It was something Kiyi had noticed in the months following her family taking up residence in the Fire Nation Palace.
Some days Zuko was really, really sad. Those were the days when he would whisper, “Please don’t call me Zuzu today” or simply shake his head and not say anything all day. Those were the days when Toph, who seemed to be Kiyi’s unofficial big sister (Zuko’s unofficial little sister), would take one “look” at Zuko and make the executive decision to hand off the Fire Lordiness off to Uncle Iroh and drag Zuko around doing meaningless tasks.
Sometimes, on those days, Zuko would let Kiyi call him Koko. Sometimes he wouldn’t let her call him anything but Big Brother.
Sometimes he just held her like the whole world would fall apart if he let go.
On the days Zuko was sad, Kiyi was sad too. She hadn’t known him for very long, but he’d become something of a rock for her. If she ever felt sad or scared or angry, Zuko would let her cry all over his fancy robes or rant until her voice hurt or cling to him like a limpet-snail.
Kiyi wanted to be able to do for her big brother what he did for her.
But she couldn’t. Which was quite possibly what led to the Nightmare.
The Nightmare was, unfortunately, a regular occurrence. Every time Zuko had a sad day, Kiyi would have the Nightmare.
In the Nightmare, Zuko would be sadder than usual. Kiyi would always try to cheer him up, but he would always shake his head, and eventually get annoyed. Then she would look away for two seconds, and when she looked back, he would be gone. Gone like he’d never even been there in the first place.
Zuko - real Zuko, not Nightmare Zuko - always let her crawl into bed with him after. He’d let her snuggle close, then whisper that he’d always be there for her.
He always sounded a little wistful when he said that. It made Kiyi wonder what he was thinking of.
He asked her not to call him Zuzu then, too.
Kiyi had the Nightmare again. Zuko hadn’t even been sad that day, so she didn’t know why. It was still scary though.
So she slid out of her room and toddled into Zuko’s.
He wasn’t sleeping. Just meditating. The candle in front of him flared and waned hypnotically with his breath.
Kiyi stared at it for a moment. She didn’t want to disturb him…
“Hi, Kiyi,” Zuko said quietly. He didn’t open his eyes, but he smiled softly. “Did you have a nightmare?”
She nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. “I had the Nightmare,” she replied.
He chuckled. “Well, come here then.” He gestured to his lap, finally opening his eyes.
She crawled into his arms. “You always vanish in the Nightmare. I never know why.”
“I’ll always be here for you, my little ray of sunshine.”
“You always sound sad when you say that,” Kiyi informed him.
Zuko looked surprised. “I do?”
And then Zuko’s hand was carding through her hair. She twisted her neck awkwardly to meet his eyes (which, on an unrelated note, she called sunrise eyes).
His hand stilled, then started moving again. “You’ve met Azula, right?”
Kiyi nodded. “She’s your other little sister.”
“That’s right. I suppose I sound sad when I say I’ll always be here for you because… well, I wasn’t always there for her. I failed her. I looked at her and I could only see bad things. At some point I stopped seeing my baby sister and started seeing an enemy. It took me too long to realise that she had a lot of the same insecurities as me, but just showed it differently. She was just as afraid as I was. But I didn’t see it until she was already too far gone; she’s only recently recovered. I guess I just don’t want to make the same mistakes with you. I don’t want to push you down bad paths because I wasn’t there to support you.”
Kiyi snuggled closer to his chest, revelling in his natural warmth. “Then I should always be there for you, Big Brother.”
Zuko let out a surprised laugh. “What’s brought this on, Sunshine?”
“...The one I always disappear in?”
“Mm-hm. Every time you’re sad first. You’re having a sad day, but Toph isn’t there to make you feel better. So I try to make you feel better, but it never works. And then you get annoyed, so I look away, and then… then you’re gone.”
Zuko’s arms tightened around her. If the way his breath hitched was anything to go by, he knew exactly what that meant. But he didn’t tell her, and she was rather okay with that.
“I think I’d like it if you could be there for me,” Zuko said softly. “But you’re so little. You just don’t have enough life experience to understand. And some of the things that bother me are bad things that I want to protect you from. I don’t know if you’ll be able to help me until you’re older.”
Kiyi squirmed until he let her go. She got to her feet, put her hands on his shoulders, and looked him dead in the eye. “I can do what you do,” she told him. “I can hug you and listen to you complain even if I don’t understand what you’re complaining about. And we can feed the turtleducks together.” She stopped, realising he looked completely stunned.
She really had no idea how he could be so smart and so stupid at the same time.
“I - you - you’re very passionate about this,” Zuko said hoarsely. “I just don’t - I don’t think I fully understand why?”
Kiyi wanted to smack her forehead like Toph did every time someone forgot she was blind.
“Because you’re my big brother and I love you,” she said. “And I don’t like it when you get all sad like that. It makes me sad, because I want you to be happy and you’re not.”
Zuko made an odd choking noise, and then Kiyi was back in his arms being squeezed so tightly she could barely breathe. But she didn’t complain; not when she felt a suspicious wetness in her hair.
She ignored the fact that she had just made her big brother cry and hugged him back. She had a feeling he needed this.
When the feeling of his tears in her hair stopped, Kiyi finally trusted herself to speak.
“Are you gonna be less sad now?”
Zuko huffed a shaky laugh. “Yeah, Sunshine. I think I am.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Do you think you can go back to sleep?”
Kiyi nodded, and her big brother twisted to grab a blanket from his bed. He bundled it around them, tucking it neatly around his shoulders and under Kiyi’s chin.
“Zuzu?” she whispered.
“Can you sing to me?”
His chest vibrated as he replied. “Only if you promise to close your eyes.”
Kiyi quickly complied. Soon her brother’s voice - much prettier than he always said it was - filled the room.
“Leaves from the vine, falling so slow,
Like fragile, tiny shells, drifting in the foam…”
Kiyi’s awakeness felt heavy, like that one time she’d picked up Zuko’s dao.
“Little soldier child, come marching home…”
She was lulled into the warm, welcoming darkness as Zuko held her even closer to his chest.
“Brave soldier child, comes marching home.”
Ursa and Iroh agreed, the next morning, to never mention to either Zuko or Kiyi that they had both fallen asleep on the floor, tangled in the blanket that was still half-on Zuko’s bed, cuddled so closely that they looked like they’d been glued together.
There were some moments that were just too cute to use for blackmail, and this?
This was one of them.