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an aria of auroras

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“Hold my hand.”

Excuse me?” Zuko wrinkles his nose. Granted, Aang’s always been one for hugging and buddy-buddy skinship, but holding hands? Even this is a first.

“I said, hold my hands,” Aang repeats, a smidge of annoyance hidden under his sunny tone. His hands are outstretched, palms up. “C’mon, Zuko. We don’t have all day.”

“Why should I hold your hands—”

“Ask me another question, and I’ll—I’ll—” Aang looks over at the ledge behind them, the breeze blowing through the pillars of the temple. “I’ll—”

He looks pointedly at the ledge behind Zuko, one eyebrow raised.

“Geez, that’s not very monk-like of you,” Zuko mutters. Not that Aang’s actually above threatening the Fire Lord and all that—but it’s not every day that a world leader can actually say that he’s actually great friends with the Avatar.

(Just ask—wait, nevermind.)

If only Zuko had been able to handle the stress of handling an entire nation on his teenage shoulders, really. Then he wouldn’t be in this situation, sitting cross-legged across from Aang on the bottommost level of a pagoda hanging off a cliff into the clear air.

But the thing is—and that’s always it, that thing—where something’s just off, like Zuko’s just not as in tune with himself as he used to be, with a one-track-mind and a one-shot-goal ahead of him as he blindly chased ghosts across the land, pain and hatred fueling his every move, his every decision.

And now, now this peace—Zuko knows he should feel elated that the war’s over, but there’s something crawling under his ribs, yowling in frustration.

Something’s bound to happen, his doubt scratches at his ears.

You can’t do this, his unease cackles darkly in his heart.

And try as he might, ignoring the whispers in the court and the gossip filtering throughout the city—Zuko can’t get it out of his head. He’s just a teenager, after all—a teenager with a crown on his head, fool’s gold that throws false shadows around the palace, because real gold… would he even be able to bear that weight?

When Zuko had first told his friend about the thoughts gnawing away at his brain every night, about the insecurity weighing him down with each negotiation completed, each banquet conducted—he had expected Aang to, well, suggest some extra sleep. Some tea, perhaps (no thanks to his uncle or anything). Or maybe some time off so his sluggish body can finally catch up to his racing mind.

“I see,” Aang had mock-stroked a beard that wasn’t there, eyes furrowed as he took in the dark circles around Zuko’s eyes, the cloud of exhaustion raining perpetual angst around him.

Zuko hadn’t counted on Aang dragging him all the way out to a temple, of all things.

It’s been ages since he’s first step foot in here, but the Western Air Temple looks not a day past the invasion, pristine, sweeping inverted pagodas and small courtyards filled with flowers, the wind whistling throughout the entire temple in a harmony of tittering birdsong and sweeping leaves.

“Okay, okay,” Zuko continues, sighing before he holds out his own hands, fingers trembling.

Aang beams, taking Zuko’s hands into his. “Now I want you to close your eyes and channel your energy, okay?”

“You’re serious.” Zuko snorts.

“One-hundred-percent, yes. Do you wanna learn how to meditate or not?”

We could’ve done this back at home, Zuko wants to say, but he swallows his words as he closes his eyes, closing himself off from color, the darkness overtaking everything in front of him.

“Good, that’s more like it.” Aang’s voice floats through his ears. “Now we’re gonna start!”

Finally.

Aang’s palms are warm and rough, his fingers lean and long between Zuko’s fingertips. They’re not as dry as Zuko’s hands but they’re battle-weary all the same, and Zuko finds himself absentmindedly running a hand over each tendon, each ligament, as he tries to take deeper and deeper breaths.

“You’re uneasy,” Aang remarks. “You need to clear your mind, Zuko. Don’t think about anything else. Just imagine a blank space. Feel the warmth. Let your chi just… flow through.”

His hands go slack in Zuko’s palms and Zuko barely manages to keep his hold when their hands plummet towards the empty space between the two of them.

“Just open up, Zuko.” Aang’s voice is a telltale instruction floating on the wind, and Zuko finally allows his shoulders to relax, his lungs to open up, to breathe in the crisp, cold air around him.

In.

Fresh air.

Out.

Stale breath.

And it’s like a huge brush flowing over the canvas of Zuko’s mind, each cycle of fresh-air-stale-breath a brushstroke over his errant thoughts, covering everything in a blank nothingness in his mind. There’s absolute stillness in the dark, no flickering thoughts, no shrill voices, no hungry doubts creeping into the edges as Zuko continues to breathe in, out, in, out. He can hear the wind whooshing around him, can smell the faintest traces of jasmine and magnolia.

“You need to release everything,” Aang murmurs over the sound of the blustering wind. “Don’t fight it.”

Zuko focuses his attention on the energy flowing throughout his body, begging for a way out. He feels Aang’s heartbeat echoing in his palms, quiet and calm, all warmth clashing against Zuko’s own inner fire, and is this what Aang meant by not fighting it?, because Zuko’s not trying to fight the energy reverberating against his hands, he’s just trying to find a way to let it all out.

Maybe you should embrace it, his heart whispers, and it echoes loudly throughout Zuko’s entire body.

But what if—?

Don’t be afraid.

Okay, Zuko says to himself, and he opens his soul.

To be honest, Zuko had half-expected for something to rush into him, but it feels exactly the same, besides a gentle hum as he accepts Aang’s energy into his, trickling into his body and reinvigorating his bones. But other than that, nothing—save for the thudding in his heart and the tickling on his hands.

Wait.

Tickling?

Zuko resists the urge to crack open an eyelid—

“You’re not relaxed.” Aang almost sounds like he’s asleep, words slurring.

—and reluctantly shuts his eyes, returning to the emptiness in his mind.

But the tickling doesn’t go away, just hovering right there, over Zuko’s palms and his bare arms, teasing him in a song without words.

Finally, the curiosity just gets too much, and Zuko’s eyes fly open.

There’s a whisper of green fire licking at Aang’s fingertips.

Normally, Zuko wouldn’t have a second thought about this. Aang’s the Avatar, after all—master of all four elements and whatnot—so the idea of Aang firebending isn’t the weirdest thought.

No, the real problem has more to do with the fact that Zuko’s thought process goes a little something like: green fire → aren’t we supposed to be meditating? why is Aang firebending? → wait, why is the fire green? → nevermind that, my friend’s on fire → shit, the fucking Avatar is on fire → panic, panic, panic.

Aang’s eyes are still closed. “Zuko, I can tell you aren’t concentrating. Just let it all flow through you, okay?”

“Um.”

Zuko’s still staring at the verdant flame with unbridled fascination. The fire looks soft, lush, like glossy grass or towering trees, sleek with freshly-formed dew. It reminds him of the courtyard next to the turtleduck pond, all grass and flowers and leaves dangling just out of reach in the summer shade.

“Zuko?” And even though his eyes are closed, Aang’s forehead furrows.

Zuko grits his teeth and tries his best to harness the flame without moving, but the fire floats just out of reach, mockingly, like it knows what Zuko’s trying to do.

“Your chi?” Aang’s voice breaks through, and Zuko holds back a snort of disapproval as the flame continues to taunt him.

“Right, yeah.” Zuko closes his eyes slightly, just enough for him to keep an eye out on the finicky flame as he sucks in another lungful of air and concentrates on allowing his chi to flow through.

He watches in horror as the flame just grows larger and larger, jade exploding in Aang’s hands and falling to the ground in a shower of sparks, engulfing the entirety of Aang’s fingers in supple, tantalizing vines—

—and Zuko’s falling backwards, his hands sliding between Aang’s fingertips, the flame disappearing in a gust of wind when Aang opens his eyes and stares at Zuko in confusion.

“You okay?” Aang asks as he pulls his friend back into a comfortable sitting position. “We can try again, if you wanna.”

“I’m fine,” Zuko replies, but I—you—you were on fire—green fire? germinates on the tip of his tongue before he holds it all back, a multitude of unanswered questions in his mind as he shakes his head.

Aang wouldn’t understand.

The fire continues to smoulder in Zuko’s mind, long after it fades from view, green tendrils of possibility sending spirals of smoke cascading upwards between his thoughts.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Naturally, Zuko has to try this fire-thing with his best friend.

“You’re kidding, right?” Sokka looks incredulously at Zuko when he ducks into his room after one of their various diplomatic negotiations in the palace.

“Please?” Zuko asks quietly.

“I mean, is green fire really that weird?” Sokka scratches his head. “Y’know, like, with Aang being the Avatar and all that?”

“Sure? But I wanted to try it with you.” Zuko holds his own hands out, arms trembling in his robes.

Sokka rolls his eyes, lets out the biggest sigh known to man, and places his hands, palm-up, in the delicate cradle of Zuko’s grasp.

“Can you close your eyes? I think that helps,” Zuko says.

Sokka sniffs dramatically as he closes his eyes, the faintest trace of a grin on his lips. “Anything for you, your majesty.”

Sokka’s hands are cold and calloused, whorls of raised skin etched in his fingers as Zuko tentatively runs a thumb across his knuckles, tracing the lines on his palms with the softest of fingerstrokes. Zuko takes a deep breath and focuses his energy on their interlaced fingers, fingertip to fingertip, coaxing that familiar feeling of resistance that separates both of them—

It doesn’t work.

Sokka’s hands are dry, without the slightest hint of smoke or spark anywhere—just the warmth from his fingertips and the blood rushing through his palms. Zuko pulls back, a sting of disappointment smarting his fingertips.

“So, I guess that didn’t work, huh?”

“Nope.” Zuko’s voice is strained. “I guess it didn’t.”

“Well, if it were up to me, like, I knew it wouldn’t work.” Sokka shrugs. “Not the biggest fan of that mojo-magic stuff, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course I do,” Zuko replies, shoulders slumping as he sits down in a nearby chair, staring at his hands. They’re wholly unremarkable—a scar here, a callus there—almost as large as Sokka’s hands but not quite.

Zuko isn’t surprised—no, he really isn’t, with Sokka being a nonbender and all, so who knows if he even actually has chi?—but there’s a part of him that’s oddly disappointed, like he’s been secretly hoping for the opposite, to picture the look on Sokka’s face when a flame rises on his fingertips, to chuckle when Sokka stares at the fire with childlike wonder and amazement.

And in that instant, Zuko realizes he’s wholly dedicated his entire life to this bumbling, lovable skeptic of a scientist, all sharp thinking and clear-cut rationale, and somehow, that’s what hurts the most, because it means Sokka will never see the flame because he refuses to even believe in that spirit for a few seconds.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Maybe this entire thing was a mistake, a trick of the light that afternoon in the Western Air Temple, and Zuko would do well to forget about it all right now.

Meditating with Aang had done little to quell his anxieties in the court—in fact, the thought about that mysterious green flame is enough to keep Zuko tossing and turning at night. He’s consulted all the ancient texts in the archives, but nowhere does it mention anything about a strange, colorful fire erupting from the hands of people.

Zuko doesn’t tell his advisors, because he doesn’t need anyone to think that he’s hallucinating about green flames and hand-holding, because the advisors have already made up their minds about their juvenile Fire Lord, and all they really need is one good excuse and Zuko will be gone, wandering in the forests somewhere outside the court, with only the names of his friends on his tongue and a curiosity of colorful flames in his mind.

He takes an impromptu trip down to the southern ice fields, tagging along with Sokka’s entourage when the ambassador prepares to go home. The voyage is long and dangerous, but it isn’t something that Zuko hasn’t experienced before, chasing the Avatar with his uncle and all that. The crew navigates around floe after floe of sharp ice, a field full of hazardous and deadly traps of bitter cold, and Zuko pulls his cloak tightly around him and braces against a faceful of frost.

Later, when they’ve finally arrived at the village, Zuko finds himself sitting on the side during the welcome banquet, a bowl of piping-hot stew in his hands as he searches futilely for a familiar face to talk to.

Katara finds him first.

“Fancy seeing you here,” she says, plopping down in the seat next to his, her own bowl of stew warm and spicy, and Zuko’s mouth is positively watering when he watches Katara take up a spoonful of stew and blow on it, the smell of spices and saltwater lingering in the air.

“Yeah, I needed a little bit of a break,” Zuko replies, mindlessly stirring his bowl of stew until Katara glares at him and fixes her gaze pointedly at the food in front of him.

“Eat up,” she says quietly. “The nights get fairly cold, and we certainly can’t have the Fire Lord freezing his butt off during a visit. Imagine what everyone else would say about that!”

But no one’s going to say anything, especially where Zuko is concerned, because most of the people are still wary of his presence, chittering about him behind his back as he gets up to leave the dinner and head outside for a bit of fresh air.

The southern lights twinkle in the sky, sheets of nightsky-rainbows that paint a haze of glittering greens, pinks, blues across the expanse of the inky black canvas of the night. There’s laughter in the air, and Zuko looks around, following the sound until he sees a bit of brightness burning in the darkness.

Sokka’s sitting in a circle with a group of children, all huddled around a small fire pit that burns merrily in the cold. His hands are outstretched as he moves wildly, a grin plastered on his face as he regales his captive audience with some sort of outlandish story.

“They really like him,” a voice murmurs from his right, and Zuko looks over to see Katara standing next to him, a faint smile on her face as she looks over at her brother.

“I bet he tells great stories.” Zuko’s hands are freezing, and he stuffs them into the confines of his cloak.

“Yeah, he does.” Katara doesn’t look up. “You’re cold, right? Maybe you should head back inside?”

“I’m fine,” Zuko says, because he’d rather stay out here and freeze his butt off before he even goes back to face all the gossip and stories about his sudden arrival in the village.

“You could let me take a look at it, at least.” Katara holds out her hands. “C’mon, Zuko. Sokka’ll never let me live this down if you get frostbite on my watch.”

Katara’s hands are thin and warm, her fingers betraying their inner strength when she laces them together with Zuko’s hands, humming as she pulls up a bubble of water that floats above her fingers as she scrutinizes every scratch, every scar crisscrossing over Zuko’s palms.

“Yeesh, your healers really need to take a better look,” Katara mutters as she maneuvers the bubble of water over Zuko’s wrists, his tendons, his bones, Zuko shuddering as the blood lazily returns to his fingertips with newfound warmth. He can feel his chi sluggishly moving around, prodding against the barrier in his fingertips and yearning for the heat of Katara’s hands and the relief of her healing—and with one final push, Zuko breaks through.

Zuko’s so lost in the sensation of it all, he almost can’t make out Katara’s voice just over the horizon, with the slightest edge of panic settling in.

“Zuko,” Katara says calmly, and Zuko can hear that edge in her voice even without opening his eyes.

“Mhm?”

“Zuko,” Katara repeats, slowly and surely. “I’m on fire.”

“Well, of course you’re—wait, huh?” Zuko catches himself in the middle of his thoughts and cracks an eye open.

Sure enough, there’s a teardrop of teal hovering right above Katara’s palm, right like she said. The flame dances unevenly, rippling, like the surface of a glossy lake once disturbed by an animal, the tranquil silence shattered into a thousand shards of sapphire tumbling to the frosty, frozen ground.

“I—” Zuko’s at a loss for words. His hands are still trembling from something other than the cold and he tries to pull back, only for Katara to stop him.

“Hold on,” she says, waving her free hand. Another bubble of water materializes in the air, and she directs it towards the flame to extinguish it. Zuko watches as the flame vanishes, only to reappear moments later, tiny and wan but very much alive and burning.

Katara sighs, and the blue flame wavers in the darkness, a miniature southern light that shines across the landscape.

Zuko doesn’t say anything, just silently extracts his hands from Katara’s grasp, and almost immediately, the flame snuffs itself out, with only darkness in the space between them.

“I’m—” Katara’s eyes are trained on her hands, the ghost of telltale smoke still rising from her fingers. “Since when did you—”

“I have no idea.” Zuko’s words slice into the space between them, because he truly doesn’t know, and knowing the answer might be infinitely more terrifying than remaining in the unknown.

“Alright,” Katara huffs. “Keep your secrets, if you want to.”

And under the sharp-eyed gaze of the night sky, Zuko agrees.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The palace guards may be watchful, but Zuko hasn’t trained for nothing—years of experience of sneaking around, and he’s managed to sneak his way out of the palace and into the marketplace. In between the fruit stalls and the leery hawkers looking to make some quick money, he’s finally made it to a nondescript tent, sandwiched between a noodle stand and a vegetable cart. The palace servants had been gossiping about it, the new fortune teller who supposedly sees and knows all, who divulges her secrets for a small fee.

“I’ve been having better luck these days, ever since I asked her about love,” one of them prattles on to another as they hurry down a corridor, and Zuko’s ears perk up at the thought—if he cannot find answers in the archives, then surely a fortune teller may do the trick.

“My child,” the fortune teller intones gravely as Zuko walks in, her years evident in her trembling voice. “My child, you are cursed.”

Well, that’s not exactly the thing that Zuko wants to hear when he first steps foot into the tent.

It’s not like Zuko’s surprised by the fortune teller’s revelation. He’s always been a little off—a birth date on the longest night of the year, firebending that manifested late into his childhood, and who could forget about that agonizing trial against his own father?—but cursed? Cursed isn’t exactly the way Zuko would describe himself, but then again, he’s talking to a fortune teller—a fortune teller, who, upon seeing the mysterious figure duck into her tent, had immediately uttered her declaration.

“You’re wondering why I think you’re cursed,” the fortune teller cackles. “Show me your hands, my child.”

So Zuko sits down on the cushion in front of the frail old woman and holds out his hands. His scar itches behind his disguise, but he stays completely still as the fortune teller shuffles forward and wraps a bony hand around one of his wrists.

“Ah.” The fortune teller goes quiet, her wizened fingers dextrous beyond her years as she traces along the lines on Zuko’s palms. The wrinkles on her face may betray the eons of experience she’s had, but her eyes are sharp, golden flint that seem to cut straight into Zuko’s very soul when she stares into his face, carving up a sliver of himself and retreating.

“You are cursed, my child.” The fortune teller drops Zuko’s hand and claps once. “Cursed to see others but never your own.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means everything and nothing, it means the presence and absence of all.” The fortune teller’s spinning a web of words around them now, her fingernails tapping against each other. “You can see, and yet you cannot, and that is the greatest flaw of all.”

“You never answered my question—”

“Some questions are not meant to be answered, your majesty,” the fortune teller cackles, and it’s a harsh sound that grates on Zuko’s nerves, taunting him.

You don’t know anything, that lingering thought in his mind laughs.

“This was utterly useless,” Zuko hisses between gritted teeth, pulling himself to his feet in a fury of flame and fur, his cloak a hindrance in the stuffy tent.

And as he leaves, Zuko turns around and squints at the old woman, confusion roaring in his ears. He had thought that he had done a fairly good job of concealing himself, hadn’t said anything about who he was, and yet—

The fortune teller says nothing, merely winks at Zuko and waves him away with a flick of her wrists, her bracelets jangling noisily in the tent.

Zuko vows never to return.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“So, I heard about your fire thing,” Toph says when Zuko comes to visit her at her academy hidden on the outskirts of Yu Dao.

Zuko all but spits out his tea in surprise. “You what?

“Katara told me about how you set people on fire or something?”

No?” Zuko coughs. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not necessarily into immolation and stuff like that.”

“Well, sure, but that’s what Aang told me. You and your color fire thing.” Toph takes another sip from the cup perched in her hands. The two of them are sitting on a balcony, with the wide expanse of a mountain range sprouting in the distance and the sound of waterfalls pouring quietly into the calm of the sunset sky. If Zuko wasn’t so busy, he’d probably want to stay here a while longer, to breathe in the smell of fresh flowers and acrid sulfur from the pockets of hot springs bubbling throughout the dense forest surrounding the academy.

“I mean—” Zuko pauses and places his teacup on the ledge next to him before surveying his own hands with a practiced eye. Besides the tree-root-pattern of lines cut into his palms and a rough callus here and there, his hands are completely normal, no trace of I-set-people-on-fire anywhere. “Not really?”

“Psh, Katara told me about the blue fire incident.”

“She did?”

“Yeah, when I asked her about it.” Toph shrugs nonchalantly, her face passive.

“You should try it with me,” she continues.

This time, Zuko actually spits out his drink.

Excuse me?” he wipes his lips with a practiced hand, the dregs of tea swirling around his cup. “You want me to—”

“To set me on fire, yeah?” Toph’s eyes are pale pearls, her sightless gaze almost digging into Zuko’s soul. “Set me on fire, Zuko.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Please?” Toph grabs on to the edge of his shirt and tugs. “C’mon, do it for me.”

“Toph, I can’t just, like, do this on demand or anything.”

Toph crosses her arms and huffs petulantly, a little sister pouting when her older sibling wouldn’t give her a toy, and Zuko can’t help but fumble into her whims.

“Okay, fine.” Zuko sits back. “Give me your hands.”

Toph immediately grins and thrusts out her hands, palms up. “C’mon, show me what you got.”

Zuko keeps his eyes open this time. Toph’s power is immense and staggering, so much energy in such a small body, he’s surprised when his chi flows through his hands and into Toph’s palms with barely any resistance. He expects something to overwhelm him completely, to take over his senses, but nothing comes, just a torrent of emotions surrounding his chi but never quite touching him, and that’s when Zuko sees it.

The flame.

It’s small, but it glows with a fierce light, a deep purple that flickers wildly between shades of pale lilac and dark violet as it floats right above Toph’s palm, glowing amethyst steadily blooms into a fiery flower of a flame that settles over Toph’s fingertips.

“Purple?” Toph says, and Zuko belatedly realizes how he’s been whispering the entire time.

“Yeah, purple. It’s purple.”

Toph holds still. “What’s purple?”

“Purple—” Zuko begins, eyes narrowing as he tries to find the best way to describe color to someone who’s never seen color before. “—purple is a cool color, like a mix of red and blue?”

“Nice try,” Toph says drily. “If only I knew what red and blue actually looked like, smarty pants.”

“Okay, fair point.” Zuko shakes his head in dismay, hands still firmly locked in place, the purple flame curling and twisting into unusual patterns above Toph’s hands.

He decides to start small.

“Red is like my fire,” Zuko finally says, imagining the spark of sharp red against his fingertips. “And blue is water. Fire and water.”

“What about fire and water?”

“Fire—” Zuko hesitates, and he can see his own fire glowing behind his eyelids when he closes his eyes. “Fire is red, hot, slow.”

“And water.” Katara comes to mind. “Water is blue, cold, fast.”

“Okay?” Toph sounds a bit impatient.

“So purple’s like a mix of both, of fire and water.” Zuko concentrates on the tiny flame nestled in Toph’s hands. “It’s powerful and energetic, constantly changing over time but always there.”

“Sounds like a contradiction to me.” Toph wrinkles her nose. The flame in her hand follows suit, half of it twisting slightly.

“But it has a soft side, too,” Zuko continues. “Purple reminds me of silk, smooth but mysterious because you don’t know what it hides inside.”

“It’s like the sunset on a new night,” Zuko closes his eyes and feels the soft summer breeze blow through his hair. “In that precise moment, right when the sun has gone down and all the warmth we feel is hidden just out of reach, but there’s something else that rushes in to fill the empty space—that’s what purple feels like, with its energy and everything.”

“Really.”

“Yeah.” Zuko looks over the expanse of the wilderness, through the towering trees, his eyes chasing the remnants of purple and lilac on the horizon before the sun disappears entirely over the jagged mountains. “Purple is a powerful color.”

He watches as Toph’s grin melts into a flat line before she shakes her head slightly and her grip loosens and falls away. The flame dissipates into the shadows, connection lost, and Zuko flexes his hands, the feeling returning to his fingers.

A tear catches on the tip of Toph’s eyelash and falls to the ground.

“You’re the only one,” she says after a while, voice cracking into a croak, and Zuko doesn’t even need her to finish the sentence before he’s pulled her in for an awkward hug, patting her gently on the back. He can feel something wet on the front of his clothes but he stands still, mouth twisting in a slight smile when Toph buries her face in his robes and sniffs noisily.

“I’m not crying.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“But I’m not.”

“No, you’re definitely not crying,” Zuko whispers, just loud enough for Toph to hear before she smacks him on the arm with a fist.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“Aw, c’mon, Zuko. We already know it won’t work.”

“Trust me, it will.”

“Zuko.” Sokka’s looking at him, his eyes cerulean pools that Zuko would willingly drown in forever. “Trust me. If it didn’t work the first time, it ain’t working the second time.”

“But it has to,” Zuko counters, desperate, as he reaches out to grab Sokka’s hands. “Let me try again, okay?”

But Sokka—Sokka feels like an icy desert, cold and dry, and Zuko can’t seem to find a way in, no matter how hard he tries. It’s not that there’s a barrier separating them, not a wall that grows ever-higher with each of Zuko’s attempts, but the expanse of nothingness. There is absolutely nothing to hold on to, and the desert howls out in laughter no matter how hard Zuko tries to push forward.

Zuko finally pulls back reluctantly, the desert fading from his mind when he clasps his hands together and sighs.

“Sorry ‘bout that, buddy.” Sokka smiles wanly, reaching out and tucking a telltale strand of hair behind Zuko’s ear, and Zuko’s cheek burns with the heat of a thousand suns.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Zuko’s completely convinced that this thing, this fire-color-thing that he’s suddenly manifested out of the blue—it’s definitely something that only works with benders.

Except it isn’t.

Because, of course, someone has to prove him wrong.

It all starts out as a joke, just two friends joking around after an impromptu sparring session in one of the many clearings on the outskirts of Kyoshi Island.

Ty Lee proves herself to be a formidable opponent, her fans whistling in the air as she deflects Zuko’s attacks and darts in for her own, feather-light touches that barely graze his pressure points but leave his shoulder feeling numb and soft, even as he fends her off with his other hand.

Their sparring session ends in a flurry of fans and flames, Ty Lee collapsing on the ground in a fit of giggling, her armor clattering as she stretches out her legs. Zuko pulls out his hair band and ties his hair into a high ponytail on his head, sweat dripping down his arms in the harsh glare of the sun.

“That was nice,” he says, wiping his forehead with a cloth before taking a sip from his water skin and handing it to Ty Lee.

“Yeah!” Ty Lee’s voice is as infectiously enthusiastic as it always is, even as she greedily gulps down the water. “It’s nice to actually practice against a bender for a change.”

Zuko nods. He’s been preoccupied with too many thoughts lately, all stampeding through his head like a herd of frantic ostrich horses across a savannah, and on top of it all, there’s the small matter of Sokka and his flame—or lack thereof.

Or maybe it’s just a thing that happens with benders and their chi, inner energy pouring out into a tangible flame that sparks in their hands.

Zuko turns towards Ty Lee. “Hey, can I ask you for a favor?”

“What sort of favor?” Ty Lee narrows her eyes. “Because I’m not going to go around the continent chasing after—”

“What? No, of course not.” Zuko shakes his head. “Just give me your hands.”

Ty Lee looks incredulous.

“Please?” Zuko holds out his own hands.

“Okay?” Ty Lee pulls off her gloves. “As long as you don’t, like, set me on fire or anything.”

“I won’t,” Zuko replies, because if all goes according to plan, there isn’t going to be a fire anywhere near Ty Lee.

Unfortunately, it seems like the spirits are out to prove him wrong.

Zuko finds himself staring at a happy orange flame, all round and squishy-looking, tiny trails of amber flickering off into the sky with the telltale trace of smoke.

Ty Lee beams, her smile growing by the second. The flame follows suit, chubby and almost fluffy like a baby animal.

“It’s so cute!” Ty Lee whispers as she holds her hands together, staring happily into the glowing orb bobbing up and down in the gentle breeze.

It’s utterly reminiscent of everything that Ty Lee is and stands for, of change and happiness and enthusiasm for life, and Zuko wouldn’t be half-surprised if the flame started chirping or burbling, absolutely content to remain in Ty Lee’s hands.

“How did you do this?” Ty Lee asks, eyes still fixated on the flame wobbling in her hands. “I’m not even a bender.”

“Uh, it’s—it’s, uh—family secret,” Zuko stutters, confusion clouding his mind. He’s completely bewildered by this turn of events, especially because he was sure that nothing would come out of holding Ty Lee’s hands and nudging against that incorporeal wall just right for his energy to flow through.

But Ty Lee had offered up no resistance, and instead of a barren desert, Zuko had sensed a hillside of flowers and sunshine and butterflies, beautiful to see and smell, and then the orange orb had appeared with the tiniest of pops and settled into Ty Lee’s waiting hands.

And even while Ty Lee marvels at the tangerine flame rolling around her hands, Zuko’s thinking, long and hard. Nothing seems to add up—Ty Lee doesn’t have that kind of chi and yet she does, humming through her veins and singing like a songbird—Sokka’s empty, a song of silence wailing plaintively, and nothing to show of it.

That’s the saddest part, really, how cheerful Ty Lee is inside and out, and Zuko wonders what else Sokka’s hiding, what else he isn’t showing him, and it makes his lungs ache that much more.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“I knew you would return,” the fortune teller says when Zuko pulls up the tent flap and ducks inside, the pungent smell of herbs and smoke cloying the air.

Zuko frowns.

“Sit, sit, my child.” The fortune teller beckons him towards a cushion and Zuko sits down, arms crossed.

“I must apologize for last time. Perhaps I should have been more clear with you. Your curse is not necessarily a curse, yes?” The fortune teller clasps her hands together.

“I don’t have time for this,” Zuko replies.

“No, of course you don’t—you’re very busy.” The fortune teller nods. “My child, I leave you with one piece of advice.”

“What?”

The fortune teller twists a bracelet around her bony wrist. “The first step is acceptance.”

The first step is acceptance?

“But the first step is always acceptance.” Zuko can’t stop the words coming out of his mouth. “Of course it is, because that’s the only way anything gets anywhere. Anyone knows that.”

“The first step is acceptance,” the fortune teller repeats, slowly and surely.

This time, Zuko can’t even muster up the energy to argue with her. He leaves the fortune teller’s tent with a hole in his heart and a worry in his mind.

What does it all mean?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

No one has answers. Not even Uncle—even as wise as he purports to be—can say anything about the fortune teller’s advice.

“Fortune tellers cannot predict your fate, Zuko.” Iroh claps a hand on Zuko’s back, less comforting and more cold. “You have to figure it out yourself.”

But Zuko doesn’t have time to play around, to figure out little riddles from nasty old fortune tellers, to spend his days figuring out his own life, because there’s far too much to do and far little time to do it, and he can’t waste his time on childish daydreams and fantasies.

That is, until his sister changes everything.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Azula looks healthier.

Her hair is longer now, almost down to the small of her back, lustrous and sleek in the shine of the midday sun. Azula’s wearing a modest frock, the edges of her sleeves fraying as she picks at them incessantly, her lips curling into a smirk when she sees Zuko enter the room.

“How is this place treating you?” he asks, voice echoing off the high ceilings and through the windows crudely cut into the walls.

“You can just say asylum, Zuzu,” Azula quips, but there’s no teeth behind her words. She’s a shell of her former self, and Zuko sucks back a breath when he realizes just how fragile his sister is, all bird-bone-brittle, held up solely by her own conviction and her beliefs.

And now that those are all gone—

“I’m fine, Zuzu.” Azula shakes her head. “Really. You don’t have to get yourself all up in a twist about me.”

You put me here in the first place loiters in the air, an pungent smell that makes Zuko’s eyes sting and his nose wrinkle in discomfort.

“So what can I do for the great and mighty Fire Lord today?” Azula crosses her arms and stares at her brother. “Oh, c’mon. I know that you came here for a reason. So, out with it.”

“How is your bending?” Zuko asks, the words hesitant and fleeting on the roof of his mouth.

“My bending?” Azula scoffs. She snaps her fingers, and the tiniest trickle of blue dances from her fingertips before melting towards the floor. “Pretty fucked up, if you ask me.”

“I—” Zuko’s crestfallen. “I didn’t realize that it was this bad.”

“Well, kinda comes with the territory, doesn’t it?” Azula sounds wholly defeated, eyes dull and lifeless even as she snickers. “No thanks to you, brother dear.”

“Is there anything—”

“Nah.” Azula waves a hand. “Besides, the people told me I’m completely fucked up. I can’t even light a fucking candle, Zuzu.”

She flicks her fingers again and the same tiny, blue flame sparks into existence before vanishing instantaneously.

“Let me help you,” Zuko says, rolling up his sleeves and striding towards his sister. “Give me your hand.”

“What, so you can get me punished for laying a hand on the esteemed Fire Lord?”

“It’s not like that, Azula.” Zuko holds out his hands and waits. “I just want to help.”

There must’ve been something truly anguished in his voice—that, or Azula’s gone soft-hearted from it all—because his sister lets out a huff before placing her hands in his and waits. “So? What’re you going to do now, Zuzu?”

“Hold still.”

“Ugh, whatever.”

But Azula stands completely still, eyes trained on her hands, even as Zuko closes his eyes, trying to reach out through his sister’s walls. There’s a mess of thorns and thunder surrounding Azula’s heart, and Zuko is careful when he works his way through, finding the path of least resistance and charting a course through everything in his path.

When he finally makes it through—Azula whistles softly.

“Guess you don’t see that every day,” she says, even as Zuko opens his eyes and nearly chokes.

Black.

Dark, black flames, burning midnight, so dark that Zuko almost mistakes the flames as smoke, curving around Azula’s hand and down her wrist, towards her elbows. The flame is empty yet angry, resentment bubbling just below the surface, and it takes all of Zuko’s willpower to hold on.

“Woohoo, just what we like to see, don’t we?” Azula sneers, twisting her hands slightly. The black flames follow her every move, coiling around her arms, an obsidian ouroboros chasing its own tail. “Dark, like my soul, I bet.”

But there’s something behind her words, something that sounds like a terrified little girl, afraid of the power she has at her literal fingertips to do anything, and the dark flames enveloping Azula’s arms are a grim reminder of who she was in the past.

“It’s not like that,” Zuko retorts, his hands still grasping Azula’s wrists in a loose hold. “I don’t think that’s just it.”

He concentrates harder, but there’s nothing except for a swirling mass of confusion and anger and pride, spiraling dangerously as Zuko attempts to pry it open, to no avail.

What am I even supposed to do? Zuko mentally screams at nothing in particular, his frustration almost getting the better of him as he retreats back into the safety of himself.

The first step is acceptance, the fortune teller’s words come back to him, and in that very moment, Zuko knows.

It’s much harder to open his own walls, but Zuko does it anyway, metaphorical bricks falling to waste as he carves out a space and welcomes Azula’s energy with open arms.

The ouroboros peels away, a snake shedding its skin, and Zuko can see flecks of sparkling green and shimmering blue as the flame shudders back to life, raven-black smoke shedding like rain, revealing the slightest hint of turquoise underneath.

“Your flame—” Zuko starts, only for his words to evaporate.

Azula says nothing, only stares at the flame gently licking at her fingertips, a tiny firebender child sparking her own fire for the very first time.

“It’s not blue,” she whines, because the flame isn’t the pretty turquoise that she used to rain down on her opponents with deadly accuracy, not the swift white-hot edge of lightning that would explode from her fingertips. Azula snaps her fingers and the flame hisses out with a wink, only to burst back to life in a torrent of teal, flickering steadily atop her index finger.

“Guess I’m good for now?” Azula’s as sarcastic as before, even as her knees are wobbling, and Zuko barely has time to reach out for her before she collapses on the ground, exhaustion hazy in her eyes.

The flame disappears with a wink.

“You’re fine,” Zuko murmurs, pulling Azula into a hug with a sigh.

“Told you I’d be okay,” Azula replies as she sags down, hands limp against her sides, even as Zuko strengthens his hold around her and follows her down until both of them are on the ground.

They kneel like this for what seems like hours, both of Zuko’s arms still wrapped tightly around Azula’s shoulders, a lone anchor in the turbulent sea as he holds both of them up.

“You’re all that I have,” Azula whispers brokenly, her voice hoarse as she clings to him, her fingernails digging into his shirt.

“I know.” Zuko’s voice is so, so small, and he wishes he could just hold his sister forever.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Sokka’s favorite room is a small bedroom in the east wing of the palace. There’s barely enough room inside for a futon and a small table, but it’s right next to the palace archives and downstairs from the library, and it’s the room Sokka insists on using every time he visits the Fire Nation capital.

He’s been sitting at his table for hours, eyes poring over scroll after scroll of whatever nonsense contraptions he’s decided to research today—or at least that’s what Zuko thinks when he slides into the room with barely a sound, a plate of warm custard buns in one hand and a teapot in the other. Sokka’s lost in thought, a brush balanced between his upper lip and his nose, so engrossed in his work that he doesn’t even hear Zuko until Zuko slides the plate of custard buns on the table.

“Zuko!” Sokka holds up his brush. “What’re you doing here?”

“Wondering if you wanted a snack?” Zuko motions towards the empty cup on the side of the table.

“Oh, that’d be great.” Sokka props the brush up against the dish of ink, eyes widening when he sees the custard buns. “Shit, are those—”

“They’re freshly baked,” Zuko cuts in, pulling the plate closer to both of them. He pours a steady stream of fragrant tea into Sokka’s cup and places the teapot on the table. Outside, the night sky glitters with stars, a chilly breeze wailing through the open screen window, and Zuko slides it shut with a practiced hand, pulling his robes around his bare shoulders as he settles in a comfortable spot next to the table.

“I didn’t realize how cold it was,” Sokka says around bites of custard, sweet egg and salt clinging to the edges of his lips.

“You’ve been sitting for too long,” Zuko replies, busying himself by grabbing his own custard bun, all butter-yeast-sugar, careful not to spill crumbs or sweet filling all over the floor. It’s a familiar childhood snack, one that Zuko remembers stealing from the palace kitchens, the chefs chasing after him as he retreats into some long-forgotten room in the palace to enjoy his pickpocketed treats in peace. “Maybe a change of scenery would be good?”

“Nah, I’m fine.” Sokka polishes off the remnants of his custard bun and reaches out for another. “Maybe I just need to sleep.”

He stretches his arms, shoulders popping audibly. “And maybe more stretching, actually.”

“You know, I wanted to try something,” Zuko says, wiping his hands on the edge of his robes.

“Does it have anything to do with hand-holding I keep hearing about?” Sokka jokes, though there’s something sharp behind his words.

“What hand-holding?”

“Well, there was Aang, right? Then Katara told me you set her on fire—”

I did not.”

“—or something like that, I don’t know.” Soka shrugs. “Then Toph told me about it—”

Zuko blushes furiously, wondering just how far his reputation has been dragged around.

“—and then I remembered how you tried it with me before and it didn’t work?” Sokka sounds perturbed.

“Something like that.” Zuko fiddles with his fingers.

“We could try again if you really want, but I really don’t think it’s going to work.”

“That’s because you need to believe.”

“Zuko, c’mon.” Sokka holds up his hands, his scarred, callused, beautiful hands. “I can’t bend anything, buddy.”

“But I tried it with Ty Lee and it worked—”

“Hold up.” Sokka grabs Zuko’s wrists. “You tried it with Ty Lee?”

“Yeah?”

“And it worked?”

“Mhm.”

“Alright, that settles it.” Sokka’s eyes are burning something fierce, deep ocean blue. “Let’s do this.”

“Wait a second. You—”

“We’re gonna try this again.” Sokka nods.

They sit across from each other again, Zuko taking Sokka’s hands into his and closing his eyes. Sokka’s hands are dry and warm, heavy in Zuko’s hands.

This time, Zuko doesn’t bother to push his way through. The desert is still there before him, dark and foreboding, a barren landscape that looks completely desolate. But Zuko just stays there, all alone in the empty expanse, and he screams.

I’m here, his voice carries on into the wind. I’m here. I’m waiting.

On the distant horizon—there’s something moving, something coming towards him, and oh, it’s cold and monstrous and familiar all rolled in one, and Zuko braces himself to accept all the possibilities as Sokka crashes through.

For a second, everything goes still—

Off in the distance, Sokka’s voice breaks through.

Oh, shit.”

Zuko opens his eyes.

Sokka’s face is practically glowing with excitement, a rosy hue shining from the delicate crimson flame blossoming from his palms.

That’s it, Zuko,” and Sokka’s voice is heartbreakingly soft, so tender that it practically brings tears to Zuko’s eyes. The flame—it reminds Zuko of home, of passion and family and laughter.

Most of all, it reminds him of his love, because Zuko’s love isn’t like Azula’s, not burning hot and fast and disintegrating everything in its path, razed destruction and ashes in its wake. No, it’s slower than that, simmering and soft, a flame that burns into a singing pile of cinders that hold out, long after the light has disappeared.

“It’s beautiful,” Sokka breathes, and Zuko’s hands are burning now, not from the carmine-red flame tracing lazy spirals in the air but from something else entirely, something that has his heart beating, lungs heaving, as he struggles to keep his composure intact.

Together, they watch the flame dance around the safety of their hands, laughing quietly, long after the flame is gone and the two of them are still holding hands, the air growing awkwardly cold as Zuko tries to pull away from Sokka’s hands, only to go flying forward with a sudden gasp and a tangle of limbs.

Sokka’s grinning up at him, cheeks flushed, one hand coming up to steady Zuko’s shoulders—

And then they’re kissing, slow and sweet, just like the romance stories Zuko liked to sneakily read as a kid, except this is a million times better because it’s not just words on a page, it’s him and Sokka, hand in hand, heart to heart. Sokka tastes like the custard buns, silky with a taste of salt, and Zuko drowns as he kisses the firelights out of his best friend.

“I love you, you know.” Sokka murmurs after they break apart, gasping for air. He kisses Zuko on the forehead, fingers threading through Zuko’s hair, and it’s almost like everything is right in the world, if only for this fleeting second.

Zuko wouldn’t want it any other way.