the year after
It’s a year and a day after Zuko’s coronation that an assassin finally gets close enough to make an actual attempt on Zuko’s life.
Zuko’s body reacts before his mind does, his fingers slipping beneath the wire trying to close around his throat, his flames turning the thread of metal white-hot and molten. There’s a presence against Zuko’s back, and it takes a small shift of his weight and a heave to throw his attacker over his shoulder and onto the floor.
His chambers are unlit, but two bursts of flame from his fists let Zuko make out a lithe figure dressed in black. She scrambles to her feet, drawing a short blade that glints threateningly in the light of Zuko’s fire, but there’s uncertainty in her grip, and with four deft moves Zuko disarms her and knocks her out cold. He catches her and gently lowers her body to the carpet that is now—regrettably—slashed by fresh burn marks.
Zuko lights one of the wall sconces before poking his head outside of his chamber. “Someone just tried to assassinate me,” he tells the guards posted at the door.
“What?” one of them screeches.
It’s a whole flurry of activity after that, and while Zuko isn’t necessarily calm—his heart is still racing, his senses still alert for anything out of the ordinary—it all feels terribly familiar by now. The assassin is dressed down for more weapons (more garroting wire, and a short dagger concealed in her boot), Zuko reports what happened in his chambers to one of the scribes for his National Affairs committee, and the assassin is carried off to a holding cell. Tomorrow, Zuko knows, he’ll be paying her a visit to try to find out where she came from, why she wanted to kill him, and, finally, how she managed to sneak into the palace and Zuko’s private chambers without tripping any alarms.
The furor is winding down when Mai appears at the end of the long hall. “Zuko?” she calls, gliding smoothly toward him. Guards and palace attendants alike shift to give Mai a wide berth, a subtle wave bringing Zuko’s girlfriend closer to him. “I heard a commotion—what’s happening?”
Her hand cups his right cheek—always his right, never his left—and Zuko covers her hand with his own. “Just an assassin,” he tells her.
Mai arches an eyebrow. “Another one?”
“She made it further than any of the others have.”
Mai tsks, which could be disapproval of either Zuko’s casual tone or the quality of assassins that have been sent Zuko’s way since the end of the Hundred Year War. Zuko’s never really sure.
Her hand begins to drop from his face, and Zuko reluctantly lets go of her fingers. “Do you want to,” he says, “Uh—”
He glances around, and no one’s really close enough to hear a whisper, but Mai’s shaking her head before Zuko can voice his question. “I need to be up early,” she explains. “My dad wants the family to meet the merchants visiting tomorrow.”
Zuko swallows. Only twice, on two otherwise ordinary nights, has Mai slept beside him in his chambers in the Fire Nation palace, but Zuko wishes he could have the company and comfort of another body in his overlarge bed every night. In the capital, however, especially when Zuko’s the still-fresh Firelord and they’re unmarried and only seventeen, there are eyes everywhere, and the demands of decorum are stringent.
“I understand,” Zuko says, and Mai’s lips twitch into the ghost of a smile.
She rises to her tip-toes to press a kiss to his cheek. “Good night,” she whispers in that one voice that she knows causes a tug in Zuko’s gut. He shivers, and Mai’s laugh ghosts over his skin.
“Good night, Mai,” Zuko says.
Mai turns back the way she came, stealing away with her characteristic deadly silence, and Zuko watches her until she rounds the corner. She glances over her shoulder at him once, and Zuko thinks she might smile again, but the flames in the hallway sconces are flickering low, so he’s not really sure.
Zuko’s never really sure.
This assassin is not that different from the last thirteen: she’s from the Fire Nation, she espouses much of the ideology that Sozin first sowed in Zuko’s homeland, and she’s operating alone from a sense of duty to the “greater nation.” The only thing that sets her apart is that she got to Zuko before the guards got to her, a feat that Zuko believes was possible due to her petite build. Flames create shadows, and the palace is full of both; taking advantage of a small and slight body in this landscape is exactly how Zuko and Azula got away with so many antics when they were children.
Zuko has been talking to her for two hours now, and she really isn’t showing any sign of backing down. “You are destroying our nation’s legacy,” she spits at him, glaring resentfully between the bars of the holding cell.
Zuko refuses to be fazed. “Our nation has spent a hundred years destroying the legacies of other nations and cultures,” he tells her. “I am trying to right those wrongs.”
“You’re spineless, and weak.”
There is a gentle rap on the door, and Zuko turns to see a guard gesturing for him to hurry up. If Zuko doesn’t leave soon, he will be late for the meeting with the merchants that Mai’s family met earlier in the morning.
“I unfortunately have to go,” Zuko tells the assassin. They couldn’t get a name out of her, no matter how hard they tried. “I hope you think and reflect on this conversation during your journey back.”
For the first time, the assassin looks caught off guard, her green eyes flaring wide. “Back?”
Zuko rises from his seat on the floor. “Your dagger is a very specific make,” he replies. “We’ll be taking you to the village where it was made and posting your bail there.”
“You’re sending me home? After I tried to kill you?”
Zuko smiles. “Think, and reflect,” he repeats before he leaves.
When Zuko enters the main corridor of the holding block, Mai is waiting for him, leaning against the wall as she casually twirls a throwing star through and around her fingers. “Nice chat?” she asks drily.
Zuko bristles but tamps down the urge to defend himself in favor of continuing down the hall. Mai easily falls into step beside him, the folds of her formal clothing swishing with her strides. “Always,” Zuko says. He doesn’t miss Mai’s snort.
If Mai had it her way, there would be another whole committee to take care of the assassins. With the attempts being as lackluster as they are, Zuko doesn’t see the point in wasting resources on a nonissue. He can defend himself, and besides, he wants to speak to them, one-on-one and face-to-face. How can he lead a nation if he does not understand each and every one of its citizens?
What’s troubling Zuko more these days is that he’s a year and two days into being the Fire Lord, and he still doesn’t have a council he can fully trust.
Most days, Zuko wishes his uncle were here with him. His uncle has always had a superior understanding of people, and, having been a general, knew many of the military and political leaders of the Fire Nation on a more personal basis than Zuko never did. But Zuko knows his uncle is happier when he is far from these imposing halls of red and metal. Zuko also understands—as Sokka once casually remarked over breakfast some seven months ago, when he and Hakoda were visiting as Southern Water Tribe delegates during a grueling first round of war reparation talks—that if Iroh were living in the capital and advising him, it’d be more fodder for people who wanted to delegitimate Zuko’s position to the throne. He’s a boy puppet to the Dragon, they would say. He is the front for the old general, who took revenge on his brother by seducing his outcast son with promises of power.
If they’d say that, they clearly haven’t met Zuko’s uncle. But grains of truth can be distorted and warped into forms that fly fast.
Zuko blinks. They’re already at the double-doors of the receiving room, and Mai is frowning at him. “Did you get lost in there?” she asks.
In there means his thoughts, which Mai claims must be a labyrinth for him to constantly get stuck dwelling in them. “No,” he says, rolling his shoulders back.
Mai’s arm sneaks around his. “These guys aren’t as bad as the last two,” she tells him in an undertone.
The last two merchants Mai’s father had introduced to Zuko as representatives of the nation’s economic interests had used some very strong language to tell Zuko exactly what they thought about him and his reign. Not as bad is a rather low bar.
There’s an unusual tilt to Mai’s brow, however, that makes Zuko think his girlfriend is trying to be some sort of reassuring, so Zuko nods. “Let’s do this,” he says, and the attending guards open the doors for them.
Two weeks later, Zuko’s reading a play over his breakfast when a breathless page appears at the door of Zuko’s chamber. “Fire Lord Zuko,” he says between gasps, “There’s a flying bison in the courtyard.”
Zuko drops his book. “Aang?”
“With some others, my lord. Water tribe, by the looks of their clothes.”
A smile splits Zuko’s face, and he abandons his breakfast in favor of quickly dressing. He can’t quite put down the play, however, which is how he ends up reading right up until he walks outdoors and is hit with the stench of an Appa in need of a bath. “Aang,” Zuko calls, and when he finally rips his eyes from his page, “Katara! Sokka!”
Aang is all laughter and enthusiastic waving from atop Appa, as Katara nearly squeezes the life out of Zuko and Sokka thumps his back in an aggressive hug. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” Zuko asks, neatly tucking his book out of Momo’s curious reach.
“Can’t friends just say hi to a friend?” Katara shoots at him. Her voice has changed, since Zuko last saw her—was it really a full year ago?
“Why do you sound like you’re regurgitating a play?” Sokka asks.
It’s Aang who actually answers, floating down from Appa’s saddle as he says, “We heard you almost got killed by an assassin.”
“I did not,” Zuko protests. “Who told you?”
“Mai told Ty Lee, who told Suki, who told Sokka,” Katara says.
“And we figured we should say hi, before the next one really gets you,” Sokka adds.
Zuko shakes his head, which is spinning a bit. After living in the Fire Nation for a year straight without travel elsewhere, the quick, rambunctious energy of his friends is a revitalizing shock. Zuko has missed them, he realizes. “Come on in,” he says. “Anyone want a late breakfast?”
“Oh, would I,” Sokka says enthusiastically.
Over late breakfast, Zuko learns that his friends had been returning to the South Pole after copying several hundred scrolls about waterbending from the Northern Water Tribe’s archives, at Pakku’s personal request. The task took them about two months, and they were just about to depart when Sokka received Suki’s letter that contained grapevine information about the attempt on Zuko’s life.
“We had to take a detour,” Aang says, absentmindedly petting Momo as the flying lemur eats off of Aang’s plate.
“You really didn’t,” Zuko replies. “It’s not even exciting the fourteenth time around.”
Katara nearly spews her tea everywhere. “There’s been fourteen attempts?”
“They’re lame attempts,” Zuko insists. He wishes Mai would interject to back him up, but Mai pointedly refuses to talk to Katara as much as Katara refuses to converse with Mai, so his girlfriend dragged Sokka to the other end of the table and has been ignoring Zuko, Katara, and Aang since.
“Still, Zuko,” Aang says, “People want you dead. That’s a big deal.”
Zuko shrugs. “I’m handling it.”
A peal of feminine laughter floats through the air, and Zuko startles. Opposite him, Mai is actually laughing at whatever story Sokka is telling, though she tries to hide it behind her hand. Sokka barrels on, gesticulating as fast as the words leave his mouth, and he winks when he catches Zuko’s eye.
Zuko knows he’s no comedian, but he does like it when Mai laughs. It’s a sound he wishes he heard more often.
He tosses a slice of peach at Momo, who snatches it out of the air. “They’re not organized attempts,” Zuko tells Aang and Katara. “It’s all internal, too. People who want things to be the way my father had them.”
“It still feels wrong to not do anything,” Katara says.
Zuko leans back, propping himself up on one hand. The woven bamboo of the mat beneath him digs into his palm. “Like I said. I’m handling it.”
“Have you found any more advisors since we last talked?” Aang asks.
Zuko can’t help glancing at the floor. “Not really,” he admits.
Mai’s laugh rings again, and Zuko flicks a look at his girlfriend and Sokka. Why do they get to have fun when he’s talking about his shortcomings as a leader?
“We could stay here a while and help out,” Aang offers.
Zuko uses his chopsticks to rearrange the empty edamame pods in their bowl. Aang’s offer is compelling, but not a terribly realistic one. The Avatar has too many obligations to hang out in the Fire Nation and hold Zuko’s hand. “I appreciate it,” Zuko says graciously, “but I’ll be okay. Besides, you all have more important things to take care of.”
“The stability of the Fire Nation is one of those important things,” Sokka interjects.
Zuko whips his head up. He hadn’t realized Sokka was paying attention to what they were talking about. “And how would it look if the new Fire Lord needed the Avatar just to manage his own advisors?”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be Aang,” Katara says.
“You think you could understand the nuances of Fire Nation politics?” Mai asks, eyes narrow. Katara’s no-holds-barred, sometimes blindingly bright personality has never sat well with Mai’s cool reservation, and it’s hard to keep the peace between the two of them. Zuko respects and likes Katara, though, so it’s something that Zuko thinks he and Mai should talk about, but there seems to always be something more pressing to occupy his time and energy.
“I could,” Katara retorts, “But I wasn’t talking about me. I meant Sokka.”
Sokka chokes and splutters on his soup, and Mai gives his back a solid thump.
“I’ve committed to helping Pakku teach waterbending to the people in the South Pole,” Katara presses on, “but Sokka’s project with our dad is wrapping up, isn’t it?”
Sokka drinks some water, coughs, and drinks some more. “If they stayed on schedule, they should have finished construction yesterday,” he finally says.
“Well, what do you say?” Aang prompts. “Zuko? Sokka?”
Zuko and Sokka stare at each other. Sokka’s mirth has retreated behind a look of speculation and calculation, his dark blue eyes scrutinizing. The sudden, complete silence is a reprieve for Zuko’s concentration.
Sokka might seem laid back, but he’s actually an astute and incisive observer. In spite of being an involved figure with many highly influential connections, Sokka doesn’t have the reputation that Aang, Katara, and Toph do, which decreases the risk that his presence would lead to accusations of Zuko being a pawn to an outsider. He’s smart, inventive, does well under pressure, and—like Zuko’s uncle—innately gets people in a way that Zuko’s always struggled to do. Sokka could offer an opinion that is unbiased by past reputation or personal stake in the Fire Nation, and he’s always played it straight with Zuko. They work well together. And Sokka can make Mai laugh.
“Sokka?” Zuko asks.
Sokka sits back, mirroring Zuko’s casual lounge. “Do I have an invitation to stay in the Fire Nation, oh great and mighty Fire Lord?”
His tone is cocky, but he cracks a wide smile that reveals he’s teasing Zuko. Zuko grins back. “I am extending you an invitation, yes.”
“Count me in, then.”
The anticipation that had built up in the room dissipates, and Zuko can meet Aang and Katara’s approving smiles with ease. “Tell me more about your travels,” Zuko says. “How has the world fared since I was last in it?”
The rest of the day turns into a balancing act for Zuko, wherein he goes back and forth between the bare minimum of leader of the nation duties and helping Sokka get settled into one of the guest chambers in the palace. Zuko has attendants set up Sokka in one of the smaller chambers—only two rooms, one with a smaller bed than the rest in the guest quarters, the other an antechamber that serves as both eating and leisure space, depending on whether the tabletop is folded away or not—but it’s one of the only living quarters that gets natural sunlight most of the day. Between meetings and reading urgent correspondences, Zuko catches glimpses of Sokka unpacking his belongings, of Aang defusing a rising passive-aggressive sniping contest between Katara and Mai, of Mai bringing Sokka some of Zuko’s clothing that he recently outgrew. Not in height, regrettably, but in width; training with fire and swords alike has never been such a crucial outlet for frustration than after meetings with a war council that still can’t quite understand they’re no longer at war.
Zuko knows that Mai has a soft spot for Sokka when she even agrees to come to a play that evening that she’d declined to go to earlier in the week. Zuko blinks when Mai mentions in passing that she’d changed her mind. “Really?” he asks.
Mai shrugs. “I’d otherwise be playing games with Tom-Tom all night.”
The play is being put on by a traveling troupe of players whom Zuko has seen before. Originally, Zuko had planned to attend alone and incognito, but with a sudden group to join him, he last-minute requests that the royal box in the theatre to be prepared. They sprawl comfortably over benches that Zuko is certain came from Ursa’s chambers; he couldn’t not recognize the sun-faded varnish that bring memories of the first plays he ever heard, read in his mother’s melodic cadence.
Recovering the scattered pieces of his mother’s chambers is yet another project that Zuko has had to set aside for a less busy time.
“So, is this going to be better than the Ember Island players?” Sokka asks skeptically.
Zuko glances at the man sitting behind him. He’s already wearing one of Zuko’s old shirts, a well-worn maroon fabric with gold-thread needlework along the collar, cuffs, and hem. They had agreed during one of Zuko’s brief visits to Sokka’s new rooms that Sokka should leave off his water tribe garments for now, if only to allow Sokka to integrate himself into the palace more smoothly; no need to stick out like a sore thumb. While Zuko might have become thicker over the last year, Sokka has grown taller and lankier; the sleeves, which had once ended perfectly at Zuko’s palms, leave most of Sokka’s forearms exposed.
“This troupe did justice to The Mystery of Passang’s Light,” Zuko replies.
“That … means nothing to me.”
“Passang’s Light is one of the earlier plays by Xiaoyu, before he was exiled from his village. You can tell because the verses don’t yet have traces of the waka poetry—”
“Sokka, you don’t want to get him started,” Mai says.
“Why don’t you let him speak?” Katara asks.
“Do you want to hear about some dead poet?”
“A playwright, actually,” Zuko interjects.
“Still old and dead.”
Zuko shrugs. He’s long given up on Mai becoming interested in literature. “I guess so.”
“Hey, I think they’re starting!” Aang pipes up.
Zuko turns to the stage, and sure enough, the non-essential lanterns and wall sconces are slowly being extinguished, until only the stage is lit. Mai settles in next to him, leaning against him with her head on his shoulder; Zuko knows, from past experience, she’ll be subtly napping until intermission.
“Are you comfortable?” he asks her in a whisper.
She makes a noise, which Zuko thinks means Yes. “Watch your play,” she murmurs, and Zuko obligingly focuses on the stage.
Aang and Katara depart for the South Pole a few days later, and Sokka slips into Zuko’s routine as if he’s always been there. At first, he simply shadows Zuko at any meeting or event that doesn’t require a specific rank or where Sokka’s presence wouldn’t raise any questions. The warrior observes Zuko and the others in the room with only occasional color commentary—commentary that does have Zuko stifling a grin now and then. Sycophantic might be Zuko’s new favorite word, particularly when Sokka’s grumbling it.
Sokka, however, is also curious by nature, so he’s soon exploring the palace and capital and getting to know people on his own whenever Zuko is occupied by something that Sokka can’t attend. Zuko learns about these adventures after dinner, when they sneak away from the palace to “play with their swords,” as Mai puts it, at the old training grounds. Zuko is forever frustrated that no one wants to risk offending him by beating him, even in a practice match, but he knows that Sokka has no such compunctions. Moreover, the old training grounds were abandoned early in Ozai’s reign when military training became an endeavor too large to fit in the densely packed capital. No one ever hangs around this part of the palace, so Zuko and Sokka can speak freely.
“Dude, I gotta say, the architecture of this place sucks,” Sokka pants out.
Zuko parries a thrust aimed at his thigh and uses the momentum to press forward, pushing Sokka closer to the wooden fence of their sparring ring. “How so?” he asks.
Zuko strikes at Sokka, but suddenly Sokka catches the flat of Zuko’s sword with the tip of his, and with a deft twist, disarms Zuko. Zuko backs up, the wooden edge of Sokka’s sparring blade pressed into his throat. “Where’d you learn that?” Zuko asks, because he knows he’s never seen Sokka use that move before.
Sokka takes a moment to catch his breath before lowering his practice weapon. “Couple months ago, from some guys in the Earth Kingdom.”
They drift to the edge of the ring, Zuko picking up his practice blade, to where they left their outer layers and water. This close to the coast, and with summer reaching its end, the nights cool off quickly, and it’s asking for trouble to not carry extra clothing when going outdoors after dusk.
“You were criticizing the architecture of the palace?” Zuko prompts as he passes Sokka his water.
“Oh. Right. I know you’re the nation of firebenders and all, but that doesn’t mean fire has to be your only light source. Why isn’t there any sunlight inside ever? At all? It’s like you’re asking to be grouchy and in a bad mood all the time.”
Zuko can’t help the smile that curls his lips. It’s fun to listen to Sokka on a roll, especially when Zuko agrees with what Sokka is saying.
“Metal might be indestructible unless it’s met by mechanical force or Toph, but unless you’re building to survive a modern siege, it’s absolutely ridiculous as a primary building material. Especially inside. How do you not all die of heatstroke in the summer? Even this late in the season I’m sweating buckets, and I swear I’ll be sleeping naked in the winter if I stay here that long. But how will I even know for sure that it’s winter, without a single window to see the world outside? If it weren’t for the courtyards and what Yong does for them, I think this place could drive anyone insane.”
Zuko snorts. Even with the courtyards, insanity seems to have festered in his childhood home. “You met Yong?” he asks, opting for the safer conversational route.
Sokka nods, leaning against the fence of the practice ring. “You know her?”
Yong has tended to the palace courtyard gardens since before Zuko was born. “Only in passing. She’s always been kind,” Zuko says. Even when I wasn’t, he thinks but doesn’t add out of shame.
“Too kind to tell people when to buzz off,” Sokka says. “She says Admiral Eun’s wife comes by three times a week to complain about her husband’s complaining about shipping routes.”
Zuko frowns. “Shipping routes?”
Sokka shifts his weight. “Does that mean something to you?”
“It does when it’s mentioned with Admiral Eun.”
Sokka nods curtly, and Zuko realizes, with some surprise, that he can see in Sokka’s expression the moment he shifts from casual conversation to adding new information from Zuko to a larger network he’s been building about the Fire Nation capital. “Yong said she heard something about new shipping routes that aren’t being completed quickly enough.”
Admiral Eun has one order, right now, and that order—from Zuko himself—involves a single, one-way and pre-established shipping route from the Earth Kingdom to the Fire Nation. “We’re going to have to look into that,” Zuko intones.
“Save it for tomorrow,” Sokka says, pushing himself off the fence and setting down his water. “Ready for another round?” he asks.
Sokka’s already moving toward the center of the ring, and he gives Zuko’s shoulder two solid pats as he passes. Zuko’s first instinct is to freeze. He knows what Sokka—and Aang and Katara and Toph—are like with their affection. It’s casual, physical, and laid bare, and it’s a far cry from what Zuko has become re-acclimated to over the last year and change. Aside from Mai, the only contact Zuko has had with another person is the occasional, accidental brush of a hand of someone helping him dress in formal clothing.
“I’m ready,” Zuko says and forces himself to shake it off, drifting to join Sokka in the center of the ring.
Admiral Eun has been covertly running small transport ships between the mainland of the Earth Kingdom and an island off its coast for the last two months. The transports travel at night, dumping stockpiles of weaponry and armor that are taken from Admiral Eun’s main force, which is slowly traveling over land to the port from which it will depart for the Fire Nation. What was Admiral Eun going to do with the weapons and armor?
“Melt them down and sell the raw material to the highest Fire Nation bidder, while claiming it’s Earth Kingdom metal by doing the processing at a factory operated by Earth Kingdom nationals on the island,” Sokka explains. “It would in theory keep it under the radar from you, except…”
“My husband will work himself into the ground with this project,” Jingyi says.
Zuko picks up one of the several papers laid out next to him on the stone bench. The three of them are in one of the quieter palace courtyards; Zuko hadn’t wanted this meeting to be official in any capacity beyond him being present, and Sokka hadn’t found fault with the instinct. It’s been two weeks since Sokka mentioned his casual conversation with Yong, and Sokka did well on his promise to find out more. It certainly helped that Jingyi ended up being more than happy to tell Sokka all about her husband’s activities.
What Zuko finds interesting is Jingyi’s reason for turning over the correspondences Admiral Eun had left at their home in the capital city. It’s not about the subterfuge or exploitation in her husband’s scheme, nor it she trying to have her husband punished; she also doesn’t care, apparently, about the extra income her husband was hoping to make on the scheme, though Jingyi’s family has been well-off for so many generations that that’s almost a moot point. No, Jingyi has cooperated with Sokka—and intentionally been loud and talkative with Yong, apparently—in the hopes that her husband get caught so he can come home and stop being stressed by this latest endeavor.
Zuko isn’t sure how he feels about the whole thing. He doesn’t know what Sokka makes of it, either, but he hasn’t bothered to ask and Sokka hasn’t brought it up.
“I know my husband, Fire Lord Zuko,” Jingyi says. “He isn’t made for this kind of deceit. He was confused by the sudden end of the war and acted rashly when he received orders to return home. I’ve been convincing him to abandon this ridiculous project. You can see, in our most recent letters, that it’s working.”
She kneels on the grass to be eye level with Zuko’s bench, gently shuffling the papers until she finds the one she’s looking for. She slides it closer to Zuko, and he obligingly picks it up. The penmanship reminds Zuko of his mother’s: not refined from a childhood spent learning calligraphy in formal educational programs, but still neat and legible enough. The first paragraph seems to be a response to Jingyi relating some family drama, but then Zuko reaches the second, which reads:
My love, perhaps you were right. This whole endeavor is not worth the effort and the sleeplessness I’ve put into it. I just don’t see how I can put a stop to the motions that are now in place and are moving faster than I can think. Too many others are in the know; to abandon my efforts would be to bring more dishonor to our family than the original breaking of my orders, and you know how some of these families feel about the new Fire Lord, anyway. What I would give, though, to be home with you and our children again…
Zuko looks up at Jingyi. Her name had sounded familiar when Sokka first mentioned it, but it wasn’t until she came to the palace a half-hour ago that he realized why: Jingyi and Admiral Eun’s wedding was the first Fire Nation wedding Zuko had attended. That was five years ago, only a couple short months before his banishment; he had gone with his uncle, who was friendly with Admiral Eun. It hadn’t been the happiest event. Jingyi’s family, Fire Nation aristocrats since before Sozin’s time, were displeased about their eldest daughter, at age 20, marrying a 38-year-old country peasant who had to fight tooth and nail to earn his military rank. The wedding party tension, however, clearly didn’t dispel the infatuation between the newlyweds, and Zuko remembers deriding Iroh’s tearful sighs when the couple recited their vows. He regrets doing so; he’d only done it because it seemed like the kind of thing Azula would do.
“How do some of the families feel about the new Fire Lord?” Zuko asks Jingyi.
Jingyi doesn’t falter in holding his gaze as she says, “They doubt your legitimacy and ability, so they believe that disobeying your orders doesn’t count as treason. They’re upset that the war has ended.”
“And how does your husband feel?”
“He’s devoted his life to your military since he was your age, Fire Lord Zuko. He feels uncertain about what his life and the military will look like without a war. But I don’t think he ever fought for love of war; he fought to feel accepted somewhere.”
There’s an unwavering belief behind her steady voice and even expression. When Zuko glances at Sokka, who’s standing a couple paces behind Jingyi, Sokka nods shortly. Zuko wonders at Sokka’s uncharacteristic silence throughout this exchange, but it feels inappropriate to drag him into a conversation he hasn’t felt a need to participate in so far.
So Zuko shuffles the letters on the bench into a neat pile, which he returns to Jingyi. “We have a plan,” Zuko says, “That I hope you find amenable.”
Later that night, when they’re sparring again, Zuko finds it him to say, “You were quiet during Jingyi’s visit.”
Sokka deflects his strike and turns Zuko’s momentum against him, forcing Zuko to dance away a couple steps. It’s another new move that Zuko doesn’t already have in his How Sokka Fights catalogue. “Wanted to see what you would say,” Sokka grunts out.
Zuko dodges another couple blows, feints, and goes for Sokka’s exposed side. “You were testing me?”
“I was curious!”
Zuko uses his elbow to knock Sokka off balance and then carries through the motion to pivot and disarm Sokka in a blink. They freeze with the point of Zuko’s practice weapon pressed into Sokka’s side. “Nice move,” Sokka says.
Zuko backs away, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Curious about what?”
Sokka shrugs. “There are a lot of ways you could handle a military leader disobeying your orders.”
Yes, and Zuko and Sokka had spent days going through them before coming up with a plan that Jingyi agreed would work on Admiral Eun. “You already knew what the plan is,” Zuko says dumbly.
“Yeah, but it was just a plan,” Sokka replies, walking away to fetch his sparring blade. “You could’ve said anything to Jingyi.”
And then it hits Zuko: Sokka doesn’t see his role here in the way that Zuko sees Sokka’s role.
“Don’t you know that I trust you?” Zuko blurts.
“Of course,” Sokka says casually, straightening up and resting a fist on his hip. “I wouldn’t be hanging out in the Fire Nation capital and sitting in on meetings otherwise, would I?”
“Sokka, I didn’t invite you to stay to be another set of eyes and ears,” Zuko says, his incredulity building. “You’re brilliant, you get people, and you think in ways that I don’t. If we make a plan together, that’s the plan I’m going with, because I believe it’s the best idea that we can put forward.”
Sokka blinks, and Zuko sways where he’s standing. He doesn’t know where those words came from, but he does know that they’re true.
The silence holds for two breaths, and then Sokka looks at the ground, rubbing the back of his neck. “Um. Thanks,” he says. “Sorry for doubting you.”
Zuko shakes his head. “It’s my fault. I hadn’t realized …”
What—that Sokka didn’t know his worth to Zuko? That Zuko hadn’t made clear the trust he put in Sokka?
Before he can complete his awkwardly trailing thought, Sokka looks up again and bounces onto the balls of his feet. “Another round?” he asks, raising his practice blade.
And this is a language Zuko has always found easier to understand and speak, so he raises his own blade and surges forward.
Visiting his sister has, in excruciatingly small increments, become easier.
“So nice of you to come here and gloat, Zuzu,” Azula drawls from where she’s sprawled across several floor cushions.
She flips her wrist in a circle, drawing a flame out of the air to dance on the index and middle fingers she has pressed together, and Zuko’s guards stationed around the room react, readying their weapons. Zuko waves them off and continues to pour tea for him and his sister.
Azula’s bending isn’t what it once was, after spending several months behind bars—months that Zuko doesn’t feel good about, but also recognizes kept many people from harm when she was losing herself. While Azula’s technique is still a notch above Zuko’s, her strength isn’t there, whereas Zuko’s has been growing since he and Aang met the dragons. Zuko can handle her; he’s proven he can handle her. If he counted every attempt Azula has made on his life during these monthly tea visits, he’d be much higher than fourteen on his assassination count.
“This tea is supposed to be very good,” Zuko tells his sister. “It came from a small farming village a few days away from Omashu.”
Azula lets the flame on her fingertips die. “New Ozai peasant tea? Exhilarating,” she says sarcastically, but she nonetheless picks up her mug and takes a sip. Her expression remains impassive.
It’s a marked improvement from last month, when Zuko left his visit dripping with a pot’s worth of tea water.
“Have you razed to the ground yet everything that Grandfather spent his life working towards?” Azula inquires.
“No,” Zuko answers. What he’s trying to do—what he wants to do—is a much more complicated answer, and the ideas are still developing, but Zuko knows that Azula isn’t remotely interested in that. Azula actually thinks Zuko is royally screwing up everything their family and nation has ever worked for, and she tries to remind him of that every time they talk. Zuko could point out that Sozin’s vision for their nation was only a hundred years old, a blip in the longer view of time itself. Zuko could argue that Azula’s championing some harmful and bigoted and violent worldviews.
But that’s not what these monthly teas are about. Azula’s ideology can be addressed later. First, Zuko needs his sister to know that he cares about her—cares in a way that Ozai and Ursa and even Iroh never did. And he dares to hope that it’s starting to get across; she hasn’t tried to kill him the last two times he visited.
“I like what you’ve done with your hair,” Zuko says.
Azula straightens up, carding her fingers through the bangs that just fall into her eyes. “I don’t,” she counters. “I need it to grow out so I can try something different.”
“It’s shorter in the back, too, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t know you were such a girl, Zuzu, paying attention to hair like that.”
Having spent enough time with Toph, Aang, and Sokka, Zuko is well aware that attention to hair isn’t a girl thing, but he simply adds that to the long mental list of things about which he should one day have a conversation with Azula. It’s a dauntingly long list, but Azula’s mentors at this center for spirituality and health assured Zuko that there is hope that one day, he and Azula will be able to have difficult conversations without lighting buildings on fire and attempting to kill each other.
“You’re my sister. I pay attention to you,” Zuko says instead.
Azula scoffs, as if that’s a ridiculous statement, but she sips her tea instead of offering a scathing retort.
They’re in Azula’s private dining room, a small square that feels much larger than it is with its floor to ceiling west-facing windows. Even though this room looks like every other room that Zuko has visited in this center, it doesn’t feel sterile, and Azula has even hung a few personalizations on the walls: a small painting sent by Mai, a beautiful embroidered illustration of Ember Island created by Ty Lee, and Azula’s own attempt at a tapestry that has several expletive characters amidst what appears to be a standard floral pattern.
“Did you ever go to a Fire Nation wedding?” Zuko asks.
Azula narrows her eyes at Zuko. “Are you going to propose to Mai?”
Zuko chokes on his tea, and Azula smirks. “Not now,” Zuko coughs out, pounding his chest. He clears his throat, takes a proper sip of tea, and settles again. “I met a woman whose wedding I attended. I realized it was the only one I had been to.” Before banishment. Before becoming the Fire Lord, who apparently is expected to be at certain wedding ceremonies.
“Mai would kill you if you proposed to her,” Azula observes.
“Did you ever go to a wedding?” Zuko pushes again. He knows Mai doesn’t want to get married now. He doesn’t exactly want to, either; they’re seventeen, and Zuko’s trying to lead a nation that seems less than excited about him as a person, much less a leader.
“One of Mai’s cousins got married after Father banished you,” Azula says. She loves to bring up Zuko’s banishment, at any opportunity; Zuko wonders when she’ll notice it no longer grates on his nerves the way it used to. “And one of Ty Lee’s sisters. I found the ceremonies vapid and a waste of time.”
Zuko doesn’t know why he expected any other kind of response from his sister. “Have you heard from Ty Lee recently?” he asks, deciding to divert to another topic.
“Why should I tell you if I have?”
The hour is the most peaceable tea that Zuko’s yet had with Azula, and he leaves in hopeful spirits. He’s about to depart the center when he runs into Hye, one of the women taking particular care of Azula.
“Hye,” he calls, striding across the entrance hall to bow to the healer in question.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Hye acknowledges, bowing back. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
Hye looks old enough to be Zuko’s mother, with gray hair just starting to thread through the black, but she radiates a different type of strength than Ursa did. Something about it makes Zuko want to please her, even if he only has short chats with her in passing during his monthly visits.
“Azula seems to be doing better,” Zuko says.
Hye doesn’t smile like Zuko expected her to; she only nods. “This has been a good week for her.”
“I’m glad she’s making progress.”
“I am, too, Fire Lord Zuko,” Hye says, “but I caution you to remember: recovery is not a straight line.”
Hye says it often. Zuko admits he sometimes wants to shake her; he heard her the first time. But Zuko was raised to have and has finally made a practicing of exhibiting manners and restraint, so he says instead, “I’ll keep that in mind,” before bowing again and walking out the front doors of the spirituality and healing center.
When Admiral Eun walks into the throne room, he’s already sweating. His stride is even and his spine is ramrod straight—military straight—but from this high angle, Zuko can see the flickering light of the wall sconces reflected by the glistening rise of Admiral Eun’s forehead.
It’s the secondary throne room, technically, where Ursa used to receive less important guests and conduct less important business when Ozai was busy in the main throne room, but Zuko has poor memories of the main throne room. He didn’t want to inherit it. In fact, the day after his coronation, Zuko snuffed out Azulon’s ever-burning wall of flame, redistributed the furniture to different corners of the palace, disbanded Ozai’s council, and repurposed the grand hall of a room as a closet. The dim, echoing space is now stacked high with furniture, relics, art, and broken mechanical equipment that Zuko eventually has to deal with—wants to deal with—but he’s a bit preoccupied by more pressing things at the moment. Things like military leaders taking advantage of fragile Earth Kingdom village economies, flouting orders, and taking Zuko’s time and attention when there are a hundred other things that also want his time and attention.
Besides, Zuko doesn’t need a wall of flame to separate him from his citizens and guests; an ornately carved wooden throne on an elevated platform is enough of an architectural respect me, please, for Zuko’s liking.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Admiral Eun says when he reaches the platform, kowtowing before Zuko.
“Please, stand,” Zuko says.
Admiral Eun returns to his feet. He’s an average height man with more gray than brown in his hair, but Ursa’s throne still puts Zuko well above the top of the admiral’s head. “Do you know why you are here?” Zuko asks.
Admiral Eun glances nervously at Sokka, who’s standing on the floor to Zuko’s side, before returning his gaze to Zuko’s feet. “I think so, my lord,” he confesses quietly.
Sokka takes that as his cue to move forward to the long, rectangular table that occupies the center of the room. “Admiral Eun, if you’d join me, please,” Sokka says, gesturing at the other side of the table.
The admiral glances at Zuko, and at Zuko’s nod, follows Sokka’s instruction.
Sokka lays bare everything they’ve learned about Admiral Eun’s diversion project, providing proof with correspondence and documentation that Sokka has collected since Zuko asked him to dig deeper, but without mentioning Jingyi. They agreed Sokka would do this part of the talking, in part because Sokka can describe the connections and logistics behind their findings more smoothly than Zuko can, and in part because they want Admiral Eun to sweat a little: the older man has to listen to a stranger detail everything he thought he was doing covertly while Zuko—not only the leader of his nation, but also the head of the military Admiral Eun is so devoted to—simply listens.
And there’s a third point, that Zuko didn’t disclose to Sokka: Zuko kind of enjoys watching Sokka talk a pointed and incisive circle around people. Spending the past year at court has given Zuko an appreciation for the art of speaking, particularly when it comes to politics, and Sokka is able to spin a narrative that ends in a dagger-sharp point with more skill and aplomb than most of the seasoned court politicians. The art of speaking isn’t that different from the art of swordplay or the art of bending; talent or lack thereof is recognizable, and sometimes, people just have a gift.
When Sokka finishes, he’s barely containing a smirk as he crosses his arms at Admiral Eun, who’s sweating even more. Admiral Eun turns to Zuko, brown eyes flared wide. “My lord,” he stammers, “I’m—I don’t—”
“You disobeyed a direct order, Admiral Eun,” Zuko says.
Admiral Eun hangs his head, staring once more at Zuko’s feet. “Yes, my lord.”
“Such disloyalty cannot pass without reprimand,” Zuko continues. “You will return to this island and return the land deeds to the Earth Kingdom citizens from which you purchased them. You will not receive your original payment back in exchange. Additionally, for anything you have added to the land since its purchase, you will communicate with the original deed holders regarding whether they want such additions removed. Any materials explicitly belonging to the Fire Nation military must be removed, at my order. And then you will follow your original orders as I issued them. Do you understand me?”
The admiral’s eyebrows knot, his mouth hanging open as he processes exactly what Zuko’s demanding of him. “Yes?” The admiral offers.
“I hear hesitation, Admiral Eun. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, my lord,” Admiral Eun says hastily.
“Good,” Zuko says.
He rises from his seat and goes down the steps of the elevated platform to stand directly in front of Admiral Eun. They’re nearly the same height, but the difference in their age is apparent in the lines of Admiral Eun’s face. Zuko finds it odd that he can strike fear in a man old enough to be his father. “Sokka will be going with you,” Zuko tells the admiral.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Carry out these orders quickly, Admiral Eun, so you may sooner return to your family.”
Zuko raises a hand, and before it lands on Admiral Eun’s upper arm, Zuko sees the older man flinch. He doesn’t comment on it, instead squeezing the admiral lightly before letting go. “You’re dismissed,” he says, and the admiral bows quickly to Zuko and Sokka before striding as fast as he can out of the room.
Zuko stares after him even when the doors are swung shut by the guards outside. Admiral Eun, a seasoned military leader, had flinched when Zuko raised his hand. He’d assumed that Zuko would—strike him? Burn him?
Zuko turns to Sokka, whose brow is knitted. “You saw that too?” Sokka asks.
Zuko nods. “I—is that what he thinks of me? Or is this another legacy from my father?”
There’s disgust in his tone that Zuko couldn’t hide if he wanted to. It seems like every day, he discovers something new about his father, something that others expect Zuko will inherit by nature of being Ozai’s son—forget the banishment, forget ending the war.
“Well,” Sokka says, drawing Zuko out of his thoughts, “I can try to figure that out during our field trip.”
“You’re sure you’re okay with going?” Zuko asks.
Sokka is the only person returning with Admiral Eun to his troops, which means if their plan and Jingyi’s judgement of her husband fail, Sokka could be alone against a fleet of Fire Nation soldiers. They feel good about their chances, though, and if they’re trying to establish that Zuko isn’t going to be just a different brand of distrusting tyrant, it wouldn’t look good to send Admiral Eun away from the capital with an armed escort or anything as dramatic.
Sokka gathers the papers he had spread on the table. “Come on, you know I’ll be good,” he says jocularly. “We’ve all thrown ourselves headfirst into worse things.”
Zuko grins. “I suppose so.”
Sokka tucks the papers into a satchel and comes around the corner of the table to clap a hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here. Is it lunch time yet? I feel like it could be lunch time.”
“We had breakfast two hours ago.”
“And I’m a growing young man! Like you aren’t hungry all the time, too.”
The days seem quieter without Sokka around. Zuko was in a meeting when Admiral Eun left, on the same day as the confrontation in the throne room, so he didn’t send off either the admiral or Sokka, but Mai had gone to say goodbye to Sokka. Zuko’s girlfriend had somehow managed to rope Sokka into consulting some of the work she’s doing on an education reform project at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, and even though Sokka’s still unsure if Mai likes him or not, Zuko can tell she thinks that they’re friends.
Without Sokka to spar with after dinner, Zuko is restless and admittedly at a loss, so it’s a relief a few days later when Mai mentions she’s going to walk around the city one night. “Reading to Tom-Tom is so boring,” she says with a sigh.
“Can I come with you?” Zuko asks.
“Can I really say no?” Which is Mai for Yeah, sure.
So Zuko finds himself walking with Mai down the quiet streets of the capital city, their path lit by street lamps and starlight.
The streets didn’t always used to be this quiet. Zuko remembers when he was young and the weather permitted it, Ursa would take him and Azula to one of the upper balconies of the palace, where they could look down on the city sprawling below them. So long as it wasn’t raining, restaurant patrons would spill out onto the cobblestone streets, either chattering merrily or listening to a musical performer, and the streets that didn’t have restaurants or bars or tea joints would spark and glow with the fireworks of street performers and the sparklers of children.
As he grew older, however, the neighborhoods closest to the palace lost their spark and energy, and something had happened during the three years of Zuko’s banishment to muffle the entire city into silence, like a thick layer of snow blanketing a home from the entire world outside. It’s hard to believe that there’s life in this city.
“You’re lost again.”
Zuko blinks, coming back to the present. “I’m not lost,” he says, putting an arm around Mai’s shoulders. “I’m just … being quiet.”
Mai humphs noncommittally, but she adjusts her stride to better match Zuko’s. It makes his partial embrace easier to maintain. “Tom-Tom learned another word today.”
“What was it?”
And that’s the end of that conversation. Zuko has known that Mai’s succinct, and has appreciated that her concision can make it easier to understand what she’s saying, but it sometimes leaves them with silences that Zuko doesn’t know how to fill. Part of his uncertainty is that he doesn’t think Mai always wants him to fill them.
They reach a small square with a garden in its center. Even though the planted flowers are not as bright as they would have been a few weeks ago, it’s a beautiful spot, and Zuko wonders why no one else is here. Mai adjusts their angle so they’re headed toward one of the low stone benches on the garden’s perimeter, and Zuko obligingly follows.
They sit down, and Zuko isn’t expecting Mai to grab him by the back of the neck, but that’s exactly what she does, tilting to her head to kiss him. His hands find her waist, and he honestly can’t remember the last time they kissed like this, continuous and open-mouthed in a way that warms Zuko’s insides. Mai hums against his lips, and a shiver that has nothing to do with the night air rolls down Zuko’s spine.
When Mai pulls away, Zuko’s lips feel tender. His eyes open, and in the faint lamp light, he can’t quite parse Mai’s expression. “Are you okay?” he asks.
It wasn’t the right thing to say; Mai’s hand slips away from his neck. “I’m fine,” she says, turning away from him and leaning into his side.
Her voice sounds normal, so Zuko slides an arm around her again. “What kind of flowers do you think those are?” he asks, nodding at a low-lying bush with orange-petaled blossoms on it.
Mai scoffs. “You think I know anything about flowers?”
She has a point. “Uncle would know,” Zuko says.
They lapse into silence. It persists until one of the lamps flickers out; it must have run out of oil. “It’s late,” Zuko says. “We should head back.”
Mai wordlessly stands, and for some reason, it takes Zuko an extra moment to rise from the bench and follow after her.
When Sokka returns, he has a new Earth Kingdom-made coin purse and a carving knife that Zuko recognizes as Fire Nation make, but cannot identify the specific region it’s from. “Look! It matches my satchel perfectly!” Sokka exclaims, holding up the coin purse against the fabric of his bag.
Mai laughs, and Zuko hides his grin behind his mug of tea. The three of them are in Sokka’s guest chambers, ostensibly to catch up, but so far it’s mostly been Sokka settling back in and waxing poetic about the two marketplaces he had the chance to wander around when Admiral Eun was docked and waiting at a port city.
Zuko re-sheathes the knife and passes it to Mai, who looks at it with interest. “This isn’t meant to be a weapon, is it?” she asks Sokka.
Sokka tucks his new coin purse into his satchel and finally comes over to the low table where Zuko and Mai are sitting. “It’s a carving knife,” Sokka says. “One of Eun’s own, actually. Did you know he comes from a family of butchers?”
Sokka hasn’t once referred to the admiral by his rank since Zuko and Mai arrived, and Zuko would wager money that Sokka somehow turned a low-key, oversee-and-guard role into an unlikely friendship.
“I bet I could turn this into a weapon,” Mai muses, tossing the knife in the air to test its weight.
“I bet you could, but that was a generous gift from the man’s personal collection,” Sokka says.
He tries to snatch the knife out of the air, but Mai’s faster. She sheathes the blade and passes it, handle-first, to Sokka on the other side of the table.
“You spent some time talking to Admiral Eun?” Zuko asks.
Sokka nods. “He was a bit suspicious at first that you were trying to pull something on him, since his ‘punishment’ is basically undo the trouble you started and then go home to your loving wife, but hey—I’m a persuasive guy.”
“You mean you pestered him into submission?” Mai suggests dryly.
“Pestering is a strategy and a choice,” Sokka shoots back, “which I did use in tasteful amounts this time around.”
A short laugh escapes Mai. Zuko pours a cup of tea for Sokka. “Did you find out anything about my father?”
Sokka nods, the mirth slipping out of his expression. “Not from Eun directly. I heard some of his soldiers say some things throughout the trip.” Sokka takes a sip of tea, his gaze focused on something invisible to the naked eye. When he speaks again, it’s as gentle as Zuko has ever heard him. “Ozai … would punish people. Physically. Not often, but enough that word would get around at every level of the military, it seems.”
Zuko sits back, staring at his hands in his lap. He’s not surprised, necessarily. He’s experienced his father’s brand of retribution firsthand, and he knows that the way that Ozai ruled was not dissimilar from the way he raised his children: instilling obedience through fear. But it still feels like a different thing to hear confirmation of it from someone else.
Mai’s fingertips land on Zuko’s knee. “You’re not him,” she tells Zuko.
“Our plan is working,” Sokka adds. “Eun already thinks you’re reasonable. The people who know about what he was doing will see that you’re not overzealous.”
“Or they’ll think I’m weak,” Zuko tells his hands.
“If that’s the case, we’ll deal with it when it comes.”
There’s such a nonchalance to Sokka’s tone that Zuko wonders if he’s possibly overthinking things again. He looks at Mai, who doesn’t say anything, but her hand is still resting on his leg, which feels like it counts for something. “I guess we will,” Zuko concedes.
Sokka grins broadly, returning to his animated self. “So. What did I miss when I was babysitting a Fire Nation admiral?”
Zuko, like most firebenders, has been a morning person since birth, so it’s in turns confusing and amusing to him when other people not only sleep through sunrise, but are also able to sleep in for hours.
Sokka is one such person, and while usually Zuko would let it slide—Sokka did just get back from an extended trip during which he had to constantly be on his guard—it’s almost midday and Zuko really wants Sokka to be at the meeting with the resettlement planing committee. Zuko thinks one of the engineers is full of it, but he wants Sokka to make his own judgment about the man before Zuko starts asking more pointed questions about a subject that admittedly isn’t his strong suit.
Ordinarily, Zuko would have sent someone to check on Sokka for him, but his last meeting ended early, and making the trip himself is an excuse to stretch his legs. Zuko knows he made the right choice when the walk itself improves his mood; more sunlight reaches this side of the palace, and there’s the actual occasional window to let it through.
When Zuko reaches Sokka’s chambers, he knocks on the outer door. “Sokka?” he calls.
There’s no answer, not even when he knocks several more times with increasing volume, so Zuko risks opening the outer door and sliding into the chambers. The multifunctional antechamber is pristine and empty, and the sliding door to the bedroom is shut. Zuko holds still, listening for anything, but he can only hear his own heartbeat.
He takes the two steps to bring himself close to the sliding door and raps his knuckles on the wooden frame. There’s the shuffle of bedsheets and a muffled groan; then silence.
Zuko knocks again. “Sokka?”
More shuffling, and then: “Wazzit?”
His words are slurred together as if he is still half-asleep, and Zuko kind of feels bad about bothering Sokka, now. “Uh. It’s me. We have that meeting, soon?”
There’s a scrambling noise and a thunk, followed by cursing that rapidly approaches Zuko. Zuko backs away from the door in time for Sokka to slam it open, his eyes flaring as wide as Zuko’s are. “Are we going to be late?” Sokka asks.
Sokka’s disheveled, his hair loose and the waistband of his undergarment twisted halfway around his hips. There are crease marks on his cheek, undoubtedly from his pillow.
It takes Zuko a moment to find his voice. “It starts in about ten minutes.”
Sokka turns away, diving back into the bedroom half of the chambers, and Zuko keeps his eyes carefully trained on whatever it is that’s outside of Sokka’s window. His cheeks feel warm; he doesn’t know what to think of that. It was the shock, maybe, of being unexpectedly confronted with so much skin. The people in the capital like to stay conservatively covered, even at the peak of summer, and Zuko knows he’s become re-accustomed to most aspects of life in this city. It’s almost alarming, how quickly his mind’s readjusting to consider capital life as the normal.
“Okay!” Sokka shouts, almost toppling out of the bedroom. He finishes tying his top knot and grins at Zuko with a piece of jerky held between his teeth. “Leggo!”
Zuko hurries to follow Sokka out of his chambers. “Do you want something to eat?” he asks. He recognizes Sokka’s sudden alertness as the reaction of a battle-hardened warrior, going from dead asleep to wide awake in an instant. But they’re not headed to a fight that will keep the blood flowing and the mind and body engaged; they’re headed to a drab meeting in a windowless room. Zuko thinks Sokka is liable to go back to sleep in the middle of it.
“This can tide me over.” Sokka waves the jerky.
“If you say so,” Zuko murmurs and then says, louder, “Sorry I woke you. I thought you’d be up by now—”
Sokka laughs. “Oh, man, no. If I have a real bed, I sleep like the dead.” They make a turn, and just like that, the tall hallway is devoid of sunlight again. “But,” Sokka continues, grinning and brandishing his jerky at Zuko, “The smell of food always gets me up.”
“So if I want you up at a reasonable hour, I should have breakfast in your room?”
Zuko’s lips twitch. He’s getting an idea for something that will make Sokka laugh. He thinks. “We’re here,” he says, stopping outside the doors of Ursa’s throne room.
Sokka’s momentum is still carrying him forward, and Zuko doesn’t think before he shoots out a hand to grab Sokka by the elbow and drag him in the right direction. Sokka yelps but catches himself before he falls over or crashes into Zuko. “Geez, hard pivot for a guy who was literally asleep ten minutes ago,” Sokka huffs.
Zuko lets go. “Sorry,” he says, without really meaning it. He swears he can still feel the warmth of Sokka’s skin on the pads of his fingers. “Ready?”
Sokka finishes his last bite of jerky and bares his teeth at Zuko. “Anything in my teeth?” he asks, voice distorted.
Zuko snorts. “You look ridiculous.”
“But is there?”
“No! Now come on. We’re starting soon.”
Sokka gives him a weird look, but gestures for Zuko to open the doors anyway.
It was meant to be a joke: Zuko would show up at Sokka’s chambers and settle in with a whole breakfast spread at the crack of dawn, to see if Sokka was telling the truth about the waking-to-food thing and, if so, to see how long it would take.
Sure enough, Sokka stumbles out of the bedroom minutes after Zuko has poured his tea, this time clothed but with his hair still down. He squints out the window at the rays of sunlight that are just reaching into the sky and scratches at his jaw. “You’re the worst,” he tells Zuko.
Zuko smiles to himself. With his voice pitched low from sleep and the once-shaven sides of his head grown out, Sokka bears an even stronger resemblance to Hakoda. “Would you like some tea?” Zuko asks.
Sokka drops down to the floor, taking a seat opposite Zuko. “Please,” he grumbles, running a hand through his hair and wincing when he encounters knots.
It was meant to be a joke, but after a cup of tea and a bowl of pickled vegetables bring Sokka to full consciousness, Zuko finds himself enjoying a shared breakfast. He usually eats alone, either in his room or, if he has extra time in the morning, on one of the palace’s upper balconies, but it’s nice to have company. He supposes that one day, he’ll have Mai to share his morning meals with, but he doesn’t really let himself think about it—there’s no point in thinking about it when they’re still a ways off from getting married.
“I think I’ll be getting a letter from Suki soon,” Sokka says.
Zuko looks up from his fish. “Did she not know you were here all this time?” Now that the war is over, there’s far less reason for postal services to be slow or delayed.
“Sort of? I wrote to her the day we decided I’d stay, but the Kyoshi Warriors travel so much it can take a while to get in touch.” Sokka snorts. “Sometimes we end up routing stuff through Aang, which—well, you know Aang. Trustworthy, but highly distractible.”
“How is Suki?”
“She’s good. Really good. She likes all the traveling.”
There’s a hitch to his tone, and Zuko must give him a quizzical look, because Sokka sighs and shifts his weight. “I’m happy for her, I really am,” he says. “I know what it’s like to get to travel the world after being confined to the same village for almost your entire life. And she is happy. I just—I sometimes miss her, I guess.”
Zuko fiddles with the cloth napkin in his lap. “That’s rough,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
Sokka shrugs, straightening up and plastering on a smile, and it hits Zuko how often Sokka does this, reverting to a laidback, don’t-worry-about-me-I’m-always-doing-fine attitude. It’s remarkable because Zuko falls for it almost every time. “Is your thing starting soon?” Sokka asks.
Zuko nods. “I should leave. Thank you for eating with me.”
Sokka waves a hand. “If there’s food, I’m there,” he jokes.
Zuko departs, and then it’s another long day of meetings and consultations and trying to not tear his own hair out. They’re inane enough that there was no reason to drag Sokka into them, but that’s just making Zuko wish Sokka were here; then Zuko would at least have his entertaining, under-the-breath commentary. He finally gets a break in the late afternoon, and when the page who had told him so retreats from Ursa’s throne room, Zuko sighs deeply, sinks into a chair at the long table, and lets his forehead thunk against the thick wooden surface. He’s simultaneously mentally spent but physically twitchy, and he knows that practicing his bending would help with both of those things, but his break is only half an hour.
He doesn’t know how long he’s sitting there with his head resting on the table, but when a knock comes from the door, Zuko knows it can’t have been his entire break. He sits up properly and calls out, “Enter.”
The page pokes his head through the door. “Admiral Eun for you, Fire Lord.”
Zuko blinks. The admiral has only been back for a few shorts days, and Zuko hadn’t intended to check on him for some while, particularly now that Sokka seems to be on good terms with Admiral Eun. “Send him in,” Zuko says, and the page disappears.
When the admiral enters, Zuko immediately gestures at the chair across from him. “Please, sit.”
Admiral Eun bows before obeying Zuko’s request. “Fire Lord Zuko,” he says after he sits, “Thank you for accepting me on informal, short notice.”
“It’s my pleasure. How is being home?”
“An adjustment, my lord. I’ve been stationed in the colonies for the better part of the last ten years.”
Zuko nods in acknowledgement. For some reason, sitting at the same level as Admiral Eun makes Zuko much more aware of the man’s age—not in the lines in his face or the gray peppering his beard, but in the weight of experience that seems to settle comfortably on the admiral’s broad shoulders. “What is it that brought you to me today?” Zuko asks.
Admiral Eun clears his throat and breaks eye contact. “My wife thinks highly of you,” he begins, and Zuko has to bite back an Of course. He basically delivered Admiral Eun back to Jingyi with a direct order to stay at home with her for the indefinite future.
“In our conversations over the last few days, she’s encouraged me to consider why I’ve made the choices I’ve made in my life, and whether those motivations are still what drive me today. I have reflected, and it occurred to me …”
The admiral inhales deeply and leans forward, folding his hands on the table as he looks Zuko in the eye. “Fire Lord Zuko, I was born in a humble village where people were content to do what they’d always known, and my desire to see the world was seen as extraordinarily, dangerously strange. The first time I met a Fire Nation soldier, I decided that that would be my way out of my home. I would find acceptance amongst soldiers who had also seen more of the world than their own village and the farms that surround it.
“Acceptance was not easily earned by a poor son of a butcher from the country, so I became very devoted to it. I am proud of the rank I have earned. I still remember meeting your father for the first time.”
The mention of Ozai makes Zuko think of how Admiral Eun had flinched when Zuko had reached out to him at the end of their first meeting. A chill runs under Zuko’s skin.
“But Jingyi’s questions—and the end of the war—have made this aging man reflective. Yes, in the last 30 years, I have been far beyond the village where I was born. But I’ve begun to doubt that traveling to distant places to burn them down and build them anew counts as seeing the world.”
Zuko nods. There’s a part of him that understands what Admiral Eun went through. When Zuko was first banished, his single-minded pursuit of Aang blinded him to the very world he was traveling through; it wasn’t until he and his uncle became refugees in the Earth Kingdom that Zuko finally began to see.
Admiral Eun seems to take Zuko’s nod as encouragement. With a twist of his wrist, he pulls a small, hidden scroll out from underneath his forearm greave and places it between them on the table. “Jingyi believes you mean to see the world for what it is,” Admiral Eun says, “and she has always been a better judge of character than I am.”
Zuko picks up the scroll. The paper is fragile but remarkably smooth, so much so that Zuko thinks this must be a scroll made for miniature calligraphy. Instead of careful artistry, however, the scroll is covered in a tight writing recognizable as Admiral Eun’s hand.
“This is a list of names,” Zuko says aloud.
Admiral Eun nods. “These were the individuals and families who were committed to the—uh, enterprise I had started.”
Zuko stops reading. He lets the scroll roll into itself again and leaves it on the tabletop, returning his hands to his lap. For a moment, he studies Admiral Eun’s countenance, but there’s nothing there that Zuko can read into.
“Do you want something for these names?” Zuko asks. He feels like it isn’t the best question he could be asking right now—isn’t even sure if it’s a question he should be asking—but he can’t think of anything better, and it’s what he wants to know right now.
When Admiral Eun shakes his head, Zuko isn’t sure if he feels relief or increased suspicion. “While I’ve only heard the talk from the colonies, I imagine this has not been easy,” the admiral says. “This scroll is meant to be a repentance that will help you, and … my gratitude for letting me return to my family.”
Zuko studies the older man. He seems … genuine. It’s a weird impression to be having in the throne room where Zuko’s had to deal with more ridiculous politics than any other place in this palace.
“I was at your wedding, five years ago,” Zuko says.
The admiral’s brown eyes widen, and he’s not the only one surprised by what just came out of Zuko’s mouth. And, apparently, Zuko’s not even done yet:
“I’m glad that you and your wife continue to love each other, and continue to find growth in one another.”
The smile that graces Admiral Eun’s face is small, but gives his entire presence a softer edge. “You speak eloquently, Fire Lord Zuko, especially for a young man.”
A knock from the throne room doors echoes through the room, signaling the end of Zuko’s break. He palms the scroll, tucking it snugly into the thick sash around his waist, and stands. Admiral Eun does the same.
“Thank you, Admiral Eun,” Zuko says and bows.
“Thank you, Fire Lord Zuko.”
As Zuko watches the admiral retreat, the scroll presses into his side like the tip of a blade.
It was meant to be a joke.
But when Zuko wakes at sunrise the next day, the thought of eating a small breakfast in his windowless chambers is a cold one. So he instead goes to an upper balcony, spends an hour running through some firebending forms, and then goes to wake Sokka with a table full of food.
And just like that, it becomes the new normal.
In the middle of autumn, when the flowers begin to lose their petals and the leaves on the trees turn a flaming orange and red, Zuko visits the Royal Fire Academy for Girls for the first time. He’s heard plenty about it before, of course, between Azula and Mai and even Ty Lee, and the academy has its reputation as the premier educational institute for girls in the Fire Nation. But he’s never had reason to visit, until now.
Mai’s leading him down one of the outdoor hallways that forms the first floor of the academy and surrounds a large, square courtyard that’s open to the sky. Though the sun’s heat should be strong on such a cloudless day, there’s an autumn wind that pinches Zuko’s cheeks and causes Mai’s hair and skirts to softly ride the air.
“The floors above are all classrooms?” Zuko asks.
“Mostly. Some of our teachers also live here.”
The academy feels strangely quiet, without any children running around. Classes are not in session, this week, following an old tradition of letting children have time off to help their families with the last of the harvest; now, none of the families who can afford to send their children to the academy are farmers.
Mai leads them up two staircases, down another hall, and then into a wide room with a long oval table in its center and large windows that look out over the north side of the city. “This is where we work,” Mai says.
Zuko looks around. More striking than the view outside are the sheer number of scrolls in this room, both hanging on the walls and organized in diamond-shaped shelves that stack four feet up from the ground. Of the hanging scrolls, most are covered in diagrams and notes too fine for him to see from a distance, but then he finds the corner he’s looking for: on the far end of the room, a series of hanging scrolls feature not densely packed text, but maps.
“Are those yours?” Zuko asks to confirm.
A smile twitches on Mai’s lips. “Who else’s?” she replies.
Zuko quickly crosses the room. When he’s close enough to reach out and touch the scrolls, he’s able to read the dates that have been written in the corner of the hand-drawn maps. Some are from before the end of the war; some are more recent.
Zuko turns to look at his girlfriend, who’s leaning against the table behind him with her arms loosely folded. “You did some of these from memory?” he asks, astounded.
Mai shrugs. “When I get bored, I study what’s around me. I never forget the geography or architecture of a place.”
Zuko leans in to peer at one of the scrolls. It's from about a year and a half ago, this time labeled with a location, too: Ba Sing Se, Third City Circle.
“These are incredible,” Zuko says.
“Mai’s one of the best cartographers the Fire Nation’s ever had.”
Zuko whips around. There’s a stranger standing in the doorway, a young woman with black hair that hangs all the way to her hips and skin that’s as dark, if not darker, than Sokka’s. Mai doesn’t seem alarmed by her appearance, so Zuko bows. The woman returns the gesture, and before Zuko can introduce himself, she says, “Fire Lord. We were expecting you sooner.”
Zuko glances guiltily at Mai. They’ve been talking about his visit to see her work for a few weeks now; Mai hadn’t seemed bothered when it kept getting pushed off, and she seems no more bothered now. “I apologize for not coming until now,” Zuko says.
“Chenda, this is my boyfriend, who’s been pretty busy for the last year,” Mai says, and Zuko feels his cheeks heat at Mai’s casual defense. “Zuko, this is Chenda. She graduated from the academy four years before me.”
Chenda steps into the room and draws up to the table opposite of Mai. “As I was saying, Mai’s maps are more detailed and accurate than anything the archives have on the Air Temples and Water Tribes.”
During his banishment, Zuko had worked with some of the archived cartography materials, and, glancing at Mai’s work again, he agrees with Chenda. He wonders why he never knew about this part of Mai. “I hadn’t realized your reform research was using the archives,” he says to both women.
For all that Zuko’s father and his father before him had seen to destroying libraries and archives and documentation around the world, they were obsessed with keeping information in the Fire Nation—carefully locked away, of course. Militarily useful information, like maps, about other nations is supposed to be difficult to obtain, and Zuko has no doubt that Mai’s been using her father’s governmental clearances to access such things.
He isn’t bothered by this realization, either, because he’s excited about the reform work Mai, Chenda, and others on the committee are bringing to the curriculum of the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. It’s more worldly, and seeks to ask and encourage questions more than provide answers. If all goes well, Zuko hopes Mai can continue, or at least bring, this work to other schools in the Fire Nation.
“And not much else escapes you, hm?” Chenda asks.
There’s a leading edge to her voice that Zuko instantly recognizes only because he’s heard it before from Katara. “I’m sorry?” Zuko asks.
Mai sighs. “Do you really want to get into this?” she asks Chenda, voice flat with boredom.
Chenda’s dark brown eyes spark. “Would you care to explain why, Fire Lord, the war has been over for a year, but the military still hoards the best resources for healing and medicine?”
Hoarding seems like a strong word, but that hardly seems like the right thing to start with, so Zuko scrambles for whatever thought comes next, which is, “Were you in the military?”
“I’ve been working as a trained healer for seven years, three of which were for your military. Are those credentials enough for you?”
“That’s not what I meant—”
“Sure, it wasn’t.”
Zuko glances at Mai, who’s inspecting her fingernails. She doesn’t notice his look.
“So, do you have a reason? Or even an excuse?” Chenda pushes.
Zuko’s rapidly developing the sense that no matter what he says, Chenda’s going to react negatively to it, so he might as well go with the truth. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the conditions of non-military healing centers.”
“And you didn’t think to ask anyone? Civilians get sick and hurt, too.”
“I know! I—I’m still working on finding people I can trust.”
“More than a year after your coronation?”
A muscle in Zuko’s cheek twitches. He’s aware that he’s failing pretty badly on that front, and he doesn’t need a stranger scoffing at him about it when he’s kicking himself for the same reason every day—
“People are still trying to kill him,” Mai says. “He has reason to be careful.”
Mai’s tone is neutral, but it’s the second time she’s defended Zuko since Chenda walked in, and it feels like—a lot. Chenda grumbles under her breath, something that sounds suspiciously like just a child, and Zuko’s blood rises. He’s grown this past year and a half, and seventeen years isn’t the age of a child, thank you.
Chenda looks at Zuko again, raising a sharp eyebrow. “Something needs to be done about it,” she says, tossing her head to adjust how her hair falls. A more neutral expression comes over her features. “We at the Royal Fire Academy appreciate your visit.”
She bows, and leaves the room before Zuko has a chance to respond.
Zuko looks at Mai, who’s finally looking back at him. “She seems like fun,” he observes.
Mai’s lips curl with amusement. “She knows what she’s doing.”
“What is she doing for the project?”
“She’s developing a healing program. The academy hasn’t had one before.”
Zuko glances at the doorway. It’s been a while since someone has been so directly critical of him, he realizes. Katara prefers an aggressive brand of passive aggression, and before her, it was Azula. But Azula’s criticisms were always meant to (and often did) cut Zuko down; Chenda’s seem to be more of a demand to be better.
Then it also occurs to him: before Chenda even got into it, Mai had asked her if she really wanted to get into this. Mai knew exactly what Chenda was going to say—has known about this, and didn’t mention a word of it to Zuko.
He feels some sort of way about it, but doesn’t know what way, so he decides to ignore it for now. He drifts back toward the corner with Mai’s maps and asks, “Which one is your favorite?”
Hours later, they’re having dinner with Sokka, and Zuko feels frustrated that he can’t figure out why Mai’s silence regarding Chenda bothered him. He’s even quieter than Mai as he picks at his food, and he’s struggling to pay attention to Sokka’s recounting of his day. He caught the bit about Sokka getting pulled into a long conversation with Jingyi at the market, about Sokka sitting in on a meeting with agricultural advisors who have returned from the countryside, and about Sokka trying a new fusion fruit at lunch, but other than that …
“How was the visit to the academy?” Sokka asks.
When Zuko doesn’t respond, Mai eventually answers, “Fine.”
There’s a beat. Zuko sips his tea, and Mai crunches on a handful of fire flakes. Sokka glances between the two of them and then barrels on, asking Mai, “So what subject did you end up being assigned to?”
“World cultures and geography. When I went there, we only learned about the Fire Nation.”
“Wow. They really start the nationalism early, huh?”
“Upper class women also aren’t expected to travel.”
Sokka frowns but doesn’t dig further. “You’ve been around the Earth Kingdom,” he says, “So what’s being done for the Water and Air Nations?”
“The military archive is extensive.”
Sokka gives a derisive snort. “Because sourcing information from the perspective of a colonial power is much better than, I don’t know, talking to living citizens of those nations?”
“Do you know non-Fire Nation people who’d want to come here just to work on a curriculum for school girls?” Mai drawls.
“Not for that sole purpose. But there’s got to be people out there who could help as, like, a side gig or something.” Sokka turns to Zuko, expression brightening. “Hey, when’s Aang supposed to visit again?”
“Not until after the new year,” Zuko replies.
Sokka hums. “I bet Aang would love to see anything the archive has about the Air Nomads.”
“Certain clearances are required,” Mai points out.
“He’s the Avatar! Isn’t that clearance enough?”
Suddenly, realization hits Zuko, and he drops his head into his hands with a groan. He senses more than sees Sokka and Mai turn to him.
“I told you those kebabs at lunch were probably bad,” Mai says.
“No, that’s not it,” Zuko says, raising his head again. Some of his hair has dislodged from his bun, but he can’t be bothered to fix it. “I’m such an idiot.”
A smile tugs at Mai’s lips. “About what this time?” she asks.
The subtle movement and taunting question would usually make Zuko feel like he’s nearly made Mai laugh, but right now, they just send another wave of irritation over Zuko. “I have the highest clearance in the entire nation,” Zuko tells Sokka, “And I could just. Give everything back.”
“You could, and that’d be awesome,” Sokka agrees. “Why does that make you an idiot?”
“Because it didn’t occur to me until you mentioned Aang. I’ve been dumbly sitting on this for a year and a half!”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Sokka says, and he’s not as subtle as he thinks he is when he nudges the plate of fried mochi closer to Zuko. “You’re one guy; you don’t need to come up with all of the ideas. That’s why we’re here for you.”
And finally, his hours of discontent make sense. Zuko whips his head toward Mai and brusquely asks, “Why didn’t you tell me about Chenda?”
He didn’t mean for it to come out so harshly, and Mai instantly bristles. “Excuse me?”
“You knew about Chenda’s complaints before she shared them with me. Why haven’t you brought them up before?”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to tell you about every single thing I hear and see,” Mai snaps.
Zuko exhales shortly through his nose. “That’s not—”
“Besides, it’s not like you even have someone you trust who could advise you on national health infrastructure.”
“So I could ask Chenda if she’d be willing to do that for me!”
Mai narrows her eyes at him, which is her version of a startled blink, and Zuko slumps as the burst of anger leaves him. His words had been moving faster than his thoughts, but now that there’s a moment of silence, he can catch up to himself. Yes, his heart confirms, he would like to speak to Chenda again.
The silence is broken by the scrape of ceramic on wood, and Zuko and Mai break eye contact to see Sokka nudging dishes in their direction: fried mochi again to Zuko, and dried apricots towards Mai. Sokka smiles broadly and yanks his hands back into his lap. “How about we take a break for a snack,” he says, “and then we figure out when I can sit down with this Chenda and learn some more from her?”
Zuko glances at Mai, who’s already reaching for a dried apricot. There’s a determined set to her jaw and a blankness in her eyes that feels like an elbow to Zuko’s gut. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly, even though Sokka can surely still hear him in this small a room.
“Eat your mochi,” his girlfriend responds.
Zuko complies, and he avoids meeting Sokka’s searching gaze from across the table.
This month, when Zuko visits Azula, he comes bearing green tea from the region of the nation where Admiral Eun’s childhood village is located. Sokka had given it to him, saying that Jingyi had given Sokka more tea leaves than he knew what to do with. “You’re more of a tea guy than I am,” Sokka had said, lifting more and more tins out of his satchel and tucking them into the cradle of Zuko’s arms.
Zuko takes his time setting up the teapot and cups, making sure the flame is burning at the right intensity for these leaves. When he’s satisfied, he finally calls, “Azula? Hye told me you’re here.”
There’s no movement in the doorway that leads to the rest of Azula’s quarters, a bedroom and a bathroom and a study, but Zuko knows she heard him; his raised his voice, and the network of rooms isn’t that large. “Azula?” he repeats after a minute.
There’s a muffled crash, like pottery shattering a room over, and Zuko tenses as his guards reach for their weapons. “Would you like us to check the other room, my lord?” one of the guards asks.
Zuko shakes his head as he stands. “I’ll go.”
Suddenly the air feels different, static dancing along Zuko’s skin, and he has just enough time to shout, “Get down!”
Lightning crackles a breath above Zuko’s head, and if he’d still been standing, it would have struck his chest. It’s a short and weak bolt, but it’s still lightning, and when did Azula begin to get some of her strength back?
There’s no time to follow that thought. The guards are advancing around either side of Zuko, but Azula is Zuko’s sister, not theirs, so he yanks them back by the belts around their waists (Design flaw, a voice in his head that sounds scarily like Sokka chides) and surges ahead of them. He stays low and rolls into the next room with a ball of protective fire around his body, keeping him safe until he lands on his feet.
He feels more than sees the fist flying towards face, and he redirects the blow with his forearm so Azula’s hand instead smashes through the delicate screen panel of the wall. “Azula, stop!” he shouts, pivoting so he’s closer to the middle of the bedroom.
“I’m finishing what Father couldn’t,” Azula sneers.
She begins the motion to draw more lightning, but there’s no static in the air and Zuko deflects the short burst of flame that shoots at him with his own wall of fire. The one lightning bolt must have sapped her, because her flames are red again, and her frustrated shriek confirms Zuko’s suspicion.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Zuko tells his sister.
“You’ve always been weak in the face of conflict.”
Azula cuts her arms down to her sides, creating daggers of fire shooting off of each wrist, and she’s so fixated on Zuko that she doesn’t notice the guard lunge through the doorway—
“No!” Zuko shouts.
The guard tackles Azula around the waist, and she instinctively reaches around and drives a dagger of flames into his shoulder. He screams, because fire daggers aren’t dangerous for the ability to pierce flesh but to melt through metal to burn what’s beneath, and Zuko’s lunging forward to grab his sister even as she rolls out of the guard’s loosened grip. The reignited daggers arc toward him. Zuko grabs both of Azula’s wrists, forcing them out to the side and bringing the siblings nose to nose. Azula’s lips curl into a sharp grin, and when she inhales deeply, Zuko knows she’s ready to burn the rest of his face off, finishing what Father couldn’t, and he inhales himself as he thinks of the dragons and what they taught him—
Their breath meets, and upon contact with Zuko’s exhale, the flames from Azula’s mouth turn to smoke, thick and gray as it plumes into the air.
The flames cease, and the last of Zuko’s breath blows some of the smoke back into Azula’s face. When it clears, her golden eyes—the same eyes as Zuko, as Ozai, as Ursa—are wide with … shock. It’s the first time Zuko has ever caught her off guard.
Suddenly, Azula is yanked away, and Zuko’s cry of protest is met with an uninjured guard bodily forcing Zuko deeper into the room. Before he or Azula can do anything, an attendant from the facility is placing a cloth over Azula’s nose and mouth, and Azula instantly crumples, her knees saved from striking the floor by the attendant catching her.
Zuko suddenly feels exhausted.
It’s a familiar scene. The firebenders in his guard dispel the flames that have caught on any furniture, walls, floors, or ceilings, as Zuko and his other guards report to the attendants what happened. Azula is laid on her bed once the scorched duvet is removed, and she looks so small and young. There’s a part of Zuko that always wants to wait until she comes around, to apologize that his monthly visit ended like this, but Zuko knows it’s for the best if he waits to try again next month. He doesn’t want Azula to be knocked out twice in a day, even if he trusts that the substance on the cloth is harmless (which he hadn’t, until he convinced Hye to use it on him, and he came around a hour later with little more than a tingle in his nose), and he also doesn’t want to foot double the amount of property damage costs.
What’s different this time, though, is that Azula managed to burn one of them, and Zuko insists on following the guard to the military infirmary that’s a street away from the palace. The healers at the center had patched the burn the best they could, but there are more advanced resources to be found with the military, apparently.
“Really, Fire Lord Zuko, I’ll be fine,” the guard insists.
His name is Bishal. When his helmet comes off, a thick mane of dark brown hair appears, awkwardly matted down to the same contours of the helmet. It makes him look much younger, though Zuko learns that Bishal is actually a couple years older than him.
“I insist,” Zuko repeats for the fifth time, and Bishal sighs.
A healer comes in, bearing a small pot that contains a pungent salve. “A third-degree burn, I hear?” she says cheerily.
The healer is generous in applying the salve, and while the wound just looks more greased to Zuko’s eye, the relief in Bishal’s expression is unmistakable. “What does it feel like?” Zuko asks.
Bishal’s eyes flutter open. “Like a drop of collected rain that’s fallen from a tree and landed on your undershirt,” he says. “Cool and quickly spreading. A shock at first, but then soothing.”
Zuko blinks. He hadn’t expected such an eloquent answer, but it’s a pleasant surprise. “Is this salve widely known?” Zuko asks the healer.
“Oh, of course not, my lord,” she answers easily as she re-wraps Bishal’s shoulder. “It was developed two years ago, for military use.”
Of course not, Zuko’s mind echoes. He thinks of Chenda’s anger, of the burns he had seen on civilians and refugees alike in his travels abroad, and he adds another item to yet another mental list of things he needs to address.
A couple mornings later over breakfast, Sokka catches Zuko off guard by saying, “Check this out—Chenda taught me how the locals eat this on Ember Island.” He tears off a generous piece of naan, tosses it on top of its accompanying dip, and then pinches the bread in a way that encourages a generous lump of dip to rise into the fold he’s created in the bread. Sokka pops it into his mouth, chews, swallows, and grins broadly. “Try it!” he encourages. “You get so much more dip than when you try to make a spoon from the naan.”
Zuko obliges, frowning when the dip doesn’t cooperate with him. “I though your meeting with Chenda was at the end of the week,” he says.
“Oh, shoot—did I forget to tell you? I ran into her yesterday when I was out with Mai. We ended up eating lunch together.”
Zuko bets they all had a good time, too, without him there to sour the meal. “What did you think of her?”
“She’s like if you made another Katara, and then took away all of Katara’s patience for emotions,” Sokka immediately rattles off. “Like, if I broke my leg—again—Chenda would give me a flawless splint in a minute flat and have me walking again in a month, but she’d mad about it the entire time and would not offer to kiss the boo-boo to make the pain go away.”
Zuko snorts, trying to imagine Chenda using a baby voice to distract Sokka from an injury. “Would Katara even do that?” he asks.
“Not for me. But maybe for Aang. Definitely for the kids in the village.” Sokka perks up. “She asked about you, by the way.”
“Chenda?” Zuko asks, watching Sokka contort his body to rifle around his satchel without having to get up.
“No, Katara.” His voice is strained until he grabs what he’s looking for: a short, somewhat crinkled scroll. With a noise of triumph, Sokka sits back up and smooths out the paper. “Our dearest, most darling and noble friend Zuko,” Sokka begins.
“There’s no way she wrote that,” Zuko interjects.
Sokka winks and actually reads, “By the way, Aang wanted me to ask, is Zuko alive? Obviously, we would’ve heard news of assassination, but I’m sure the Fire Nation would cover it up if you’d annoyed him to death. If I don’t get a letter back in a week, I’m going to assume you’re guilty, and I will not help bail you out this time.”
Zuko can’t help smiling at Sokka’s impression of his sister. His pitch is too high, but he has her intonation spot-on. “Why does Aang want to know if I’m still alive?” he asks.
Sokka tosses the letter behind him. “Obviously, number one, he’s your friend. Friends care if their friends die,” Sokka explains, “and number two, I guess some friends of ‘Kuzon’ said they hadn’t seen or heard about you in a while.”
Zuko frowns. “Who’s Kuzon?”
Delight bursts across Sokka’s face. “Did we not tell you that story?” he asks, and barges on without waiting for an answer, “It’s the fake name Aang used when we were hiding-in-plain-sight because everyone thought he was dead. Aang got roped into attending a Fire Nation school for a couple days.” Sokka points at Zuko. “Also, I know Aang would be disappointed in me if I didn’t mention that the Fire Nation should really bring back its dance traditions. Has that come up since you became Fire Lord?”
A hundred thoughts and questions are swimming around Zuko’s head. “Not really,” he hears himself say. “People are more concerned with, you know, the war. Or how to get over being concerned with it.”
If Zuko feels something funny in his tone, Sokka doesn’t notice it; he just nods seriously, grabbing his chopsticks again. “That’s fair. I can start asking around.” He shovels some rice into his mouth and then says, “I can’t believe there’s still stuff from before you joined us that you don’t know about.”
“It’s not like we had time to sit around the fire and tell stories,” Zuko points out. “You guys don’t know everything about me.”
“I know. But we’ve also been seeing each other almost every day for—what, three months now?”
Three months, Zuko thinks. Time really just escapes notice, doesn’t it? And what has Zuko accomplished in three months? Nothing, it seems like. He supposes he survived Azula trying to kill him, again.
“Hey. What’s on your mind?”
Zuko blinks back to the present. Sokka has set down his food, leaning over the table to scrutinize Zuko. There’s an intensity in his blue eyes, the same look of concentrated attention that Zuko has seen during important meetings, while they spar, whenever Sokka comes across a particularly difficult-to-open pistachio shell.
“Nothing,” Zuko answers.
It’s not a lie, it’s a fib. He’s absolutely avoiding getting into this discussion over breakfast, but he’s also, truthfully, thinking about how he’s done nothing. He doesn’t want to lie to Sokka, so he’s not explicitly lying, Zuko tells himself.
It still doesn’t stop his chest from tightening when Sokka settle back again, his effortlessly casual and cool expression sliding into place. “Okay,” Sokka says easily, genuinely, and suddenly Zuko wants to leave, because he’s feeling too many things to process while also maintaining a normal conversation with Sokka.
“Hey, have you tried Jingyi’s tea, yet?” Sokka asks.
No, because my sister incinerated it when she was trying to kill me, Zuko doesn’t say. “Not yet. I need to go.”
He stands abruptly, and Sokka also rises but catches himself mid-crouch. “Is everything okay?” he asks, and there’s a hint of unsteadiness in his voice that makes Zuko’s stomach roll.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Zuko tells his hands, because with his heart hammering like this there’s no way he can handle looking Sokka in the eye. “I forgot I need to grab some stuff from my room before my first meeting.”
Forget Sokka’s eyes; the uncertainty in his voice alone makes Zuko feel like a terrible person. He pauses in the open doorway and turns his head, just enough to look at the floor over his shoulder. “I’ll see you at the ring tonight,” he offers.
And then he doesn’t run away. He calmly walks back to his chambers, and then to Ursa’s throne room, where a long day of meetings is about to begin.
At least, he doesn’t encounter a single spirit the entire journey, so he’s the only witness to how difficult it is to breathe for a moment.
It’s been two weeks since Azula tried to kill him, but this time, her words stick in Zuko’s mind. Finishing what Father couldn’t, she’d said.
Her voice echoes in Zuko’s head not because of the death threat—he’s encountered more than enough of those for a lifetime, let alone to desensitize him to their utterance—but because as Zuko walks in circles around the palace and listens to various Fire Nation officials talk in circles around the issues, it’s beginning to hit him how close Ozai came to finishing what he had meant to do. And it’s on Zuko to fix all of that.
His head is so buried in reports and meetings that it takes him longer than it should for him to recognize the new guard posted at Ursa’s throne room doors most mornings. “Bishal,” Zuko exclaims the day he finally isn’t walking to the throne room with his eyes trained on a scroll in his hands. “You’re already back?”
Bishal bows respectfully, and the gesture suddenly feels weird when Zuko knows the man’s first name. “The salve worked wonders, Fire Lord Zuko,” he says, grinning. “There’s hardly even scarring.” Suddenly his eyes flare wide, and he scrambles to say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with scars, of course. I meant –”
Zuko shakes his head, lifting a hand to squeeze Bishal’s upper arm. “It’s okay,” he reassures the guard. “I understand. Scars can be reminders of moments and pain we would rather forget.”
Bishal nods hurriedly, but he no longer seems terrified. “Yes, Fire Lord Zuko.” He clears his throat uncomfortably. “Uh. Please don’t let me keep you from your meeting, my lord.”
Zuko reads reports about the drill outside of Ba Sing Se finally being dismantled; about Fire Nation troops being attacked by Earth Kingdom citizens and forced to keep moving through sleepless nights on their journey back to the Fire Nation; about warnings of further delays to housing development projects if capital merchants aren’t given more leeway with what shipping routes they are allowed to use. Sometimes, it feels like Ozai finished more things than he left unfinished. Zuko’s recalling thousands of propagandistic school materials, striking hundreds of edicts, ordering the removal of monuments to his father and grandfather and great-grandfather from places in the Fire Nation so remote, they only heard the war was over a couple months ago, and it still feels like Zuko has not even scratched the surface. People want to know whether he thinks they should still import seeds from flowers native to the Earth Kingdom, whether the navy will retain the bonus guaranteed to them by a document Ozai signed three years ago, whether a local textile producer should slightly alter the shade of red they use to make tapestries of the Fire Nation insignia, and it takes everything in him to not scream that he doesn’t care about most of these things, not even remotely. Who is he to have an opinion, especially on things that he doesn’t know anything about?
That night, after Bishal and another guard have escorted Zuko to his chambers, Zuko spends so long re-reading the same sentence of a missive from an ex-colony that he doesn’t notice that the wick of his candle’s getting short until his reading light suddenly snuffs out. The wall sconces are still lit, but they’re too dim for Zuko to make out this handwriting without giving himself a piercing headache. Zuko exhales bitterly and drops his chin to his chest, rubbing his brow with two fingers.
A knock comes at his door, and Zuko has to tamp down the urge to set his desk on fire. “What is it?” he calls, and only feels a bit bad about the roughness of his tone.
When the door opens instead of a voice replying, Zuko whips his head up to glare at the offending visitor. It’s Sokka, who meets Zuko’s glower with a squint. “Is now a bad time?” Sokka asks.
The fight goes out of Zuko, and he slides down in his chair. “It’s always a bad time, isn’t it?” he replies.
He can hear the footsteps approaching him, but the hand that lands on his shoulder is still unexpected. Sokka squeezes, digging his fingertips and thumb into the muscle of Zuko’s shoulder, and Zuko hisses when pain flares across his shoulder and neck in response.
“Yikes,” Sokka says, easing up his pressure to rub a soothing circle over the spot instead. “Maybe we should take a break from sparring.”
Sokka’s hand leaves, and Zuko stretches his neck from side to side. “I can always use more time for reading,” Zuko says glumly, warily watching Sokka to make sure he doesn’t knock over the inkwell when he turns around and leans against Zuko’s desk.
“Or you could, you know. Not,” Sokka suggests.
Zuko looks up at him. With the distance between the wall sconces, the flames catch only half of Sokka’s face; the rest is submerged in deep shadow. Zuko knows it’s the effect of the light, and of his slumped vantage point in his chair, but right now, Sokka looks more adult that Zuko’s ever seen him—even more mature than when he’s casually tearing apart some Fire Nation leaders in Ursa’s throne room or calling out the loopholes a contractor is trying to create in a new hiring agreement.
Zuko swallows. “What part of me being Fire Lord do you not understand?”
“I don’t understand the part where the Fire Lord just consumes my friend,” Sokka shoots back, crossing his arms.
“Friend?” Zuko echoes, incredulous. He pushes himself up in his seat, arguing, “I don’t have time for being a friend when there’s a hundred years of damage to be undone!”
“And what about damaging yourself in the process?”
“I’ve already been damaged by my father!”
“So don’t let him continue to do that!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sokka sighs at the ceiling. “Look, man. Other than breakfast and sparring, I haven’t seen you in weeks. And that’s me, your advisor-guy, living in the palace. Out there?” Sokka flings an arm out, at what must be the city beyond the palace walls. “They haven’t seen you in months. Some people are saying that it doesn’t feel different from Ozai being Fire Lord.”
The blood drains from Zuko’s face, and Sokka is quick to lean forward and grab his shoulder. “You are not Ozai. Obviously. But to someone who doesn’t get to see the life- and nation-changing work you’re doing on the day-to-day … you’re just another guy holed up in his palace.”
Zuko closes his eyes and puts his hand over Sokka’s, keeping him in place. He doesn’t think Sokka realizes it, but he’s stumbled upon one of the things Zuko’s terrified of: becoming a a watered-down version of his father. A man too consumed by his political goals to have a thought for family, for community, for anything that isn’t directly related to the future of the nation. A man who rules by forgetting to listen. But listening has become so hard, when there are so many things fighting for Zuko’s time and attention and consideration, and what even is there beyond the palace walls for Zuko?
“I don’t know what else to do,” Zuko admits. He hates that his voice comes out as a croak. “And my father came so close to finishing everything, that’s he everywhere. It’s not just the military—it’s the history books, the import taxes, what dyes are allowed to be used in textiles … even if nothing new happened for the next fifty years, I could spend a lifetime dealing with my father’s legacy alone. I could spend every day, sunrise to sunset, in meetings, and still not be done by the time I die.”
He opens his eyes. Sokka isn’t leaning as close as he was before, and his expression is caught somewhere between determined and pissed off when he says, “I know you think this is your responsibility. But you’re not going to be alone in this. This is why we’re building you a council.”
Zuko lets his hand slip from Sokka’s, and when Sokka lets go, Zuko sharply feels the loss of pressure. “I know,” he says.
“And the only way you’re going to die having done nothing but sit in meetings is if you let yourself do that. You’re not a bad leader if you take a break now and then.”
Zuko scowls. “What, so people can then say at least my father wasn’t lazy?”
Sokka tilts his head. “Don’t you think there’s a difference between laziness and, I don’t know, choosing life and happiness in spite of a terrible dad who tried to take both from you?”
There’s a glint in Sokka’s dark blue eyes that suddenly pins Zuko to his chair. He’s overwhelmed, not by the confrontation, but by the feeling behind it: be better, for yourself. Because what’s the point of this work if there’s no happiness to be gained? If he’s so afraid of letting the title and his responsibilities consume him, why he is living like those are the only things that the world has for him?
Something must change in his expression, because Sokka loosens up, his shoulders dropping as he leans back. “Yeah, there’s a ton of work left to do, and yeah, it’s kind of your dad’s fault that we have to deal with all of it. But sacrificing your sanity to it? It’s basically letting him win.”
It’s letting Ozai, and Azulon, and Sozin before him win. “I know,” Zuko says, but this time, there’s conviction in his tone.
Sokka breaks into a grin. “So what fun thing are we doing tonight?”
Something in Zuko’s chest tugs, even as he smiles back. He still doesn’t know what he’s done to deserve friends like Sokka.
They end up in the lower city, the farthest Zuko has traveled from the palace in far too long, past sundown. Sokka leads the way, mostly because he decided where they would go and wouldn’t tell Zuko their exact destination, but Zuko’s content to follow; it allows him to watch Sokka’s feet rather than the road ahead of him, which also means there’s even less chance that someone recognizes Zuko—they’d have to pull off the hood of his cloak if they wanted to see his identifying scar.
“I like this part of the city,” Sokka says over his shoulder.
Even though Zuko’s had clothes in Fire Nation fabrics and styles made for Sokka since he first arrived, tonight Sokka is wearing one of Zuko’s old outer layers. There’s a clean tear on the upper right arm that has been patched and sewn so neatly, it’s near impossible to spot unless it’s looked for. The cut had been caused by one of Mai’s throwing knives, when Mai had casually chucked one without realizing Zuko was about to emerge from the next room over in his chambers.
Zuko forces himself to look somewhere else. This part of the lower city is a bit rundown, but it more than makes up for it with how decorated it is: there’s art everywhere, from the posters glued to the walls to the unique, handmade lanterns that cross overhead between buildings on either side of the street. Based on the variety of colors in the works—not just reds, oranges, and golds common to the Fire Nation, but also greens and purples and so many blues—Zuko thinks this must be one of the new, budding arts districts that he’s heard murmurs about. He thinks he knows why Sokka likes it: there’s an energy in the air, even past sundown, that reminds Zuko of the city he knew as a child and finds himself missing now.
“This way,” Sokka beckons.
They turn down a smaller street that instantly turns more residential. The few businesses that are there reside in the half-basement lower levels of the buildings, and their warm lights and delicious smells curl out onto the street in a way that draws even Zuko in. He wonders how Sokka can keep walking when the smell of curry is wafting out on the breeze like this, but Sokka keeps a brisk pace, glancing back occasionally to check that Zuko’s still with him.
Sokka finally pulls up at a more dimly lit basement entrance. “We made it,” he says, and then jogs down the stairs and darts into the building before Zuko can ask anything. Zuko has no choice but to follow, so he does.
He’s met with a wave of soft chatter that fills the large, open room—much larger than Zuko would have expected from standing outside the building on the street level. Bamboo mats and floor cushions have been arranged in concentric half circles around a raised platform, and several layers of gauzy, dark red curtains are hung on either side of and behind the platform, hiding the back of the room from the gathered audience.
Because the people talking easily as they wait are an audience, and they’re sitting around a stage, and this is, no contest, the cheapest venue and production Zuko has ever encountered, but—
A hand wraps around his wrist and tugs. Zuko automatically follows Sokka around the edge of the crowd, to a spot by a column that leaves a clear view of stage left while blocking the majority of the audience. There’s a young woman with short-cropped brown hair sitting there, but when she sees Sokka, she bounces to her feet. “I still can’t believe you wanted to sit this far stage left, you utter weirdo,” the woman tells Sokka.
Sokka drops Zuko’s wrist and steps into the woman’s open arms, briefly returning her hug. “This is one of the optimal angles for figuring out how the stunts work!” Sokka argues.
The woman shakes her head, and a glint of metal makes Zuko realize she has a thin gold nose ring running through the flesh between her nostrils. “You’re not supposed to figure out how they work,” she counters. “Let us do our art, okay?”
She bounds away, and Zuko watches her until she slips behind one of the gauzy curtains. She hadn’t even looked at him, much less recognized him, and Zuko’s hit with an emotion he can’t identify but knows is strong.
“You can sit down, you know,” Sokka says from somewhere near his feet.
Zuko obliges. He feels out of sorts. “We’re going to see a play,” he says dumbly.
Sokka nods. “Mai said you liked theatre, and I noticed you haven’t seen a show in a while. Kanya—she’s the one who saved this spot for us—is a friend I met at a pai sho tournament a month ago. I ran into her a couple days ago at the meat market and remembered today that she’d mentioned her production group has a show up for this week.”
Sokka paints the short narrative so casually, gesticulating nonchalantly, while Zuko is staggered. Mai and Sokka talk about him? Sokka’s been in, or at least was at, a pai sho tournament? There’s a meat market in the city?
Before Zuko can land on which question to ask first, the flames in the wall sconces are being snuffed out, in the universal theatre language of quiet, please, the show is about to start. Zuko turns to the stage, but not before sneaking one last glance at Sokka, who’s already settled in against a mound of cushions.
The show is an original work on the shorter side of things, comfortably less than two hours. As Zuko suspected from the bare platform and floor-seating basement venue, there’s next to no money put into the show—some of the costumes really take some imagination—but there’s no mistaking the passion in the acting, and the sheer cleverness of the lighting and staging.
When the sconces are re-lit and the audience gives the performers a resounding round of applause, Zuko joins in as enthusiastically as he dares. Sokka whistles loudly next to him, and when the behind-the-scenes crew comes onto the stage with the actors, Sokka shouts, “Yeah, Kanya! Woo!”
They stumble out into the night with the rest of the theatre goers, and Zuko’s forgotten what it’s like to be jostled against other bodies, warms figures who mean no harm with the accidental brush of a hand or bump of a shoulder. Sokka’s better at weaving through the crowd, and when Zuko almost loses him twice, he gives up and just grabs a fistful of Sokka’s collar. In minutes, Sokka has navigated them to a less-populated street.
Zuko stops short, causing Sokka to jerk and pinwheel his arms when Zuko’s grip on him keeps him from continuing forward. “Sorry,” Zuko says, letting go. “I just—did you want to say congratulations to your friend?”
Sokka rubs at his throat with one hand as he waves the other. “Nah, it’s okay. I’ll see her at pai sho in a few days.”
Which, right—that’s a whole thing. “Since when did you play in pai sho tournaments?”
Sokka snorts. “Playing might be a generous word. The older folks are ridiculously good, so Kanya and I get knocked out early. But old people love to gossip and love to complain, so they’re a great source of information.”
Huh. Zuko supposes his uncle did always obtain an awful lot of information every time he sat down to a pai sho table.
Sokka takes a couple steps, and it already feels second nature to fall in with his motion. This time, though, Zuko stays even with him, and even dares to remove his hood. It’s late enough that no one’s out on the streets, and no one seems to be peering out of windows, either, at two young men wandering home.
“I know it wasn’t the royal theatre, or whatever,” Sokka says, “but what did you think?”
“It was smart,” Zuko immediately replies. “It really took advantage of what it had. It was like … art that understood its space and used it. Not like one of those shows where someone just poured a ton of money into it and expected that to make the play a good show.”
Sokka laughs. “Sounds like you’ve seen that before.”
“It seems like every run of Love Amongst the Dragons these days is like that. It’s not about how much precious gemstone you can get on the head of your dragon mask! It’s about love seeing beyond the physical form! The Dragon Emperor falls for the Empress in spite of her mortal form, not because she has sapphires hanging from her eyelashes.”
“You know, I think the Mr. Muscle-y Man could have used some sapphires hanging from his eyelashes.”
Zuko double takes. “Mr. Muscle-y Man?”
“Yeah! The guy tonight with the huge shoulders. Kinda like that guy at Ember Island who played Toph?”
A deliriously laugh hops out of Zuko’s throat. Mr. Muscle-y Man? “You mean Suchart? One of the lead characters?” Zuko asks.
“Was that his name?”
“Sokka, he was a main character! Were you even paying attention?”
“Excuse me, I was,” Sokka shoots back. “We just saw a lovely original play about Mr. Muscle-y Man discovering his long-lost sister, Lady Pinched Face, and how their choice to reconcile their lost relationship was made and sustained in spite of a society that wanted them to be enemies.”
Zuko blinks. “Society? It was their families.”
“Yeah, but did you notice how the loyalties actually lined up? Mama and Papa Snooty convinced Squirrel-Bat to betray Mr. Muscle-y Man because Squirrel-Bat’s ideal family image mapped onto the Snooty family’s, not his own.”
“Are you doing this on purpose?”
“What, do you think I’m wrong?”
“No, I agree, but—you got all of that but didn’t get a single character’s name?”
Sokka purses his lips, one of his fingers tapping against his chin. “One of them was named Anok?”
“Oh, you’re right.”
“You amaze me.”
They reach a staircase that will carry them all the way to the upper ring of the city. It’s one of the longest staircases in the capital, but Zuko likes the burn that slowly builds in his thighs. In the relative silence, Zuko thinks about siblinghood and reconciliation. He thinks about the way Suchart must have slipped a candle out of his pocket and placed it in Anong’s headpiece as they embraced, and how a firebender off stage lit the candle from afar to make Anong’s headpiece flickeringly glow as she gave her final speech. He looks up at the half-moon and wonders if Sokka looks at the moon differently than Zuko does.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Sokka slings an arm around Zuko’s neck and slumps over. “Those … wind me … every time,” he pants.
Zuko grins. “Maybe we shouldn’t have skipped sparring,” he teases.
“Look, until I was fifteen, the tallest staircase I’d ever seen was ten steps high. I’d like to see you sprint on a sheet of ice.”
“You’ll have to take me home with you to see that.”
Zuko doesn’t realize until the words are out that they sound like he’s trying to invite himself over to Sokka’s village, but before he can scramble for an apology, Sokka’s saying, “Anytime, man.”
The sentiment makes Zuko feel warm, but there’s another part of him that knows it’s still a while out before he’ll be able to travel for leisure again. His whole life feels like a series of meetings that are designed to create more meetings. Tomorrow alone he has five different appointments between breakfast and dinner, and the day after that there will be more, and more …
But tonight, in this moment, Zuko feels at ease, and he doesn’t want to let go of that just yet. He doesn’t want to let go of this sense of life and happiness.
Zuko deliberately turns to look Sokka in the eye, even if he has to twist and crane his neck to do so in these close quarters. “Thank you,” he tells Sokka solemnly.
For a moment, they hold eye contact, and Zuko tries to convey the depth of his gratitude in a look. He doesn’t know if it works, but then Sokka’s grinning, briefly squeezing Zuko closer before letting him go. “Tell me, I was right,” Sokka says cockily.
“Katara says we shouldn’t feed your ‘insufferable ego.’”
“Since when did you actually listen to my sister?”
They keep walking. Zuko wishes the road would roll out into the dark forever.
In the blink of an eye, another month has gone, and Zuko becomes swept up in preparations for the new year celebrations. He’s never been more grateful to have Sokka by his side; Sokka’s taking on most of the decision-making responsibilities for the capital’s celebration, which is no small relief when Zuko still has his ordinary rotation of running the nation obligations to attend to.
They’re also, in the privacy of Sokka’s chambers over breakfast, figuring out how to formally begin Zuko’s council. A year and a half is decidedly too long for Zuko to be doing everything alone, and he’s finally beginning to feel like there are people he can trust to not only be honest with him, but to also make this nation a better place for its citizens and for the world at large.
“I know we’re not trying to be Ozai in any way,” Sokka says one morning, “but do you remember anything from how he formed his council?”
Zuko shakes his head. “It happened so quickly, and at the same time that my mother vanished. I was … distracted. And I’m not even sure I would have fully understood what was happening even if I had been paying attention.”
Sokka nods curtly. “So we’ll create that part from scratch, too.”
In the end, the only thing they preserve from Zuko’s memories is the size of the council: six people, seven including Zuko. They do away with the internal rankings by seniority, with the stringent travel restrictions, with the immunity from national law.
“You’re sure it’s okay to only start with three?” Zuko asks on a different morning.
“Given the circumstances, it’s better to start with three,” Sokka replies. “If you can’t fully trust your council, they won’t be able to fully trust and support you. Let it grow naturally. Don’t force it now.”
Zuko sifts through the papers sitting at the far end of the table. He’s searching for one of Sokka’s shortlists but stops short when he encounters an unfamiliar, ragged page. There are lines all over it, and they’re definitely not characters, but Zuko really can’t recognize it—
“Oh, sorry,” Sokka says, reaching out for the paper.
Zuko pulls it out of his reach. “What is it?” he asks, a smile rising to his lips, because he has a feeling he’s holding a Sokka original in his hand.
Sokka huffs. “It’s upside down.”
This time, Zuko lets Sokka take the paper to rotate it to the correct orientation. For a moment, the lines still just look like lines. But then—
“It’s recognizable!” Zuko exclaims.
It’s a quick and sketchy doodle of the mountains that rise up to the west of the capital. A few small capital buildings sit in the foreground, some rather detailed, some a mere smudge, but there’s at least a sense of depth to it.
“Really?” Sokka asks excitedly.
Zuko nods, and Sokka squints at his drawing, as if trying to see it anew. “Do you like art?” Zuko asks.
“Oh, yeah. It’s fun. I’m not great, obviously, but I always thought it’d be cool to have paints. And the time for it.”
“I’m sure you could make time.”
Sokka shrugs. “Paint gets expensive. I’m fine with some spare charcoal.” He tucks away the drawing and goes back to the pile of papers on the table. “What was it you were looking for?”
An idea is building in Zuko, something similar to his breakfast prank. Zuko grins to himself and tucks the thought away for later.
“To the year of the Tiger!”
A tsungi horn blast cuts through the air, and that cues a succession of fireworks to rapidly explode in the night sky above the capital. As the colors burst to life and then reappear in flickering after-images in Zuko’s eyes, he can’t help but smile. This is the vitality and life he’s been sorely missing in these streets.
An arm loops through his, and Zuko looks down at Mai. “Happy New Year, Zuko,” she says, something other than the fireworks glimmering in her eyes, and Zuko leans down to meet her kiss.
They’re on the roof of one of the most popular restaurants in the upper city. The building overlooks the largest courtyard in the capital, which is chock-full with vendors and performance artists where the surrounding businesses don’t already have guests spilling out into the open air.
Making sure this rooftop would be secure enough for Zuko and Mai was a hassle, but Zuko is glad Sokka recommended it. From here, Zuko can feel the spirit of the crowd below, and the happy shouts and laughter that float up into the winter night air remind Zuko why he endures the meetings and the politics and the headaches of leading a nation. He takes these burdens so others can laugh more loudly, dance more freely.
Well, there’s still not much dancing. But Sokka has made a formidable head-start on finding older generations of Fire Nation citizens that remember the dances that were outlawed when they were children and teenagers, and who want to help teach them again.
“Happy New Year,” he tells Mai and kisses her again.
A throat clears loudly to Zuko’s left, and he looks over to see Mai’s mother’s back, her robes swirling in a way that gives away that she only just turned around. Zuko feels his face flush, but when he glances at Mai, she doesn’t seem to have noticed anything. “Let’s go back downstairs,” he suggests.
Down in the restaurant, servers deftly maneuver carts of freshly prepared food between guests standing in groups and seated at tables. Zuko hadn’t wanted a guest list—in part because he dreaded how much energy it would take to create one, in part because it suggested the elitism that his father’s regime thrived on—but Mai, Sokka, and, of all people, Bishal had eventually convinced Zuko of the security concerns. They landed on Sokka’s proposed compromise of Sokka and Mai drawing up an initial list of names, from which Zuko would pick whom to invite.
As they wander through the crowd, Zuko takes care to greet everyone who makes eye contact with him. He’s been in this long enough that he doesn’t forget any names or titles or occupations, but it’s still a relief to have Mai at his side, her hand resting lightly in the crook of his elbow. When they near the end of the long seating area, Zuko finally spots Sokka sitting at one of the tables, talking animatedly with a woman whose back is turned to Zuko.
Zuko changes course without really thinking about it, and when he and Mai draw up to the table, Sokka smoothly ends his ramble with, “And that’s why we really should be investing more in the specialized local markets. Mai and Zuko, you’ve been there—please tell Jingyi that I’m not crazy for thinking the middle city meat market is the answer to this city’s future.”
The woman turns in her seat, and it’s indeed Jingyi, though her hair is styled much more flamboyantly than last time Zuko saw her. She bows as much as she can in her seated position and smiles. “Happy New Year,” she tells them.
Zuko and Mai return the sentiment. “May we sit here?” Zuko asks.
“Of course, please.”
“Sokka’s given you his meat market speech?” Mai asks drily.
“He has, and I must say, I’m almost convinced.”
“Almost?” Sokka squawks. “That’s unacceptable. When are you and Eun free? I’m taking you two to the market. Bring the kids, too! We’ll make a whole day of it.”
Sokka is positively lounging in his seat, his legs out in front of him and his lanky arms draped over the chairs on either side of him. His eyes are alight in a way that Zuko has only seen a couple times, but can already identify as a Sokka on his way to inebriation. Zuko hasn’t touched anything but tea tonight—no one needs to see an intoxicated Fire Lord—and a part of him wishes he, too, could relax a bit in a proper celebratory mood.
Jingyi smiles fondly at Sokka. “You know my husband is from a family of butchers,” she chides. “He’ll spend hours at a meat market, especially one he’s never been to before.”
“Hence, we’ll make a whole day of it.”
Mai subtly leans closer to Zuko. “My dad is beckoning me,” she grumbles under her breath. “I’m taking Sokka with me as a shield.”
“Get him some water while you’re at it?” Zuko replies.
Mai nods and rises smoothly to her seat. “Sokka, come with me,” she orders, flicking Sokka’s ear as she passes.
Sokka yelps and scrambles out of his chair. “Three days from now, Jingyi!” he calls over his shoulder as he chases after Mai. “Be there bright and early!”
The crowd quickly swallows Zuko’s girlfriend and Sokka, and only then does Zuko turn to Jingyi. “Have you enjoyed the festivities so far?” he asks politely.
“Oh, yes. I do enjoy parties, and your father never really had a knack for them.”
Zuko resists the urge to snort. His father and a good party? Ozai walking into a celebration instantly leeched the joy out of the event.
“Tell me, Fire Lord Zuko, what are your hopes for this new year?” Jingyi asks.
When she tilts her head, the light catches her light brown eyes in a way that make them look yellow. They’re piercing, and paired with her outsized hair, make Jingyi look, for a second, otherworldly. Confronted with the vision, Zuko’s mouth goes dry. What are his hopes for this year? Even with Sokka’s help, he’s spent so much energy worrying about the details of this celebration that he hasn’t spared a thought for its significance to him personally.
Zuko clears his throat. “To continue to reflect and grow,” he says slowly. “To better remember to live in the present, because the future is a nothingness that cannot be known, even if we have our own hopes for it.”
Jingyi’s lips spread in a smile so warm and motherly, she suddenly looks human again—knowable, easy to confront, understanding. Zuko remembers how to breathe. “Do you have aspirations?” he asks.
Jingyi nods. “I hope to navigate this changing world by my husband’s side, helping him as he has always supported me,” she says. She leans over the table and whispers behind a hand, “And, don’t let our families know, but we’re also hoping to bring another child to our family.”
Another child—birth. At least one person in this shaky nation led by an uncertain leader has hope for new life in the coming year and for nurturing it in those to follow. The thought is enough to make Zuko smile. “Congratulations,” he tells Jingyi.
Zuko looks around the large, open room again. Soon enough, people will tire of the politics and the required social niceties, and they’ll trickle out of this building into the streets outside in search of drinks, sweets, and entertainment. Zuko will return via a covert route to the palace. He’d like to see if Mai would come with him, but perhaps it won’t be too great a loss if she’s obtained by her parents; he’s already tired from this long day, and he wouldn’t say no to sleep, especially if he’ll wake at sunrise regardless of when he laid his head to rest.
“One day, I’d like for all of these celebrations to be in the courtyards and streets,” Zuko finds himself saying. “We’ve spent too long living separately. It’s one thing to say we are a nation; it’s another to live as a community of brothers and sisters. We shouldn’t be behind walls and under roofs when we celebrate something that’s universal.”
Jingyi tilts her head again. “Do you believe that no one wants these walls and roofs?” she asks.
Zuko looks her in the eye. Her gaze is steady—something he notices only because it’s so rare for a person to meet his gaze rather than stare at his scar. He tries to think about how his uncle would describe the sentiment that Zuko wants to convey right now. “If a flower has spent its life in a room with a single window,” Zuko tries, “why would it expect to prosper in the open under the full light of the sun?”
He thinks he got it. Or maybe he just made himself sound like a complete idiot.
Jingyi chuckles. “You are wise beyond your years, Fire Lord Zuko.” Her eye catches on something at the far side of the room. “I hope you know that that’s in part because of the company you keep.”
Zuko follows her gaze. A gap in the crowd has opened up, allowing Sokka and Mai to become visible. Zuko’s girlfriend is hiding a laugh behind her hand as Sokka gesticulates at a man Zuko recognizes to be the engineer from the resettlement project about whom Zuko had doubts. The engineer wasn’t full of it; some of his calculations had just been off due to a genuine error, which Sokka quickly identified and fixed. Shortly thereafter, he of course made friends with the older man.
“I know,” Zuko says. It took many hard, painful lessons for Zuko to learn that the people around him will help make him who he is. “Every day, I hope to be better for them. It makes me better for this nation. And that makes me better for you.”
Jingyi sits back, folding her hands over her stomach. “You’re something else, Fire Lord Zuko.”
The title feels so, terribly wrong for this honest conversation. “Please, just call me Zuko,” he requests.
The woman across from him double takes. “Really?”
“It would make me feel better, as long as you’re comfortable.”
There’s a startled yelp followed by a loud crash and then clear, high laughter. Zuko whips his head toward the noise and sees a small circle of guests ringed around Sokka, who’s on the floor and wearing a serving tray’s worth of tea. Mai cackles next to him, not a drop of drink on herself.
Zuko sighs—he’d been waiting for Sokka’s luck to catch up to him all night—and Jingyi laughs quietly. “It appears as though your friends might need you, Zuko,” she says.
Zuko pushes himself to his feet. If his friends need him for a moment, he’ll instantly answer the call; it’s the least he can do for what he anticipates will be a lifetime of him needing them. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening,” he tells Jingyi. “Please tell your husband I say hello.”
They bow to each other, and Zuko parts ways. As he draws closer to his friends, he’s met with Mai’s echo-of-a-laugh smile and Sokka’s unabashed grin, and Zuko thinks this year might just hold good things.