Chapter 1: The Awakening
After Azula struck Zuko with lightning, the last Prince of the Fire Nation never woke up. In a way, it was a mercy. While the gaping wound in his chest was healed by Katara’s glowing hands, the Earth Kingdom burned.
When the Avatar died, people all across the world watched one last brilliant ray of orange light shoot up into the sky. Without exchanging words, Toph, Sokka, and Suki stayed standing on one of the falling airships. Their hands were linked together, the wind whipping away the tears from their faces as they fell to their deaths. Aang had failed to restore balance to the world.
Katara saw the heavens light up with orange all the way in the Fire Nation Palace and she knew what had occurred. The world’s last hope, her closest friend, had lost. She felt her heart shatter, and she gripped Zuko’s hands in hers as she grieved. Perhaps had the last waterbender from the South had been given time to collect herself, none of this would have happened. If the chains holding Azula had just been a little stronger, Katara and Zuko might have escaped to form a resistance movement and taken on Aang’s mission.
But that is not what happened.
Though Azula’s mind no longer functioned rationally, she still had enough wits to realize what the orange light meant. Orange the color of hot flames, the symbol of her people, had blazed so high into the sky that she could see them despite their source being in the Earth Kingdom. Paying no regard to the damage done to her wrists, Azula blasted fire from her feet and ripped herself off the grate that Katara had chained her to.
In a single bound, Azula landed on the two and set off the hottest blaze of blue fire that she’d ever released. Despite having lost the Agni Kai, the Fire Princess ensured that they all burned together in one giant blue ball of fire.
With a sharp inhale Zuko snapped open his eyes only to be met with the darkness of his room in the Palace. He looked around uneasily, a hand drifting to his chest expecting to be met with bandages from the wound Azula had given him, only to touch the soft silk of his pajamas.
There wasn’t any pain, his chest felt smooth in the dark, almost as if he’d never been hit with lightning. When he’d moved, Zuko felt his hair brush his shoulders. It was much longer than it’d been the last time he was awake.
Though he wasn’t on the Avatar’s side when Aang had woken up after the fall of Ba Sing Se, Zuko had heard the story. Aang had slept in a coma-like state for weeks after Katara had healed him, and had woken up when they were already infiltrating the Fire Nation. Since it had been Azula to bring down the Avatar, it made sense to Zuko that he had slept long enough for his hair to grow out and for the wound to heal. Both Aang and he had been hurt by the same lightning after all.
Interrupting his thoughts, Zuko’s stomach growled loudly in the night. He rolled out of bed on unsteady legs, for some reason his limbs felt weird like he wasn’t used to moving them. The blankets pooled to the floor behind him as he opened his door into the empty corridor outside of his bedroom. Red draperies and carpets reminding Zuko of his youth looked as if they hadn’t changed since he’d been a child.
The first time that Zuko had been in the palace since his banishment, the whole place had felt alien to him. Three years around the world had changed the prince completely, whereas his home stayed the same.
Letting his eyes adjust to the lack of light, Zuko softly slinked his way to the palace kitchens in the shadows. Remaining hidden while sneaking around at night had been a habit ingrained in him due to fear of being caught by the palace servants, or even worse: Azula.
Once he arrived, Zuko wasted no time preparing himself a simple meal of jok. He let his hands follow the routine motions of filling the pot with water and rinsing the rice, his mind drifting to other things. Uncle had taken the time to teach him the recipe during their time at Ba Sing Se, before they’d been tricked into coming to the Earth King’s Palace by Azula. Zuko chopped his vegetables and skinned his ginger, trying to remember anything before he’d woken up. The last thing he remembered was taking the bolt meant for Katara, and the soothing feeling of being healed with water.
While he waited for his jok to cook, Zuko’s eyes fell closed. He breathed in and out, letting his heartbeat slow and making every flame in the kitchen rise and fall in time with his breath. Zuko was sure that his friends had won, even if he hadn’t been awake to see it. Otherwise, why else would he still be allowed to wander in the palace by himself.
Even though Zuko was confident in his friendship with the others, he couldn’t help but feel a little abandoned. Why had he woken up all alone? Surely one of them could have sat vigil by his bedside while he recovered.
He let one hand run through his longer hair absentmindedly; no, Zuko thought, I must have been asleep for far too long. They had ended the Hundred Years War, his friends were busy with creating peace treaties and subduing Fire Nation forces. He shouldn’t be selfishly expecting them to have waited for him to wake up, even if he was the only one who truly knew how the Fire Nation worked. At least they had Uncle with them, Zuko trusted the Dragon of the West to be more than capable of handling the Fire Nation while he was asleep.
So wrapped up in his thoughts, Zuko didn’t even notice the servant enter the kitchen until they nervously spoke up. Jumping slightly in surprise, Zuko didn’t notice as the flames in the lights and stove flared up as well.
“Your Highness, do you need something?” The man asked, his servants’ clothes obviously mussed from sleep. “I can cook you anything you desire, sir.”
“No, it’s okay.” Zuko said with a tired tone, “I was just hungry.”
It was odd, his voice sounded higher than he remembered it being. Maybe a change in pitch was due to him not speaking for weeks while he slept. He looked up at the servant’s face, wondering how tall the man must be to be able to look down on him without trying.
“Are you unable to sleep, sir?” The man looked at Zuko warmly, with a hint of worry in his eyes, “I can brew you a calming pot of tea. You need your rest for your Agni Kai tomorrow.”
Zuko looked sharply at the man, his breathing speeding up in shock. His eyes narrowed as he tried to think of the implications of what the man just said, Zuko unintentionally glared at the servant as the open flames climbed higher and higher in his agitation. He would never know that to this servant, he’d never resembled a Fire Lord more than in that moment.
“E-excuse me sir, please I meant no offense.” The servant hastily bowed, feeling his knees shake at the potential fury of the Crown Prince. He should have known better than to tell a royal what to do.
Zuko stared at the man in horror, feeling his panic grow the longer he was in the kitchen. He fled into the shadows, leaving behind his food, and running the rest of the way back to his room.
A sinking feeling in his stomach, Zuko approached the mirror and lit up a small flame in his palm. His reflection stared back, his cheeks soft with baby fat and most conspicuously, his face absent of any scar.
Somehow, Zuko was 13 again and it was the night before his first Agni Kai. Not a single servant came to his room when his screams of anguish ripped through the night air, flames burst from his hands as he destroyed the mirror in front of him. This can’t be right, he thought, how did this even happen?
Chapter 2: The Second Agni Kai
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Morning light shone through the windows in Zuko’s bedroom, his eyes fluttering open to see the underside of his bed from where he laid curled up on the floor. The smell of burnt fabric lingered in the air, and when Zuko turned his head he could see the damage wrought by his out of control flames. Groaning as he pulled himself upright, Zuko stared despairingly at the broken mirror shards littering the ground.
Perhaps it had been naive of him, but Zuko had thought that he would have woken up normal, in a body that felt right to him, instead of this one that felt too small and soft to belong to him. Reaching a hand out, Zuko grabbed one of the larger shards and turned it over.
It had been… a very long time since he had seen his face without the scar. Over the years since his banishment, Zuko had grown used to seeing the marred flesh in every reflection. He still hated the sight of it, and only recently had he lost the sense of shame that came every time he saw it. He traced the curve of his ear, his hearing had never been the same in his left ear since the Agni Kai. The slope of his eye no longer twisted up, he widened it and watched with satisfaction as it opened fully instead of being forced to stay narrow. The skin of his face was smooth, the feeling of it under his fingertips felt almost strange and he resisted the urge to turn the shard to the other side, to check if maybe he was being delusional. It felt abnormal to be able to see out of both eyes so clearly, his vision in the left eye had been extremely poor for years. The sun rose higher in the sky, as Zuko lost track of time looking at a version of himself that he thought he would never see again.
A while later, a knock sounded on his door. Shaking his head, he resolved to put the issue of being thirteen again to the back of his mind. After all, it’s not like I can do anything to change what happens today, he thought. If he ran from the Agni Kai, then he’d be found by the palace guards and forced to fight it anyways. Zuko looked up to see a servant enter, carrying a tray with a familiar gold armband and trousers.
“I apologize for interrupting you, Your Highness.” She said, her eyes widening as she took in the scorched ceiling and broken mirror, “It is time for you to prepare for your Agni Kai.”
“It’s fine.” Zuko replied, trying to remember her name but failing, “Is it possible that you could do the preparations in here, or do we have to go to the Dressing Room?”
“I’m sincerely sorry Prince Zuko, it is custom for the preparations to take place in a common area.” The servant took a few steps forward and placed the tray down on the floor next to him, “However, I could help you get dressed here instead, and we could do your hair outside.”
“That would be wonderful, thank you.” Zuko stood up, letting go of the shard that he’d been holding as he suddenly realized his hand was wet with blood. The glass must have cut him when he was holding it without him realizing.
“Your Majesty!” The servant looked askance at his bleeding hand, “I’ll call a nurse, that cut must be looked at right away.”
Zuko watched her run to the door and alert whoever was outside that a nurse was needed in his room and winced.
“It’s okay, I’ve had worse.” He said, failing to stop her from making the call, “You don’t have to call a nurse, I can bandage it myself.”
She walked back to him, staring at the way his hand glistened scarlet in the light, “I must insist, Your Highness. Today is your first Agni Kai, you can’t afford to have anything distracting you.”
Zuko acquiesced to her request, and moved to the dressing screen so he could get changed into what he would wear when he faced his father this afternoon. His father… Zuko thought, God what was he going to do?
The Fire Sages opened the doors into the courtyard, the crowd shifted in their seats as their Crown Prince entered. Wind rustled the fabric of their clothes as it blew across the stone, it moved the dark hair in the Prince’s ponytail as well. The line of his bare shoulders in the sun made some of them feel an inkling of shame. Thirteen was much too young for an Agni Kai, even if he was a prince.
Prince Zuko turned away from the opposite doors, facing the way that he’d come in. The sun beat down on his skin, lending him Agni’s warmth and heightening his inner flame. High noon was the traditional time for an Agni Kai, the time when the Sun was directly overhead and firebenders were at their strongest. He stared down at the ground, looking at the stonework and feeling the smoothness of the rocks under his bare feet.
A murmur ran through the crowd, on the opposite side of the stage, his father walked through the doors. Zuko still hadn’t decided what he was going to do when he turned around to see his father, different outcomes ran through his mind. Could he even firebend the way the Old Masters had taught him? Was he still stuck on basic katas or had he retained his skills from when he was sixteen? Damnit, he should have practiced before coming down here.
The gong rang, it felt like the sound reverberated in his very bones. Taking a deep breath, Zuko turned around and looked his father dead in the eyes.
It was a scene out of his nightmares, this moment had been something he’d relived night after night for years. Zuko had no idea how this was going to end, but he’d dreamt of dying on this stage countless times. Was he going to die? Is this why he was sent back in time?
He fell to his knees, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders as his mind raced in panic. The familiar words rushed out of his mouth, Zuko knew them by heart. He didn’t even have to think as he begged his father not to hurt him, telling Ozai that he was his loyal son like that even mattered to the Fire Lord.
“You will learn respect…” The shadow of his father’s hands descended towards his face, his heart beating in his chest like war drums, “And suffering will be your teacher.”
The Dragon of the West looked away as his nephew’s face burned in his own brother’s hands, he couldn’t bear to watch. Princess Azula stared defiantly, feeling her mouth freeze into a smile as she realized that her father wasn’t stopping. Zuko wasn’t getting off with a small burn like she thought, his screams were the only sound filling the courtyard. Blood ran down her older brother’s neck, the smell of cooked meat and singed hair drifted on the wind. It didn’t make sense, she thought, there was no reason to kill Zuko when Grandfather had already died. The other nobles watched in horror, not quite believing what they were seeing.
For Zuko, it felt like getting his burn this time hurt so much more than he’d remembered. He could feel his flesh melting, his burning eyelid gluing his eye shut as flames licked up his face and into his hair. His remaining eye stared up at his father, Zuko couldn’t even remember when his mouth had opened to scream.
And then it was over, his father stepped away and nodded to the Fire Sages to signal that he had won the Agni Kai. Zuko’s vision filled with tears that he couldn’t control, his breathing speeding up as his face went numb with shock. The fires surrounding the stage flared up as Zuko reached out for them, falling onto his hands and knees as the pain wracked his body. This hadn’t happened the first time, he had fallen unconscious during it and had woken up later in the healing ward.
Fire Lord Ozai paused in his steps away from his son, perhaps the pathetic whelp was not as weak as he’d thought. Looking at the way his son had controlled the flames, it was clear that Zuko was still conscious and therefore the Agni Kai had not ended.
In his panic, Zuko couldn’t register what he was doing. All he knew is that unlike every nightmare he’d ever had, he watched his father turn around and walk back towards him. And that was- that was not okay.
Later the crowd would recount the story of the Agni Kai between their rulers in private rooms. Over dinner that night nobles would tell of how the Crown Prince had let out a blast of fire so strong that it had shoved the Fire Lord out of the ring and into the walls so hard that Ozai was knocked unconscious. On the walk home, servants would whisper about the way Prince Zuko had blasted his father away from him with one hand, while he was still on his hands and knees. They would tell others of how hot the flames were, how they boiled the very air. In their temples, the Fire Sages thought of how they were forced to announce Zuko’s victory, how the Crown Prince had leaned against them while his legs trembled underneath him. One sage in particular, spent his night washing out the blood from his robes, wishing he could forget the way their Prince had looked with half of his face destroyed.
No one would speak about the way that Ozai’s skin had burned, it would be treasonous to say that Zuko had done what all of those who were in the audience had wished they could do: pushing the Fire Lord away before he could do anymore damage. No one would speak about what it meant for Zuko to have bested his father in combat, especially when he had begun the match pleading for his life. But in the back of everyone’s minds, the thought lingered: What kind of person were they, to watch a father permanently brand his child, and to do nothing?
As the night air swept its chill over the palace, Iroh grasped Zuko’s limp hand between his palms. Shame filled his body as he stared at the mess of bandages covering his nephew’s face, why had he done nothing? There was not a single reason in the world that could have justified doing this to a child. The once great general stayed by his nephew’s bedside until sunrise, not resting until he was sure that Zuko had lived through the night.
In her own room, Princess Azula watched the morning sky fill with color as her palms lit up with blue fire. She could not explain even to herself why she couldn’t fall asleep, why the sight of Zuko bleeding on stage kept repeating in her mind. Raven locks fell into her face as she leaned forward and put her head in her hands, every line of her body was stiff with tension. It was only until a maid entered her room to start her morning dressing routine and informed Azula that Zuko was still alive, that she finally relaxed.
Azure blue waves reflected the bright sunlight, salty spray misted onto Zuko’s face. The breeze was gentle, a boon since that meant it didn’t tug at his bandages. The rocking of the boat under his feet felt soothing, as convenient as flying on Appa’s back was, Zuko had missed traveling by boat. It was familiar to him, he’d spent three long years on the Wani and the feeling of being back on a ship gave him a strange sense of longing for those days. Even if he’d been so angry, so ashamed and questioning his destiny, the years spent chasing myths of the Avatar had been so much simpler than life was now.
Being thirteen again was throwing Zuko off balance, everything felt wrong. Azula looked too young to be the unhinged girl that had shot him full of lightning, her eyes had flickered with an emotion he’d never seen from her when she visited him in the healing ward. (It was concern, wasn’t it? But that was silly, Azula didn’t worry about him.). He’d remembered flinching from her touch, phantom pains of lightning coursing through his limbs, and seeing her hand jerk back from where it’d been about to touch his skin. His sister had taunted him like she always did, but something had felt off about it.
While he was restricted to bed rest, all Zuko could think about was how the days were ticking down until his banishment had officially started. Anxiety had him up at night, keeping his eyes closed as he faked being asleep for his Uncle who still kept him company at night. At one point, Zuko had tiredly told Uncle to sleep in his own bed, letting worry leak into his tone about how much sleeping in a chair must have hurt.
The way Uncle had looked when he’d said that, as if he wasn’t used to Zuko being kind to him had made Zuko’s heart ache in a way that he didn’t know it could. He had spent so long being angry, shouting at Uncle for things that were out of his control. The betrayal at Ba Sing Se had only made things worse, Zuko didn’t like thinking about how good it had felt to be forgiven for it at the White Lotus encampment. Now Uncle looked at him without any of that history, it was clear that all he saw was a hurt little boy.
Like right now, Zuko could tell that Uncle had chosen to stand on his left side so he could look at him without being caught. It was something that his Uncle had learned to avoid, constantly twisting his neck to look at Uncle Iroh during conversations was something that had made the burns on his upper neck sting and once Zuko had complained about it, Uncle had always chosen to stand on his right. This version of Uncle didn’t know that, because he didn’t know Zuko like he should. Because for some Spirits damned reason, Zuko was reliving the worst part of his life all over again.
Before Father had decided what would happen to him, Zuko had tried to enjoy being back in the palace again. Zuko had been able to wander the palace grounds, provided of course, that attendants followed closely behind him. He would never know it, but the sight of their injured prince had struck a chord within all of the palace servants. The soft way that he spoke to them, always saying “please” and “thank you” when such terms coming out of a royal mouth were almost unheard of, endeared the prince to every servant that interacted with him.
The servants thought that Prince Zuko was kind, the injured boy spent most of his time sitting in the gardens and feeding the turtleducks, much like his late mother had done. The fact that Fire Lord Ozai had hurt his own son so terribly did not sit well with any of them. In the private space of back rooms, there were whispers: monster, abuser, cruel.
After he was declared to be no longer at risk for infection and on the road to recovery, Uncle had gone back to sleeping in his own room. Zuko would never admit that he missed his presence beside him at night. It was hard to sleep without the calming herbs that the palace physician made him. If it wasn’t his burn keeping him up, it was trying to figure out why he had been sent back in time and what the consequences of changing events were. One night, he couldn’t take laying in bed any longer, and he quietly made his way down to the kitchens.
There was only one thing that had always helped Zuko sleep, Uncle Iroh’s jasmine tea. Familiar with the motions of brewing tea from his time in Ba Sing Se, Zuko was able to brew himself a full pot quickly. Taking a seat on a stool in front of the counter, Zuko poured himself a cup. Even though their new life in the Earth Kingdom capital had been so short, Zuko missed certain parts of it. Sipping his hot tea, he’d felt the liquid warm up his chest and his shoulders eased. For a split second the familiar taste washed away his worries, and Zuko had felt relaxed for the first time since he’d woken up.
For the Head Baker and their team of assistant bakers who walked into the kitchens ready to start their day’s work, the sight of their prince bent over the counter was startling. A faint hint of jasmine filled the Head Baker’s nose as they walked over to find the Crown Prince asleep next to a fresh pot of tea. Feeling fond smiles curl up their lips, the team of bakers unanimously decided to let the young prince be and they quietly went about their day, thinking back to their own days of youth when they too would fall asleep on any surface. It was only when Prince Zuko awoke and hurriedly left the kitchens, did they see the huge mass of bandages covering his face and they realized the true extent of damage that had been done.
If a pot of jasmine tea was always left by one of them at the end of the workday after that, no one said anything. They all hoped that at least the little gesture would please Prince Zuko, giving him something to look forward to at night.
In the distance, Ember Island broke the monotonous blue hues of the ocean. Zuko stared at the way the island looked, drinking in the details and remembering how it had felt to be there with his friends. The way they’d camped his family’s old house, laughing during dinner at Sokka’s jokes, and training Aang everyday so that he’d be ready to face the Fire Lord. The days until Sozin’s Comet had been ticking down, and yet Zuko had been able to forget his destiny for a bit, losing himself in being a child until he’d remember and make Aang do another set of katas. It had been nice, his friends had made much better company that Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai had when they’d been on Ember Island.
The outcome of the Agni Kai had been different this time, Zuko had managed to win with a desperate burst of fire that he didn’t even remember making. It was unheard of, a thirteen year old beating the Fire Lord in front of a large crowd. Once the date that his banishment was supposed to have started passed, Zuko had realized that winning the Agni Kai had changed things. His father had no grounds to banish him this time around, to do so would make Ozai look like he feared his own son. Instead, Zuko was being sent to Ember Island so that he could recuperate from his grievous injury, out of the sight of anyone important. It was obvious that the Fire Lord was trying to cover up what he’d done to Zuko, putting him far away from the eyes of the court.
What had been truly surprising was the fact that Uncle Iroh had chosen to accompany Zuko this time as well. Though Zuko couldn’t understand why his Uncle had elected to go to Ember Island with him, he was happy that he wouldn’t be alone. As the island drew closer and closer, he wondered what would happen next. This had never happened the first time he’d lived his life, everything was uncharted territory.
There had been so many times in Zuko’s life where the path ahead had been unclear, but this was the first time in his life that he truly didn’t know what to do. Should he travel to the South Pole, finding Aang before Katara and Sokka did? Would it be wiser to join the White Lotus now? What about Toph or Suki, would he even be able to convince his friends to work with him? When the light traveling ship finally docked at Ember Island, Zuko hadn’t been able to think of a single answer to his questions.
I've always loved fics where zuko interacts with servants and is so much nicer than azula or ozai, I hope the little bits of that in this chapter worked well.
Please tell me what you think! There should be another chapter coming out in a day or two :)
Chapter 3: The Rumors of Ember Island
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There’s a lone house on the hill, the red hues of its roofs gleam through the foliage surrounding it. It’s possibly the biggest house on Ember Island, certainly the one with the most ornate trimmings even if they are several years out of style. An aura of richness and mystery surrounds it, it has the only strip of beach that is private and the cove itself is sheltered by cliffs. There’s a lone road leading up to its gates, and it’s through the gaps in the bars that people are able to see the entrance of the massive building. That’s the only way to see it, every other viewpoint is blocked off by trees. Viewing the house from the ocean is a futile effort, all anyone can see is a back porch and a massive staircase leading to the beach.
Of course, no one ever gets close enough to actually touch the house’s gate. That would be suicide, every single child has been warned by their parents to stay far, far, far away from the isolated residence. Everyone can’t help but wonder what it looks like on the inside, what luxuries lay within its walls.
There isn’t a single question about who it belongs to though, the Royal Family’s Villa on Ember Island has laid empty for years. Rumors on their tiny island circulate, people whisper that their ruling family will never return. The only members of the royal family that anyone has seen in recent memory are Fire Lord Azulon’s sisters: Li and Lo.
A single boat docking at midday changes that, the royal flags flying high on its masts. Dock workers exchange incredulous looks as they help tie the boat to the pier, and when a man wearing the robes of a palace worker walks across the gangplank, their eyes bug out.
Could it be…?
An order has been given, the Royal Family Villa is in need of staff: any maids, cooks, nurses, and gardeners should report to the main gate immediately if they aim to pursue employment. The Crown Prince and the esteemed General Iroh have decided to make the villa their residence.
Within minutes, every curious able-bodied unemployed person is making their way up the hill to the gate as the ship unloads its cargo. Others who already have jobs crowd around the docks as close as they are able, all craning their necks, trying to get a glimpse of royal blood. No one is able to see through the palanquin’s curtains, only the shadows of two people are able to be seen. One big and one small, although old man Gayon swears that the palanquin smelt heavily of burn cream.
“Oi, Lee”, Kuzon of Caldera shouts at his fellow laborer from where he’s unloading boxes for the Royal Family, “I need you to help me lift this one, it’s a biggie.”
Though his view of Lee is blocked by the tall box, Kuzon feels the long crate lift off the ground. Deftly, the ex-army man slips his fingers under the wood, and starts to walk the box towards the back villa doorway.
“This one is going to the Prince’s room, Lee.” Kuzon explains, trusting his coworker to lead him through the twisting hallways, “I’m pretty sure it’s just bedding.”
Once they get into the room, Kuzon squats and deposits the crate on the ground. He lets out a soft sigh. Being demoted from a Palace guard to essentially a moving-man stung, but at least the work was easy. Straightening up, his next question to Lee dies in his throat as he looks at the young man from across the box.
Soft white bandages cover the entirety of the left side of his face, the hair is all shaved except for the ponytail. Light gold eyes meet Kuzon’s rich brown irises, he remembers seeing them whenever he was assigned to patrol the gardens of the Palace.
The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation gives him a slight smile, careful not to tug on his wound. In a voice that’s huskier than Kuzon expected, the Prince says, “You looked like you needed help carrying this, bedding packages can be so bulky.”
He’s so… young. Kuzon of Caldera has always lived in the capital, he’s seen the prince from far away multiple times, but it’s looking at Prince Zuko face to face that really cements the fact that the boy is only 13.
Before Kuzon can even beg for forgiveness for forcing the Prince to do something so demeaning to his station, Prince Zuko strides out of the room. Bewildered, all he can do is watch him walk away.
A few days after they’ve settled into the villa, an invitation to tea with his Uncle finally arrives. If he’s being honest with himself, Zuko has been waiting for this opportunity since he returned to this age. After Ba Sing Se and meeting at the White Lotus Camp, there had been no time for tea. It has been too long without the comforting aromas and conversation that always accompanied these teas.
Zuko eagerly tells the servant who carried the message that he would love to have tea with his Uncle, a grin in anticipation sliding onto his face. To her, the happy look makes the Crown Prince’s face glow. She bows before exiting the room, resolving to tell the other servants at meal time about how pleased the prince was to receive a summons.
Zuko almost runs through the halls in his haste, remembering briefly at the last second that it wouldn’t make sense for him to be this excited for an audience with his Uncle. He schools the expression on his face into something more appropriate, before nodding in acknowledgment at the guards standing outside of the entrance to the villa’s gardens.
They push open the red wooden doors for him, revealing a small stone pavilion with a table low to the ground and his Uncle already seated. The smell of fire lilies and sea salt mix in the air, Zuko walks over to the table and bows in greeting to his Uncle in a way that he hasn’t done for years. A small pang runs through him, how could he have squandered so much affection and treated Uncle with such disrespect.
“Ah, good afternoon Prince Zuko.” Uncle smiles warmly at him, his cheeks crinkling in the sunlight as one of his hands makes a sweeping gesture at a small collection of tiny bags and boxes that lay on the table, “I have brought many teas with me for this vacation.”
“Good afternoon Uncle”, Zuko replies as he sits down, casting his eyes over the labels that are unfamiliar to him. He did not miss the fact that Uncle had yet to call him Nephew, “What kind of tea are we having today?”
“That depends on how familiar you are with tea.” Uncle says, placing his hand under the teapot to start heating up the water inside, “I can make you a few blends today, and we can find one that you enjoy.”
His uncle had done this too, on the weeks aboard the Wani when Zuko had been unable to do more than sit in place. Not having the time to receive proper treatment for his burn had been extremely harmful to his body, maybe this time Zuko might have better eyesight and hearing on his left side since he’d actually been treated by physicians for longer than a few nights. The proof was clear in how Zuko was able to walk around only three weeks since the Agni Kai, the first time it had taken more than a month for him to walk without proper depth perception.
Uncle had taken him on a tour of teas from around the world, something that he hadn’t appreciated at the time. He had wanted Zuko to try every blend, Over the course of three years, they’d finally settled on jasmine tea being Zuko’s favorite. Something about it was incredibly calming, and Zuko found himself craving a cup on those few stressful weeks of being on the run with the Avatar.
“Hmm, I have heard of one tea in particular and I’m rather curious about it.” Zuko said, remembering how irritating (horrifying) it had been to see his uncle’s reaction to a certain plant found within the Earth Kingdom. Uncle leaned in, obviously not expecting Zuko to have any interest in teas, “It’s made from the leaves of the White Dragon bush, and people say it is quite delicious.”
“Oho!” Uncle exclaims, his face brightening as he leans back in surprise, “I did not expect you to know such a rare and exquisite tea!”
“Do you have any?” Zuko asks, letting open curiosity leak into his voice, trying (and failing) to read the small labels on the bags and containers laying on the table. Reading with only one eye made it difficult.
“Regrettably, I don’t.” Uncle looks genuinely upset about that, casting his eyes over to the fire lilies that are planted behind Zuko.
“Oh.” Zuko blinks, reaching a hand out to snag a small bag near him, “That’s okay. You have jasmine and that’s my favorite.”
“I will remember that in the future.” Uncle smiled warmly at him as he accepted the bag of jasmine tea leaves, scooping out just the right amount into the teapot.
Soft silence reigned in the empty garden, the rustle of leaves from the surrounding maples was soothing to Zuko’s ear. Even though his left ear couldn’t hear a thing right now, the muffled sound was just loud enough for it to register with his right one. Silence with Uncle had not always been a comfortable experience, it had taken a very long time for him to adjust to the concept of being still and not doing anything. After he’d found out that the Avatar was alive, all that progress had blown away until they’d hidden as refugees in the Earth Kingdom.
A little while later, the tea was done and Uncle poured Zuko his cup without a word.
Suddenly, Zuko felt his eyes grow hot as he took his first sip. This tastes like home. The light sweetness on his tongue reminded him of all the past times that Uncle had brewed him this tea. Zuko’s chest tightened, all of that time didn’t matter anymore, not now. Without being banished, Zuko had never been farther from home. He would never explore the Air Temples with Uncle, they’d never float away from the North Pole, and the forgiveness that he’d been given was now invalidated by the fact that he hadn’t betrayed Uncle in the first place.
“Thank you for the tea.” Zuko choked out, recalling his manners in a detached sense. Going through the motions is what he’d been doing this entire time, not changing anything and not even able to get back what this second life had taken from him. This moment is the first time that Zuko has fully realized what has been lost.
“It is nothing.” Uncle replied, looking a little lost as Zuko struggled to get his emotions under control. Iroh had no idea why his nephew abruptly became emotional, and the cause was unclear.
Zuko shook his head at that and cradled the small cup of tea closer to him. No Uncle, this is everything. Blinking rapidly, he tried to stop himself from crying and took deeper breaths to calm himself. Not only would it be humiliating to cry over tea of all things, but it would sting horribly on his left side. A roughened hand on Zuko’s wrist drew him out of his thoughts, Uncle studied him with a serious expression on his face.
“Far too often fire destroys things, but every forest that is burned down will eventually grow back.” Uncle quotes yet another proverb at him, “Though that new growth is never the same as what once was, it is still just as beautiful.”
Zuko knew that Uncle had no way of knowing what had happened to him, and that he was probably referring to how Zuko had been burned and sent away from the capital. All the same, he took the words to heart and simply nodded in response. For once one of Uncle’s usually cryptic proverbs made sense to him.
They continued to sit in silence after that, while Zuko digested the meaning of Uncle’s words. Even though the memories that he’d made with Uncle had been lost, that did not mean that the new memories they created together would be lesser. Hopefully. This time, Zuko had a chance to treat Uncle with the love and respect that he deserved. There would be no hopeless quest for a father that didn’t love him, he would never betray Uncle in the caverns, and maybe, he would be able to create a stronger resistance against the Fire Lord within the three years until the Comet arrived.
“Next time, I will brew the tea.” Zuko started then stopped, realizing that their relationship (or lack thereof) meant that expecting a routine of tea would be presumptuous, “If that’s okay.”
“I greatly look forward to it, Nephew.” Uncle answered, a certain warmth filling his heart as he looked at his earnest nephew, “Perhaps one day you will tell me how you know so much about tea.”
“Perhaps.” Zuko replied with a grin, hope filling his chest as his uncle finally called him Nephew. With Uncle by his side, he wouldn’t have to ever feel so alone again, even if it wasn’t the same.
“Hello.” A hushed voice rang through the dusty air of Mistress Xi’s tea shop, the little building mainly frequented by older folk who didn’t mind it. Her joints just weren’t what they used to be, and cleaning the whole place spotless took more out of her than it was worth. Mistress Xi returned her from the kitchen where she’d been brewing some chai and almost started at the sight that greeted her at the ordering counter.
A short teenager, with a conical hat that hid his hair, wearing training clothes stood in front of her. The most obvious thing about his appearance was the giant mass of bandages covering his left eye and ear, trailing down his cheek and up into his hair. Whatever earthbender who had hurt him had wreaked havoc on his face, Mistress Xi was almost astounded by the fact that he could move at all. From behind him, her customers seated at their tables had mostly stopped their conversations about the Royals on the island so they could observe him as well.
“Are you able to import teas?” Zuko asked, glancing down at the tiny old lady who ran the shop. Judging by the puny size of the shop and the location, which was far away from the beach and therefore most of the tourists, he doubted that she would have White Dragon tea on hand.
“Yes, I can order anything that you’d like from the colonies.” Mistress Xi blinked, trying to hide her surprise at how young he sounded. She was old enough to not be naive, soldiers were getting younger and younger every decade, but this boy didn’t even seem big enough to fit into the uniform, much less be sent to the front lines where he could receive an injury like that.
“Do you know anyone who sells White Dragon bush tea that you could order from?” Zuko questioned, knowing that it was a long shot if his memory served him correctly. Uncle had said it was a rare tea. He tried to ignore how obviously the owner was looking at his burn, or at least the bandages covering it. The prickly feeling he felt on the back of his head made him well aware that the customers in the front of the shop were also staring.
“Oh, yes I do.” Mistress Xi hesitated before grabbing her order log, “It is quite expensive though. I’d estimate it to be 25 gold pieces for a standard container, not to mention import fees.”
She didn’t want to offend him, but she knew that soldiers didn’t make enough to buy tea like the White Dragon bush willy nilly. Perhaps he’d heard of it while fighting in the Earth Kingdom and wanted to try it now that he was home, Mistress Xi could give him a different, much less expensive blend that was still known as an Earth Kingdom specialty.
“That’s fine.” Zuko stated, feeling in his pockets for his coin purse. Luckily being the Crown Prince came with perks like not ever having to worry about money, so unlike when Zuko had been a refugee named Lee.
“Thank you very much for your order.” Mistress Xi took the stack of 30 gold pieces that the boy had pushed over to her on the countertop, she efficiently filled out the information in her order log with a brush then made a copy for her customer. “Depending on the winds, it should be here within two weeks.”
“Thank you.” Zuko replied politely, accepting the piece of paper that confirmed his order and pocketed it. With that, he bowed to her and exited the shop as quickly as he’d come in.
“No soldier’s discount for him, Xixi?” Her friend Gayon teased her with a smile that was missing teeth from where he’d been sitting.
Mistress Xi walked forward to gently sit down next to him at the table closest to the counter, knowing that the rest of her customers were still tuned in. She said, “He seemed too young to be a soldier.”
“But where else could he get a wound like that?” Wondered one of her regulars, the housecleaner for the Royal Li and Lo, from her own table.
“He might…” Gayon suggested, a sad expression stealing onto his face, “He could be from the 41st.”
The shop went quiet at that as they all pondered the possibility. It had been a month since that tragedy, an entire division of new recruits had been attacked by Master Earthbenders. Only the cunning of a senior battalion had won the day, attacking the rival battalion from the rear and trying to prevent the massacre. The story had come straight from the war front, only a handful of soldiers had survived, and those that did had been horrifically injured.
It would make a sickening amount of sense, Mistress Xi thought, he had ordered an Earth Kingdom tea whose source was common in the newly conquered regions of the continent. Repulsed by the thought, she hurried back to the kitchen to pour the tea that she’d been brewing before that poor soldier had come into her shop.
As Zuko made his way back to the villa, he had no idea that he’d been mistaken for one of the soldiers that he’d tried so desperately to save. The sun beat down, and Agni watched overhead with wary eyes, what would his champion do with this gift?
The turtleducks swam cheerily in the pond, ripples from their paddling spreading out in gentle rings until they reached the stone banks. The water was free of any leaves, despite the pond being directly under a tall tree. The servants must take great care to keep the favorite spot of Lady Ursa clean. Afternoon sunlight warmed the air, and the sweet smell of jasmine filled the gardens.
Azula, in contrast, looked frighteningly stoic to any of the servants that passed by the gardens in the hallways that ran parallel to them. The little princess sat on one of the stones, a single finger tracing the leaf of a pond lily. There was no expression on her face at all, the blank look belonged more fittingly to a corpse than a child.
Within her own mind, Azula was struggling with what she’d heard. Sneaking around in the palace at night had long been a past time of hers when nightmares had kept her from sleep. Last night, she’d been hiding in a secret tunnel behind the servant quarters. It was farther than she normally bothered to go, but without Zuko to run into, she had full reign of the palace. It had been the conversation that the servants had been having that made her stay and eavesdrop.
The night before Zuko’s Agni Kai, Father had personally stopped by to tell her of how her older brother had forced his way into a war meeting and insulted a war plan by one of the Fire Lord’s top generals. Azula had looked forward to seeing her brother brought low by her father publicly, it was his fault after all. Zuko should have known better than to speak up when he was already held in such low regard by the Fire Lord, and by extension, the court.
The chatter of the servants suggested differently. Kuzon of Dune Island had heard from Lee the Guard who was friends with the assistant of the general whose plan Zuko had insulted, exactly which plan had been. There had been a suspenseful silence, something that Azula knew Zuko would have appreciated because he was so fond of dramatics, but she had just found it annoying.
“The massacre of the 41st was planned.” The gardener’s creaky voice had echoed in that silence, before it was met with whispered outrage. Maids exclaimed that he was lying and it was distasteful, while pages demanded to know how he knew.
Yes, Azula had thought, how exactly did this Kuzon know that?
And thus the story came out, not the propaganda that Azula now knew that she’d been fed, but the truth. Sacrificing a whole battalion of new recruits for a distraction just to capture a single farming province that would feed their soldiers. It was ridiculous, it was foolish, it was a waste.
The one thing that Azula hated most of all, was wasting resources. She was perfect, every move that she made was efficient and not a single thing of hers ever went to waste. For being a princess, Azula did not tolerate any kind of disregard for the value of resources. Azula was Fire Nation through and through, people who lived on islands could not afford to waste anything, especially when her people had been fighting an offensive war for over a hundred years.
Those recruits could have gone on to train with more experienced soldiers, they would have provided the bodies necessary for a siege of Omashu or Gaoling. With being the freshest on the front lines, they were aware of new Fire Nation machinery designs that older soldiers would not be, the knowledge that they could have used during battle at sea or in tanks would have been invaluable. And now… now it was gone. For what? A few fields of poorly tended grains and rackety shacks owned by peasants? The blood of Agni’s children had been spilled for such a pittance?
It wasn’t surprising that Zuko had insulted this plan, it was the most egregious waste of life that Azula had ever heard of. What had her thinking in the garden was the fact that Father had taken offense to it. It didn’t make any sense.
Father was wise. He knew how to run the military well, especially since he’d never been to war. Such a foolhardy maneuver should never have happened under his watch. And yet it had, why?
And what possibly could Zuko have said to deserve Father hurting him like that? When Father had cradled her brother’s hand in his hand, Azula had been expecting the other hand to come slamming down. A blow to the face just like what she got when she became too excited or hadn’t learned a kata fast enough. Nothing could have prepared her for when the hand cupping Zuko’s cheek had blazed. (She also never could have anticipated that Zuko would win the Agni Kai, she didn’t even know that he could blast fire like that.)
Father couldn’t have possibly agreed to that plan. Father wouldn’t brand her brother just for speaking out of turn.
“Would he?” Azula accidentally spoke out loud, startling the turtleduckling that had been perched on the rock next to her without Azula noticing. With a quack, the turtleduckling waddled over to the water’s edge and swam away. She didn’t like the doubts growing in her mind. Father was supposed to be the one person that she relied on, the only person that she truly feared and therefore trusted.
Iroh teaches his nephew how to meditate with a candle, letting the flame rise and fall in time with his breath. He is not expecting much, Agni knows that he would be terrified of fire if he’d been burned like Zuko had.
Zuko surprises him, he takes to meditating like a turtleduck to water. It becomes routine for them to meet at dawn, breathing in and out in unison. Zuko prefers to meditate on the back deck, overlooking the steps to the beach.
They train together after their usual afternoon tea, Zuko is in no way healed enough to be going through combat training so they focus on the basics instead. Iroh expects his nephew to be frustrated with being reduced to children’s forms, but his nephew accepts it without a word. Perhaps it had just been a faulty tutor, Iroh muses as he watches his nephew progress through his katas without aggravating his burn. The reports of Zuko’s firebending being far below average for his age had quickly been proven wrong, sometimes Iroh catches glimpses of different colors in Zuko’s flames that remind him of the last dragons.
Zuko can’t help it, his firebending has changed irrevocably. Anger no longer fuels his flames, and as such his skills match that of his sixteen year old self. Bending without sight in his left eye only takes a short period of readjustment, he hadn’t had full sight on that sight for years anyways. Pride warms him every time Uncle compliments his forms, enough that he doesn’t mind being restricted to non-combat training.
As soon as he can, Zuko wants to work with his dao again. It is imperative that he improves his skills in all aspects, Zuko never wants his friends to suffer if he can protect them. He’ll be better this time, he’ll be enough to save them. In the dark hours of the night, Zuko mourns his friends and reflects on what had probably happened to them. He struggles not to cry, not wanting to feel the sting of salt on his raw flesh. Zuko makes a promise to himself, he has a three year head start and he’s going to do everything that he can to stop this war.
In another lifetime, the Avatar is on Kyoshi Island. A young girl tells a dock hand, the dock hand tells a sailor, the sailor tells a merchant who happens to sell cabbages, the cabbage trader tells a gate guard, the guard tells a sailor with amber eyes, and when the news gets to Zuko, he abandons dinner to force his crew to change course immediately.
But we are here, in the now. Things are different.
In this lifetime, the Crown Prince is on Ember Island. It is the first time he’s left the palace in years, and no one except those who were there know that he bested his father in an Agni Kai yet. It’s a different rumor that spreads.
“The Prince is on Ember Island.” Is what worms its way back to the palace first. The news gladdens the Head Baker and their team, it has only been a few years since Lady Ursa vanished. Simply put, they feared the worst when the Fire Lord declared that both his son and brother were to travel somewhere else for the prince’s healing.
“A survivor of the 41st is on Ember Island.” It’s less important than news of the Crown Prince’s whereabouts, but for parents and siblings and lovers and friends who’ve waited more than a month for their soldiers to come home, it’s enough. It sparks hope when it was about to die.
Zenko of Ash Harbor leaves for Ember Island the minute she hears the news, her relatives understand. A chance at seeing her son again, it is an opportunity that any parent would take. She happily tells anyone who asks where she’s going, and thus another rumor spreads.
“A mother of one of the 41st is on her way to him.” It’s spread faster than Zenko can travel, and citizens of the Fire Nation send up prayers to Agni every time they tell someone new. They whisper as they work and shout over dinner, and in their minds they all pray that the mother is going to find her son, not a boy who fought alongside him. They hope it is the right set. In the Fire Nation, children are more precious than anything else.
Zuko has taken to exploring Ember Island directly at dawn or dusk, when there’s enough of Agni’s light to bolster his spirits but not enough to give his pale skin any more burns. He makes sure to wear his hat at all times just in case, his Phoenix Tail kept out of sight. Both are peaceful times of day, in a nation of fire benders those hours are filled with the sounds of people waking up or winding down from a day’s work. He’s found that he enjoys stopping by Mistress Xi’s tea shop at dusk, sipping tea while watching the sun set over the ocean is quite peaceful. The elderly clientele are pleasant to make small talk with, although Zuko can feel their pitiful gazes on him when he looks away. It’s been three years since he got the burn, Zuko has gotten used to the staring.
As the sun rises, Zuko prefers to meditate with a different set of elders. Uncle has found a group of old women who are incredibly fond of pai sho, and they meet first thing in the morning. Knowing that this was most likely a White Lotus cover, he’d asked to join them. Their small group makes its way down to the beach in the dark, and focuses on their inner flame while waves crash in the background. They are not the only firebenders who do this, but they are the only only ones who have been blessed with the presence of the Dragon of the West. Every citizen recognizes their ex-Crown Prince, his face had been beloved throughout the nation and infamous for its shame after the failed Siege of Ba Sing Se.
Surprisingly, no one asks Zuko about his burn. He appreciates the respect for his privacy, but Zuko wonders what the official story was. Last time, no one had known how he’d gotten his scar and no one had cared because he was just a banished prince. Now he was Crown Prince and had a face full of bandages, it’s odd that he hasn’t heard any rumors about how it happened. Surely his father hadn’t liked the news of Zuko’s victory over him being spread.
“The Prince never leaves the villa.” There are eye rolls that accompany this tidbit, how typical for a royal to stay sheltered in their rich compounds while the common people bled themselves dry for this war. For the palace healers, they feel satisfied when they hear this, finally Prince Zuko is paying attention to his health and not neglecting his body.
“The soldier has an injury on the left side of his face, the bandages cover his eye, ear, and down to his neck.” Horror fills anyone who hears this, earthbending injuries to such a delicate area were notorious for infection. It was so hard to rinse all of the dirt out of broken flesh without creating extra harm. On a ferry, Zenko prays to every deity under the sun that her child isn’t blind in one eye, that he is healthy and whole.
Zuko brings Uncle with him to check on his order, watching him flirt with Mistress Xi is just as disgusting as it was when Uncle flirted with the passport inspector in the Earth Kingdom. A small thrum of pride fills him when he notices how the customers have fallen silent in the tea shop, it is the reverence that Uncle deserves. He makes sure to keep the order itself a secret from Uncle, even though he’s pretty sure it’s obvious what tea Zuko’s ordered. They’re barely halfway down the street when Zuko hears the tea shop explode into chatter.
“General Iroh himself keeps company with the survivor.” Awe fills those who hear this whisper, the source straight from an old man who swears he saw them enter a tea shop together. It is the fastest piece of information that spreads, even faster than the whereabouts of the Prince. For most who hear it, it seems as if the General has found a boy who reminds him of the late Lu Ten.
“Prince Zuko has won his first Agni Kai.” It trickles ever so slowly from the Caldera outwards, mostly due to the fact that no one can believe the Crown Prince would engage in a duel at his age. Though the Fire Nation is proud of his victory, it doesn’t make sense. Who could he have possibly dueled? Who would be able to challenge royalty without fear of retribution? Small displays of fireworks are set off in small towns, the victory is a sign of their prince becoming a man.
The amount of bandages required for his burn finally decreases, and there’s only a large square left to cover his eye. Reddened and raw skin is finally allowed to breathe, it glistens in the sunlight with the heavy smell of burn cream. Zuko is inwardly pleased, it had taken much longer for his burn to look this good the first time. His hearing in his left ear isn’t as damaged, and it feels wonderful, like a lost part of him has been found.
“It’s a burn, it didn’t come from an earthbender.” Mistress Xi hisses the minute the young soldier leaves her shop in the evening, the haunting sight of blistered flesh flashing before her eyes. His entire ear is shriveled, almost like it had melted off of his head. To Zenko, nothing makes sense anymore. Even friendly fire would not create such a large burn, especially on the face. She makes sure to thank the fish merchant who told her, and screams at herself for letting her sweet, wonderful boy go to war.
Everywhere on Ember Island, citizens of the Fire Nation stare at Zuko with eyes that feel like they scorch his skin. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and not one that he expected this time. As far as he knows, he did nothing to deserve such angry looks. He has no way of knowing that his people are not angry at him, they are angry for him. Rage fills their hearts as they look at the branded face of one of the 41st, killing intent beats in their chest as they think about who would do such a thing to a soldier.
There’s one woman in particular who makes him feel the worst, she stares at him from a corner of Mistress Xi’s in dirty traveler’s clothes with tears in her eyes. The smell of the sea rolls off her in waves, and there’s crushing disappointment in her face that’s easy to read. Zuko had no idea what he’s done to earn a stare like that, but shame fills his body anyways as he almost runs out of the shop. Zenko stares at the poor soldier’s back, he is not her son. She had come all this way for nothing, her child is never coming back.
In the end, it’s Azula who shatters this fragile misconception. Angry with Ty Lee, who’s suddenly announced that she’s running away to join the surface, the truth spills out of her lips. The two girls stare at each other in the parlor of the Lee mansion, frustration boiling between them as neither feels like they’re being understood.
“Azula, I promise that I’ll come back to you.” Ty Lee exclaims, recognizing the poorly hidden fear of abandonment that’s always lurking in those amber eyes, “I’m just going away for a bit to feel better, like how Zuko’s training on Ember Island.”
“Zuzu’s on that fucking island because Father burned half his face off! It wasn’t a choice, Ty Lee, yours is!” Azula snaps, towering over her seated friend who looks at her with wide eyes. Her breathing feels too fast, panic settling in. Ty Lee is going to leave her just like Mother did.
Choices make ripples that no one ever sees coming. By divulging how far the Fire Lord is willing to go to hurt his children, Azula convinces Ty Lee to stay in a way that she would have never been able to before. Please don’t leave me is what her eyes plead, her mouth still twisted in rage and fear. For the first time in a very long time, Azula’s perfect mask slips off.
Arms encircle the princess, Ty Lee holds her close as Azula lets out sobs that normally would never see the light of day. Azula is the prettiest and smartest girl in the whole world, and she needs Ty Lee to protect her. Grey eyes close as Ty Lee makes her choice, she will always be there for when Azula needs her.
A lone gardner holds his breath, still crouched under the open parlor window where he’d been plucking weeds. An ache in his knees builds up, he doesn’t dare move until he hears the two girls leave. There’s an imprint of his boots in the dirt by the time the princess is done sobbing over her brother.
It doesn’t matter who he tells, the rumour spreads like wildfire regardless. In every town, every port, and on every ship no matter the size, by the end of the night, almost every person in the Fire Nation knows. It’s not hard to connect the dots to the news that had been circulating of the soldier from the 41st. A connection to the Dragon of the West, a soldier that seemed too young to be recruited, and a burned face. Palace servants confirm that it’s the truth, keeping their names out of the public’s mouth.
Deep in the darkest rooms of the Palace, Fire Lord Ozai gives an order to a man with a third eye tattoo on his forehead. It’s superstition to plan the death of a child of Agni in the night, where the deeds are hidden from his sight. Ozai is not one to believe in spirits, but meeting with this man in particular would be hard to hide in the daylight.
The Crown Prince enters the tea shop, his lone eye shaded by the cone of his hat. A polite smile forms on his lips, requesting information on the status of the tea that he ordered. Mistress Xi tries in vain to not stutter as she answers, she cannot believe that this is her prince. Prince Zuko heads out of her shop to pick up his order directly from the boat that just docked at port, his childish impatience would be charming if it didn’t jarringly remind her that he was so damn young. Gayon lays a gentle hand on hers as she shakes, what has their nation come to?
It has been a few nights since the news got out, even children have heard of what happened to their prince. It’s not right, what happened to Prince Zuko is not right. The world of children is black and white, and the prince’s injury throws everything into question for them. Prince Zuko has been hurt: bad. Fire Lord Ozai: good. Hurting children: bad. Their Fire Lord is benevolent, he fights a war to promote their greatness and he always does what is right. So why did he hurt his son?
It has been only a few nights, and a century’s worth of propaganda is burning to a crisp. The citizens of the Fire Nation are whispering treasonous things, they call the Fire Lord a monster and weep for those who have lost their lives to this war. Their thirteen year old Prince walks the streets of Ember Island looking like a soldier, burned at the hands of his father. It is not forgotten that Prince Zuko had won that Agni Kai, in the back of their minds it lingers.
General Iroh reads the message he received from the White Lotus, he has always known that Zuko would become the next Fire Lord. These weeks spent together have only proven to him that his nephew possesses the kindness and intelligence worthy of a leader, Zuko loves his people as a Fire Lord should. Now that the truth behind his Agni Kai has come out, the White Lotus thinks the Fire Nation might be on the path to revolt against his brother, with Zuko as their figurehead.
Zuko walks across the gangplank, greeting a sailor who recognizes him immediately. The waves lap against the wooden boat, so uncommon for a Fire Nation vessel. He asks after his package, and agrees to wait above deck while they retrieve it for him. Zuko attempts to tell them that he is fine with waiting until they’re done unloading the rest of the cargo, but the captain of the trading ship refuses. It would be our honor to retrieve it for you as quickly as possible, the captain promises, before going to get it himself.
The moon is full in the sky, its gentle light shines down on him. Zuko looks at its reflection in the water and wonders if it is Tui or Princess Yue acting as the Moon Spirit now. He doesn’t know how he’ll get to the North Pole this time, but he’d do everything to prevent Zhao from hurting the moon spirit. It’s as he thinks this, that the world explodes into fire.
After aiming a beam directly at the Prince’s back and watching his body fall, the assassin fires another two shots at the wooden boat itself. Flames billow outward as the crew burns alive, people shout for help but it is too late. His job is done.
Korra first learns about the Prince’s Rebellion from the Fire Lord herself. Fire Lord Azula greets her with a wrinkled smile and invites her to sit down and have a cup of jasmine tea. Behind the trail of steam, she can’t help but notice that the Fire Lord’s eyes are heartbreakingly sad.
Over the course of the afternoon, a tale of cruelty and death is woven by a strong voice. The people had risen up after the death of her brother, smearing red paint over their left eyes and raising red fists as a symbol for all of those lost to the war. Azula herself had hidden with the circus, traveling in plain sight with her now wife, Ty Lee. The flames of rebellion had roared, and Azula had proudly led her people in a revolt against the terror of her father’s reign. She burned Ozai alive, in front of a violent crowd and crowned herself as Fire Lord with her Uncle’s help.
She had ended the war that had raged for over a hundred years, but peace was harder to keep than Fire Lord Azula had ever expected. Reparations were made, but it was never enough. The delicate peace was constantly threatened by those who sought revenge against the Fire Nation, and it was a diplomatic trip to the Southern Water Tribe when Avatar Aang had been discovered. Together, a group of benders and non benders had worked to keep the peace, and ever since the world had been in harmony.
Korra’s tiny arms clumsily hug the Fire Lord, surprisingly Azula as she embraced the reincarnation of one of her best friends. This was the world that Azula had fought for, where children were kept safe and lived without fear. She hoped it was enough to make Zuko proud.
I thought it would make sense for this version of Azula to lead her people without the Avatar, she only knows the Fire Nation and she does not seem like the type of person to wait for a being that hasn't been seen for a century. Knowing her temperament, I thought it also made sense for her to kill Ozai. Betrayal is what angered her the most in the show and what unsettled her, so it makes sense Ozai's betrayal would motivate her to fight for her people.
Also the name Zenko is from the fic on here called Foxfire, it's amazing and you guys should check it out if you like zuko-centric au's
This was kind of a longer chapter, please tell me what you think of everything :) The loop restarts in the next chapter.
Chapter 4: Back At the Palace
Zuko wakes up and duels in his third Agni Kai, except this time the damage is much worse.
thank you all so much for commenting!!!! it makes me so happy to know that people like my story :)
also please stay informed, many horrible things are happening to black people in america and around the world. the lynchings this week were NOT suicides, please stay safe.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko woke up crying, his breath coming in way too fast and his body shaking. It had hurt, it had hurt so fucking bad and he had no idea what had happened. One minute he’d been looking at the moon, and the next second he’d burned. It’d felt like the sun itself had smashed into his spine, immolating his entire body in seconds. He curled into himself, feeling hot tears soak into the fabric covering his knees. He raised a fist to swipe at his eye, feeling smooth skin underneath his palm.
As abruptly as the panic attack had started, it suddenly ebbed as Zuko realized he’d touched softness where normally gnarled scar tissue was. Latching onto it as something to focus on, Zuko traced his left eye with none of the usual care that he afforded to the area. There weren't any frayed nerves to be gentle with, there wasn’t anything there at all. Frantically running his fingers over both of his eyes, he dimly recognized that his body wasn’t in any pain at all.
Blinking, he looked up and couldn’t believe his eyes. The red curtains, the wide windows, and the very blankets that he’d shoved off his body were all familiar… Zuko was back in his childhood bedroom, without even a scratch on his face.
The yell left his throat before he could stop it, shock and frustration flooding his system. His hand slammed into the cushy mattress under him, doing nothing to quell the explosive storm that had sprung up inside of him. Why was he back here? What had happened to him, why had he woken up here again?
Had… he died?
Zuko stared down at his hands, going eerily still as his eyes scanned the creases in his palms. Inhaling, he felt for his inner fire and made it roar to life. He was alive, he was alive, okay? Maybe this was all just one complicated nightmare that he hadn’t woken up from. Aang said he hadn’t had a single dream when he was recovering, but perhaps Zuko was different.
Pain didn’t exist in dreams, Zuko knew that. Light filled the room as he ignited his pointer finger and deliberately set it down on the pale skin of his wrist. Yelping, he immediately regretted that decision as the skin turned a bright pink. Definitely not a dream…
Desperately, he tried to figure out what was happening. He’d woken up once in this room before, the night before his Agni Kai, and he’d changed things. Zuko knew intuitively that if he went out to the kitchens, the servant would tell him that it was the same night. No answers made themselves clear, and as the night wore on, Zuko’s mind continued to run in circles. Not once did he arrive at a conclusion.
A soft knock sounded at the door, and the same servant as before entered the room. The golden tray reflected the beams of light that filtered into his room via the windows. He gave a shaky smile to her in greeting as he recognized her, and slid off the bed. Zuko hadn’t slept at all, and unlike his sixteen year old self, this body wasn’t used to it.
The servant helped him get ready without a word, Zuko felt like he wasn’t truly in control of his body. He couldn’t force his mouth to work. His throat felt dry and his head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton. They walked together to the hair stylist, who pulled his long locks into a familiar phoenix tail. Zuko leaned into the gentle caress while she styled his hair, his eyes fluttering closed. The two servants exchanged a worried look, the dark circles and general exhaustion made the prince look frail.
As he was escorted out of the preparation rooms by guards, Zuko remembered to thank them. The shocked looks of their faces would have confused him at any other time, but currently he didn’t even register their reactions. Dragging his feet against the plush scarlet carpet, Zuko shambled in front of his escort.
His mind moved slow, like Zuko was sinking into thick honey. It felt like one minute they’d been in the corridor, and the next he was staring up at the sun. Hot sunlight beat down on his bare shoulders, and he could hear the murmuring of a crowd. Polished tile lay under his feet, it would take more than a hundred years before he’d ever forget these swirls of marble.
The Fire Sages called for the Agni Kai to commence, and Zuko turned around to see his father smirking at him. No he thought, no I can’t be burned again. Getting the burn on his face was the worst pain he’d ever felt, and now he knew what it was like to be burned twice. All too familiar words spilled out of him, he was begging for his father to spare him over and over. Footsteps echoed in a now silent arena, coming closer and closer.
From underneath him, Zuko felt his legs give out. The impact of stone slamming into his knees jarred him from the removed mental state he’d been in since he woke up.
Inhale. Exhale. Within his core, the inner fire that was given to Zuko by Agni roared to life, chasing away the last effects of his disassociated state. He blinked, and looked up to see his father’s hand approaching his face. Soft and warm fingers gripped his cheek harshly, his father’s hand was large enough compared to Zuko’s face that his pinkie curled under his jaw while his index finger rested above his hairline. Then he felt the cursed burst of pain across his flesh.
For the very first time, Zuko shoved the hand away from his face with a desperate snarl. It landed on his shoulder and tightened its grip. A scream tore its way out of his throat, Agni it hurt so so so much. The scorching agony all across the left side of his face that had filled his memories now spread to his shoulder. Like a fish dragged out of water by its gills, Zuko let panic rule him as he thrashed in his father’s hold. Uselessly, his flailing limbs smacked against the muscular frame of the Fire Lord. Eventually his limbs stopped responding to him at all, and Zuko was swept away by the storm of pain, his body falling to the floor.
For those in the audience, watching as the prince had knocked the Fire Lord’s blazing hand off of his face had given them a sense of relief. Perhaps the horror show that they’d been invited to would stop now, and they’d be able to eat meat again without remembering the terrible smell of burnt flesh. It had only sickened them more as the Fire Lord resorted to burning Prince Zuko’s shoulder instead, the sounds that he let out would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Princess Azula could feel her uncle’s eyes on her, the cowardly old fool had looked away as her brother burned. She would not do so, she knew that Zuko would remember this day for the rest of his life and she would not disrespect his suffering by cheapening her memory of it. Gold eyes drank in every detail, Azula blinked rapidly so her vision, that was swimming with tears, would clear. She did not think that crying as her brother screamed would change Uncle Iroh’s opinion of her so greatly, she would never again be the crazy niece in his eyes, but rather another child that he needed to protect.
Deep inside of her, in a locked box where Azula hid her affection for Zuko, she was proud that Zuzu hadn’t just kneeled there and taken the burn. He had fought even after all of that begging and refusing to fight, when it was clear that their father was going to seriously hurt him. It was like the inscription on that stupid knife that uncle had gifted Zuko, Never give up without a fight.
When the Fire Sages declared the match to be over, Zuko’s blood glistened on the marble floor. The Fire Lord walked away without looking back, ignoring the custom of declaring him as the victor. Medics swarmed the elevated platform, shouting orders as they bared her brother’s body on a stretcher. As they left the room, her eyes trailed after them. It would not do to so obviously chase after Zuko, not when her father had clearly disregarded his value as an heir. She would bide her time, and wait until nightfall to check on Zuzu.
After all, she did not want to displease Father by showing Zuko favor. Not when she now knew how far Father was willing to go to prove a point.
The Head Royal Tailor Ino works year round, he never takes days off like his assistants because he had no home to return to. After the news of his daughter’s death on the shores of the Earth Kingdom, he’d sold his house and moved into the servant quarters of the palace. There are nights where he lays in bed, listening to the footmen and bakers discuss what they’ll do when they see their families and jealousy rises in his heart. The tailor worked hard for this position, and Ino knows that he’ll probably die within the red walls of the Palace, completely alone.
It’s due to this reputation of solitude, that Ino is the one summoned to the medical wing of the Palace. He walks after the guards, ignoring the way that the lesser skilled tailors stare at his back. He doesn’t know why he’s been summoned either, but Ino has seen the increased activities at the gates from his studio and knows that someone important had been injured this past week. In all his years of employment, he’s never seen that many doctors come through.
At the doors of the medical ward, Ino’s guard escort whispers into the ear of one of the guards standing in front of the entrance. The two exchange a few words, and then the doors are pushed open to reveal the Head Royal Doctor: Dr. Yako. With a simple dip of her head, the older woman leads Ino to the back, where he can only assume the private rooms are.
Dr. Yako stops right before the two reach the door, and it forces Ino to look into her whiskey colored eyes.
“You are ordered by the Fire Lord to tell no one of what you are about to see.” She states, her tone heavy and filling the silent hallway.
“Of course.” Ino answers, his curiosity peaked. He wondered what the door would reveal, who exactly would be laying on the bed.
Dr. Yako took what looked to be a steadying breath, before pushing open the door and walking inside. Ino followed her, shocked by the thick smell of burn cream and antiseptic that hung in the air. On the bed, lay a small figure, their entire shoulder and one side of their face completely marred by burns.
Swallowing back the bile that rose in his throat at the sight, Ino stepped closer to the patient when Dr. Yako gestured for him to do so. Up close, the burns looked even worse. Human skin should never look that raw, with sickening curled up edges of blackened skin around the edges. He could now see that the figure was a young boy, he would hedge his bets that this boy was the same age as the beloved Prince Zuko.
“You sewed the funeral robes for Fire Lord Azulon, were you not?” Dr. Yako asked, turning away from the boy’s barely rising chest to look Ino in the eyes.
“Yes, I was.” Ino replied, glad to be given an excuse to stop looking at those horrific burns.
“You will need to create the same robes for him.” She ordered, a stern expression taking over the taller woman’s face as he looked up at her.
“He’s going to die?” Ino blurted out the question without pause, surprised that the doctors were already giving up on their patient. It seemed shocking to him that the Fire Lord was commissioning funeral robes for some boy, much less a match to the ones that Fire Lord Azulon had worn to the pyre.
“This is just a contingency” Dr. Yako snapped, “We are working harder than you could possibly imagine to prevent your work from being necessary.”
“Y-yes, of course, Doctor.” Ino hastened to agree, and then dreaded what he had to say next, “But, the robes I crafted for Fire Lord Azulon would not be suited for this boy.”
“You’ve made clothes for Prince Zuko before, have you not?” Dr. Yako raised a single eyebrow at him, the darkened circles under her eyes making her appear even more severe.
Ino understood where she was coming from, the boys did seem to be the same size, “I have, but-”
“Then what exactly is the problem?” Dr. Yako questioned, an impatient edge creeping into her voice, “Do you think so highly of yourself that you are capable of disobeying a royal order?”
“Of course not!” Ino exclaimed, frustrated with this doctor now, “Those robes are only meant for royalty, which clearly this boy is not!”
“Be quiet, you fool! The patient cannot afford to waste energy on being awoken.” Dr. Yako grabbed his bicep and yanked Ino away from the body on the bed, “Can you not recognize your own prince?”
Ino darted his eyes back to the boy’s ruined form, shock bleeding into terror as he comprehended the doctor’s words. Oh Agni , he thought, What had done this kind of damage to the prince? Inside his sleeves, the tailor’s fingers trembled as he spoke, “Forgive me for my mistake, Doctor. I’ll start on them right away.”
Satisfied with his answer, Dr Yako nodded and sent him out of the room. Ino stumbled down the hallway and back through the med bay to where his guard escort awaited him. Never in all of his life, did he ever think that he would have to make funeral robes for a child. So focused on his duty, Ino never thought to question why the Prince’s injury was being kept secret from the public.
It takes two weeks after the Agni Kai for Zuko to wake up.
By the time his nephew’s eyelid flutters open and blearily glares at him, Iroh has become well acquainted with the chair at his bedside. The smell of burn cream and puss have been burned into his mind at this point, he will never forget the sight of skin shiny with yellow discharge. The doctors had fought hard against any potential infection, drugging Zuko into a forced sleep so his body would heal. Yesterday, they decided it was time for Zuko to awaken.
Iroh exchanges eye contact with the nurse on stand by, mouthing “Dr. Yako” as sleepy mumbles come pittering out of Zuko’s mouth. The prince starts to move, making pained and confused sounds. With a tight nod, the lady quickly walks out of the room, leaving him and his nephew alone. Iroh gently places Zuko’s rather small hand in between his own hands and tries to look reassuring, “You’re going to be okay, nephew.”
He doesn’t think about Zuko’s left hand, which had been badly burned when his nephew had push the Fire Lord’s blazing fist away from his eye. The bandages around it had made the entire area below the wrist look like one big ball of soft cotton.
To his relief, Zuko seemed to calm down once he said something. Iroh continues to say comforting things, his voice sounding lower as he hadn’t had the chance to use it in days. Tears of happiness threaten to spill from Iroh’s eyes, he’s so incredibly glad that his nephew hadn’t lost his life to that burn. The silk of his sleeve absorbs them before they can fall, and as Iroh is placing his arm back down onto where it’d been resting on the bed, Zuko weakly squeezes his other hand. It is as if his nephew was trying to make him feel better, and the sensation warms Iroh to the core as he squeezes Zuko’s hand back.
Dr. Yako bustles around them, checking on Zuko’s physical state and asking him a few questions. The nurses even manage to get a few spoonfuls of broth and a whole glass of water into his mouth before it all proves to be too much, and his nephew falls asleep again. The doctor herself assures Iroh that this is normal, and she soon leaves again to begin preparations for the next phase in Zuko’s recovery.
Iroh stays in his seat, he has not left Zuko’s side except to sleep on a tiny mat that the servants had brought into the room. Even in his sleep, his nephew is still squeezing his hand. And every time, without fail, Iroh squeezes back. With every movement, Iroh is saying, I am here. He pays particular attention to how Zuko’s breathing always eases after.
The official story is that Prince Zuko fought in an Agni Kai and lost, with honor. The opponent’s name is never revealed, and while the general public finds this curious, they don’t suspect a thing. They assume that Zuko is too ashamed of his loss to come out in public, and the majority of the palace servants accept this version of the truth as well. The ego of a teen is a fragile thing after all.
It would be too hard to conceal the injury from the servants, not when the prince had yet to sleep in his own bed, over a month from when his Agni Kai had been. The constant stream of dirtied and bloody bandages and bedding to the laundry room had also been too hard to hide. It isn't strange at all, Agni Kai's are infamous for the injuries and scars that the duels leave. No one questions why a thirteen year old had participated in an Agni Kai in the first place, at least not behind closed doors.
Almost a month after the Agni Kai, the palace announces that a horrible and mysterious infection had set in on the wounds that Prince Zuko had received. The Fire Sages are told to pray to Agni for the prince’s recovery, they light their candles and murmur sacred texts. For those that had been there to see the Fire Lord brand his son, they wonder if there is an infection or if the prince is dying from his burns. All around the Fire Nation, shrines become filled with tiny pictures of the prince’s last public portrait. They have already lost one Crown Prince, they pray that they will not lose another.
Within the palace walls, Head Royal Tailor Ino begins to sew new clothes for Prince Zuko. He is lucky that he works alone on these robes, so that none of his assistants are there to see as his trembling fingers refuse to thread his needle. There is a design pattern on his desk, it depicts an arm sling. Ino will do his best to find soft and durable fabric, so that the prince’s arm is not chafed by the fabric. Dr. Yako had created the designs herself, grimly telling him that full use of the prince’s left arm was unlikely due to the damage on his shoulder.
The tailor doesn't look at the chest under his desk. Inside of it lays a small set of funeral robes, blindingly white and extremely easy to set alight. When he'd held them up to his chest, the ends of the legs hadn't even hit his knees. Ino prays to Agni too, he prays that that fabric will never see the light of day.
This one is a bit uneventful, sorry :( it mainly serves to set up the new loop. I know it took a few days for it to come out, but hopefully the next chapter should be up on friday or even sooner!
this loop is going to be a bit shorter btw, but the one after this is a doozie!
Chapter 5: Violet
thank you all for the lovely comments, reading them makes me so happy and it really keeps me going. um... this chapter is very late, I'm so sorry! I got a job the day that I posted the last one and it's kept me pretty busy.
It is super long though! I don't have a beta, so I apologize for any grammar errors
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I don’t even know why you bother with trying to move it, it’s obviously putting you through more pain than it’s worth.” Azula said derisively, watching as Zuko pulled back his arm from where it’d been trying to snatch a bit of fire flakes, “Dumdum, just use your right arm.”
“I need to use my left arm.” Zuko frowned at her, his normally childish face looking hauntingly fragile in the moonlight as half of it was swathed in bandages, “Otherwise, it’s just going to get weaker.”
“It’s not getting weaker because you aren’t using it, it is weaker because it’s been hurt.” She looked down at the thin blanket covering his legs, his bony knees tenting the fabric as Zuko drew them closer to his chest.
“You don’t get it.” Now Zuko almost looked like he was pouting at her, more life in his expressions now than when she’d first stepped into the room. It still looked weird because she couldn’t see half of it, but she was adjusting to the sight. Just like how Azula was pointedly not looking at the way Zuko’s arm was wrapped up in white cloth, or how his right palm was a brilliant pink and the texture of the skin looked off, like the top layers had been melted.
Azula rolled her eyes in lieu of a response and snatched some fire flakes to eat. She’d spied on the servants who made Zuko’s food, and knew he’d been eating nothing but broth and jok ever since the Agni Kai. It’d been lucky indeed that one of the visiting generals had a fondness for the snack, and she’d been able to swipe a bag from the kitchens. Zuzu appreciated the gesture, she knew that he enjoyed food with strong flavors the most.
It’d been almost like when Azula had tamed her first mongoose lizard, the animal had been so weary of her presence until she’d presented it with food. When she’d first slipped into the room only to find her brother already awake, she didn’t miss how Zuzu had stiffened the minute she set foot on the tile or how he hadn’t said anything at all, choosing instead to watch her intensely and had only responded when she’d started speaking. Strangely enough, Zuko’s obvious fear of her didn’t feel as reassuring as it normally did.
Yes, she thought, watching Zuko munch on the crunchy snack with a pleased grin that Azula hadn’t seen in ages. This feels much better, I’ve done well. Which, of course she had picked the right thing to bring Zuko. It was her after all, she didn’t make mistakes. In fact, only she could probably make Zuzu smile like that. Azula doubted anyone else could, except maybe that fuddy duddy uncle of theirs who hadn’t left her alone after the Agni Kai. It wasn’t like her brother had any friends.
Visiting Zuko at night and making his dreadfully boring days better with her presence was just another thing that she excelled at. It made perfect sense, Azula was the best at everything she did. Tonight had been a resounding success, and she couldn’t believe that she’d been visiting only when he’d been asleep the past few weeks. This was so much more fulfilling.
The pair sat in silence for a bit. There weren’t any open windows or lit lamps in Zuko’s room, there was only the soft blue glow of her fire in the palm that she wasn’t eating with. The shadows on their faces flickered with her flames, both of them stared at the way her fire danced above her skin, perfectly controlled.
“Thank you.” Zuko broke the silence, his voice still rough from sleep. His light gold eyes stared into hers, then he awkwardly glanced at the floor, “For the flakes, I mean.”
“Your welcome.” Azula responded, but her mind was stuck on what he’d meant to thank her for before he’d backtracked. What else had she done that Zuko would feel the need to thank her for? Could he have been thanking her for visiting him?
It surprised both of them, when the cornflower blue flames along her fingers blazed, the tongues lengthening and warping into a soft lavender. Azula stared at her hand dumbfounded, too stunned by the color change to ponder what it meant. The warmth in her chest that had arisen when she considered her brother appreciating her company had yet to die down, but as a Sozin style firebender, Azula lacked the knowledge to understand what it meant.
Zuko reached a hand out towards hers, catching a bit of the purple flames and rolling them around his fingers. She recognized the look of amazement on his face, it had been a very long time since she’d seen it directed at her instead of his usual awe/jealousy combo. Her older brother then smiled at her so brightly that it felt like the sun itself had snuck into the room and embodied him.
“Wow, Lala, you have two types of fire.” Zuko beamed, his one eye crinkling before he winced and toned down his expression before his burn became more irritated, “You’re amazing, what happened?”
Hearing her old nickname made the flames become brighter still, nearing a lavender tinted white. The heat was much less than when it’d been blue, which made sense considering her blue flames were the hottest. Azula shook her head mutely, but she was slowly connecting the dots. The lavender color was from interacting with Zuko, she doubted that she’d be able to make the color change happen on her own.
“You will not tell anyone about this.” Azula ordered, narrowing her eyes at her brother and trying to hide her dismay when the flames wooshed and turned back to blue. Just as she feared, it was a volatile technique. Definitely not something that she could show Father until she got it under control.
“I promise.” Zuko nodded, looking very serious as he let the now blue flame in his hand die out. “We’ll figure it out, Lala.”
“ We will?” Azula raised an eyebrow at that, her brother seemed to have forgotten that he was currently bedridden. There would be no firebending practice for a very long time.
“Yeah.” Zuko stated earnestly, bobbing his head in agreement as much as his bandages would allow, “Together.”
The lessening of heat and switch to violet was still surprising, Azula glanced down at a shade of fire that had never been recorded before. Here was her chance, she could prove to Father that she was too useful to be thrown away
like Zuko with this new fire. And if she got to enjoy Zuko’s honest praise while she puzzled out how the purple flames worked, then it was all the better.
“Alright…” Azula nodded decisively, and raised a lavender flaming fist to clasp around Zuko’s opposite hand in a promise, the soft flames licking over both of their skin yet never even hurting either of them. “Together.”
The soothing smell of jasmine tea floated in the air. The doors to Zuko’s room had been left to stand fully opened, he greatly appreciated the fresh air circulating around him. After 3 years of being at sea and almost half a year of chasing after Aang, he wasn’t used to being inside for this long. He felt cooped up and the stuffy air of his ward room didn’t help. The smell of burn cream lay thick in the air most days. It clung to his skin and it was all he could usually smell. Zuko hated it.
Uncle smiled at him as he scowled, thinking of that terrible scent. The ornate tea set lay precariously on the lumpy surface of Zuko’s sleeping mat, steam delicately wafting up from their cups. The taste of Uncle’s jasmine tea was as comforting as usual.
He’d tried to use his left arm to hold his tea cup, but a glare from Uncle had shut that idea down. Secretly, he was grateful. The numbing creams that the nurses had used on his burns had worked too well, he hadn’t been able to move his fingers properly since the Agni Kai. Zuko knew that training with the dual dao would be hell after this, he could tell that the muscles in his left arm had shrunk.
Their conversations over tea were Zuko’s favorite part of the day, although the nights he’d been spending with Azula came as a close second. Uncle had been mindful enough to keep Zuko updated on current events, though he noticed that his father was never mentioned. He wouldn’t have minded if they’d talked about the Fire Lord. Zuko was no longer the child he once was. He would never lose himself or his honor chasing the affection of a man that threw his son away like trash.
“So the colonies have been restless this past week, the taxes on them were increased.” Uncle remarked, reading over the reports that had come in this weekend.
“Why did they increase?” Zuko asked, this had happened in his original life as well, but they’d left port too quickly after hearing of reports of an airbender in the Shi Wong Desert to ever hear of the cause.
“There has been a new kind of vehicle that has been designed, new funding is needed to create the new fleet.” Uncle replied, his brow furrowing as he set down his tea and showed Zuko plans for the prototype.
“The tank truck.” Zuko read aloud, dread filling his core as he recognized what would one day become Azula’s favorite land vehicle. Unlike traditional tanks, tank trucks had the carriage space for multiple mongoose lizards.
“It will be a great instrument for the Fire Nation.” Uncle stated gravely, lacking any of the nationalistic enthusiasm that one would expect from the ex-Crown Prince.
“Yes, it will be.” Zuko said, a solemn feeling overcoming him. While he’d been resting and drinking tea, the war had been raging on. How many people had died while he’d been living it up in the palace?
HIs pulse began to race as he thought of all the work he had cut out for him. Zuko needed to organize things, recruit new people willing to fight against the Fire Nation a full three years before Aang would crawl out of the ice to give people hope. It felt impossible, there was a harsh, throbbing pain that built up in his head the more Zuko considered how much had to be done. It felt like the worst migraine he’d ever had.
Without him meaning to, Zuko’s face crinkled in pain and slight distress. Emotion showed much more easily on his younger face, and especially around Uncle, where he felt the most comfortable.
“Prince Zuko, are you alright?” Uncle's voice which was normally gentle grated on Zuko’s ears like screeching metal.
“My head just hurts.” Zuko admitted, a little astounded by how quickly his migraine had overtaken his senses. “I think I need to be alone for now.”
Uncle nodded, and packed up his things. It was clear that he was worried for Zuko, and asked if he should send in a nurse but Zuko waved him off. After he left the room, Zuko leaned back into his pillows and tried to escape the ache in his head by falling asleep.
The palace announced that Prince Zuko’s infection had gotten worse, doctors were reporting that they’d been kicked out after failing to find a cure for it. A reward had been promised to any healer that could help the prince, more than a 1000 gold pieces were offered for a cure.
It went unsaid that a waterbender was out of the question, not that there were any left in the Fire Nation anyways. The warden in charge of the Wooden Prison wished the Southern Water Benders had lived for longer, he knew that there had been healers among those who’d been imprisoned. Among the lower ranking military officials, there were proposals of raiding the Earth Kingdom looking for waterbenders. There had to be refugee water benders, everyone knew that it wasn’t spirits that protected the Foggy Swamp from their troops out of its marshes. The weeks dragged by, and every request was denied. The generals said that nothing could be done, the Fire Lord was not ordering any actions to be taken.
Dr. Yako was frustrated, she’d been working day and night as her staff was slowly replaced by doctors and nurses that she’d never met. Women and men that had served the Royal Family for years were being dismissed, and yet she was left alone. Two months after the Agni Kai, she was no closer to the cure than when news of the infection had been broken to the public.
Prince Zuko’s skin was inflamed, there were angry stripes of red criss-crossing his flesh. He no longer stayed conscious for very long, refusing food and water as he complained of feeling weak and nauseous. The Great Dragon of the West himself had pestered her, asking what could be done for his nephew. It stung to admit that she couldn’t find a cause of the infection. Without a cause, she was stuck throwing balms and random remedies at the wound until one worked. Dr. Yako shared her fears with the General that the infection was at risk of spreading to the prince’s blood.
The public worried, anger grew at the mystery opponent who’d challenged their prince to an Agni Kai. Who were they? How dare they put the future of the Fire Nation’s life at risk! There was talk of bribing the palace servants to talk, but even after money had been offered, no information was given. Not even the palace staff knew who Prince Zuko had fought. The nobles who’d attended the Agni Kai kept their mouths shut, and stopped talking to anyone who hadn’t been there. Suddenly lesser nobles found themselves out of the fold, excluded for reasons that weren’t clear to them.
One afternoon, Iroh had heard the trademark sounds of fire blasts coming from the training yard. He’d just spent the whole day with Zuko, mostly watching his nephew sleep and conversing with Zuko when he was awake. It was hard to see his nephew wasting away, he didn’t bother with trying to move his left arm anymore and Iroh privately wondered if Zuko had lost feeling in that limb already.
The new staff that had been hired was full of strange characters, the doctors were from the colonies or from far out islands. The nurses had an interesting bed manner, and by that Iroh meant that they seemed more at home on a battlefield med tent than in a palace medical ward. Eventually Iroh had left to clear his head, trusting that Dr. Yako being on duty would ensure his nephew’s safety.
Curious, he ambled over to the balcony overlooking the training yard. In the middle of the sand covered grounds, there stood his young niece. At only ten years old, Azula was already learning how to propel herself through the air with fire blasts. There were five different instructors nearby, they watched and shouted corrections as she went through the advanced katas. It was odd, he thought, that none of them were demonstrating the technique itself.
Odder still when the whole group exited the training grounds entirely, smoke curling up into the sky being the only sign that they’d been there at all. Iroh leaned over the edge, wondering where they’d gone. It had been a long time since he’d taken the time to watch Azula’s training, most of the time he was busy orchestrating White Lotus missions or reading reports from the members scattered across the world.
Admittedly, Iroh hadn’t felt the need to check in on Azula after he’d returned from his journeys. The young princess had seemed much more comfortable with the state of things in the palace than her brother, and so Iroh had focused on Zuko instead. Looking back, he knew now that that had been a mistake. Left unchecked, Ozai’s influence over his daughter had grown and word of the princess’s cruelty was much more popular among the servants than anything about her prodigal skill in firebending.
Settling into his chair, Iroh crossed his arms and rested them over his belly. He hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in months. Worry over his nephew had kept him up at night, he kept having nightmares that would have him awakening in the middle of the night in fear.
After the worst of Zuko’s burns had healed, Iroh was instructed by Dr. Yako to return to his own sleeping chambers. It concerned him greatly that he wasn’t able to simply wake up and check on his nephew, but Iroh made do by spending the majority of the day with him. He also made sure to drop by unannounced wherever Azula happened to be, catching her off guard with his presence more than once.
Admittedly, he was curious about his niece. She had watched Zuko be maimed while he’d looked away, but Iroh had seen the tears that she’d refused to let fall. He’d also been sleeping in the adjacent medical rooms the night of the Agni Kai, and had seen her travel in the shadows to check on Zuko in secret. It was odd, the way she refused to openly show her concern for her brother. Iroh wasn’t sure if that behavior had resulted from love or fear of Ozai. It was a wise move either way, Ozai clearly had shown what happened to children that lost his favor.
As he pondered this, the doors to the training yard burst open. The traditional wood carvings were deeply engraved into the wood, but whoever had opened the doors didn’t care about causing dents as a hollow thunk of the doors hitting the wall clearly announced. That only meant one thing. There was only one person who allowed his underlings to treat the palace with such disrespect, Iroh looked down to see his brother below him.
The robes of the Fire Lord are audaciously grand, the specific shades of red that Ozai worre were barred from anyone else in court. Iroh stared at his brother unimpressed, his general disdain for him had transformed into full blown hate after the Agni Kai. Were it not for the inevitable civil war that would break loose if he were to take the throne, Iroh would slay Ozai without hesitation. Before Ba Sing Se, Iroh had made a name for himself as a quick and merciless killer, but he’d make it slow for his brother. It’s what Ozai deserved.
The instructors were scurrying around like rats, one almost daring to shove Azula into the position that he wanted her in. Ozai sat in a luxurious and tacky chair, looking almost bored with the proceedings. Azula stood atop a pile of crates, and before one of her trainers could push her off, the eleven year old jumped into the air. Iroh felt his heart plummet as she fell, even though the blasts of fire were strong, they were not enough to soften the way his niece met the ground.
Ozai’s facial expression noticeably changed, Iroh could hear him berating her for failing all the way from the balcony. It was hypocritical, because Azula at such a young age had already surpassed Ozai’s skills at age twenty. He noticed how Azula kept herself on the ground, not daring to stand until her father was done yelling. It was when Ozai stepped forward quickly, a hand beginning to rise, that Iroh acted.
Looking back at the moment, Iroh would guess that his soul would not allow him to look away as his little brother branded another child on their knees. His feet hit the ground with a resounding THOOM, and glassy sand went flying everywhere from the fire blasts he’d set off as he left the balcony. Iroh readjusted his robes in the ensuing silence, giving a slight bow to his brother before walking up to the entire company. They all bowed, with the exception of Ozai who simply nodded in a disrespectful manner and Azula who mimicked her father from her position on the ground.
“Now, it would be rather foolish to expect such a flawed technique to be used for anything more than slowing a fall.” Iroh stated, holding one arm out to his niece as he helped her up off of the ground, subtly placing his body between her and his brother. “Who decided on such a thing?”
None of the instructors answered, but Iroh knew it had been one of them. All of the people who worked under Ozai were endlessly bidding for his favor, if risking the life of the princess was the cost then so be it. Ozai himself looked angry, but there was nothing that he could do in this situation.
“If you wanted to actually practice this, you’d need to fall into a body of water like the ocean.” Iroh continued, making direct eye contact with Azula which required him to bend down a bit. “How can you succeed if you injure yourself on your first try?”
Iroh turned to the rest of them, his gentle and hapless expression was being contrasted with the heat that he’d been letting out as a warning. He looked every bit like a slightly batty old man, were it not for the fact that he’d just surprised them all by being every bit of the Master Firebender that he’d once been.
“I’d like to commandeer the princess’s training for today.” Iroh’s tone left no room for argument, while Ozai’s face creased in obvious anger, “We’ll take a small unit of guards with us to the harbor and practice it until she gets it right.”
And with that, Iroh walked out the training yard entirely, with Azula trailing after him. After the doors closed, he turned to her and told her that he needed to stop by the medical ward to make sure that she hadn’t hurt herself when she fell. He would not have been so calm as he led Azula away from her training session had he known that it was only his presence that had saved her from being hit by his brother.
“I wonder what would happen if you tried to blast them?” Zuko suggested, watching closely as Azula’s new purple flames lit up his room. She’d helped him gather enough pillows to be propped up so he could sit up and watch her properly. The infection that Dr. Yako had told him about had weakened him greatly, and he had trouble staying awake for too long.
“In an enclosed space?” Azula raised a brow at him, and tilted her head, “They might cause scorch marks on the ceiling.”
“I’ll take the blame for that, I can say that I was trying to kill a bug.” Zuko said, he was genuinely curious about his sister’s new ability. When Ran and Shaw had showed him their fire, he’d seen so many colors in the flames, including violet. He’d been able to make multiple colors appear in his flames as well, but he’d never been able to make his fire be one pure color like Azula could.
“Or you could just say that you were practicing your firebending.” Azula smirked, and that’s when Zuko realized how bad the excuse he’d thought of was. “Dumdum.”
“Oh right, that’s much better than what I said.” Zuko mumbled, embarrassed because he wasn’t actually thirteen and yet he still had the lying ability of a child.
“Of course it is, we both know that I’m much better than you at everything.” Azula responded haughtily, and unlike when Zuko was actually this age, he could see that she was trying to make a joke.
“Yeah, you’re my favorite prodigy.” Zuko said, a slight teasing tone leaking into his voice. It had been so long since he’d been able to talk to Azula like this, he missed the relationship that they used to have. Sometimes he wondered if he hadn’t been banished, would Azula have stayed sane?
Azula tucked her hair behind her ear instead of responding, and seemed to take a deep breath to steady herself. With much less force than Sozin Style typically demanded, she whipped out a hand wreathed in lavender fire.
Like the reflection of the sun in a still pond that’s been disturbed, the flames broke into a mosaic of light. Small balls of fire danced in the air, their purple glow flickering as they moved. Both Azula and Zuko stared at them in wonder as they stayed lit, refusing to go out like most flames did without a source. Zuko couldn’t believe it, Azula had managed to make flames that could burn without being connected to their bender.
“Lala!” Zuko exclaimed, leaning as much as his still healing burns would allow and taking her hand, “Do you realize what this means?”
“Of course I do Zuzu, my flames can still burn without me.” Azula was trying hard to seem unaffected, but Zuko knew his sister better in this timeline than he’d ever known her. His little sister was just as excited by this as he was.
“No one’s ever been able to do that before.” Zuko said, a huge grin overtaking his face. “Not in the entire history of fire bending, not once has anyone ever been able to make flames burn without a source.”
Azula smiled at that, satisfaction and pure happiness shined in her face. The lights glowed brighter, equalling the brightness of the lanterns outside. Zuko felt pride warm his chest, they’d been working on the flames for a week or two and his little sister had finally been able to tap into her inner flame and make her sapphire blue fire turn into brilliant violet every time without fail. She had explained that she didn’t know what the source behind the color change was, but Zuko had his own theory.
The first time Azula had been able to make the violet flames was when she and him had been having a positive conversation. He’d noticed that when she got frustrated, the flames stayed blue but when he encouraged her then the flames were more likely to be violet. Blue fire was the hottest flames that any firebender could make, and it signified extreme power and control. However, because Azula was Sozin-trained, her fire was motivated by rage or ambition. Her purple flames in contrast were comfortably warm, they felt like holding a fresh cup of tea. They never burned Zuko no matter how close he held them to his skin, unlike Azula’s blue flames.
Privately, Zuko thought that Azula’s purple flames were a result of her softer side. The part of his little sister that had rotted away during his banishment, and had died well by the time of their Agni Kai. It was her caring side, the part of her that loved her nation with her entire being, her protective nature that drove her to mutilate a boy at Ty Lee’s school who’d dared to make fun of her friend. The flames gave off light and not much heat, it made sense to him that they were more for protection and comfort than combat like her blue fire was.
He loved them.
They made him feel like the girl he’d fought on the day of Sozin’s Comet would never exist again. It was hard to hold onto all of the anger that he’d felt at her when he was sixteen; this Azula had emotions that peeked through her mask, she laughed and made jokes, and she visited him at night to check on him. She was so young, and Zuko saw through the way that she acted. Right now his little sister needed him more than he’d ever thought possible, and it made him wonder why his Azula had dragged him home after Ba Sing Se. Was it to please Father, or was it because she had a chance to no longer be alone?
They practiced volleying the balls of fire back and forth, sometimes they tossed the flames back so fast that they resembled the tails of comets. Azula showed him a trick that Ty Lee had taught her, juggling the dazzling lavender flames in a circle. Zuko wished he could join in, but his arm was still too damaged to move it. Before the moon had reached its zenith in the sky, Zuko’s eyes were fluttering closed. The last thing he saw before he fell asleep was the comforting periwinkle glow of Lala’s flames.
Dr. Yako stared at her office, the scrolls that she’d been studying were meticulously stacked in piles according to their subject on her desk. There were different blends of burn creams placed on her shelves, all of which she had tried out on the prince’s injuries. The doctor stood in the middle of the room, taking in her messy space and how there wasn’t enough room for more than one person to be in there at a time.
Everything looked exactly as she left it, a disorganized clutter of medical paraphernalia crammed into a room close to where Prince Zuko was staying. So why did she feel like there was frost slowly spreading across her skin? Something felt off, she tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear and glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. Her office had no windows, it was more like a closet really, but no one should be able to see her right now.
Her office was a mess, this is true. Everyone knew that her normally structured space had been upset the day of the Agni Kai, servants weren’t allowed in to clean anymore because she was scared of them reorganizing her things. But there was a method to the madness, and she could tell without being able to put her finger on it that someone else other than her had been in this room.
It bothered her more than she liked to admit, especially since Yako hadn’t been able to see her wife in over a week. She kept falling asleep on her desk, waking up in the morning with the creases of her sleeves imprinted on her cheeks. Tonight was the first night she was going to sleep at home, and she’d told one of the new nurses about how excited she was to spend time with Himari. She’d just popped into her office before she left to grab a box of tea that General Iroh had gifted her, Yako had wanted to share the rare blend with her wife.
She crossed the room and looked over her desk, she’d gotten in a shipment of scrolls about blood poisoning from Summer Island this morning. She’d looked over half of them, and was planning on covering the rest tomorrow. In the unread pile of scrolls lay three from her good friend, Dr, Nata, on the causes and treatment of blood poisoning. Nata had an odd requirement for all of his scrolls to be exactly 23 fire lilies in length, it made them all the same size when one looked at them while they were rolled up. One of the scrolls was noticeably smaller than the other two.
Yako felt her heart slow as she realized what had happened. Someone had come into her office on the night that she was supposed to be absent, and had removed a large amount of the scroll’s length. It was sabotage, Nata’s notes had been changed. She grabbed all three scrolls and stuffed them into her bag, replacing them with random bone map scrolls that looked similar enough from their pile on the floor.
She made sure to leave the Palace slowly, even though she wanted nothing more than to run away. Himari would know what to do, her wife was a midwife for the wealthy, and had plenty of medical experience. It was not the first time that she’d heard of someone attempting to stop the recovery of a child, but it was the first time that it had been Yako’s patient and not Himari’s. Non-benders were often born “weak” and died in their first few months of life from complications, though everyone knew that such things were not as common as prejudiced nobles would have them believe. Her wonderful wife had been able to stop such things before, and hopefully she’d be able to help Yako figure out what was going on before it was too late for Prince Zuko.
A soft hush had fallen over the garden, the only sound was the quiet quacking of the turtleducks. The smell of dragon snaps floated on the wind, and there was a soft blanket underneath her knees. Zuko sat next to Azula, surprisingly he’d felt strong enough to walk all the way to the Royal Gardens.
Dr. Yako had escorted them to where they were having tea herself, watching in obvious pride at her patient’s newfound strength. After months of laying in bed, Zuko had stumbled quite a bit but he’d made it. It seemed as if he was finally getting better. The start of his recovery had been announced to the public, and there had been celebrations in the streets.
From across the low table sat Uncle Iroh, his stunt during her fire flight training had meant that she now received lessons from him twice a week. Constantly plunging into the sea and spending hours in the sun had darkened her skin, much to the horror of her palace aids. Instead of dining in the palace, Uncle insisted on them eating lunch at his favorite seafood restaurant. It’d been bothersome to eat in the same place as commoners, but Azula had to admit that the steamed fish was flaky and the crispy octopus was better than in the palace.
Unbeknownst to Azula, the Fire Nation was incredibly pleased to see their princess more. After the death of Fire Lord Azulon, very little had been known about her or her older brother. The way she braided her hair during training became a new trend. Crowds of people flooded the wharf to catch glimpses of her training. They were so proud of her for being only ten years old and already learning the fire flight technique. Her once light skin was now sunkissed, and her smooth hair had been turned frizzy from the seasalt. All across the nation, little girls stayed out in the sun playing for longer, for it was said that the princess herself had honey tanned skin.
Uncle Iroh had agreed to Zuko’s inane request for them to all have tea together. It wasn’t exactly like Azula could refuse, despite Zuko’s fallen position from Father’s favor and Uncle’s loss of the throne, both of them were above her in the palace pecking order. Zuzu’s lizard-puppy eye at her as he asked her to come did nothing to disguise that this tea party was a summons. These past few weeks had been the least that Azula had seen her father since she started firebending. It would be treasonous for her to think that she preferred it like this, so she didn’t.
Zuko poured tea into their small cups for them. It didn’t escape her notice how his arms shook, even though Uncle had deliberately chosen a very petite teapot for this afternoon. Though Zuko insisted that he was fine, he’d been sweating since the second round of tea and it was even hot. Today they were drinking chrysanthemum tea, because it was her favorite. Zuko had let her bully him into switching cups, after he’d spooned in the honey that she preferred of course. Her older brother knew that she liked light and sweet flavors, including the subtle smokiness of humming-bee honey.
They’d been discussing the different theatre companies’ renditions of Love Amongst Dragons. Zuko had many opinions, all of which he expressed by waving his working arm around and speaking very loudly. Azula had been staunching in favor of the Ember Island Players, just to frustrate him. The playful way that the two of them had been arguing had made Uncle Iroh chuckle. At that Zuko had glared at him, like the hot head he was, and demanded that Uncle join in on the debate.
With a slow sip of his tea, Uncle Iroh had said that he liked the Wish Valley Troupe, as their two leads had the most beautiful singing voices.
“It’s not a musical, Uncle.” Zuko explained slowly, obviously assuming that their uncle had confused one of the most legendary pieces of theatre with something else in his old age.
“It is when the Wish Valley Troupe puts it in.” Uncle replied simply, ignoring the incredulous look that Zuzu sent him.
“That’s insane.” Zuko griped, fulfilling his role as the family drama queen, “Where would they even fit in the songs?”
“They change most of the dialogue actually, it’s very interesting.” Uncle Iroh made eye contact with her, merriment reflected in his eyes.
“Perhaps we should see it for ourselves before we take your word for it.” Azula remarked, before her thoughts caught up with her mouth. It was stupid of her to be lured into feeling comfortable just from a few weeks of late nights with Zuko and training with Uncle. She was foolish to count herself as part of Uncle and Zuzu’s weird little tea-drinking and pathetically emotional
“Definitely.” Zuko nodded in agreement before she could say anything else, “Uncle, where is Wish Valley?”
“The troupe is actually going to be performing at the Caldera Theatre in about a week.” Uncle answered, winking at them both, “I can arrange some tickets for us.”
“Thank you, Uncle.” Zuko eagerly agreed, before turning to her and asking, “Would you want Mai and Ty Lee to come too?”
The tea in Azula’s cup had long gone cold, but she’d never felt more warm.
“You’re not even looking.” Ty Lee pouted at her from upside down, her bangs falling into her eyes and obscuring half of her face.
“You’re right, I’m not.” Mai answered drily, glaring at her nails. She’d chipped the polish on her new butterfly knife and now in a set of scarlet, there was a single patch of white nail.
“Maiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.” Ty Lee whined, persistently trying to get her to look up even though Mai had already discretely looked at her through her bangs and didn’t need to see her friend doing a handstand again. “Even Azula’s looking!”
“No she isn’t.” Mai looked up from her nails to where Azula was laying atop her bed, “She fell asleep over an hour ago.”
“She’s looking at me with her spirit.” Ty Lee insisted, walking over to Mai only on her hands, then balancing on one to poke her with the other, “Unlike you.”
“You’re just doing a handstand, I’ve seen you do them millions of times before.” Mai pointed out, slapping away Ty Lee’s hand from her face.
“But this one is different, I promise!” Ty Lee exclaimed, reaching out to tilt Mai’s chin up to meet her eyes.
Do you think they pushed her too hard in training? Ty Lee mouthed, concern clear in her wide grey irises. She's been falling asleep a lot.
“I doubt it.” Mai answered, careful to keep her voice consistent to how it’d been before, then mouthing I think it has to do with Zuko.
Ty Lee nodded seriously, then she pouted petulantly, “Fine. If you aren’t going to look then I’ll just sit down and be boring.”
“Welcome back to the right-side up.” Mai responded as Ty Lee sat down beside her. Covering one side with her hand and making a thumbs up with the other, she tried to convey that she’d heard Zuko was recovering.
“Glad to be back!” Ty Lee chirped, gripping Mai’s shoulder as she leaned forward and whispered into her hair, “I was worried that she’d be left all alone.”
That made Mai fall quiet, leaning into her friend as she considered how horrible it would be to be stuck in the Palace with a father willing to burn your face off. Being made the Heir would create an even busier schedule for Azula, more than she already had. Zuko had never gone to school, only learning through private tutors, and it would be the same for her friend. It would be very very unlikely that they’d ever see Azula again, it was well known that Fire Lord Ozai did not care for sentiment.
“That will never happen.” Mai replied hoarsely, reaching out to wrap her hand around her friend’s forearm in the universal sign of an Oath of Agni
“ We won’t let it.” Ty Lee agreed, completing the form. A bolt of heat flew down from their hearts and into the other’s, signifying the oath had been made. Azula slept on, unaware that her friends had sworn to protect her.
“Dr. Yako, Head Royal Doctor.” Yako stated, holding out her identification papers at the Palace Gate. The guards that had seen her every day for the past twenty years looked down at her through the slits in their helmets.
“Your permission to enter has been revoked.” The guard manning the gate itself passed the papers back to her, flames already licking at the edges.
Yako dropped them in surprise, watching irreplaceable palace documents curl up into ash on the paved road. She angrily exclaimed, “What is the meaning of this?”
“Your employment here has been terminated, and you are no longer allowed within the walls of the palace.” The guard sneered, anger clear in his eyes, “As it should be, you’ve wasted the Fire Lord’s money for months while failing to find a cure for our prince.”
Before Yako could protest, another guard came up from behind her and rested her hand on Yako’s shoulder. It was uncomfortably warm, hinting at a very painful burn if Yako didn’t stop protesting this farce.
“The prince still needs me, he was getting better and better every day!” Yako insisted, trying to twist out of the guard’s reach and feeling an all too familiar sting on her skin. The guard ignored her and tightened her hold, and Yako stopped resisting once the pain became unbearable. The smell of burnt fabric filled the air.
“Let’s go, Doc.” The guard announced, steering Yako away from the palace gate and out onto the street, “Don’t ever come back here again.”
“But what about my materials? All of my research?” Yako asked bewildered and angry that Agni hadn’t blessed her with fire and thus she could do nothing against these people. Her shoulder throbbed, and she wondered if this was her punishment for failing to protect the prince. He was now all alone in the palace, and she’d been injured in the same shoulder, most people would say such a coincidence is a sign from the spirits.
“They’ll be delivered to you.” The guard said brusquely, “Although I don’t see why a useless fool like you needs them.”
The guard turned away and walked back up the gate. It was early morning, the Sun was barely peeking over the edges of the caldera so she was mostly alone in the street. For the few people who’d seen the interaction, none came to help her. Yako trudged away from the palace, knowing that she would need Himari to help her patch up her shoulder.
Later as her wife carefully smeared burn cream on her shoulder, Yako realized that like every other person she’d been working with before the Agni Kai, she’d been fired. There was now an entirely new team of people working with the Prince, most of whom she’d never even heard of within the medical community. And she’d been allowed to work with him for months, until she’d been able to start curing the infection that had been weakening Prince Zuko.
Yako smelled a rat.
“I don’t know if I can go to the play tomorrow.” Zuko whispered, gazing up at the floating balls of purple fire. His chest felt heavy, and it took effort for him to stay awake for too long now.
Azula scoffed at that and gently flicked him on the forehead, “I’m sure you’ll be able to go. You were able to walk only a week ago, don’t be so dramatic.”
Zuko frowned, but he didn’t disagree with her. The infection took a lot out of him, and he knew that this was the worst that Father had ever burned him. It felt like when he’d gotten sick in Ba Sing Se, but even worse. Even though Azula had only been here for less than an hour, he already felt sleepy. He didn’t try to play with Azula’s new fire anymore, he only cupped it in his palm and let the warmth lovingly lick at at his skin.
They were no closer to figuring out the exact cause of the color change, but his little sister was now able to easily summon her purple flames. They’d even timed to see how fast she could switch them back and forth from blue to violet. Neither of them had been willing to discuss why they kept the new technique a secret, but both siblings knew Azula’s violet flames were not something they’d want Father to find out about until later.
“I just don’t understand why the Head Royal Doctor herself had to investigate the new cure. She has subordinates, what’s the use of her leaving to find something to make you feel better if you’re only going to get worse when she’s gone.” Azula scrowled, a pretty mix of blue and purple illuminated the room. Her fire reflected her mood, which Zuko found to be incredibly interesting.
“She probably didn’t trust anyone else to do it.” Zuko rolled his eyes, the new medical staff spoke the colonial dialect and they didn’t have minds of their own. All they did was follow Dr. Yako’s orders, and oftentimes they messed even the simplest directions up. “I mean, could you imagine any of them being able to understand the research she’s conducting?”
“That’s true.” Azula agreed, leaning back to snatch a few balls of fire from the air and extinguishing them, “They’d probably kill you with their version of a ‘cure’.”
“Yeah.” Zuko chuckled, as drowsiness stole over him, mumbling, “I think you should go, Lala.”
“You’re like a baby tigerseal.” Azula remarked, reaching out to extinguish the fire he was cradling. Zuko knew it was as far as she’d be willing to go with physical affection, the way his little sister had gripped his fingers to kill the violet flames had been unnecessary. “Always hibernating.”
Still, her hand lingered atop of his. Zuko shifted forward and ignored the way his vision temporarily swam with black dots to grip her hand in his. Softly, he bade her good night.
Azula pulled away first, sneaking out of the now dark room without a single look back. He watched the door close quietly behind her, and wondered why he didn’t want her to go. The darkness closed in, and Zuko fell asleep.
When his father had given him a “punishment” Ozai had been all for killing his son, that’s what Azula was born for anyways-- to be a spare heir. Ursa’s frivolous sentimentality had stood in the way of that, and she had offered him an alternative. To be rid of his nagging wife and senile father in one night? What more could an ambitious man such as he ask for?
She’d given him two options: a poison that worked in less than a few hours or a slow acting one, that caused a weakening in the body. Ozai had chosen the fastest option, he’d had enough of being patient. The time to strike had been right then and there. In her haste to flee the palace after, Ursa had left the majority of her things in the palace so she’d had time to say goodbye to their children. As someone fleeing for her life, his wife had no time to bring meaningless items when she could be sentimental instead.
It was ironic indeed that she’d left the slow acting poison behind. Ozai had seen the effect his worthless son had on the public, he knew they preferred the innocent weakling rather than the man who worked to protect them and got his hands dirty in the process. The spoiled people of the Fire Nation didn’t like to acknowledge the costs of their war for greatness, choosing to swallow the obvious bullshit that was their government’s propaganda rather than confront what the Fire Nation had done to the world. Of course, they didn’t mind the extra food or cheaper items that were manufactured by slave labor in the Earth Kingdom. There was always complaining about lost soldiers, but no one ever questioned how many lives on the losing side that had been stolen.
By branding Zuko, Ozai had regrettably placed himself in a position of weakness. He knew that the sight of Zuko’s scars had the potential to rally his citizens against him, which could not be allowed to happen. Sozin’s Comet was only three years away, Ozai had plans to win the war for once and for all and the Fire Nation could not afford to be fighting itself during the preparation. Luckily, he’d been able to keep details of the Agni Kai secret from the public, with only those who’d been there knowing the full truth.
He had waited his whole life to become the Fire Lord, overcoming ridiculous obstacles such as birthright and the morality of patricide. Ozai knew how to play the long game. He replaced every member of the medical staff, kept the details of his son’s injuries minimal, and played the part of a concerned father. Eventually, he had the agents he’d placed under Dr. Yako begin to slip the poison into Zuko’s food.
But that damned doctor wouldn’t just keep her mouth shut. Even though she’d been oblivious enough to look for cures to an infection that she couldn’t even find the source of, somehow Yako had been able to start counteracting the poison. That wouldn’t do, so he’d had her banished from the palace and withheld all of her research. It was easy to claim it was because he was frustrated with her for failing to cure his son, and no one questioned it.
Zuko probably could have been allowed to live for another week or two, just to distance his death from Yako’s firing. But then the news of his idiot brother attending some play with his children had reached his ears, and that could not be allowed to happen. Ozai had done serious damage, it was clear even to him that his son looked pitiful. If the Fire Nation saw what had happened to Zuko, they’d be out for blood.
He’d ordered for the last dose to be administered the night he’d heard, not even bothering to check if the deed had been done before he’d retired to his bedroom. The people he’d found were doctors that had been exiled from the Fire Nation for crimes against humanity, Ozai was sure they’d have no issue with killing his son.
The Avatar is in the Earth Kingdom, Admiral Zhao and an entire fleet of Fire Nation ships lay at the bottom of the ocean. Letting other people do the work has failed, now the Royals themselves have been assigned to the job. General Iroh had been one of the few survivors of the Northern Siege, and now it is time for the Dragon of the West to return to where he once lost everything. The Princess herself has set out to capture the Avatar, with her two right hands that are feared throughout the nation for their combat prowess.
Azula chases the Avatar across the Earth Kingdom, without the constant threat of her father hanging over her, she allows herself to relax. Uncle is handling the new plans for their attack against Ba Sing Se, the drill will hopefully pierce through the Outer Wall. If it succeeds, Uncle will be the only person in the world who has managed to bring the wall down twice.
After losing the Avatar in that backwater town, Azula realizes she’s been carrying extra baggage. She uses her reputation of being cruel and calculating to abandon the crew that Father assigned to her, claiming that just her two companions would travel much faster than a whole tank truck would. It feels so much better to be herself out here, without any prying eyes. Azula still has to follow her Father’s orders, she knows the consequences of that more than anyone on this earth, but for now; she is a teenager with her best friends on what is essentially a vacation.
They travel on foot to Ba Sing Se, where they expect to meet up with Uncle and find the Avatar. There are many people that they meet, some good like the little boy named Lee who achingly reminds all three of them of her brother, but some bad like that boy Jet who wears revenge around him like a cloak. Some towns like Gaoling are rich, with pretty paved streets and other towns are populated by those whose souls seem threadbare, with dust-caked lungs and brittle bones. It’s uncommon to meet a guy their age, it seems that all the boys have been dragged off to war. The women that are left behind are strong like their element, unbreakable and sturdy.
In a tiny town, there is a healer that gives them free dinner and a hot bath. The healer’s daughter stares at her throughout the entire dinner, it makes Azula’s face flush for reasons that she doesn’t understand. The bathtub is small enough that Azula’s elbows are above the surface when the girl bursts into the bathing area, exclaiming some nonsense about hot water. It’s when Azula realizes that Song isn’t staring at her chest, but rather the raised pink hand prints that wrap around her biceps, that Azula demands that she leaves. Looking over the grass after, Azula lets Song sit next to her without protest, it wouldn’t do to upset the girl while her friends were still bathing.
A raised pant leg reveals fire marred flesh, and Azula starts to truly understand that the actions of her Father have hurt more than just her. Song lets her run her fingers over the bumpy skin, and Azula isn’t sure if she cries more for Song or for herself. In this quiet moment, Song becomes the first person to ever touch Azula’s scars since Father gave them to her. When they leave, she commits this place to memory.
One small action can change everything. She'd been searching for something to believe in after Zuko died, locking away her purple flames and only showing her truer emotions to her friends. Perhaps finding the Avatar can bring Azula hope too.
Instead, she finds the Avatar’s bison.
It’s an easy thing, the Kyoshi warriors are not up the standards their legendary founder set. The sky bison flees, and as Azula meets up with the rest of the Fire Nation fleet and watches the captured girls descend into the dark brig of a prison ship, she finds herself questioning if that’s really a bad thing. Surely an animal of the sky would not appreciate being locked up inside of a ship. Uncle, Azula, and her friends discuss strategy with the engineers and captain of the drill. So much money had gone into building this monstrosity of machinery, her people had been bled dry by the taxes that paid for it. It needs to work, for their sake.
The drill fails, she slips and slides on muddy muck as she desperately drags an unconscious Uncle away from the wall. Ty Lee and Mai understand why she abandons the troops inside the drill, the Earth Kingdom would not hesitate to make a public example of the famed General Iroh. They flee to the sea, where the majority of the fleet had stayed. She decides that a more subtle maneuver is better suited to taking down Ba Sing Se, rather than that bull headed tactic that her father had chosen. Before an assembly of troops, she promises them to retrieve those inside the drill who’d been taken prisoner. Her speech is met with cheers, for the people love their Princess.
Wearing the Kyoshi Warriors’ robes feels strange, there’s so much fabric yet she almost feels freer in them than in her own armor. Ty Lee fits the role oddly well, and she’s lucky that the Earth King is such a fool to let strangers know of the planned invasion. Azula wins the power struggle against Long Feng, and the Dai Li are within her grasp. She has them sneak Uncle in. He requests to guard the Waterbender himself, as she’s the first person they imprison and more powerful than the generals. She’s going to need his counsel if she wants Ba Sing Se to surrender without much blood shed. Wasting Agni’s gift of life is not something she’s interested in, even if it belongs to the Earth.
It’s truly a pity that the Avatar’s companions are making that so hard. Ty Lee takes out the Earthbender and Watertribe boy, but the Waterbender and the Avatar present a major challenge in the catacombs. Ty Lee and Mai are guarding the other two, so it’s just her and uncle against them. There’s also the Dai Li and Azula is incredibly grateful that she thought to bring them along. She doesn’t think about the fact that Uncle would have never been defeated by that girl without being completely taken out, Azula has long learned to ignore the part of her that finds whispers of betrayal in every action.
In crystal caves, Azula raises a hand charged with lightning and aims it at the Avatar’s back. She feels her heart stop in her chest when her uncle takes the strike instead. She sobs over his body, feeling all kinds of broken as yet another family member leaves her. She screams “Why?” and it echoes against the catacomb walls in the familiar call of all those who lose someone to war.
It’s heart wrenching enough to make the Avatar walk over to her after he’s done decimating her Dai Li, the Watertribe peasant not far behind him. The girl explains that the pendant she wears has water that has special healing properties, Azula only lets her touch Uncle’s body because there isn’t much else you can inflict on someone that’s already dead. When Uncle’s chest begins to rise, Azula restrains herself from embracing him and instead questions why these two are willing to help her.
Correction: They are helping him. Apparently Uncle had been responsible for Zhao’s death at the North Pole and had led the Avatar to the girl, the whispers in her head turned to screams when Azula learned about the latter. Maybe it’s out of fear, or maybe it’s out of love, but she coldly tells the pair to take her Uncle with them when they flee then. She has no use for traitors.
Azula is checking on the Dai Li, making sure that none of her soldiers are seriously injured as the Avatar flees Ba Sing Se. Before she takes down the wall, she assembles the entire force in front of her. Azula explains that she will do her best to make sure the people of Ba Sing Se are treated decently under the Fire Nation occupation. This is a promise that she manages to keep, up until Father summons her back home.
She tells Ty Lee and Mai about the invasion plan on the boat ride to the Fire Nation, they all agree that giving that information to the Fire Lord will keep her in his good graces. Azula plays a dangerous game back home, it’s harder than it’s ever been to keep up her act. She has her friends, and that’s enough. They go to Ember Island together, and she shows them paintings of her family. Around a campfire, Azula admits that she has doubts. She doesn’t know if the war is just anymore, she knows for a fact that a world where her Father is the supreme ruler would be one she won’t live in. They talk about the poverty in the Earth Kingdom, about how there is pollution and shortages in their own nation. The night ends without Azula knowing what is the right path, but at least she knows she’s not alone.
Elsewhere, Iroh teaches Aang firebending aboard a stolen Fire Nation Vessel as a way of repaying Katara for healing him. Officially, the General is dead and is able to sneak around his own nation and purchase supplies. Throughout their travels, the invasion force manages to stop at multiple Fire Nation islands. It’s during a visit to a place called Wish Valley that Iroh tells them about Zuko. Though interacting with different citizens had shattered several prejudices of theirs, it is the story of the murdered prince that truly hammers it in for Aang how helpless the Fire Nation is when it comes to defying their leader.
“Fire is the element of life.” Iroh teaches, and Aang relearns what flames actually signify. There are colors in his flames, and in his ignorance Aang assumes it was because he learned from the General. When they stop a meteor from hitting a town, Iroh takes Sokka to train under his friend, Master Piandao. The Order of the White Lotus is revealed, and Iroh promises the organization’s full support during the invasion.
At the end of the day, Father forces Azula’s hand. There’s one last war meeting before the eclipse, and his plans for the day of Sozin’s Comet are revealed. The Earth Kingdom will burn. Unbidden, Azula thinks of Song. People just like her will die under her people’s flames, in a catastrophic waste of life the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Air Nomad’s were wiped out. She plots with her friends and the Dai Li, and when the Avatar bursts into her bunker, Azula surrenders. She leads him to the Fire Lord, and has the Dai Li take out her father’s guards. Fire Lord Ozai has finally been beaten, and is thrown into a cell that he will never leave. The Fire Nation itself doesn’t fight, her people are tired of war.
Azula crowns herself as Fire Lord, with Uncle as her regent until she comes of age. The days are long, and it takes months to win over the Avatar’s friends’ trust. Aang himself is quite easy, he and Ty Lee get along swimmingly. As the months pass by, and the world settles into peace talks, Azula slips away from a conference held by the Beifong family and travels south.
Song and her mother are just as welcoming as she was before, and the two keep up a correspondence that spans for months. Azula finds that she enjoys her friend’s perspective on things, in particular: reparations. She writes often, using her messenger hawk more than anyone else in the Palace. One day, Song is brave enough to request a visit to the Fire Nation. Azula says yes, of course.
In the same garden that her brother loved so, Azula sits with Song by the turtleduck pond at night. Violet flames burn for the first time in years, and she tries to show Song that fire can do more than hurt, that it can be beautiful too.
please let me know what you think! I thought it'd make more sense for Azula to not challenge Ozai in this loop, because she's scared of him.
thank you for reading! and please sign petitions for mona wang
Chapter 6: Running Away and Hama
Zuko flees the palace, and meets an old lady along the road.
hi! I'm sorry that's been two weeks, but this weekend I'm uploading about 20k so it will be long enough to make up for the wait :) thank you to everyone who's been commenting, they're really encouragining.
this chapter starts the next arc, zuko's leaving the palace and will explore life outside of banishment and unscarred.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko slowly awakens, his limbs feeling heavy. He buries his face into his pillow, mindful of his burn. For the first time in months, he was pain free. Although exhaustion swept over him before he could think much about it.
The second time he woke up, Zuko groggily accepted that he couldn’t snooze any longer. If his body felt this good, then he needed to let his nurse know. Perhaps he’d be able to attend the play after all. Zuko had been looking forward to seeing Mai at this age, his girlfriend’s cheeks had been so chubby when they were younger.
He opened his eyes and felt his heart stutter in his chest. Before he realized that he was back in his bedroom in the palace, Zuko knew something was wrong when he could open both of his eyes. Tears soaked the fabric of his sleeves as he mourned what would never come to pass.
The sun broke over the horizon, throwing the world into stunning shades of pink and orange. The clouds hung low in the sky, Zuko looked at their lavender edges and felt his heart ache. Whenever he blinked, his eyes stung. He marveled at his ability to see with both of his eyes, and moved his left arm up and down, just because he could. Zuko appreciated the abilities while he could, in a few hours from now he’d lose them forever.
Zuko had always thought that running away would lead to his capture, that the guards would catch him and bring him out to the Agni Kai as an ever bigger coward for trying to flee the duel. But realistically, they wouldn’t expect him to run away at all. At this point, Zuko was sure that the majority of the staff didn’t even know who he was fighting, or why. He could leave, if he wanted to, Zuko could run away from the palace and never come back to the palace without Aang and his friends.
It was a pretty easy decision to make.
It was dawn, the servant who brought his arm band and Agni Kai apparel would not show up for hours. No one was going to know he left until it was too late. Zuko ran around his room, picking up his dual dao, complete with a dent in the blades that his father had made when he stomped on them during a rant about how disgraceful it was for Zuko to use weapons when he was a bender.
Soon enough, Zuko had a knapsack full of traveling necessities. He was extremely grateful for Lu Ten insisting on “survival training” which was essentially just glorified camping. His cousin’s antics had ensured that Zuko had a Fire Nation Army standard bed roll, waterskins, durable clothing, and good shoes. Zuko was just glad that his feet hadn’t outgrown the shoes yet.
The only thing left was his hair, Zuko quickly rid himself of his longer locks and mimicked the shaggy haircut he’d had back when he was sixteen. As Zuko looked at himself in the mirror, he looked more like that boy, Lee, from that Earth Kingdom village than the prince he really was. Perfect.
Once upon a time, the Fire Nation Palace was a place full of light. It was created to showcase the power of those blessed by Agni. The buildings were long and single storied, so that Agni’s light would always shine through, with many outdoor walkways and glass ceilings. At night, flames that lit the palace ground flickered in unison with the Fire Lord’s breathing. The Fire Lord was the heart of the nation once, and it used to be tradition for the lights to go out when the old Fire Lord died, only to be reignited with the coronation of a new Fire Lord. It was a sign of respect for the dead, and an incredible show of bending prowess to create enough fire to blast flames throughout the entire palace’s lighting system, it took serious amounts of power and control.
Fearful of assassinations, Fire Lord Sozin changed all of that. Stone was laid over the sky lights, the windows were replaced entirely. For the first time in history, the palace went dark, and stayed that way for almost a century. Some say it was a sign, that Agni revoked his blessing from the palace once Sozin’s Comet had passed and the palace was merely covering it up. Others whisper that the lack of light proved the Fire Lords had fully broken from the old ways.
For Zuko, all of that meant that he was able to sneak around the palace after dawn as if it was still night. He stole down the hallway and was about to exit the hallway and was about to flee the Royal Children’s wing entirely, when he passed Azula’s door. Zuko passed, staring at the patterns in the wood and he wondered. Would Azula go with him if he asked? Or would she betray him out of her misplaced loyalty to their father? Little did Zuko know that their mother had stood in the same spot years ago, torn between choices.
But Zuko was not his mother and he did not make the same decisions. With a barely audible creak, Zuko stepped into her room. This was before Azula had switched her room, although Zuko did not know when she’d changed. It had just been something that everyone had viewed as normal when he’d returned after Ba Sing Se. The cheery and bright red entire reminded him of the cherries that Azula was so fond of. The canopy around Azula’s bed was open, revealing his little sister curled up on her blankets facing the door. Zuko carefully treaded closer, making his footsteps purposefully heavy on the rug so she could hear him coming. Both royal children were notoriously light sleepers, it was one of the few things that the public knew about their personal lives. No one knew, but it was because their mother had fled in the night and they were always ready for her to return. (Maybe this time she’ll take them with her, if they wake up fast enough.)
Amber eyes glint at Zuko from the shadowed bed, his sister resembled a crouching tiger-snake. He stared down at her, neither of them moved. The world was still, his heart hammered in his chest like a war drum. In, out, he took deep breaths to steady himself.
“Lala, I’m… leaving.” Zuko said it quietly, his nerves catching up with him as he met Azula’s eyes. They lacked any of the warmth that he’d become accustomed to in his last life.
“Do you love Mother that much that you’re going to disappear just like her?” Azula questioned bitterly, sitting up to glare at him.
“No!” Zuko denied, “I can’t go to the Agni Kai today… that’s all.”
“Oh, so you’re a coward then.” She sneered at him.
“No, I’m not!”, Zuko snapped, but a small part of him wondered if that was true. After all, he was only fleeing the palace so he wouldn’t get burned again, “I just need to leave.”
“If you need to leave so badly, Zuzu, why are you in my room?” Azula berated him, her voice tight and angry.
At that, Zuko hesitated, his little sister was a wild card. He didn’t know if he could trust her like he did last life. What would she do? Would Azula have the sense to get the hell out of dodge or would she stubbornly cling to their father as she had in his first life?
“Well?” Azula asked, a snarl twisting her lips, “Crocodillo got your tongue?”
“Will you come?” Zuko blurted it out, his heart moving before his mind like always.
“Hah!” She barked, a cruel note coming into her voice, “You’ll never make it out of this palace alive, you might as well go back to your room and throw your Agni Kai if you’re this afraid.”
Zuko didn’t respond, he’d already turned away and walked towards the door. It didn’t escape his notice that Azula didn’t refuse, she’d only pointed out the unlikelihood of his success. She’d always been a better strategist than him, and now after being close with her, Zuko knew her behavior better than ever. His little sister was too afraid of risking everything for such a low chance of success. At the door, he paused and looked back at her, promising, “I’ll come back for you, Lala.”
Then he ran out of the door, before she could say anything else. Zuko made quick work of the inner walls of the Palace Compound, the last time he’d taken this route was when he’d met with the assassin he’d hired to kill Aang. The high walls that Sozin had enacted all around the palace were thick and constantly patrolled by guards, but it wasn’t his first time beating seemingly insurmountable odds. All he had to do was dart through the minor gate that allowed in kitchen deliveries, and he’d be free of this place.
Zuko hopped from shadow to shadow, freedom so close that he could smell the blossoms of the trees that lined the streets of Caldera City. He hid behind the corner of a building, peering out at the gate itself. There was a cart on the other side, in a few seconds the gates would be open to allow it to pass through. He’d be taking advantage of that in 3… 2… 1...NOW!
Zuko ran full speed out into the open, his mind purely focused on the cart that he only barely missed the fireball that had been thrown at him from the walls. It smashed into the paved stones under his, shrapnel cutting his skin as Zuko rolled across the ground. So much for a secret escape.
He ducked under a stream of fire, swarms of guards suddenly flooded out of the neighboring buildings and started to surround him. Slipping into the mindset that he used when Zuko was fighting as the Blue Spirit, Zuko refused to use his bending. Only fighting with his dual dao was difficult in this body, the muscles he’d spent three years building up were non-existent. Plus he was used to combat at a taller height, and the many more differences between his old body and this one were making it too easy for the guards too get too close for his comfort.
They’d backed him into a corner, his swords managing to keep the guards at bay. Many of their comrades lay bleeding on the ground, none were fatally wounded becasue Zuko knew that these people were just doing their jobs. Realizing that remaining on the ground was hopeless, Zuko quickly scaled the brick walls while blasting long streaks of flames down at the guards below.
He hopped over the wall, and onto the walkway where new guards rushed to meet him. Zuko brandished his swords once more, grunting against the strain of having to buffet attacks from both sides. He quickly slipped out of the fight on the walkway and leapt onto the lip of the wall, eyeing the drop below. There were more flames coming at him now, hot blasts scorching his skin when he wasn’t able to deflect them.
In the end, it was a spear that did him in. A non-bender was rare in the palace guards, they were used more for special ops as fire bending was hard to disguise in the darkness of night. As Zuko was busy dodging a flaming fist that had swung at him, a spear pierced his side. He choked on a gasp that ripped itself out of his throat, swiping one of his swords clean through the wooden shaft but he teetered off the edge and fell.
To the people sipping their morning tea, bustling around to get some groceries, or meeting up with friends to watch the sunrise together; the sight of their prince’s body hitting the ground with a wet smack would haunt them for the rest of their lives. The blood puddle had barely started forming around the shattered corpse before palace guards had removed it from the stones, but the people of the Fire Nation weren’t fools. The fight on the tops of the palace walls had been noticed by all, and the palace wouldn’t bother hiding the death of a commoner.
Officially, Prince Zuko’s death was never declared. He simply never left the palace again, and eventually citizens learned that asking after his whereabouts led to them taking a nice trip to the labor camps in the Earth Kingdom. The bloody imprint of his body was never washed off the stones, the work of spirits kept the earth stained bright red for all to see. Not a single person could remove it, although several did try.
In this lifetime, Fire Lord Ozai burns the world to a crisp with Azula by his side. The first nation that he destroys is his own, the people of the Fire Nation have descended into civil war, and Ozai uses the comet to kill any member of the rebels. The Avatar and his friends fall, and the White Lotus destroys itself from the inside. In hidden corners of his empire, some whisper that a new Avatar has been born in the Southern Water Tribe, that perhaps there is hope in this world after all. Deep within the Fire Nation’s most secure prison, General Iroh mourns for another son that he failed to save.
Zuko wakes up and immediately falls out of bed, his body rolling automatically to decrease his chances of being injured by the fall. There is too much air in his chest, too much clothing on his skin, it feels like the world itself is trying to suffocate him. Did he really fall to his death? How did the guards even know that he was fleeing the castle? They shouldn’t have suspected a thing, no one except for nobles knew he had an Agni Kai this afternoon.
She must have told them.
It hurts more than he thought it would. They’d grown so close last time, the night time visits had laid the groundwork for conversations that made Zuko understand her even better. And he knew that Azula was capable of getting along with Uncle, even if she wasn’t willing to admit it. Even though Zuko had considered her calling the guards on him, there was a part of him that thought she wouldn’t betray him like that.
But she did.
Eventually the overwhelming ache in his chest goes away, and Zuko is left lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling of his room, and considering his options. He traces the intricate paintings, his eyes following the curves of lilies and flames bordering the depictions of courtesans. He can’t ask her to come with him, Azula had caused him to be attacked. It bothers him that he’s essentially abandoning her just like their mother did, but Azula is strong. She survived being alone with Ozai once before, and Zuko’s confident that she can do it again.
Additionally, maybe waiting until daybreak hadn’t been the best idea either. Absentmindely, Zuko felt for his inner sense of where the Sun was in the sky. Agni, it was only an hour before the sun rose! Zuko sprung up and rushed around his room, packing the same bag that he’d prepared last time. He tugged the straps over his shoulders, took a deep breath, and fled his room as quickly as possible.
By the time the sun rose over the palace, Zuko was already out of Caldera City entirely.
In quaint little hamlet, there were exactly 35 houses and 8 shops. The fields and forests surrounding the town were thick with vegetation, and a mountain loomed next to it. There was one abandoned building, on the outskirts of town. It used to be an inn, but the man who ran it had died recently, without any family to leave it to.
One day, a little old lady walked up the path leading to town. She looked a little frail and wore clothes that were threadbare, but clean. She inquired about the newly empty inn, and purchased it at a shockingly low price! The loan she’d gotten was exceptionally good too, because the owner before had paid off all of the building and land costs of owning such a large establishment in such a tiny town.
Many people were curious about the new innkeeper, they hadn’t had a new person in town for quite some time. Most people only passed through on their way to the seaports, headed to the Earth Kingdom. An inn was certainly needed to keep their trade up, otherwise their little boring town wouldn’t have anywhere to store the much needed travelers.
The old lady was polite, but distant. She flirted with Old Man Junji, and had a fondness for fish that the food merchants noticed. The people who stayed at her inn said that she was extremely clean, and they always came back to stay at her inn. In fact, over the years, the old lady’s inn became one of the biggest reasons that people liked to travel through their hamlet to and from the sea. They became an important rest stop for many, enough to get put on the same map that a young warrior from the Southern Water Tribe would look at.
Ms. Hama had blessed their town with more business, and every one respected her not only for her eldery status but also for her value to the community. Though she had a penchant for being solitary, the people of the town liked to give her discounts or help her carry her things while she shopped. It was the most they could do.
And when the spirits of the forest started attacking people, the local priests went and painted symbols for safety on her doors too. The paint was red of course, for the color of their nation. No one would ever think that these kind actions would make Hama despise them even more, for she hid her bitterness deep within herself and took it out on those unfortunate enough to be drawn to her during a full moon.
The fire flickered in the night breeze, Zuko happliy kept it bright by feeding it sticks constantly. This forest was great! Lots of dead wood was just laying on the ground, and he knew that there was a town nearby. He’d pass through it and pick up enough food to last him the boatride to the Earth Kingdom. Everyone knew that port towns had steep prices for food, and it was much cheaper to buy things here than over there.
The bed roll underneath him was thick and warm, it’d served him well over the past two weeks. Zuko had traveled quickly, making minimal stops and creating a persona while he walked alone. It was simple; he was just another boy named Lee, who was traveling to meet family in the colonies. The kindness in his culture for children had ensured that he’d never had to worry about food, which was wonderful in its own right. Things had been so different when he was the dishonored prince, no one would even look at him if they could help it. Now, whenever an adult noticed that he was traveling alone at a young age, they gave him discounts on food or let him pick some pieces of fruit from their trees.
So far he hadn’t seen any wanted posters for him, and it made Zuko wary. What story was his father feeding the court? Every noble family with power had been notified of the Agni Kai, was he simply saying that Zuko and the general had resolved the issue privately? Zuko didn’t want to be lulled into a false sense of security, but tonight was the first night that he’d been able to relax.
No one had commented on Lee’s resemblence to Prince Zuko, which meant that the haircut and different clothes had worked successfully as a disguise. He wasn’t an amateur however, the most important part of playing a role was changing your mannerisms and behavior. As Lee, he was bright and happy, always willing to help someone out in exchange for food or water, but he wasn’t charming or needy enough to make people remember him. All Fire Nation children traveled alone in their youth, it was a sign of them growing up and it was a tradition. That didn’t mean that adults weren’t willing to help them, and it made it easy for Zuko to blend in with all the other children wandering the lands of the Fire Nation.
Now he wasn’t relaxed enough to miss the soft crinkling of dirt underneath the weight of someone’s feet. Zuko knew that it would look suspicious if he had too good of reflexes, so he contented himself with waiting for when the person behind him said or did something to reveal their presence.
“What a bright fire you have.” An old woman’s voice sounded from the darkness, and Zuko forced himself to give a fake little jump as he quickly (but not as quickly as he could have) turned around to look at her.
“Who are you?” Zuko asked, playing up his role as Lee and making sure not to sound too suspicious of her, “Are you from the town?”
“Yes, I own the inn in town.” The old woman emerged from the shadows and smiled at him, the wrinkles on her face looked like deep cracks in her skin due to the only light being the fire and the full moon above them.
“Hello, I apologize for questioning you and being so rude.” Zuko stood up and bowed with his hands created the signature flame shape, “You just startled me.”
“It’s quite alright.” The old woman sat on one of the logs that Zuko had found earlier, a huge ring of keys dangling from her belt. The metal glimmered in the moonlight, turning all of them silver even though Zuko knew they weren’t. “Children shouldn’t be traveling alone, it’s too dangerous.”
Zuko frowned at that, it was odd for an elder to say such a thing when it was considered to be a rite of passage for all children of Agni. The same part of him that cradled turtleducks in his palms after Azula was done chucking rocks at them motivated Zuko to reach behind him and pull out his dao for the old lady to see. He unsheathed them slightly, letting the metal reflect the fire light, and reassuringly said, “It’s okay, I have these to defend myself with.”
“My my, what sharp swords you have.” The old woman remarked, reaching out to run her finger over the blade. Before Zuko could tell her to stop, blood was already running down the metal from where it’d bit into her skin. “Oops!”
“I’m so sorry!” Zuko exclaimed, putting the swords away and taking out his pack of bandages, “I can clean that, don’t worry.”
The old woman let him wrap a tiny piece of cloth over her finger after cleaning it with a water-soaked rag, Zuko had known how to heat water since he was a child. It was how his people sterilized things, although most children had a tendency to make the water too hot due to lack of control. He was proud to say that he always did it perfectly, and the old woman hadn’t complained about being scalded so Zuko knew that he’d done it right.
After he’d waved off her thanks, Zuko realized that they were now sitting on the same log. Flushing, he realized how rude she must thing he is. First he hurts her (even though the cut was entirely her fault), and then he has the audacity to place himself at an equal height even thoug he should be on the floor in deference to her age. It was something he’d forgotten, most of the time being a prince trumped age. Zuko quickly moved to seat himself on the dirt, and smiled up at her.
The old woman gently pinched his cheek, her nails uncomfortably digging into his skin. Her wrinkled face was shadowed by her hair, the moon shining behind her as she whispered, “What soft skin you have, Prince Zuko.”
In the morning, the people of the town would sadly whisper about the screams they’d heard from the forest last night. It’d sounded like a young boy, though no one had lost a child from town, which meant it was probably a traveler. They light incense sticks for him, praying to Agni that he would have a better life.
“Is it true?” The woman on his right asks, her tan face gaunt from hunger that Zuko had barely started to feel, “Are you really Prince Zuko?”
“Yes.” Zuko answers honestly, he remembers this story now. Katara had explained to him how she’d been able to twist the body of the current captain of the Southern Raiders, an old woman in the Fire Nation had taught her how to blend the blood inside of someone’s body. An ex-prisoner, Hama had used the revolting style of bending to keep his citizens locked in a mountain in a twisted mission of revenge, where they starved to death.
And now he was here too, locked up in the same chains that one of his people had wasted away in.
“I’m so sorry, Your Highness.” The woman whispered, horror filling her eyes as she looked at him, “You should have never come here.”
Zuko smiled ruefully, next time he would remember to keep his distance. He resolved to focus on other things, and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Yuri, Your Highness.” The woman introduced herself, glancing around to look at the others chained up around them, “Hama only takes one person a month, the others are too starved to do anything than sleep now. She only feeds the people that she finds entertaining.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Yuri.” Zuko felt tears well up in his eyes at the unfairness of it all, none of his people deserved to suffer like this. Although, neither had Hama or any other of the Southern Water Tribe waterbenders. The world was filled with suffering, all because of Zuko’s family. It was out of balance, and he knew something needed to be done. Salt stung his cheeks, the skin on his face was scraped raw and red from the ground. “I’m so so sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be done about it.” Ms. Yuri assures him, her hazel eyes looked at him with care, “We’ll make it.”
Zuko didn’t bother to respond to that, both of them knew that Hama would kill them. And unlike him, Ms. Yuri wouldn’t be able to come back from this.
“What happened to your face, my prince?” Ms. Yuri asked, eyeing the obvious scrapes that scattered his skin.
“She made me bow to her, over and over.” Zuko said roughly, feeling a hot bolt of shame course through him. The feeling of being out of control, rubbing his face into the dirt with every step up the mountain, Hama standing in front of him and laughing in glee the whole time. It felt violating, and thinking about it made him feel sick.
Zuko looked up at at Ms. Yuri, whose crying face oddly reminded him of Katara. It was clear that she cared about him, and he hoped that Hama would let her go. It was obvious why Ms. Yuri had been allowed to live, she was descended from a Water Tribe member. The darker skin and lighter eyes gave her away, and such people were commonly found in the Fire Nation. Soldiers did dark things to the women they’d brought home, but the children they’d created were protected under their culture and therefore had been allowed to stay.
Zuko promised himself that he would do everything in his power to make sure she lived to see Agni’s light again. Even if it cost him his life.
When Toph breaks down the gate to the cave, there are people who are too weak to cheer. Yuri does her best to warn these strange children, she knows that Hama doesn’t care about the age of her victims. She watches the two boys as they runs away into the night, and wonders why they didn’t come sooner. Yuri knows by the amount of moons that it’s been three years, and her whole body aches.
After Yuri has been brought back into town, she recognizes the girl in red for what she is-- a water bender. She pulls her aside, and asks for a favor. There is a body in the cave, she explains, it’s frozen in ice. Could this girl brush up on the frozen block, as Hama had been thwarted before she could refreeze it as she does every month?
Katara looks this woman in her light colored eyes, and tries not to think about how the person who looks the most Water Tribe is also the one who looks the most well fed. She promises her that she will, and together Team Avatar make the trip back to the caves in the morning. They light torches and follow Toph’s directions, and when they find the body of a boy encased in ice, Katara can’t help but think of Aang.
Her friend had looked like this too, suspended in frozen water, almost like he was asleep. The difference between the Fire Nation boy and Aang is that this boy will never wake up. Katara freezes the ice, makes it thick and cold in the way that she knows how, the way of her tribe. It makes her sick to recognize that Hama had been using the same technique. The blood had been rinsed away from the wound, but Katara can see the way his forehead crumples in. Whoever this was had had his head slammed in, until the bone shattered.
The group leaves because they have an invasion fleet to meet, and it’s months after the Fire Lord’s been defeated that they ever think to tell General Iroh about the mysterious town. It’s different being around Aang’s firebending teacher these days, the grand robes and crown distinguish General Iroh from the raggedly dressed man who’d traveled with them. They think he should know, after all he is the Fire Lord now. A body in a random cave seemss like something the Fire Lord should fix, he’s an adult and would know what the right thing to do is. Toph picks up the way that Uncle’s heartbeat stops, but Katara is the one who recognizes the hunger in his expression.
It’s been many moons, but the ice is still thick enough around the body. That’s what happens when something is frozen deep underground. When Uncle falls to the ground, he sobs out one word, “Nephew.”
Toph is the only one who hears him say it that night, but soon the whole world knows the fate of Prince Zuko. In her prison cell, Azula overhears the guards talking about it and wonders if the voice in her head that sounds like Zuko will start complaining about being cold. He better not, he’s annoying enough as it is. Especially when Mother and he decide to say that they love her together.
There is pain splitting his head, it feels like something has crawled its way inside of his skull and exploded. Zuko launches his body up, his hands clutching his forehead as tears stream down his face. Agni, Hama had been so angry. She’d found out that Ms. Yuri had given Zuko some of the extra food that she received from Hama, he still had no idea how she figured it out. The minute Hama had deigned them with her presence, she’d flown into a fury. She’d struck him right in the forehead with the cane she needed for walking, the chains that hung from his limbs had prevented Zuko from dodging.
Ms. Yuri… she was so kind, her husky voice had kept Zuko company for over a month. They’d told each other stories to pass the time, and she’d tried to wake him from his frequent nightmares. When Hama had bent his blood, making him dance and bow like a damned puppet, Ms. Yuri had whispered comforting words as he sobbed in pain after Hama had left.
Zuko hoped that she made it out, that his friends had stumbled upon Hama and fixed things like they’d told him about in his first life. Ms. Yuri didn’t deserve to die in that cave. She was too good of a person.
He looked up at the ceiling, his heart ached. It didn’t make sense, why was everyone so determined to hurt him? Zuko knew that he was unlucky in his first life, but this was too much. It felt like just when he’d been able to get ahead of this curse, somehow he ended up dying. It wasn’t fair.
As hard as it felt to move, Zuko dragged himself out of bed and into the motions of packing his bag. He’s done this twice already, the movement of his hands buckling the straps and changing of his clothes didn’t take much thought. Soon enough, he was out of things to distract him and was already slicing his knife through his hair. Zuko gathered the long strands into a small pouch, he knew the smell of burnt hair in his room would alert those searching for him that he’d changed his hairstyle.
The shadows of the palace welcomed him, Zuko walked into their embrace and slipped out of the capital without another thought. He would take the same route that he’d done last time, Zuko had business to settle with Hama. Realistically he knew that taking Hama down now would mean that Hama wouldn’t be able to teach Katara blood bending, but that didn’t matter. He couldn’t sacrifice his people to that monster for another three years worth of moons, not when he could stop it.
While most firebenders didn’t bother learning the cycle of the moon, Zuko had been at sea for years. He’d fought against Katara and other waterbenders for months, he knew how close the full moon was just by looking at it in the sky. It followed a set pattern, and he made sure to attack Hama when the full moon had passed.
The Blue Spirit hadn’t killed, Zuko knew that it would be impossible to distinguish between Fire Nation soldiers who were just doing their jobs and those who took pleasure in conquest. He had no such qualms taking Hama’s life, Zuko did it quickly and without noise. It was hard to find a time where it’d be able to take her by surprise, but he managed to slit her throat while she’d been making her way down from the mountain after dawn had broken. She’d bled scarlet against the colors of the sunrise, and Zuko had cauterized the wound so that there wouldn’t be any trails of blood left behind.
Using the ring of keys from Hama’s belt, Zuko walked up the cave and unlocked the doors. They swung open silently, the hinges kept well oiled by Hama. He peered into the dark tunnel, an eerie feeling washing over him. He’d died here, Zuko had never willingly returned to a place that he’d died in. It was worth saving the lives of his people, but as he descended into the shadows Zuko felt ill.
When he walked into the cavern, Ms. Yuri looked at him without recognition and shouted for Zuko to flee, before Hama returned. It stung to see someone he cared about look at him like a stranger, but he was saving her and countless others’ lives and that was all that mattered. Zuko didn’t mention Hama’s body, he’d left it at the entrance before coming down. He slashed through the chains of those who were in the cave and carried some of those who were too weak to walk out. Zuko had food and water in his pack for every one, giving them the strength to leave.
It was easy to convince those in the cave not to say anything once they got the surface and saw Hama, and he put her body into a makeshift grave. Hama did not deserve to be buried by the rites of the Water Tribe, plus Zuko didn’t even know what they were. He made sure to free those who were still alive before he started burying Hama, leaving her body laying in an alcove. He left them at the limits of the town, trusting the town to take care of its own. Zuko slipped away into the night, and headed for the seaports along this island’s coast.
Zuko was heading to the Earth Kingdom.
please comment and let me know what y'all think! they make my day :)
also I don't have a beta so if there's a grammar error, feel free to let me know! I try my best to catch them but it doesn't always work out.
Chapter 7: Heading Towards Home
Zuko meets a new friend, and we get a closer look at the citizens of Gaoling.
hi i'm so sorry that this took so long, i went through a bad spot of mental health and I didn't really feel like anything that I wrote was long enough or good enough to post. this is basically a set up chapter but I'm feeling better now and I should be posting soon. thank you for all of the nice comments, they really motivated me to keep going and I'll respond to everything soon :) ily
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The moon hung full in the sky, there were patterns of leaves made by shadows on the floor. The windows were open, letting the breeze come in and gently ruffle the hair of all inside the room. It shifted the tapestries on the walls, and tried to knock over a dusty doll that was half burned on a shelf.
“Your hair is so pretty, Azula!” Ty Lee gushed, gently combing the strands and tackling the rare tangle that she found. The two of them sat on the floor besides Azula’s bed, with Azula sitting in front of Ty Lee., “It’s like, SO, silky!”
“Thank you.” Azula sniffed delicately, Mai had brought them all these tiny egg tarts. They were flaky and sweet, just enough to satisfy her sweet tooth without having the pesky servants making suggestions for extra training to make up for the ingestion of desserts.
“Mai, can I do your hair next?” Ty Lee eagerly asked, having finished preparing Azula’s hair for sleep. She wrapped her arms around Azula’s middle and leaned back into the side of Azula’s bed. Ty Lee cheekily rested her chin on her friend’s bony shoulder and made cutesy porcupine-wolf eyes at Mai.
“I already brushed out my hair.” Mai said quietly, checking her nails for any chips. Ty Lee had painted her right hand, while she’d painted the left. The nails didn’t look that different, but the nails that Ty Lee had done were noticeably thicker.
“You’re no fun.” Azula pointed at her, raising halfway out of Ty Lee’s embrace to grab a piece of paper and pen from the floor.
“I’m so sorry, Your Highness.” Mai joked, her tone turning dryer than the desert in an obvious mimicry of those who’d been victims of the spirit Koh. “It’s not my fault really, I’ve lost my face.”
“As your princess, I order you to find a new one.” Azula replied pompously, her eyebrows high and lifted, “I cannot have a friend without any expression.”
“But where do I find a face?” Mai asked, focusing on keeping her face still even while her mouth moved, “Are they sold in the market, or would I have to import one?”
Ty Lee was the one who giggled first, pressing her grin into Azula’s neck. Her warm breath tickled Azula’s skin and she broke next, small peals of laughter spilling from her lips as she laid her hands over Ty Lee’s. Mai stayed silent, looking at her two giggling friends, before she snorted (a bit like a armadillo-pig) and clapped her hand over her mouth in embarrassment.
This only made Azula and Ty Lee laugh harder, they were both curled over in mirth. Mai joined in, reveling in the merriment that she had caused, even if her joke wasn’t that funny. The past few weeks had been quite stressful, Azula wouldn’t say what had happened but the tension in the palace was obvious. The guards were constantly looking through the palace, and there were more of them than there’d ever been before. Fire Lord Ozai was nowhere to be seen, and the war had taken a slight break as no council meetings had been held. Rumor had it that the Fire Lord wasn’t even in the palace anymore.
This sleepover was the first time that Ty Lee and Mai had seen Azula in a while, the princess had been removed from their school and was now being tutored privately. Ty Lee had been the most vocal about missing their friend, constantly reaching for her and holding her close ever since they’d been escorted to Azula’s room by palace servants. Mai was more reserved, but during a comfortable silence she’d admitted that she’d missed Azula too.
Neither of them had missed the way Azula had relaxed more after that, for a girl who wore a mask with the majority of people that she knew-- Azula had always been easier to read when they were alone together. Mai could tell that Azula had been wondering if they’d be willing to abandon her, now that they didn’t see her at school. An Azula who was on edge was not fun to be around, in some of her darker moods the princess was even dangerous to those near her. She’d never directly hurt either of them, but both Ty Lee and Mai had learned to be wary after Azula had lashed out with flames at servants before. Mai wondered if the long absence was due to Azula’s tutors taking up her time with training and lessons, or if Azula was testing them.
Personally, Mai was a tad offended that Azula could think so little of Ty Lee. She knew that Azula and her were less close than she’d like, but Mai thought that Ty Lee’s dedication to Azula was obvious. Nevertheless, Mai smiled with her friends and made sure to help Ty Lee get Azula to laugh a few more times as the night wore on. Laughing together made Azula’s shoulders ease up, and by the time they went to bed, Mai knew without a doubt that her joy was genuine. Being more open and going along with Ty Lee’s antics was worth it, if it got Azula to be human again for a night.
Zuko scrowled down at his bowl, there were small light tan worms in his porridge. They were tasteless and common in dry goods, but they were still disgusting. The porridge itself had long gone cold, he’d been one of the last people in the food line. In fact, there were chunks of burned rice in his porridge since it’d been scooped from the bottom of the giant pot they made for the homeless.
The Fire Nation colony of Arun Harbor was incredibly well developed. Being one of the first colonies to have been created under Fire Lord Sozin, it was both the oldest and the richest. The people who lived in Arun Harbor were an eclectic mix of Fire and Earth, they were stubborn and passionate. A lot of the buildings were obviously made by Earth Benders, with Fire Nation additions as far as design went. Newer buildings were still made out of stone, and only the poor or non-benders lived in wooden buildings.
Zuko knew that there were also Waterbenders who lived in Arun Harbor, they were descended from a few famous lines of waterbenders who lived in the Southern Fire Nation Islands. They were fiercer than any water bender that Zuko had ever met, but still willing to work and live in the Fire Nation. Fire Lord Sozin had often used them as an example of the Fire Nation’s conquests over other benders being good for them, now that he was older Zuko recognized it as the propaganda that it was.
The canteen for the unfortunate was located on the outskirts of town, incredibly close to a neighborhood of wooden shacks. It was run by a local merchant, and Zuko had heard about it from one of his tutors when they were covering the differences in living in the Home Islands and each of the colonies. From under the shade of his cone hat, he looked at the men and women who were eating on the ground next to him. Unlike the majority of Fire Nation citizens, these individuals wore brown and gray colored clothes. Only hints of red, such as a sash or the brim of a hat, were seen on them.
Zuko looked down at his own clothes, they’d started out as a light tan but were now dingy with dirt and grime. They were still much better than anything that Zuko had worn the last time he’d galavanted about in the Earth Kingdom. The fabric was thick and warm, and it was soft on the inside but hardy enough to resist tears. It also dried incredibly quickly, something that he was grateful for as laundering his clothing was not something he ever had a lot of time for.
There was a clump of people who were talking next to him, five women in assorted uniforms that Zuko recognized as maids’ were discussing the latest news from the Fire Nation. Zuko pretended to tie his shoe and scooted closer to where they were sitting, patiently trying to overhear their conversation. The rough bark of the logs the canteen used as seats dug into his flesh through the fabric of his pants, but he didn’t pay the discomfort any attention.
“Well I think that I have the most important news this evening, much better than what Ms. Hui just told us.” A very short woman stood up, setting her empty bowl on the log with a metallic clang. “I have news about the royal family.”
One of the women glared at the tiny lady, her face petulant and mimicking Sokka more than Zuko thought possible. He supposed that she was Ms. Hui.
“Psh, Ms. Xiao, how could you have news that we haven’t already heard about from the town crier this morning?” A chubby woman with her hair in a tight bun frowned, her bowl was half full and had a sprinkling of green.
“Because I heard it from my master, while I was mopping the floor outside his office.” The short woman bragged, her black braid swishing over her shoulder as she turned to address the chubby woman.
“You’ve never mopped in your life!” The chubby woman set aside her bowl and pointed an accusing finger at Ms. Xiao. “Everyone knows you only work in the kitchens!”
“Ah, but Ms. Yuta, today one of the maids was sick.” Ms. Xiao stood up as tall as she could and declared to her friends, “My master said that the Prince has run away, and there are orders to search for him.”
A bead of cold sweat made its way down his back, so now he finally knew what the palace’s official story was regarding his disappearance. Father was clever, preying on every Fire Nation citizen’s instinct to protect children. There would be people looking for him now, motivated by goodness that his father was twisting to suit his own evil purposes. Zuko wondered if his father would kill him in this lifetime, or if he’d have someone else do it. Zuko took in a deep breath to calm himself, it wouldn’t do him any good to start panicking. He’d be out of the Fire Nation colonies in a few days, and then it was into the Earth Kingdom.
“Prince Zuko?” Ms. Hui gasped, as Zuko winced internally. “Why would he run away from the palace?”
“I think Ms. Xiao is just making up a story for attention.” Scoffed Ms. Yuta, crossing her arms and shaking her head, “The boy has no reason to run away, it’s just outlandish to think about.”
Two of the women hadn’t spoken at all yet, they wore dark red tunics and their hair was short and curly. They were older than the rest, and the similarity in their looks and age made Zuko think of his Great Aunts Li and Lo. He smiled fondly, though Azula had always found them annoying, Zuko had liked that they were willing to let him explore Ember Island alone. It made him feel independent, and it afforded him privacy that he rarely got as the Heir to the throne.
“You forget the Fire Lady.” One of them said, her voice sounded thin and reedy. The rest of the ladies turned to her, shame visible in their faces. The group hierarchy was clear, all of them clearly respected these two older women the most.
“But why leave?” Ms. Yuta wondered, scooping a big spoonful of porridge into her mouth before speaking, “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe the official news will clear things up.” Ms. Xiao responded, sitting down and nudging Ms. Hui, “We’ll see in the morning what they say.”
Zuko stood up and walked away from the clearing, he wasn’t waiting around for his father to paint a target on his back. There was plenty of water in his waterskin, he had bought food supplies in the marketplace this morning, and he’s gotten enough rest already. The dirt crunched under his feet, there was lighter soil in the Earth Kingdom than back home. On their journey to Ba Sing Se, Uncle had told him that it was because the Fire Nation’s soil was derived mostly from volcanoes and was similar in color to ash.
As he passed through the walls of Arun Harbor, the guard manning the gate shouted cheerfully to him.
“Be careful now, son!” The boy calling out to him seemed barely old enough to be recruited, and Zuko couldn’t help how he bristled at being patronized like this, “Journeying at night can be dangerous!”
Zuko gave him a short bow as it was custom, and he entered the forests surrounding Arun Harbor. The darkness swallowed him up, comforting and soothing him as he walked further and further away from home. Little did he know, that his spirit was unconsciously taking him to a piece of home that he missed.
The Boulder was a simple man, he kept with the philosophy of his element. He was stubborn and proud, but he also knew when to change. It was no use to dwell on things that he couldn’t change, and he stuck to his code of ethics as often as he could. After all, no matter how many pieces earth was broken into, it still remained earth, unchanged till the end.
While he was a fighter in the underground rumbles, he was also a master gardener. He used his bending prowess for gentle works, loosening the soil for plants and tending to fields. There was a small house that he owned outside of Gaoling, it was built into the hillside and had whitewashed walls. The floors were clean, and they felt cool to the touch. Shen loved his house, he enjoyed the solitary paradise that he’d created for himself. There was room to workout and train, and he made sure to have plants growing wild all over his property. In every aspect, the Boulder enjoyed his life totally and fully.
He provided for himself by tending bees, a rarity on this side of the Earth Kingdom. His hives were giant, located in different trees on the land that he owned. There was another building where he stored the honey in clay pots, under the cool earth where it would be safe from ants and other bugs. People could reach him by sending a pouch of joins and an order for an amount of honey, and he had a cart that a friend had made for him as a gift that he used to deliver his orders.
He also had a small pottery business on the side, it was a challenge to keep a lock on his bending as he made the disk underneath the clay spin continuously while still focusing on molding the clay into the right shapes. Shen liked to think that his pottery made him a more artistic person, like the artisans who lived in the prettiest part of Gaoling. Trying to find enough wood to feed his kiln was taxing, and so he didn’t make pottery as often as he’d like.
Shen had entered the underground fighting rings for one reason only, he wanted to feel the joy of bending and fighting. The only place where he was able to enjoy that sensation, unrestricted and without any hard feelings about winning or losing, was the Earth Rumbles. He didn’t especially have close friendships with any of the other brawlers, but he was respectful to all of them outside of the ring. Especially the Hippo, that man was incredibly fond of Shen’s jasmine blossom infused honey.
It was no wonder then, when he stumbled upon a young boy sleeping in one of his flower fields that Shen’s first thought was of offering aid and not chasing the vagabond off of his property. Everyone in the Earth Kingdom knows, that despite what humans think, the earth is not something that any one can own. Perhaps if Shen had found the boy sleeping where he kept his honey, or on his cart, he would have been annoyed. As it was, all Shen did was bring a honey cake on one of his plates and sat down. He was not afraid of the swords that were strapped to the young boy’s back, or how the clothes he wore were obviously good quality despite their wear and tear. Shen had won all three of the Earth Rumbles, and he knew that he could take whatever the kid tried to dish out.
The night sky was full of stars, the moon starting to sink below the mountains in the east. Shen waited by the boy, his fingers braiding a flower crown for the pretty girl who’d ordered a pot of honey for her tea shop every month. She was one of his regulars, and she always appreciated the wreaths of blossoms that he delivered along with her order.
As the stars began to fade, and the sun poked its head out from behind the tops of the trees, the boy began to stir. He opened his eyes blearily to look up at Shen, they were light gold and bleary with sleep. Shen tried very hard not to show a reaction to that, but those were definitely the eyes of someone from the Fire Nation.
Ashmaker, he thought, looking into eyes the same color as a sunbeam piercing through a stormcloud, what will I do?
“Hello”, the boy greeted him warily, his body tense as he took in Shen’s form. “Do you need something?”
“Honey cake.” Shen blurted, for lack of a better word. His mouth truly moved before his brain could catch up, too caught on how young and bone-tired the kid sounded.
“Pardon me?” The boy frowned at him, his hand not so subtly starting to drift towards his swords as he sat up fully in the tall grass.
Wordlessly, Shen held up the plate with the small and thick cake. It was dwarfed by his giant right hand, and the kid flinched to the left. That movement alone cemented Shen’s desire to help him out, gold eyes or not. He could even be mixed, a casualty of the Fire Nation’s War of Conquest was the remains of the sins their soldiers had committed against his nation.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” Shen assured hurriedly, setting the cake back down into the grass and holding up his hands in the air, “It’s just cake- that I made- with honey. Um- it’s sweet?”
Outside of his Boulder persona, Shen never really had to interact with people other than his customers. He lived a fairly isolated life, on the outskirts of Gaoling. Shen’s friends were like him, they all enjoyed being alone and most of their interactions were regulated to specific dates of the year so he was always prepared. He was closest with his friend who’d made his cart, on days that he left for deliveries she would come by and watch his place for him. Needless to say, a surprise encounter with a child was not something Shen was prepared to deal with, hence the verbal blundering that he was doing.
“Thank you.” The boy said simply, taking the offered cake and breaking off two pieces. He gave the larger piece to Shen, and waited until Shen popped the morsel into his mouth before eating his piece. It went over Shen’s head that this was testing if the cake was poisoned, he just thought that the boy was being sweet.
“Are you a traveler?” Shen questioned, studying the way that the morning dew on the grass glistened like beads of molten glass.
“Yes.” The boy answered, fiddling with the grass underneath him as he stared at the ground, “I’m heading towards Ba Sing Se.”
“Oh.” Shen remarked, before asking without thinking, “Are you fleeing the war?”
The boy nodded before Shen could give himself a scolding for asking such a blunt and forward question, stating, “I want to start a new life.”
“Okay.” Shen said, and he supposed this is where the encounter should end. Things had run their natural course, no? He’d given the wanderer food and confirmed that he had a destination in mind, the boy wasn’t homeless or destitute, he was just traveling. It felt like things were unfinished however, and Shen had learned long ago to trust his gut.
“Well this is my pollination field that you’re sleeping in, so um, please don’t damage any of my plants or disturb my bees.” Shen said awkwardly, unsure of what he was supposed to do or say. “I have a well and some extra food back at my house, would you like to refuel before you move on?”
“I wouldn’t want to impose on you more than I already have.” The boy replied, adjusting the straps of the pack that rested on his back. He looked a little uncomfortable, and Shen hoped it was just a teenager thing and not something caused by Shen himself.
“It’s not a bother.” Shen insisted, standing up and looking expectantly at the boy sitting on the ground, “I have an excess of food right now anyways. I’ll give you directions to town too.”
“Okay.” The boy finally agreed, standing up on obviously sore legs as he did it with a grimace, “Thank you so much.”
“Of course.” Shen replied, leading the way to his house through the field.
They walked beside each other, making for an odd looking duo. A tall, muscular man, with a slim wisp of a little boy traveling through the thick fields of flowers together. The sun behind them painted their backs with gorgeous hues of pink and orange and red and purple.
“What’s your name?” The boy asked, when they were close to where Shen’d carved out a little house for himself.
“It’s Shen.” He answered, smiling as he took in the details of his home, “What about you?”
“My name’s Lee.” Lee said, trailing one hand through the waving grass that they were passing by.
“There’s a million Lee’s.” Shen said, he knew that he had at least three cousins named Lee.
“Yeah.” Lee laughed, and Shen sucked in a breath because his smile transformed his face. Shen hadn’t noticed how ragged the kid had looked until he’d given him an expression that a normal kid would wear to compare it to. When Lee was smiling, he looked like a completely different person.
It made Shen wonder what Lee had gone through, to give him the same eyes as the soldiers who came home from the war front.
“Master Yu, it is excellent to see you this afternoon.” Lord Beifong smiled genially down at him, somehow creating both a welcoming and patronizing aura in the same breath.
Master Yu smiled back at the man who kept his whole lifestyle afloat with a single paycheck, bowing nice and low to appease the Lord’s no doubt inflated ego. He’d been playing the long game for a while, no matter how much Lord Beifong claimed to respect those born below them who had meritable abilities or skills, he knew how the rich and wealthy’s minds truly worked. Master Yu had been the eighth son in a family of a barely profitable farmer, his skills with earthbending were only due to his mother’s insistence of all of her children learning how to both fight to protect their land and how to tend the fields.
In the province of Gaoling, he was the only earthbending teacher as it was uncommon and outside of tradition to learn earthbending outside of one's own family. They were in a war, and it was expected that if you were a bender, you’d be heading towards the warfront at some point in the future. Most people weren’t willing to put their lives in the hands of someone they didn’t know, the difference between training styles could be one of life and death. But somehow, his academy had flourished among the richer circles.
His clients were often children of noble or wealthy merchant families, whose parents and relatives were too busy spending money to train their young earthbenders. They had no real need to worry about being trained by someone outside of their blood, the children of the rich never went to war. Sometimes after lessons with snotty brats who wouldn’t know how to survive on their own for a single day, Master Yu felt the bitterness in his heart rise up his throat and threaten to choke him. He never trained them as well as he could have, there were gaping holes in their defenses and they all lacked true fighting forms. His earthbending academy was a complete joke.
This was something obvious to almost everyone in Gaoling, and yet no one had ratted him out yet. Master Yu continued to teach children how to bend like fools, and reaped the benefits of their parents’ patronage. In a way, this was how the rich and poor could become equal. People like his brothers might die in the war, but these children would never feel the true power within themselves and they’d never know the true lessons of Oma and Shu. They were depraved in the worst way, and every earthbender that ran across his students knew it.
Was it wrong? Yu didn’t think so, after all it was their parents fault for being so cowardly. No one wants to go to war, but avoiding it for generations deserved consequences. He didn’t think it was fair that everyone in the Earth Kingdom would have to die before anyone who drowned in gold and jade would ever set a toe on the battlefield. This way, the minute one of his students entered a fight, they’d die in the same breath. It was the only way of restoring the balance that the rich had shaken that Yu knew of.
The Beifong’s were the worst of them all, they gave Yu enough money to feed his entire family in exchange for keeping their daughter a secret. The pathetic little girl, Toph, enraged him down to his core. Blind and helpless, she could barely follow the forms that he gave her, despite the fact that he was teaching a ten year old things that a toddler would be able to do without thought. Every time he walked up to that glorious compound, with its high walls to keep out the riff raff (like him, like his family, like every other person who was too poor to buy themselves out of this war), Yu kept his hands clasped inside his sleeves and dreamt of the buildings being razed by firebenders.
Yes, he would do anything for money. Yes, he was bastardizing the very craft that had elevated him from a poor farmer’s son to a teacher. Yes, he went to bed with the knowledge that he spent every day of his life for the past 30 years living off of spite and desperation alone. Master Yu knew that he was sending these children to their deaths, that they’d never stand a chance against even the newest Fire Nation recruit. But their age didn’t make them innocent, every member of these esteemed families had bought a second. Someone who could have avoided the draft had taken the money they passed out, and gone to die in their steads. The Earth King had created a decree, that a second was only good for as long as they lived, and a new one must be contracted for the purchaser to avoid the draft. It’d created an intense system of overdrafting from poorer areas, while the wealthy flourished. He taught children from all over the Earth Kingdom, Master Yu knew that not a single one of those children would ever see combat until the Fire Nation themselves came knocking on their door. A sick part of them hoped his students and his students’ children died just like those who’d died for them, in flames.
The money he earned went to his family, most of them still lived on the farm. Times were tough as their surplus food was stolen by the military. He needed his family to survive this war, he’d sacrifice anything for them, even his soul. Master Yu carried on through life, unchanged by the cruelty he inflicted on the many that he taught, and strived towards one goal only. He just wanted balance, he wanted the war to be fair.
This afternoon, he was working on breathing techniques with Toph. They sat in an opulent garden, the grass lush and the little clearing where they were seated was expertly tended. The stones had just been swept clean of any dust, and silk floor pillows had been placed underneath both of them. Master Yu had told the girl to follow his lead, and mimic the way he breathed. All he had to do for the next two hours was just meditate and breath extremely loudly, spewing some bullshit that he’d made up a month ago about earth bending being connected to one’s breath. It was funny, because everyone knew that earthbending came from one’s connection to the Earth and that was a well known firebending concept.
Toph did what he asked without question, her expression placid and still. What a bland little girl she was, Yu thought, in a fight she’d definitely just panic and scream while desperately trying to dodge white hot flames that she couldn’t even see. Her pale skin would burn bright red, scarlet blood would splash across this neat little garden until it looked like the scene of a massacre. Idly Master Yu wondered if one day the hate that he carried within himself would consume him, leading him to his death by his hands that were soaked in the blood of the wealthy.
Would this all be worth it? Yu opened his eyes and looked out at the dense grass, there were people in Gaoling who would kill for the water that had gone into creating this lush field. The fish in the pond could feed a starving child, the silk that he sat on could clothe an elder who lacked good cloth, and the smoke that drifted from the kitchens signified a fire that could have kept his fellows warm on the streets. How many had died for this opulence? How many further would lose their lives all for Lord damned Beifong to smile at him and pass off his useless daughter on Yu for a few hours, as if they didn’t live mere hours from the war front?
He clenched his fists, flicking his eyes over to where Toph sat with her eyes closed and openly sneered at her. Her existence was unnatural, the Beifong’s kept her locked in this compound, dressed up like a doll and didn’t give her any tools for independence. Yu knew of blind people who could live by themselves, or with companions, but he doubted that Toph could even manage to walk out of the compound without aid. The child didn’t have her own personality nor her own drive for life, only living out the desires of her parents.
Toph represented nothing but privilege to him, and Master Yu hated her the most out of everyone in Gaoling.
“You want me to stay with you?” Zuko asked, looking at the man who’d introduced himself as Shen as he was busy preparing the dinner that they’d be eating together. Like almost all Earth Kingdom citizens, Shen wore green clothes. The sleeveless shirt was uncommon, and Zuko had never seen muscles like Shen’s on a farmer’s simple frame before. In contrast, Zuko’s body was covered by the mud colored cloth that he’d worn smooth and soft from wear and tear.
“Yes!” Shen exclaimed, chopping the vegetables that Zuko had helped him pick from the vine this afternoon with frightening speed, not even looking at his moving blade. The veins under his skin popped, and the muscles rippled with every movement. The man smiled encouragingly at him, while Zuko raised a doubtful eyebrow in response. Privately he wondered what the man did to gain such reflexes, there was no way he was skilled with the blade and in such peak physical form unless he did more than farming.
They were talking under an awning in Shen’s house, the wooden planks that formed the roof above them jutted out from a small hill that hid Shen’s house. Zuko had seen houses like this before when he and Uncle had made their way to Ba Sing Se, but none quite as nice as Shen’s. Currently he sat at a table made out of smooth stone, with benches of the same material. It was a testament to his host’s skill at bending that the rock looked as if it had always been in this form, not a crack in sight. A fire was roaring in a pit also clearly made by Shen, and two pots hung over the flames.
After they’d walked back to Shen’s house, Zuko had felt honor bound to repay the man for sleeping on his property and for the food and water he’d provided. The farmer had taken him on his rounds for the day, and Zuko had helped out as best as he could. This routine was familiar to him, Zuko had often done odd jobs for people to pay for things when he was separated from Uncle Iroh in his first life. The beekeeping was something he was unfamiliar with, but all Shen had him do was push the carts full of honey-filled pots to a storage shed and pick ripe produce.
“Why?” Zuko questioned, staring down at his hands where Shen had given him a peeler and a bunch of potatoes. They were neatly peeled and Zuko had even pushed the skins into a little pile. He’d cut them into pieces so they would cook quickly as well. The knife and peeler he used were of decent quality, the blades sharp and well cared for.
“Do you have anywhere else to go?” Shen replied, cheerfully dumping the vegetables into a pot that hung over the fire, where they made plopping noises as they met the broth inside. The farmer stirred the liquid with a wooden spoon, humming a tune that Zuko found familiar but couldn’t place.
“No.” Zuko admitted, carrying the yams over to the other pot since he could sense that the flames had been hot enough to boil the water. He stood next to Shen’s left side for a moment, watching how the flames flickered and he missed being able to bend. It’d been at least a week since he’d last used his fire other than meditating in the morning, but Zuko wasn’t dumb enough to weild flames in the middle of the Earth Kingdom.
“Then why not stay with me?” Shen asked, he walked back to the table where Zuko had been sitting and sat down on one of the benches. The man looked expectantly at Zuko until he relented and walked over as well, refusing to stand and instead glared down at the farmer.
“You’re being too trusting!” Zuko snapped, pointing a finger at Shen and narrowing his eyes (not knowing how much the expression mimicked a Fire Nation soldier’s to the man), “I could be a criminal! You don’t know anything about me and yet you’re inviting me into your home?”
“Are you a criminal, Lee?” Shen asked, screwing up his face to look at where Zuko was standing. To Shen, it was oddly endearing that the boy cared about him enough to warn him of the potential dangers of mysterious travelers and further cemented his opinion that Lee was of the right sort.
“Of course not!” Zuko responded, sitting down and then seeing Shen’s face brighten and cutting him off before he could say anything stupidly kind, “But you don’t know if I’m lying!”
“I think you’re a nice kid who just spent all day helping me out around my beekeeping business and home just to pay me back for sleeping in my field.” Shen stated, chuckling at the face Zuko made when he heard him say ‘kid’, “And until you prove me wrong, you can stay. Why journey all the way to Ba Sing Se when you can start a new life here?”
“You’re being naive.” Zuko crossed his arms, and tried to deny the sense of pride he got from Shen saying he was nice. Most people thought that he was lazy or vicious, and it was making him feel unreasonably pleased that someone like Shen thought of him as nice. It made Zuko think about how much the scar had changed people’s perception of him.
“Perhaps.” Shen said with a shrug, before pulling out a deck of obviously worn cards and placing them on the table, “Now do you know any card games?”
“You’re on.” Zuko grinned, and a part of him relaxed for the first time since he’d left the palace. He didn’t know how he was supposed to find everyone and he had virtually no way of making it to the South Pole without the Wani. It felt like finally Zuko had found a landing point, somewhere to rest where he could plan without worrying about his next meal or constantly looking over his shoulder. No one would ever think that the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation would hide with a hermit in the Earth Kingdom.
They played cards together until the soup was ready, with Zuko using all the tricks that the sailors aboard his ship had used to best Shen thoroughly. It was strangely fun, and Zuko found himself enjoying the games they played much more than he had during his first life. For once, he didn’t feel judged by his opponent. It was much easier to keep control over his expressions when he could feel the left side of his face.
The earth was damp and cool to the touch, it sucked the heat out of her skin in a pleasant sensation. In this cave, the mud had a squishy texture. What she liked best was sticking her fingers into the wide banks of it and feeling it try to suck her fingers back in when she pulled them out. Since she couldn’t see her clothes, Toph always took care to wear the old rags of one of her servants instead of the clothes her parents put her in. That way it didn’t matter if they got dirty or not.
Leaning back onto her knees, Toph tilted her head up to the top of the cave and inhaled. The rich smell of dirt and minerals hit her nose like a sledgehammer, it smelt like home. Judging by the vibrations in the earth, there were more than a few moles who occupied this little cave that she’d found. She’d marked a little pathway to this cave via short stone pires, it was the farthest that she’d ever been from home alone.
There was a river that encircled Gaoling, providing a natural defence against fire should anyone attack. Her parents liked to take her on strolls along its banks. The shoes they forced her to wear lessened her ability to see with earthbending, but it was worth it. Even though she felt like a child when they held her hand and refused to let go, it was nice that they took her out of their compound. Toph appreciated the fact that they were letting her outside, it gave her hope that they would let her become more independent when she got older.
Through the bedrock, Toph could feel the water above her. This cave was part of a tunnel system that ran all over Gaoling, though she was careful to avoid the parts that Gaoling’s citizens had adapted for their pee and poo. The stench of those pits haunted her memories, they were so smelly that Toph didn’t even need her earthsense to know to avoid them now.
It provided a private place for her to practice her mudbending, the mud was slippery and harder to control than more solid rocks. Shifting the mud between its squishy form and the same density as boulders was hard to wrap her brain around at first, but it’d been a few weeks and she’d gotten faster at making the change. There was a bit of a delay, but that was fine.
It’s not like that idiot teacher of hers would be able to do it any faster. Stupid Bony had her doing breathing exercises and flicking pebbles around like a baby. Toph had been better than her teacher in earthbending ever since she ran away and learned from the Badgermoles. And she knew that for a fact.
For the past year, she’d been practicing more delicate and smaller movements. It helped her broaden her skills, for it was rare for earthbenders outside of artisans to have fine control over their element. Admittedly there wasn’t need for finer movements during a war that had raged for almost a century. The new style of Earthbending that had risen was almost purely combat, infrastructure, or agriculturally related. Only masters were given the time to practice things like mudbending, and thus the more complicated arts of earthbending had gradually faded away from the populace. Being an artisan was a rarity as well, war didn’t require finery and only in bigger cities were there skilled potters at all. Gaoling only had so many because it was so removed from the war, and miles and miles away from the front itself.
Toph had conned her way into learning about the different smaller styles of earthbending from her mother. Toph had lied and said that she wanted to learn more about the gift of bending that she’d been given, and mournfully said that she was curious about the techniques she couldn’t ever perform. She’d acted as cutesy as her mother liked, just to have the woman read to her the countless bending scrolls that the Beifongs had in their possession. It’d been a piece of cake to make her eyes water and crawl into her mother’s lap, listening to the information she wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Of course, her mother never expected that Toph would ever use the techniques that she’d been describing to her.
Annoyingly, her mother hadn’t read to her any combat scrolls. Toph’s knowledge on fighting was sorely lacking, and she only knew the basics of self defense due to her parents’ paranoia providing her with a few lessons on it. The badgermoles had taught her some techniques, and so Toph fought in a way that was purely animalistic. She used rudimentary swipes to launch rocks at targets that she’d made, and she’d learned how to coat her body in a suit of earth and still be able to move. She figured that it was enough for now, with the armor protecting her from blades and fire and the aggressive rock-throwing would provide adequate offense.
Since she’d never been there during a fight with earthbending or even without it, it was impossible for her to figure out how a fight would go. It bothered her more than she liked to admit, but for now there were other things to learn and improve on.
After a few hours, Toph could feel the nocturnal animals crossing over the thresholds of the cave. This was how she knew when to leave for home, after all it wasn’t like she could see the sun. Not that she ever could, of course.
She stood up and started walking out of the cave, navigating through the tunnels and bended a way out of them and onto the surface. She walked through the forest, feeling the jumbled mess of vibrations from all of the scampering creatures around her. The little stone pillars she made guided her way, every footfall illuminated them through her earthsense and it made for an easy way home.
By now she was only a few minutes away from the outer walls of the Beifong compound. The leaves of the trees around her ruffled in the wind, creating soft hushing noises above her head. It made it that more obvious when she heard a small twig crack to her left. The radius of her earthsense wasn’t too big, she could only feel around her in about a 3 meter radius. Toph stilled, straining her ears to catch the sound and hoping that whatever had caused it would approach close enough to her that she’d be able to sense what it was through her bending.
But the sounds continued further away from her, familiar to her as the sounds of someone walking through the underbrush. She let out a soft breath, for a moment she’d feared that her secret was about to be revealed and her parents would become so much stricter. Toph waited until she couldn’t hear the person at all before continuing on her way back home.
Right outside of the walls, she stashed her rags and exchanged them for the soft sleeping clothes that the servants had dressed her in the night before. She had formed a reliable little pit in the earth, like how a tortoiserabbit makes their burrow. It was small enough for her to change out of sight, and stored her change of clothes perfectly. Toph raised herself out of the pit by moving the earth underneath her, then shoving the pillar back down into the pit. With a flick of her wrist, the soil on top covered the hole and smoothed itself out to appear normal. She shook herself clean, bending the small grains of dirt off of her body and collecting it into a small ball.
This was actually a technique that she’d learned by copying the gardeners, it was how the poor kept themselves clean and hygienic without bathing as often. Now there would be no suspicion about how she’d spent the early morning, Toph collapsed a small part of the wall in front of her and repaired it immediately, exiting from behind a rather large bush and walking back to her room. The attendant that had been assigned to her slept upright in her chair in the hallway outside of her room, and Toph slipped past her without any notice.
She flopped herself down onto the sheets and closed her eyes, burrowing into the blankets and making a mess of them. Pillows flopped onto the floor with soft thumps, and she could feel her hair messing itself up around her head. Too bad that wasn’t her problem.
Life with Shen was nice, it was calming in a way that Zuko had only ever found with Uncle in Ba Sing Se. There was a routine to things, every act they did was necessary and brought them some kind of benefit. In the morning, Shen woke him up before Zuko could even feel Agni rise in the sky, and they walked out to the fields to check on everything that needed to be doing and to see if there had been any damage wrought to their farms during the night. Then they started the process of collecting honey, putting it into jars and meticulously bookkeeping and filling out orders for the day.
Zuko’s talents with writing had greatly impressed Shen, he was now the main correspondent for their honey making business. The ink and brush set that he’d purchased with the last bit of his coin from the palace was worth its weight in gold, the fancy lettering on the posters that they’d put around town had created a stir amongst the richer inhabitants of Gaoling. Now every day servants from numerous rich households came by to drop rush orders for honey, and Shen was busier than ever.
Today was a slower day, they’d worked incredibly hard to build new hives and bust out orders yesterday which left them with very little to do. Shen and Zuko were currently standing in front of the man’s kiln, where he’d been demonstrating the correct way to stack logs and coals so that the clay would be fired correctly. Zuko’s arms ached from holding a tray full of bowls steady while Shen carefully loaded his pieces of pottery into each shelf of the kiln, none of the pieces were allowed to touch each other, otherwise they’d shatter during the firing process.
Zuko knew that their life would be a lot easier if Shen and he didn’t have to spend so much time setting up the kiln and finding the right materials for creating a long lasting, extremely hot fire. There was a reason that despite Shen’s pottery being some of the best in Gaoling, they only sold a few pieces every week rather than offering pieces every day like the potters who lived in the city itself. They just didn’t have the resources or time to monitor the kiln and find fuel for it.
The kiln was located against a random steep hill that Zuko was confident Shen had earthbended into existence, the flames inside it roared horizontally and were so hot that they combined all the different minerals in the clay into one solid piece. Depending on how far into the kiln the pieces were put in, they would have different finishes and quality. The higher the shelf they were placed on, the better quality that they were. The slower fired pieces were often their best wares, and many of their rich clients prized what Shen’d created.
Finally, Shen finished stacking up the shelves and gestured for Zuko to go put the tray of finished pots back into the pottery shelf. Zuko felt bad that Shen had to buy so many pairs of spark rocks, but though he trusted the kind man who’d taken him in, he didn’t feel like revealing himself as a firebender in the middle of the Earth Kingdom. He had not forgotten the horror that had filled him when Uncle had told him that firebender’s hands were often crushed by Earth Kingdom soldiers.
With a solid sounding thunk, Shen shut the door to the kiln closed and stepped away from it. He grinned down at Zuko (how short Zuko was currently was a fact that irked him all the time) and pointed back towards the house.
“I think we’ve earned a bit of rest and relaxation, what do you think?” Shen asked, rolling his shoulders to ease some of the strain.
“Why not.” Zuko replied, waiting for Shen to start walking before he followed suit. Zuko didn’t regret keeping some of his fighting habits, constantly being wary and looking over his shoulder is what had kept him alive for all these years… and letting his guard down was what had gotten him killed too.
They both slowed down in sync when they saw the carriage that was at the small gate that marked Shen’s property, staring at the rich greens and golds that covered the wood. Well plumed ostrichhorses stood at attention, not even twitching, in the front. A man in what Zuko recognized as a coachman’s uniform sat in the boxseat, he nodded at the two of them when he realized they had seen the carriage.
The door opened, and on it was a crest that Zuko recognized immediately. Painted with painstaking detail and bright colors, was the image of a flying boar-- the crest of the Beifong family. A woman stepped out, her robes had more details and seemed to be a mix of cotton and silk, which identified her as a much higher servant. Though the Earth Kingdom was at war with the Fire Nation, Zuko had still been taught the etiquette required for their social classes and noble families. The dress of their servants had only been deemed important enough for the Crown Prince to learn because he would need to know which servants to order around once the Fire Lord had stationed his family in the Earth King’s palace in Ba Sing Se and pillaged the city.
The woman smiled at them from under the brim of her hat, and Shen stepped forward to open the gate for her. Regrettably, the house didn’t have a sitting area of high enough quality for the servant, so all three of them remained standing among Shen’s front garden. The bees buzzed around the flowers, and the rabbits all had fled at the sight of a stranger. Only the quacking of Shen’s ducks remained, though they quieted once they saw their owner standing in front of them.
“Hello madame”, Shen began with a bow, obviously unsure about how to go about this meeting since the woman hadn’t said anything yet, “How can I be of service to you?”
“Greetings, I am a grand servant of the most esteemed Beifong family.” The woman said, with an ostentatious air about her, “My masters require your services.”
“That’s excellent news to hear.” Shen replied, “What exactly do they want me to do?”
“Word has reached them of your supposed skill in pottery, despite not being an artisan.” The woman stated, her expression neutral despite her vaguely insulting words. Zuko bristled besides Shen before he took a deep breath and calmed down, “They have invited you to their compound, to have a consultation of sorts.”
“I accept their invitation, when would this consultation take place?” Shen asked, glancing behind him at the rows of beehives in his fields. It wasn’t rare for Shen to leave his farm, but usually doing so took a couple of days of preparation in advance. Usually a friend of his from town would come over and watch the place.
“In exactly a week, the honor of being considered to create something for the Beifongs will be bestowed to you. There will be a light midday meal prepared for you, after which the consultation will take place.” The woman extended her hand and held out an envelope with pretty flowers on it, which Shen took from her without opening it.
She bowed her head a tad at Shen, and gave a look at Zuko, before she walked back to the gate. Before the coachman could hop down and open it for her, she turned her head and said, “I’d bring some samples of your work to the consultation, it would increase your chances of being chosen considering your lack of accreditation.”
Shen gave his gratitude for her advice, and both Zuko and he watched the carriage speed off on the road to one of the river’s bridges and towards Gaoling. This was like nothing they’d ever done before, none of their richest clients even came close to the Beifong family.
Privately, Zuko wondered if he’d be able to convince Shen to let him come along. Being able to see one of his friends again had his heart aching, he’d never known what had happened to them after the first time that he died. He’d missed them more than he liked to admit.
let me know what you thought! comments are super helpful and let me know what parts of the story resonate and which parts are not as good :)
thank you for reading, have a nice day!
also about Master Yu, it never made sense to me that he was able to be such a shit teacher and yet be so popular. I kind of wanted to give him more depth as a character.
Chapter 8: So Close to Meeting You Again
hi! since i'm feeling much much better, I've decided that posting more but the chapters being shorter is best. it makes me feel productive and like I've done something for the week or days :0 enjoy!
also, blm is a movement not a moment. please sign petitions that you see. and stay safe if you are protesting.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It had been a very long time since their last day on Ember Island. The sand had been soft, the water was perfectly cool and the waves lapped at their toes. Agni shone high in the sky, the single ball of fire in the sky was set to double in only a few hours. Sozin’s comet was fast approaching, and Aang was nowhere to be found. The world’s only hope had vanished again, and right from under his nose.
Admittedly, Zuko was pretty distracted by what was going on. Toph electing him to be her partner and dragging him around the island while she narrated her childhood was distracting and a tad irritating since the possibility of ending the war was on the horizon. However, that was not to say that Zuko hadn’t listened to what she was saying.
He might not have had many friends growing up, if he was being honest, counting Master Piandao and Azula’s friends was pathetic by most people’s standards, but he knew how to listen. Sometimes people just need to vent, to pour out a part of themselves and leave their anger behind them, so they can embrace their new tomorrows. That was something Uncle had said to him once, back on the Wani when Zuko had angrily asked if he was even paying attention during one his many rages when Uncle hadn’t said anything in response to what he was yelling about. Zuko hadn’t bothered to listen to Uncle’s words back then, but he remembered them years later when he was hiding in his old family home with some of the most wanted people in the Fire Nation.
Zuko knew that he wasn’t as smooth of a talker as Sokka, or as understanding as Aang. He did not radiate the kind and parental energy that Katara did, nor was he capable of giving the tough love approach that Suki used. Listening was his best bet, otherwise he might end up sticking his foot in his mouth if he tried to give someone advice.
Toph needed someone to talk to, someone who would actually understand the nuances of what she was talking about without having to ask questions about things that she would consider obvious. As the only person who’d been rich as well once, Zuko alone would be able to listen to her talk about her childhood without being lost. It wasn’t the same, but he could relate to what she had said about her parents hiding her existence from the world.
Azula, despite not being the Heir, had been a trophy, something that Father could tote around at parties with nobles and praise endlessly. Zuko was often not even allowed to go. He was something to be ashamed ofl, not a prodigy and weaker than his younger sister in every way. Zuko knew what it felt like to be someone’s secret, even if Toph’s parents had done it out of some misguided sense of love and he knew that his father had done it to manipulate him.
As Toph’s words carried over tide pools and were hushed by the din of crashing waves, Zuko listened to her story. He hadn’t known much about her before this, even though they’d become good friends. Toph just wasn’t an exceptionally open person, and he was never sure if she was joking or not when she talked about her life before becoming the Avatar’s master in such light tones. Now he knew better, and probably knew Toph the best out of their whole group.
Zuko had been planning on talking to her more after they found Aang, but they never did. And as he rode off with Katara to challenge Azula, he’d looked at her milky eyes and promised himself that they would talk about what she’d told him when everything was over. One of the things he regretted was that he died before he’d been able to let her know that he wasn’t blowing her off, but saving their talk for later. Toph’s life story and healing from it deserved more time than how long it took to frantically lap around Ember Island.
The Beifong family is famous, across all four of the nations. They’d been rich since the beginning of the Earth Kingdom, and notoriously always maintained a neutral stance in all conflicts. The Fire Nation’s Battle for Progress threatened to ruin that for them, considering that Zuko knew it’d been a Beifong shipmaking company who’d made the Wani. They sold to both sides, dealt in espionage, and were never ever caught. No one could ever get any dirt on them, and losing the Beifong’s network of shipping and trading throughout the oceans and the Continent was too risky without evidence.
Zuko hadn’t connected Toph to her family until after he’d returned from the Boiling Rock with Sokka, Suki, and Chief Hakoda. (He was not counting Chit Sang and his buddies, who only stared at him in a way that made him feel uncomfortable.) He’d left the fire early, noticing that their resident earthbender had already been gone, and went to go sit among the ruins of the Western Air Temple. When he’d first arrived at this temple, he’d done a rushed job at cleaning it up since he’d had only a week to exit Fire Nation territory. There was one room that he’d enjoyed spending time in, the partially collapsed shrine to Avatar Yangchen.
One of the statue’s giant hands had been severed from the rest of its body, and it lay on the floor, too heavy for anyone but an earthbender to move. Zuko liked to curl up on the open palm of the most accomplished Avatar in recent memory, it brought him a sense of peace that he hadn’t been able to find since his father burned him. In his first life, the stone had been rough against his skin as he sat down and shifted his shoulders. The prison rags that he wore were disgusting, and they made him think of Mai and how all he did was bring misfortune to others.
While he’d been stewing his failures, he’d been interrupting by the sound of feet on the tiles. Zuko had looked up to see Toph cross the room, bending a pillar to launch her into the air and land lightly next to him on the hand of Avatar Yangchen. Neither of them said anything for a moment, Zuko was too busy watching as Toph bent the tiles smooth again, not even a crack remained. Suddenly, he felt like he should explain why he’d left the cheery reunion dinner that the group had been doing with Chief Hakoda.
“I didn’t mean to give the wrong impression by leaving dinner”, Zuko began, glancing at Toph and noticing the dirt behind her ears, “Chief Hakoda is a brave warrior and an excellent strat-”
“Get to the point, Sparky.” Toph snorted, kicking her feet in the air as they dangled off of the edge of the statue’s hand, “I’m sure you didn’t leave their celebration because you have a crush on Katara’s dad, there’s no need to flatter him when he isn’t even here to hear you.”
“I do not have a crush on Chief Hakoda!” He snapped, reaching out to quickly poke her bicep for that comment, “I just felt uncomfortable.”
“You’re always uncomfortable.” Toph replied, losing the joking tone that she had earlier, and turning her head to face him, “Your heartbeat and body language give you away, you never stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
He’d felt bare back then, like Toph was able to read him like no one else was. It was true in a sense, only her earthbending had allowed her to catch on to how tense he always was. Somehow he doubted that anyone else would be able to pick up on his behavior, Aang being a prime example of that as he was no doubt also able to access the earthsense that Toph used.
Zuko had thought about how Katara glared at him behind everyone’s backs, how he’d traded his girlfriend’s life just to gain the trust of a guy who he barely knew. He’d thrown his whole life away to teach Aang firebending, and every day he spent among these people felt like a reminder of what a mistake he’d made. Doubt nipped at his heels with every step, there was no reason for any of these people to not leave him behind and run away to confront his father on the day of Sozin’s Comet without him. Loyalty is something that must be earned, and right now only Aang and Sokka had his back. Toph had been the most friendly, but it’d seemed like she was like that with everyone.
He’d begun to return her punches of “affection” as she called them, but only with pokes or jabs because Zuko was sure Katara was lurking around every corner just waiting for him to mess up and give her a reason to end him. They had spent some afternoons together, scrounging for some edible plants or washing their bed rolls, but their conversations had never felt like this before.
“Well this time it was specific, I guess.” Zuko finally answered, after he’d spent a few minutes debating on what was the right response, “They were just being too happy, I’m just not used to seeing families like that.”
“Does the Fire Nation not do family dinners?” Toph asked, moving her body so that her bones were pressed awkwardly against the stone.
“They do, but not like that.” Zuko responded, copying the way she sat, his legs over the edge and his hands supporting his upper body on the stone behind him. It was comfortable to lean like this, better than sitting with a straight spine in a proper manner. The heat from Toph’s hand had slightly warmed the spot where he’d placed one of his hands. “I’ve never seen a family be so open… in public. Or even in private really, I guess I’m more familiar with talking when spoken to and stuffy clothes.”
“I get that.” Toph said simply, leaning forward and wrapping her arms around her torso, “My family used dinner for business deals and social manipulation.”
“Ah, sitting down for some expensive food that you normally never eat, with the whole family in clothes that they never wear, just for your parents to argue the whole time. Classic.” Zuko remarked, with a little bit of bitterness slipping through.
“Exactly, although a Toph Beifong tried and true would entail me sitting at the table with my head down and asking to be excused early when they’re too absorbed in each other to really care if I leave.” Toph continued, more than a little bitter-sounding.
“You’re a Beifong?” Zuko questioned, surprised beyond belief. The Beifongs had managed to hide an entire daughter from the global trade network’s ring of gossip and spies?
“You’re looking at the only heir, Sparky.” Toph’s boast fell flat when her body shivered, no doubt cold from the wind.
“Well not to one up you”, Zuko said as he lifted his hand and placed it on Toph’s shoulder. He concentrated and thought about extending his life flame through his veins and into Toph, letting her skin feel the warmth of Agni’s children’s gift. Toph visibly went still, and Zuko almost panicked, before she relaxed as warm spread from his palm outwards, “But I’m the only heir to the throne. Well- I guess I was, but I’m definitely not anymore.”
“I’d make you the Firelord just for that heating trick.” Toph grinned, pressing their shoulders together and soaking up the warmth that Zuko was emitting, “This temple is way too windy.”
“I don’t know if you know this, Toph” Zuko twisted his voice and mimicked one of the jesters from his favorite play, “But the Air Temples have lots of air and wind in them.”
Looking back, he’d complained about getting a punch to the arm a bit too much considering what a bad joke that’d been. That conversation was what Zuko considered to be the official start of their friendship. They stayed smushed together like that well into the night, and Zuko had felt himself relax for the first time since he’d joined Aang’s group. When Agni’s rising in the sky had woken Zuko, Toph had already been gone, but the heat from her body lingered in the stone. Zuko had curled up into a ball and smiled, it seemed like things were finally starting to fall into place and he’d made a new friend.
But now Zuko was questioning everything that he ever thought he knew about Toph because he could have sworn that she told him her age or birthday at some point but he couldn’t remember. Agni forbid he ever forgot a mere second of any of the times that he’d died, but the one time that Zuko needed his brain to give him an important detail, it was failing him.
The cart Shen was driving lurched, and Zuko steadied the small stacked boxes of pottery that they’d brought to show to Lord Beifong. He was a terrible friend, who doesn’t know how old one of their closest friends is? Pathetic! He was pathetic! And how much younger was Toph going to be? She was awfully short, what if she was going to be a toddler when he showed up? Or worse yet, what if Toph was older than him? The horror!
As Zuko beat himself up for not remembering something so vital, Shen directed their cart towards the Beifong Compound.
Ying prided herself on being one of the most punctual servants at the Beifong compound, She was neat and there was never a hair out of place, on her days off she liked to return to her parent’s tea shop and sip the homemade brews that she’d grown up drinking. As her parent’s third daughter, she had no importance as far as inheritance went. Ying was given her basic education and left to her own devices.
Ying’s oldest sister, Lei, thought it was a pity that Ying had no one to marry, she herself had found a nice son of a merchant that worked for the Beifong family. Ying thought differently, unlike any of her parents’ other children, she’d been able to choose her own path in life. Had she lacked ambition, she would have just ended up pouring tea for customers at her family’s tea shop for the rest of her life. Now she poured tea for the most powerful family in the Earth Kingdom, and she knew that her skills were close to that of a tea master.
Most girls dreamt of a man to snatch them away from their dreary days of work, sighing over the chores that the Beifongs had them do during the day and swapping ideas of dream men in the servants quarters where they all slept. Ying had long since learned to tune them out, she didn’t need a man to make her dreams come true, she’d been able to do that by herself. Not only did she no longer live with her parents, she made her own income and was able to save up quite a bit by living in the compound and dressing simply.
Today Lord Beifong had requested her to pour tea for him and his guests a little after lunch time. Of course, Ying knew who his guests would be. The mysterious potter who’d sent letters and posted flyers written in gorgeous calligraphy had caught everyone’s eyes in Gaoling, and the superior craftsmanship at lower prices had only attracted more attention. Ying had dressed in the snowpea green robes that she’d bought herself, they were pretty but practical and perfect for serving tea for the lord’s guests who weren’t of high status. The light color contrasted nicely with her tan skin, and she thought wearing the robes made her stand out among the rest of the servants.
That morning, Ying had secured her ebony hair into a tight bun and borrowed one of the maid’s flower pins to put in the back of her hair. She’d selected a light brew of chrysanthemum, jasmine, and mandarin peel, the perfect blend to sip after lunch in the golden afternoon.
By the time that lunchtime came around, Lord Beifong summoned her to his office. Ying made her way through the twisting hallways and open air walkways, arriving at his door and knocking politely. She waited until she heard him say that she was welcome to come inside, before opening the heavy door and bowing upon her entrance.
Lord Beifong sat at a desk, looking through different scrolls for business no doubt, he was already dressed to receive his guests. The green and yellow of his overcoat had different threaded designs meant to signify that while her master valued the guests he was meeting today, he did not consider them to have a personal relationship with him nor were they acquainted through business. The designs simply meant that there were prospects for a business relationship. The cream color of his silk shirt shone in the sun as he waved a hand over to Ying, gesturing for her to walk over to him.
“Good afternoon my lord, thank you for your summons.” Ying spoke quietly, in a deferential tone. She’d worked hard to become the Lord’s favorite tea maker and pourer, and she deliberately controlled herself around him to appear the most like his old Master of Tea Ceremonies, Xiaotang.
“What blend have you chosen for today?” Lord Beifong asked, the thin strands of his mustache twitching as his mouth moved.
“I selected a blend of jasmine, mandarin peel, and chrysanthemum.” Ying answered, hoping that he would be pleased with her selection.
“That is satisfactory, you will be told when to start brewing the tea by another servant.” He turned his attention back to the papers at his desk, and then after a beat, said, “Dismissed.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Ying bowed deeply at the man who wasn’t even looking at her anymore, and walked out of the office.
She waited in the gardens, careful not to damage any of the rare plants that the Beifong’s had seen fit to place in their collection. Many of the rooms in the Beifong compound had screen doors that opened into the gardens, and a steam ran through the property that mimicked the river of Gaoling. Ying was worried that sitting down might ruin her robes, so she allowed herself to have a tranquil stroll through the pretty landscapes.
Along her way, Ying stopped to smell one of the many climbing jasmines that were all over the walls of the compound. She didn’t dare to actually touch any of the blossoms, but she let the soft and silky petals of the flowers brush against her nose gently in the breeze. It was one of her favorite scents in the world. The delicate smell was not enough to distract her from the sound of approaching footsteps, Ying turned around to see the Beifong’s only child, Toph.
The little girl had her hair loose as always, with only a few strands drawn back so they wouldn’t fall into her face. The robes she wore today were spring pea pink and white, with embroidered flowers all across the fabric. An attendant hovered behind her, a girl that Ying knew to be pretty lazy but sweet.
“Good afternoon, my lady.” Ying bowed, knowing that Toph would not be able to see it.
“What are you doing out here?” Toph questioned, her tone a little rude but what else could Ying expect from such a rich child, “Don’t you normally hang around the kitchens?”
“I’m waiting for another servant to tell me when it is the right time to start heating the water for the tea.” Ying explained, a tad surprised that Toph knew where she usually spent her days, “The water is heated over a special fire pit that only I use, that way I can be sure that the tea was brewed in water that wasn’t too hot or too cold.”
“Can I have some of the tea that you’re making?” Toph asked, before her features twisted from the stone faced expression into one more suited for a child, “Please?”
“Of course.” Ying hesitated, as she saw a guard striding through the grass in their direction, “I can bring it to you after I serve it to your father and his guests.”
“I don’t feel like waiting.” Toph stated, her milky eyes rolling around as her face turned to where Ying’s voice was coming from, “If you’re going to make it right now, then I can be there while you boil the water and I can get a cup before you give it my father.”
What was Ying supposed to do about this situation? She was almost close to panicking on the inside, this was an unprecedented situation. The guard reached then before she could respond to her mistress’s daughter, his shadow elongating behind him on the grass and wall.
“Ms. Ying, I’m here to inform you that the guests of Lord Beifong have arrived.” He said, his eyes visible through the helmet. The man turned to Toph and bowed, “Greetings, little lady.”
Then without another word, the guard walked away from them just as quickly as he’d come in. Ying watched him go before glancing desperately at Toph’s attendant, who looked like she had no clue the predicament that Toph’s request had placed Ying in.
Of course she would have no idea, that girl was as dumb as a bag of rocks, Ying groused to herself. She looked back down at Toph and fiddled with her sleeves, thinking about the right thing to say.
“Well?” Toph asked first, raising an eyebrow at Ying, “Is there something wrong? I thought you had to start preparing for the tea now.”
“I-I do.” Ying stuttered, dreading bringing Toph back to her private tea brewing quarters. It was just a small room near the kitchens, but there were so many rows of boxes and different tea sets from the old Master of Tea Ceremonies that she was ashamed of showing such a messy (but organized!) space to the lady. Although… it’s not like Toph would be able to tell anyways. “Would you be so kind as to follow me?”
Toph nodded simply, holding out an arm for her attendant to take, before following Ying back to the kitchens. She made sure to walk slowly enough so that Toph wasn’t walking too far behind her, but it still felt like it only took a blink for her to arrive at her room.
Ying opened the door, the room was spacious enough for two people, but three was pushing it. Ying looked at the two seats that were at the sorting and mixing table, with her mortar and pestle still on top of it. She looked at Toph’s attendant and asked, “Could you please wait outside while I brew this tea?”
“It’s no issue.” The girl giggled behind her sleeve, letting go of Toph’s hand and standing dutifully by the door. Ying had no doubt that she was immediately going to leave and gossip with the cooks and kitchen girls the minute that the door was closed.
“Alright, please sit down here my lady.” Ying pulled out a chair for Toph and guided her to it with a gentle hand on her back. She really didn’t know how to interact with a blind person outside of pouring them tea, Toph was actually the only blind person that she’d ever met before.
“Thanks.” Toph said, placing her hands on top of the slightly dusty table surface without care.
Ying winced, knowing that the silk sleeves would have dirty smudges of the remaining particles of crushed tea and spices that she used. She quickly positioned kindling to start the fire and hung the metal pot of water over it. Her hands shook a bit while sparking the rocks together, before she looked over at Toph slyly. The kindling made a whoosh sound and Ying flinched as a few sparks landed on her hands. That’s what she got for being distracted. Now all she had to do was wait for the water to start boiling.
She sat down across from Toph, the previous crushing silence no longer feeling so heavy as she started wiping down the tea cups and tea pot that she’d be serving the lord and his guests with. There was a matching tray to go with it, and Ying knew from experience that it was best to place everything on a cart, and then bring the tray off of the cart once she actually got to the room that the Lord was receiving his guests in.
Ying set the last cup on the cart with a final sounding clink , she glanced over to Toph who looked like she had a bored expression on her face. Right… for someone who couldn’t see, the sounds of another person bustling around the room and not saying anything must be incredibly tedious.
“Would you like to pick out your teacup and teapot?” Ying asked, remembering that Toph had preferred to pick up her tea cups herself from the tray rather than letting her attendant do it.
“I’d like that, but they all feel the same.” Toph stated bluntly, “The design doesn’t really matter when I can’t see it, and none of them are textured either.”
“There are some small and tall cups?” Ying suggested weakly, knowing that the tea pot itself didn’t matter since Toph would never have to pour for herself. That was after all, literally her job.
“Oh wow, so much variation.” Toph remarked drily, her little face looked quite bitter in the dim lighting of Ying’s brewing room.
“Well your father is meeting with a potter today, perhaps you can get a better idea of what you would like and commission something from them if the meeting goes well.” Ying said after racking her brain for a way to put a smile back on the child’s face.
“That’s who he’s meeting with today?” Toph asked, tilting her head to the side in thought.
“Yes.” Ying replied, before turning around and scooping some of the hot water into a large teapot that she used to hold water while it needed to cool down a bit. “He’s recently gained a reputation for using his earthbending to complete incredible smooth pieces, with very pretty glazes. But I’m sure he can create something that you’d enjoy too, something with texture or an interesting shape.”
“He uses earthbending?” Toph repeated, her face looking a little shocked.
“Yes he does, and since he doesn’t have many clients, every piece is commissioned rather than already made.” Ying scooped out the mixture currently in her mortar and placed it into the teapot that she would be using today.
“Do you think that he would teach me?” Toph asked, a grin stealing over her face while she looked to the left of where Ying was standing.
“Perhaps, I’m sure that you can ask your father about it after the consultation.” Ying lifted the thicker teapot into the air and created a long stream of water that went into the teapot. She felt a bit silly for showing off that trick when her audience didn’t have the ability to appreciate it.
She also placed a separate, smaller teapot with two matching cups on the table top. Ying poured the rest of the water into the pot, and set the lid down. She asked Toph if she could hold her hand, which made Toph blink in obvious surprise.
Ying gently guided Toph’s hand to the handle of the teapot and said, “I put the water into this, and the leaves are already inside. Let your attendant pour it for you, okay?”
“Alright.” Toph said quietly, tightening her grip on Ying’s hand before letting go of it suddenly.
Ying smiled and stood up next to the cart, she was about to say that it was time to go, before Toph spoke first.
“Since he doesn’t have many customers, he’d probably have the time to teach me.” Toph reasoned, before standing up by herself. Ying blinked, a little surprised that Toph was able to do that. She thought that Toph would aid, but maybe she was just being silly. Not all blind people were rich surely, and couldn’t afford to have people waiting on them all the time. Surely they must be able to do things by themselves.
“I’m sure that’s possible.” Ying hedged, before opening the door and placing herself behind the cart. “I have to go serve this now, would you mind waiting for your attendant to come back?”
“How did you know that she left?” Toph asked, following behind Ying as both of them exited the room.
“I just have a sense for those kinds of things.” Ying shrugged, immediately regretting her lack of propriety, “I’ll swing by the kitchens and let her know that you’re ready to leave. I’m terribly sorry about this, but I do have to go.”
“It’s fine.” Toph said, clasping her tiny hands together as they drowned in pink and grey smudged silk.
Ying winced at the dirty smudges, before giving Toph a bow and pushing the cart down the corridor. She had a job to do, hopefully the tea had not become too bitter in the time that she was talking to Toph.
She made her way over to the room that Lord Beifong had chosen for today. The room had pretty screens instead of walls, scenes of kingfishers and gorgeous women among flowers were hand painted on them. Ying knocked gently against one of the wood panels, with the room attendant being the one to slide them open. The cart wheeled glided smoothly into the room, and Ying kept her head down until she arrived at the table.
Bowing first to Lord Beifong, and then his guests, Ying felt herself falter when she locked eyes with the man who delivered honey to her parents’ shop. The little boy sitting next to him was unfamiliar, but despite the fancier clothes that he was in today, Ying would know that man anywhere. She even had one of his flower crowns on her bedside table in her servant’s room.
Shen , she thought, the man who makes honey and also apparently pottery is named Shen.
Shen smiled wide at her and she gave a small nod in recognition to him, before turning back to the cart and setting down the tray with the teapot and cups onto the low table. She made sure to pour for Lord Beifong first, then Shen, and finally the boy. For more secretive meetings, Ying usually sat in an adjacent room and waited for a small bell to ring when someone wanted to refill their tea. For a simple consultation, Lord Beifong preferred for her to be in the room.
Normally, she would tune everything out and just watch the level of tea in their cups dwindle until it reached a low enough point for her to refill their drink. This time she just kept her head bowed slightly and paid attention to everything. Her eyes flickered to whoever was speaking, and she inhaled sharply when Shen proudly displayed his wears to Lord Beifong.
As part of her parents’ business, it was Ying’s duty to understand good ceramics, pottery, and fine dishes. For the prices that Shen was describing, this was like selling gold in exchange for yams. Utterly ridiculous and cheap. It actually didn’t escape anyone’s notice that she was taking in the whole conversation that was happening, and after the guests had been escorted out of the room, Lord Beifong actually asked her to stay and tell him her opinion on Shen’s pieces.
As truthfully as she could, Ying described how the value for each piece was worth much more than what Shen had offered. She also noted the quality of the glaze and the smoothness of the pieces. Lord Beifong nodded as if he was actually listening to what she thought, and internally Ying leapt for joy. Finally, she was on her way to becoming his confidant and adviser, the Beifong Master of Tea Ceremonies.
Ying didn’t forget to mention Toph’s request, and Lord Beifong gave her a considering look and asked her to explain herself and why Toph knew about the potter before he’d told her about it. At dinner she heard from the food serving boys that Toph had also seen fit to bring up her wish for a commission and lessons. Ying smiled as she ate her dried fish and congee, that girl was determined once she put her mind to things, as was she.
“Do you know where your brother went?”
“Our glorious nation used to have the airbender savages frequently enter and exit our nation purely based on whim, which just shows you how much their society was broken. Imagine never having a plan for where you would spend your time or never having a stable job, imagine a whole nation being dedicated to just that. The influential Western Air Temple managed to completely change the area surrounding, blending the religion of the savages and the great sages of Agni.” Royal Tutor Kugo droned on and on about the old Air Savages, pointing at the map of the Western Fire Nation Islands and gesturing with his wrinkly and old hands.
“Azula, ignoring me is not becoming of a princess.”
“Obviously, the corruption of the region did not go unnoticed by the Fire Lord of the time, your great great grandfather, whose name was…?” The fuddy duddy looked down at her from where he stood, his jowls hanging down and creating shadows in his face.
“Fire Lord Kuzon, whose great reputation sparked the popular tradition of naming sons after him.” Azula responded, letting Kugo know how damned bored she was without a care. She’d been receiving this lesson for the past four hours, and she knew that it wouldn’t be ending any time soon. Maybe if he wasn’t teaching her things she’d already learned, it would be interesting, but as it was, this whole lesson was a waste of her time.
“Correct.” Kugo nodded at her as if he was extremely pleased, which why wouldn’t he be? He had the pleasure of tutoring her. Then he continued on his boring lecture, “Fire Lord Kuzon insisted on maintaining the purity of our relationship to Agni, but did not do anything about the blending of our sacred beliefs with the savages out of fear.”
“Azula, please. I’m worried about your brother.”
She almost bit her tongue off, Mother was worried about stupid Zuzu? Stupid Zuzu who fled like a coward from the Agni Kai, stupid Zuzu who couldn’t even be bothered to tell her that he was going to leave? Stupid, idotic Zuko had left her to rot in the palace, abandoning the roles that they’d held since they were infants. Zuko was supposed to take the negative emotions of Father, while she got the positive ones. It worked both ways, Mother scorned her while Zuko received nothing but adoration.
This was the natural order of things, and Zuko had thrown it out of balance. Now Father yelled at her more than he’d ever had, even in front of other people and not when she’d made a mistake. It was confusing, and now she wasn’t allowed to go to school just like Zuko. Azula hated her brother for leaving, she didn’t want to take his place! And now all Mother wanted to talk about was that damned traitor.
“There was a power in the world, even more than the Fire Lord, who threw the world out of balance and prevented leaders of all nations from doing their job. Do you know who that was?” Kugo asked, oblivious to what fury was singing in her veins right now.
“Avatar Kyoshi, a meddling and much too tall to be natural woman who interfered with many of the world’s leaders at the time.” Azula grinded her teeth as she bit out the answer, seething internally.
“Correct again…” Kugo looked a bit nervous, she could see that her reputation for burning servants when raging had spread to even those who only used to deal with Zuko, “Well this was just another example of the Avatar betraying their original purpose. While preaching about keeping the balance of the world, Kyoshi actively worked against the wishes of the people of the world by challenging the leaders of different nations. Ever since her, the Avatar has been corrupted and must be stopped. Another example of an Avatar’s betrayal being…?”
“Oh dear, I see that I’ve upset you…” The phantom feeling of soft hands with calluses on the tips caressed Azula’s cheek, “I’ll go now, you need to focus on your lesson anyways.”
Azula was not proud of the way she flinched, it was one thing for a vision of her mother to speak, but a completely different level of concerning for her to start feeling Mother’s touch on her skin. Kugo made a concerned expression, opening his mouth to no doubt say something annoying.
“The most important betrayal that an Avatar ever made, even more than Avatar Kuruk’s decision to throw away his life and not spend it working for the world out of pure selfishness, was the choice by Avatar Roku to attack Fire Lord Sozin while he was trying to help the inhabitants of Roku Island escape the famous explosion that ruined the island. Out of pure bitterness by failing to stop Sozin from planning his spread of our nation’s greatness, Roku decided to attack the Fire Lord while he was struggling to breathe due to the poisonous gasses and ash in his lungs from the volcano.” Azula recited, sliding her most favorite mask of polite indifference over her face and concealing her true emotions from the outside like an actress in a play. She elegantly shrugged, looking nothing like she had mere seconds earlier, “It was an act of pure cowardice, and it failed.”
“Right…” Kugo smiled shakily at her, to which Azula just blinked, “I-I think that’s a good place to stop for today, we will meet again tomorrow, my princess.”
As he bowed to her, Azula remained motionless in her seat. Clearly Kugo had just demonstrated that he didn’t deserve her respect, running away from an (cross) issue, unfamiliar situation without thought. She watched him leave, and wondered if she’d be alone after he closed the door, or if someone else from her mind would like to join her for lunch.
thank you for reading! Please let me know what you thought and if you spotted any grammar mistakes! I don't have a beta (and tbh I don't know if I want one or even where to find one?) so sometimes I miss the errors. Comments make me so happy, and they're incredibly motivating.
p.s. ying means lady in thai, which is the language that I'm like kind of good at. not reading though, I can only write my nickname in the thai characters lmao.
kugo doesn't mean anything as far as I know? I picked it because I saw it on a list of japanese boy names.
p.s.s I feel like azula would deteriorate faster with Zuko being a run away and not just banished, and toph's hair being down is going to lead to cute fluff later on in the story :)