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to that loyal heart you're forever sixteen

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They land at the Western Air Temple, and everything is lighter.

Even with new arrivals and old enemies, the enthusiasm is palpable, the laughter infectious. Even Mai is walking around wearing the ghost of a smile, and despite his exhaustion he’s so proud that he was a part of this, that for once, he did something good – and didn’t fuck it up.

But he can feel the eyes on him. He’s not surprised. Zuko is Chit Sang’s banished, traitorous prince. Even in a maximum-security prison there was news. He must have heard. So he stays away, thinking it’s for the best. He’s sitting against a fountain, taking a breather after a particularly difficult training session, when he sees the older firebender waiting for him.

He’s kneeling on the floor, hands on his hips, eyes cast down to the ground in front of him. It’s the type of position one assumes for royalty. It makes him squirm.

“You don’t have to do that,” he tells him.” I’m not exactly a prince anymore.”

“All due respect, sir, but you’ll always be a prince as far as I’m concerned,” comes the response. It’s that moment that he realizes, Chit Sang hasn’t been staring at him like he’s an oddity. He’s been staring at him in awe. Chit Sang meets his eyes, and the two stare at each other. Zuko swallows.

“My daughter was in the forty-first.”

He hears his heart pound in his ears and no no no please not now. He takes a deep, steadying breath, lets it out slowly to a count of four.

“Her name?” he rasps.

“Izumi Takenaka,” Chit Sang answers.” She was-“

“Sixteen,” he rasps.” Corporal Izumi Takenaka, sixteen, from Shu Jing.”

The man’s eyes go wide, and he nods.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko gulps. He thinks of the slips of paper, five thousand two hundred and eighty seven of them, all carefully tucked away in his cabin on the Wani. He’d been sent every single death certificate, and he’d memorized each and every name. The first in a long line of people he’d tried to protect. People he’d failed.” I’m sorry I couldn’t protect her.”

“Prince Zuko,” Chit Sang breathes, and his eyes are still on Zuko and Agni can’t he look anywhere else?” You have nothing to apologize for.”

He shakes his head, his eyes stinging, and he wipes at his face. He can’t talk, his throat choked off; Chit Sang manages to continue, his voice wet and low.

“They knew what you did, you know. They heard – I don’t know how, but they did. They told everyone they could. They loved you for what you did.”

He swallows.” I failed them. I should have done more.”

“You did more,” he says, and then Chit Sang smiles at him, bright and proud. All Zuko can think is that he doesn’t deserve it. He doesn’t. He failed, and they died because of it, what can he possibly have done to make up for it?” You remembered them.”

Zuko breathes in, out. He has no idea what he was expecting but that’s not it. The way Chit Sang says it, his voice wet and low and taught, it sounds like he wasn’t either. He chokes back a sob, pulls his knees up to his chest, and he can’t believe himself because here is, sixteen and he’s about to start blubbering like a child while this man’s daughter fought and died because of him.

“I remember them,” he laments,” every single name.”

“It’s more than anyone else,” he says, and suddenly Chit Sang is sitting next to him, his back pressed against the fountain. They’re silent for a while, just sitting there, Zuko’s quiet heaving breaths echoing off stone. At some point Chit Sang’s arm wraps around Zuko’s shoulder, and Zuko stiffens, but strangely he’s not afraid.

“You know,” Chit Sang muses as Zuko begins to rein in his cries.” My mother used to say that, as long as someone remembers, no one is truly dead. And, sometimes, they can come back to us.”

It’s a nice thought, Zuko decides, and he says as much. Chit Sang nods in agreement.

“I…I wish I had known her,” Zuko confesses.” More than just her name, age, and rank.”

“I could change that,” the older firebender says, raising a questioning eyebrow.

He doesn’t have the right, he knows, but he wants to know. It’s going to hurt, but he wants to know. He wants to remember at least one name as more than just a face and words on a piece of paper.

He nods.

-[-]-

Zuko stands up as his old friend walks in. His hair is longer and going gray, and he has a goatee that Zuko keeps trying to tell him is just awful. He’s leaner and there’s a scar on his cheek that hadn’t been there when they first met, seven years ago, but he still wears the same easy smile, radiates the same confidence and swagger.

Chit Sang bows deeply, and Zuko can’t help but chuckle as he bows back. As far as he’s concerned, his Captain of the Guard doesn’t have to bow to him – he’s earned the right not to, given the number of times Chit Sang has saved his life. The ex-convict still didn’t listen to him. Zuko stands up, smiles, and waves his old friend over to the bed.

Mai is propped up on pillows rocking a small bundle of cloth in her arms, and Zuko’s still not sure if this is a dream or not because it’s just too perfect. He doesn’t deserve this, he keeps thinking, and yet he has it. The woman of his dreams and a child, a child! He’s giddy and excited and exhausted and terrified, but it’s all so wonderful.

“Congratulations, sir,” Chit Sang says, a smile splitting his face.

“Thank you,” Zuko says, his heart bursting.

“Would you like to hold her?” Mai asks softly. Chit Sang blinks, his eyes go wide, and he takes a half step back.

“You…are you sure?” he asks. Zuko looks at Mai, at her glowing face, and when she offers him a small smile he nods emphatically. Chit Sang gingerly steps forward and holds out his arms. He gingerly takes the tiny little girl from Mai’s arms as Zuko comes around the bed.

His daughter grabs onto one of Chit Sang’s fingers and refuses to let go no matter how hard Zuko thinks it might be the most adorable thing he’s ever seen.

“What’s her name?” he asks quietly.

Zuko smiles even wider than he thought was possible. He still remembers when he’d picked the name. Chit Sang and he had parted ways after a meeting that had run late. He had been wandering the halls of the palace, trying to clear his mind, when a conversation from seven years ago suddenly played out in his mind. Mai had agreed almost immediately.

“Izumi,” he proclaims.” Her name is Izumi.”

Chit Sang’s mouth hits the floor.” Did…did you…”

“Yes, we did,” Mai says, curling into Zuko’s side.” She’s named after your daughter.”

He can tell, the older man is struck speechless. He opens and closes his mouth several times, his eyes glisten, and he breathes in deeply, goes to speak. Zuko smiles and waves it away – he knows what the man wants to say. It’s written on his glowing face and in his sparkling eyes.

He watches as Chit Sang rocks Izumi back and forth, smiling down at her. He wipes away some happy tears when Chit Sang finally speaks again.

“Hey there, Izumi,” he murmurs. Almost as an afterthought, he adds,” It’s nice to see you again.”