Ursa’s comb running through Zuko’s hair is clearly meant to calm him down, as it usually does when he’s particularly high-strung, but on this particular evening, Zuko can feel all of his nerves wound tight tight tight . He’s jittery, and he wants to move run jump do something , but it’s late and he’s supposed to be asleep. He’s only eleven, Ursa says. He’s still growing, and growing boys need their sleep.
“Zuko,” Ursa says, tapping his shoulder. “Relax. You won’t be able to sleep with all of this pent-up energy.”
Zuko crosses his arms over his chest and glares at the wall in front of him. His foot bounces where his toes brush the floor, until Ursa reaches out and places a hand on his knee to still the movement.
“Zuko,” Ursa starts, “what’s bothering you?”
Zuko opens his mouth, but finds that he doesn’t have the words to answer her. Instead, he huffs and closes his mouth again. “I dunno,” he mumbles. “I don’t want you to comb my hair. It’s making me itchy.”
“Itchy?” Ursa echoes. Zuko can hear the crease between her brows.
“Yeah,” Zuko replies. “Itchy.” He doesn’t elaborate.
Ursa sighs, and stands up from the bed. “Alright,” she says. “If you’re sure.”
She reaches down to cup Zuko’s cheek, smoothing her thumb over his cheekbone, and presses a kiss to his forehead. “Goodnight, my son,” she says softly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Zuko mumbles out a half-hearted response, waiting for her to leave and shut the door before he flops backward on the bed. He sighs, blowing errant strands of hair out of his face momentarily before they stubbornly fall back in his eyes. Slowly, Zuko lifts his arm and rolls back his sleeve, squinting at the burn on his wrist he’d been hiding from his mother. He’s tired of telling on Azula, tired of her retaliating and tired of seeing her reprimanded by someone she doesn’t care to listen to.
The burn mark is small, barely the size of Azula’s little thumbprint, but it’s there all the same. Zuko sighs again, dropping his arm and instead staring at the canopy above his bed. If he tries, really focuses his eyes, he can make out the grooves in the wood, the folds in the silky fabric curtains, can see where the posts meet the canopy. He can see everything, if only he tries hard enough.
“Why does she have to be so mean to me?” Zuko wonders aloud, rolling over onto his side. “I don’t—I don’t get her. Firebending isn’t everything.” He pauses, the words echoing around him, before he whispers, “Right?”
Because if firebending is all that matters, if calling upon Agni’s light within oneself is the only way to achieve worthiness and love, then Zuko—Zuko’s been doomed from the start.
She was born lucky. You were lucky to be born.
Ursa always told him that a sibling is—it’s an automatic friend. Someone who’s always going to be there for you and standing with you, someone the universe picked out specifically to help you grow who you will help to grow in return. But—
Zuko wishes he had a different sibling. He wishes Lu Ten were his sibling, or someone else, or maybe nobody at all. Anything but Azula, anything but her taunting and her teasing and her firebending and Father loving her but not Zuko, and her smug little smile and—
Zuko misses his sister. Because he doesn’t know the girl who calls herself Azula, not anymore. Zuko’s sister was nice and fun and clever. Zuko’s sister was protective and a little territorial but she meant well, and she always said sorry when Zuko got in trouble but she didn’t. Zuko’s little sister loved him, and it was easy to love her, too.
Azula is not that girl. Zuko misses that girl.
His burn stings.
There’s a giant Pai Sho table in the Western Air Temple.
Zuko knows this, he knew this, he’s seen it all before years ago, but it hits him different in the fading light of the sunset. The rest of the group is out by the fire, if he recalls correctly, probably preparing a meal that someone will bring for Zuko to eat by himself after Katara has stomped away to wash the dishes. Aang has been complaining about her sour mood during training, but Zuko isn’t really sure what to do about it so he leaves her be and leaves the rest of them, too.
Zuko tilts his head slightly, and suddenly the light paints the whole table golden. Every angle is a different color, shades of pinks and golds and oranges and even a deeper fuchsia. Zuko briefly considers the idea that this Pai Sho table is magic, before he realizes that its shined surface is simply reflecting the dusky sky outside. He wonders who shined and polished it, as it was in disrepair the last time Zuko was here. Someone has placed the white lotus tile on the corner space of the board, farthest from Zuko, with most of the other pieces scattered haphazardly around the room. Zuko wonders how the Air Nomads even played on this table, wonders how Airbenders could move such big and heavy pieces. Airbending is a formidable force, of course, but is it enough to move several tons of stone without an Earthbender’s help?
In all his years on the Wani with Iroh, Zuko never really picked up a knack for the game, nor did he have much interest in it. Zuko steps further into the room, circling the board and heaving the pieces around the room. He’s only moved about three before he’s winded, unused to carrying so much weight.
“What are you doing ?” a voice asks, derision in its tone, and Zuko whips around to face the entryway. It’s Toph who’s standing there, leaning against the doorframe and picking at her fingernails.
Zuko stares at her for several long moments before he gestures uselessly at the giant table and says, “There’s a huge Pai Sho table in here.”
Toph snorts. “I know that, dumbass, I want to know what you’re doing with it.” She straightens up and walks further into the room, arms crossed over her chest. “No offense, but you don’t seem like the type to be good at Pai Sho. You’re too impatient, and not smart enough to come up with a real strategy.”
“How is that not offensive?” Zuko asks, for lack of anything else to say.
Toph shrugs. “Sorry,” she says, sounding like she means none of it.
Zuko rolls his eyes and turns back to the table, frowning down at it. The pattern he had in mind was much easier to lay out on a normal Pai Sho board, when the pieces didn’t weigh several tons. He sighs, running a hand through his hair. It was a stupid idea, anyway.
Toph is quiet for a moment, before she asks, “Were you trying to make a pattern?”
Zuko grunts. “How’d you know?”
“I can feel the placement of the tiles,” she explains. “Of course, I don’t have a clue what the fuck you were trying to make, but I can tell it was something.”
Zuko hesitates. She’s an Earthbender. She could help him, if he only asks. For all her stubbornness and refusal to show any real emotion, Zuko is beginning to pick up that Toph is much nicer than she pretends to be. “A lotus,” he finally says. “I wanted to arrange a lotus blossom.”
Toph grins, smug, and raises her fists. “Say no more, Sparky.”
Zuko watches her work, and within minutes, she has the tiles arranged exactly as Zuko remembers them being in that one oasis back in the Earth Kingdom, right down to the lotus tile sitting innocuously in the dead center of the board. Toph cracks her knuckles once she finishes, this time placing her hands on her hips.
“Thank you,” Zuko says, his eyes glued to the lotus tile.
“Why a lotus anyway?” Toph asks. “You don’t seem the floral type.”
“My uncle,” Zuko starts, but finds that he doesn’t know how to finish the statement. The thought of Iroh puts a bitter taste in Zuko’s mouth, as he starts to think about how poorly he’d treated his uncle, and how he’d betrayed him so completely and totally. Iroh probably never wants to see him again.
“He’s that guy who loves tea, right?” Toph asks, drawing Zuko out of his thoughts.
Zuko nods. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve never met anyone who could make tea quite like Uncle can.”
“Me neither,” Toph replies. “Do you miss him?”
Zuko glances over at her. “Do you actually want to know?”
Toph frowns. “The hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“You just—you don’t seem like the emotional type,” Zuko tells her. “I didn’t think you’d care if I missed my uncle or not.”
“I’m not completely heartless, Sparky,” Toph says, huffing a frustrated breath. “I just don’t see a reason to get all sappy every five seconds like Sugar Queen out there.”
Zuko decides to take her word for it, because he’s yet to see Katara as anything other than murderous and scary.
“C’mon,” Toph drawls. “Tell the World’s Best Earthbender what’s going through that princely head of yours.”
Zuko presses his lips into a thin line. He considers, for a moment, telling her what he’s thinking, telling the girl about all of the things weighing upon his shoulders heavier than all of the Pai Sho tiles combined, but ultimately he doesn’t have the words. He never has the words when he needs them.
“It’s nothing,” Zuko finally says. “Thank you for helping me arrange the Pai Sho table.”
Toph looks troubled, but she doesn’t move to hold him back as Zuko spins on his heel and heads for the door. Just before he’s left the room, Toph calls, “Hey, Sparky?”
Without looking over his shoulder, Zuko replies, “Yeah?”
Toph hesitates for a moment. “You’re one of us now,” she says. “I don’t know how long you’ve been alone, or how long you’ve felt like you are, but—you aren’t on your own anymore.” She pauses. “I know it’s hard to get used to, but you can depend on us, too, you know.”
“I know,” Zuko replies. “I’m fine, though.”
“I can feel you lying,” Toph accuses.
Zuko sighs. “I know.”
Aang doesn’t sleep well. Zuko doesn’t think anyone other than himself has noticed.
But the night after everything, the night after they’re finally victorious and the war has finally ended, he and his friends have commandeered Zuko’s old room in the palace, and Zuko awakens from a light doze at the sound of stirring on the floor. He and Sokka were the ones chosen to sleep in the bed, as the only ones who were injured, with the others all piled around each other on the floor on Sokka’s side of the bed. Zuko blinks open his eyes and glances around; Aang’s footsteps have always been near-undetectable, but in the silence of the night, Zuko can just pick up the sound of feather-light footsteps heading for the door. Zuko sits up, and braces himself before he pushes himself to his feet, ignoring the twinge of pain in his chest, and follows his friend into the corridor.
“Aang?” Zuko calls, leaning on the closed door to keep himself upright. The idea of joining Aang wherever he intended to go had seemed a lot less daunting when Zuko was laying down.
Aang stiffens and glances over his shoulder. “Zuko?” he asks. “Shouldn’t you be resting?”
Zuko says nothing. He takes a deep breath, hoping it would help some with the pain, but it only makes the crushing sensation around his lungs tighten. Abruptly, there is a hand on the small of Zuko’s back and another on his stomach, supporting his weight in addition to the door.
“You’re injured, you shouldn’t be awake,” Aang chastises. He sounds so old, an observation that doesn’t sit quite right in Zuko’s gut. Aang’s not even thirteen yet, he shouldn’t sound like an adult.
“You just defeated my—the Firelord,” Zuko retorts. “You shouldn’t be awake, either.”
Aang suddenly looks as young as he actually is, the weight of the world sitting on his shoulders. “Yeah, well—I can’t sleep, so I figured I’d go explore or something.”
“There isn’t much to see,” Zuko replies.
“You just think that because you’ve lived here for so long,” Aang shoots back. “I’m sure there’s lots of interesting things to see around here.”
Zuko shrugs, hissing in pain at the way the movement tugs on his injury. Aang frets over him, but Zuko waves him away after a moment. “There really isn’t,” Zuko tells him. “It’s all very imperialistic. And boring.”
There’s a knowing glint in Aang’s eyes that Zuko doesn’t like the looks of when Aang says, “You don’t have to come with me, if you don’t want to explore.”
“Shut up,” Zuko grouses. “I’m coming.”
Aang laughs, but it doesn’t sound quite as carefree as it normally does. Zuko frowns at the thought and allows Aang to sling one of Zuko’s arms over his shoulders. Ordinarily, he’d be more embarrassed about how heavily he’s leaning into the younger boy, but right now his mind is too clouded with pain and exhaustion to care.
“Where should we go?” Aang murmurs.
Zuko hisses in pain, adjusting his weight slightly in an effort to relieve some of the stress, before he replies, “Turtleduck pond. Best place in the palace.”
Aang smiles, soft and genuine. “Okay.”
Zuko does his best to give verbal directions as the two of them hobble slowly down the palace corridors toward the garden. As soon as they step outside, they are assaulted by the coolness of the night air; it’s abnormally cold for a Fire Nation evening. Most of the time, the nights in the Fire Nation are hot and stuffy and humid and all around misery-inducing. Zuko misses the shade and the air quality of the Western Air Temple, where it had been warm but not hot, and the air wasn’t humid but it wasn’t dry. In fact, all of the Air Temples Zuko has been to in his life tend to have very nice weather.
Aang eases Zuko onto the ground, then sits cross-legged beside him. The turtleducks aren’t in their pond tonight, most likely sleeping somewhere offshore in the taller grass on the other side, but Zuko doesn’t mind and Aang doesn’t seem to, either. Zuko leans back against the tree, feeling the tension bleed from his body.
“This is nice,” Aang says, after a few beats of silence. Zuko hums. “I thought you said everything in the palace was imperialistic and boring. It’s pretty out here.”
“This is the only good place in the whole palace,” Zuko says. He hesitates. “Aang, are you alright?”
Aang stiffens. “I—what? Of course, I’m great. I just defeated the Firelord!”
“Right,” Zuko says, frowning at him. “But you’re also not sleeping, so.”
Aang clearly tries to keep up his facade of being happy and healthy and raring to go, but it crumbles after only a few seconds. He averts his eyes, staring into the still surface of the pond as his fingers tug on each other and he cracks his knuckles. Zuko wonders where he picked up that nervous habit; he’d guess it was Sokka, but he’s never actually seen Sokka do that. Most often, when Sokka is nervous, he tugs on his ponytail.
“It’s just—” Aang cuts himself off with a sigh. He pulls his knees up to his chest, resting his chin on top of them. “I defeated the Firelord, yes, but there’s still so much left to do.”
“Like what?” Zuko asks.
“There’s all the war prisoners to release,” Aang starts. “And I have to figure out some way to get the other nations to actually, like, trust and respect the Fire Nation again—no offense—and the Air Nomads are still gone and it’s just—everything is so far from over. We’re all still so divided. And I’m the Avatar, which makes it my job to fix all this but I’m—I’m just a kid.”
“Aang,” Zuko starts. “All of that doesn’t have to rest on you and you alone. You’ve got all of us to help you, remember? And as for the Fire Nation stuff—that’s my job. Let us split the workload with you, okay? Or you’ll burn yourself out.”
Aang sighs. “Fine.”
Zuko frowns. “Aang, I mean it. You may be the Avatar, but you said it yourself: You’re just a kid. Anyone who expects you to be able to do and fix everything doesn’t realize that you’re a person, too, and that means that you have limits.” He pauses. “You’ll kill yourself trying to stretch yourself that thin, Aang. Please be careful with how much you give.”
Aang raises his head to look at him. Zuko can tell; he’s gotten through to Aang this time.
“Katara’s gonna kill us when she sees that you were out of bed,” Aang says.
Zuko chuckles. “Probably.”
“Think we should get you back and at least try to save our butts?” Aang asks. Zuko shakes his head.
“To be honest, Aang, I don’t think I can make it back,” he tells the younger boy. “And besides—it’s much nicer out here in the open. Reminds me of the Western Air Temple.”
Aang smiles softly. “Yeah. Kinda does.”
Zuko can’t breathe. He’s in his room, except it’s not his room, it’s someone else’s, and he’s laying on the bed, and he can’t breathe. Images flash before his eyes, pictures of his father his mother his father his sister his father his father his father his burn his father is a monster and before Zuko knows it, the scent of smoke is stuck in his nose.
The door to the room slams open, and Zuko jumps nearly out of his skin. He whips around to see who has come in, who’s coming for him, he looks desperately for a weapon before he realizes that there is a weapon boiling beneath his skin—except it’s a palace guard and he’s yelling, asking something, and everything is too loud and Zuko runs for it. He doesn’t run for the door; no, the guard is blocking that. Instead, Zuko sprints for the window and he yanks it open, breaking the latch in the process, and he scrambles out the window onto his balcony. Once on the balcony, he gauges the distance from there to the ground before he makes a split-second decision and he’s jumping. He lands funny, his ankle twisting uncomfortably and protesting any further movement, but Zuko ignores it and sprints for—somewhere. Anywhere that isn’t here.
He’s gone before the guard can even reach the open window.
His feet carry him to the palace garden, where he collapses in a heap in front of the turtleduck pond. It’s too late at night for the turtleducks to be out and about, but one of the ducklings still pokes its head out of the tall grass to see what all of the commotion is about. Zuko tugs at his hair, getting longer and longer everyday—more like his father’s— and lets out a high-pitched whine.
“Fuck,” he mutters. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Do your advisors know you have such a potty mouth?” a voice teases, and Zuko jerks upright, overbalancing into the pond. He surfaces, a coughing and spluttering mess, as small, cold hands help him out of the water and back onto dry land.
“Okay,” Aang’s voice announces, “I’m going to dry you off now. Ready?”
Zuko forces a nod. A second later, a gust of warm air hits him full-force, blowing his hair and clothes back and drying him. The lingering chill of the pond’s water remains, making him shiver.
“Sorry, Sparky,” Toph says, taking a seat on Zuko’s right side. Aang sits on his left, but slightly forward so that he’s not sitting directly in Zuko’s blindspot. Through the haze of Zuko’s remaining panic, he feels a spike of appreciation for how considerate his friends are. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s fine,” Zuko manages. His voice is hoarse, his throat scratchy and slightly damaged front he smoke of the fire he’d set in his chambers. The thought of it sends his heart racing again, quick enough that it actually prompts both Toph and Aang to speak. They talk over each other at first, but Toph silences and gestures for Aang to continue.
Aang is quiet for a moment, before he asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Zuko inhales. Does he? Does he really want to talk about why he set his bed on fire? Why he’s scared of that bed?
His mouth is moving before he’s fully aware of it. “The bed smelled like him,” he whispers. It’s barely audible, but somehow feels louder than a scream. Zuko closes his eyes, clenching his fists where they rest in his lap. He’s tired. He wants to sleep. He doesn’t have anywhere to go, nowhere to sleep that he won’t find him.
Anng and Toph are silent, waiting for him to continue.
“I set it on fire,” Zuko says, after several moments’ hesitation. “I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was—”
“Scared,” Aang finishes, cutting off Zuko’s slightly-panicked rambling. He reaches out a hand, hovering over one of Zuko’s fists until Zuko nods, barely, and Aang takes his hand in his. Aang’s hands are always so cold, such a stark contrast to the constant heat and overheat of a Fire Nation citizen’s. Zuko doesn’t hate it. “It’s okay, Zuko. You don’t have to explain if you don’t want to.”
Zuko presses his lips into a thin line.
“What do you want to do, Sparky?” Toph asks, picking clumps of grass and sprinkling them onto Zuko’s knees.
“Sleep,” Zuko blurts. “I’m so tired. I can’t—couldn’t—sleep in that bed.”
Aang releases his hand, tapping Zuko’s shoulder. “Sleep here,” he suggests. “It’s alright. We’re here.”
Zuko glances between the two of them. He doesn’t want to, can hear every single one of his advisors throwing a fit about how improper it is for a Firelord to sleep in a garden, to sleep surrounded by friends, but—
He’s so tired. And his friends are safe, safer than anywhere else in the palace.
Zuko lays down, resting his head in Aang’s lap, and Aang tugs Zuko’s hair free from its topknot, combing his fingers through the dark tresses.
“Sleep,” he murmurs. “We’ll be here in the morning.”
Zuko’s eyes flutter closed.
In the morning, Zuko wakes up to his face being warmed by the sunlight, and a comforting weight curled up near his feet. His head is resting on something solid and comfortable, and there’s a hand resting gently against the crown of his head. Something is nudging his face, ever so gently.
He cracks open his eyes, only to see that a curious turtleduckling has meandered over to the small pile he and his friends have made on the edge of the pond, its family wading in the water on the other side. Zuko smiles, reaching up to pat its downy head softly before he murmurs, “Go back to your mom. There you go, just like that.” He watches the turtleduckling waddle back into the water, swimming across the pond to rejoin its siblings with a particularly loud quack. His chest swells with warmth.
“Zuko?” Aang asks, his voice heavy with sleep. The hand disappears from where it’d been resting against Zuko’s scalp, and Zuko sits up carefully to look at the younger boy. He’s rubbing his eyes with a fist, looking every bit the thirteen-year-old child that he is. The fogginess fades from his eyes as the seconds pass, until he looks more aware. “Did you sleep well?”
Zuko nods. “Yes,” he says. And he did—for the first time since Sozin’s Comet, Zuko feels well-rested.
Toph stirs at that moment, cutting off whatever Aang would’ve said in response to Zuko. She yawns, loudly, and sits up, scratching her side as she goes. Zuko and Aang watch as she stretches, curling her spine backward until it pops several times in rapid succession and she relaxes back into her usual slouch.
“Mornin’ dorks,” she greets, as polite as ever. “What’s for breakfast?”
Zuko covers his mouth with his hand to hide his laugh, stretching as well before he stands. “Not sure. I’m sure the cooks have something ready, though. It feels later than I usually wake up.”
“Don’t you usually get up at sunrise?” Aang asks. Zuko hums his affirmation.
Toph scoffs. “Why do you hate yourself?”
Zuko laughs, leading his friends into the palace. One of his advisors is lingering in the hallway, and Zuko can tell by the look on his face that he knows exactly where Zuko slept the night before.
Zuko waves Aang and Toph on, promising to catch up, and turns to his advisor. “I can explain—”
His advisor holds up a hand, cutting him off. “No need, Firelord Zuko,” he says. “A Firelord never has to explain his actions to those beneath him.” He smiles. “And besides—it is good to see you have such good friends. Perhaps the palace will be a brighter place in the age of Firelord Zuko. I look forward to it."
He walks away, leaving Zuko to gape.
“Sparky!” Toph hollers, her voice echoing all the wall from the kitchen. “Hurry up, or Aang’s gonna eat all of your weird, spicy fruit!”
Zuko puts the conversation with his advisor out of mind, spinning on his heel to go join his friends for breakfast. “Coming!”