, “I’m not going to stand back and let them. Let you.”

“You shouldn’t,” Zuko told him softly.

Jet laughed

Zuko turned his eyes to the steadily dying flames around them, the sound of Jet’s bitter amusement ringing in his ears with the echoes of the sword, the beating pulse of pain in his burned foot, the weight in his stomach that just kept sinking lower, and lower. Jet’s laughter left him as suddenly as he came, and he raised himself up to his full height, casting aside the shaking in his limbs to stand tall, ready to fight, still as determined as ever despite everything the world had thrown at him. The Dragon Emperor finding a third wind to battle the Dark Water Spirit. The hero reaching inside himself for righteous strength, for his honor, to stand tall and defeat the villain. To defeat Zuko.

Empty air temples with skeletons huddled together in dark corners. A terrified scream of a little girl on Kyoshi Island. Finding the necklace, knowing it was precious, knowing it was useful. Countless warships, hurling fire and metal toward a city that had been given no chance to evacuate the young, the old, the sick, the weak. The extra tug onto an unconscious Avatar’s bindings, so Zuko knew it hurt . The reigns of a stolen ostrich horse in his hands, knowing it was wrong, seeing the shame in Iroh’s eyes, and doing it anyway. Leaving Iroh, again and again, knowing would hurt him and enjoying that, because thinking someone out there missed him was a comforting thought when he was all alone in the dark. The Earth Kingdom town ravaged by war, wanting to help, but wanting the credit once he had. Impersonating the dead. Lying just to get close, using Sokka, his hand pressed down hard over Sokka’s eyes to keep him from seeing, from knowing, as if by doing so Zuko could hide from it all. Everything. Years. A childhood spent celebrating Fire Nation victories and only now seeing what that truly looked like as he wandered the land beside hopeless people clinging to the only spark of light they’d had for generations, the Avatar, and doing everything Zuko could to snuff that out. 

“How are you going to help defeat the Fire Nation if you die here?” Zuko asked him.

Jet’s teeth snapped. “By killing you.”

“I’m not…” Zuko started to say, and then he winced. The words catching in his throat, dizzying.

Jet took a step to his left, toward the other of his hooked swords still lying on the ground, careful and cautious as he watched Zuko stay still, allowing him to retrieve it. “I’ll have you dead on the ground,” he spat bitterly, “no matter the cost. Even if I die too.”

The next words Zuko spoke didn’t feel like his own, “Is that what you would have wanted for them? If you had died but they lived?”

Jet, kneeling down to pick up the weapon, froze. 

“Would you want your family to lose their lives avenging you? Would you want them to suffer?”

Shut up!” Jet grabbed the sword and ran toward Zuko again. 

Zuko blocked the attack, crossing his own weapons to meet Jet’s, and held his considerable strength back with a wince. “Would you…”

“Shut up!” Jet surged forward, pushing harder, and Zuko had to take a step back. As his weight shifted to his burned foot he grimaced, feeling his stance growing steadily unbalanced. 

“Do you think they’re happy?” Zuko asked, his teeth clenched and voice strained with effort. “Seeing you like this? Seeing you willing to die?”

Jet’s hateful expression trembled. “How am I supposed to know?!” He snapped, “I barely got to know them!”

Zuko’s feet scraped back against the stone floor as the force of Jet’s push moved him backward. His bare foot screamed in pain but he held his ground. “I’m sorry.”

Jet screamed. He surged forward once to move their weapons away and then swung wildly toward Zuko’s head. 

Zuko raised the sword and threw his arm upward to block it, fire spitting from his fingertips as he did. The force sent Jet’s arm flying back but he recovered to swing the other, Zuko countered it the same way, while the freed fist punched out to Jet’s gut. Jet gasped. Zuko shifted his weight to his uninjured foot. In the split second it took for Jet to recover, Zuko twisted his body, raising his right leg as he went and slammed his heel into Jet’s head with as much force as he could. 

Jet crumbled to the ground. 

Zuko stood over him, breathing hard, and waited. Jet didn’t so much as twitch. 

He’d fallen half onto his face, one arm tucked under his chest and the other splayed outward, hair spilling over his head wilder than ever, covered in dirt, ash and sweat, and he was completely still. Not a single hair fluttered to indicate movement. 

“Jet?” Zuko asked. And, a moment later, as panic struck him like a lightning bolt to the chest, “Jet!” 

He dropped to his knees, swords clattering to the ground as he grabbed handfuls of Jet’s shirt and pushed, rolling him onto his back. Jet’s arms fell listlessly to his sides, his face didn’t change, but Zuko heard a groan from deep in Jet’s throat that sent a shiver of relief down his back. “Jet,” Zuko repeated, raising a hand to the side of Jet’s head, touching it only to realize his fingers left a streak of blood. Raising his hands in front of his face, Zuko’s eyes widened as he realized. 

A shaking hand dropped to his ankle, loosening the dagger there, and Zuko raised it to Jet’s shirt to start cutting. There was a shout behind him. 

Zuko turned to the entrance of the chamber and stared. The two figures were there, behind the flames, barely tall enough to be visible beneath the fire that flickered around their bodies, obscuring them from view for all but a few split seconds, long enough for Zuko to see the horrified looks on two frightened children’s faces. Smellerbee. The Duke. 

He shot his hand outward immediately, calling to the flames beside him that were bitter and angry, brought to life on chemicals and gasoline, unwilling to bend, but Zuko saw the tear roll down the Duke’s cheek, the way he didn’t even seem to notice, and gritted his teeth. He forced the fire to his control, violent and angry, and brought his tense palm down to the ground and the flames came down with it. 

The light sputtered, fire flickering, the chamber suddenly so much darker, as Smellerbee and the Duke stared at him with surprise. 

Zuko’s mouth was dry, his throat tight, he didn’t know what to say. How to confront the looks on their faces. The way their hands tightened on weapons, a stick almost too big for the Duke to hold and the small, twisted knife Smellerbee was clutching at her chest. The Duke took a small, hesitant step forward toward the gap between them and Smellerbee gasped and quickly grabbed his shoulders, holding him back. The boy opened his mouth to say something, and then didn’t.

Underneath Zuko’s hand, the one holding the knife, Jet groaned. 

Something changed. Zuko didn’t know what. “It’s going to be fine,” Zuko said loudly to the other two, turning his outstretched hand to show his palm in a gesture of peace, “Jet will be fine. I won’t hurt you.”

The Duke kicked Smellerbee’s hands off of him and raced forward while she yelled out in surprise. He jumped, both feet forward, over the moat and landed with a huff. Small legs taking giant leaps, his oversized helmet bobbing on his head which each step, the Duke ran to Jet’s side, right beside Zuko, and slid on his legs to a halt. 

Zuko turned his attention back to Jet, finally using the knife to split the shirt open and see the damage. The long cut he’d made on Jet’s side, from the start of the fight, was bleeding steadily. It hadn’t been more than superficial at first, but somewhere along, perhaps the fireball to the chest, there had been more damage. 

“You hit his head,” the Duke said quietly, his voice shaking. 

Zuko’s gaze snapped up to meet his. 

The Duke reached out, grabbing fistfuls of Jet’s hair. “Then he fell and hit his head on the floor. He didn’t lift his hands up to block it he-“

“Look at him,” Smellerbee said. She, much more cautious than the Duke, was walking extremely slowly toward them both, still holding the knife out in front of her. “His big stupid hair probably cushioned his head.”

The Duke seemed relieved. 

“He’ll be alright,” Zuko promised them. He dropped his hands to the wound on the side, examining it first, before he realized quickly what he needed to do. “It’s a concussion, maybe a bad one.”

“You’re gunna help ‘im?” Smellerbee asked, all suspicion gone from her face, replaced with hope. 

“Yes,” Zuko assured her. “It’s going to be fine. I promise. It’s going to be fine.”

The Duke lifted Jet’s head, to which Jet gave another pained groan, and slid his legs underneath to rest Jet’s head on his lap. Smellerbee, clearly nervous, joined him, one hand on the Duke’s shoulder and the other worriedly tapping onto the hilt of the knife in her hand. 

Another groan, and Jet’s eyelids fluttered like he was trying to open his eyes. 

“I’m going to stop the bleeding,” Zuko said, using the same tone of voice as when he used to command his soldiers, “to do so, I’m going to have to firebend.”

“We know,” Smellerbee said quietly.

Zuko nodded to the both of them who nodded back at him, serious looks on their faces. He raised his right hand, setting the forefinger and middle ablaze by the nails, and the two young Freedom Fighters didn’t even flinch. When he brought the flame to Jet’s chest, Jet woke up. 

Smellerbee threw herself onto Jet, holding him down with the full weight of her body, while the Duke clung to his hair to keep his head still. Jet howled, thrashed about, as Zuko burned a steady line across the wound, grimacing all the while at the scent of burned flesh that was all too familiar. 

The Duke yawned as he passed the wet, torn fabric back to Zuko who placed it onto a seething Jet’s forehead. Smellerbee was still out, fetching Longshot and Pipsqueak, but she hadn’t been gone long. 

Jet was still too weak to protest, only opening his mouth to warn them when he was about to throw up or ask for water, but the nausea seemed to have calmed down a long time ago. The Duke, after his third time getting up and coming back to try to put Jet’s head in his lap, had finally listened to Zuko’s warning not to move him and had settled for curling his body around Jet’s shoulder. The Duke did it again, now, though this time his head dropped down too, his body visibly relaxing as he rested one hand by Jet’s ear and the other on Jet’s arm, the thumb suspiciously close to the Duke’s mouth. 

Jet’s eyes stared open, just slivers of anger and confusion glaring out as Zuko kept watch over him. Each time he opened his mouth to talk, his expression would tighten with pain and he’d stop. He was still trying though, clearly forcing himself to recover quickly so he could say his piece. 

Zuko knelt beside him, watching carefully, determined not to let Jet fall into unconsciousness again; he saw the flicker of Jet’s eyes as they glanced at the Duke, before returning back to Zuko.

“They love you,” Zuko said quietly. Jet closed his eyes. “They need you too.”

A soft expression flickered over Jet’s pained face.

Zuko looked away from Jet and the Duke, back toward the exit where Smellerbee had left only a handful of minutes ago. “I think they’d do anything for you,” he continued, looking into the dark, “except watch you hurt yourself.”

I know,” Jet whispered, the words so light they were nearly indecipherable. 

“Don’t throw it all away.”

Jet took a deep, shaking breath.

“You should keep fighting,” Zuko said solemnly, “you should avenge what you lost.” Like the hero, like the warrior. “Just don’t lose what you’ve made in the process.”

He turned his head back, to meet Jet’s gaze again, and realized with a start that Jet was listening to him. Harshness in Jet’s expression had faded, his mouth trembling, eyes looking red and wet, like tears could fall any moment. Zuko could only hope he was saying anything worth paying attention to. 

“It’s…” He swallowed, hard, suddenly nervous as he continued, “My uncle said being upset about something you can’t control, and holding onto it, it just hurts yourself. Like this. And now… and…”

The Duke snored, suddenly, startling them both. 

“He looks up to you, they all do, your Freedom Fighters,” Zuko said quietly, “anywhere you go they’re likely to follow. And anything you do, well... My cousin believed that any commander has to be willing to do everything he orders his soldiers to. I think, maybe, it goes both ways. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want them to do, too.”

“The Freedom... Fighters,” Jet breathed, speaking the words along with slow exhales of air, “are a family.”

“Because of you, right?” Zuko asked him. “I think you’re a good leader too, or they wouldn’t be loyal to you. They wouldn’t care about you this much. You just… you really should stop acting like me.”

Jet’s chest shuddered like he was trying to laugh but the movement hurt. 

He was going to be alright, Zuko could tell. And maybe even better than before, if it was possible for someone to change that much. “There’s no need bother with me anymore, I’m already done,” Zuko said, feeling the words like swallowed metal sinking deep into his stomach as he looked away again, toward the far walls of the chamber where tiny drops of water leaking from pipes slid down into a thin layer of ash. “I am… loyal to the Fire Nation,” he whispered, “to my home, the people, the place I grew up, where I played with my sister, where - I am. But I think I’ve been away too long.”

One of Zuko’s hands clutched his sleeve and held on tight. “I can’t go back. Not anymore. And even if I did I wouldn’t… work.” Zuko closed his eyes. “Father used to say our nation was a machine, each piece fitting together, connecting, pushing the others to greater purpose, always moving onward, stronger together. Parts that don’t fit have no place in the Fire Nation.” His hand clenched tighter, the effort almost painful as he clung to his own skin. “Even when I was home, I…”

He stood up to his feet, looking at the exit and not daring to draw his eyes over to Jet. “I lied to you when I rescued you,” Zuko said, his voice surprisingly steady, “I was burned and banished. So, well… if you’re worried about your reputation, losing to the Fire Nation, I doubt I count.” 

Zuko reached downward, taking the shoe with the hole, and slipped it on, cringing a little as he placed the injury back on the ground. He rolled the foot a bit, getting a feel for the pain he was in for, which, in the scheme of things, was very tolerable. 


Zuko turned around and saw that Jet had raised himself up, just a little, supported by the elbow not on the side the Duke was holding onto. He looked pale, and a little green, but was watching Zuko with focused eyes. 

Not fully sure why, Zuko went over to him, kneeling by Jet’s side so their faces were just a little bit closer to level. 

Jet opened his mouth, then closed it quickly, apparently fighting a wave of nausea. He won the battle this time and took a deep breath as if to center himself. “You…” Jet wheezed, the effort to keep his head in the air clearly daunting, “swear… not… assassin or some kind of…”

“I could have killed you three times already,” Zuko reminded, a little miffed by the accusation.

Jet blinked at him. “I… guess…”

“I have someone to hold onto too,” Zuko said, “he gave up his entire life back home for me. The least I owe him is mine.”

“You’re a…” Jet swallowed, painfully, “weird guy… you know?”

“My mother was an actress,” Zuko mused.

“Makes sense.” Jet let out a low groan and winced, from whatever pain or discomfort was going through him.

“What you said in the compound? That before you knew, about who I was, that you did like me, well,” Zuko said, a little bitter, “I liked you too, whatever that’s worth.”

“Funny… coming from a… heartless firebender,” Jet said. There wasn’t any bite to his words. It was, almost, amicable.

Zuko couldn’t help the curl of a smile that came onto his face. “You aren’t so bad for a peasant,” he told him.

Jet looked annoyed, but still clutching to Jet’s side, the Duke shifted a bit in his sleep and brought his thumb to his mouth, and that ruined any attempt on Jet’s part to look intimidating. “I really find… hard to believe, you’re just… not…” Jet struggled, hesitating for a long moment, like he was wading through mud in his mind to find the words, “like them.”

“You know I’m not,” Zuko muttered, looking at the Duke so he didn’t have to meet Jet’s eyes, “you, of all people, know exactly why I’m not.”

“Shit,” Jet said, groaning a bit, “Fire Na… really the worst… right.”

“Try to stay safe, Jet.”


Zuko let out an exhale that was only a stone’s throw away from a laugh. “What? Should I stay?” He asked, giving Jet a sardonic smirk, “You think this firebender should stay?”

Jet met Zuko’s eyes and said, simply, “Maybe I do.”

“I-“ Oh. So that… something warmed Zuko from deep in his chest as he felt the look Jet was giving him like shivers along the skin. Something stopped, or at least Zuko couldn’t hear the dripping from the pipes anymore with the blood that rushed into his face and pounded at his ears. 

What a thing. That.

Jet wasn’t saying anything else, just watching Zuko carefully with that same serious expression. Maybe he was waiting. Maybe he just enjoyed watching Zuko squirm. Maybe he was nervous about the answer. 

“I-“ Zuko tried again, and then his brain failed him because the one word ringing in his head that wasn’t leaving him alone was, How ? He didn’t know which one of them was worse, or which made less sense. Jet, for offering, or Zuko, for being flattered. How ? And then, equally as prominent and equally as unanswerable, Why

For the love of the spirits and all in the world that was sacred, should Zuko have attempted to give Sokka brain damage? Was that the secret? 

“You’re not… still here,” Jet said, curious, still struggling to breathe but somehow finding the strength to sit up just a bit more. “It could… it would… be a bit funny.”

Zuko smiled. “A firebender on the Freedom Fighters?” He found the concept almost as ridiculous as the name of Jet’s group. 

“Sure,” Jet closed his eyes tight for another long moment, fighting off his symptoms, before he continued, “and… other things.”

Zuko looked at Jet, lying there with the Duke curled around his side, looking by all accounts beaten and yet still there, still determined, the fight in his eyes still burning, and wished, extremely hard, that he still liked him. It could’ve been nice. Maybe more than nice. To leave Ba Sing Se with Jet, with a crew, and have some kind of purpose again. Even if it was fighting an army made of his own people. It could’ve been nice. He could’ve even picked a new name, a dumb one this time, like the others, and maybe the fifth name would stick. 

It was sweet though, not even a hint of bitter, to have a moment like this. One that, for once, actually belonged to Zuko.

“Stay safe, Jet,” Zuko asked him. 

Jet lowered his eyes. 

Nothing had to make sense, so Zuko let himself do what he wanted. He reached out, carefully, not wanting to jostle Jet’s injuries any further, and rested his palms carefully on Jet’s cheeks, slipping his hands under wild and sweaty hair. And then he leaned down, with the confidence of someone with a lot more practice than he actually had, and pressed his lips softly against Jet’s. 

Only for less than a second, as it quickly came back to Zuko that Jet had been sick earlier. Though, honestly, it hadn’t mattered much with how light, nearly chaste, Zuko had been. 

He pulled back and also pushed downward, forcing Jet to lie himself back down on the floor. “You’ll be alright?” Zuko asked. 

Jet was staring at him. A strange expression on his face. “I’ll live,” he breathed.

“Good,” Zuko told him. He was still holding Jet’s head in his hands. His hair was scratchy. Like beaver sheep wool. “You have people who care about you.”

As if to emphasize that point, the Duke stirred in his sleep. Jet didn’t say anything else. Just looked at Zuko.

Zuko’s hands slid off of Jet’s face as he stood up, wincing from the soreness in his body and the pain on his foot. Weird bad luck, Zuko thought to himself, I have weird, weird bad luck.

He limped, as he walked away, back through the pipes, passing Longshot, Smellerbee, and Pipsqueak as he did who all shoved themselves back against the wall to avoid him. Zuko barely even looked at them, just a nod as he went by, heading back home. Where he’d come from. Wondering how in the world he was going to explain the state he was in to his uncle. 

Chapter Text

Zuko groaned and kicked with his foot, knocking it out of Iroh’s hands. “It’s fine,” he insisted, sitting back up on his elbows to frown at his uncle.

Iroh glared at him. Grabbed Zuko’s ankle harshly, and put it back in his lap. 

Zuko groaned. He threw his head back down onto the floor and flung his arms over his eyes with exasperation. There, again, was the now-familiar cool tick of metal on his tender skin and he jolted, an instinct, knocking Iroh’s hands away again. 

Zuko.” Iroh had to yank Zuko’s foot back into place.

“Just let me do it,” Zuko protested.

“How are you supposed to see the bottom of your foot? We have to remove the rocks before you can begin healing,” Iroh explained, harshly, and he curled his entire arm around Zuko’s ankle to more tightly hold him down. He pulled something, which hurt, but this time was able to get the piece of gravel out despite Zuko’s foot kicking at him. 

Zuko rolled his eyes and sighed, right before yelping in pain as his uncle did it again.

“...stepped in fire,” Iroh was grumbling to himself, carefully examining Zuko's burned foot as he did. Iroh was probably looking for any more tiny pebbles he needed to remove, “first the arrow…”

“I told you,” Zuko reminded as he forced himself to look away from his uncle so he couldn’t see what the man was doing, “I was just getting Jet off our- ow!”

“That’s the last I think,” Iroh said gruffly. He lowered Zuko’s foot back onto his lap, putting the last of the gravel into the metal bowl at his side with a clink. “Now…” he picked up a covered jar that was resting beside him. 

“Oh, come on,” Zuko said immediately, sitting back up and wincing. Iroh unscrewed the lid. “Do we have to? Really? It’s barely even that bad-“

“Yes.” Iroh set the lid of the jar down. “It isn’t that bad, but it still needs treatment.”

Honestly,” Zuko argued weakly, holding up his palms and hoping his voice sounded sincere, “I can barely even feel it-“

“Is that true?” Iroh looked suddenly worried. 

Oh, right. Not feeling it was actually worse. “No, I can- but I can handle burns, I promise,” Zuko said.

Iroh raised an eyebrow and gave Zuko a look. A look that reminded Zuko he knew exactly what kind of a patient Zuko was. He stuck his fingers into the jar, taking out some of the hypericum salve, and Zuko groaned. 

There was no getting out of this. Not without drastic measures. He could handle any injury; Zuko had been blasted nearly into pieces and had still found the strength to swim to shore. Sitting through this though? Unbearable. He’d much rather just power through and let the burn heal on its own but the moment Iroh had seen Zuko limping to make him breakfast this confrontation was unavoidable. Zuko, gritting his teeth, threw his elbow back over his eyes and prepared himself. 

“Now, nephew, I believe this injury should heal up-“ The initial touch of the salve on the skin was cool and pleasant. Deceptive. Lulling one in with a false sense of security but Zuko knew better. “-obviously need to rest-“ And there was the stinging. Starting out small, of course, and not even that painful in the scheme of things but was so uncomfortable. “-it’s important to remember healing is a process that begins with the mind-“ Zuko tensed every muscle in his body, grimacing hard, as the salve began throbbing, cleaning the wound and clinging onto any of the dead skin to make it easier to remove later. He hated this. “-stop squirming it’s almost done-“ That waterbender girl and her friends were lucky , having a healer on their team; they didn’t have to worry about smelly, stinging poultices and overbearing uncles fussing over them. “-and are you listening to me? Nephew.”

Zuko, still wincing, said, “Uncle,” with the same tone of voice Iroh had used. 

Iroh, finally, released Zuko’s foot from the tight grip he’d had on it. There was a fond smile on his face as he reached for the bandages. “Nephew?” 

“What?” Zuko asked him. The burns on his foot stung again, an undulating tingle that would change into sudden stabs that were impossible to get used to. His heartbeat throbbed through the bottom of his foot in a way that kept him grimacing.

Iroh hummed under his breath, some song Zuko had vague memories of being played on the ship, and lifted Zuko’s foot in his lap to get a firm grip around the ankle before he began covering the injury. 

Sighing, Zuko raised his body to a sitting position, supported by his elbows, and waited. Periodically wincing and grunting as the salve stung.

Iroh’s humming turned to mumbled words, something about precarious oceans and a brave fisherman, until he finished bandaging Zuko’s burn. Then he patted the top of Zuko’s foot, a look of satisfaction on his face, and smiled. “Proper rest,” he said smugly, “five days.”


“Five days.”

Zuko frowned. “One.”

“Five days.”



“None,” Zuko interrupted, annoyed. 

“Three days,” Iroh said happily. He kept his hands on Zuko’s leg. “And a whole day off today for me.”

Zuko blinked at him. “What about the shop?” He reminded. 

“Zuko, tea shops are not open every day of the week,” Iroh told him, “you just kept running off before you had your days off. Leaving me to spend them all alone…” he put a hand to his chest and looked off into the distance, a grand show of exaggerated desperation, “your poor, old uncle all by himself.”

“Yes,” Zuko said dryly, “I’m sure you suffered.”

“Indeed,” Iroh said, bowing his head solemnly without a trace of irony. “However… good news!”

He didn’t continue, looking at Zuko with expectation. Zuko bristled, gritting his teeth along with the waves of uncomfortable pain on his foot, but eventually sighed. “What’s the news?” Zuko relented. He was certain he wasn’t going to like the answer.

Iroh grinned at him, bright-eyed and all teeth. “We’re going to spend the whole day bonding!”

Zuko stared at him. “Bonding,” he repeated in a voice devoid of all emotion. 

“Ah, yes,” Iroh said, patting Zuko’s ankle again. “Why don’t you start?”

“Start… bonding?” Zuko asked suspiciously.

“Yes. You start,” Iroh said, chipper, “and tell me what exactly it is you’ve been hiding from me.”

No. Zuko flinched, eyes widening as he met Iroh’s careful gaze. No. He swallowed. Hard. As his uncle kept looking at him. No, no no no no no. Zuko really did not like this. “I don’t like this,” he said out loud.

“Ah, I understand,” Iroh said, settling back on his legs and pushing them out from under his robes with a sigh. Making himself comfortable. “You would not believe my troubles. My nephew, who I love very much, keeps running off in the middle of the night to get in trouble and coming home injured. It’s been havoc on my nerves.”

Zuko rolled his eyes. 

“I have had to drink so much calming tea,” Iroh continued, absentmindedly rubbing his hand on Zuko’s ankle.

“You always drink tea,” Zuko pointed out.

“Ah, yes.” Iroh met Zuko’s eyes and smiled again. “So, nephew. How are you? What have you been up to, in greater detail, and what is it you won’t tell me?”

Zuko stared at him.

Iroh’s hand squeezed Zuko’s ankle, several times, as if keeping time while his uncle waited expectantly for an answer Zuko wasn’t giving. “Alright,” Iroh muttered, looking away for a moment as if to gather his thoughts. He tapped his chin. “Maybe I should phrase it differently.”

I have a better idea,” Zuko snapped at him, “why don’t we get a map and figure out where we’re going?”

Iroh’s hand froze on his chin. “We’re going somewhere?”

“Of course,” Zuko reminded him, “we have to get out of Ba Sing Se before the Fire Nation attacks. The Avatar is still here.”

Recognition crossed over his uncle’s face. “Ah yes, I remember you warned your friend about that. The pretty girl.”

“Exactly.” Zuko pushed Iroh’s stomach with his toes to emphasize his point. “Until the Avatar leaves, bringing the target on his back away with him, Ba Sing Se is dangerous.”

“Zuko…” Iroh said kindly, “I believe you are overestimating your sister.”

Zuko stared at him in shock. 

“Ba Sing Se is an impenetrable city, believe me, I’ve tried. I can understand-"

“You’re under estimating Azula,” Zuko interrupted, frowning in confusion. 

“I understand, Zuko,” Iroh explained, louder. “I understand why you warned your friend and why you are nervous. But Azula, and even your father, cannot do the impossible. Ba Sing Se is safe.”

We got in,” Zuko argued.

“Yes, with passports, with connections I’ve made throughout the Earth Kingdom, through partnerships that Azula does not have. That an entire army certainly cannot,” Iroh explained. He squeezed Zuko’s ankle, and Zuko scowled. “The image you have of your father does not correlate with reality. There are places in the world even he can’t touch.”

“What do you know of how I see my father?!”

“I’ve slept in a room beside you for three years, Zuko,” Iroh reminded him. Gentle. Zuko swallowed and looked away from his uncle, focusing his eyes on anything else. He couldn’t find any words to answer him; he knew exactly what Iroh was referring to. “It would be nice to let go of that image, would it not? To have a restful sleep?” Iroh asked him, his voice soft. 

Zuko traced a line in the wood paneling of the floor with his eye, following it from one end of a plank to the other. 

“There are some aspects of the past best left there,” Iron continued, “remembered, perhaps, but not carried forward.”

“So you think I was wrong? For warning her? For wanting us out of the city while there’s a target on our backs and the Avatar knows we’re here?” Zuko asked him.

“The Avatar… hm.” Iroh paused, apparently to consider that fact, and Zuko looked back at him to see his uncle holding his chin thoughtfully. “The Avatar knows we’re here. That’s important.”

“Yes,” Zuko said.

“I wonder what other important information I should know that you haven’t told me,” Iroh mused, raising his eyebrow at Zuko. 

“I don’t know,” Zuko replied curtly, “should we ask your connections?”

Iroh didn’t even blink. “Should I?”

Zuko glared at him. He pulled his foot off of Iroh’s lap, folding it under his crossed leg instead. 

Iroh dropped his hand from the chin and gave Zuko a worried look. “Is there an easier place to start?”

“Start leaving Ba Sing Se? Yes. There’s a public transport system and we have passports,” Zuko said, purposefully misunderstanding.

“It must be quite a burden to have a terrible secret,” Iroh said quietly. 

“I don’t.” Zuko looked at his foot, still so uncomfortable and stinging, and picked at the bandage. After a bit of silence, he lifted his head and saw that Iroh was frowning at him. “What?!”

“Ah, nothing,” Iroh said, looking nervous. He shook his head. Then, after a longer pause, shifted his weight on the floor to sit more comfortably, grunting a bit as he did so. “I know what I’ve done, Zuko.”

Zuko blinked at him. “What did you do?” He asked.

“I lost the trust you’d given me,” Iroh explained, something dark and sad crossing his face, “after the time I-“

“What are you talking about?” Zuko demanded, sitting up more to lean forward toward him.

“Zuko,” Iroh said seriously, closing his eyes. “I never meant to betray you.”

Zuko swallowed; he couldn’t look at Iroh either. There was light rising through the wooden shutters over the windows, not even a third of the way, the sun trickling up in the sky through the early morning. A day only half-begun, the sun blocked by the walls and buildings of the city that surrounded this teashop, just one place existing in a vast city filled with motion yet somehow this place managed to stay so still. 

“I… I thought I had so much time,” Iroh told him, his voice quiet in a room without any other sound but him. “The Avatar was dead, everyone was certain-"

“Not me,” Zuko mumbled. 

“No, you had faith,” his uncle continued, “faith in your father.”

“I was right.”

“Yes.” Zuko heard his uncle sigh before he spoke again, “I thought I had so much time, Zuko. Time with you. To help you, the way I never could help…” Iroh’s voice faltered. 

“We don’t have to talk about this,” Zuko mumbled.

Iroh’s voice shook slightly as he spoke, “The last we’d been close… when I came home from my journey, all I could think was how tall you and Azula had grown. It’s frightening, sometimes, how quickly time can pass when you aren’t paying attention.” Zuko heard fabric moving and looked back, eyes widening as he saw his uncle, hands on his knees and head bowed low onto his stomach, a shadow across his eyes. “After I returned, Azula came to me almost every day to demand lessons and I said no, each time, I hadn’t taught anyone since my son - there was something in her eyes… she kept coming back. You, however, never came to see me.”

“I did, after…” 

“I invited you for tea,” Iroh explained, “and when you came you were nervous, excited to talk, loud and boisterous like any child, but nervous... not sure what to make of me yet.”

Zuko wasn’t sure how to defend himself from that. 

“And I thought to myself, how funny it was, that my brother raised two children who were so different.” 

“Of course,” Zuko said sourly, a pit sinking in his stomach at his uncle’s words. “I didn’t know you trained Azula.”

“I never did,” Iroh said, “I refused.”

Why,” Zuko asked him, frowning. It didn’t make sense, masters had begged for the opportunity to teach her, they’d lined up before the Fire Lord’s throne with their best students, performing katas and routines, fighting in tournaments against each other, all for his father’s amusement, the best of the best brought to fight Azula. She knocked them down every time. Humiliating master after master with her skill as they watched in amazement, growing only more eager to be the one to shape her skill. Training a prodigy was an honor. 

“I never wanted to,” Iroh explained. “In my life, I have only had two students. You, and my son.”

Zuko stared at him. His first instinct was to stand over Iroh, demand an explanation to something that didn’t make sense, but the throbbing in his foot kept him seated. “You could have…” He turned his head. “You could have taught her.” 

“I could have, but-“

But. “I know.” Iroh had left home before he had the chance. Training Azula would have been another accomplishment on Iroh’s long list, one more boon to his uncle’s honor, yet he’d left the palace to travel with Zuko. Another thing Zuko had taken from him. “You trained me.”

“Yes,” Iroh told him, “I chose to train you.”

Zuko raised his uninjured leg so he could wrap his arms around the knee, pressing his chin into his arms. “I see,” he said, as the bitterness in his chest rose up to feel sour in his throat and mouth. 

“I did wonder when you would ask me, but you never did. Too busy learning in your spare time, pouring yourself over books of policy and laws even when it was clear you hated them. I had never taken my role of crown prince as seriously as you, I doubt even my father put as much effort into his rule” Iroh continued, still looking downward. “Your diligence impressed me. I wanted to help you grow. I could see, in your heart, the makings of a great leader.”

Zuko’s mouth curled with derision at the thought. The fact he’d even believed, a long time ago, that such a goal would even be possible. 

“I should never,” Iroh took in a deep, shaking breath, “never have let you come in with me to the war meeting.”

That was what this was about? Or was it? Iroh had gone from demanding answers to providing confusing answers himself to questions Zuko had never asked. “I wanted to be there,” Zuko reminded him, his words slightly muffled as he spoke them into his knee, “you just indulged me.”

“No, Zuko.”

This was terrible, why were they talking about this at all? Why now? After three years what was the point in bringing up old things better left unsaid? “I should not have spoken,” Zuko said coldly, “you warned me and I didn’t listen.”

I should have spoken.”

Zuko’s eyes snapped to his uncle in surprise. Iroh raised a weary gaze to meet his and Zuko swallowed. “I don’t… we don’t need to talk about this,” he told his uncle. He was confused when Iroh shook his head. 

“You were right, Zuko.”

Zuko narrowed his eyes. “Right? To question the leadership of generals four times my age?” He argued, “Was I right to disrespect everyone in that room? Right to embarrass my father?!”

“Yes,” Iroh said seriously.

Zuko let out an undignified chuckle and pushed upward with his arms to stand, fully intending to leave. Iroh grabbed his arm and held him. 

“Don’t!” Iroh’s eyes were wide. Sad. “You shouldn’t walk before the salve is finished, the burn still needs to be cleaned!”

Frowning, Zuko snapped his arm out of his uncle’s grip but obediently lowered himself back to the ground.

“Let me just… please, Zuko,” Iroh asked him, “this is something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.”

Fine,” Zuko said to him through gritted teeth.

Iroh pulled his arm back to his lap, closing his hands over each other, and sighed like he was preparing for meditation. He closed his eyes for a moment, before opening them again to meet Zuko’s with an intensity in his gaze that had Zuko’s stomach churning. “I should not have let you into the war meeting without preparing you first,” his uncle explained carefully, “I should have spoken up when the generals agreed to sacrifice a platoon of young soldiers, and I should never have trusted my brother to give you a fair judgement. And later, I was… too hesitant. I misjudged how much time I would have with you, I did not believe you would ever be successful in finding the Avatar, and when you were… I didn’t know what to do, Zuko. I wanted to protect you.” Iroh’s hands clenched, holding the fabric of his robes tight in his palms. “That was why I tried not to help you. If you succeeded you… would go back.”


“Back to my brother,” Iroh said, as if he was correcting Zuko. As if there was a difference. “I am sorry, my nephew, that I took your trust for granted.”

Zuko itched under his gaze and turned away, clutching his arm with one of his hands and holding it, suddenly self-conscious about what he was doing with his hands. He knew this moment was more for his uncle than it was for him. The stones weighing in Iroh’s chest that he needed to let go of. The reminder of that series of events, of having to talk about them, tasted bitter on his tongue, shriveled up his stomach and… it felt as if the walls of the room in the tea shop were growing, rising up higher, every object in front of him getting larger as Zuko sunk down, lower and lower, into the floor. Like he was a child again after their family’s last trip to Ember Island who hadn’t realized everything had changed, racing to his father’s side to clutch his robes only to be harshly yanked off as scorn and disgust flashed over his father’s features. Feeling smaller than the insects that crawled across the dirt as he saw the dismissal in his father’s eyes.

“Zuko?” Iroh reached out, gently to rest his hand on Zuko’s arm.

“Are you done?” Zuko asked miserably. 

Iroh’s eyes widened for a moment in shock but then something in his face melted. His features softening into a smile. “I think I am,” he said kindly, “for now.”

Zuko met his uncle’s eyes with horror. “There’s more?”

“Ah, nephew, always,” Iroh patted his arm, “it’s my turn to make us breakfast.”

Zuko had never been more grateful in his life to spend hours playing an entirely uneventful game of pai sho. His uncle wasn’t able to object to Zuko moving around if Zuko used a walking stick to keep pressure off the injury so thankfully he wasn’t stuck upstairs, in that single room, forced to reminisce endlessly on everything that Iroh had said.

At night, after snuffing out the candle, Iroh told Zuko that he would always listen, and Zuko could tell him anything. Zuko told Iroh to shut up and go to sleep. 

The next day when the teashop opened again Iroh stuck Zuko at the counter collecting money from customers and making change; he was forced to sit still on a stool the entire day. Zuko was well aware he was practically radiating an aura of misery. A few of the customers even asked the waiters to bring the money up for them so they wouldn’t have to interact. He was perfectly fine with it, the less he had to deal with people the better, though the three-bun woman kept giving him bright and sympathetic smiles that had Zuko squirming uncomfortably. 

As the day began drawing to an end, customers leaving with no one else coming in, and the lanky male waiter said an early goodbye, Zuko looked at the wax buildup at the bottom of the candle on his counter and was struck with the thought that this was it. His life now belonged to these four walls, to this teashop, to watching his happy uncle flit around dealing with rude customers with a shrug and pinching the cheeks of giggling children, placing his hand to his chest in a humble gesture at every compliment, as he served tea cup after tea cup after tea pot after tea cup. Zuko’s life, and everything that had happened in it, and all the privilege he’d been born into, had led to this.

Of all the names he’d been going by lately, and all the identities he’d had, Lee from the Jasmine Dragon was the one that remained. 

When the next customer came by they had to clear their throat to get his attention, because Zuko had dropped his forehead onto the counter and was covering his hair with his hands in despair.

Day two of the counter. Time passed like a jar of frozen lard waiting to melt while sitting in the shade on a neutrally warm day.

A customer who ordered nothing asked for a refund for their water. Which was free. Zuko informed them of an abundant supply of free water in the Ba Sing Se sewer. 

Three utterly unruly children came in with a large group of adults and were left entirely unsupervised, they ran around the tea shop, hitting chairs with a stick, and being a nuisance until one ran close enough to Zuko that he could grab the brat by the collar, force him to look into his face, and he threatened to cut off the boy’s fingers if he kept up the act. They behaved after, though one of them cried when their mother attempted to bring him with her to pay ‘the scary man’. 

Iroh told Zuko he was doing great, and offered him a snack of some dried mango slices. Zuko felt a bit better. 

A woman with an obnoxious amount of gold bracelets and gold ornaments in her hair was flabbergasted when Zuko did not give her a discount. She was very adamant Zuko should know who she was, and when Zuko informed her that he not only didn’t know but didn’t care, she was so offended she paid the full amount and left without another word.

One young woman gave Zuko a tip, which she insisted he kept even though he reminded her tips were traditionally given to serving staff. Afterward she returned to her group of friends giggling like she’d just made a hilarious joke. 

That all happened before even the lunch break. Zuko was not sure how he was meant to endure a lifetime of this. 

He made a list while he ate the lunch Iroh brought him, to force himself to remember. Bohin, lanky waiter, married. So, three-bun waitress, kids? Maybe. Noh Te, chef’s assistance, tooth gap, young. Geshen, chef, tall. He couldn’t afford to keep forgetting their names, especially when they all seemed so very eager to talk with him whenever they had a free moment. 

Bohin liked to compliment Zuko on anything from him counting coins to the ‘spiffy’ job Zuko had done cleaning the gutters a few days before. Zuko wasn’t sure of the motivation, though Bohin would look at Iroh while talking to Zuko as if by interacting with him Iroh would be happy about it. Actually, the more he thought about it, Bohin’s behavior was quite similar to the nobles who tended to suck up to Zuko and Azula as if they’d put in a good word for them with their father. 

So seemed to enjoy his interactions with customers the most. Called him snarky and brave. For some reason telling a ridiculous man that he couldn’t pay with ‘credit’ even if Zuko did know who his family was seemed to impress her. She tried to ruffle his hair once. Zuko slapped her wrist away and So just laughed. 

Noh Te would sneak out from the kitchen to sit on the stool beside Zuko and talk. Despite Zuko trying, not so subtly, to get his uncle’s attention, Iroh did not stop her. She told him she grew up in this ring of the city, that her parents wanted her to marry a cute neighbor boy but she liked his older brother, that the customer she saw two seconds ago had such nice hair she wanted to style hers that way, that her twin sister got way more attention than her, and that this was her first job and she was extremely excited. Noh Te attempted to ask Zuko where he was from. She also asked if Zuko wanted to touch her braids to see how tightly she had wound them. She showed off the fake bracelet on her wrist and told Zuko it was a pure gold heirloom. Zuko had no idea what to make of her, only that whenever she returned back to the kitchen and left him alone he felt an enormous sense of relief. 

Geshen asked Iroh, in front of Zuko, if he had any parenting tips because he was under the impression Zuko was well-behaved. Iroh and Zuko shared an awkward glance, and Iroh simply answered, “No.”

The next day, Zuko did it all over again, although this time Iroh let him walk around every now again to clean, sweep, or take orders, and Zuko was actually glad for it. The restlessness he’d felt being stuck sitting down had been like he was locked to the counter by manacles and held prisoner for months. 

All throughout that day, despite the freedom of getting up a few times every hour while Iroh watched, Zuko repeated a mantra in his head. Get used to it. These people, this shop, this life he was now living, it was the new normal apparently and Zuko had to adjust for his uncle’s sake. Get used to it. Because dust and dirt gathered endlessly on the floor dragged in by the flat shoes of Earth Kingdom citizens and Zuko wasn’t the one who brought in the dirt anymore, he was the one who cleaned it up. Get used to it. Iroh had a smile on his face when he wasn’t even trying to, Zuko would catch his uncle looking at him with soft, contented eyes, and every time a lump would grow in Zuko’s throat as he realized he was doing something that Iroh was proud of. 

He could get used to this, Zuko told himself. If he just tried to forget where he came from. All he needed to do was pretend this was fine, that he was happy, until he eventually was. 

“Oh, yes, very pretty,” Iroh said to the artisan, who beamed under the praise. Nudging Zuko, hard, in the side, he forced him to look down at the booth and the embroidered silk belt his uncle was admiring. 

This shop was clearly the work of a talented embroiderer, though Zuko had seen better. The one before belonged to a skilled potter, and the one before that a different craft, one after another. All trinkets. All pointless. Iroh had gushed over each and every one. He’d even bought, for no reason Zuko could think of, a clay elephant-mouse, a cracked vase with silver repairs, and a scroll with traditional Earth Kingdom artwork, all of which Zuko was now stuck carrying through the market. 

It was later in the day, as Iroh had decided to go out right before the teashop closed and leave the ending duties to Geshen, and a lamplighter was already walking through the dwindling crowds along this road, igniting street lights as shadows crawled from one end of the cobblestone road to the other. This walkway was narrow, likely extremely uncomfortable in the middle of the day where it was sure to be crowded with the upperclass of Ba Sing Se though spacious enough at this late hour. All in all though, this marketplace clearly remained busy almost all day, catering to anyone in Ba Sing Se with wealth to throw away. After all, when money was abundant the greatest luxury of all was finding increasingly pointless ways to waste it. 

Right now many of the booths, permanent fixtures to this walkway as some were made of stone, were occupied with long-faced and dark eyed crafters, people nearing the end of a busy day and counting the hour left to closing. Each and every one, though, would end their conversation with Iroh with a smile on their face. 

“Well? What do you think?” Iroh asked Zuko, holding the silk fabric, embroidered with some very detailed floral textures, up higher as if Zuko hadn’t seen it the first time. 

Zuko stared at him. “I don’t…” He stopped himself just short of saying care, the word heavy on his tongue, and after swallowing it down, painfully, finished with “...know.” 

“Hm,” Iroh said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin with one hand as he examined the belt. 

The artisan, an older woman in stylish clothes herself, grinned brightly and grabbed another belt from her display. “I think this would look lovely on him!” She said, showing a green silk with white threading, nonsensically patterned, to his uncle. “Your son’s pale complexion will really help the green stand out!”

“Ah,” Iroh took that belt too and held it up to the other one. 

“He’s my uncle,” Zuko corrected. 

The artisan bowed slightly to the correction but turned her focus back to the clearly easier mark. “I also do clothing, formal wear and the like on commission. My cousin married into the Leng Guloah family, so I assure you the silks are the finest quality.”

“Oh!” Iroh said with interest.

She smiled, huge enough to show all the teeth in her mouth, and turned behind her to grab one of the covered items on the rack. Gracefully slipping the blanket off, she revealed some kind of Earth Kingdom robe with clear pride in her eyes. 

Zuko took one look at the excited expression on his uncle’s face and groaned. 

“Oh, come, nephew,” Iroh encouraged as he carefully set the belts down. The artisan came around the booth to show the formal wear in greater detail and, to Zuko’s disgust, held the fabric up to Zuko’s face. 

“Notice the fine detail along the cuffs and the cross collar,” the artisan was saying as Zuko rolled his eyes. “I think white accents would really… pop,” she gestured with her hand to emphasize the point.

“Oh, definitely,” Iroh agreed with her. Zuko glared at him with as much loathing as he could muster. His uncle continued to indulge the seller, clearly not paying attention to him or purposefully ignoring Zuko’s contempt for this. 

“A cloak with a darker gray can always be added for more formal occasions with upper-rank and such,” the artisan continued.


Uncle,” Zuko reminded him, stepping away from the robe and frowning, “we aren’t going to a ‘formal occasion’.”

“Don’t be so hasty, my nephew.” Iroh grinned at him, a twinkle in his eye. “Why, you never know when you might find yourself on a date with one of those generously tipping ladies.”

Zuko grimaced. He swallowed, raised his eyes upward to avoid meeting his uncle’s gaze, and wondered how much Iroh would even resist if Zuko just grabbed him by the arm and dragged him away. The fact he had come out to join his uncle at all had been a mistake; Zuko had just wanted to stretch his legs, he should have remembered his uncle’s propensity to buy everything in sight. 

“Oh, yes,” the artisan encouraged, doubling-down hard on her attempt to flatter Iroh through Zuko, “I say I could think of few young men and women who would be able to resist such a handsome face in my clothing.” She grinned. Snakelike. 

A sudden shot of panic burst through Zuko’s chest as if he’d been shot through by cannon fire. Don’t say that! Zuko thought, what’s wrong with her?! Why did she say that?! 

Iroh paused, thoughtfully, and then chuckled from deep in his belly. “Ah, yes,” he said brightly, “who could resist my handsome nephew?” He slapped his hand down onto Zuko’s shoulder and said with a grin, “Maybe you’ll be on a date with a fine gentleman. All the more reason.”

Zuko had forgotten how to breathe. 

Whatever look had come over his face, Zuko didn’t know, because everything above his shoulders had gone numb while his heart beat like a gong against his ribs. Painful. Watching his uncle’s merry face shift into a kind concern. Stop. Stop talking. Words were screaming in his head. Stop it. What are you saying? What is wrong with you? What are you doing?!

“Don’t look so horrified, nephew,” Iroh chided him playfully, “this is Ba Sing Se! Such things are not so uncommon!”

Zuko felt something sick crawling on his skin. It itched.

Iroh turned back to the artisan woman, a hearty laugh, apologizing, “We aren’t originally from here. I suppose my nephew has something to learn about the culture of the city.”

The artisan woman, clearly not caring at all, went behind her booth to show off another piece she was certain would look lovely on you, sir. Iroh listened to her, asking for information and offering to purchase the two belts already laid out before him while she beamed at him. He inquired as to something like shipping. She mentioned hearing about his teashop. And complimented it. 

Control your face, Zuko thought to himself. He started small. Blinked. Then uncurled the tights fists his hands were clenched into. 

The artisan woman wrapped Iroh’s purchase in some thin paper while the two chatted about the teashop. His uncle offered up some strong flattery that bordered on flirtation and the woman beamed. Iroh offered her a coupon. 

Breath in through the nose. Exhale. Relax your forehead. 

“Oh, we have some lovely pastries too!”

“Do you get them from Ling on Lychee Street?”

“Oh, no, a very enthusiastic young baker named Kon. I believe we were the first to discover him!”

“How modern!”

Separate your teeth. Breathe once more. Fill your lungs with air then let it out. Feel the pressure in your forehead, slide it down to the rest of your body, add it to the roiling mess of nerves in your stomach but keep it off your face.

Deep breath. It was fine. 

“What a lovely woman,” Iroh said brightly, turning around to Zuko with the package tucked under his arm. 

Zuko smiled at him. “Sure.”

Iroh chuckled and put his hand on Zuko’s shoulder again as he walked them down to the next booth where a jeweler was having a heated discussion with a man on the other corner. He leaned down, looking at the display, and pushed on Zuko’s shoulder so he was encouraged to bend over slightly too. “Careful,” Iroh said out of the corner of his mouth. 

Control your face. “What?” Zuko asked him. Nonchalant. Emotionless. Perfectly normal tone. 

“The fire in the lamps was moving,” Iroh said, putting his hand out as if he was admiring the pieces in front of him as he talked, his face completely neutral, “I should have warned you.”

“Warned?” Zuko looked upward, casting a glance to the lamplighter who was fiddling with his tool nearby as if something had gone wrong. Shit

“Different kingdom; different laws. She was actually giving you a compliment.” Iroh squeezed Zuko’s shoulder once and let go, straightening his back with a grunt. “Let’s keep going, I still haven’t found a new rug.”

Zuko grabbed the package from under Iroh’s arm as he walked by, adding it to the things he was already carrying. His uncle raised an eyebrow at him but shrugged. 

He had to use two hands now to carry everything, at least one of the stores had provided a bag along with the ridiculous price Iroh had paid for what, Zuko believed, was nothing but junk. 

It was fine. He’d made the fire in the lamps move along with his breathing. An accident. A side effect from meditation practice. As he looked around the marketplace, at the people who strolled along by with nothing better to do and the yawning shopkeepers, no one was even paying a bit of attention to them. Zuko’s slip had gone completely unnoticed among a crowd, just a handful of couples, a few lone women in fancy dress, mostly gathered in packs too busy talking among themselves, even the lone girl - raising her hand in his direction…

Zuko’s eyes widened with recognition just as the ground slammed upward into his stomach and knocked him over, stumbling, falling to the ground. He fell on his back, clutching only the breakable vase to his stomach, as everything else dropped to the ground beside him. 

“Oh,” Zuko heard Iroh say. 

Zuko snarled, rolling up to his feet, raising his arms into a fighting stance. He snapped his attention to the girl, who was now pointing a finger at him, ignoring the shocked looks of everyone in the marketplace that had turned to watch. 

“Hey!” She said with a wide grin on her face. “Are you supposed to be here?!”

Zuko took quick stock in what he had nearby. No swords. One of the poles on the side of the booth could be used as a weapon, or the lamplighter’s tool if he could get close enough. She was a few yards away, but an Earth bender, getting in close was the best-

Iroh clapped his hands together and laughed. 

The Earthbending girl, the Avatar’s master, lowered her hands and chuckled back at Zuko’s uncle. “I couldn’t help it,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders. 

The shoppers, satisfied that what they’d seen was some kind of prank, turned back to what they were doing as Zuko watched with confusion as the girl greeted his uncle like they knew each other.

In the nearest restaurant, a small location with only two seating areas just outside of the marketplace, Zuko sat across from Toph and his uncle as they ordered a meal. The server looked at Zuko expectantly. Zuko glared at Iroh.

“Not hungry? Nephew-guy?” Toph asked, one side of her face curled in a snarky grin. 

Zuko kept his narrowed eyes trained on his uncle. 

Iroh coughed, told the waiter they were done, and turned his attention back to the young girl, apparently to continue catching up. Because they’d met before. Something Iroh had neglected to mention.

“Yeah,” Toph said, a bit more seriously as she was talking to his uncle, “it’s been pretty wild since I saw you last.” Then she bit her lip and added, “Glad to see you’re okay.”

“Oh,” Iroh dismissed with a chuckle, “my gut took most of the damage.”

“Ha! If your gut takes your damage you must be invincible!” She slapped her hand on the table to emphasize the point, and Iroh laughed along with her. 

Something in Zuko’s forehead twitched with aggravation. His arms were crossed over his chest and the right forefinger tapped onto his upper arm, an uneven rhythm matching that of his foot, quietly kicking the purchases at his feet. 

“I’ve been doing very well,” Iroh told her brightly, adding a pat to his belly as he did, “I think I’ve even gained a few pounds.”

She laughed again, which sounded a lot more like a normal twelve-year old girl than an Earth bending master, but Zuko knew never to let his guard down around prodigies. Toph was dangerous. And, depending on what she knew , could very well destroy everything Zuko had been making with his uncle with a few short sentences. 

Zuko vowed not to complain about the apartment anymore. The apartment was fine. Leaving the apartment was when everything bad happened and he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to again.

“I’ve been…” Toph said, resting her elbows on the table, “uh… it’s been okay.”

Iroh raised the cup in his hand, taking a sip. “Training an Avatar can’t be easy,” he said sympathetically, “especially at such a young age.”

“No kidding.” Toph sighed. 

“I think unburdening your struggles onto others can help you see through your problems more clearly,” his uncle said. “It’s something I keep telling my nephew.”

“I heard your nephew is a pretty big jerk,” Toph said, turning her face toward Zuko, presumably so he wouldn’t miss her smirk. 

Iroh, instead of denying it, made a noise like a contented hum and shrugged. 

Toph waved her hand at Zuko, as if dismissing him, and then was quiet for awhile. Clearly thinking as she leaned forward even more on her elbows. “I guess,” she said softly, “this whole Avatar business hasn’t been as easy as I expected.”

Zuko snorted. 

“Adventures are often much less than we hoped,” Iroh said, giving Zuko an annoyed look but turning his attention back to the Earthbending girl. “Filled with more hardships than we expect.”

“I’m not… complaining,” Toph said, appearing thoughtful, “I just thought that when we had Appa back everything would go back to normal.”

“Nothing ever does, though it must have been a relief for the Avatar to have his bison back,” Iroh said, gently asking. 

“Yeah, yeah,” Toph leaned all the way backward in her chair and sighed. In a stunning display of manners, and despite the fact the server brought two bowls of food out at that exact moment and set them on the table, she pushed one knee up against the side of the wood and the other foot directly onto the surface of the table. “It’s one thing after another. We can’t sleep, we lose Appa, this city sucks , and then I guess Katara and Sokka went on some secret mission without telling me or Aang. And-“ she groaned, and threw her hands over her head, “I don’t even get to be mad about it! ‘Cause if I tell ‘em I’m mad no one told me, then I’m the jerk because I guess Sokka’s friend died to save Appa.”

Iroh lifted his bowl off the table, frowning at Toph’s dirt-covered foot, but apparently was content just eating from his lap and letting her continue. “That is difficult,” he said. 

Zuko dropped his eyes to stare at his hands. 

Sokka hadn’t told them? Zuko couldn’t understand the reasoning behind the silence; he’d assumed the Avatar and his companions would have shared everything, though he had been wrong about it before. After all, the Avatar hadn’t told them Zuko was the Blue Spirit. And now Sokka, as well, had left that detail out from the group. Instead, Voak was dead. Or… dead again.

“What’s with him?” Toph’s voice cut through Zuko’s thoughts. “I can feel your heartbeat, you know. You got something to say to me?”

Zuko looked up at the girl, suddenly feeling like the rest of the world was caving in to a pinprick as everything around him, even his uncle, faded away. His mouth was dry, and his tongue heavy against the roof of it. 

Well?” Toph demanded. 

“How is Sokka?” Zuko asked. 

Toph’s face was pointed directly toward him, now frowning. “Why?” Zuko didn’t have an answer for her, but he didn’t need to, because after a pause she continued. “All he does is mope around and work on his proposal to the generals and be miserable. He’s a pain . And Katara won’t even let us try and cheer him up. That’s how he is.”

He felt, rather than saw, Iroh’s eyes on him. 

“Why do you even wanna know?” Toph asked, “Everything they say about you is that you’re some crazy mean jerk with a ponytail.”

“I…” from the corner of his eye, he could see a movement of green as if Iroh had leaned forward, “was curious.” Zuko’s words lifted upward. Like a question. 

Toph frowned at him for three solid seconds before she shrugged, exaggerated, and turned her head back to his uncle. “Thanks for the food,” she said, picking up her bowl too. “You aren’t so bad for a Fire… or you-know-what, I guess.”

“Ah… uh- sorry. Yes!” Iroh said, seemingly distracted but Zuko wasn’t looking at him, “You’re more than welcome.”

Their interaction with the Earthbending master had clearly ruined any of Iroh’s enthusiasm to continue browsing the marketplace. After he waved her goodbye, smiling pleasantly, wishing her luck finding a gift for her mother, Iroh lowered his hand and watched her leave with an expression of his face similar to when he was puzzling out his next move in Pai Sho. 

Zuko turned on his heel and walked away back toward the shop. He didn’t bother checking if his uncle was following him. 

The lamps weren’t lit on the way home but it still wasn’t that dark outside, just various layers of dark interwoven on top of the other. The teashop wasn’t far from the marketplace, by taking a few of the side roads they’d be there in a few minutes as the shop was located in the same mostly commercial area. 

Zuko, gripping his uncle’s ridiculous purchases tight in his hands, walked quickly, the uncomfortable Earth kingdom shoes slapping onto cobblestone, and had passed several buildings before Iroh caught up to him. 

“Wait, a moment,” his uncle said. Zuko, frowning, stopped dead in the street. Iroh took several paces forward before he realized, turning back on his heel with an annoyed look on his face. “Ah, Z- Lee, I was-“

What?!” Zuko snapped at him. 

Iroh glanced over at the handful of people passing by them on the street, other locals using the side routes to make their way home that barely even glanced at Zuko’s outburst. “Maybe I should take the breakable things before I start?”

Zuko’s eye twitched. “Yes,” he sneered, taking the steps forward and thrusting everything into Iroh’s arms. He hooked the bag over his uncle’s wrist while pushing the rest, an ungainly pile, without a care toward him. The paper-wrapped package dropped as his uncle scrambled to get a hold of everything. Zuko just picked it up and put it back, stepping away now that his arms were empty. “Better?”

Iroh, after struggling to get a solid grip on everything, frowned at Zuko. “I did tell you,” his uncle reminded, annoyed, “if you wanted to know anything-"

“I was supposed to ask about that?!” Zuko demanded, gesturing behind him, “I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me to ask if you were friends with any of the Avatar’s companions!”

The fact they were walking along the side road back home was likely the only reason they didn’t have onlookers. What few people had been walking near them had already passed, the only sign of life was one shudder on a nearby window that opened with slight curiosity.

“I had tea once- that’s not what I need to talk to you about,” Iroh said, shaking his head. He met Zuko’s eyes sternly, opening his mouth to continue. 

Great!” Zuko threw his hands in the air. “More talking! What else could we possibly have to say to each other?”


“I’ve barely left your side in three years,” Zuko pointed out angrily, “what else do we even have left to talk about?” 

Iroh’s expression made it clear just how untrue every aspect of that sentence was. “Maybe,” his uncle said, a voice controlled and calm, “we should wait until we get back.”

“What?” Zuko yelled, “Something you’re afraid to ask?!”

Iroh barely blinked as he let Zuko shout into his face. Despite the assortment of items covering his arms, and standing in the middle of a road, his hair breezing awkwardly over part of his face, he looked much more like a somber general than the silly old man he’d been only a few hours earlier. “I’m wondering,” he said seriously, “if you knew how callous your actions were.”

Zuko swallowed. “What actions?” He asked, hoping Iroh was talking about anything else but that. Knowing he was.

“You told me, a bit ago, you’d tricked the Avatar’s friend into helping you by pretending you were a member of his tribe,” Iroh said, his voice steady and serious, “I wasn’t aware you’d continued to do so.” Zuko stood there, every muscle in his body tense, meeting Iroh’s eyes and the air he took in through his nose was less and less as that hard pit in his stomach became painful. 

“That was a cruel trick.” Iroh was disappointed in him, it was written all over his face. 

Zuko could only guess how much worse Iroh’s disappointment would be if his uncle knew the whole story. 

Iroh blinked, slowly, like he needed to rest his eyes for a moment before returning them to Zuko’s face. “Using someone’s love for another, to play with their emotions to the point of inventing a death-“

Zuko had stepped forward, closer, before he was even aware of it. “You’re going to judge me?” He demanded, “After everything you’ve done in your life?”

“No, nephew. Not judge so-“

“I don’t actually need you to tell me,” Zuko snarled into Iroh’s face, “I am actually aware of the things I do that would be despicable to you.”

Iroh frowned deeply. “So it was a choice ? So you aren’t ashamed?”

“I am,” Zuko growled, meeting his uncle’s eyes fearlessly, squaring his shoulders with a clear threat in his posture, “you have no idea! You just-“

“How am I supposed to know what you’re feeling if you don’t tell me, Zuko?!” Iroh challenged him, “How am I supposed to help you before you do something like this if I don’t know?!”

Zuko’s hands clenched into fists again, but he stepped back. “I didn’t want you to help. I already knew what you would have said about it!”

The paper package on the top of the pile dropped as Iroh stared at him, though his uncle didn’t even seem to notice. “You would do such a thing knowing how disgraceful it was?”

Zuko’s body shook with anger and another emotion he didn't care to think about. “I stumbled into it, didn’t mean for it to happen,” Zuko explained angrily, “and then I kept it going far longer than I needed to. And you know why? Because I was having fun.”

Iroh’s face hardened. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

Zuko looked at the disbelief, confusion in his uncle’s eyes, and felt sick. “I told you,” he told him, quieter, “you don’t know me as well as you think.”


Zuko frowned at his uncle. “What?”

Iroh raised his chin, stern and commanding, and said, “I know the kind of man you are in your heart, nephew. You have never enjoyed cruelty for cruelty’s sake.”

The response that halted on Zuko’s tongue was swallowed by the sudden, familiar desire to get away from this. Iroh, awkwardly, attempted to shuffle the items he was holding in his arms. He dropped another one, though it didn’t seem to break, and while he was clearly trying to figure out what to do with the menagerie of junk in his hand Zuko had made up his mind. 

“I’m sick of this, all this talking. ” Zuko told him coldly, “Make up your mind, old man, are we wallowing in the past or starting over?”

“There is power in reflecting on the past,” Iroh told him firmly, “in making amends and apologies for what we’ve done. Through talking about the past we can reflect on our mistakes-"

“Talking won't do anything. You can't change what happened! All that talking does is drown you in… in all of it!” Zuko interrupted, fuming.

“Is that really how you feel?”

“Yes! Obviously! Why can’t you get the hint there are some things we’re better off not… not…” something was heating up behind Zuko’s eyes, tightening his throat, and he refused to let it. 

“Z- Nephew…”

“I’m fine!” Zuko shouted at him. 

Iroh raised one of his eyebrows and gave Zuko a look.

Zuko felt like screaming. Or kicking something. It took everything in his just to swallow that emotion and let it fester into the tense, painfully tight grip of his fists. “I,” he said stiffly, “will meet you back at the teashop.”

Iroh didn’t say anything when Zuko stomped past him, just turned his head to watch. 

He dropped onto the bed and threw the blanket over his body, covering his head, before he realized his shoes were still on and he hadn’t taken them off at the door. 

Zuko groaned. He sat up, spitting sparks from his mouth as he reached down and yanked off the shoes, struggling somewhat with the one still wearing the bandages. Once they were off, he didn’t even think before throwing them against the room hard enough that they hit the wall with a loud smack. Then he lay back down, looked up at the ceiling, and threw the blanket back over his face. 

Everything was darker then, although every time he exhaled the blanket pillowed around his mouth and a rip in the fabric shone the barest bit of light through. Zuko breathed. Watched the fluttering gray light. Considering, as he did, how much this day had truly gotten away from him. 

He’d been doing good earlier, hadn’t he? Lee from the Jasmine Dragon, a dutiful nephew who did what he was told and took care of his uncle. Make breakfast. Count the change. Clean. That had been fine. Then somewhere along the day Lee broke and Zuko had come back. 

His hand reached up to his forehead, the blanket between his palm and skin, and rested there. 

Zuko wondered if the witch who’d sent him to see Roku would have an idea for how to banish a personality. Perhaps there was some old, ancient, spirit with the power to erase all of his old life, make him forget everything, until he could actually live this humble, humiliating existence with content. Without the fire that burned in his veins at every slight, roiling inside him, angry from being kept down. 

The Earthbender had thrown him off, brought all of it to the surface, it was her fault. And he had asked about Sokka… who was…

Zuko groaned from deep in his stomach and turned onto his side, gripping the blanket and bundling it over his head as he did. The fabric covering him forced him to concentrate on his breathing. Put in some effort. Center himself. Maybe Iroh was right about apologies. Maybe Zuko should apologize to his uncle. Maybe, and likely, Iroh was unlike his father enough to actually forgive. 

Of course he was. Iroh would forgive him. The amount of times Zuko had screamed into his uncle’s face only to have Iroh calmly offer him tea was proof enough. 

Expecting the fact that Zuko didn’t actually feel apologetic to Iroh, that was a problem; Iroh’s full-bellied chuckle to the artisan woman was ringing in his ears. 

Sokka though… the thought of Sokka, miserable, unhappy, moping around alone was so very wrong. It wasn’t the way he should be, the way he was supposed to - Sokka was exaggerated, over-the-top emotions, too-bright grins under green shade, blue eyes crinkling as he scowled, an ever-present twinkle in his eye; Sokka shouldn’t- Zuko didn’t want him to… Zuko had promised . Promised never to see him again. Was there anything Zuko could even say, any way he could make it better, or would it just blow up in his face? Would he make it worse , the way he always did?

Zuko heard sounds from below, a door swinging wide open and feet shuffling on the wooden floor, and he straightened the blanket over him, closed his eyes, and pretended to be asleep. 

Chapter Text

Zuko woke up so much earlier than dawn that he could feel the sun beneath his heels. The middle of the night, Agni at his back, nothing existing in the world but still black visual noise.

Waking up, despite how difficult it had been to fall asleep in the first place, was as quick as a blink. One moment he was awake. Lying on the ground, face pointed up at the ceiling in the middle of the night, not a hint of exhaustion in any part of his body. Awake. Listening to his uncle’s irregular snoring. He cast his gaze at the round figure of his uncle splayed out on his cot; watching as the gray hairs flitted around the side of Iroh’s face in time with his exhales, before Zuko folded his hands over his chest and returned his gaze to the ceiling. It was still so late that he couldn’t even see the wood above him, everything melted into shadow from this distance. A deep, open-ended darkness so vast he could picture anything inside. 

There was one thing he wanted right now. It burned in his head, unwelcome and intrusive. Zuko could curse his uncle for the rest of his days for that, for placing the idea into his head that it was possible. It wasn’t. There was a very, very bad problem with this chain of thought. 

Zuko wanted, more than anything, for Sokka to forgive him. That raised the question, did he want Sokka’s forgiveness to ease Sokka’s distress or his own?

Zuko called heat into his throat and blew out, sending sparks of fire into the air above him. They flashed, singed the air, and twinkled like candle wicks before fading into the dark in his sight. He did it again, just to pick a single spark of light and follow it until it disappeared. 

If… in order… he had to find a way to avoid any way to make this selfish. Zuko deserved to feel like an absolute wreck, he’d been the one to cause it all, and Sokka was the one who needed to… get better. Get over it. Zuko felt like he’d disrupted the balance of the universe somewhere along the line, inside himself and also at the very idea of Sokka hurting just because… because of what he had done; it was just so much the opposite of what Zuko had hoped that it stung like a dagger in the chest to even think about.

Zuko rolled over to his side, one hand dropping to the blanket over his stomach and crushing it tight with his hand as something hurt inside. He had never been good at apologies. He wasn’t even sure where to start.

Besides, from what he’d experienced in terms of apologizing, it didn’t work. 

Though, that time, Zuko had apologized exactly the way he knew how. He had bowed, tried to explain himself, begged, but that hadn’t worked. His father had still demanded more. He wasn’t sure what more he could have done in that moment, if there truly was a perfect way to apologize. It wasn’t as if Zuko could offer Sokka his other eye as reparation; even if he did try, Zuko had spent enough time with Sokka to know he wasn’t the type to accept that kind of offer. A pound of flesh for vengeance wasn’t Sokka’s style, but, something had to be done to make it right, and Zuko had… nothing.

Zuko sat up, letting the blanket fall from his chest to his lap. He rubbed at his right eye, which was tired, and sighed. 

He owed Sokka a debt. Clearly the bison hadn’t been enough. Zuko, however, wasn’t a prince anymore; he didn’t have the wealth to pay off his rudeness or the resources to fulfill a favor, and when it came to knowledge that could help the Avatar with the war, Zuko hadn’t been home in three years. He didn’t know what the current troop movements were. He didn’t know the current flag codes. He didn’t even know how many forces Azula had brought with her. 

His foot itched, like burns always did when they were healing, and Zuko reached down, scratching it, knowing he wasn’t supposed to but not particularly caring. He needed… advice, but as he glanced at Iroh again Zuko knew he wasn’t going to be able to ask. 

As he looked over the note, ink drying on the paper as the candle flickered beside his hand, Zuko felt more hatred for himself than he ever had before. This was all he could think of, this. An hour of thinking, of pouring words over in his head, pacing the length of the teashop as he circled the tables in a frenzy, clutching his hair and trying to come up with something. Anything.

He leaned his head on his hand, not caring that the paintbrush was spreading ink into his hair, and blinked at the note again. 


I apologize. I am sorry. 

That was it. That was all Zuko had written. The sun was an hour from rising in the sky and he’d been wracking his brain for what felt like an eternity and that was all Zuko could think of.

Zuko, in a fit, grabbed the nearest chair and raised it over his head, fully prepared to smash it into bits on the ground. Then he froze. 

Wincing, Zuko carefully put the chair back.

He went to the kitchen, made a pot of tea, heated up some leftover rice and brought it all back to the table where the note was ominously, horribly, empty. Zuko put the items down. Sat in the chair. Poured the tea. Tasted the tea, which turned out to have been jasmine so the fact Zuko had made tea by putting water in the pot and blasting it with his hands meant it was the worst jasmine tea he’d ever made. 

Zuko sighed and set the cup down at the table, frowning. Jasmine tea required a delicate touch; it was carefully heated and normally had flower petals in it, not just the bag Zuko had tossed in, the difficulty in brewing it correctly was one of the reasons Iroh was so proud. Zuko did not have a ‘delicate touch’. And as he looked at the two lines he’d written on the blank paper, he wasn’t sure he had any kind of skill in anything at all. 

Pretending to be a dead friend was, in hindsight, a very bad thing to do, Zuko thought miserably. He tore a piece of the bread and shoved it in his mouth to chew on. You were the one who put the idea out anyway. It’s not like I could have come up with it. His fingernails clacked on the wood surface of the table, frantic. If you think about it, maybe you were at fault too. Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to be smart?  

“Fuck,” Zuko muttered to himself. Maybe he should just write that. Maybe he should write every cursed thought that came to his head. Maybe he should write about how he wasn’t at fault because how was he expected not to take the opportunity to play someone else, someone who’d had a friend like Sokka, when that was such an enticing thought? 

Sokka, I apologize, I am sorry, Zuko thought, narrowing his eyes, so if you could just get out of my head and leave me alone I would very much appreciate it. What happened to ‘nothing else matters’ anyway? Yes, I attacked your village and your friends and your sister and hunted you and was completely aware if you knew who I was you wouldn’t have kissed me and I did it anyway, and I knew… did it anyway… I just

Suddenly, Zuko’s head hurt. He swallowed the rice. It was hard going down his throat, just a lumpy mass that didn’t separate, and he stared at the large blank section on the note as if it was purposefully tormenting him. The light of the candle flared while Zuko reached upward and grabbed his hair, holding it tight as he leaned over the paper, wondering half-heartedly if by getting closer to it that would help him come up with the right thing to say. 

How could he ever explain himself in a way that would be any help at all? Zuko didn’t know how to make someone feel better

I did want to betray you from the start. I also kept the fabric you tore from your shirt for me because I was your enemy and you were still concerned about me, and only my uncle is concerned about me, and maybe you should have considered the effect that has on people before you do that again

It wasn’t Sokka’s fault. Why did all his thoughts keep going back to that? Zuko wanted to scream and find Sokka and shake his shoulders until Sokka took the blame himself.

I just wanted to betray you, Zuko thought, his fingers painfully digging into his head as he did, you were the one who kept wanting to be closer. I mean, I did too, but how was I supposed to… you kept being happy to see me and that’s not fair. 

By the time the sun did come up, and Zuko had cleared his table of the undrunk tea and uneaten food so Iroh wouldn’t see, he had written one more sentence. 

I had a lot of fun with you. 

Iroh asked Zuko what he was holding at one point, and Zuko stuffed the letter back into his shirt and lied directly into his uncle’s face saying he’d ‘never held anything before’. Iroh looked at him like he was crazy. Zuko grabbed the broom and went outside to sweep in front of the shop. 

As the rest of the workers came in, they greeted Zuko while they walked by and Zuko had to shake his head to get his mind focused enough to say hello back. By the time the first customer arrived he’d ducked out of sight at the back of the shop, pressed against the wall, and supported the now wrinkled note on his knee as he painstakingly added to it, this time with charcoal. 

I only lied about the important things.

Zuko, for the first time since working there, asked Iroh for a lunch break instead of being forced to take one. He didn’t miss the flash of concern across his uncle’s eyes but chose to ignore it. 

Something dark in his stomach possessed him to add the next sentences. Though once he started, squirreled away upstairs with the ink in hand again, Zuko was confident in it. You’re as much to blame as me. I’m a bad person so that makes sense, but you’re supposed to be smart. Exactly. That made sense.

That was not right. It was terrible terrible terrible, why did he write that?!

Halfway through taking an order at a table of two, regret hit him like a slap in the face and Zuko raced away, ignoring everyone on the table, running back up the stairs as fast as he could until he reached the apartment again. Shaking hands unscrewed the bottle of ink and he dipped a generous amount onto the paintbrush and spread it heavily over those horrible words. 

He made three layers, even though he didn’t need to, and when he used firebending to try and dry the ink it singed the edges of the already crinkled note. 

Zuko breathed a sigh of relief as he stuffed the note back into his shirt. 

You have very nice eyes. No. Definitely not. The part where I pretended not to be able to talk was an especially bad move on my part. Why did he keep saying ‘I’? This wasn’t supposed to be about himself. Did other people have as hard a time keeping apologies from being selfish? 

Zuko was up to his elbows in dishes while Noh Te rambled beside him, perched up on the counter and tearing leaves as she spoke. Wide gestures. There was some kind of story she was telling. 

Zuko wasn’t… there. It was like nothing in the world was real besides the note in his pocket and the fervent desire to fill up the white space with something.

He grabbed a charcoal from beside Iroh’s hand and tucked himself into the space between the kitchen and the dining area, balancing the note on his sleeve. The second line he made pierced straight through the paper. Zuko closed his eyes for a long moment. Controlling the urge to scream.

He adjusted himself, put the note on the doorframe, and bit his mouth as he carefully added the next part. 

I did find your bison for you, so I did something good.

“Are you alright?”

Zuko tucked the note into his shirt again and blinked at Iroh. 

“Am I allowed to even ask?” His uncle asked him sourly.

Zuko walked away from him without a word, into the kitchen, and stood there doing nothing at all for two minutes until Geshen asked him to help. 

A bit later in the day, Zuko just walked upstairs and decided not to go back down until he was finished. The noises from below, the regular commotion of the tea shop, was somewhat calming to the chaotic wreck of ideas in his head as he sat down at the desk, pushing a book Iroh had been reading to the side, and took the note out of his shirt, spreading it on the wooden surface. Zuko found the paintbrush, the bristles now stiff and covered in dry ink, but it was fine.

Just a little more. There was still so much empty, white space, Zuko just needed to write a little bit more. 

Explain himself. Make it clear. He just wanted Sokka to know he hadn’t… done any of it to hurt him. Except he had. But not hurt him in that way.

I would, Zuko wrote slowly, watching each line forming beneath the stiff brush with wide eyes, do it again. Thank you. He left the brush on the page for a few moments, let it soak a blot of ink into the page as he stared at it. 

It wasn’t bad. At least, not the absolute worst Zuko could have come up with. This would… maybe. All he had to do was say it. 


I apologize. I am sorry. I had a lot of fun with you. 

I only lied about important things. I did find your bison for you, so I did something good. I would do it again. Thank you. 

Zuko read the words again and took a deep breath. Stuffing the note into his shirt again. Looking at the building in front of him. 

He felt vulnerable, exposed, dressed in the black clothing for the Blue Spirit without the mask. It still smelled too, like ash and fire, from the fight with Jet, and the cloak was heavier on his shoulders than he remembered it being. Worse still was the itch on his back, the extremely uncomfortable lack of weight from the scabbard because, for once, he’d left the dao swords behind. Instead, in his right hand, Zuko was holding a paper package of pastries wrapped with string and he had to fight the urge to grip it tight with his fists as his chest pounded with nervousness. 

Someone behind him made a loud comment that didn’t quite reach Zuko’s consciousness, and a person near them laughed. A woman walking in front of Zuko gave him a curious glance, her nose upturned like she could tell Zuko didn’t belong in this neighborhood. 

He certainly didn’t look it, dressed the way he was. Dark clothing and a hole in his shoe. Soot all down the side. If he had seen someone dressed like him in the caldera Zuko would have called the guards. 

He should’ve worn the uniform from the teashop. Zuko had just thought…

Zuko closed his eyes. Took a breath. And opened them. 

The Avatar’s Ba Sing Se house looked a little larger since the last time he’d seen it, though he had been on a roof at the time waiting for Sokka to leave so he could follow him. Zuko swallowed, and took a step toward the house, before his mind caught up to that the last thought. Had that been stalking?

Was this stalking? 

With a burst of energy Zuko walked briskly past the Avatar’s house, along the walls separating the building from the homes nearby, until he was suitably unseen between the wall and a nearby home and stopped. His hand really wanted to crush the package. Or grab something. Or punch the wall until all the nervousness building up inside of him got out. 

To his left there were a few old boxes stacked up in the alley, looking like they’d been there for awhile, and a few steps to the right there was a wooden pallet left abandoned by some old vegetable cart. Zuko took two steps right, then walked to the cart, then turned around, getting into the rhythm of pacing without fully realizing what he was doing with himself. 

“It’s not even that different,” Zuko mumbled under his breath, “I mean, I hunted them for months, it’s the same thing,” he was holding the package of pastries in two hands now, wrapping the ends of the strings between his fingers, “he did say he never wanted to see me again, but he also said secrets didn’t matter and the girl said he was upset- I mean, what if it’ll cheer him up?” The string wove in between a forefinger and a thumb and he rubbed it absentmindedly as his feet walked, spurred on by the rapid beating in his chest. “ I would want an apology. Would I? I hated when uncle did it-"

His feet stopped. Zuko brought one hand up to his mouth.  

There were some noises nearby, it was early evening but still light outside, but the presence of other people nearby wasn’t what gave him pause. It was the fact that the thought ‘What if I just leave?’ crossed his mind and accompanied with it was such a profound sense of relief.

He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to see Sokka again. He didn’t have to do this. 

Zuko sighed from deep in his stomach, exhaling the air slowly as some of the painful tension in his body left with it. He dropped the package on the ground and shoved his hand into his shirt, finding the note and holding it in front of him. 

It was a terrible apology anyway. Zuko pinched the paper between two fingers and glared at his own words, at the wrinkled state of it, blotched with ink, a hole in the middle, wondering why on earth he ever thought anything he ever said would work. I had fun, was he bragging? I’d do it again, that was such an idiotic thing to write in an apology, was he truly that stupid... He opened his fingers and let the note flutter to the ground beside the package, before he raised his foot and stomped. As the pastry fillings wet the side of the paper he stomped down again, covering the moronic offering with the dirt from the street; it was oddly satisfying. 

This was much better. He would go back, just forget this, forget this whole idea- why was he so reluctant to slip into the role of Lee anyway? Maybe he just needed time to let it sink into him. To lose himself somewhere between the handle of a broom and the smell of thirty flavors stinking the air. 

He turned, snorting, and shoved his hands into his cloak, taking two steps out the alley toward the main road before he saw the figure at the opposite end. 

Zuko froze. The Dai Li raised his chin, peering at Zuko from under the wide hat. For a moment, they looked at each other, until the agent raised his hand from under his robes, covered in the rock glove, and said sternly, “Halt.”

The Dai Li took a step forward. Zuko, not thinking, mirrored him by taking a step back. 

“I said halt!” The agent ordered, louder. “What business do you have here?”

Zuko wasn’t sure if he was recognizable without the Blue Spirit mask or not. Either way he didn’t want to get too close. He was a wanted man in Ba Sing Se, he couldn’t afford to be anything less than cautious. “Nothing,” Zuko said, carefully. He glanced to his right, though in that direction was just the wall to the Avatar’s home, and he couldn’t see to his left without turning his head and alerting the Dai Li any further. 

The Dai Li kept his hand raised toward him. “Are you aware whose house this is?”

Zuko thought of a lie. Zuko hated himself for it, but it was the first thing that came to mind. “It’s… the Avatar,” he said, wincing, “The Avatar’s house. I uh… big fan. Of the Avatar. I thought- I mean, I just love his work, uh, I wanted to see him.”

Even from several long yards away Zuko could see the Dai Li agent squinting with suspicion. 

“He’s my hero ,” Zuko forced himself to sound as enthusiastic as possible, “I was hoping to… get his autograph. On…” He didn’t have anything on him. Shit. He had to think of- “My face.” Why . What?!  “I wanted to get the Avatar to autograph my face.”

The Dai Li agent frowned at him. Then he lowered his hand back to his robe. “Look, kid, this house is under strict observation. By orders of… uh, the Earth King.”

“Oh?” Zuko asked, his voice shaking slightly. Of course it was. 

The Dai Li agent shook his head. “I know, I know,” he said, a sudden pleasant tone in his voice as he walked closer. “Look, I’m really sorry, but you missed him.”

Zuko tensed as the agent grew closer, not sure what to do, leaning back on his heels when the agent reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. 

“Sorry, kid,” the Dai Li agent said with sympathy, “the Avatar and his friends aren’t in Ba Sing Se right now, so even if I wasn’t here you wouldn’t have seen him.”

Why did Zuko feel disappointed?

The Dai Li agent, hand still on Zuko’s shoulder, pushed slightly, guiding him back to the main road. “I get it, honestly,” the man continued, “first time I saw the Avatar I was starstruck too, but I’m guessing you have a lot better things to be doing with your time than this.”

The Dai Li agent walked with Zuko back around toward the road. Unlike before, there weren’t any people in the street. Moments ago, there had been a girl playing with a doll, and a few scattered housewives, now it was empty but for the Dai Li. 

Seven of them. 

Zuko’s hands clenched at his sides. 

The Dai Li holding his shoulder didn’t seem to notice Zuko’s nervousness. “I’m sure you mean well,” he said kindly, “but you should really run along back home. Got it?”

Two Dai Li agents standing by the walls to the house, five more in the center of the street looking around them like they were watching for people nearby. Though the people of Ba Sing Se seemed to have answered the unspoken message as all the people who’d been nearby previously had vanished. The Dai Li made their appearance and the streets emptied. Now, as the agent on his shoulder passed by the larger group, there was only one other person nearby it seemed, who didn’t match. Zuko saw a flash of a familiar, out of place uniform.

He turned his head sharply away, careful to keep his scar from view of the others. 

“Got it?” The Dai Li repeated. 

“Yes, of course,” Zuko said quietly. His heartbeat pounded between his ears as he walked with the Dai Li, the man’s hand still clenched on his shoulder, head down as they passed the group. He couldn’t figure out why they’d be there, if the Avatar and his friends were gone. The Dai Li were likely still going to hold a grudge for the rescue of the bison but the timing was strange, so long after what had happened; Zuko knew whatever was happening here wasn’t good.

He didn’t want to interfere. Couldn’t afford to. He had to keep from anyone looking at him too closely and there was nothing to gain from sticking his nose in it anyway.

His feet tapped on the cobblestone of the walkway, one in front of the other, several paces past the group before the Dai Li let go of his shoulder and spoke. “Alright,” the man said, a bit of amusement in his tone, “you should run along home, kid.”

He couldn’t help chancing a glance behind him. Two Dai Li were standing at the gates to the Avatar’s home, the others all with their backs to Zuko as they faced the green-wearing warrior with a ceremonial gold headband who appeared to be giving instructions. 

“Hey, I said run along,” the Dai Li at Zuko’s side insisted. 

“Yes,” Zuko snapped back into himself, realizing quickly just how dangerous a position he was in when the Kyoshi warrior lifted her head just slightly in his direction. “I should go home.”

Good,” the Dai Li warned. 

Giving him a nod, something like a bow, as anxiety dropped in his chest Zuko continued away from whatever was happening. It wasn’t his problem. Besides, those warriors were on the Avatar’s side last he checked, whatever was going on between them and the Dai Li and the Avatar, had nothing to do with him. Stepping forward quickly, he muttered a curse under his breath, wishing he’d stuck to his plan not to leave the Jasmine Dragon

His hands tight at his sides, he walked quickly away from the scene, determined not to-

“Wait a second.”

Zuko took three more steps before it became clear, as the voice behind him continued, “You there, wait.” Deep breath. He could outrun them. He knew a way out, the moment he went underground Zuko could lose the Dai Li in the mess of an underground system that was Ba Sing Se; he stilled on the road. In his shoes, he clenched his toes, resting forward on the front pads of his feet, ready to bolt if he needed. 

“Um… agent Li, right? What’s this about?” The female voice grew a bit closer. 

“Just an Avatar fan, I was sending him off the streets like you ordered.”

“And you’re doing a great job.”

Zuko couldn’t help but look over at them. 

The Kyoshi warrior was short, two full heads under the height of the Dai Li she was talking to, though it was clear from the man’s tone that he knew just as well as Zuko did that the Kyoshi strong warriors were worthy of respect. His head was slightly bowed, with a bit of a smile on it from her praise. As for the warrior, she looked just the same as Zuko had remembered them from months ago, green uniform with armor over the shoulders and tied around the waist with a sash, golden accents, along with a fierce but feminine makeup masking her face. She was looking directly at Zuko. 

Her eyes widened, like she recognized him. Zuko’s stomach dropped. He didn’t know, intellectually, how she would have recognized him, with his shaggy full head of hair, wearing black clothes instead of his red armor - it wasn’t like he’d ever gotten that close to the warriors, certainly his scar wasn’t such a dead giveaway, not when the Earth Kingdom was full of other burned citizens? It would be a reach, by any stretch of imagination, to match him to the Prince of the Fire Nation. Wouldn’t it?

“Hi,” the Kyoshi warrior said. 

Zuko swallowed. 

She tilted her head and frowned. The looped braids alongside her head, and her wide-eyes seemed to emphasize a strange kind of innocence; it was off-putting, especially because Zuko could see by her stance she was more than ready to strike. “Aren’t you,” the Kyoshi warrior prompted, “going to say ‘hi’ back?”

The Dai Li beside her, along with the seven other Dai Li behind, all looked between them curiously. They seemed to know as much about what was going on as Zuko.

“Hi,” Zuko said stiffly.

The Kyoshi warrior took three, rapid, steps forward. 

Scrambling, Zuko matched her and took three steps away. 

Hey,” she said with a deeper frown, “what are you doing?”

“I-“ Did she recognize him? Could she? He could play it off, though, certainly without Jet throwing any accusations his way, and the Avatar and his companions out of town, there was no one to add weight to any suspicions the Kyoshi warrior would have. “I’m just passing through.”

“What are you talking about?” The Kyoshi warrior seemed offended. 

Zuko’s fingers twitched at his sides. He didn’t have his swords. He was alone. Eight Dai Li. This Kyoshi warrior. Him without a weapon. 

“Hold on, I…” Zuko tried to smile, best as he could, and raised his hands in a gesture he hoped was non-threatening. “I’m just heading on home.”

The Kyoshi warrior blinked at him, wide brown-gray eyes, and for a moment just stared while Zuko stared back. 

Zuko was missing something. He knew it. There was some sort of energy between the both of them, and perhaps the Dai Li could sense it because the nearest one stepped aside. She wasn’t acting the way a warrior who meant a man who attacked her village would be; she was just standing in front of him, looking confused, in a pose just like his - anticipating action but not initiating it. Something was off. 

“This is kind of,” the Kyoshi warrior said quietly, in a startlingly emotional tone, “I don’t know. I never saw it in person, just heard about it. I wish I had, I did, I did try to see you.”

Zuko let his hands slowly lower back down. The Dai Li were just waiting, watching to see what the two of them were going to do; Zuko wished he knew. Slowly, his gaze following the Kyoshi warrior carefully, he shifted his weight off his right foot and extended it just a few inches behind, raising his weight onto the pads of his feet. “I don’t mean any trouble,” he said cautiously, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“What?” The Kyoshi warrior’s eyes hardened before something crossed her face. She raised a hand to her cheek, as if just realizing she was wearing makeup, but even then when she lowered her hand and frowned she seemed confused. “It hasn’t been that long.” And then, her voice dropping to a whisper, “Has it?”

“I- we haven’t met before,” Zuko lied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Kyoshi warrior raised her fist up by her ear. Then, answering to her command, the Dai Li began to move. 

An alarm rang inside Zuko’s head, screaming at him to go, and he looked frantically to his left and right, trying to figure out the best direction to run. He stepped backward, his heel hit a raised stone that hadn’t been there before, and he knew he only had a second. Quickly he-

“It’s me,” the Kyoshi warrior said, “remember? C’mon, Zuko, it shouldn’t be that hard, right?”


Something far beyond panic shivered across him, raising every hair on his body and every last inch of him tensed in panic. He looked at her. And then, when she smiled, a bit sad but still wide and chipper, Zuko got it. 

Zuko fucking knew it. He’d been right and Iroh hadn’t listened.

The Dai Li marched around his sides, forming a circle around him and Zuko let them. Stunned. Staring back at her as she looked at him. The agents moved. Wide-brimmed hats and armor-covered soldiers in earth bending stances, creating a wall of bodies not unlike the plethora of walls in Ba Sing Se, leaving the two of them inside it. Together. 

He didn’t know why, but his voice shook when he finally said, “Ty Lee.”

Ty Lee, disguised as a Kyoshi warrior in accurate costume with her face covered in makeup, rocked slightly on her feet as she tucked her hands behind her back and beamed at him. “Yeah!” She was enthusiastic. She seemed happy to see him. 

Zuko felt extremely cold, a chill settling deep into his bones, shivers from head to foot. Realization. “You’re all here,” he stated. 

“Are you asking about Mai?” Ty Lee asked curiously. 

“I’m not asking,” Zuko told her. He adjusted the clenched fist at his side. 

Ty Lee. Eight Dai Li earthbenders. No one else on his side, no one was coming. Zuko had made sneaking out into a habit, so there was no possibility Iroh would have followed. Iroh, who didn’t believe Azula could have gotten into Ba Sing Se in the first place. 

“Don’t worry,” Ty Lee said seriously, “it’s all fine. Azula has a plan.”

Zuko nodded at her. Ty Lee took a step forward. Zuko took a step back. 

“I mean it,” Ty Lee promised, raising her palms in the air, “I do.”

Right,” Zuko said through gritted teeth. 

Ty Lee frowned at him. “Why are you…” she gestured toward him vaguely, “there’s no need for all the negative energy. Gosh, your aura is absolutely muddy, did you know that?” She didn’t wait for Zuko’s answer, continuing, “I’m just glad to see you, you know. If anything, I should have the negative energy. I left a pamphlet for you at every port in the colonies with all our local shows. It was really disappointing that you never came to see me.” 

Zuko had no idea what to make of that. Of any of this. Of her tone. “I was… busy,” he said awkwardly. 

“It’s a circus, it’s supposed to be fun, you could’ve- oh, I dunno, just popped in when you were in town?” Ty Lee pointed out. 

The Dai Li that were in view behind her looked absolutely lost as they listened to this conversation. 

“I… didn’t want to go to the circus,” Zuko explained.

“Who doesn’t love the circus? They have taikomochi, and funny animals in outfits, and acrobats. Who wouldn’t wanna see that,” she continued, as if that was supposed to make her point for her. 

Zuko blinked. “Me?”

Ty Lee put her hand on her hip and frowned at him. “You didn’t want to see me at all?” She asked. 

“I-“ Zuko glanced around at his situation carefully. “I guess I didn't want you to see me,” he said, distracted, as he figured something out. 

When he brought his attention back to Ty Lee, something had changed in her stance, her shoulders were slumped slightly and she looked… vulnerable. “Oh, Zuko,” she said quietly, “I just wish-"

This was his chance. Zuko punched his fist in the air, calling fire from his chest down his arm and it exploded outward from his knuckles. He had no time to think, dropped to his hands, spun himself on his palm and erupted fire from his heel in the direction of the Earth benders. Someone yelled. Zuko bolted forward. 

Ty Lee yelled something and grabbed for him as he passed, catching a handful of the cloak with one hand. Her other hand lowered at breakneck speed toward his side. Zuko sparked fire from his mouth toward her, jabbing to the center of her armor with his knee. She let go. 

He turned his head only just in time to duck underneath a coming rock hand at his face. Rolling forward, one of his hands untied the cloak from his shoulders as he kicked fire out behind him. 

Zuko ran forward, throwing the cloak onto the nearest Dai Li soldier before he could finish his kata. He shot a flame whip toward another. Sprinting with all his strength. Jumping in the air toward the wall of the compound. Only seconds to spare. Fuck, he had it, this-

His left hand lurched away from his side and slammed painfully into the wall. Knuckles against stone.

As his body jerked forward toward the wall, the same happened to his right arm, and Zuko watched with widening eyes as three knives flew into his direction, pinpoint accuracy, striking directly into his clothing and missing his skin by only the barest measure. In a split second, two blinks of an eye, he was trapped. Pinned against the wall. Then, before he could even struggle to move, Ty Lee flitted to his side and jabbed her fingers into a pressure point against his neck. 

The breath left his body with a start, as if someone had reached a hand into his lungs and stolen all the air inside. His eyes were swimming, neck heavy, and he struggled to even move. 

“What are you doing,” a monotone, bored, voice asked only a few yards away. 

She was here too. Of course. It was like a reunion.

Look,” Ty Lee urged her. 

Zuko, grinding his teeth painfully in a snarl, raised his shaking head to look directly into Mai’s face. Tawny eyes. Slim. Growing ever-wider as they saw Zuko.

In a choked voice, Mai said simply, “Oh.”

The Dai Li held his hands tightly in front of him, clenched together underneath a layer of folded rock like manacles, bound far stronger than rope ever could. Most of them began to leave, marching off from the regular formation as the stone pathway was overtaken with an ornate rug under foot, disappearing behind pillars in either direction, two at a time. 

It was a truly impressive palace. The third Zuko had seen in his life, this one so very different from the ornate, rich features of home or the imposing craftsmanship of the north. Everything made to be huge, natural lighting from immense windows, gigantic stone pillars rising to ceilings three houses high, beautiful green tapestries that overtook entire sections of a wall, endless stone steps and doors only able to be opened by earthbending due to their incredible size, giving way to the chamber. The chamber with the rug. The long, incredible, exquisitely patterned rug that led straight toward a throne with a figure inside, cross-legged, still too far away to truly see. Zuko knew. He knew her. He knew her presence as familiar as his own hand, as natural as breathing, and the thought of her sent a shiver down his back.

Mai and Ty Lee were only just in front of him, still somewhat at his side, as if preparing for Zuko to be stupid enough to run. 

Azula had won. Azula had beaten the Earth King. Azula had conquered Ba Sing Se when a hundred years of the greatest generals could not, just as Zuko had known she could; and he was being marched to her as a prisoner, after openly defying his father's orders, after attacking her, and while he was going to almost certain death or worse. Still, there was yet a part of his head that just kept thinking about how strange it was that the four of them were together again after so long apart. 

Mai would shift her eyes to Ty Lee, then return them in front; Ty Lee would turn her head to look at Mai and flit her gaze back at Zuko, something unreadable on her face, before returning. Azula waited at the end of a short walk following a long march to the palace. 

His feet kept moving, bringing them all closer together, and he could feel the rug through the hole in his shoe. 

It was surreal, watching Azula grow closer and more in focus as Ty Lee and Mai walked at his side. There was a strange aspect to this. In every step, in his breath, in the way he just walked forward toward her and she waited patiently on the top of a throne. He probably had nightmares like this as a child. Maybe that’s why it was so oddly normal. Or perhaps he’d always expected this, in the back of his head, that one day he’d be brought before his little sister and expected to bow.

Then he was at the bottom of the steps. The final two Dai Li peeled off to the sides of the chamber, standing by the farthest doors. 

Zuko looked upward at her. She was wearing Earth kingdom clothing and sitting, relaxed, above him with perfect nails clutching the stone edges of the throne, a smirk across her red lips as he followed his gaze. Azula’s eyes flashed at him, as if she knew something he couldn’t understand. Mai and Ty Lee walked a few steps forward to sit on the steps in front of him. She waited. Smug. 

He knew he should say something, that’s what they were waiting for. Azula was probably ready to savor the sound of him begging, but the first thing that came to Zuko’s mind passed through without a filter and he said, barely thinking at all, “Do you always wear makeup now?”

Azula frowned down at him. 

That was a strange thing to say, Zuko knew it. He hadn’t been able to help himself. Everything about this moment was strange. “This is the third time I’ve seen you,” he continued, “you’re still wearing makeup.”

“Are you-“ Azula leaned forward and glared. “Well, what about your hair? At least before you had some structure to it, even if it represented your shame at the Agni Kai. Now you just look like a peasant.” 

Ty Lee giggled. 

“I know,” Zuko said dryly.

“And what are you wearing,” Azula scoffed, “you look absolutely ridiculous. Doesn’t he look ridiculous, Mai?”

“Sure,” Mai deadpanned. 

“It makes more sense with the mask,” Zuko explained. 

Azula snorted and stood up from the throne. “Oh, I know,” she said slyly, “obviously it was you. I’d recognize Mother’s little costume anywhere.” She took one step down, toward him, fire in her eyes. “You really messed up, you know? Didn’t you… free the Avatar from Fire Nation custody?”

Zuko frowned at her and didn’t answer. 

Azula made a ‘tsk’ noise between her teeth as she took the rest of the steps slowly, her hands behind her back. “I assume the old general is still alive, it’s not like you could find a way into Ba Sing Se on your own.”

If he wanted to, he probably could have just waited for night and scaled the wall, maybe hidden himself amongst a pile of incoming supplies; he could have figured something out, if he’d needed to, if he’d been desperate enough, though Zuko felt it best not to make an argument for that. Defending himself from Azula had always been pointless. 

Azula drew closer; he made a move to step back when he realized he couldn’t. 

The Dai Li had pinned his feet to the ground, covering him in rock. He was immobile. Trapped even more than he had been before. And he hadn’t even noticed it happening, too preoccupied with everything else. 

“Well,” Azula, pausing before the last step, looked to her right and left at Ty Lee and Mai, “what do you think?”

“About what?” Mai asked dully. 

“I mean, this greeting,” Azula put her hand on her hip and frowned, her eyes snapping back to meet Zuko’s. “You’ve been so mean to me since I came to visit you, Zuko.”

Zuko stared at her.

“You have. All I’ve been is generous, it’s not like being sent home as a prison was necessarily such a bad thing, you could have trusted me instead of that old man you like so much. I mean,” a wicked smile crossed her face, “honestly, Zuzu, didn’t you miss me?”

Did he? No. Maybe. Not this Azula.


He’d missed Azula since she was seven years old. Even when they were at each other's side, even when he saw her every day, he started missing her right after her bite changed from playful to vicious. 

Azula took the last step to stand level with him, just a few inches shorter but with a presence to her of a woman eight foot tall, and leaned forward to look directly into his face. “You missed me,” she said firmly. 

Zuko didn’t know what game this was but, as always, he was clearly losing. 

“Yes,” Azula stated. She looked at him. 

Zuko frowned and met her eyes. 

Azula raised her left hand, palm out, and Zuko didn’t know what she was doing but there was a look on her face. The pit in his stomach only grew. He watched, his anxiety spiking, as she lifted her hand to his eye level. 

Manicured, perfect nails, reaching like a claw toward his face. 

Zuko flung his body backward, flinching so hard from her hand it physically hurt. His feet were trapped on the stone, keeping him in place, and he landed harshly on his back, ankles screaming in pain from the unexpected movement. The pain of his body was secondary to the panic that had risen in his mind. He stared at Azula from the ground, still standing where she’d been, fingers clenching into her palm, looking annoyed. 

Really,” she said, rolling her eyes. Turning to look at one of the Dai Li, all she had to do was flick her wrist upward and the man stepped forward into a bending pose. He spread his stance out and punched a palm upward and the stone under Zuko’s back shot up, forcing him to stand again, as the rocks clinging to his feet began to rise, higher upward, until they were up to his waist. 

Zuko could barely twist his upper body to protest, as Azula reached her hand out again. She covered his right eye with her palm, blinding him, and Zuko froze. 

He could feel her nails against the side of his face and his ear. 

Then Azula was giggling. 

“That’s…” he heard Ty Lee’s voice, sounding reluctant which was acutely familiar to him, “what are you doing? Just wondering?”

“Oh, calm down,” Azula said loudly, “I’m not actually going to stab him.”

Zuko flinched. 

“I just wanted to see if it worked,” she pulled her hand away. 

Ty Lee was standing, her hands clasped in front of her, staring; Mai was leaning forward, tense. They both were looking at Zuko, but whatever their expressions were meaning to say, they faded to neutrality the moment Azula looked backward and rolled her eyes at them. 

Azula pulled the knife away from Zuko’s forehead. 

“His eye doesn’t, clearly,” Azula said, tossing her head as if one of the strands of perfectly coiffed hairs on her head had gone out of place. It hadn’t. She flipped the knife in her hand, seemed to look at Mai but Zuko could only see the back of her head, before slipping the weapon into a pocket in the front of her gown. “Oh, don’t look like that, Zuzu,” she said when she turned around, “I’m only teasing.”

Zuko took a breath. 

“Oh come on,” Azula said, clearly irritated, “don’t be mad. I swear, you have no idea what I do for you.”

“What are you going to do with me?” He asked her, surprised his voice was so steady. 

“Ah,” Azula stepped backward. She rose up the steps, reversing toward the throne, grinning down below her. “That’s what you’re all waiting to find out, isn’t it?”

Strangely, Zuko realized she wasn’t just talking to him now. Azula sat back at the throne, casting her gaze between all three of them, seeming to revel in Ty Lee’s nervous smile, the twitch in Mai’s eye, and what, Zuko knew, was his own anxious expression. 

“Everyone is waiting for me,” Azula breathed, excited. She sat back down on the Earth Kingdom’s throne. “All the world is waiting for me to make my next move. And the three of you, you have no idea, do you? Isn’t it thrilling? Mai? Ty Lee? Brother?”

Brother. Zuko felt something inside him grow brittle at the worlds, and though his every muscle was tense and his teeth clenched against each other, ready for a fight, there was something else too. Something inside him ready to break. 

“I can’t wait, Azula,” Ty Lee said brightly, leaning back on the steps.

Mai shrugged. 

“It’s rather impressive, isn’t it?” Azula sighed, looking nonchalant despite clearly being proud of herself and happy to brag. “And then Ty Lee brings you, which, honestly I had thought I would have to search for you, but you made it so easy.” She laughed, which sounded extremely hollow in the large chamber, and then the laughter cut off immediately. Azula leaned forward. Her eyes staring straight at Zuko, relentless. “Were you trying to get away from me?”

What,” Zuko repeated angrily, “are you going to do with me?”

“Were you hiding from me?” She asked loudly. 

“You have me,” Zuko snapped at her, “what next?

“Were you?” Azula interrogated, leaning forward even more on her throne, “Tell me if you were. Tell me.”

“Tell me what you want!”

“I’m the one in charge!” She yelled, jumping to her feet. “I’m on the throne, Zuko! You have to listen to me!”

The rocks holding him in place kept him from stomping toward her, from waving his hands or screaming in her face, but he still struggled against them as he glared at her, furious. 

Azula raised two fingers in front of her face and set them ablaze, blue fire shooting outward from the tips of her nails. “You will listen to me,” she snarled at him, “or I’ll finish the job Father started on your face.”

Zuko flinched. He was ashamed of it immediately, hated the fact that all she had to do was remind him and he balked under the words. It boiled up inside him, inner fire pounding in his chest, as the indignity of his situation grated every ounce of the meager strands of pride he had left.

Azula raised one eyebrow as she closed her hand to snuff out the flame. “That got your attention, didn’t it?” She said smugly. 

“You can force me to listen,” Zuko told her, grinding his teeth, “you can’t make me reply.”

“You aren’t in any…” she started to say.

“Oh, Azula,” Zuko mocked, sneering as he lifted the ends of his words, laying every syllable with the thickest scorn possible, “I missed you, so much. Wow, look how great you are. I couldn’t wait to see you again-"

Azula’s eyes widened. 

“I lay in bed every night thinking, oh, how is my baby sister doing,” he continued, not caring as Mai and Ty Lee gave him horrified looks, “I missed you so much; I couldn’t wait to see you again. Poor little Azula.”

Her hands clenched tightly at her sides.

Little ‘ Zula-"

“Don’t you dare-!”

Baby ‘Zula, all alone at home with Father-"

“Shut him up,” Azula yelled, “now!”

Zuko had only a second. Just enough time to shout back, “I’m listening!” before a ring of rocks shot up from the ground, circling his mouth and forcing his jaw shut. 

Azula was breathing hard. Staring at him, eyebrows furrowed together and eyes flashing in anger. 

“Azula?” Ty Lee asked quietly. 

Azula closed her eyes, took a deep breath in through her nose, and when she opened them again she smiled. Pleasant. All teeth. Eyes flashing with fury. Like an actor who had forgotten the top half of their mask. “Anyway,” she said, lifting her chin upward, “Mai. Escort Zuzu to the catacombs. I have things to do, and maybe a little time in the dungeon will help him remember his place.”

Zuko met her eyes and glared back at her, matching her anger with his own.

The rocks binding his hands and mouth crumbled off him as he fell, though he still landed hard, not having enough time to get his hands to help break his fall. One extra annoying little pebble had fallen in just the place to dig into his side in an extra painful spot when he hit the ground, so despite the fall being jarring Zuko immediately turned himself over. 

His eyes were swimming as he looked around the strangely well lit place where the chute had brought him. 

The entrance area was small. There was a short tunnel of to the side of it that led into a much larger area, an ancient underground pool built by human hands, a part of the old Ba Sing Se that had long since been built over and forgotten. Despite being underground, and seemingly long since abandoned, the water in the pool was crystal clear. 

He splashed some on his face, reorienting himself, as he continued searching in the faint hope of finding an exit where there clearly wasn’t one. This was a pocket, a small cave under the palace only accessible in and out by either the chute or with Earth bending. There were no means of escape he could find, except the small opening in the water that allowed a river to gently ease in and out of the pool from an underground spring, though despite how hard he tried Zuko couldn’t fit. The rocks around it were still, strong, his arm and part of his shoulder could get inside but he wasn’t able to wiggle the rest of his body through. 

The whole area was lit with marvelous, twinkling geodes that appeared to thrive in this environment. They hung off the ceiling and jutted up from the floor in groups, glowing eerily green.

Zuko walked along the stone chiseled floorway of the main chamber, drying his clothes off with the same rudimentary technique he’d invented to heat his uncle’s slippers, and held his arms tight to his chest. He counted the time, feeling the heat of the sun far away from him and slowly dipping toward whatever horizon. 

At one point he touched one of the crystals, half expecting it to sting or snap at him with electricity, though it was just a rock. The sun grew lower. 

In the middle of the night, he heard a clacking noise by the chute where he’d come in and made his way back to the smaller cave to find a water jug alongside a heavily seeded loaf of bread. Someone was looking out for him. Or had a little pity. Although, it could always be Azula wanting to be sure he was in his right mind when she eventually came down to make him pay. 

He ate, leaned his back to one of the crystals, and wished he still had the cloak as he curled his knees to his chest and attempted to sleep. 

He dreamed about the turtleduck pond, tearing pieces of seeded bread from his skin to feed the animals that cowered under the surface, while Azula, six years old and soft, dragon lilies woven in her hair, clung to his arm and asked him over and over again if he missed her. 

After he woke up he went to the main chamber and ran through his katas, screaming as hard as he could, blasting fire from the innermost place in his chest as he tried to burn that image away. 

Zuko heard the chute open again, a bit closer to noon this time, though whatever provisions fell this time made less of a clatter and more of a whump . Someone had shouted down in the chute, but it was muffled and Zuko hadn’t heard what was said.

He leaned down to toss water over the sweat on his face, breathing heavily from exertion, before making his way back to the smaller chamber. His feet rounded the corner, carrying him along, when he saw a new color interrupting the gray and green. 

Groaning, brushing dirt from his blue leather clothing, Sokka eased himself up the floor with a groan. 

He didn’t see Zuko at first. 

Sokka didn’t seem so different from the last time Zuko saw him, same blue leather tunic and wolftail, though he did seem… smaller than Zuko remembered. Not that Sokka was, particularly, that much smaller than Zuko. A bit shorter and certainly scrawny, yes, but for the most part the boisterous and loud personality Sokka possessed would fill up so much space he always seemed larger than he was; but now, since he was just on the ground, sitting up, there was nothing there to fill that empty space. It was just… him. 

The lighting in the cave cast longer, dark shadows on him, as Sokka groaned and sat up on his knees, rubbing the side of his head, muttering something under his mouth, thick eyebrows furrowing tight together as he scowled. Then Sokka looked up. 

Zuko noticed Sokka’s eyes had dark circles around then, like he hadn’t been sleeping. Then those eyes widened in disbelief when they saw Zuko and Sokka just stared

Water from the crystals on the ceiling dripped down the crystals below. Metal creaked. Zuko could hear the miniscule movement of dirt under his feet as he shifted his weight awkwardly. 

Sokka didn’t do anything. Just looked at him. An expression on his face that Zuko couldn't place, surprise mixed with something, but the warrior was stiff as if the mere sight of Zuko had frozen him in place. 

Zuko thought the Avatar and his companions had left Ba Sing Se. Had they come back? Did they leave Sokka behind? It didn’t make any sense for them to leave Sokka behind; it didn’t make any sense for Sokka to be here, except in that it was an extension of the depths of Zuko’s bad luck to have absolutely everything possible go wrong, the spirits stacking on new torments on top of others as cosmic punishment. In that case, it made perfect sense, although Zuko couldn’t imagine anything Sokka could have done to deserve this. 

Zuko, grimacing, raised his hand in greeting and just said, “Hello.”

Chapter Text

Sokka blinked at Zuko, stunned.

He was propped up by his arms, legs out behind him, as if he’d been turned into stone in the middle of standing to his feet, which actually seemed accurate. The very sight of each other had rendered them both to a state of shock. Waiting for something. The blank, confused feeling radiating off Sokka’s entire body perfectly expressed everything in Zuko’s head.

Slowly, Zuko lowered his hand back down. Had ‘hello’ somehow been a wrong thing to say? “I-" He opened his mouth to say something else but the words caught in his throat, Sokka was just staring at him, and Zuko knew he’d broken the promise for Sokka never to see him again, but it wasn’t exactly like he could have controlled this meeting, and what was he doing here? Why was he looking like that? 

Sokka closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“It’s… Zuko?” Zuko said, his toes twitching in his shoes.

Sokka’s eyes flew open.

“I know who you are!” He yelled, full force. The sudden, explosive sound of his voice carried in the chamber and echoing past them toward the main hall. The words, and anger, rang in Zuko’s ears, swallowing every other noise for a long moment. 

Eventually the silence of the chamber came back, along with Zuko’s own heartbeat pulsating through his ears as blood rushed into his head. Sokka was still glaring at him. 

Nearly a full minute had passed, but Zuko, for some reason, replied, “You seemed confused?”

Sokka’s mouth dropped open. Zuko counted; Sokka blinked eight times before he did anything else. 

Pulling himself up onto his feet, Sokka groaned, stretched his arms, brushed dirt off the side of his legs and then reached to his back. There was that unique scabbard strapped to him, where it always was, except it was empty. 

“The Dai Li took your weapons?” Zuko asked him.

Sokka bit his lip. For a split second, he seemed vulnerable, but then his eyebrows furrowed together and he narrowed his eyes to glare at Zuko. Sokka had a very impactful scowl, Zuko thought. He’d liked that look on Sokka’s face a lot more when it had been directed to Jet. 

“They,” Sokka said angrily, crossing his arms and standing with a wide stance, clearly unafraid even in front of a firebender, “took my boomerang.”

“Probably a smart move on their part,” Zuko said. He meant it as a compliment, though even as he was saying it he knew it sounded wrong.

Sokka’s reaction to that was a deeper scowl and a flash of pure rage in his eyes. “What about you?”

Zuko said, his words harsher than he meant them to be, “They can’t exactly take away my bending.” Then, as the regret hit him instantly, “Not that I’m insulting you for not being a bender!”

Sokka’s expression didn’t change. He just said, still scowling, “What.”

Zuko was doing it again. He knew he was doing it again. He was fucking everything up and making it worse. “See,” he continued, holding his hands forward, palms out, “just because you're not a bender doesn’t mean something is wrong with you.”

“What,” Sokka repeated dryly.

“Non-benders have their use, too, is what I mean,” Zuko said, stumbling over his words, “and you’re plenty useful.”

Okay,” Sokka said, in a harsh tone of voice that had Zuko freezing in place. 


“Yeah, non-benders have their use,” Sokka uncrossed his arms, “everyone has to have a use in the Fire Nation, don't they?”

“It’s…” He wasn’t sure where he was going, or how he’d gotten into this, or why- “I’ve known lots of non-benders who are stilled without weapons.”

“Like smiley-girl?” Sokka asked angrily. 

Zuko stared at him for a moment. Then it clicked. “Ty Lee?”

“I don’t know… let’s see,” Sokka said, raising his arms over his head, “she’s Fire Nation, has a stupid expression on her face, likes to jab people with her fingers, is currently in a Kyoshi warrior uniform?!”

Zuko nodded. “That’s Ty Lee.”

Sokka turned away from him, walked three steps backward toward one of the glowing crystals protruding from the floor, and hit it with his hand. Bare palm slapping hard on rock. Then he yelled, waved the hand over by his side and grabbed it, rubbing his hands, having clearly injured himself in his frustration.

Not knowing what to do, Zuko just stayed where he was, as if his feet had been shackled to the floor again. 

“Okay,” Sokka mumbled under his breath, still rubbing his hand as he turned around, “okay, okay, okay.” He leaned his back against the rock, looking down for a moment before he turned his eyes back to Zuko. “You know all of them?” 

“Who?” Zuko asked. 

“Are you- ugh,” Sokka gritted his teeth, which Zuko could see despite the distance between them, “the girls. In the Kyoshi warrior uniforms? The one who have been hunting us?”

“My sister and her friends?” Zuko asked, utterly perplexed because of course he knew them. 

“Of course you know them,” Sokka said.

“Of course,” Zuko repeated. 

Sokka groaned and slapped himself in the forehead. “Of course.”

Zuko had to bite back the urge to just say ‘of course’ again out of sheer awkwardness and lack of anything else coming to mind. 

“Well… then what-“ Sokka looked away from him as he crossed his arms over his chest again, “what are you doing here?”

Zuko shifted his weight between his feet. “I…” He wasn’t entirely sure, actually, having no idea what his sister wanted with him. Whatever it was couldn’t be good, it never had been with Azula; after how he’d spoken to her before he could only guess whatever she had planned for him would only get worse. “Waiting,” was the answer he finally gave. 

“What are you waiting for?” Sokka demanded. 

“Judgement, I think,” Zuko said. He looked upward toward the chute. 

“Judgement for what? Being a psycho jerk?”

“No.” Zuko kept his gaze focused on the chute, not wanting to look at Sokka any longer. This moment with Sokka was, in itself, a punishment. It was hard to wrap his mind around the fact that whatever was waiting next for him was certainly going to be worse. Azula had every right, by any law, to do whatever she wished to him and he’d fed that fire; a traitor to the Fire Nation could be dealt with in whatever manner a ranking officer saw fit. “Failing to capture the Avatar,” he said, his voice coming out strangely empty of any feeling, “facilitating the Avatar’s escape from the Pohuai Stronghold, disrupting Admiral Zhao’s invasion at the North Pole, refusing to submit to arrest afterwards, fighting my sister and assisting in the Avatar’s escape again, and releasing the bison from the Dai Li custody since it appears they’re under Azula’s command.”

Saying all of that, one after another, was the first time Zuko had actually counted everything he’d done. 

“Oh,” Zuko said quietly, as his own words sunk into his chest. He was going to die.

“Pohuai… so you’ve been the Blue Spirit the whole time?” Sokka’s voice sounded suddenly extremely far away. “Did Aang know?”

He was going to be executed.

“Uh… Zuko…”

They could do it any time she wanted. Zuko could be dead before his uncle even knew he’d been captured.

“I know you’re Fire Nation, but you’re looking a little extra-pale.”

He should have groveled. He should have begged. He shouldn’t have yelled at her. Why hadn’t he realized how much trouble he was in until right now?! 

The wall in front of his eyes started sliding and that’s when Zuko came back into himself, enough to realize he’d lost all his balance. Taking rapid steps backward, he tried to keep himself upright but only ended walking straight back into the stone wall; knees shaking, he slid down to the ground. It was better, better on the ground, he could shut his eyes to stop the world from spinning in front of him, try to breathe, get any control over himself that he could. He was going to get put down, like a treacherous dog that had stepped out of line and bitten back. 

A sharp sudden pain to his head might have brought him back to reality, though it didn’t stop the panic rising in his chest. It made it worse. 

Zuko looked upward, lifting his head from his knees, to see Sokka standing over him with his hand out to his side as if he’d slapped him. Which, judging from the stinging above his left ear, Sokka had.

“Um,” Sokka said, looking down at him. 

Zuko blinked. 

“You, uh,” Sokka said, taking a step backward with wide eyes, “you have to stay… not freaking out. Because if you freak out, I’m going to freak out and…”

Zuko blinked again. 

“I-“ Sokka’s voice squeaked a bit as he continued, “I have a lot of questions for you.”

The tight feeling in Zuko’s chest expanded tenfold, and he must have made some kind of expression because Sokka gave him a horrified look. 

“Uh… take…” Sokka said, scratching one of his forearms and looking away, “let’s just… five minutes, okay. Just pull yourself together.”

Zuko returned to the chamber, the water jug filled from the fountain in the other room, and held it tight with both of his hands. He walked along, one foot directly in front of the other, slowly toward Sokka. 

Sokka was leaning, his back against one of the crystals, one leg spread out and the other bent where he could lazily rest his elbow on it. He watched Zuko coming toward him. Sokka’s face wasn’t blank, but it was so full of so many emotions that Zuko couldn’t even begin to decipher it. 

Zuko held the water jug out to him. 

Sokka raised a suspicious eyebrow, paused, but then took the water. 

As Zuko sat down across from him, Zuko’s back against the stone cave wall, Sokka uncorked the jug and took a long drink. While he did, Zuko found himself suddenly preoccupied with every aspect of what his body was doing, how he was sitting down, what he was doing with his hands, the way his hair had started falling everywhere over his face and making the back of his neck itch. After some shuffling, he ended up crossing his legs, putting his hands on his knees, sitting up straight like he was preparing for a lesson. 

Sokka put the cork back in the canteen and sighed. 

There was occasional rumbling overhead, Earthbenders moving in the palace above and the ground between them, sometimes shaking down dirt from the ceiling onto them below. It happened again now, causing the green crystal light to flicker around the chamber, creating startling patterns along the floor and ceiling before it returned to normal, glowing against Sokka’s back, lighting the sides of him and casting a deep shadow over the rest. 

Sokka looked at Zuko expectantly. Zuko looked back at him, knowing Sokka wanted something but having no idea what it was. 

Eventually, Sokka sighed and rolled his eyes. “Look I don’t… as long as we’re down here, we might as well…” He was reaching into his shirt for something. 

“Why are you down here?” Zuko asked him. 

Sokka took his empty hand out of his shirt and frowned. “I dunno,” he answered with a roll of his eyes, “I guess I just really love getting held prisoner by megalomaniacal princesses.”

Zuko lowered his head to rest against his hand, balancing his elbow on his thigh; posing as if he was casually sitting but the tension in his body was anything but. Sarcasm, at least Sokka made it easy to tell considering he’d laced every word with as much scorn as a human could be capable of. “I was told,” Zuko explained, “the Avatar and his companions left Ba Sing Se.”

“Yeah,” Sokka lowered his eyes to the floor, “everyone did. For the most part.”

“You came back?” Zuko asked with disbelief. It had barely been two days since he’d seen the Earthbending girl. “Already?”

“No, I stayed behind.”


Why?! Why do you think?!” Sokka raised his face, suddenly full of fury, and shouted, “Because of you!”

Zuko jolted backward. His mouth opened slightly, staring at the rage in Sokka’s eyes.

Anger which melted, almost instantly, as Sokka’s face fell. “Because of you,” Sokka said, quieter, turning his face away again. “I…”

He stopped talking for a long moment but Zuko didn’t feel like he could interrupt the silence. Zuko wouldn’t even know where to begin. So he just waited for Sokka to continue. 

Eventually, Sokka did. “I had a chance to see my father,” he said, soft and bitter, “Katara even encouraged me to go, and after so long I… all I’ve wanted, for years, was to see my father again.”

Zuko’s chest ached. 

“But I couldn’t face him,” Sokka leaned forward and rested his chin on his knee, “not after everything, not after getting tricked so badly by… and someone had to stay behind to present the plan of attack to the generals. I told Katara to go instead.”

Zuko stared at him, at his downcast eyes, the slumped shoulders, and wanted to say something. “I,” he tried, wishing more than anything he still had the excuse to stay silent, “haven’t seen my father in-"

“Don’t you dare compare your father to mine,” Sokka snapped at him. 

He should have kept his mouth shut. That had always been his problem. Zuko would have kicked himself if that wouldn’t have made this situation all the more awkward. 

“Do you have any idea what your family has done to mine?” Sokka asked him, leaning forward with loathing in his eyes.

“No,” Zuko said honestly, “just what you told me. Before.”

“Yeah,” Sokka said sourly, “I guess I did.”

Zuko knew about the raids on the South, knew they had been weaker and the Fire Nation had turned their sights there after destroying the Air Nomads, eventually decimating them and turning their full attention to the Earth Kingdom. He knew the men of the village had left, leaving Sokka alone, to fight back. He knew, too, just how much that had hurt him, as Sokka had joked about it with sadness written all over his face to a person in a mask he’d thought was an old friend. 

“We used to be a strong tribe, a proud tribe,” Sokka mused, “we would have been able to stop you. When you came.”

Zuko didn’t doubt it. The Southern Water Tribe he’d faced when he’d arrived had been nothing but a handful of igloos and a single warrior, Sokka. They hadn’t had a chance to defend themselves, and if Zuko had wanted, if he’d made the order, he could have burned it all down. Zuko closed his eyes. 

“But I never saw all of that,” Sokka continued quietly, “all I knew was a bunch of people talking about when we used to be strong, when we didn’t struggle just to survive, when we didn’t see ash on the horizon and run.”

I’m sorry itched in his throat, waiting, though Zuko didn’t know if he had any right to say it. 

Sokka put both his hands on his knee, placing his chin on top of his as his eyes stared blankly out at nothing. “Killed my mother too,” he said, as if it was an afterthought, just another fact to throw in the air, but the crack in his voice betrayed how much it hurt, “my little sister had to see her, dead in our home. Your family killed her. Fire Lord’s order. Your father.”

Zuko hadn’t known that. That Sokka’s mother had died as a direct result of the raids. 

Sokka seemed done talking. Forgetting even that he’d apparently come into this full of questions he’d wanted to ask, as his eyes seemed darker, focused but unfocused on something Zuko couldn’t and didn’t want to see.

Somewhere overhead again the earth rumbled, sending a trifle dusting of flecks of dirt down to them, and neither one of them made the effort to shake it off. 

“I,” Zuko said, wanting to say something. To interrupt the horrible quiet. 

Sokka’s gaze shot to him immediately. 

Zuko swallowed, hard, meeting the blue in Sokka’s eyes with intense unease that quickly spread to his entire body, making his skin suddenly feel so hot and cold at the same time. “Your mother,” Zuko said, his throat incredibly dry, “I can… I can empathize.”

Sokka snorted. He turned his head away and rolled his eyes. “I don’t think that’s what you meant to say,” he said ruefully. 

“No, I,” Zuko was sure he’d used the word correctly, “I do. We have that in common.”

Really,” Sokka snapped at him, “did your father kill your mother?”


Sokka’s eyes widened, focused on the floor and not looking up. 

“He,” Zuko wanted to explain, just to tell Sokka he understood something, hoping it was anything like a comfort but not knowing how, “she wasn’t useful to him anymore and he got rid of her.”

“Oh,” Sokka said in reply.

“So I understand,” Zuko said lamely, fidgeting in his position, suddenly aware how acutely uncomfortable it was, “a bit. Of. I just… I understand a little of. It.”

“Fine,” Sokka said, suddenly loud.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko said, unable to stop himself, “I am, I… I am sorry.”

Okay,” Sokka said, harshly, and then after a few seconds added, quieter, “okay.”

Zuko waited, hands on his knees, sitting uncomfortably as moments passed while Sokka appeared to gather his thoughts. He couldn’t help thinking that, if there was anything worse that his uncle wanting to talk it would have to be this. Zuko was just in the middle of confirming that, if this was how the apology would have gone, he had truly made the right decision not to go through with it when Sokka reached into his shirt again, pulling out a wrinkled, slightly burned, note with a familiar hole in it. 

“Oh,” Zuko said stupidly. 

Sokka took the paper, the note, with Zuko’s painful attempt at an apology written on it, and set it against his thigh, using his palm to flatten it out. 

“How…” Zuko couldn’t even finish the thought. 

Sokka lifted the note in front of him and cleared his throat. “So,” he started to say.

Zuko was on his feet in a second. He grabbed the paper out of Sokka’s hands before he could blink and crushed it with his hands. Fire surged between his knuckles and the note, nothing but ash, slipped from his palms when he opened his hands.

Sokka raised an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. “I already read that, you know.”

Of course he had, and this was Sokka , he’d probably memorized the note by now.

Zuko stood over him, his fingers and palms dusted with ash, and blinked, feeling excessively stupid as Sokka met his gaze with sharp eyes. “It… wasn’t,” Zuko tried to say. He stopped. 

Sokka frowned at him. “It wasn’t meant for me? It had my name on it,” he pointed out harshly.

Zuko couldn’t remember if the note had had his name on it, maybe if he’d played it off he could have pretended he hadn’t written it, somehow, although clearly snatching it out of Sokka’s hand and burning it had left that option moot. He stared at Sokka instead, dumb, as embarrassed heat rose into his face. 

“I got back to the house,” Sokka explained, frowning, “the area in front had been cleaned which was unusual, since they normally only do that twice a week, so I investigated, saw knife marks against the wall, scattered burns, and that, around a bunch of trash.”

“Well, it’s…” Zuko was drawing a blank, “forget about it.”

Sokka, glaring, rose to his feet, squaring his shoulders. “Were you thinking about blackmailing me?” He demanded, lifting his chin as he stood in front of Zuko.

Zuko’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“‘I had a lot of fun’,” Sokka repeated, angrily, “‘I would do it again’, I mean, that’s the only thing that makes sense, right?”

Zuko knew he’d written those words, but he was pretty sure ‘I’m sorry’ had been somewhere in there too.

“What else,” Sokka froze for a moment, swallowed, and then shook his head. He continued, matching the anger from before as he stepped forward to push his knuckles against Zuko’s chest, forcing him to take a step back, “What else am I supposed to think, coming from you ? And am I supposed to feel bad? To… to bond with you about our mothers? My mother died because she was an innocent woman caught in the cross fire, your mother chose to marry a monster !”

Zuko snatched Sokka’s wrist and held it tight. A spark surged in his stomach and he felt his lips curling in a scowl. “Don’t,” Zuko snapped at him. 

“Or what?!” 

“Don’t-" Zuko’s tongue tripped over himself in his mouth, as his entire body grew hot. He shoved Sokka’s wrist away from him, clenching his fists as his knuckles grew red. “She wasn’t like that!” 

“She married the Fire Lord didn’t she?!” Sokka said, undeterred as he held his ground. “Maybe it was a good thing that the world lost one more Fire Nation-"

“She didn’t want to!” Zuko interrupted, stepping closer into Sokka’s face as he seethed, “She had to marry him. My mother was a good woman, a, a good person!” Sokka opened his mouth, like he was going to say something else about his mother, and Zuko grabbed the front of his tunic, bunching the leather tight in his fingers and yanking Sokka closer. “She,” Zuko said, furious, glaring straight into Sokka’s blue eyes, “she never wanted to marry my father, but the leader of her nation told her too and she had a duty to her people! Don’t you dare judge her for that!” 

Sokka’s eyes widened.

“She, she,” Zuko continued, the muscles in his chest clenching tight. Late nights writing letters, hiding them under her robes, watching Love Amongst the Dragons over and over again, smiling so slightly when the Emperor character would talk, gazing out of the carriage at the crowd, her eyes flickering as if she was looking for someone, quiet whispers and the occasional mutters, a glass or two of wine making her sleepy as she clutched Zuko to her side, wondering under her breath what he was doing. “She loved someone else ,” Zuko said, out loud, putting pieces together he hadn’t known were there until he’d experienced them himself, “she… she loved someone else, she would have been happy, but she was forced to marry my father, she wasn’t like the rest of my family-"

Oh,” Sokka said quietly.

The anger seemed to have flickered out of the both of them. Zuko dropped his hand from Sokka’s shirt, suddenly feeling even worse than he had before, a depth he hadn’t known was possible, as Sokka looked like he’d been hit in the stomach, like all the air had gone out from him, eyebrows raised, eyes wide, tension dropped from his body. 

Zuko stepped away from him; Sokka didn’t move. “I.” 

There was another rumble overhead, this one a little louder, enough that it seemed to shake Sokka out of whatever stupor he’d been in. Sokka raised his arms, crossed them over his own chest, and held himself tightly, eyes dropping to the floor. “I guess,” Sokka said, raising his tone at the end of the last word like he was going to continue speaking except nothing followed.

It was silent for a little bit longer, before Zuko felt an urge inside him to explain further. “It’s not the same, I know that,” Zuko said, quiet, “but she was… she was innocent too.”

“Yeah,” Sokka said softly, “I think I get it.”

Startled, Zuko stared at him. “You do?” 

“Yeah, no,” Sokka lifted his head back up, “no, I don’t, but I… knew someone, once, who.” He paused, then continued, with a painful amount of feeling in his voice, “I knew someone like that.”

Who? was a question burning on Zuko’s tongue, but he wasn’t sure he should ask it, not with the way Sokka was looking right now, just so… dejected, sad… whatever this was, that Sokka was feeling, Zuko actually preferred the anger. He wanted it to stop.

“I’m bad at apologizing,” Zuko blurted out.

Sokka’s eyebrows shot upward in surprise. “What?”

Zuko wished he’d thought of anything else to change the subject to. This was only marginally better by the slimmest measure of any imagination. “Apology? It wasn’t a threat.” He repeated, “The… it was supposed to be an apology.”

Sokka blinked. Then realization flickered across his face. “Oh, I uh,” he coughed, forced, and admitted, “I knew that.”

It was Zuko’s turn to say, “What?”

Sokka groaned. He kicked at the ground, at some dirt under his shoes. “I know it was, it was an apology it’s just, it’s a lot… it’s a lot easier to,” he sighed. “It’s… good guys and bad guys, right? Like, the Fire Nation is evil and everyone else is good, and I know it’s not like that but it’s so much easier, or it would be just so much fucking easier if it was.”

“I know,” Zuko mumbled. 

Sokka dropped backward, falling slightly before his back hit the green crystal. He leaned against it, arms still crossed, glaring out into the chamber at nothing. 

Zuko stood, a few feet away from him, his arms hanging limply at his sides. There was energy in every bit of his body, pulsing through him, and he had no idea what to do with all of it; he wanted to let it out in a scream, or hold it in and clutch it tight like a shield, feeling far too… there, in the moment, than he wanted to be, or that he had any right to be. 

Sokka was right. Everything would be so much easier if what was good had stayed as simple as it seemed when he’d been a child, when he’d believed the words of his tutors, of his family, even his uncle before Iroh had changed. The Air Warlords who had to be stopped, the Water Tribes who needed the Fire Nation’s guidance, the poor Earth Kingdom that needed their wealth; but reality was a far cry from that ‘truth’, something he’d known in the back of his mind but refused to believe until he’d been brought down lower than he thought he’d ever go. 

“How come everytime we meet face to face like this, we’re always in some creepy cave?” Sokka’s voice cut through the silence, sudden, ripping Zuko out of his thoughts. 

Zuko stared at him. “I don’t know,” he said honestly.

Sokka, in reply, snorted with something like amusement. 

“I,” Zuko looked up at the stones on the ceiling as he guessed, “maybe, being cut off from the sun makes it easier?”

“How would that make it easier?” Sokka asked, raising an eyebrow, “It’s not like you and I didn’t have a good time in the sun befor-" the words halted as Sokka’s eyes widened. He coughed. 

Before. In the sun. The blood rushed into Zuko’s face so fast his vision was swimming. “Right.” He could ask Sokka endless questions about that; if Sokka had liked the moment behind the library as much as Zuko had, if he thought about it, if Zuko had ruined any chance of it remaining a happy memory, how angry Sokka was that it had been Zuko.

“Is… your mother,” Sokka said, slowly, words halting, “is that why your uncle hangs around you? ‘Cause of his sister?” 

Zuko stared at Sokka in bewilderment. “Sister? My uncle doesn’t have a sister.”

Sokka’s eyebrows shot up on his face. “Really?” 

“Yes,” Zuko told him, stiffly, confused. 

“So… your uncle is related to your father?” Sokka asked. 

Oh, that’s what he was asking. “Yes,” Zuko told him. 

“Huh,” Sokka slumped back against the rock, “that’s… hard to picture.”

“They’re not very alike,” Zuko explained. 

“Yeah, clearly.”

“My uncle isn’t anything like my father.”


“He isn’t,” Zuko continued, “my uncle’s completely different.”

“Uh, Zuko, I get it,” Sokka told him. 

Zuko, frowning, took a few steps back, leaning his back against the cave wall. 

“Okay,” Sokka said, with apparent interest, “so if your mother isn’t bad, and your uncle isn’t, what about you?” 

Zuko’s gaze jumped to Sokka’s with surprise. “What?” 

Sokka didn’t give anything away, watching Zuko carefully like he was studying him. “What are you? Good or bad?”

That was a stupid question, Zuko almost laughed at the thought of it. “I’d think my actions speak for themselves,” Zuko answered instead, the corners of his mouth twitching downward. He crossed his arms over his chest, right hand resting on his left shoulder. 

“Um, not exactly,” Sokka said with a shrug. 

Zuko frowned at him, raising his eyebrow.

“I mean,” Sokka raised a hand to his head, pushing it through his hair and brushing a few strands out of the wolftail as he sighed, “it’s like… there’s Prince Zuko with the ponytail yelling fire and hunting us all the time, okay? You know?”

Yes, he knew. Zuko shifted uncomfortably against the rock. “Sure,” he said.

“And then, there’s Voa… other Zuko,” Sokka continued, looking suddenly as awkward as Zuko felt, “who was more grumpy… grumpy, jeez, uh, well, I guess angry but not so much a bad way, and I just-" Sokka groaned suddenly, loud, and slapped his hand to his forehead. “You just don’t make sense!”

Zuko agreed with him. 

“So…” Sokka, standing up now, was leaning forward toward Zuko, like he was anticipating an answer.

Zuko didn’t say anything.

Sokka waited. Somewhere in the far distance, just close enough for them to hear the noise, the earth moved again. Sokka’s hands clenched, unclenched, opened at his sides, rested on his forearms, then he sighed. “Fine.”

Zuko’s throat hurt. The water jug was close to his feet so he bent down, uncorked it and took a drink. The water was extremely cold, even this long after being taken from the fountain, and actually hurt his teeth. Still, he took a long chug of it before uncorking it again. 

Sokka held out his hand. 

It took Zuko an embarrassing number of seconds to realize what Sokka wanted. When he finally did hand him the water jug, heat was rising in Zuko’s cheeks. 

The tip of Sokka’s fingers brushed Zuko’s hand when they took the jug from him, which did nothing to help Zuko’s embarrassment. “I had a job,” Sokka said quietly. 

Zuko watched as Sokka tapped the cork of the jug but didn’t open it, apparently lost in his thoughts. 

Sokka picked at the container with his nails and frowned. “Protect my sister, protect my village,” he continued quietly, “keep everyone safe. Then I left, I figured, Katara is stubborn, she's going to go anyway and I had to help her. Plus, seeing the world is kind of tempting when you’ve only heard about grass before; somewhere out there the world has a little more to see than ice. And maybe it was the right thing to do, help the Avatar, help everyone.”

“Didn’t you?” Zuko asked him. 

Sokka shook his head. “Let my sister travel around the world? Into danger? Everytime I try to do something I lose, or I… fall in a hole, or… I’m the one who needs protection,” he said bitterly, “all I had was the invasion plan, that was how I was going to strike back. All I had to do was keep it secret from the Fire Nation.” Sokka’s eyes flickered up to meet Zuko’s. “And I told you.”

“I see,” Zuko said, solemn.

Sokka sighed, fists clenching around his chest as he held himself tight. “That was our best chance and I ruined it.” He lowered his head again. “I wanted to see my father when I had something to show him, something for him to be proud of, now all I can offer is disappointment.”

Oh. Zuko slumped back against the wall, one foot pressed against it and the other on the stone behind, as he scowled at the ground. His index finger tapped an unsteady rhythm against his shoulder. 

“I guess,” Sokka said, putting enough emphasis on his words to have a bite to it, “that’s something else you’d understand.”

Zuko, still looking at the ground, nodded. 

“And now what?” Sokka continued, “I’m captured by the Fire Nation with the same person I revealed the plan to, waiting for them to figure out what to do with me.”

“You’re useful to my sister,” Zuko said slowly, “she knows the Avatar will want to rescue you.”

“Which puts him and everyone else in danger.”

Zuko’s hand stilled on his shoulder. Then he dug his fingers in, holding it tight. “I,” he said, tracing the outline of one of his footprints in the dirt with his eye, “I didn’t tell anyone about the eclipse. And if it’s any consolation, I’m sure the Fire Sages know anyway.”

“H… how would they?”

“They watch the stars,” Zuko explained calmly, “they’ve been counting down for Sozin’s comet’s return since the day it left. They might not know your plans to invade but I’m sure they know about the eclipse.”


Zuko’s eyes shot up to Sokka in surprise. 

“Great!” Sokka yelled, throwing his hands up in the air. He kicked at nothing, then turned to kick at the crystal by his feet. Sokka hit it, hard enough that he dropped the water jug and yelped in pain. Then, hopping around on one foot, continued shouting obscenities into the air as if that would help. 

Zuko raised his eyebrow. “Were you expecting something else?” He asked harshly, “Calculating the stars and reading signs from the spirit world is what the Fire Sages do.”

“Well, fuck!” Sokka answered, holding his one foot in his hand and jumping on the other. 

“Did you honestly think the answer would be as simple as that? What next, a secret underground tunnel directly under my father’s bed?” Zuko continued, frowning, “Or some magical solution to the war just dropped out of the sky?”

Kind of,” Sokka admitted angrily. He lost his balance and fell to the ground with a loud ‘oomphf.’

Zuko leaned away the wall as something twinged in his chest, but Sokka just threw his arms back and groaned, clearly unhurt. 

“It’s not that-" Sokka said, sitting up and gesticulating wildly, all over the air in front of him, “it’s not that out of the nowhere! Crazy, implausible magic solutions have kind of been the rule of law since my sister fished the Avatar out of an iceberg!” 

“An iceburg?” Zuko repeated, taken-aback.

Great,” Sokka said, his arms dropping limply to his sides, “so the one thing I thought I did do right I apparently messed up from the start.”

Zuko felt more than a little strange, standing up when Sokka was sitting on the floor and looking down at him. Trying not to draw too much attention to it, he slid down on the wall until he was back sitting on the floor again too. He dropped his hands to his lap, crossing his legs again because if he stretched them out his feet would be close enough to touch Sokka’s. 

Sokka didn’t notice, or didn’t care, he just closed his eyes and exhaled from somewhere deep in his lungs. “And now I’m,” he mumbled, only just loud enough to hear, “talking about it to the prince of the Fire Nation. Dad was right not to bring me along, I would have screwed it up. It’s a good thing he still has Katara.” Leaning forward, Sokka drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.

Zuko suddenly found that the bottom of his shoe was fascinating and he didn’t want to look at anything else. 

Sokka sighed. 

Zuko touched the hole in his shoe with his finger, tracing the edge, over and over again. He wanted to think of what his uncle would say, but even imagining his uncle’s face while Sokka was sitting in front of him made his stomach tense. As if invisible hands had reached inside him and were holding all his organs tight. His mind was trying to race through all the words, to pick and analyze until he knew what to say, how to help, but there was a heavy block in his head, like a muddy sludge matching the hard lump in his throat. It didn’t seem fair to Sokka, who had clearly tried so hard, and had already done so much, who was so much, to still be a disappointment; but that was the way of fathers, wasn’t it, to demand everything and be let down when their son’s best wasn’t good enough. 

“He told you to protect your sister,” Zuko said, carefully, “and your sister is alive.”

“Uh… yeah.”

“So,” Zuko scowled down at his shoe, “you did what he asked.”

Sure,” Sokka said, sounding glum, “I let her run into battle, and nearly die of dehydration, and…”

“She’s alive,” Zuko interrupted sourly, “so you did what he asked.”

“Right, at the very least Katara is alive.”

“You did what you were supposed to do.”

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” Sokka said, sounding frustrated, “so she’s alive. I’m an excellent warrior, wow, my dad will be so proud. Great job, me.”

You still followed your orders,” Zuko reminded him, ignoring Sokka’s sardonic tone, “I was supposed to capture the Avatar.”

Zuko kept picking at his shoe, when an amused snort had him shooting his gaze back up to see a tight, somewhat pained grin on Sokka’s face. “At least I’m not you,” Sokka said, dropping his hands from his knees, “is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes,” Zuko said firmly. 

“Yeah, well,” Sokka said with a roll of his eyes, “can’t lie and say I’m not happy you failed.”

Zuko’s gaze flickered over Sokka for a moment before he turned his face away. “I’m saying if he didn’t order you to plan an invasion, then he has no right to punish you for getting a detail off. You did what he asked.”

Sokka scoffed, “I don’t expect him to punish me.”

Zuko bent one of his knees, raising it up so he could rest his forearm across it. “I understand.”

“You actually believe that, don’t you?” Sokka said, every syllable he spoke layered thick with disbelief. 

“I do,” Zuko said stiffly, trying to ignore how the tension in his stomach was starting to make him nauseated. “The disappointment can be worse, sometimes. Worse than anything he can do to you.”

“‘Anything he can do to’ me?” Sokka repeated. 

Zuko nodded, looking out at the chamber beyond them, past a stalagmite of green crystal to the father wall but not actually seeing any of it. “Living with scars is easier than living knowing you failed him as a son,” Zuko said, matter-of-fact, “but if your father is even half as smart as you, he should know better. You protected your tribe, your sister, and the Avatar. You got them this far. He should be proud.”

“Uh… huh.”

“You might not be a bender,” Zuko continued solemnly, “but you’re a skilled warrior, and tactician, clearly a master at evasive maneuvers-"


“-and you’re intelligent. I wouldn’t doubt the Avatar only got this far because of you. This plan of yours, with the eclipse, maybe it could still work, maybe not, but if anyone could figure it out I’m sure it would be you.” Zuko blinked, watching the green glow of a crystal far from his sight flicker along with his vision. “You’re probably as smart as my sister and look at what she managed.”

“That’s a compliment?” Sokka asked, quiet, like he genuinely wanted to know. 

“Yes,” Zuko said stiffly. “Your father might be angry with you. He doesn’t have any right to be. Take it from an enemy; you’ve brought plenty of honor to your tribe.”

“Uh… thanks, I guess?”

Zuko nodded, frowning out into the chamber. “You’re kind,” he added, dryly, like he was reading from a list of facts, “maybe when you shouldn’t be. If you weren’t, though, I never would have changed my mind and helped you.”


Zuko’s fingers stopped tracing the hole in his shoe and waited. He wasn’t sure what. In fact, he was pretty sure he’d run out of anything to say. 

“Can you… look at me for a second?” Sokka asked. 


“N- no?! ” Sokka’s voice shot through the chamber, louder than any rumbling of earth overhead. “Are you- I just- I have questions, okay? I didn’t get to ask… it’s just a lot, would you…”

Zuko grimaced. There was a tension between his shoulders that tightened even worse, as all the muscles in his arms and fingers clenched down, as he turned his neck to look into Sokka’s face. 

Sokka didn’t look how Zuko had been expecting. Eyebrows furrowed tight, eyes wide, leaning forward with one of his legs crossed, his arms pushed behind himself to push his head a little further. Sokka seemed… studious. Not angry. 

“Have you considered,” Zuko asked him scornfully, “that you won’t like the answers?”

“Yeah, well, I’m a curious person,” Sokka said, dismissing the idea with a quick wave of a hand. 

“I could just refuse,” Zuko mused. 

Sokka frowned at him. “I don’t think you will,” he pointed out, “and I think we both know you owe me some honesty. On your… honor, or whatever.”

“‘Or whatever’,” Zuko repeated as he kicked his feet out in front of him, suddenly not caring so much how close they were. He crossed his arms, settled back more comfortably against the stone wall, and scowled. 

“Okay,” Sokka swallowed. He met Zuko’s gaze, eyes shining with intrigue, and Zuko wondered what he was in for if everything that happened just a moment ago had just been a prelude. “Your father ordered you to capture the Avatar, right? So how did you show up at the South Pole so fast?”

Zuko shrugged. “My ship was nearby.”

“You were already looking for him?” Sokka asked.

“Yes,” Zuko explained, “searching for the Avatar has been somewhat of a family right of passage since my great-grandfather killed one.”

“Dumb luck,” Sokka muttered under his breath. “How did you find us so often?”

“Tracking your path. Questioning people where you’d been. A standing reward in the colonies for information on ‘anything unusual’. A gigantic, flying bison is considerably unusual.”

“Okay.” Sokka raised a hand to his chin, curling a finger over it as he thought. “At the North Pole… the spirit oasis-" Sokka paused for a moment, closing his eyes, but then opened them again and continued like nothing had happened, “how did you get inside?”

Zuko gestured with his hand, vaguely, at nothing, “Natural underwater streams. Swam up.”

“You swam,” Sokka looked incredulous, “in the North Pole?”

Zuko nodded.

“That seems… unlikely.”

“I’m a good swimmer,” Zuko defended, a bit too harshly.

“Okay, okay,” Sokka shrugged. “Also that then, why’d you look like you were half dead. You know, bruises all over-" he waved toward his own face, “worse than usual?”

“Zhao hired some pirates to blow me up,” Zuko explained. 

“Huh,” Sokka said. He seemed to be absorbing that information. “You know, I never liked that guy. Haven’t seen him in awhile.”

“He died,” Zuko said casually.

Sokka’s eyes widened for a bit. Then he shrugged. “Couldn’t’ve happened to a nicer guy.”

Zuko, despite himself, felt his mouth twitch upward into a grin. 

“Alright,” Sokka shifted, seeming a bit uncomfortable but he didn’t change the way he was sitting. “How’d you get the scar?”

Whatever pleasant emotion, or feeling, left Zuko immediately. 

“It’s a scar?” Sokka continued on, undeterred, “Always figured it was some kind of training mishap or real ugly birthmark, but… well, you told me you got your face burned by some asshole firebender. And I felt bad for you. Really bad. Spent a whole day chopping a log to pieces with my club.” He frowned, “So, what exactly is it? Or was that one of the ‘important things’ you ‘lied about’?”

“I told you the truth,” Zuko said, gritting his teeth.

“Really?” Sokka said, narrowing his eyes and leaning forward, “I find it pretty hard to believe some asshole firebender could just walk up and burn the prince on the face. Just for a, a lesson? That was what you said?”

“That’s what happened,” Zuko snapped at him. 

Sokka threw his hands in the air, glaring. “Really?” He said, his voice high with disbelief, “You expect me to believe some firebender can decide to punish the-" Sokka suddenly stopped. 

Zuko glowered at him. His fingers clenched into his pants and nails dug into his thighs. “What?” He demanded. 

Somewhere very far away, some earth moved which sent an almost gentle shake through the chamber as Sokka, wide-eyed, very slowly lowered his arms back to his sides. “Punish,” Sokka repeated, sounding the word out slowly to the point it almost lost all meaning. 

“I spoke out of turn,” Zuko sneered at him, his chest pounding almost painfully to an uncomfortable beat, “and got a permanent lesson on my face to remind me to show my father respect.”

Sokka took in a sharp breath through his teeth. “Yikes,” he said, with feeling.

“And apparently I didn’t learn my lesson,” Zuko added, “considering I’m here.” He didn’t look away from Sokka, didn’t want to have to deal with the embarrassment of being asked to look back again, so instead he looked straight forward at him, unrelenting, thinking maybe if he looked hard enough he could turn the world out of focus. 

“Yes. Got it.” Sokka brought his finger up to his chin again. “So if… if that, then you had to…” 

As quickly as he’d raised his hand, Sokka brought it back down and slapped the floor. “That!” Sokka exclaimed. 

Zuko blinked at him. 

“Oh, all the pieces just came together,” Sokka said, apparently to himself. Abruptly, he jumped up to his feet. “That’s it.” He took two sets to his left, brought a fist to his palm hard, like he’d solved a puzzle, and then stepped back to his right. 

Zuko, watching Sokka carefully, slowly lifted himself up off the ground. 

“I knew it,” Sokka said loudly, twisting sharply to face Zuko with something like triumph in his eyes, “I knew if I just… had all the pieces, you would make sense.”

Zuko stared at him blankly. “I do?” He asked. 

“Yes,” Sokka said with a grin, “I figured you out.”

“Care to tell me?” 

“Of course,” Sokka said, pushing his fist into his palm again, eyes shining, “how else will I know if I’m right?”

Zuko took a step back from him. “Right about…?”

Sokka took another moment to pace, toward one of the crystal formations and then back, curling a finger under his chin in thought. “So, you were ordered to bring in the Avatar, obviously you had to, and no wonder you were so crazy about it-"

“I’m not crazy!” Zuko defended. 

“No, no, not what I meant, anyway,” Sokka stopped, standing in front of him, looking at Zuko like he was more looking through him, “when the Fire Lord’s son can’t get Aang he sends his daughter; the two of you then are fighting to see who wins first. And obviously you can’t lose, ‘cause your father is a terrifying asshole.”

Zuko glared at him. His hands tightened on his sides but he couldn’t find anything in his head to dispute that.

“You start getting desperate, right? You had Aang twice, the first time and then at the North Pole but obviously you know, we stopped you.” Sokka nodded to himself. “That’s also why you rescued Aang from Zhao, isn’t it? You had the order to bring him in so if anyone else did it was the same as you failing, even if the Fire Lord still got his Avatar.”

The hairs on Zuko’s arms raised as he suddenly felt cold. “And,” Zuko asked him with a scowl, “what does it matter?”

“Uh, it matters a lot,” Sokka replied, looking, for some reason, offended.

“I had some kind of motivation?” Zuko snapped, “Everyone has a reason for what they do, is that supposed to change everything?”

Sokka looked taken aback, for a moment, before he raised his arms and shouted, “Of course it does!”

Zuko frowned at him. Then, Sokka took a step closer to him and Zuko felt his heels dig into the ground as he froze. 

“If the whole reason you were after us in the first place was because your father would hurt you if you didn’t ,” Sokka said, into Zuko’s face, his eyebrows furrowed tight, “then the fact that you stopped and helped me means something!”

“What if it doesn’t?!” Zuko shouted, pushing his fist between the two of them. His mouth curled over his teeth as he met Sokka’s eyes, sneering, “What point are you even hoping to prove?!”

Sokka glared back at him. “That you weren’t messing with me,” he answered back, standing firm in front of Zuko without a trace of fear, “that it wasn’t all a lie, or a trick.

The fist Zuko was holding between the two of them fell down without him doing it himself, the arm just growing limp. “That was in doubt?” His voice was quiet, much too quiet. 

Sokka’s face softened slightly. “Yeah,” he said.

Zuko was, very suddenly, acutely aware of how close they were standing together. “Enough of it was a lie,” he muttered, feeling more like he was reminding himself than Sokka.

“Not necessarily?” Sokka said, his voice raising as his expression seemed strained, “Maybe you were wrong and the lying was actually about the less important things.”

Who I am is rather important!” Zuko told him, his voice growing louder as heat rose into his face.

“I mean, it’s not like I ever had the whole picture of the- of the you,” Sokka gestured, stilted, to Zuko’s sides. “Why you are… you, and the whole, what… I’m not explaining this right.” He brought a hand up for his forehead and looked confused, thinking.

“Yeah,” Zuko said under his breath, “it’s not easy.” 

“What’s not?”

“Explaining,” Zuko said, crossing his arms over his chest, “ talking.”

Sokka snorted and shook his head. “It really isn’t,” he agreed. 

Zuko sighed, glancing downward at his feet. Then he heard Sokka sigh too. Now would have been a good time for one of those earthbending rumbles to create some noise, distract them both, or even an interruption to at least ease the moment; instead the world was extremely still. Enough that Zuko could hear the minute shuffling of Sokka’s weight from one leg to another. 

“You liked me,” Sokka said quietly. “That’s what happened. You liked me enough to help me, even though you knew there could be consequences like this.”

Zuko shrugged. 

“Look, Zuko,” Sokka raised his voice a little louder, “I actually really need you to answer a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on that last theory.”

Zuko sighed, again, and lifted his head to meet Sokka’s eyes again. “Why?”

The blue in Sokka’s eyes, staring straight back at him, flickered away for a moment before returning and Zuko had to remember what blinking was. They just didn’t relent, looking straight at him, watching, studying him, puzzling, so much harder to look into without a mask to hide his face. “Because,” Sokka said, and Zuko watched the corners of his eyes wrinkle and gaze narrow as he spoke, his vision worked down to a pinpoint on Sokka’s face, “whether or not it was a game to you is pretty important to me figuring out if I like you back.”

Zuko immediately stepped away from him. 

Sokka was standing, looking passive, his arms down at his sides and still. 

It wasn’t clicking in Zuko’s head, despite the fact that he knew it. Clearly. And he could see the confused, nervous look Sokka was giving him, a look he could feel in his stomach, one he was intimately aware of. That same worry, the same kind of way your entire state of being needed something it wasn’t entitled to have but still reached for it. He could feel that, reflected in himself, but Zuko was wrong, obviously, the way he always was. He’d missed something; he must have read the situation differently from what it was because that didn’t lead to this , and certainly all the actions in his life didn’t lead to any reward; karma took, it didn’t give

Sokka squinted at him. “Just, say something?” He asked, soft. 

His body wasn’t present, he was nothing but a head that felt too long and too tense, moments from an ear-splitting headache Zuko just knew was waiting for him, as he looked at the way green light traced gentle lines along Sokka’s face, a face made to emote that was so quiet right now. Zuko’s throat was dry. The lump inside it hurt to swallow. “I,” he said, then stopped.

Sokka’s face, which had drifted down just a little as a dark flush rose up around his nose, snapped back to attention.

His arms were limp at his sides, but Zuko turned his hands, exposing his palms, trying to seem… something, as Zuko said with stilted words, “I’m the reason you’re down here.”

Sokka’s eyes widened. He coughed into a fist and said, “Technically, seeing the letter and wanting to tell Suki… so… yes, kinda.”

“Right so,” Zuko bit the inside of his cheek, hard enough to hurt, and then continued, “it’s a bad idea. Right? If you would like…” me.

Sokka blinked at him. Then his face tightened into a deep scowl. “Just because it’s a bad idea doesn’t actually change anything,” he said, angrily, “it’s not like you can pick the people you like.”

Zuko sighed from deep in his chest. “I know.”

“And I- I mean,” the bite in Sokka’s voice left, still tinged with annoyance but a lot softer now, “liking someone I really shouldn’t is kind of what I do. It’s really the only thing the two of you have in common.”

Zuko felt something hot and angry stab into his stomach. “Two?” 

“Ugh,” Sokka didn’t seem to hear him. He raised a hand to his head and narrowed his eyes at nothing. “That stupid fortune-teller lady, I- honestly, there’s nothing alike between you both besides how fucking frustrating it is and…”

Sokka suddenly stopped. He looked like he’d been hit in the face with a rock by how shocked and taken aback he was. 

“‘You both’?” Zuko repeated, the hot feeling in his stomach starting to burn as he scowled. 

“Royalty?!” Sokka yelled, out of nowhere. His hands flung to the side of his head and he looked absolutely appalled. “Is that my type,” his voice cracked, “roya-lty?!”

Zuko closed the gap between them to glare in Sokka’s face, demanding, “What are you talking about?!”

“Oh, that’s so weird,” Sokka muttered, loud under his breath, to himself, “that’s so specific? That can’t be it-"

Zuko had to restrain himself from slapping him to get his attention. He settled for waving his hand directly in front of Sokka’s face. 

Sokka, shaking his head, blinked and looked up at him. “Uh,” he said lamely. Then, he looked at Zuko, at what Zuko had been certain was a furious expression, and laughed. 

Zuko’s jaw dropped for a moment before he snapped it shut, exhaling hot air from his nostrils. “What?!” 

Sokka raised his right hand and set it on Zuko’s shoulder. “It’s just,” he said, wheezing slightly, not appearing to notice the way Zuko’s entire body turned to stone, “I mean, of all the, things, I…” His hand, raising slightly, froze. 

Zuko looked at Sokka and Sokka looked through him. 

It was like the air in the room changed, or maybe just Sokka’s expression, which melted down into something thoughtful as he raised his hand. Zuko let him. Didn’t move. Sokka brought his palm to cup the side of his jaw, then, slowly, his fingers reached out and brushed against the scar. 

Where the scar tissue met flesh was sensitive, and often hurt, the rest Zuko couldn’t feel. Numbness on his face, only from under the skin could he feel the pressure of a thumb that touched under his eye. Zuko closed his eyes. He stayed, unmoving, like when he was eleven lying down at the edge of the pond in the garden, arms outstretched in front of him, careful not to flinch to scare the turtleducks that had been drawn close by curiosity, knowing not to make a move, knowing they were skittish like he was, wanting to take them all away somewhere no one else could touch, somewhere safe, even though he didn’t know where that would be. 

“This must have hurt,” Sokka’s voice said, low enough it only added to the quiet around them. 

Zuko opened his mouth to lie, but somewhere along the words muddled with his thoughts and what he said instead was, “I used to look like my mother.”

He heard Sokka take in a breath, and then felt another hand under his unscarred ear, which was Zuko’s only warning before something practically hit him in the mouth, hurting his teeth, and his eye flew open to realize Sokka was kissing him. 

Zuko suddenly realized how Jin must have felt, because this was wholly surprising. And weird. And the initial rush against his mouth had been more like getting hit in the jaw than a kiss, but that faded quickly, because Sokka’s nose was breathing hot air onto his cheek and his palms were soft on his face where Zuko could feel it, and it was Sokka. Sokka’s eyes closed, covering his vision, Sokka’s thick eyebrows softening as he stayed, Sokka’s foot that was kind of stepping on his left toes but it didn’t seem to matter. 

Reaching out with his index and middle finger, he found the edge of Sokka’s tunic to clutch tightly as he pursed his mouth and gathered up the corner of a mouth and lower lip in his own. Sokka made a noise, an approving vocable. Zuko’s other hand wrapped around Sokka’s shoulder, pulled him closer, and he kissed him back with every last feeling he had, all the emotions that had been bubbling and churning in his stomach like boiling water brought to the surface. 

Sokka was warm. It was nice. All angles, elbows bent between them, smelled like scoured leather and the wild, nothing familiar which was deeply comforting. His mouth moved against Zuko’s, far less assured when it wasn’t being used to talk, and Zuko turned his head to kiss him more, finding a lip to hold in his own, opening his mouth to take more in, kissing him, Sokka, which didn’t make sense but Zuko didn’t care anymore, as a frantic energy surged in his chest to pull Sokka closer to kiss him again. All over again. To just kiss him, because the last time hadn’t been the ‘last time’ and-

Sokka suddenly pushed them apart, his palms still holding Zuko’s head between them, and stared at Zuko with wide eyes. “I-" Sokka’s voice cracked, he swallowed, and tried again, “wait I just thought of something.”

Zuko watched Sokka’s dark eyelashes flicker over his skin, along the soft blues of his eyes. 

“I,” Sokka said, his voice strained, “I really, really need you to promise me something.”

The skin along Sokka’s nose and cheeks was much darker, flushed with pink, and this close Zuko could see gentle brown freckles on his skin which would’ve been imperceptible from any other distance. Sokka’s words, and in fact, everything, existed in his brain behind a kind of fog along with the rest of reality. “Yeah,” Zuko’s voice was breathless, barely even sounded like him, “I promise.”

“I didn’t tell you what it was yet,” Sokka pointed out.

Zuko blinked. “Oh.”

“I just,” Sokka’s hands lowered from Zuko’s face slowly, falling onto his shoulders, one bunched up into a fist. He looked serious. The part of Zuko’s head that was still far from the moment was preoccupied with how nice Sokka looked when he was serious. “I need you to, I really, really,” Sokka closed his eyes. He took a deep, shaking breath. 

Zuko waited, feeling a bit helpless as Sokka looked pained. His arm still wrapped around Sokka’s side took some of the fabric of the polardog tunic in his hand to hold tight, which he hoped was reassuring. There likely wasn’t a promise Zuko wouldn’t agree to, he knew that, with his head, this light-headed and the foreign, bubbling excitement trickling into his chest, building and building the longer he stood there, like this, with Sokka. The longer it was real the more he knew he’d agree to. 

“I need you,” Sokka said, something dark flashing across his eyes, “to promise,” one of his hands raised and he held a finger in front of Zuko’s face which was almost accusatory, “that you will not turn into the sun.”

All emotions and thoughts in Zuko’s head gave way to utter confusion. Sokka seemed serious. “What?”

“No matter how tempting it may be!” Sokka said, leaning back to carefully gesture with his hand while the other clutched Zuko’s shoulder tight, “No matter how good of an idea it seems in the moment, do not. I mean it! Do not become the sun.”

“Is that… a concern?” Zuko asked, shifting his weight between his feet. 

“It is,” Sokka said incredulously, “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but people I kiss turning into gigantic celestial bodies is actually, something that I discovered can happen. And if it happens again, I’ll- I’ll-" He trailed off, looking lost. 

“I won’t turn into the sun,” Zuko promised. 

Sokka’s sigh of relief was exaggerated, by any stress of the imagination as he threw his head back and exhaled, but perfectly fitted Sokka

Zuko had only a second to prepare before Sokka dropped into his arms, his chin on Zuko’s shoulder. “Thank you,” Sokka muttered. Bringing his arms around Zuko’s shoulder, he squeezed him tightly in a hug. Zuko hesitated, and then wrapped his arms around Sokka too. 

After a moment, Zuko lowered his head, relaxing into the touch, his nose pressed into the side of Sokka’s head, coarse, shorn hair tickling against his cheek as he did. Sokka was holding him. Zuko was holding him back . Despite the fact this should have been impossible, Zuko had known this was impossible, it was. It just was. Arms were wrapped tightly around him, squeezing down hard, hot breath fluttering down the back of Zuko’s neck. He kept his eyes open, looking, fascinated by the fact they were so close together, seeing him and feeling him too, and it felt… safe. 

It wasn’t. They weren’t safe. Zuko’s gaze drifted from Sokka to the chamber beyond them and his fingers tensed, clutching him tighter. 

“When the Dai Li come back,” Zuko said firmly, “I can surprise them, get you one of their weapons. With my bending we can get an advantage and you can come up with a plan to get us away.”

Sokka’s head shifted up, Zuko could feel on half of his face that their cheeks were together, and when Sokka spoke into his scarred ear something cold shivered down his back. “Working together,” Sokka mumbled.

Zuko nodded, as much as he could. He moved his arms, just a little, just enough to hold Sokka closer. “We can hide down in the tunnels, make our way to the dark part of the city and smuggle ourselves out.”


A vision came into Zuko’s head, exceptionally clear. He could see himself, reaching downward off a wagon to take Sokka’s hand and pull him up beside him, the both of them in green colors, equal in its foreign nature, blending in as nothing more than bodies in a crowd as Ba Sing Se faded in the distance. Sokka, with that grin, sitting up beside him, holding onto the hand and not letting go. Zuko wanted that, more than anything, and for the first time since he could remember his daydreams of the future had nothing to do with his family. 

Sokka made some kind of noise, against his face, and one of his hands gave Zuko a single, almost friendly, pat on the back. “You want to cut cords and run out of Ba Sing Se? Then what?”

Zuko moved his head, to look at the coarse brown wolf-tail in his vision and smiled. “I could protect you,” he promised, “I’ll take care of you.”

He shifted a bit, under Zuko’s arms, but Sokka didn’t try to leave. “That’d be a nice change,” he muttered, his voice a little strained and very quiet, “what would I do?”

“Just,” Zuko closed his eyes, “be you. Just funny and… kind.

“All I have to do is crack some jokes and be nice to you?” Sokka’s voice had a tinge of amusement, “Seems pretty easy.”

Of course it would be, for him.

“Where would we be going?” Sokka asked him. The tone of his voice just sounded like a smile. “I’d love a place with the ocean. Maybe a little cold. Promise not to make me gather all the food while you go off playing bending?”

“I wouldn’t leave you alone. I don’t care where,” Zuko told him, “wherever. I’d just follow you, you wouldn’t be able to get rid of me.”

“No leaving, huh?” Sokka’s voice choked, “I think I'd like that.”

Zuko’s throat hurt, and something burned in the back of his eye; he opened it immediately when he realized his eyes wanted to cry . He swallowed, frantically forcing himself to look upward and blink rapidly to stop it. 

“I,” Sokka’s hands dropped from Zuko’s back, “I still have to protect my sister.”

Zuko could taste bitterness in his mouth. “I still have to get killed by mine.”

Sokka pulled away from him and Zuko didn’t stop him. Only because he couldn’t fully register what he was doing. Then, when Sokka was standing in front of him, solemn blue eyes staring straight into his, Zuko actually felt the loss of having Sokka wrapped around him. 

He was blinking a lot, clenching his chest tight to get the wet, hot feeling under control and he could only hope Sokka didn’t notice. 

“We’re gunna be fine,” Sokka told him. Then he put his hands between them, moving slowly, two fingers tapping one, then twisting over a palm, and other movements following that; he was clearly signing something, and it must have been meaningful considering the dark flush rising along Sokka’s nose. Zuko felt heat rising on his own cheeks at the fact he had no idea what Sokka was saying, wishing he’d paid better attention. Then, Sokka grinned at him, and he felt better. “You know, uh,” Sokka reached down and took one of Zuko’s hands in his, “considering how you’re an enemy of the Fire Nation and everything…”

He brushed his thumb against Zuko’s palm and Zuko was suddenly brought back to the night, with the full moon, when Sokka held his hands that first time and Zuko realized he’d been growing feelings he hadn’t known he’d planted.

“The Avatar needs to learn firebending,” Sokka said, gently, “you ever thought about teaching?”

Zuko was looking at their hands and took an embarrassing number of seconds to realize what Sokka had said. “Me?” He repeated lamely.

“If you’re going to rebel might as well go all in,” Sokka offered, “right?”

Zuko frowned at him. 

“I guess you have,” Sokka glanced around him for a moment and then raised one of his hands from Zuko’s to scratch at the back of his neck, “we still have to get out of here. I’m just… if you wanted to… stick around, Aang needs a teacher and, I guess, some good could come out of… everything.”

“I’ve never,” Zuko said, swallowing hard, “fought back against my father.”

“Not yet,” Sokka said immediately. He dropped his hand from his neck. 

Zuko looked at their two hands, the ones still holding each other. His uncle had said he believed the Avatar could defeat his father, Sokka seemed confident in it too, otherwise he wouldn’t be there. Growing up, fighting back had never even been a thought that crossed his mind, it was pointless. He was weak, his father was strong, Zuko had nothing and his father only grew more powerful every day. It was like stopping the tide. Impossible, so why consider it, although if anyone could stop the tide, if anyone had the power to lift the waters of the ocean and send them back, it would be the person strong enough to have already done it before. The Avatar.

“The Avatar is supposed to be trained by a master,” Zuko pointed out. 

Sokka shrugged. “What’s that mean anyway?”

Zuko frowned at him. “It means someone who has mastered their element. Someone qualified to teach.”

“How do you even become a master anyway?” Sokka said with a chuckle, “What, you’re extra good at flinging some flame balls around? You benders act like it’s some crazy feat; well, you seem like a pretty good firebender to me. Aang needs to learn to make some sparks, you know how to make a spark, why not give him some pointers and, you know…” He looked down at their hands. “You and me, we can just… be… around each other.”

“Around,” Zuko repeated. 

“Isn’t that enough?” Sokka said quietly, “If you like someone and they just… stick around?”

Easier to run away. It would always be easier. To take Sokka, and everything he was feeling, everything he wanted them to be and go out into some unknown distance where no one would find them, stop them, where no one would know. That’s what Zuko wanted. To drop the world. Never see the faces of anyone he recognized again. Go so far away he could just be.

Sokka was going to stay, so he couldn’t. As enticing as the fantasy was it wasn’t as interesting as this, as the hairs that stuck out on his arms while their hands touched, the chill that passed through his body when blue eyes looked at him, the way he smiled and Zuko felt like smiling too just because he was; the way Sokka was happy to be around him. Maybe Zuko could do it. Maybe he could forget. Maybe he could force the image out of his head, standing so tall over him, a hand of fire, smirk of satisfaction on his face, that pathetic feeling that he was helpless, weak, no one could help him not even himself, because Father ruled and controlled everything and everyone even himself. Though he’d never ruled Sokka. 

There were things beyond the Fire Lord’s influence. Things his father couldn’t touch. 

If the Avatar failed, though, that wouldn’t be the case. If the Avatar failed. Sokka would be at his father’s feet and Zuko knew from experience that Ozai didn’t have any mercy to spare. 

Okay, Zuko thought. He raised his eyes to look at Sokka, pulling his hand away from his. Maybe, maybe. He couldn’t know, couldn’t be sure it would work, that anyone could succeed, but if he could… maybe. He raised his hand to Sokka’s neck.

“Do you forgive me?” Zuko asked him, his chest aching.

“Don’t die,” Sokka said sternly, “and don’t leave, and… yeah. I think I do.”

He pulled him closer and Sokka didn’t stop him, and Zuko realized that truly the best way to keep Sokka from seeing everything on his face was to bring theirs together, one hand on his neck and the other on his side as he kissed him. 

Sokka’s hands immediately jumped, one to Zuko’s hair and the other curled under his arm, as he pushed back into him. This wasn’t relaxing like before. Sokka pulled his mouth back enough just to shove back, frantically, over his while Zuko held him as tightly as he could into him, his breath hot in his nose, concentrating. He knew he wanted it to mean something, wanted to return the feeling of shivers down his back, which faded outward to something heavy at the bottom of his stomach. 

This was the first time it felt fun along with everything else. His mouth caught Sokka’s lower lip and Sokka chuckled, kissing back into him. Zuko smiled, which just made it harder to find the right angle. It didn’t seem to matter. Sokka didn’t care. He was so warm, and his hand in Zuko’s hair was soft while the other was falling slowly down Zuko’s back, and he just kept kissing him while Zuko did the same; Zuko could feel the curl of Sokka’s grin, and he loved Sokka’s grin, and now he could show it, place his mouth all over it, firm but soft as he moved around him, with him.

For once Zuko didn’t feel out of his body, he was in the moment, grounded with every stitch of his skin. Feeling Sokka’s side under his fingers, smooth leather fabric between them, and as Sokka pressed their mouths together, Zuko let that fall to the wayside as his touch came alive, and he was suddenly so interested in running his hands along the shaved undercut of Sokka’s head, down boney shoulders, all angles and warm, so very much Sokka , unmistakably him and male in a way that had the warm feeling deep in his stomach growing stronger. He could do this forever, he would, he wanted to, nothing else in the world needed to exist but Sokka’s kiss after kiss on his mouth and pushing them together, opening up to kiss him deeper, and Zuko, with no addendums or plaguing worries, nothing nagging in the back of his head, was happy. 

When rocks were earthbended into each other, clearing out a path, they crashed and rumbled and made enough noise to rival the loudest of quakes. Hundreds of stone objects slammed into the ground. Shockwaves felt even from far away. 

Sokka’s mouth leaving his was when Zuko realized the noise hadn’t been in his head. 

Residual rumbling was still shaking the ground.

Zuko blinked, which opened his eyes, and turned his head in the same direction Sokka was to see them. His arms still around Sokka’s, Sokka’s on his, as he looked back into the chamber toward a newly created opening in the solid stone. 

The Avatar, holding his flying stick in front of him, looked utterly dumbfounded. Jaw dropped, eyes huge, as stupid, surprised, and slightly horrified an expression on his face as Zuko felt from seeing him there. He couldn’t be there, here, the Avatar, because that was the worst possible thing Zuko could have imagined would happen until he realized who else was looking at him. 

Right beside the Avatar, dressed in green and looking similarly surprised, was Iroh. His uncle. Iroh was there.

Sokka, slowly, sheepishly, pulled his hand out of Zuko’s hair. “Aang?”

If Zuko had been an earthbender he would have bended himself into the center of the earth.

Chapter Text

The thing about wild mongoose-lizards was, the general consensus of actions to take if one was cornered by the creature was nothing; the best thing to do was stay extremely still so it wouldn’t attack. Freeze, don’t fight or flight. Let the terrifying beast take a look and it would go away.

Looking at his uncle, Zuko felt like he was staring into the eyes of an enraged mongoose lizard only seconds away from striking. He’d felt this before. His entire body getting suddenly limp, struggling to stay still, needing to, using every part of his strength to try to control the shivering coursing through his very veins. Last time, he’d felt this way was a memory he’d never been able to forget. This time Zuko was stuck in the moment right before the consequences, the worst part of it all, where he didn’t know what was going to happen only that it would be horrible and his own imagination in a state like this was a cruel place to be.

Iroh, hands slipping out of the front of his green, working-man’s robes, eyes wide and mouth tight in a line, was looking at him. 

Not just him. Sokka too. 

Sokka -

Zuko’s left arm was stiff at the small of Sokka’s back, the other curled around his neck. Sokka’s right arm was hooked over Zuko’s shoulder, the left raised toward the Avatar in a friendly wave. 

Move, Zuko thought to himself. 

Deep, dark crimson rose up on Sokka’s already darker skin; Zuko didn’t know what he looked like, but he was pretty sure all the color in his face, if there had been any, had left. Sokka unhooked his elbow from Zuko’s shoulder, still looking at the Avatar. 

Sokka took a step back, letting Zuko’s arms fall, and Zuko was so grateful for that. He couldn’t move. He wanted Sokka to get away from him.

Zuko wanted Sokka to go away, forever. No, he wanted to go- Iroh needed to go. They were looking at him, they were all looking at him, six eyes somehow worse than the hundred at the Agni Kai, all staring, all knowing about him.

“This is-“ Sokka said, raising a hand to the back of his neck. His eyes cast a glance to Zuko, which he could see out of the peripheral vision of his eye, but Zuko’s gaze was too unfocused to return it.

“You were...?” The Avatar asked him, tilting his head. Then he stood up, and said with a lot more force, “Sokka, you kissed Zuko!”

If the Avatar had seen… Iroh saw it too. His uncle knew. Of course. Everyone knew. Everyone would know. Everyone.

Zuko had been doing so well. He’d been trying, an active effort, he’d , he’d made his uncle breakfast and took care of his laundry, played games with him, worked for him, he’d served him, obedient, loyal, the way he knew a good son would have, making up for what he had said and done, cowed into that position by his uncle’s declaration of love for him even in the face of it all, even after Zuko had hurt him; Zuko had tried, made the effort, put everything he could spare into it and had wanted to make himself move on, wanted to be the kind of nephew he was supposed to br. He’d failed. Father was looking directly at him, shocked. Not Ozai. Iroh. Ozai’s eyes. Why was he seeing his father- why was- why couldn’t he breathe -

“I know,” Sokka said solemnly. 

“Wh- what do you mean ‘you know’?” The Avatar slammed his flying stick into the ground, with a surprising amount of force considering his face just looked perplexed. 

Sokka looked dumbfounded for a moment, then threw his arms in the air, “What do ‘you mean’ ‘what do you mean’?!” He shouted, “It’s not like you can kiss a person by accident!”

Iroh blinked. 

It was going to happen again, wasn’t it? Zuko felt it, like he’d been cut open and his insides stuffed with rocks, thrown in a well to drown, sinking, sinking, so far underwater the sun could never reach. Down. Into the ground. Into the labyrinth of underwater streams, unknowable beneath the earth, unexplorable, forgotten. It was happening again. All because Zuko couldn’t have just fucking left Sokka alone. 

Dishonor to the family was never forgivable. Zuko was made of dishonor, built with it, filled with it in every corner of himself, and now Iroh knew that too.

“But,” the Avatar glanced to Iroh for a moment before turning back to Sokka, “he thought you were going to be fighting.”

“Um,” Sokka said.

“You,” the Avatar looked stunned, “kissed Zuko. Did you- or was it a Dai Li brainwashing thing-"

Aang,” Sokka raised one hand to his hair, flustered, and said loudly, “it’s not like this is the first time I’ve kissed Zuko!”

The Avatar and Iroh both stared at Sokka in shock. 

The airbender was the first to react, throwing his head back and yelling loud enough to send a gust of air through the chamber, “What?!”

Sokka blinked rapidly and took a step back as the breeze hit his face. Zuko felt it send his hair flying backward and closed his eyes against them, and when he finally opened them again to look directly into his uncle’s face he finally felt like he could move again. 

Life can change in an instant, everything he was sure of and had thought was solid scattered by the tide like sandcastles on the beach. No matter how hard he could try to keep it steady, or how much fire was poured into the foundations, the most solid thing he could make was always glass, easily shattered with the slightest bit of opposition. Maybe Iroh’s love for him had been built up into glass. This then, was the blow that came to break it all to pieces. 

This moment had been hard enough of a concept to picture when it wasn’t standing right in front of him. It happened, the truth Zuko had kept on the tip of his tongue, had come out into the world in a way beyond his control. Viscerally. Torn out of his grasp and revealed in the most humiliating way he could imagine.

“Yes, what, you just-“ Sokka was still standing next to Zuko’s side, and that was strangely comforting, “I don’t have to tell you everything, Aang!”

The Avatar took a step back, eyes widening. “But-"

“No, Aang wait, I just-” Sokka held his arms out, looking pained, “you were going through a lot, okay, I didn’t want to add to any of it-“

“You’re my best friend,” the Avatar said loudly, “why wouldn’t you tell me?”

“It’s… been complicated,” Sokka argued. 

“I could have handled it!” The Avatar threw his arms up in the air, one holding his flying stick, utterly indignant. “I dunno, ‘Zuko isn’t after us and he’s on our side now’?! That’s good news!”

Sokka, his face still tinged red, turned to meet Zuko’s gaze for a moment. Zuko looked back, saying nothing. Sokka was thinking, Zuko could practically see his mind racing behind cautious blue eyes, and then Sokka snapped his face back toward Aang and Iroh, standing up taller, and said, “Yes. Zuko’s on our side now.”

Had Zuko agreed to that? He had, hadn’t he, somewhere in the subtleties of a promise to ‘stick around’ was the implicit understanding he’d be turning traitor. Zuko the betrayer, that was how he’d be remembered in the family history. A failure and a joke who turned his back on his entire nation because a peasant boy smiled at him one too many times.

Iroh raised a hand to his head and sighed deeply. 

“That’s good-" the Avatar said, perking up his head with a grin, “right? That’s great. Okay. Good.”

Zuko slid his left foot backward, shifting his weight to the front. 

“Y-yeah,” Sokka said, “everything… I guess, is-"

Taking a step forward, Iroh raised his eyes to meet Zuko’s. His face was light, he looked relieved, as if chains shackled around him had finally come off- and his mouth ticked upward in the corners, a familiar expression, the face He’d made when he’d raised his hand to his face and known he’d be rid of Zuko. Maybe his mother had made that face too, after she’d turned away into the dark. Azula on the viewing platform. Father in front of him as the scent of burned skin filled his nostrils. Now Iroh’s turn. The passionate exhilaration that came from casting aside dead weight; Zuko.

Zuko wasn’t going to beg this time. There was no point in apologies, no way to make this right when what he’d done had been to follow the direction, the nudging toward happiness his uncle has asked him to find, the results leading here couldn’t have been known, not without being told what Zuko wanted, but he’d followed the map laid out before him, he’d just ended up far from the destination Iroh had hoped for, and he was incapable of apologizing for that. Because Zuko hadn’t made a mistake. This hadn’t been an accident. A slip up, a momentary lapse, no. From the moment he’d left his hands in Sokka’s, Zuko had done this on purpose. 

For once in his life, too, things had turned out the way he’d hoped. However, as always, Zuko hadn’t thought anything through; there hadn’t been a single bit of his mind that had given a second to consider the consequences. Iroh was standing in front of him and- Zuko already missed him. Zuko didn’t want to go away again.

Maybe he should beg.

“Zuko,” Iroh said as the corners of his mouth twitched upward like the hands of a clock.

Heat built inside him as quick as a match to blasting jelly, lit in an instant until it roared into his veins, lighting up beneath his skin as Zuko thrust his arms out in front of him, quick as a whip, and snapped his open hands shut as he flung his hands up to his shoulders. Flame jumped into life, bursting out of the air in front of him as Zuko called it to attention. It was scathing, furious, wild far beyond any measure of control Iroh had worked so hard over the years to teach him. 

Blazing fire soared to life in front of them, sudden heat slapping back through the air as the flames bored into the dirt ground, sustained on nothing, pounding away, raging, with every painful beat that rang in Zuko’s chest. A wall of fire, several yards long. It sprang into life, separating Sokka and Zuko from the others. So powerful, so strong and wide, that in an instant the face of his uncle was out of Zuko’s sight. 

Sokka yelped next to his side and jumped back, but the fire hadn’t been near enough to him to touch him. Zuko knew that. It must have been the heat. The force radiating from the wall of fire was intense, curdling even the hairs on Zuko’s arms, as he kept his hands upward and surged the flame ever forward.

“Hey!” Sokka said loudly, and he waved his arms in the peripherals of Zuko’s vision, “what are you doing?”

Out, out, out, flame so hot it caught on the line of dirt in front of him, burning, churning, wrapping over itself one after the other, not flinching, not flickering, not letting any eyes through. 

Sokka’s hand clamped onto Zuko’s shoulder, just as Zuko could feel a foreign presence pushing into his fire, grasping for control. His concentration wavered, the flames sputtered, wisping out. 

No. Zuko pushed them through harder, power surging inside him but it wasn’t enough. The wall of flame was drawn away, toward his uncle’s outstretched arms as Iroh carefully, with firm movements, pushed his own palms down to the ground. 

Dirt sizzled. Stones were white hot, a few small sparks of fire still danced inches in the air, but the barrier was gone. 

The Avatar, if possible, looked even more confused, but for once in Aang’s presence he was the last thing on Zuko’s mind. 

Zuko shouted, wordless yell echoing in the chamber, and flung a fist forward but Sokka caught it by the elbow. Halting him. Zuko’s chest heaved, breathing stuttered, taking in hot air and exhaling it at a temperature that could boil water.

“Okay,” Sokka said, his hands pushing Zuko’s arm down as Zuko, resisting slightly, let him, “uh… what was that?”

Zuko wasn’t sure enough of that himself to answer. He narrowed his eyes instead, the flame inside him still ready and raring to be let loose, as he glared at his uncle. Iroh, looking back at him, met Zuko’s gaze with a solemn expression. 

“I thought you said he was a good guy now?” The Avatar’s voice interrupted the sudden quiet, accompanied only by the sizzling of rock, pensive and curious.

Aang,” Sokka said as a warning, and then nothing else. His hands were still holding firm on Zuko’s arm. 

Zuko wasn’t going to give Oz- him a chance. Even with Sokka holding on to him, the flames were ready, bristling and waiting. He slid one foot in the dirt, just in front of where Sokka was standing. He could burn it all first. Maybe that would be enough- maybe that was the secret to keeping it from hurting. 

Iroh raised his palms up, slowly. “Zuko,” he said gently.

It hurt, somewhere, the kind of pain that made his stomach reel, hearing Iroh say his name like that. 

“Wait,” one of Sokka’s hands gave him a tighter squeeze as he raised one hand up, “this is a rescue? Right? So… let’s just get out. We probably don’t have time.”

The Avatar looked between Iroh and Zuko with confusion on his face. “Right. I mean, Katara and Toph were on their way to find Suki.”

They didn’t know. Zuko’s stomach lurched. 

“Su- Suki?!” Sokka jumped forward, panic in his voice, “Suki isn’t here!”

“The Kyoshi warr-" The Avatar started to say. 

“It’s Azula!” Sokka yelled, throwing his arms in the air. “Suki isn’t here, it’s Azula and those girls!”

Azula,” Iroh said, looking stunned. He took a step back. 

“How did you know where we were?” Sokka asked the Avatar, before shaking his head, “Katara! You had her go alone!”

Aang’s eyes widened and he stepped back. “She’s with Toph,” he explained, heartfelt, “I’m sure she’s-"

“Azula has the Dai Li in her pocket!” Sokka continued, gesturing wildly with a frantic look in his eyes, as he glanced back to Zuko, “We have to go! Now .”

“The D-" The Avatar stared, wide-eyed at Sokka, “We heard them talking about taking a prisoner and when we couldn’t find you…”

“He is right,” Iroh interrupted, firm. “You should leave opposite the way you came, get to the other side of the palace before they come this way and save them.” He pointed, toward the space in this cave that led to the large chamber beyond. “If the Dai Li are all under Fire Nation control your best chance is not to fight them directly. You must hurry.”

Sokka turned to the Avatar, exchanging a nod with him as the Avatar whipped his flying stick around his hand, seemingly without purpose, and then nodded to Zuko. “Okay, we can later-"

“We’ll be right behind you,” Iroh told him sharply. 

Aang took several rapid, flying steps toward the other chamber, air raising the cloth around his arms as he did, before he seemed to realize no one else had moved. Still standing, just a bit away from Zuko, smoldering rocks between him and Iroh, Sokka had closed his hands into fists and was looking at Zuko’s uncle with a frown. 

“Sokka?” Aang asked, sounding nervous. 

“We should all go,” Sokka said firmly. 

“Only a moment, I need a bit of time with my nephew,” Iroh explained, then with a tell-tale pause indicating he’d had to think to remember, added, “Sokka.”

It would be easier if they just left now. If they went on and fought and escaped and Zuko found excuses forever to avoid talking to his uncle, never again, leaving this whole conversation at arms-length for the rest of their lives. Maybe he should say something. Zuko hadn’t said anything, had he? Not since this whole thing started. 

“I assure you,” Iroh started to say. 

“It’s ‘fine’?” Sokka said dryly, a harsh emphasis on his words as he kicked some dirt beneath his feet toward the smoldering line on the floor. 

“Wait, wait!” The Avatar flew forward, a few feet in the air, to land between the three of them looking confused. “What are we doing? Don’t we need to go save Katara and Toph? And what about the Earth King?” He asked, turning around to give each of them a confused glance in turn. When his gaze hit Zuko, he stopped. 

Iroh raised his hands in a peaceful gesture, and to get the Avatar’s attention. “I’m sure everything will be fine. The two of you should go, just leave a tunnel open-"

“I don’t think so,” Sokka said with a frown. He stepped forward. He looked somewhat intimidating, one fist in front of him and his thick eyebrows furrowed together on a scowl, although when his foot stepped on the smoldering dirt he jumped. Hopped over the rest of it. Hissing behind gritted teeth. Then regained his confidence to throw a finger in Iroh’s face and glare at him suspiciously. “Why do you want Zuko alone? The Dai Li could be coming any second, what are you planning, huh?”

Iroh blinked at Sokka, then chuckled. “Nothing dastardly, I assure-"

“I dunno, ‘harmless old man’,” Sokka continued, narrowing his eyes, “I’ve seen a bit of how you fight before, I don’t think I buy the act.”

“Sokka? Really?” The Avatar asked, his voice growing higher with each word, clearly anxious to move on. “He’s the one who came to us to let you know where you were, he planned this whole rescue.”

“Suspicious,” Sokka decided. He got even further into Iroh’s space and Iroh raised an eyebrow at him. “What? Got anything to say?!”

“Hm,” Iroh said thoughtfully. 

“What?” Sokka demanded. 

“You’re so skinny,” Iroh mused. He pushed out with his palm, into Sokka’s stomach, and Sokka clearly hadn’t noticed how Iroh had swept his stance firmly, or guessed how much force there would be in it, because Sokka stumbled backward with shock on his face. 

Zuko didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to do.

“I- I-" Sokka stared down at his stomach like he couldn’t believe what had just happened. 

“I guess it’s not a bad thing,” Iroh continued, chuckling as he spoke, looking deceptively friendly, “though I can’t say none of this is unsurprising!”

“I’m in the middle of a growth spurt!” Sokka defended angrily. 

“Hm,” Iroh raised a hand to his chin. 

“Why am I defending myself to you?!” Sokka threw his fists down to his side, practically steaming out of his ears.

“I don’t know why,” Iroh told him, “I believe that’s only a question you can answer for yourself.”

“I’m aware,” Sokka said, annoyance dripping off every syllable. He took a step over toward the blackened line of dirt, jumped over it, and then marched to Zuko’s side. And he grabbed Zuko’s hand as he walked by. Just taking it, in his own, nonchalantly as if he’d done it a thousand times, like it wasn’t an unusual thing, like it was the most natural action to do in the world; Sokka taking Zuko’s hand. “Let’s talk after we’ve saved my sister from the army of earthbenders.”

The Avatar jumped in the air, effortlessly flying over them both, and headed toward the larger chamber. 

Sokka continued forward, chest puffed up and looking aggravated, holding Zuko’s hand firmly by his side to drag Zuko along.

Zuko,” Iroh said. 

Zuko put his free hand on Sokka’s wrist, keeping it there, not sure if he was trying to hold him tighter or pull him off, and watched as Iroh calmly walked in front of them, moving quickly enough to cut Sokka off. 

His uncle, folding his arms to rest his hands in his sleeves, smiled. At Sokka. “I need you to give us a moment,” Iroh told him, gentle, but with a stern look on his face showing this wasn’t up for debate, “a family moment.”

Right,” Sokka said with scorn, “how am I supposed to take that? I’ve learned enough about your family and Zuko already; can’t say I liked what I heard.”

Sokka was defending him, Zuko realized with a start. Maybe the reason Zuko couldn’t figure out what to do was the fact Sokka was fighting this battle for him, and Zuko realized this had never happened before, people didn’t fight for Zuko. They pushed him, maybe even gave a word of encouragement if he was lucky, and then threw him into the fray to handle it himself. From his mother with his sister, his father, or his uncle’s way of watching from the sidelines, rooting for him, yes, but no one had actually stood between Zuko and danger, not like this, not at least that Zuko knew of besides the once with his mother. But hadn’t he been the one to promise to protect Sokka ? Didn’t this count as the other way around? And had Sokka, this quickly, changed his mind about Zuko when all they’d done was talk

Zuko needed time to think about this. And the Avatar was over there, in the corner of the room, standing by an opening in a rock wall, not even doing anything, and if hadn’t been that long since the Avatar was the only thing Zuko thought about from the moment he woke up. How quickly obsession changed. Without warning. A slip of his attention and all of the sudden the lodestar of his focus has shifted from his father’s approval to the approval of a boy. 

And he’d gotten it. Somehow. Zuko had gained Sokka’s favor, and affection, despite the odds. The last thing he wanted was to lose it after all this misguided effort. But he wasn’t going to be able to keep Sokka if he acted like a coward.

Iroh. Looking at Zuko. Patient. 

“It’s fine, Sokka,” Zuko said firmly. He pushed with his wrist, forcing Sokka’s hand off of his own. 

Sokka looked surprised. “Are you-?” He started to ask, before Zuko interrupted him. 

“I’m not afraid of my uncle,” Zuko said. It was a statement that had been true, before, and maybe that was why it was the most convincing lie Zuko had ever told. “You should go with Aang to find your sister. Protect her.” His voice was so steady that Zuko was almost proud of himself. 

Sokka nodded at him. He still hesitated though, giving Zuko a long look before turning away. “Alright, that’s definitely what I’m going to do,” he said stiffly. As he left, he walked by Zuko, his knuckles brushing over Zuko’s arm for a quick moment, like some added assurance. 

Zuko appreciated that, a moment of concern, far more than he did the sight of Sokka actually leaving. Despite having told him to. Despite wanting him to. Despite being unable to think of anything worse than Sokka being present for this conversation. It felt uncomfortable to see Sokka walk over to the Avatar, the both of them give him and his uncle a nod goodbye, before turning away, heading into the chamber, the last trace of blue in Zuko’s vision slipping away behind a rock. 

“Ah,” Iroh said. 

Zuko, sharply, snapped his attention back to his uncle. 

Just them now. Having a talk, despite the very real threat of the Dai Li coming along at any moment. It was his uncle’s way. Always had been. To find the most uncomfortable and inconvenient moments to talk.

Silent chamber, everything green from the glow of the crystals besides the dying amber light of sizzling gravel to their side, as his uncle stood quietly in front of him with his arms in his sleeves. Standing like he would greeting a guest in the tea shop, looking fat and wise and harmless.

Zuko kept his stance firm to the ground, steady, his hands curled into fists at his side. 

“So,” Iroh began to say. Then he stopped. Shook his head. Zuko didn’t interrupt him, let his uncle take a few moments to figure out whatever it was Zuko dreaded to hear. “You know,” Iroh said, looking uncomfortable, “one of our nation’s greatest poets used to write about the beauty of the Southern Water Tribe.”


“Something about,” Iroh pulled a hand out of his sleeve to rub his chin thoughtfully, “the way they lived such freer lives than in the North, connected to the water in a way even our people couldn’t understand. Not to mention they were famously quite a handsome people.” He hesitated and corrected, “are a handsome people.”

Zuko stared blankly at his uncle for a long moment, then he felt his face twist into a scowl. “And what is that supposed to mean?!”

Iroh lowered his hand from his face. “Not sure, actually,” he admitted, “it was the first thing that came to mind.”

“Wasn’t it the girls of Ba Sing Se you couldn’t stop singing about not too long ago?” Zuko reminded him angrily. 

“Ah,” Iroh nodded, “well, I hadn’t anticipated you’d…” 

What?!” Zuko stepped forward, his fists glowing hot. 

“You. Obviously, hm.” Iroh gestured, uselessly, and added, “I suppose I hadn’t known how… well you’d taken to the culture of the Earth Kingdom.”

Zuko froze for a moment, as heat rose from his stomach, angry, expanding over his cheeks. “I didn’t,” he snapped at him. 

“Clearly you have,” Iroh pointed out, looking to a spot near Zuko’s right where he’d been standing with Sokka only a few minutes before. Then he looked suddenly worried. “Not that I mind,” Iroh shook his head, “this is Ba-"

“It’s not this city,” Zuko told him. 

Iroh paused. “It’s not?” He asked, in a way that sent a chill across Zuko’s back. 

Zuko tightened his fists, let the fire build inside him to the point his knuckles were glowing with heat. “Yes,” he said, through gritted teeth, “it’s not the city.”

And Iroh, with an expression of utter perplexity written all over his face, asked him, “Is this what you couldn’t tell me before?”

Could Zuko fight him? Suddenly he was cold. Zuko couldn’t find himself able to picture it, raising his hands to hurt his uncle, he- could he. Sokka wasn’t here, not anymore after all, there was nothing Zuko had left to protect but his name. His uncle had no right to take it, though if Iroh chose to… Zuko wasn’t sure he’d deny him the right. If there was anyone his name belonged to it was the only person who had ever said it to him with tenderness the entire time he’d been alive. 

So then. There was nothing for Zuko to fight for. It wasn’t as if he could earn back his uncle’s love for him by burning the very back Zuko had held onto when he’d cried. 

Iroh stiffened up and looked suddenly solemn. “I see.”

Zuko nodded. His fists were trembling a bit, at his sides, from how hard he was clenching them tight but not a part of him was able to relax. Waiting for everything to fall. There was an ironic part to this. The fact he’d only just learned to find comfort in his uncle’s arms, in resting his aching head on Iroh’s shoulder, and right now every part of him wanted to escape into the embrace of the very person he was afraid of.

He knew it had been too good to be true. The spirits had offered him Sokka and Zuko had jumped at the chance without realizing the price. Zuko wasn’t sure he would have made the same choice if he’d known. If he’d even thought about it instead of following instincts, following that wretched part of his brain that wanted more instead of being content with what he already had. 

“Now what,” Zuko’s voice was weak, “are you waiting for?”

“For you to calm down,” Iroh answered immediately. “You’re shaking and I’m not sure you won’t throw fire at me.”

“Maybe I will,” Zuko lied to him. 

Iroh raised up his palms. His eyes were wide, eyebrows furrowed together, nose along with the lines in his face harrowed and deeper than usual; his stance wasn’t threatening, but that wasn’t what Zuko was worried about. 

What if Iroh just burned him? What if he just took a pound of flesh and called it even, gave Zuko a lesson in embarrassing the family and it went back the way it was? If they’d left the same way Iroh had entered the chamber with the Avatar, no chance of seeing Sokka again, Zuko could keep from temptation- could he? What if Iroh took his other eye? That would help. 

“I thought you’d killed someone,” Iroh told Zuko, something unreadable crossing his face. “That’s why… it seemed the only answer that made sense. Why you were acting the way you were.” He raised a hand to his face, and sighed, “I’ve been wrong about quite a lot today.”

“It would have been easier for you,” Zuko said sternly. Zuko as a murderer. That was far more acceptable. It was a crime that could be forgiven. This wasn’t. It wasn’t an action for which penance could be paid; it was a part of him as firmly ingrained as the color of his eyes. For once Zuko couldn’t look away, didn’t want to, his gaze fixed on his uncle to a point, almost uncanny focus, unable to stop, to give himself even a split moment of respite. Iroh asked him, early when they’d come to the city, what kind of man Zuko wanted to be. Zuko wasn’t sure he’d ever had the freedom to choose. The mistake he’d made was losing the mask and letting everyone see in.

Iroh frowned at him, and Zuko felt his back stiffen involuntarily, the way it always did as a child when his father had raised his hand toward him. “Easier,” Iroh repeated, shaking his head slightly. 

Zuko narrowed his eyes. “Say it already!” He shouted at him, taking a step forward. 

“Say what?” Iroh asked, seeming confused. 

“Your verdict!”

“Is this a trial?” 

“If it isn’t,” Zuko sneered at him, “then what is it?!”

Iroh blinked. Then, frustration in his eyes, threw his hands upward and said loudly, “I’m trying to calm you down before you before you have to make one of the most important decisions in your life, Zuko!”

“I am calm!” Zuko yelled. 

“Ah!” Iroh smacked a palm into his forehead and sighed. He let it fall down off his face, looking ever more stern as he did. “In a short while,” Iroh told him, firm, “you are going to have to choose whether or not you will fight your sister; this time is different. This decision, you need to understand, will change the course of your life!” 

His uncle closed his eyes. He breathed in through his nose. Exhaled. Apparently calming himself as quickly as he could. 

Zuko wasn’t able to do that himself, every muscle in his body was drawn up as painfully tight as it could be. 

“And I’m not sure what you’ll do,” Iroh continued, his voice softer, “you’ve been quite the mystery to me lately. I mean, the water tribe boy?” He raised his head, mouth curling upward, “Can’t say I expected any of this.”

“Are you going to laugh?” Zuko demanded. 

“No,” Iroh said quickly. “Though you can’t blame me for being thrown, can you? When I pictured us having this conversation I didn’t expect it to start with me seeing you kissing a boy.” And then he did, a laugh, more of a low chuckle but still enough to hurt, “And you were angry I had tea with the earthbender girl. What about what you’ve been doing?”

“I guess it’s funny,” Zuko said stiffly, dry, as his chest grew cold.

“A little, isn’t it?” Iroh continued, giving Zuko a smile, “I had hoped you’d find some romance for yourself in the city, ease a bit of the trouble in your mind. How was I to know it was that which was giving you so much turmoil?”

“Funny,” Zuko repeated darkly. He felt a bit like he was going to be sick.

Iroh took a step closer, looking at him, and then the smile faded into concern.

Begging. Zuko could beg. He’d done it before, he could do it again; though what could he expect this time? He wasn’t sorry. 

Agni had sent two perfect children into their family, both taking to firebending like breathing, both intelligent, both likeable. Azula had been impossible enough to compete with, even though Zuko had had the advantage as the firstborn. Zuko was slow to learn, prone to failure, clumsy, weak, easily scared; every trait of himself he’d had to chip away slowly, with great effort, to erase, each of them coming back in their time for him to bury back down again. Azula was hard enough. Living up to the memory of the dead was exponentially more impossible. 

Lowering himself to his knees before his uncle felt right. Head down to face the dirt. Hands spread over the dust. Bow. Fealty and surrender kneeling on the dirt, waiting for judgement. 

Zuko had always been wrong and Ozai had been the only one to see it. His mother hadn’t realized and it killed her. Now it was Iroh’s time to learn. 

He wasn’t Lu Ten and he wasn’t even a fitting replacement. All his time in Ba Sing Se had taught him was that no matter how hard he tried to impersonate the dead, Zuko would be underneath. 

At least he knew he wasn’t alone in his inability to be a proper son. Sokka was too. Though better than him, it seemed, in every way. Zuko admired him, in every way he thought he was capable of admiring someone, and in that was the problem. He liked Sokka, blue eyes and loud laugh and the strange expression he made when he was thinking too hard, liked him enough to forget everything else, for tingles to crawl over his body, to feel happy, but Zuko loved his uncle. 

It wasn’t fair. This just didn’t seem fair. It hurt. Zuko vision was spinning; hot water built in the corners of his eyes as the thought hit his chest with his heartbeat, like an indignant child, because how was this fair? He had two promises at once, ripping him open, both that he’d meant with every part of himself, to follow his uncle and to stay at Sokka’s side. He should have known better than to ask for that much. 

Hands gripped the fabric of his shirt at the shoulders and lifted upward. Zuko let him. He was feeling enough, roiling inside him, that it was almost numbing, as he looked back up into Iroh’s face. Enough that he didn’t care what his uncle expression was saying. 

Iroh knelt in front of him. 

“What are you doing to do about this?” Zuko asked him. By all accounts, and despite the odds, his voice sounded normal. 

“About what, Zuko?” Iroh asked him softly. 

“About what-" I am “I’ve done.”

Iroh’s hands tightened on his shoulders as he looked into Zuko’s face, mournful. His uncle asked him, soft, “Have you done something wrong?”

Zuko stared at him. He wanted to reach up, grab his uncle’s arms, or lean forward to bury his head against Iroh’s chest, but his hands only twitched at his side and his body was still. Iroh had seen it. Did he have to make Zuko say it out loud? 

“My grandfather was a terrible man, you know,” Iroh said suddenly, “what was the harm in letting people live the way they wanted? Only a few less families churning out soldiers for his army, I suppose. Nothing, I think, worth making a fuss about.”


Iroh squeezed his shoulders, wide eyes looking into Zuko’s, as he smiled oddly. Iroh was nervous. “You could have said something to me a long time ago, Zuko,” he said.

“No,” Zuko told him, “I couldn’t.”

Iroh lifted his left hand up to Zuko’s face, cupping the unscarred cheek, and that was strange. It wasn’t something he’d ever done before, it was a gesture that seemed unlike him. “Zuko,” Iroh told him, serious, “you could have told me. I told you I love you.”

“I couldn’t- I can’t -" Zuko couldn’t find the words in his head, his own mind was tripping over himself, his eyes were hot and he was blinking hard to try to keep his face under control. Why was Iroh saying that? Over and over? Did he honestly think Zuko would have told him? That Zuko, knowing he might lose his uncle over his honesty, would ever have taken that chance?

“Yes, you could have,” Iroh said again. 

He wasn’t getting it. “Uncle,” Zuko said with gritted teeth, clenching his throat tight enough to hurt. 

“Zuko, I love you,” Iroh started to say. 

“So?” Zuko interrupted. 

Iroh frowned at him, looking surprised. “Zuko?”

“My father loved me once,” Zuko reminded him, losing control over his face as he did, the words coming out of him staggered and choked, “my family was happy. Before.”

“They weren’t happy,” Iroh said sternly. He looked directly into him, frowning and serious. “Your family wasn’t happy, Zuko, only you and Azula. And your father-"

“What would you know about it?” Zuko asked him, his voice shaking but still managing just enough to be harsh, “You were off fighting-"

“I know your father better than you,” Iroh insisted, “for far longer.” His hand on Zuko’s face tightened, as if holding him, as he continued, “Zuko, no one who loves a child can hurt them the way your father did you.”

“You can hurt someone you care about,” Zuko told him, “I’ve done it. I have even to you.”

“Not like what he did !” Iroh paushed, taking a deep breath, before he spoke again. “Not with malice. Not so coldly, so cruelly. Not with the intention to hurt. He never loved you, Zuko, but I swear to you, on the grave of my son, that I love you. Just as much as I love him.”

Zuko stared at him. Felt his uncle’s hand on his shoulder, his cheek, as strange points of unreality. He’s lying. Had to be. “I am nothing like Lu Ten,” he reminded, each syllable echoing somewhere deep in his ears. 

Iroh’s hand left his face back to his shoulder, to grip onto him tight as he smiled. “Of course you aren’t,” he said gently, “why should you be? The two of you were never the slightest bit alike; after all, Lu Ten loved pai sho, and he never could play the tsungi horn with near as much grace as you.” Iroh chuckled at him. Good natured. 

It was so odd. Zuko grimaced, and he could tell he was making the same face he always did when Iroh said anything particularly embarrassing, it was just so out of place in a moment like this.

“You should play for your friend sometime,” Iroh said with a twinkle in his eye.

Uncle,” Zuko choked out, not sure if he was even still crying out of sheer confusion. This wasn’t how this went, it wasn’t how it should go by any stretch of the imagination.

“Although,” Iroh said with a grin, watching Zuko carefully all the same, “the two of you seemed a bit more than friendly.”

Zuko could feel the blood rushing up into his face as quick as the snap of fingers. 

“It’s not so bad, is it?” Iroh asked him, sounding hesitant, “That I would know about you?”

“It is,” Zuko told him honestly. It was bad. This was all extremely bad.

Iroh opened his mouth to say something but stopped. He seemed hurt, by something, somewhere along the line, but Zuko couldn’t hope to guess when or where. Zuko wasn’t fully sure where any of this was going; he was still waiting for fire. 

“Hm,” Iroh said. 

Zuko blinked at him, the eyelashes on his eye wet and heavy. 

“Zuko,” Iroh ordered, looking stern, “what do you want?”

Zuko still very much wanted to disappear into a hole in the ground so he wasn’t sure how to answer that. 

“Change is coming swiftly today,” Iroh continued firmly, “as quick as spring bursts into summer. You will have very little time to decide, but you must.”

“What are you going to do?” Zuko asked him. 

Iroh frowned. “Zuko,” he said, “that is what I am asking you.”

Zuko could feel his own face falling back into a scowl.

“I think Zuko, a little bit of romance is good for the soul, but where you choose to go from here is a decision that must come from every part of you,” Iroh squeezed his shoulders again and one of them let go, falling down as he knelt back on his feet. “Who are you? What do you want? Do you wish to go back to where you once were, or accept the changes to yourself that life has given you?”

What was he talking about?

“Perhaps you were forged by the flame,” Iroh said, looking at him with sadness in his eyes, “and what was meant to break you guided you on a path to this very moment.”

“What moment?” Zuko asked him, feeling the reeling of confusion in his stomach spark anger back into his voice. 

Iroh smiled at him. “This opportunity set before you, my nephew. You can join the Avatar and put an end to the war my grandfather began.” His free hand reached out, to poke Zuko in the chest, and Zuko’s scowl deepened while Iroh added, “There’s a dam at the edge of a long barren forest, the power rests with you, the decision , the build it up stronger or to set the river free.”

Was Zuko supposed to be the river or the dam? And why, of all people, should a decision that seemed so important rest with him? That was a fine thing for the spirits to have put into motion; leave an important decision up to Zuko. If there had been any doubt the universe was run by sadists before there shouldn’t be now. 

“The future of the Fire Nation should rest in the hands of the best of our family,” Iroh said solemnly. Then, as a few seconds of silence passed by where Zuko only blinked at him, he clarified, “With you.”

“You’re senile,” Zuko said dryly. 

Iroh snorted. “Am I?”

“I don’t have a throne,” Zuko reminded, sneering, “I was bested by my sister, and after- I am incapable of honor, you saw it for yourself.”

Incapable,” Iroh said coldly, “is that what honor is? Something that could be taken away by decree. Can a man like Sozin, who killed his own friend, slaughtered an innocent nation of people, simply write away the honor of men and women he had never met? Is honor so flimsy a thing? So meaningless?”

Zuko stared at him. 

“I see honor in you.” Iroh pressed his hand, flat now, against Zuko’s chest. “I do not doubt the water tribe boy does to. After all he must have had to forgive, Zuko, do you think he would have done so if he saw you as incapable of honor?” 

Iroh waited, for Zuko to reply. 

Zuko wasn’t sure he could. His head was spinning. 

He looked down, away from his uncle, at his hands in the dirt and raised them up, leaning backward, letting Iroh’s hold on his shoulder fall away. Honor wasn’t meaningless not- it was the worth of a person, the strength of their word and their character, the dignity they carried inside them, and perhaps that didn’t describe Zuko but if he wasn’t incapable of reaching for it… Sokka had honor. Zuko knew that, anyone who had meant Sokka could have seen it, even without having seen what Zuko had seen. 

What greater display of honor could there be than a lone warrior standing alone before a ship filled with soldiers, ready to fight with no one at his side? A solitary fighter raising their weapon to defend their home despite certainty of defeat. 

By the same standards Zuko was incapable of honor, Sokka should be too. That wasn’t right. It didn’t make sense, it couldn’t, but when Zuko turned it to himself it didn’t seem wrong somehow and he didn’t know why. How could a truth that made so much sense in one direction be utterly false in the other?

His head hurt, he needed so much time to think; Zuko needed to breathe.

Iroh suddenly stood sharply to his feet.

Zuko could feel the air shifting, becoming warmer, which was a strange kind of ominous warning for a firebender. His stomach dropped, like he’d fallen, though alone with the hairs that raised on his arm came relief. If there was a fight coming, he could handle that. A fight made sense. There was nothing in the world Zuko wanted more in the moment than to hit something and shove his thoughts into the back of his mind. 

“What’s wrong?” Sokka’s voice called out. 

What is he- Zuko jumped to his feet, unsteady, wobbling, sudden as he stared back toward the break in the cave leading to the larger chamber. Where Sokka was jogging back from. 

Iroh seemed similarly confused. He turned around sharply and looked at Sokka with a dumb expression. 

Not appearing to notice, or care, Sokka skirted past a large crystal formation to stop right at Zuko’s side. “What? What is it?” Sokka asked. Blinking at him. 

Zuko stared at him, dumb, for several seconds. Then, “What are you still doing here?!” Zuko demanded. 

Sokka gave him a look, like Zuko had just asked a stupid question, and then confirmed it saying, “That’s a stupid question.”

Iroh was a yard away from them, Sokka standing between Zuko and his uncle in a way that Zuko could see Iroh just over Sokka’s shoulder. Iroh was watching, listening. 

“It’s not a stupid question,” Zuko defended, irritated, “You were going away with the Avatar.”

“I lied,” Sokka said. He reached out, shoved Zuko’s shoulder, and Zuko scowled. Then his hand at Zuko’s shoulder held onto the fabric there, and Sokka, casting a quick glance behind him, leaned in and whispered, “Are you okay?”

Zuko blinked. His eyes flickered over to his uncle who- who was looking at Zuko the way he did a lot when he though Zuko couldn’t see him, something dark in his eyes, worried, with a hint of a smile and Zuko couldn’t understand why Iroh would make a face like that at him now. “You were supposed to go,” Zuko told Sokka. How much did Sokka hear? It was embarrassing - how could one hour have this many highs and lows? Zuko could feel an emotional whiplash in his chest that just kept getting worse. 

“‘Stick around’,” Sokka reminded, a little sourly. 

Oh, of course. 

Sokka had waited for him. Even knowing the Avatar was running to get his sister, despite all of that, for some reason Sokka had decided to wait. For Zuko. 

Sokka was right, he was- well obviously he was right , Sokka was smart, but he’d been… so right. It really did… just… fell amazing. When you liked someone. And they stuck around. It felt like being wanted.

Zuko had an intense urge to kiss him again. Except Iroh was right there, and his uncle had just turned in shock toward the area where he and the Avatar had entered the chamber and-

It was a blink, just a moment, where Zuko could see Iroh’s shoulders relax and for an instant he felt relieved until the glowing green rock at his uncle’s feet shot up from the ground. Instant. Pinning his arms. Holding him tight. Locking Iroh into place as Iroh, still looking outward, didn’t even flinch. 

Zuko stared at him, frozen, what was Iroh doing, why hadn’t he tried to avoid-

Sokka’s elbow slammed into Zuko’s stomach as Sokka jumped in front of him, taking rapid steps backward. Zuko, off-balance, shocked, stumbled for a moment before his feet found solid purchase on the ground again. 

Beyond his uncle trapped in a pile of glowing rock and past the fading simmer of a line of dark embers across the ground, was his sister. Azula stood, wide-eyed and grinning, beside a Dai Li agent that calmly exited a bending stance. She was still wearing Earth Kingdom colors, celebrating her victory, perhaps; yet the Avatar and his friends were on the surface by now, Zuko was sure of it. Yet Azula was here.

If she wanted to capture Iroh, or stop Zuko from escaping, she could have sent any number of her agents; for some reason Azula was here herself. Zuko couldn’t guess why, but he knew her enough to know anything Azula schemed would never be good. 

Zuko,” she said, in a voice that would have been cheerful if not for the shadow that crossed her eyes, “what a surprise.”

It wasn’t a surprise. Clearly. What was she playing at?

Sokka, standing in front of him, raised empty fists and glared. “You,” he snapped. 

Azula, casually, turned so she could give the tunnel she came in through a pointed glance. “The way out has been open for awhile,” she commented, “you didn’t even try to escape?”

They should have run the moment there had been an exit. Why hadn’t Zuko insisted they go- instead they’d just stood here, talking, and now his uncle-

Iroh had closed his eyes. Looking peaceful. Meditative. He wasn’t doing anything. Iroh had let himself be imprisoned in rock, had known someone was coming, and had just let it happen for reasons Zuko didn’t understand. 

Once again everyone in Zuko’s family was playing an elaborate game and Zuko was the only one who hadn’t realized it. 

Azula lowered a hand, tilting her head and frowning. “You have a friend?” She asked, sounding genuinely confused. 

Right. Sokka. 

Zuko was the one who was supposed to protect him, especially now with Sokka having no weapons to fight with. He grabbed Sokka’s arm, ignoring his yelp of surprise, and pushed Sokka back so Zuko was standing in front. With a snarl, Zuko snapped his fists to his side, fire bursting out of the ends of his palms into two burning daggers. 

Azula grinned wider. Then she held up her hands in a gesture of peace. “Now, now,” she said. 

“Why are you here?!” Zuko shouted at her. He could feel Sokka’s presence at his side, tried to ignore it. His heart pounded in his chest, watching her, waiting, ready, for blue fire, and lightning. 

“Ba Sing Se has fallen, brother,” Azula began. 

Beside him, Sokka muttered something but he was too quiet, and on Zuko’s bad side, so Zuko couldn’t make it out. 

“I can’t say… that I blame you,” Azula lowered her hands behind her back, passive. Confident. “It wasn’t your choice to gallivant across the world with a traitor.” She glanced at Iroh. 

Zuko bristled, his mouth curling up in a snarl, but his uncle's eyes stayed closed and he didn’t even seem bothered. 

“I know you can be… slow,” she said, “so I’m going to spell it out for you, Zuzu.”

Azula took a step forward, the Dai Li agent in a careful stance behind her as a clear threat, and she opened her arms. 

“What is she doing?” Sokka asked quietly. He tried to take a step forward as well but Zuko threw his left arm up to his side, stopping him. 

Without Iroh, they didn’t stand a chance of winning this fight and Zuko knew Azula knew it just as well as he did. If they fought it would be Zuko against a far stronger firebender and a trained Earthbending soldier; Sokka, without a weapon, had little chance of helping. They were trapped. 

“I’m listening,” Zuko told her. 

Azula smiled. “Can’t you see I did all this for you?”

Zuko stared at her. 

“Ba Sing Se is now a vice around the Avatar,” Azula continued on, “his friends are scattered, the city leaders are imprisoned, the Earth King is hidden away, the Avatar will stand and fight. That’s always the trick with him, isn’t it? Making sure the Avatar doesn’t run off? Well. Here you are. Here’s your chance.”

“What,” Zuko’s mouth was dry, “what do you mean?”

I mean,” Azula seemed annoyed and then, glaring for a moment, smoothed her features back again into something pleasant, “I’ve brought you to the Avatar. All you need to do is pluck him while he’s ripe.”

“I don’t think so!” Sokka stepped away from Zuko, taking a rapid step forward, looking furious.

Zuko lunged forward, grabbed a handful of his shirt, and pulled Sokka down as hard as he could. Sokka shouted in surprise as arms flailed about, undignified, as Sokka tried to keep balance then lost the fight, landing with a huff onto the dirt right on Zuko’s left foot. Zuko wasn’t sorry about stopping him, even as Sokka shot him a wicked glare. This was not a fight Zuko wanted to start. For once. Not with Iroh trapped and Sokka without a weapon- they couldn’t win.

Azula blinked, confused, looking at Sokka. Then she shot her eyes back to Zuko. “What’s the point of him?” She asked. 

Point? Zuko couldn’t answer her, not sure he had it in him to explain this even if he wanted to. 

Azula shook her head. “No matter.” Her hands returned behind her back. “I just came here to give you the common courtesy of a little hint, Agni knows you need it,” she said calmly, “there is a right side, Zuzu. A winning side. I think it’s time for you to come back.”

She turned, sharp on her heel, toward the path through the cave that led to the larger chamber. Passing their uncle as she did, raising her eyebrow and wrinkling her nose with something like disgust. 

Zuko watched her, frozen in place, his hand still gripping tightly onto the back of Sokka’s tunic. 

Azula was slow, not for any reason it seemed, other than to savor the moment. As she walked, she looked back one more time to Zuko. And smiled again. “I know you missed me,” she added, softly yet somehow with an edge to her words, “it’s time to come home.”

“No, I-“ Zuko felt a horrible weight drop in his stomach, something gripping him so tightly he was likely to rip apart, as he realized. He looked back at Azula, slow horror trickling up his throat, and he knew. She wasn’t lying. 

Azula didn’t need Zuko to capture the Avatar. He was one, barely loyal, traitorous firebender while she had an army at her fingertips, she didn’t need to do this, she hadn’t needed to arrange it this way. The Dai Li agent she’d wasn’t following her. Azula was going toward the Avatar alone. 

You missed me,” he said gently. Zuko’s voice was shaking. His head reeled. This was what Iroh meant, the choice Zuko was facing. If Zuko was going to betray his father the universe wasn’t going to make it so easy as a meandering journey downhill; it was a crossroads and Zuko had to pick a side now.

Something cold passed across Azula’s face, her eyes flashing with anger, and then she was gone. 

Leaving Zuko with questions, questions each side would hate him for asking, like how merciful would Father be and what was Iroh thinking about him; both unsure. Equally unsteady. 

"Zuko," Iroh said, finally talking, finally moving, his voice cutting through the ringing in Zuko's ears. "You have to follow her. I will be fine. Go. Now."

Go? Zuko stared at his uncle. There was a chill in the air, one that ran along Zako's arm and filled in a deep place in his chest. Go. And then what?

Sokka snapped away Zuko’s grip on his tunic, flung himself to his feet, and grabbed Zuko’s hand to run after her. Steady. Certain. If Sokka had a doubt in his head Zuko couldn’t see it as the water tribe warrior dragged Zuko behind him, as if the truce between them had been set in place far longer than the feeble hour where this all had taken place. 

Iroh said nothing else as they passed. The Dai Li agent was still in place as stone. And Sokka held Zuko’s hand and guided him toward a fight without even bothering to ask Zuko which side he was on. 

Chapter Text

Sokka’s hand was practically a death grip, he was holding Zuko’s with just enough awkwardness that it pinched Zuko’s fingers together; Sokka’s hand wrapped around the top of Zuko’s before the thumb instead of below, all of which meant the hold Sokka had on him was, fundamentally, unsteady. 

As Sokka ran forward, Zuko only half a step behind, he kept his focus on the side of Sokka’s face instead of the way ahead. Looking at the frown, at thick furrowed eyebrows and a tight jaw, at the determined look etched into Sokka’s face and he wondered if that same unsteady grip Sokka had on his hand was indicative of the hold Sokka had on the rest of him, and if Zuko felt like he was teetering over the edge of a cliff did Sokka feel that too? Or was Sokka used to this? 

After all, Sokka had been born into being an enemy of the Fire Nation; Zuko hadn’t even given himself a moment these last months to let the reality of his status with his people sink in. He didn’t fit there, he was everything the Fire Nation despised, banished and burned and forgotten but… if there was a chance…?

It wasn’t long, only a few seconds, until they ran into the center of the larger chamber.

The ancient fountain sat still and cold to their right, the floor changed from cave stone to carved sleek bricks, the rest of the cave opening up to a vast and empty space. There was no movement in the room besides some flickering of green light from the crystals along the walls, otherwise the space was as lifeless and still as the rippleless surface of the water. Sokka paused, staring across the room with wide eyes. 

“Where are we?” Sokka asked, turning wildly to look around the glowing stone toward the fountain. As he did, he nearly dragged Zuko in a circle with him, but Zuko pushed Sokka’s hand out of his own. 

“Old Ba Sing Se,” Zuko explained, “the city is built on ruins.”

“Huh,” Sokka’s eyes flickered around to the ground, at some scorch marks around the cave. “There must have been a fight but,” he bent down and touched part of the rock, “it’s already cold-"

“That was me,” Zuko told him.

Sokka’s shoulders tensed instantly. Then he raised himself back up, an awkward look on his face, and nodded at Zuko, “Right.”

“I was… letting off some steam before you arrived,” Zuko explained.

“Yeah, yeah, no, makes sense,” Sokka threw his hand to the back of his neck. “I forgot…” he trailed off. He turned around in a circle again, as Zuko wondered what it could be Sokka had forgotten, and then stopped to point at the wall just behind Zuko’s back. “There! Tunnel! That must be where they exited.”

Sokka took a single step toward the exit, already bursting with energy as he’d been about to run, and Zuko caught his shoulder. He forced Sokka to stop. 

Then Zuko just looked at him. He blinked. 

The frustration on Sokka’s face was loud, the way all his expressions were. “What?” Sokka demanded. 

Zuko opened his mouth to answer and then closed it. 

Sokka raised an eyebrow at him. 

Zuko stared. 

“Okay, whatever this is-" Sokka reached down, grabbing Zuko’s hand again, “your uncle or whatever we can always-"

“I think Azula’s offering a pardon,” Zuko said suddenly, rushed. He knew, the moment he said the words and Sokka’s shoulders tensed, he shouldn’t continue, but for some reason beyond him he had to, “All she wants is the Avatar, and then you and me, we could-"

Stop it,” Sokka snapped.

Zuko took Sokka in, in a single moment, from the wolftail with a few loose strands, the angry narrowed blue eyes, and a mouth that was just a bit swollen and he had to continue, “It would be safer.”

“‘Safer’,” Sokka repeated, glaring at him as, for some reason, his grip on Zuko’s hand only tightened, “safer to betray my friend? Since when do you care so much about being safe?”

Zuko wasn’t sure. He just kept watching Sokka and feeling like ‘being safe’ was extremely important. 

Sokka looked worried. He grinned nervously, lopsided and, somehow Zuko could tell, half-hearted. “Hey, you,” his voice was high, “you’re not actually considering what I think you’re- I uh-"

“I was-" Zuko tried to say.

“I made a pretty significant choice to trust you,” Sokka said, his voice getting higher with every word until it cracked. 

“I know,” Zuko took a step forward, even closer into Sokka’s space, trying to explain but his stomach was twisted in knots and his head was pounding a painful rhythm out of tune with the beating in his chest and it just wasn’t stopping. “I don’t know, I just- I know, if I could just-"

Sokka’s eyes widened as he looked at a point past Zuko’s ear; his hands reached out, grabbing the sides of Zuko’s face, and for a sudden moment Zuko’s heart lurched thinking Sokka was about to kiss him again, and then Sokka’s hands forced his head down, to the side, arms wrapping over his shoulders right as a crack exploded through the air.

A sudden force, along with the resounding shock booming through the room, pushed them backward and they fell down. Sokka’s body curled over Zuko’s chest and face. Pinning him to the floor. The chamber hissed, and as Zuko blinked through a sudden onslaught of dust in the air he realized it was the sound of thousands of miniscule rocks raining down onto the ground like a monsoon season morning. 

Sokka sat up right as Zuko pushed him off. 

For a moment Zuko squinted through the dust, barely able to see anything beyond a few yards in front of him, until the dust began to swirl, a tornado that grew faster and faster, gathering up smaller rocks as it did and then- with a breeze like a harsh wave, that tornado of air flew into a farther wall, revealing an orange figure whirling a stick over his head in the center of the room. 

In a giant hole in the rock, two fingers extended outward, Azula smugly grinned out into the room beyond. 

Enough,” the Avatar’s voice echoed, it would have been impressive if it didn’t sound so young, “this is where you want me? Fine!”

Azula lowered her fingers, shifting into a firebending stance Zuko could recognize. “-tsk-,” she said.

She was so annoying when she did that. 

Zuko jumped to his feet and half a second later Sokka did too. Zuko pushed his right foot back, shoulder-width apart, left palm open and right hand curled in a fist; the chamber was still glowing just a bit green, unsettling. Scattered, fresh rock like gravel disrupting ancient carved stone, a fountain like a lake behind him. 

If Azula had picked this chamber with as much careful attention as Zuko had built his, where he’d ended up fighting Jet instead, than she had thought all of it through. The water, tempting for the Avatar but leaving him open to lightning, the earth above and below but with too much changing of the environment could bring the entire cave crashing down around them all, and the cave itself, restricted movement for flying; a trap. She’d have an exit planned for herself but impossible for them to guess, every possibility of the scenario thought through. Still, as he looked at the slight glimmer of satisfaction across his sister’s eyes, Zuko felt even more strongly that this was made just as much for him as the Avatar. 

Sokka leaned down, grabbed a fist sized rock, and held it over his shoulder in a position ready to throw. Zuko saw, with a quick glance to his right side, the slight flush on Sokka’s ears as he swallowed. He was nervous. 

Of course he was. Sokka was the only one without any bending and didn’t have a single weapon on his person to defend himself. 

“Took you long enough, Zuzu,” Azula said firmly, an airy, easy tone to her words. “Back where you’re supposed to be. Without the old fool by your side.”

Zuko gritted his teeth but didn’t move. The Avatar was on his left, Azula on his right, the two of them were in bending stances facing each other while Zuko completed the triangle just beyond, his left hand toward Aang and his right facing his sister. 

And Zuko wondered if any of the choices he’d made since he’d come to Ba Sing Se even mattered. If he was always just going to end up here, facing the two people he’d spent his life chasing after. Until he ended up on this scale, equal weight on each side as Zuko measured them both and was left with the choice to tip in either favor; which was a decision that felt incredibly important, and clearly was incredibly important, which was uncomfortable enough of a feeling that a chill ran down his back. 

Zuko hadn’t said anything for several seconds and the Avatar and Azula were both looking at him. 

The Avatar’s hands adjusted his grip on his staff. “Sokka?”

Now,” Azula continued, frowning, “there’s no point in waiting any longer, is there?”

Beside Zuko, he could see Sokka shifting his weight from one foot to the other, fingers rotating his hold on the rock in his hand. Moving. Uncomfortable. 

“It’s been three years,” Azula reminded.

Zuko swallowed. 

“Three years since…?” the Avatar asked, carefully shifting his gaze between Azula and Zuko. 

It had been three years. Long years. Three years on the ocean, when the smell of volcanic soil so far removed Zuko couldn’t even remember what home smelled like, three years pouring over every piece of literature there was about the Avatar, every historical document, three years spent learning and relearning firebending over and over again in the hope he could possibly match up to his sister and never quite getting there, three years full of jeers from his own people, barely letting himself feel until he was just so angry, recovering quickly, itching and angry and changing until he barely recognized himself anymore; but he hadn’t spent those three years alone. Iroh had been there, every step of the way. 

And hadn’t that been what Sokka had pointed out? How much it meant when someone stuck around? 

Iroh had been the only one by Zuko’s side throughout it all. Iroh went with him. Iroh stuck around no matter what Zuko did or where he went; and maybe that- maybe even after what his uncle had seen, Iroh was still going to stay at Zuko’s side?

It was selfish. To turn his back on his own people. To abandon them all to fight for the other side. To become traitor. If the Fire Nation was a machine the way his father described, Zuko was an engineer stepping away right as the warning lights begged for fuel; this wasn’t a decision alone in a vacuum, there were innocent people and civilians on every side of the mark, lives he’d pledged to serve as prince, the nation he was loyal to and always had and always would be, and lives he’d learned had value in the Earth Kingdom. 

Then there was what Zuko wanted.

It was just like Azula to make this moment all the harder by throwing just the barest hint she still cared about him. The knowledge of that churned his stomach to the point of feeling sick. Azula . His little sister- running after him, wanting to play, eager and excited and she was so small once- 

Zuko thought for a quick second, while closing his eyes to blink, and when he opened them again he knew what he was going to do. As fast as that. 

The choice was made. It was a relief. Done. Over. Nothing left but the follow through. His eyes flickered from the side of Sokka’s head to his sisters waiting, exhilarated expression. This was… Zuko was going to hate this; but he’d chosen, he’d decided, and that was it. 

He always made his worst decisions on impulse. 

“Azula,” Zuko said. 

She turned to him. 

Zuko shifted his weight in his right foot from the heel to his toes. 

She noticed. 

Azula flung her hands upward, a ring of blue flame encompassing her just before Zuko punched out with his hand to send a blast of flame in her direction. 

That was it, his fate sealed, Zuko had picked and there wasn’t time to analyze if what he did was right or not- it was so hard to know what was right- he’d signed his fate with flame the way fire always proceeded change and now it was all done, agni, it was done, and there was no more time to think, which was a fact that sent some bubbling, horrible, elated, sickening feeling surging into his chest like it could both lift his body in the air and was going to burst out of his body and kill him; Zuko… his arms itched and something inside him felt frantic

One hand was extended from the punch and he flung it back to his sides, stepping forward quickly and swinging his arms in front of him as fire exhaled between his knuckles in a line. Zuko twisted his body, ducking down as he did, flinging fire whips in Azula’s direction. 

Azula screamed at him, running forward and kicking two twin blasts of flame from her feet. As Zuko swung his arms to deflect she didn’t give him a second to recover, the moment he spun back there was another surge of blue fire headed in his direction. Zuko snapped his hands upward, the fire whips going straight in the air to take the attack, when a blast of air shot the blue fire away and earth shook on the ground in a pattern toward Azula’s feet. 

She jumped high, flipping backwards into the large hole in the wall and landed perfectly. Azula scowled. Her expression was deep and dark in a way that Zuko almost shuddered at the sight; she almost looked like her namesake. 

The Avatar ran into Zuko’s line of sight, swinging his flying stick from his foot up into the air. A huge rock flung up from the ground and the Avatar turned over and sent it toward Azula with a kick. 

Zuko could feel his heartbeat pounding a manic rhythm in his skull. 

Yes!” Sokka yelled from behind him. Zuko couldn’t help it, he turned his head so he could look; Sokka was holding the rock over his head, triumphant, like he’d forgotten it was even there, and smiling at Zuko with so much focus Zuko almost forgot how to breathe. “You really freaked me out there, I thought-!”

Zuko felt the heat heading his way before it was even close. He jumped forward in Sokka’s direction, spinning his hands over his elbows as a full fireball, blue at the center and brimming with red, surged toward them. Racing, Zuko threw out a technique not unlike how he’d saved his own life when the pirates blew up his ship; using the very fire heading toward him to grasp and pull until it surged outward and away, a shield that passed over him and Sokka with barely an instant to spare. Heat crashing over them like a wave. 

Zuko heard Sokka gulp beside his ear. 

The Avatar only twisted around for a moment to look, satisfied Sokka was safe, and then continued to fling the flying stick around his feet, throwing rocks up to his chest and kicking out with his feet in a series of moves not unlike cartwheels, a rather impressive blend of air bending smooth motion and the stiff bending style of earthbenders. Azula was cutting each of the rocks flying toward her, one by one. She could have dodged out of the way but instead she blasted them into pieces, bursting solid stone into scattered shards with expertly timed firebending. The two of them seemed matched. Even. 

“Stay behind me!” Zuko ordered, rushing forward toward Azula as he did and not checking to see if Sokka was, in fact, staying behind him. He flung his elbows up to the side of his head as he ran, dropping one and plunging a fist into the air in front of him. A surge of fire burst from his knuckles, huge at his fist and then blasting outward in a line, forming into a curve headed just to Azula’s right. He did it again, this time toward her left. 

Somehow, like they’d spoken about it, the Avatar sent a blast of air at Azula directly in between Zuko’s attacks. It would have landed. Should have landed. If not for the wall of rock that burst up out of the ground right in front of her. 

“Get back!” Sokka yelled, and his hands grabbed Zuko’s shirt in two places and pulled him. He didn’t give Zuko even a moment to do so by himself. Zuko kept his stance, taking four paces backward at Sokka’s urging toward the center of the room, seeing shapes in the chamber that simply hadn’t been there moments before. 

Dai Li agents, more than a dozen, all around the room in a circle, imposing, staring, doubtless armed to the teeth.

Azula had a back-up plan. Of course she did. Though something in Zuko’s head felt like she’d expected to use the Dai Li with Zuko at her side and not against him. 

Zuko shifted, knocking Sokka’s hands away and then standing back-to-back, his hands upward and ready to bend at a moment's notice. They circled around, revealing more of the chamber, eerie green light illuminating everything that only added to the uncomfortable pit growing ever stronger in Zuko’s stomach. He already regretted this. 

Azula moved up from behind the rock wall, stepping out into view, just as Zuko felt a body hit his shoulder. 

He frowned down, to his right, to see the tattooed head of the Avatar just above his chin height as he joined his back with him and Sokka. The flying stick clutched in front of him. Determination on his face. 

Zuko blinked at him. Unsure what to feel. Had the Avatar always been this small? Even when Zuko had been carrying his unconscious body through the snow, there had been that… nervous thrill of energy, the thrum of being near a person larger than life, someone dangerous, and yet now with the Avatar pressed against his side, at his side- or more like Zuko was on his- the Avatar seemed tiny

“Sokka,” the Avatar muttered. 

“Give me a minute,” Sokka said under his breath. 

The sudden relief Zuko felt at those words nearly caused him to double-over. Sokka was thinking up a plan, of course he was, and it might be Azula and a couple dozen trained warriors against the three of them and the rest of the Avatar’s team was trapped somewhere and Iroh was trapped somewhere but Sokka was thinking up a plan

Azula walked, slowly, over toward the main cluster of the Dai Li agents and then stopped, looking back at them, furious. 

“Glow,” Zuko said, not sure why he was the one stating the obvious. 

“What?” Sokka asked him. 

“Not you,” Zuko snapped, narrowing his eyes at his sister as he spoke, “Avatar. Glow.”

“Um,” the Avatar said stupidly. 

Azula’s hands closed into fists at her side and started to smoke, her shoulders were shaking with rage. Something wicked and hateful crossed her eyes as she matched her gaze with Zuko’s. For some reason, that face reminded Zuko of the expression she’d made when Iroh had gifted him the knife and her only a doll. Like she’d lost something she hadn’t been entitled to in the first place and it was burning her up inside. It was a bad face.

“Do the thing where you glow,” Zuko growled at him, “and you ruin- or fix, everything- just do the Avatar thing!”

“Great point,” Sokka said, his voice squeaking, “now would be a good time for the Avatar state.”

Three long, silent seconds passed, as Azula’s glowing fists only undulated with power while she stared at him, and Zuko stared back. A nearly unbearable passage of time in this moment. 

Until the Avatar, finally, did something. Except he didn’t glow. He just said, in a quiet voice, “I can’t.”

Of course he could he- he had to-

“Um… Aang,” Sokka said in a gentle voice thrumming with nervous energy, “now is definitely one of those life-or-death times, okay? So just do whatever that guru told you to do and Avatar state. Yip yip.”

“I can’t.”

“Uh, what was the point of the guru-" Sokka started to say. 

“I can’t anymore okay!” Aang yelled, suddenly throwing his hands in the air. 

Azula smirked. She threw her arms forward, shooting a blazing trail of flame toward the three of them and calling the Dai Li to action at the same time.

Zuko jumped forward, blasting into the attack, realizing instantly it wouldn’t work- her fire was so much hotter- and then he twisted around, compensating Azula’s strength by surging out with more, casting his leg in a line and pushing out a wall of errant, chaotic fire to counter it. It was barely enough. The moment his foot touched the ground again he grabbed Sokka’s side, slamming them both into the ground to just underneath the surging flame. 

Sokka came down hard, shouting as his elbow hit the stone rough, but they escaped the blast of Azula’s fire. The Avatar raised his flying stick, spinning it in front of him just in time but was still pushed backward toward the fountain by the sheer force of her attack. 

The moment the heat passed over their heads Zuko could hear footsteps racing toward them, unrelenting, dozens of patterns. He didn’t have enough time to even stand, getting only up to his knees before sending fire blasts toward the approaching Dai Li agents. He caught one, another shot a fist of stone out toward his wrist and only missed when Sokka threw a well-aimed rock to deflect it. 

Zuko inhaled, used his hands to fling his body up to a standing position while casting twin flames with his feet, and rolled outward the moment the feet hit the ground again. Moving target. Three Dai Li in front of him. And he screamed fire at them with every ounce of breath in his lungs. 

The fire exploded from his mouth, gathering up and building in strength like it was setting the air itself aflame, as a massive breath of fire shot outward toward the agents, encompassing one, the other two barely able to raise shields and still being sent far backwards, and somehow it continued, rife with strength, toward Azula who jumped away to deflect it and then slammed into the wall behind, instantly turning dirt black with the force of both Zuko’s fire and the blue flames Azula had created to shield herself. Zuko stared at it. His mouth steaming. 

He breathed in the hottest air he’d ever felt in his life before he realized it was him. Zuko was burning, smoldering, the temperature of his body raised as the frantic wild fire inside him screamed to be let free.

Zuko had never had that power before, Azula knew it. She was looking straight at him as the smoke cleared, her eyes boring straight into his. As curious as Zuko was confused. 

“Aang!” Sokka yelled from behind him, and despite the word only having just left his mouth the earth in front of them shot upward. 

Zuko jumped backward, kicking flame toward the rising stone as he threw his body against Sokka’s- only to see out of the corner of his eye, the Avatar in an earthbending stance. Right, earthbending didn’t always mean the enemy it could mean- that must have been what Sokka had forgotten earlier, that having Zuko nearby meant signs of firebending weren’t always bad omens. It was an adjustment. There was so much to adjust too. Zuko’s head was aching, nearly split in half with how much was racing through his head, one thought after another pacing like wisps never fully formed but just enough to scream at him and make him flinch. 

Sokka put his hand on Zuko’s shoulder. Aang, the Avatar, his great-grandfather- Agni, now wasn’t the time to think about the implications of that- was gritting his teeth, his hands curled into fists shoulderwidth apart as he pushed his leg out one more time. 

Then it was dark; the Avatar had enclosed them in a bubble of earth like a cave of their own. Earth rising over their heads in a jagged circle, solid stone shielding them off the rest of the chamber, enclosed. It was smart. They needed a second; they needed Sokka’s plan.

“I can’t see-“ Sokka had just started to say when Zuko outstretched his palm and lit a flame. Sokka blinked, looking at it for a moment, and then shook his head. “Aang.”

The Avatar finished a series of movements, grimacing, and didn’t look back at Sokka. 

He was acting, Zuko realized with a start, like a child that had done something wrong. Zuko winced. He had never wanted to admit it, always thrust the reality into the back of his mind, but this close, seeing how the Avatar’s height barely reached Zuko’s chin, how strange he was, nervous and defiant at once, Zuko finally got what Sokka had been trying to tell him a long time ago. The Avatar was a child. 

Had he really just betrayed his nation for the sake of a resistance whose entire plan rested on the back of a boy?

Aang!” Sokka said loudly, stepping forward as his hand slipped from Zuko’s shoulder. “You were supposed to master the Avatar State-"

“I didn’t! Okay!” Aang threw his hands up in the air. “And I won’t!”

Sokka paused, then gesticulated wildly, his voice high enough to grate Zuko’s headache, “What do you mean ‘you won’t ’?!”

“I-" Aang took a step toward the wall of the bubble, looking sheepish. 

This wasn’t going to hold for long, the Dai Li had earthbenders and Azula wasn’t going to give them too long to regroup. Doubtless she was outside, arranging her own soldiers, preparing them for the final push. 

“There are eighteen Dai Li agents out there along with crazy princess lady!” Sokka yelled. He turned quickly to Zuko, mumbled, “No offense,” and then went right back to Aang without waiting for Zuko’s response to continue, “This is exactly what the Avatar State is for!”

“I said I can’t and I won’t!” Aang shouted back at him. 

“You just-“ Sokka started. 

“Are you,” Zuko interrupted. He could feel the heat in his chest expanding, the flame in his palm bursting outward with renewed furious energy. “Telling me,” he hissed, ignoring Sokka’s nervous look to glare at Aang, “that as soon as I decide to help you, you lose your power?”

Aang swallowed and looked at Zuko with wide eyes. “Uh…” he said. He tucked his hand and the flying stick behind his back and answered, sheepish with a lopsided-grin, “Yes?”

Zuko closed his eyes. He felt Sokka’s hand jostle his shoulder but didn’t open them. Breathe. He needed to breathe. Now was not the time to explode. 

“Okay, that’s not right, Aang, right?” Sokka pleaded, “Please tell me that’s not what you mean?”

“You don’t understand,” Aang started to say. 

Zuko’s eyes flew open. “Exactly! I don’t understand,” he snarled. He stalked forward, flinging his arm out and taking a handful of Aang’s shirt as the boy blinked up at him. “You’re the Avatar, how can you expect to be worth anything if you can’t access your power?”

“Um,” Aang said, as Sokka said “Uh,” at the same time. 

“I defected,” Zuko snapped, leaning down into Aang’s face, practically spitting, “I turned traitor because you were supposed to be able-!”

Aang took a breath and blew straight into Zuko’s chest. It knocked him back two steps, nearly extinguishing the flame on Zuko’s other hand.

“Okay, okay, okay,” Sokka jumped in the middle, one hand on Zuko’s shoulder and the other on Aang’s forehead, “we don’t have time.” He looked between the two of them. 

Zuko glared at Sokka and Sokka raised an eyebrow back at him. 

“Let’s just,” Sokka said, “okay, Aang still has three elements, and Zuko’s got the other, together it’s almost like a full Avatar so maybe we still have a chance. Our best bet is to cut and run, find Katara and Toph and-"

“My uncle,” Zuko reminded. 

Your uncle,” Sokka reminded angrily, “is playing some weird destiny game and I don’t think we can rely on him right now.”

Zuko bristled, grinded his teeth and felt the shocks of bone all the way into his skull as his headache grew louder, and couldn’t think of anything to say back.

“The Dai Li,” Sokka continued, rushed, “we need to find a way to incapacitate enough of them that their earthbending won’t-"

A sudden burst of green light was the first indicator part of the wall had been opened. Zuko flinched, jumping toward it and sending a blast of fire into the open space on pure instinct as the Avatar raised his fist and sealed off the wall again. 

Shi- uh,” Sokka said. 

“I had to,” Aang said loudly, answering a question no one asked, “you don’t understand but I can’t do it.”

“Water,” Sokka squeaked. He stepped forward toward Aang. “Okay? There’s a whole fountain you can-"

“Lightning,” Zuko pointed out. 

“Lightning,” Sokka repeated thoughtfully.

“I can redirect lightning,” Zuko said. 

Sokka turned his head to look at Zuko in surprise. “You can?” He asked, and Zuko nodded. “Okay, okay, so then…” 

Despite his head spinning, a thought came to Zuko’s mind with sudden and extreme clarity. They needed to run, didn’t they? “A distraction,” he mumbled. 

“What?” Sokka asked him. 

“You need a distraction,” Zuko decided. 

“Yeah, but I don’t have anything to make a-"

Green light shot into the chamber again as another section of the wall was bended down, and Zuko sprinted through it. He heard the slamming of the stone behind him, a yell, but that was all quickly shoved into the back of his mind as he nearly ran straight into a Dai Li agent. 

He dropped to the ground, sliding down before the man had a chance to attack, his feet slipping just beside one of his legs. Zuko grabbed at the robes with one hand, curled a leg around an ankle and slammed the Dai Li agent down to the ground. The man fell. Zuko’s hold on the agent raised him almost back to standing, and he finished it off with a hard elbow under the agent’s hat and a blast of fire toward the armor at the middle. 

One; Zuko’s left wrist was immediately encased in stone, a Dai Li agents weaponized hand of stone on a chain grabbing him by the wrist. Zuko shouted, the Dai Li agent pulled Zuko toward him and instead of pushing back Zuko ran forward. The man’s eyes widened as Zuko closed the distance, the chain growing slack, and he barely managed to raise a hand toward his face before Zuko slammed a fist directly into his throat. The man choked. Zuko kicked him directly in the knee and the man crumpled to the floor. Two.

The stone hand wrapped around his wrist was still connected by a heavy metal chain to the Dai Li agent. Zuko dodged a rock that flew toward his head, shooting a few quick bursts of fire toward unfocused assailants, working his way to a proper angle where he could pull the chain tight. The chain on his wrist had given him an idea; flashing back to the time recently when his uncle had been kidnapped by the earth kingdom soldiers, Iroh had used the manacles and chains as an offensive weapon, turning a disadvantage into a boon, and that was the only play Zuko had since he couldn’t earthbend the hand of stone off. Zuko raised his foot upward, hoping he’d judged this right, and slammed the heel down onto the chain; it shattered, Zuko grinned. 

He looked back into the chamber now, getting her bearings as he flung his left wrist upward and then down. The chain extended, three yards out from his body, snapping onto the stone like a whip. 

Azula was standing by the bubble of stone encasing Sokka and the Avatar, between them were at least five Dai Li all with their stances pointed toward Zuko. The agents were watching him, the two Zuko had already incapacitated still down on the ground, and Zuko’s chest pounded a beat that the aching in his head didn’t match. 

“Nineteen on three?!” Zuko yelled. 

Azula turned to frown at him. “Well, Zuko,” she shouted back at him, “if you don’t like the odds you should have picked the winning side!”

“Just like you not to fight with honor!” Zuko snarled. 

Azula’s frown flickered. She stepped forward.

One of the Dai Li broke through the stone, which exploded outward soon after, a flurry of movements and fighting in the heat of battle that Zuko just couldn’t focus on right now; the Avatar calling water from the fountain, and the world to Zuko’s left, mostly unseeable anyway, was a frenzied blur; Azula was looking at him and Zuko looked back. She walked, slowly, the earthbenders around her doing her work for her, as the expression on her face shifted, twitched, half a smile, half a frown, unsure. 

Zuko had some of her attention. That’s what he needed. He had to get her focus off of Aang and Sokka and onto him, let the others escape or do whatever Sokka had planned; anything beyond the next minute of his existence hardly entered his mind. Like flame, bursting into existence, the way was clear, Zuko knew what to do. 

He stepped forward, the chain on his left wrist dragging around the stone behind him, raising his fists.

Zuko could do this. Shove all the confusion aside, knock it back; after so many years of holding onto hope for his father and his sister the feeling was fragile with age, a string of mantis-spider thread, easily knocked aside and snatched away. Anger, that was familiar. It was always so easy to be angry. 

His lips curled over his teeth. Zuko threw himself forward, swinging fists forward to send a ball of flame toward his sister; the chain on his wrist snapped forward too, painful but vicious. The swing was too wide, he was just too far away, but as Zuko raced closer Azula did too. She blocked his fire without even blinking, shot her hands forward to toss quick jabs of fire in his direction. Zuko spun himself around, taking air in quickly as he did, swinging the chain along with him until it circled back toward Azula’s feet. 

She jumped in the air to avoid it, kicking blue toward his chest while Zuko screamed fire back at her. Azula’s blast hit, knocking him back several steps and forcing even more air out of his lungs to the point where it was painful; he wheezed but kept moving, snapping his left wrist upward to send the chain careening toward her head. 

Catching it with a blazing blue hand, Azula snatched the chain out of the air before it could connect with her face. She spun back, slamming one foot down while yanking upward on the white hot metal. Zuko’s wrist was tugged down to the ground and instead of fighting he let himself go, curling his head down so his shoulder hit the stone and his body rolled forward instead. 

They were close now. Near enough that kicks and fists could connect with flesh. 

He heard splashing, knew there was commotion on his left, the Avatar and Sokka may have gotten out but Zuko couldn’t see them, and he didn’t want to. He needed to focus. He had to stop her, even though she might care about him, even though there might still be family there, because if Azula had her way she’d take the only person not related to him who’d ever cared and Ozai was going to do exactly what Jet had said, that phrase that echoed now in Zuko’s mind; the Fire Nation would burn the world to ashes as long as they could rule over it. 

He kicked, she jumped over it and slammed her heel down but missed him. Zuko pulled on the chain, Azula’s stance shifted to correct the weight, and he punched out into the air to send a blast of flame toward her that she quickly shielded, giving him enough time to get back on his feet. 

The next sequence was almost rote, punching with his right and her knocking his hand out of the way so the fire shot over her shoulder, Azula kicking up toward his chest with her knee and bending back to avoid the attack, using that momentum and the grip of the chain to swing his body up and out, feet directly toward her center, Azula sidestepping at the exact right time for him to miss and slamming her elbow into his stomach. As the pain made him hesitate, losing his wind for even an instant of time, he saw her hand pull for the chain and his eyes widened, realizing what she was about to do with only a second to spare. Zuko’s hand shot upward, grabbing the metal right before Azula could wrap it around his neck. 

Azula sneered down at him.

Then she was knocked over. Zuko blinked. The chain around his forearm and neck slackened completely, and he turned his head to see a wide-eyed Dai Li agent staring at the both of them, frozen with Sokka’s hand on his arm. Some stone was torn up in front of him. 

Azula had been hit right in the side, knocked over and off of Zuko, and she recovered on the ground with an angry growl. 

Zuko jumped to his feet, punched at the Dai Li agent with fire as Sokka thrust a knee into the man’s stomach, bowling him over. With an elbow to the back of his head, Sokka incapacitated him and looked over at Zuko. He smiled. 

Zuko remembered, right then, Azula would be on her feet in a moment, only a few seconds had passed but the armor Azula was likely wearing under her clothing would have taken the brunt of the hit, she might have been startled but a single rock wasn’t going to stop here. “You have to get the Avatar out of here!” Zuko shouted. There was chaos around them, dirt thrown up in the air and the snaps and howls of a fight just slightly out of focus, but in the moment the only thing he wanted to look at was Sokka standing a dozen yards away. 

“We will!” Sokka yelled back, “I have an idea, I just need you to be ready!”

Ready for what, the only thing Zuko thought, but there wasn’t time to ask with Azula jumping to her feet with a snarl in front of him.

Losing focus wasn’t an option in a fight with Azula. Not with firebending, not when he was historically outmatched and they both knew it. 

She shot a blast of fire from a fist and Zuko snapped his left wrist upward, using the chain to disperse the fire as much as possible. He ducked down. Howling, Azula took advantage, using the moment where Zuko took cover to perform a more complicated kata, her heels pushing into the ground as she finished; fire burst into existence at her feet and shot outward in a line, not unlike the rock attacks the Dai Li favored. 

Zuko rolled back from it, the chain getting in the way. He had to scramble back to recover, barely lifting his feet in time to clear his legs of the attack. It gave him an idea. 

Pushing himself back to his feet, ignoring the stabbing pain in his head, Zuko used his hands to cast off the continuation of Azula’s attack. He could feel her fire building, the series of burning blue flames sent toward him only a prelude as she carefully crafted a larger attack. 

He was doing what he was supposed to, he was keeping her attention, circling her, the chain dragging behind his steps as he did. The blasts of fire Azula sent his way might have been a distraction on her part as well, but Zuko could still barely manage to deflect them. Each one he dispersed with half a second to spare, over and over, as sweat began to crawl down his forehead. It didn’t have to happen this way, his opponent could have been the Avatar, familiar, but with that path Zuko would have had to fight Sokka again, and that might have been familiar too, an air of precedent to that combination, the same way it was familiar to fight Azula. He was always fighting. He missed that one afternoon with Sokka where they did nothing at all. 

Zuko’s lip curled in a snarl. He slammed his knuckles forward, calling fire to him and through Azula’s latest attack, pushing a heavy stream of fire back toward her. 

She snapped it away. Easy for her. Zuko brought his right hand onto the metal chain and yanked. 

Azula realized what he was doing quickly enough. She bounded backward just as the metal raced toward her feet, escaping from the grip. But she landed, her stance off, unsettled; that was enough. Not giving her a moment to collect herself Zuko raced forward. 

He pushed himself, chest pounding and head aching, the fire in him growing hotter and hotter, throwing attack after attack toward Azula as she was forced to continue stepping backward to maintain balance. Azula was backing up. She had to back up. 

Zuko had the upper hand. His eyes widened, that frantic energy inside him only grew, and he flung himself even harder into the motions, hitting her with blast after blast, unrelenting and proud as he went. As Azula continued stepping back. As a single bead of sweat curled over her forehead and her teeth snapped in frustration. Zuko had never done this before, he’d never even come close to matching her, and here they were, Zuko advancing as Azula retreated. 

She was all he could see, she filled his vision, an ecstatic energy pulsating along with the burning heat rising through his mouth as he kept her unsteady and off her stance. It was thrilling. Is this how she felt? All the time? When they were younger and their father would pit them against each other and Azula would beat him down over and over again; no wonder she did, no wonder she would smile so brightly after, Zuko might have done the same; he could taste the possibility of victory in his mouth like blood, he could smell it through the ashes flung into the air, feel it along with the smoldering heat encompassing them both. 

Then she blinked slower than she should have. Still moving, still blocking him, but her hands changed from fists to a more precise position. First and index finger facing out, perfect nails curled back to her palm like claws. 

He knew what was coming. Zuko’s attacks faltered, his advance slowing, as his seeing eye widened, focus drawn to a pinpoint at the satisfied sneer curling his sister’s mouth. 

“Aim up!” Sokka.

Aim what ‘up’? That was for him, Zuko knew it, it cut through the fog of scattered dirt and a pounding headache so clearly. Up. What? 

The air itself crackled around him as Zuko felt the hair on his arm raise. He stopped moving, slammed his right foot back behind him, the left forward. If he made a mistake, if the lightning touched his heart, he was dead. Azula knew that. She didn’t know Zuko could redirect lightning. 

She had lost ground, he had stood between her and what she wanted, and Azula was willing to kill him over it. She would. Zuko knew her. 

Her eyes were wide, blown out, as her arms curled around her chest, moving the outrageous power that was building in front of her into a breaking point. There was only a spark at first, if Zuko had blinked at that moment he would miss it, and that was the only warning before something cracked in the energy and lightning burst into existence, wild, deadly, but controlled around his sister’s expert motions. 

Lightning was beautiful, intense, just so deadly and bright but fascinating up close as it weaved behind his sister, guided by her bending; with a single touch it would kill him. With a- Zuko had a metal chain connected to his left arm. Shit, if the lightning touched that-

He took a quick step forward with his right side, throwing his right hand upward. Zuko didn’t know if he could do this, if it was even possible, one-handed and he’d never redirected lightning before he only knew about it in theory-

Azula’s eyes flickered past him. For just a moment. Toward the chaos, and the noise. Looking in the direction where the Avatar would be. Where Sokka was. 

He needed her to aim it at him.

His head was pounding, throat dry, the nerves ripping through his chest giving him a strange sense of calm in their certainty. Seconds to spare before Azula set the lightning free. Zuko needed her mad. Needed her to try to kill him . He had to get under her skin; even after all this time, it was obvious what he needed to do, what he needed to say, to enrage his sister, he knew her better than anyone. 

“As if I’d go with you!” Zuko shouted at her. 

It worked just enough, as Azula’s hands continued in their path but her furious eyes flickered back to focus on Zuko in front of her. 

“Our own mother couldn’t stand you!” Zuko continued, screaming, feeling sick. “Why would I be any different?!”

Fully round, bright golden eyes shook as they stared out at Zuko. Her expression not changing, Azula brought her fingers to the center of her chest and jabbed her arm forward. 

The lightning was there instantly. Cackling at Zuko’s palm. 

It was alive, it was aching, fast and powerful, a reckoning into his skin as Zuko gritted his teeth and held onto it. There was so much of it, so angry and unfeeling all at once, encompassing everything and wanting, reading to overtake him, wanting inside where Zuko couldn’t let it. It took everything in him just to keep it outside, to hold it, like holding back the tides with a fishing net; he was slipping he was-

Aim up, Sokka had said. The lightning.

Zuko threw his right hand above his head and the thunderclap extending from his fingers nearly broke him. He pushed the lightning up , and out, directly to the ceiling, nothing else and- The lightning hit water. A half-moon of liquid hovering in the air encircling the chamber.

Water was just as good as metal. Sokka must have known it to, why a firebender like Azula would have insisted this fight happen with a supply of water nearby, he’d guessed her trick and turned it back around against her. He was incredible. 

Water started to fall, began to sizzle and crackle, as Zuko fell to his knees. 

For a moment he couldn’t see anything. He could hear, but muffled, like the world was talking to him through a pillow. The aching in his head just grew louder and louder, and his back gave out, falling, but it hit a body instead of stone. 

A hand circled his shoulders and pressed itself into the center of his chest. Pushing. Keeping him steady. 

Someone holding him on the ground, warm and comfortable, long hair brushing against the back of Zuko’s neck as he lay limp against a wide stomach. The hand on his chest steadily lifting and pushing inward, reminding him he needed to breathe. 

“Uncle,” Zuko recognized, and that was enough to bring him back into the world again. 

His feet were thrown out in front of him, he was slumped on the ground, dirt covering his clothes below the knee, and one of Iroh’s hands was on his chest while the other hooked under his armpit to hold him up. Steady. Iroh’s stomach like a wall as Zuko lay against him. 

Slowly, he began taking in everything else around him. The dripping of water from multiple areas of the chamber, the scorched stone all around, a wide puddle far beyond him and several Dai Li agents unconscious on the ground, two of them kneeling in surrender. Just as his gaze reached another figure in green, lying on the ground beside one of the large boulders that hadn’t been there when this had started, Zuko found his vision entirely encompassed with teeth

Grinning so wide it seemed painful, looking tired and a bit hurt but otherwise fine, the Avatar stood over Zuko’s body and smiled brightly down at him. 

“Weird,” Zuko groaned. He wasn’t sure he liked this sudden familiarity. 

“That was amazing,” Aang said enthusiastically, “I mean with the fire sure, but the lightning?”

“If you wouldn’t mind, Avatar,” Iroh said, his voice soft as he reached out to lift Zuko’s stone-covered left hand for him. 

Zuko didn’t say a word in protest, too tired and too nauseated to care as Iroh dropped Zuko’s hand into Aang’s so the Avatar could bend the rock fist and chain off of him. “You too,” Aang continued, talking as he worked quickly, closing his fists over Zuko’s wrist and pulling them apart so the rock crumbled around him. “It’s nice to have you on our side. Just like the North Pole-“ and he kept talking, and Iroh answered him. 

Sokka came into view too, saying something to the only two remaining Dai Li as they knelt in surrender, but Zuko wasn’t looking at him. 

Half in shadow, under the boulder, in a puddle of water, Azula wasn’t getting up. That pounding in his chest, so persistent and relentless this whole time, stopped. Get up, Zuko thought, staring at the motionless figure of his sister on the ground. Please

Zuko dropped a hand to the floor, it was shaking violently, the only indicator of his exhaustion he couldn’t actually feel. He pushed, trying to free himself, and then felt movement behind him. Iroh stood up slowly, his hands under Zuko’s arm to help him to his feet. The Avatar did too, a hand on Zuko’s side, still chatting, now about the group needing to go find the others as soon as possible. Zuko didn’t care. 

With his feet firmly on the ground, despite his trembling, he was able to keep himself upright. He shrugged off Iroh’s hands. His uncle said something. Zuko took a step away from him, past the Avatar. Aang watched him. The two of them let him go. 

He hadn’t meant it; he just needed her attention, Zuko hadn’t meant it

One foot in front of the other, solid shoe and torn one, still weak and barely able to hold him upright. If there was any time for a second wind though, now was it. As Zuko walked. Steady. Past Sokka who had stepped into his path with a smile that quickly turned to concern. Sokka reached for him and Zuko knocked his hand away. 

“Zuko?” Sokka asked him, but Zuko was walking, slowly, he couldn’t tear his eyes off her and she wasn’t moving. “Zuko, you,” he felt Sokka’s hand on his, gentle this time, not forcing him to stop but just there, “we have to get out of here.”

“I need-"

“We have to go,” Sokka urged him, squeezing his hand once. “Zuko, she just tried to kill you.”

Zuko paused, turning to meet Sokka’s eyes. He wanted, he needed- his head hurt so much and his stomach was roiling but he just had to- “She’s my sister,” Zuko said, as Sokka’s eyes widened, “I have to see-" what I did

Sokka nodded at him and let Zuko’s hand go. 

He kept walking, his headache screaming for him to answer what had he done until he reached Azula’s side and fell to his knees. Zuko reached out immediately, finding her wrist and pushing his thumb into it, feeling a heartbeat just as Azula’s eyes fluttered. 

If he wasn’t so tired, if everything wasn’t so much all at once, Zuko thought he might have cried. The others were away, waiting for him, likely watching at a distance to see but Zuko didn’t care; Azula was lying on her back, one hand on her stomach and the other in Zuko’s grip, as her eyelashes flickered and then opened all the way. 

She matched his weary expression with a blank one of her own. 

Zuko was sorry, he wasn’t- he shouldn’t have done this, he had to what other choice did he have? Refuse to take a stand, knowing the honor of his own people was at stake? Betray Iroh? And Sokka? Allow himself, after knowing for the first time what the Fire Nation truly was, what they had done to people like Jet and Jin, all the refugees, the expecting couple on the road, the young boy and his family in the village, to Sokka and his family and tribe, to go back and be a part of it? 

“Zuzu,” she said, her voice strained, he could see the tension in her throat as if she was squeezing it herself. 

“Are you…” he started to ask, his own voice aching. 

“Nice trick,” Azula muttered. She closed her eyes for a moment and something in Zuko’s chest grew cold. Waiting. Clutching her hand tight, trying not to think of Iroh in the abandoned village spread unconscious on the ground and at the same time hoping it was the same. The lightning must have hit her, it hadn’t seemed close, but she may have stumbled, or the surprise caught her off guard; it was just so unlike her but so very like Zuko’s luck. “You weren’t supposed to do that. Pick the wrong side,” she strained to say, eyes still closed, “Now you’re one of the bad guys.”

She was talking, her clothes didn’t seem singed at all from anything but the fires earlier, perhaps it wasn’t that bad. Maybe Azula would be alright. 

“‘Zula,” Zuko said quietly. 

Her hand on her stomach reached into her clothing but she gave a groan that had Zuko’s attention flying to her face. “You know a victory like this, if it isn’t perfec,” she mumbled, “how he’ll take it.”

“I know,” he told her.

“I have to,” Azula opened her eyes, “give him something. At least… since you ruined everything, if the rest of my people don’t get the Avatar, I have to give him-"

“You could…” Zuko offered weakly, staring at her, wanted to fix this, change it.

“Something funny,” Azula said weakly, finishing her thought. “Amusing.”

Zuko watched her face carefully, as her mouth twitched into a frown and she seemed… honest. He held her hand tight in both of his.

“You know what he’s like.”

“There’s…” Zuko swallowed hard, trying to bury the pounding in his head as he looked at his sister, telling himself she was fine, “they have a healer. The waterbender, she can-"

Zuko,” Azula said strongly, “I’m not hurt.” Her eyes flashed, her voice was normal, and Zuko tried to take that in, at the light in her eyes, realizing she’d lured him in, and he gasped. 

A gasp that wasn’t his; the air that exited his body just did it, suddenly gone so quickly his lungs ached from emptiness, and his stomach tensed up. He looked down.

Azula’s hand curled in a fist, pressed into his stomach, wrapped around a metal sheath of a throwing knife. Plunged in deep. 

It was already starting to bleed, pouring out of the wound onto her hand and Azula snatched the hand backward as if she’d been burned by the blood. Her eyes jumped beyond Zuko’s left shoulder, toward two Dai Li agents that had surrendered, giving a nod before they were drawn back to Zuko, wide-eyed, fascinated in a way that only horrible things to look at were. 

Zuko had forgotten about Mai’s knife, the one Azula had shoved into her pocket after threatening him the night before. She’d had it the whole time, ready, waiting, and when he’d interrupted the lightning, and then redirected it to the water so the Avatar could take out her remaining soldiers, well… she knew him. Azula may not have known he wouldn’t take her side but she still knew him well enough. 

She disappeared into the ground, as if the earth itself swallowed her whole. Running, most likely regrouping, certainly not done. Azula was as bad at accepting defeat as Zuko was. 

She’s right, Zuko thought to himself, as he heard the others shout in alarm, realizing Azula and the two Dai Li prisoners had gotten away. He brought a trembling hand to his stomach, pressing down, wincing, blood seeping over ash-covered fingers. Father would find this, Zuko’s latest mistake, hilarious.