The first time an attendant spills Zuko’s tea and doesn’t immediately fall to her knees, begging the Fire Lord’s forgiveness, it is not anger but a resounding warmth that fills his chest.
Five years. Five years of sitting on the throne — not the one in the massive hall of his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather, but the seat he had brought to the small reception in the eastern wing that overlooked the upper gardens. Five years of thanking his attendants, knowing their names, nodding to those he passes in the halls. Asking the chefs in the kitchens about their families, learning of their parents and siblings piece by tiny piece as they slowly came to realize the knowledge wouldn’t be used against them. Five years of holding back his anger when it threatens to push through. Of holding back the fire when he just wants to burn something. Of making sure the staff is well paid, of sending medicine when they need to attend to their sick children, of keeping his face steady even when his supplicants look at the scar on his face with disgust or fear or wonder.
Five years is only a sliver of time against a hundred years of entrenched terror and violence.
The attendant, Reiko, spills the tea, and they both freeze. It soaks into Zuko’s robes. He’s in his rooms, exhausted by the day of wrangling Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom councilors in talks about the free colonies. No one else is there to see the mistake.
The teapot trembles in Reiko’s hand for a moment. Then she sets it down on the table cautiously and clasps her hands together.
“My apologies, Fire Lord. I am clumsy.”
“I will bring you another robe.”
“You don’t need to. It will dry.”
Reiko hesitates, then puts her fist to her palm. Her voice is steady, relieved. “Yes, Fire Lord.”
After she leaves, Zuko exhales a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Perhaps he’d been holding it his entire life.
His first year, he’d had Fire Nation architects work with earthbenders to open up windows in the palace walls. They were all still wary of him then, wondering if his attempts at patience (never a trait he’d been known for) was a ruse. Waiting for him to explode in fury at each question. But he didn’t. Even when he really wanted to.
At the end of that year there was sunlight in the royal palace. Zuko’s advisors all warned against it. Windows were entries for assassins, and he’d already survived several of those. Rationally he knew it was a risk, but it made him so sick to walk through those enclosed halls, all filled with the suffocating ghost of his father’s rage, the years of crushing hatred, the artifacts of supposed Fire Nation superiority. In his dark hidden moments those first few months, shaking uncontrollably in his bed unable to sleep, it was the Sun Warriors he thought of. Fire as life, as growth. The heat of the sun on skin, comforting, cleansing.
Zuko opened up the halls to the sun and let it chase out the ghosts. They aren’t gone completely. There are still nights when he wakes up in panic to dreams of fire searing his face, or worse, the dreams where he realizes the conflagration around him came from his own hands. But the ghosts are tamed. There is sunlight in the halls now. And sometimes there is laughter, too.
The Water Tribe delegates come just after the New Year. Zuko awaits them in the reception hall. The sliding doors are open to the gardens, but although the air is cold he doesn’t ask the attendants to close the door.
He reaches for his cup of tea, and nearly drops it at the sound of a delighted voice.
The five Water Tribe representatives ascend the steps from the gardens, but only one of them is waving like a turtlecrab out of water.
The tension in Zuko’s shoulders releases. He stands.
(the ghost of his father in the back of his mind says, the Fire Lord should never stand for guests)
Sokka runs up the steps and stops in the middle of the reception room, planting his hands on his hips. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mister Fire Lord, Sir,” he says, lowering himself into a terrible mock bow. “I humbly beg an audience with your majesty, on behalf of my miserable self.”
Two of the other delegates, the ones who are new, stare at him with pure horror. The remaining two just roll their eyes.
Zuko crosses the room to Sokka, who is still twisting himself into an awful parody of an Earth Kingdom bow, and pulls him back up to standing height. Sokka clasps his hand, grins, and turns back to one of the new delegates, who looks at though she’s expecting Sokka to be turned to ash in front of her eyes.
“See, Maq?” he says cheerfully. “Told you he wouldn’t kill me.”
The meetings are as they always are - slow, boring, and annoyingly important. The Water Tribe delegation and Fire Nation councilors discuss shipments of food and materials to help with the continued rebuilding of the tribe cities, the terms of a tentative deal for oil imported from a new well near the southern tribe, the legal designation of Water Tribe citizens moving to the rapidly growing Cranefish Town. Sokka makes faces across the table at inopportune times, and Zuko has to stifle his laughter in his sleeves.
The slog of politics and dissatisfied councilors is worth it for what comes after, when Sokka catches up to Zuko in the hall.
“You better have been practicing,” Sokka says. “I’m not holding back this time.”
“You better have been practicing.”
“Oh, I have, Zuko, I have.”
They walk together to the training grounds. The sparring guards and waiting attendants quickly clear out at Zuko’s arrival. The sky is clear and blue, a brisk wind rifling their hair while Zuko fetches the wooden practice swords from the supply shed.
“Cold out,” he says.
“Hah, you think this is cold? Try making your way down to the South Pole sometime.” Sokka catches the sword Zuko tosses him and frowns. “Come on, can’t we use real swords?”
“I try not to aggravate my councilors too much with thoughts of my untimely demise.”
“Please? For me? It’s not like I’m gonna kill you.”
“So you admit that you won’t get a hit in on me then?”
Sokka scowls. “Alright, wooden swords it is.”
Zuko doesn’t wait for him to finish speaking before he launches himself forward, swinging his dual swords in a sharp arc. Sokka yelps and brings his own sword up, blocking the attack. His face hardens in trained concentration and he pushes back, forcing Zuko away. They circle each other, testing each other’s defenses, meeting in quick sequences of blows before breaking away again.
They spar back and forth as the sun sinks in the sky, turning the palace grounds golden. At last they stop when they get too hungry to continue. The attendants bring out a meal of noodles in hot peanut sauce and dumplings for them to eat in the nearby courtyard.
“You’ve gotten really good,” Zuko says.
“Well, I was taught by the greatest swordsman of all time. Piandao? Maybe you’ve heard of him?”
“No, it’s not like you mention him every five minutes.”
Sokka stuffs a dumpling in his mouth with a look of bliss. “You know, I never thought I would get used to all this spicy Fire Nation food, but sometimes at home I crave it. It’s hard to get the right ingredients there.”
“You can bring some back with you if you like. I can send someone down to the markets to fetch them.”
“Maybe I’ll go myself. It’s been months since I got to hit up a Fire Nation market.”
Zuko nods, then frowns. “I thought you might not come this time.”
“What?” Sokka grins. “They’re never kicking me off the delegation. They still think I’m the only one who can talk back at you without getting blown up.”
“Aw, I don’t mean it in a bad way. Just that everyone was so intimidated by you when we first started doing this. But I knew you were a big softie. They think I have the magic touch, so don’t disillusion them of that, okay? I like being important.”
“I meant…” Zuko stares down at his half-empty bowl of noodles. “I thought you might not want to come anymore. Now that things are going well with the reconstruction. There’s plenty to be done in the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Of course I want to come. I’m not gonna pass up an opportunity to see my friend. Especially since it’s only a couple times a year.”
Zuko looks back up at Sokka’s smile, and feels himself smiling back.
“Besides, I have to kick your ass at sword fighting just to prove I still got it.”
“I knew that’s what this was really about,” Zuko says, but he’s still smiling as he says it.
The delegation leaves after a week of daily meetings. They file back onto their blue and white ship in the royal harbor, so incongruous against the metal behemoths of the Fire Nation navy. Zuko bids them farewell on the docks. He could have taken their departing audience in the reception room and let them make their own way out of the palace. But he didn’t.
The crew hauls several crates of Sokka’s purchases from the city market while Sokka watches them with a delighted expression.
“People are gonna lose their minds when they taste this stuff,” he says. “I’m telling you, hardly anyone in the Southern Water Tribe has tried fire flakes before.”
“Why don’t you bring me back something next time?”
“That’s a great idea!” Sokka grabs his arm. “Dried seaweed? Crab flakes? Oh! Seal jerky!”
“Uh, why don’t you let it be a surprise?”
Sokka nods gravely. “Mister Fire Lord Zuko, I promise I will return in three months time with many gifts.”
Something stabilizes in Zuko’s chest at the assurance that there will be a next time. He wants to tell Sokka he’s happy to hear it, but then the ship captain is shouting that they need to leave before the tide is out, and Sokka is bounding up the gangplank and waving goodbye, shouting about seal jerky and insulting Zuko’s sword fighting technique all in one.
Zuko stares after him, watching the figure on deck grow smaller and smaller against the dawn sky. A strange, quiet sadness settles over him.
He goes back inside the palace, but cares little for listening to the complaints of councilors or eating the lavish meals prepared by the kitchens. He trains in the yard, seeking the stillness of mind that the repetitive movement brings him. It’s reasonable to be sad, he tells himself. He’s been through this so many times, bidding friends goodbye and knowing he won’t see them again for months or longer. He’s used to the feeling. What Zuko doesn’t understand is the gutting sense of loss in his heart.
In the afternoon, Zuko catches himself staring out the windows toward the harbor for a ship that isn’t there.
That’s when it comes to him. He thinks, oh.
Zuko always knew what his life would be like, ever since he was a little boy. The problem with being royalty is that your path in life is largely prescribed to you: from a young age he knew he would have to become a firebending master, make his appearances at royal events, lead the armies of Fire Nation in their quest to spread their way of life around the world, become Fire Lord, marry a woman with suitably powerful politic connections, have an heir who would one day replace him. Thus the cycle would continue, on and on and on.
Even if none of it has come to pass as he expected, it is ingrained in his mind, a path from which it’s difficult to imagine straying from, even though he knows — he knows — that he strayed from it years ago. He’d left it in a hundred tiny ways even before he fought his father on the Day of Black Sun.
Still, sometimes when Zuko envisions his future he still sees the visions fed to him as a boy. A wife sitting beside him, smiling at him. He can never bring himself to picture a face for her, but her presence feels inescapable. He can put it off, another five years, another ten, but he has always known it will happen.
(the ghost of his father in his mind says, this is your duty. this is your obligation)
He hasn’t let himself think about what happens if he doesn’t want that.
He finds Uncle Iroh in the lower gardens. Although Iroh only returns from Ba Sing Se in the winter, citing his age and the ferocity of Earth Kingdom winters, he always manages to find the best places to warm himself in the cool winter sun. This evening he sits on a bench beside the pond, reading scrolls of theater scripts, enduring the chill for the last hour of sunlight. He chuckles to himself at some small joke, then tilts his head toward Zuko’s soft approaching footsteps.
Zuko sits beside him. From the far side of the gardens there’s the hint of music and courtiers laughing. He closes his eyes and grounds himself in that sound. Beside him, his uncle unfurls another scroll.
“You’ve made good progress here,” Iroh says, as if he knows exactly what Zuko is thinking.
“There was never this much music in the palace I grew up in. It’s nice for an old man like me to rest peacefully in the gardens with such sounds of happiness.”
“Plenty of others did most of the work.”
“Even so. Every fire needs that first spark.”
Zuko pauses, watching the low sun shimmer off the surface of the pond. Turtleducks drift lazily across the water toward him.
“How did you stand it?” he asks at last.
“Growing up here. Growing under all that hatred and pain and coming out happy? How do you walk through the place that taught you all these awful things, and did awful things to you, and still find joy in it?”
“Oh.” Iroh sighs. “It is difficult, sometimes.”
“Maybe you’re just a better person than I am.”
“This place holds many bad things. And many good things. There were centuries of peace before your great-grandfather started his war. Unfortunately, neither of us was alive then to see it. But you have the chance to rebuild it now.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“In some ways it is selfish. I like to enjoy things, so I find things I enjoy. And I try to be kind, for the many times when I was not.” He pats Zuko’s shoulder. “At least you’ve discovered this several decades before I did. I made a great many mistakes in that time.”
“So you are happy here.”
“Yes, I am.”
Zuko nods, but it doesn’t settle the churning in his stomach.
“What is the sort of happiness you are looking for, nephew?”
Zuko doesn’t even know the words he’s looking for. For so long he thought that happiness was his father’s love. Happiness was capturing the Avatar and dragging him back to the palace, regaining his place at his sister’s side. Happiness was supposed to be Mai. He remembers the days they spent together after his return to the Fire Nation, all the times he told himself that he was happy, that he had everything he’d ever wanted. When she leaned against him, kissed him, and he made himself believe that the sandpaper feeling against his heart was love.
No, Zuko doesn’t trust his own idea of happiness anymore.
“I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know that, then what about this? When was the last time you felt truly happy?”
He thinks of sitting around a campfire, years ago, while Toph and Suki laughed at his jokes. He thinks of practicing firebending with Aang, realizing there was a source of power in himself fueled not by hatred but by the passion to be better. He thinks of sword-fighting with Sokka, sheltering together in the shade of the gardens to escape the heat of the Fire Nation summer. Attending the local markets, the merchants gaping at the Fire Lord in their presence while Sokka obliviously inspected baskets of fruit.
He thinks about Sokka grabbing his arm, and what it would be like to take Sokka’s hand and gently touch the edge of his jaw.
Zuko breathes out, crossing his arms across his chest. Iroh gives him a searching look, then goes back to his scrolls.
He can’t let himself think like this. It’s so far from the life he’s accepted for himself. And yet when he thinks of the vision of his hazy future, the faceless wife he always assumed he’ll marry, it doesn’t hold a candle to the ache of longing in his chest he felt when he saw that Water Tribe ship sail out to sea.
Anyway, it’s not allowed, Zuko tells himself. And then he thinks, Wait. I’m the fucking Fire Lord.
In the spring, a warm and humid breeze rises up from the city to the palace, bringing with it the scent of baking bread, frying chilis, and the sweat and grime of human bodies.
Zuko wrings the fabric of his sleeves in his hands as he waits in the reception hall. He’s never been so nervous to receive a delegation before, but his anxiety is so intense that he couldn’t even touch his breakfast. He shouldn’t care, he’s the Fire Lord for crying out loud, but every footstep in the hall makes him flinch and stand up straighter.
When they enter, his eyes go right to the figure in their midst, and his breath catches in his throat.
Sokka waves to him, blissfully unaware. The other delegates smile tentatively at Zuko. He barely notices them.
“I told you I’d bring you the good stuff,” Sokka says, and points to the pair of palace guards hauling a waterproofed crate after him.
“Come on, it’ll be exciting!”
Zuko wonders how much dignity he’ll lose by being bossed into opening up a crate of who-knows-what in front of a room of courtiers and palace staff, and then decides he doesn’t care very much. “Well, let’s see it then.”
He steps down from his seat to meet Sokka by the crate and prepares himself for whatever he’s about to find.
Sokka eagerly pries off the top of the crate. “Okay, so here we’ve got crab flakes, dried seaweed noodles, smoked sausages - oh, I couldn’t bring any fresh squid unfortunately, but there’s also preserved cucumberquats —” He digs through the crate, listing things while Zuko frantically imagines what the palace chefs will possibly make of this gift, and if there is enough chili and garlic in the world to make pickled sea prunes sound appetizing.
“I’ll, uh, get this to the kitchens,” he says.
He endures the day of meetings, fidgeting too much to pay proper attention to the discussion bouncing back and forth between his councilors and the Water Tribe delegates. He should be paying attention. It’s important that he pays attention. But his eyes keep wandering back to Sokka across the table and his cheerfully argumentative gestures when he fights when Zuko’s advisors.
Sokka certainly seems to know what his own happiness looks like. It’s his family, and it’s his seat at this table. Being trusted to make important decisions, being held and loved by his sister and father. It’s not so different from what Zuko wanted once. And yet it’s not the same thing at all.
“I want to go somewhere,” Sokka says to him after they’ve met up in the late afternoon. “I’m sick of sitting around in rooms listening to dusty old councilors tell me off for not knowing every stupid ancient Fire Nation law they want to invoke.”
Zuko, who just came from a private audience with those very same councilors complaining about the lack of Water Tribe etiquette, has a miserable headache. What he wants is to get a bowl of soup and sit somewhere dark and quiet. Instead he says, “Like where?”
“I don’t know. The market maybe? Or is there any good theater in the city these days?”
“Ugh, nothing worth seeing.”
“Music? Poetry? There’s gotta be something.”
“I don’t know,” Zuko says. “It’s not like I get to spend time out in the city. I have to be here doing things most of the time, and people get weird about seeing me out in public.”
“We could go in disguise.”
“I think people would recognize me.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess you are hard to miss, with the whole scar thing.” Sokka sighs and stretches his arms. “So what have you been up to since last time?”
“You know, the usual. Dismantling some stupid ancient Fire Nation laws.”
Sokka blinks, then grins. “Oh, good. Anything that will help me argue with your councilors better?”
“Uh, probably not.” His mouth is almost too dry to speak. “Stuff like reverting the ban on same-sex marriages.” And then because he can’t allow himself to stop there he quickly adds, “It’s not even that ancient. It was Sozin who did it, so it’s only a hundred years old. I should have fixed it before. I just wasn’t really thinking.”
He’s trying so hard not to look at Sokka, and at the same time on edge for any note of interest from where Sokka stands in his peripheral vision. But Sokka just nods blandly.
“Oh, right. I never understood why the Fire Nation was so weird about that.”
“We didn’t used to be.” Zuko’s voice sounds so stilted in his own ears it’s a wonder Sokka doesn’t seem to notice. “Anyway, I’m trying to make things better.”
“How are your, you know, dreams these days?”
“What?” Zuko starts, and then realizes what Sokka means. “Nothing! I mean, fine!”
“Hey, I still get nightmares too.” Sokka slumps down on a bench. “It’s been years, you’d think they’d have stopped by now.”
“Yeah. I know.”
Zuko’s told him before about his dreams of the Western Air Temple, the ones where he arrives too late to stop the assassin. Where he watches the towers of the air temple crumble in the explosion, bodies falling into the abyss, Zuko screaming after them as he realizes that the last hope of stopping his father is dead by his own misguided hand.
What Zuko hasn’t told him is that those dreams have changed in the last few months. Sometimes when the towers collapse in flame it’s not the Avatar but Sokka he sees falling. Falling and looking back at him with hatred and pain in his eyes. Zuko always wakes up when Sokka’s body hits the ground.
“Aang says that it’ll take ages, and it might not ever go away.” Sokka groans. “I’m supposed to ‘talk about it’ .”
“You can talk about it with me.”
Sokka shakes his head. “I talk off Katara’s ear about it enough. You don’t need to hear it too.”
But I want to hear it, Zuko nearly says.
(the ghost of his father in his mind says, wanting is for the weak. taking is for the strong)
Sokka smiles. “It’s not a big deal.”
“We should grab something to eat. I want to see what your chefs did with all the great stuff I brought.”
Oh, spirits. “Yeah, so do I.”
In their brief week of time together they talk and sword fight and attend the performances of the musicians and poets that Zuko hastily asks his seneschal to bring up to the palace. At the end of it he watches Sokka sail off again on the blue and white ship. The heavy weight of longing is back, digging its claws into his stomach. It’s odd, he thinks. It feels almost like homesickness. Which is absurd — he’s already home.
The summer is hot in the way of Fire Nation summers — heat that seems to roast you alive, that makes the air shimmer. The people wear thin, loose robes that let them move comfortably and buy shaved ice from market stalls. The sun fills Zuko with the vibrant buzz of fire in his veins.
Of course, Sokka is miserable even in the shade of the covered courtyard.
“I’m used to winters,” he complains. “I’m not made for this type of heat.”
The entire Water Tribe delegation seems grumpier than usual. Zuko hopes it’s just because of the heat. None of them have been up for much more than arguing about petty details. He ended their meeting early to give everyone a chance to cool off.
He considers for a moment. “We could go down to the lake if you like. It’s been a while since I — ”
“Yes! The lake!” Sokka grabs his arm, “I want to go!”
But Sokka clearly isn’t expecting the retinue of guards that follow them down through the city to the caldera lake shore. He stares at them unhappily as they unfold shade tents and shoo away curious onlookers. “You sure have a lot of people hanging around you.”
“It’s part of the job.”
“Don’t you ever get a moment of privacy?”
Zuko shrugs. “Sometimes.”
The two of them swim out to a wooden platform anchored just offshore. Zuko’s guards don’t follow that far, thankfully, but they glower at Sokka from the shore as if he's going to drown Zuko if left alone with him too long. Zuko tries to ignore them. The water is cool and more refreshing than he’d expected. Sokka floats happily off the edge of the platform while Zuko soaks in the sun, the welcome heat dancing on his skin, making his thoughts sharp and hazy all at once. It’s been so long since he just sat somewhere to relax. He forgot how good it felt.
It doesn’t take long for the guilt to seep in. He should be doing something, righting the wrongs of generations of Fire Lords and his own terrible mistakes. Not just sitting here in the sun like he has nothing to do.
“You look stressed,” Sokka says, studying him with half-closed eyes. “Isn’t this supposed to be relaxing?”
Sokka pushes himself up onto the platform next to Zuko, sitting so his legs dangle in the water. “You are stressed.” He pokes Zuko’s shoulder. “You make this face. The stressed face.”
“No, I don’t.”
“It makes you look very cool and intimidating, don’t worry.”
Zuko sighs, and Sokka gives him a look.
“You don’t need to keep doing this.”
Sokka frowns and dips his hand into the water. “Punishing yourself for what your dad did.”
The easy feeling evaporates off Zuko’s skin. “And what I did.”
“It’s not the same. You’ve spent years trying to be better.”
“It’s not enough.”
“It’s not your fault Ozai hurt you.”
“I know. I fucking know, okay? I know .”
“What do you know? You have a fucking perfect relationship with your father.”
Sokka falls silent, kicking at the slow current.
Zuko breathes, trying to calm the anger in his chest. He should apologize. He should say something. But he doesn’t.
“You know, when all our warriors left the Water Tribe to go fight your armies, my dad left me behind.”
“Yeah.” Sokka folds his hands together in his lap, staring out at the edge of the caldera. “He said it was because they needed a man left behind to protect the rest of the village. But I thought — I was afraid that he was leaving me because he still didn’t see me as a man. That I would always be a girl to him. Even after all that time. Then when I finally found him again, you know what he said? He told the men to get ready, and I asked him what I should do. And he said that he’d just told me. I was so happy. I was so happy .”
“And then on the Day of Black Sun, when your soldiers took him prisoner, I was certain I would never see him again. He was going to die in a Fire Nation prison. I hated you for that. I hated you so much.”
“I know,” Zuko whispers.
Sokka shifts so his arm is pressed against Zuko’s. Whatever half-formed thing Zuko was going to say dies in his throat.
This means nothing. Sokka has always been touchy with others. Tactile. He’s done this before a dozen times. It’s just never registered in Zuko’s brain in such a vivid way.
Sokka is warm against his arm, relaxed, trusting.
He wants to reach back. He wants to take Sokka’s hand. Sokka wouldn’t think anything of it, wouldn’t jerk away. Casual touch is what he grew up with.
Zuko never learned how to touch in insignificant ways.
Instead he stays still, watching the sky purple above them as the sun drifts to the horizon.
“I’ve been thinking about something,” Zuko says at last.
Sokka sits up with interest. “Oh?”
“There’s been a lot of stuff going on with Cranefish Town and the other former colonies, and a lot of stuff here. I mean — we’re going to need better Water Tribe representation, with the way things are going. But it would require a lot more time. We would still have a Water Tribe delegation come every few months to hammer out extra details, but we would need someone here more permanently. And I thought. You might. Be good at it.”
Sokka watches him, unusually hard to read.
“Wow. That’s a big thing.”
“You really think I would be good at it?”
“Oh, yes. I mean, you’re, uh, already well established with my councilors, and you have a decent amount of familiarity with the Earth Kingdom too. And your people obviously trust you to represent them.” Yes, it was totally impartial and not at all influenced by any external factors.
“I would need to think about it.” Sokka looks stunned. “I don’t know. It would be hard to spend so much time away from my family.”
“Oh.” Zuko’s heart sinks. “Right.”
“I really appreciate it. But I need to think about it. Do you need an answer right away?”
Spirits, kill him now. “Of course not. Take your time. I understand completely.”
He spends the day after Sokka’s departure practicing firebending for hours, training until his muscles burn and his body screams for rest, until he is certain he can collapse into bed and not dream.
The autumn warmth is soft, peppered with cool breezes that hail the oncoming winter. The Water Tribe delegation comes on a rainy morning. Zuko knows something is wrong just by watching their silhouettes coming up the path to the palace.
They bring a letter with them. Maq, the one who’d been so afraid of Zuko just the prior winter, hands it to him without a shred of fear in her eyes.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” she says. “I’m glad to be working with you on these matters of great importance for our people.”
“As am I,” Zuko says automatically.
The letter is short.
Sorry, there’s stuff going on here I need to deal with. Can’t come this time. Try not to scare everyone while I’m not there to stop you. -S
Anxiety twists in Zuko’s stomach.
“Well,” he says, his heart breaking. “Let’s begin.”
When Zuko writes to Iroh in Ba Sing Se, he doesn’t expect to see his uncle in the courtyard just three weeks later, sipping tea and looking around thoughtfully.
“What are you doing here?”
“You wrote to me, didn’t you?”
Zuko grimaces. “I didn’t ask you to come back.”
He’s too tired to play at these riddles. “Well, if I did, I’m sorry I made you come all these way for nothing.”
“Nonsense. It’s only a few weeks before I would normally come, anyway. And you sounded so tired in your letter.” Iroh sets his cup of tea aside. “Why don’t you sit with me awhile? It’s been so long since I saw you last.”
“It’s only been nine months.”
“Nine months can be a long time!”
“Alright, alright.” Zuko has things to do, but mostly they involve getting angry in meetings; he can spare a few minutes from that. He sits across the table from Iroh, who beams back at him.
“How’s the tea shop going?”
“Very well! Each day is better than the last.”
“It sounds nice. Being able to do what you love, and being good at it.”
“Mmm. It is nice.” Iroh studies him. “You don’t like being Fire Lord?”
“It’s exhausting. I can’t believe I used to think I wanted this.”
“If you didn’t find it exhausting, if you wanted it, you wouldn’t be the right person for it.”
“Hah. Right.” Zuko rests his chin in his palm.
“You can always tell me about what’s bothering you, if you want to.”
He could, but just the thought of explaining the problem to his uncle makes Zuko twitch with embarrassment. It’s not like it’s even worth discussing. He knows it’s hopeless. Sokka likes girls. Sokka really, really likes girls. Zuko knows Suki and Yue and the very likely chance that there have been plenty of others over the years, what with Sokka’s war hero status.
Besides, all of them were beautiful. And none of them had scars taking up half their face.
“Did you ever think about what I said last time, about happiness?” his uncle says.
Iroh touches his arm. “Why not?”
(the ghost of his father in the back of his mind says, the only time you were ever worthy of love was when you committed atrocities)
(the ghost of his father in the back of his mind says, you will never be worthy of it again)
“I think,” Zuko says, “Maybe some people just don’t deserve happiness.”
His scarred eye stings with tears. Iroh folds his hand over Zuko’s, and Zuko doesn’t pull away. Iroh, who was there for him even after all the terrible things he did, who loved him, who trusted him to find a path away from his father’s stifling rage. Maybe he wasn’t ever worthy of that kind of love. But maybe he believes his uncle this time when Iroh says, “Of course you do. Of course you do.”
The chill of winter drives the city to build up fires in hearths. Plumes of sweet-smelling smoke rise above the roofs among lanterns and New Year decorations.
Zuko receives the Earth Kingdom delegation with pleasantries and bows. Their lead councilor, Yun, looks approvingly at him.
“I’ll be pleased to see how a Fire Nation New Year is celebrated,” she says. “Based on our shared history I assume it will be rather extravagant.”
Zuko can’t tell if that’s an insult or a compliment. “You won’t be disappointed.”
“I’m sure I’ll take to your nation perfectly well. More importantly, I’m glad we’ll finally get this business about the free colonies sorted out. This delicate work requires a steady hand, and I assure you I will be dedicated to finding the best solution for all our people. Will I be meeting the Water Tribe representative soon?”
Zuko’s gut twinges. “There are still details to be worked out with who their representative will be.”
“But I expect their choice will be made soon. Their delegation is arriving the morning of the New Year celebration, so you’ll have plenty of time to speak with them.”
Yun smiles and nods. “I look forward to it. It should be interesting.”
Interesting, Zuko knows, is not the same as good.
He is too busy to meet the Water Tribe delegation upon their arrival at the palace. His day is already packed with audiences with advisors and planning sessions with Yun, who has many, many opinions about the formation of this new council. There’s simply no time to go exchange small talk, he tells himself. Never mind that he scheduled his own day as full as possible to avoid the chance that he might accidentally run into the delegation, and whoever may or may not be among their number.
The palace has been buzzing with activity in the weeks leading up to the New Year, and now that the day is here the energy is palpable. Musicians set up their instruments in the lower gardens. Lanterns hang between trees, swaying in the breeze and illuminating the dusk with soft pools of light. The kitchens send out cart after cart of food that fill the air with the smell of fried dough and garlic and roasted meat. The aroma makes guests turn their heads.
As the sky darkens the people file in — not just nobles and councilors, but the city folk as well, who stare in awe at the grandeur of the palace. Zuko’s advisors have always told him not to open the palace gates to the public, citing the danger of spies and assassins. This year he finally ignored them.
He’s not going to be closed off anymore. He’s going to be a different kind of leader. A better one.
He spots the Earth Kingdom delegates in the crowd, resplendent in green and gold robes. Yun looks to be enjoying herself, pointing the others towards the platters of roasted duck and roseberry tarts, tapping her feet to the sound of the pipa being played nearby.
He wishes he could vanish into the crowd and simply enjoy the food and music with them, but every time he tries the eyes of the crowd follow him. Parents whisper to their children, there, that’s the Fire Lord. Nobles seeking favors slyly compliment him, expecting their sweet words to be exchanged for gifts. Zuko hates the feeling of so many people watching him. So he lingers on the edge of the garden and watches them from the shadows instead.
“Hiding? That’s not very like you.”
He turns, heart thrumming with anxiety and relief all in one.
The clothes Sokka wears are a clever combination of Water Tribe and Fire Nation styles, blue fabric embroidered with silvery white thread. His usual wolftail is up in a topknot, like in the days they had to disguise themselves as Fire Nation citizens. The effect leaves Zuko briefly speechless.
He forces a smile. “Just taking a break.”
“You don’t even want to listen to the music?”
“I can hear it from here.”
“Ugh. Suit yourself.” Sokka doesn’t make an effort to leave, though, just hums along to the faint sound of flute over the chatter of the crowd.
“There’s still plenty of time before the fireworks. Really, you should enjoy yourself.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me, Mister Fire Lord?”
“No,” Zuko says helplessly.
Sokka opens his mouth to say something, but is cut off by the rising swell of music and the accompanying cheer of the crowd. Zuko looks, confused, at the movement of bodies pushing tables to the side. Much of it seems to be led by Yun and the other Earth Kingdom delegates, but he sees the Water Tribe members in there too, along with dozens of the city dwellers. The nobles, on the other hand, look bewildered at the change around them and back away.
“What—” Zuko manages to say, before the sound of drums and pipa rise into quick melody and the crowd begins to spin.
The dance picks up more and more people. Zuko has never seen anything like this in all his time in the palace. The celebrations of his father’s house were entirely formal affairs, nobles and councilors talking sternly while Zuko sat in silence by his father’s side.
“Oh good, it is a real party after all!” Sokka grins. “Come on!”
“Come on! You can’t not dance.” He takes a step toward the crowd and pulls at Zuko’s arm.
“Uh, I —”
“I don’t know how.”
Sokka rolls his eyes. “What are you talking about? You know that dragon dance thing.”
“That — that is ancient firebending technique! ”
The humor on Sokka’s face fades. “Wait, you really don’t…?”
“It’s not like I was taught,” Zuko snaps. “Frivolous pastimes like dancing weren’t exactly going to lead us to martial victory. It wasn’t part of the curriculum.”
Zuko crosses his arms.
“Well, you could always learn. You just have to move your body, and you already know how to do that with swords and fire and stuff. This is probably way easier.”
“Uh— ” Zuko looks back into the crowd. His councilors are still there, some of them beginning to move cautiously to the music and looking uncomfortable. His people are there, and Yun, and the Water Tribe delegates, and everyone else whose respect he desperately needs.
“No one’s going to care if you’re bad,” Sokka says, oblivious to the layers of nuance.
“Of course they will! Do you know how many people are always watching me? Just waiting for me to slip up and prove that I’m weaker than they are?” He clenches his fists. “I can’t make a fool of myself in front of everyone. I can’t.”
“Oh,” Sokka says. He takes a step away from Zuko. “I didn’t think it would matter.”
“How could it not matter?”
“I didn’t think—”
“No, you didn’t,” Zuko says. “I hope you enjoy the party.” He turns furiously back to the palace doors, guards stepping aside to let him through. He doesn’t look back to see whether or not Sokka watches him leave.
The faint sounds of the revel carry into Zuko rooms. He’s not sure if silence would be better or worse. He sends his attendants away and lies on his bed, head aching.
He’s so stupid.
He knows this will be the thing that drives Sokka away. This thing, and all the other things. A muffled cheer comes from the party outside, and Zuko groans and shoves a pillow into his face.
What is Sokka doing right now? Probably dancing like he wanted. Probably dancing with some pretty woman, the kind that always gravitate to him.
Stop. Thinking. About. It.
There’s a knock on Zuko’s door.
“I told you I don’t need anything!”
Silence from the other side. Zuko sits up, eyes narrowed.
He stands quietly. It’s been so long since the last assassination attempt, but the fear of it comes rushing back with terrible clarity. He raises his hands to firebending position and waits. There’s no other sound from the hall, just the distant sound of the celebration.
He throws the door open.
The hall is empty. Zuko releases his breath, but doesn’t lower his hands. He peers carefully around the edge of the door for anyone hidden out of sight. There’s nothing out of place.
He steps outside and sees the note stuck to his door.
Zuko unfurls the parchment. The handwriting is shaky and unfamiliar.
Phoenix Study. Thirty minutes. Bring no one. No signature.
He remembers the last time, knives glinting in the dark, the heavy rush of the assassin’s breath as she lunged for him in the hall. The assassin screaming as her clothes burned. Dread makes the edges of the parchment start to smolder in his hands.
Bring no one.
Zuko should warn his guards, but, shamefully, he doesn’t want to be the one to ruin the night. It’s stupid. He knows it’s stupid. But if he informs the guard they’ll quarantine the crowd and search everyone, and Zuko will never, ever be able to convince them to open up the palace gates to the public again.
Fortunately, Zuko is well equipped to take care of himself.
He creeps through the shadows of the Northern Wing. He hasn’t brought his swords, but he carries the dagger he started training with after the first assassination attempt. This part of the palace is empty. The only people Zuko sees are two guards idling at the entrance to the wing, grumbling about missing the party. Easy enough to slip past.
He pauses around the corner from the study and waits for several minutes. There’s no approaching footsteps, no muffled breath or creak of weight shifting on the floor. If there is someone here, they’re already inside.
He moves quietly to the door and presses his ear to the surface. There’s a faint shuffling on the other side. His pulse quickens, his mouth is dry. This is the time. Element of surprise.
Zuko kicks open the door and throws a sphere of fire into the air.
“Ahhhhh!” the person yells, and throws themselves to the ground.
“What are you doing?!”
“What am I doing? What are you doing?!” Zuko collapses to the floor. He’s hyperventilating and he’s struggling to control it. His heart is trying its best to rid itself of his body, pounding so hard it hurts his ribcage. He drops the dagger and buries his head in his hands.
“You don’t need to set me on — are you okay?”
Oh yes, I’m perfectly grand, he wants to say, but he can’t manage to get the words out.
“Whoa. Zuko, buddy. Okay.” Sokka kneels beside him and grabs his shoulders. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“I thought. You were. Trying to kill me.”
“Didn’t people stop trying to kill us when the war ended?”
“Hah. I wish.”
Zuko shrugs. He’s too muddled to explain about the assassins right now. He could have burned Sokka. He could have stabbed Sokka. “Political differences.”
“Shit, I’m so sorry, I should have known.”
“I mean, I never told you.”
“Still. I guess it was naive of me to think that everyone wanted to move peacefully into the new age of not being murderous colonizers.”
“Not everyone’s as good as you.”
Sokka leans back, considering the dagger on the ground. He seems to register that it could have ended up buried in his own ribs. His eyes widen. “Maybe we should get you some tea or something. Or a guard.”
“No, I’m okay. I just need a minute.”
“Yeah, of course.”
Sokka moves as if to get up, but Zuko can’t let him get farther away. Before he can let himself think about what he’s doing, he grabs Sokka’s hand. “Wait — I’m sorry.”
Sokka laughs. “You are definitely not the one who needs to be apologizing here.”
“No, not this.” Zuko grimaces. “For getting mad at you.”
“Like I said—”
“No, listen.” The fear and anger and longing are all mixed up in his chest and he’s not sure what he’s even feeling. “Like before. I don’t mean to get mad at you. I just — I have to be the perfect leader. I have to be harmless. I can’t be angry at all, at anyone, because everyone’s waiting for me to become just like my father. It took so long, so long, to convince everyone I’m not always on the verge of killing them. But I’m not a nice person. I’m angry a lot of the time. And you’re the only person who I can allow myself to be angry around, because when I get mad you don’t see my father. You see me. And you’re not afraid of me.”
Sokka stares at him, motionless as a statue.
“But it’s not fair of me to take that out on you. It’s not your fault. I’m sorry. You don’t have to forgive me, or want to be around me. I’m just sorry.”
Sokka sits back on the floor beside him. “Well, I think we’ve all forgiven you for much worse things.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me.”
“And obviously I still want to be around you. I’m here, aren’t I?”
Zuko nods. Sokka squeezes his hand. “See? No hard feelings.”
His heart is finally settling back to a normal pace. Zuko pushes himself up off the ground, collecting the dagger and slipping it into his robes. “Why’d you leave a note instead of talking to me like a normal person?”
Sokka winces. “I just thought it would be mysterious and fun. You seemed kind of tense, and I thought… crap, it sounds so stupid. I’m sorry I made you think you were gonna get murdered.”
“What’s here, anyway?”
“Oh.” Sokka looks sheepish. “It’s a gift. For you.”
Sokka points to the other side of the room, and it only takes a moment for Zuko to see what he’s talking about. There’s a strange contraption on the table, a wooden box with what looks like a large metal horn and several other bits sticking out of it. “Huh. What does it do?”
“It’s new. Like, super new, just out of the Earth Kingdom. I was going to give it to you anyway, but then after we talked I thought — well, here.” Sokka turns a dial on the side of the box and music starts to play from the metal horn.
“It’s called a phonograph. And no, I don’t know how it works. I didn’t understand the explanation.”
“This is incredible.”
“Yeah! There are only a couple different songs you can play right now, but the guy who sold it to me said that they’re making more music for it all the time.”
Zuko traces his fingers over the phonograph box. It hums slightly under his touch. “This is really nice. Thank you.”
“Yeah, the thing is, I thought — well, since you said you couldn’t dance in front of everyone, maybe if you were alone you wouldn’t need to worry about being self-conscious.”
“You… brought me here to dance?”
“Well, I shouldn’t be the only one having fun at this party.”
Zuko turns away from the phonograph, back to Sokka, who is smiling at him. Sokka, who went to the trouble of trying to make Zuko’s night a little less miserable, even when he didn’t deserve it. Who cares enough about him to spend time with him, even when it means leaving behind the whole celebration.
Sharp joy fills Zuko’s chest, and he surprises himself by laughing.
He thinks: even if this is all I ever get of him, it will have been enough.
What a beautiful realization.
“Alright,” he says. “What dances do you know, then?”
Sokka brightens. “We can start with an easy one. This is a classic Water Tribe dance, basically you just walk around each other, but to the music. And also spin around sometimes. I’ll show you when.”
Sokka takes his hand and pulls him to the middle of the room. Zuko hopes it’s dim enough that the flush isn’t visible on his cheeks. “So we walk in a circle. Like this.”
Zuko follows the motions stiffly, feeling himself grow redder by the minute. “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“You can! It’s just movement, right? Think of it like bending, or sword fighting. But without a sword.”
“There is no way that doesn’t make it more confusing.”
“Okay,” Sokka says. He spins around. “Maybe you need to get out of your head a bit. The thing about dancing is, you need to trust your body and not worry about what you look like.”
“Great. My two defining qualities.”
“Here.” Sokka takes his hand again. “Like practicing with a sword. Keep your muscles tense, but flexible.”
They walk around each other while the phonograph plays. Sokka moves fluidly, turning into spins and pulling Zuko along. Zuko tries to think of it like firebending, however dumb it sounds. Repetitive motion, pushing energy through the body and out again. It feels okay, once he gets used to it. Like he can almost do it.
“Did you know Aang once tried to teach a bunch of Fire Nation kids how to dance?” Sokka asks as they circle each other.
“Oh, no. How did that go?”
Sokka grins. “About as well as you’d think.”
Midway through the next circle the music changes, turning quick and upbeat. Sokka eyes Zuko conspiratorially. “Up for something a little different?”
“I think so.”
“Great. This is an Earth Kingdom one. It was pretty popular back when we were in Ba Sing Se.”
Sokka launches himself into a more complicated series of moves, making Zuko step back.
“Ah, just focus on the feet for now, you can add your arms later.”
Zuko follows his slowed down movements. Step right and back and left and back again, quarter turn. Sokka’s right, it’s not that hard after all. He starts to smile in spite of himself, and Sokka claps him on the back.
“Now,” Sokka says, “Faster.”
They spin across the room. Zuko is giddy and breathless, dancing for the first time, really dancing. It’s not so different from the Dancing Dragon after all, just movement and space, reaching and pulling at the right time. He’s done this. He can do it. He turns to tell Sokka this epiphany.
Sokka is moving with the music with his eyes closed, not doing the Earth Kingdom dance at all, but something new, something solid and graceful and strong. Zuko can’t look away. He doesn’t want to look away. He wants to watch Sokka swaying back and forth, arms in the air, forever.
He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and just lets himself move.
It’s hard to trust his body, after all that’s happened to it. It’s hard to believe that he really should be here, in this room, feeling happier than he’s felt in months. He wants to believe it. He wants to believe in good things. It’s such a kinder future than he ever thought he’d allow himself.
He opens his eyes to see Sokka watching him delightedly. “You get it!”
“I get it,” Zuko breathes.
They dance and the music changes again, drums and horn and flute. Sokka leads Zuko in a spin. His hands leave warm traces where they touch Zuko’s body, making Zuko’s skin tingle. He takes Sokka’s arm and they turn around the room. It’s fast, leaving him breathless. There’s so little space for thinking in between the motions, so he lets his mind clear. It’s just the music and the joy of freedom, of the heat on his skin, the brush of fingers against his. Some absurd movement he does makes Sokka laugh, and Zuko doesn’t even care; they just move toward each other, laughing, Zuko smiling so hard his face hurts, Sokka’s left arm hooking around his waist.
He suddenly realizes the music has stopped, and they are very, very close.
They are swaying ever so slightly as the last sounds of flute echo away. Sokka’s hand is on the small of Zuko’s back, a gentle, questioning touch. He could push it away easily. He doesn’t. His hands are on Sokka’s shoulders. Sokka’s body is warm under his palms.
They look at each other wordlessly. The silence is going on too long. He says the first thing that comes to mind.
“I like your hair like this.”
Zuko, you absolute fucking idiot.
Sokka smiles. “Oh, really? I always liked when you had yours down.”
Zuko reaches up and undoes his own topknot in a swift motion, letting his hair settle back into his face.
Sokka lifts his free hand up and brushes the hair out of Zuko’s eyes. He touches the edge of Zuko’s scar, so delicately Zuko can barely feel the fingers on his skin.
“You’re very warm,” Sokka says.
“I’m a firebender,” Zuko says dumbly.
“Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Asshole,” Zuko whispers. He closes his eyes. He can feel Sokka’s heartbeat in his own chest, in his bones, fast and nervous like his own. The steady warmth of it makes him dizzy.
“Tell me,” Sokka says. “When you asked me to come work in the Fire Nation more permanently, did you just want an excuse to see me more?”
Zuko blushes. “I really do think you would be good at the job.”
“And it… may have been... a factor.”
“You never told me what your decision was. If you wanted the job or not.”
“It’ll be hard to be away from my family for so long.”
Zuko nods, his chest aching. He prepares himself to let go.
“But I can do it for a few years, at least. Maybe more. You know, I think I would be good at it too.”
Relief floods through Zuko’s body, easing the tension in his shoulders, and when Sokka laughs at his reaction he doesn’t feel ashamed.
“It turns out the Fire Nation does know how to have a pretty good party,” Sokka says.
“There’s still one more thing you haven’t seen,” Zuko says. “If you’ll follow me.”
He leads Sokka back out of the Northern Wing. The guests are beginning to make their way back out of the palace, down through the city to the caldera lake where the fireworks have been arranged. The pyrotechnics’ ships are out on the water, preparing for the display.
Other city folk who didn’t go up the palace for the celebration join the crowd moving through the streets, hugging family and friends. Kids set off smaller fireworks in the alleys, dancing around the sparks. A few firebenders juggle balls of flame to the amusement of those around them. Some entrepreneuring vendors sell hotcakes and tea from carts along the way. It’s loud, chaotic, and easy to slip among them unnoticed.
The crowd spreads out on the lakeshore. Zuko finds a spot in the middle. He could push ahead to the private area where his councilors are, but he’d much rather be here, just another body in the throng. No one looks his way. No one stares. Sokka stands beside him, so close their arms touch, reassuring and safe.
The first firework bursts into the sky, and the crowd cheers.
Purple and green and white flowers bloom above their heads. Sokka stares wondrously up, enraptured by the light and sound. The explosions illuminate his face in gold, transmuting his joy into something ethereal. Zuko takes his hand. Sokka leans against him, steady, warm.
It’s been six years. He’s here. He’s holding Sokka’s hand. He’s not letting go.