The sun was a hot white coin, winking in the bright blue expanse of the sky. Zuko squinted, covering her eyes with her hand and she strained to search for clouds. Her sundress billowed in the breeze. It was sure to get stained. The humid air made the fabric stick to her body. Her hair, ripped free from its tight bun, stuck to her sweaty face. She scrunched her toes in the cool grass and sighed.
Sokka lay next to her, his body dripping from his lukewarm inflatable pool. He still hadn’t put any clothes on, and Zuko thought he looked pretty funny with grass sticking all over him. “I’m getting a tan,” he said, flopping his arms out so they lay spread-eagle on the grass.
Zuko imitated his motion, giggling. “You’re already brown, silly!”
Sokka wiggled his eyebrows, pulling up a fistfull of grass and tossing it in the air. “Hey Zuko, y’know why the sky is blue?”
She turned to lie on her side, facing her friend. More mud smeared on the dress she was wearing. She twisted the skirt, but it stuck to her knees relentlessly. “Nope.”
“Neither do I. Hey Zuko, you ever wonder why ladybugs are called ladybugs? I mean, some of them must be boys.”
Zuko sniffed. “How would you tell a boy ladybug from a girl ladybug? Maybe they’re all girls.”
Sokka put his hand on his chin like a teacher. “How would you know? You’re only four.”
Zuko scowled. “I am four and ten months!”
“Yeah but for another two months, I’m a whole year older than you, which means I’m the smartest. And I think there gotta be boy ladybugs.”
Zuko sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. The asphalt in front of Sokka’s house waved in the summer heat.
“What if we were ladybugs?” Sokka went on. “Hey Zuko, would you be a girl ladybug or a boy ladybug?”
The sun burned Zuko’s eyelids. She suddenly felt a pain in her chest, right below her ribcage. She stared at the pitch black of the street. She wanted to step onto it and burn the soles of her feet right off.
She lay back down on the grass and closed her eyes. The sunlight made patterns of bright orange on her veins. She laid her hands on the skirt of her dress, and pulled the shiny lace up to her chin. Then the satiny pink part underneath, and the white cotton that lay beneath it. She opened her eyes, propping herself up on her elbows, and looked down at her thin, pale legs as she felt the slight breeze on the air blow over her skin. She clenched her feet.
“Zuko? Are you all right?”
She suddenly felt tears prick the corners of her eyes. Staring at her red knees, she thought suddenly, I’m empty. She turned away from Sokka and balled her hands into fists. “Of course I’d be a girl ladybug, stupid.” She squeezed her eyes tight shut, thinking that maybe if she tried hard enough, she might completely disappear.
“I went to the store and bought two cabbages, twelve eggs, and an apple,” Azula recited in perfect Japanese, a smug smile twisting her painted red lips. Her voice bounced around the private dining hall, shimmering off the eerie, polished walls.
The language was beautiful. The glares of Zuko’s relatives stifled and drowned it.
Zuko fisted her hands in her silk dress. She hated Saturdays.
“Zuko,” her grandfather said. “Show me what you’ve learned.”
Her throat dried up. Her scalp itched from the pins stuck in it. Her face felt gunky from her own sweat. She felt the nervous warmth of her mother, sitting behind her, and Azula’s smirk widening. She ran her hands over the creases in her skirt.
“Come on!” he prompted. “Iroh is getting back in only a week. Don’t you want to make him proud?”
Zuko raised her cup of jasmine tea to her mouth and took a sip. It felt dry when she swallowed, like sandpaper. “M-my name is Zuko. I am six years old.” She put the cup down. It clattered. She stared at the linoleum floor. “I am a girl.” Her eyes darted up. Was her pronunciation right? She was sure she’d gotten something wrong, but her grandfather made no comment. Her mouth felt full of cotton balls. She repeated herself, “I am a girl. I have black hair and brown eyes. I school at—“ She gasped. Her breath quickened, her dress seeming to tighten around her ribs. “I am at school—“ No. No, no, no, that wasn’t right! She frantically tried to remember what Azula had said that had gotten such praise, but her mind went blank.
Her grandfather huffed. Her mother put her hand on Zuko’s back as her eyes began to sting.
“Say something, girl!” her father shouted, and Zuko’s hands clenched into fists.
Her grandfather sighed. “How disappointing.”
Azula jabbed her finger into Zuko’s shoulder as she stared at the swirling floor. “Haha, loser!”
“Azula!” her mother cried, but Zuko had already stood up. She tugged at her skirt with her hands. She wanted to rip it off her body.
She sprinted towards the door. “Zuko, wait!” The waxed linoleum was slick on her Mary Janes. She lifted up her skirt to run faster. Her running footsteps echoed loudly in the big, empty hall.
She ran out of the door and into the main entrance, disoriented as she whipped her head from side to side. She scrambled up the dark wooden staircase to the side, her hand a tight, hot fist around the twisting metal banister.
When she got to her room on the fourth floor, threw open her window and screamed shrilly. Her eyes were screwed tight, her own voice cacophony in her head. She kicked the wall over and over until her toes hurt. She stamped on the floor.
When her voice cracked and gave out, she was met with astonishing silence. The sunlight filtered through her windows onto the rich carpeting. The velvet cover in her wide, stiff bed soaked up the sound of her voice. She turned and slumped against the wall, rubbing her eyes. She looked at the expanse of her huge room, and felt the silence settle in her chest, boring a hole between her ribs like a worm.
She untied the sash of her dress and tore it off her body. Her white undershirt was wrinkled, her panties bunched up. She felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. She got up and stumbled to the door of her closet. She tore through its annoyingly neat racks until she found a skort and her favorite baggy T-shirt: her mom’s old nightie, a maroon thing advertising Cherry Coke that hung down to her knees.
She cracked open her door and, seeing no one, padded down the hall and plucked a phone off its receiver. She ran back to her room, shut the door, and dialed.
She heard three rings before a crackly voice answered. “Hello, who is this?”
“Zuko! How nice to hear from you!”
“Yes. I’d like to speak to Sokka, please.”
“Of course, dear.”
There were a few seconds of distant muttering before Sokka’s voice burst from the speaker. “Hey, Zuko! What’s up? I was just taking care of Katara.”
Zuko pulled her knees up to her chest. “I hate Saturdays,” she murmured.
“Can’t you just tell him you don’t wanna learn Japanese?”
She shook her head. “It would be wrong.”
“I don’t think it’d be that bad.”
A tall mirror, framed in gold, rested against Zuko’s wall. She crawled over to it and lay down, staring at her reflection. As Sokka chattered, she pulled the pins from her bun. As they joined in a pile on the floor, her scalp was relieved. Her hair flowed out like a dark sun burst. The Cherry Coke shirt looked like a dress, riding up her thigh on her sideways body.
“Sokka?” she said.
She stared into her own eyes, pools of hazel in the big, soft room. “Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me.”
Sokka paused. “Well yeah, but nobody’s perfect, right? That’s what Mrs. Kraeling said on Thursday at snack time—“
Zuko shook her head. She whispered, “No, like something really wrong.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel really…” She fidgeted. “I don’t know. Weird. Hollow.”
Over the phone, she could hear the sounds of pans clanging and a knife against wood. She closed her eyes. “Hey, is Gran-Gran making lunch?”
“U-huh. Grilled cheese.”
“I can smell it right now.”
When Zuko’s mother found her, she was still curled on the floor, drifting in half-sleep. She hugged the phone to her chest as she felt herself being lifted up onto her bed, some gentle words from her mother floating like birds over her head. The blankets were warm. Her mother’s hand was cool and soft on her forehead.
Zuko whispered hoarsely, “Don’t go.” She clung to her skirt. She still felt that emptiness in her.
Her mother’s weight joined her. “Do you want a story?”
“Very well.” Her hand lay a rhythm on Zuko’s little forehead. “Long, long ago, in some place there was an old man and and old woman. When the old man went to the mountain to cut trees, the old woman went out to the river to wash clothes.”
Zuko closed her eyes.
“'Old man, come back quickly,’” her mother whispered. “‘Old woman, you also be careful please.’ Each day they gently say to each other and go out.”
As she was lulled to sleep, Zuko thought she felt the softness of a new boy’s haircut. Her mother smelled like peaches.
“Woah! Hey! Awesome!” Sokka’s feet pounded against the wooden floors as he ran. The soles of his feet licked the air, little flashes of fallow. Zuko giggled, stumbling to keep up, her hair slipping from its loose ponytail.
“Dad said not to make too much noise!” she wheezed.
Sokka skidded to a halt in front of Zuko’s bedroom door. “Oh, right. Sorry.” He flung open the door and shouted, “Sweet!”
Zuko covered her face with her hands to hide her grin. She followed Sokka inside her room and closed the door behind her.
Sokka flopped down on Zuko’s bed, stretching out his limbs. He wiggled like a cat. “I still can’t reach!” he exclaimed. It was the same ritual every time Sokka came over: the bubbling excitement, the awe at a bed so big it took up more space than him.
Zuko padded over and sat on the edge of it, watching Sokka’s big blue eyes sparkle with glee. She liked having Sokka over. With him there, it seemed warmer somehow— complete, almost. The memories of her father’s shouts quieted.
She ran one of her fingertips over Sokka’s palm. He squealed, whipping his arm back into his chest. “No tickling!” he screamed.
Zuko smirked. She waggled her fingers in front of Sokka’s face, and he screamed again in delight.
“Shhh,” she whispered, wiggling her eyebrows. “Azula upstairs, remember?”
Sokka clapped his hands to his mouth, and Zuko immediately took the opportunity to lay siege on his belly. Sokka muffled his shrieks and tried to kick her, but she had quick hands, and her fingers darted to his soft neck, pinchable knees. Sokka burrowed into the rich blankets. “Ah! Truce! Truce!” he shouted. “The mighty Lord Zuko has— ah!— defeated me!”
Zuko laughed, her chest bursting with joy, and flopped down next to her friend. “You really surrender?” she panted, curling up into a ball.
Sokka side-glanced at her, folding his arms over his chest protectively. “… For now,” he concluded.
“Hey Zuko.” Sokka sat up, running his hands over his hair. “Let’s go look in your closet.”
Zuko smushed a pillow into her face. “You’re always saying that.”
“C’mon.” Sokka pushed the pillow out of the way and hovered over her, staring into her eyes. “Please? Just a peak?”
Zuko huffed. “Fine.”
“Great!” Sokka tripped off the bed and rushed across the room to Zuko’s closet. He rolled the door open and stepped inside. Zuko reluctantly followed.
Zuko’s closet was an entirely different room in itself. It was full of twists and turns— easy to explore and get lost in. Bright yellow lights illuminated the silks and dresses hung neatly on their racks. Unopened boxes of shoes lined the floor. The beige carpet was soft and giving beneath small, bare feet.
Zuko didn’t really get it. They were just clothes. Why did she need such a big room for them?
But Sokka was already ambling though the expanse of it, making hushed “oooh”s under his breath. He turned the corner, and Zuko followed. Sokka ran his hand along the row of dresses to his right. He paused at one, feeling the slippery fabric between his fingers. “Is this one new?” he asked, and Zuko nodded. She’d gotten it for her eighth birthday, only two weeks before. There was something about the shimmering, pretty dress, something in its folds of blue and white, that she felt menacing.
Sokka touched the fabric, zipped and unzipped the zipper on the back of it, stuck his head up the skirt. Zuko watched patiently and counted the seconds. She knew Sokka would be in here for a while.
Sokka stood back and put his hands on his hips. “Hey, Zuko.”
“Can I try it on?”
Zuko shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
Her friend beamed, taking the dress off its hanger and hugging it to his chest. He stamped his feet on the ground a couple times in excitement. He put it gently on the ground and started peeling off his clothes. “Here, take these,” he said, handing them to Zuko. She gladly took his shirt and pants into her arms and brought them to her nose. They smelled like Sokka’s house: baking bread, dirt, cut grass.
Sokka wiggled into the dress from the top, his feet getting caught in the skirt on the way up. He pushed his arms through the arm holes and shook his head. “Zip me up?” he said, and Zuko gladly put down his clothes and walked over, gingerly pulling the small zipper up until it reached the dark nape of Sokka’s neck.
He gasped, his hands fluttering at his chest. “It fits!” he exclaimed, and rushed to the opposite wall of the passage to look in the mirror there. “Oh, it fits! It fits!” He squirmed and jumped and beamed at his reflection.
Zuko looked down at her own feet. They seemed to stare back up at her. That day, she was wearing a halter top and pink shorts. As she rubbed her hands over the swell of her belly, she thought, Why not? Sokka’s doing it.
She pulled her top over her head, then pushed down her pants. When she tossed them on the floor, she felt a sense of relief. She took Sokka’s T-shirt off the ground and felt the worn, faded cotton beneath her fingertips. Hesitantly, she pulled it over her head and slipped her arms through its short sleeves. She picked up his cut-off jeans and pulled them up her own legs. The unraveling threads and mud stains were soft and familiar to her.
She joined Sokka in the mirror and saw herself. The Superman logo stood out strong and proud on her chest. The jeans were baggy and showed off her knees, scraped up from running outside. Automatically, she pulled her ponytail back between her shoulders so her hair looked cropped short like Sokka’s. Her breath caught when she looked in the mirror. She felt something new.
Sokka was posing beside her, shaking his hips and putting his hands to his face like a model. She crossed her arms and let her lower lip jut out.
“We look like a team!” Sokka said. The blue dress made his eyes look even brighter.
Zuko smiled. “We are a team,” she said.
When it was time for Sokka to go, the two put their original clothes back on. Zuko’s heart sank as the tight fabric of her halter top cut into her skin again.
“Bye!” Sokka waved as he got out of the car and ran up to his doorway. Zuko stared out the window at his small, cozy house and his un-mown lawn and bit her lip. She would not cry.
“Could I try it on again next time?” Sokka had whispered as he’d put the dress back into her hands. “Yes.” She’d hugged him tight, but the emptiness in her chest still wouldn’t go away.
It was hot.
Zuko pulled at her dress. It was black velvet, worst for summer. Her sweat itched under her arms. She wanted to run back inside to the cool air conditioning.
It felt like people were all around her. She couldn’t breathe. Every time she tried to make it through the throng, she ended up coming back in a circle. It smelled like dark wine: thick, and sticky.
A distant aunt with a doughy face and thick accent bent down. Zuko cringed. The woman pushed licorice candy into her hands and left.
Zuko stared down at the candies in her hands. How did they think that was going to make it any better?
“Zuzu,” she heard.
She turned and met her sister. “Your mouth looks weird with all that red.”
“You’re so uncultured.”
It was so hot.
“Zuzu, I took one of those plastic cups. I thought you might want to know.”
She accepted the cup. The wine in it looked like blood. “Why?”
“I’m only trying to do you a favor.”
Everything was red and loud. The velvet itched. Zuko wanted to get inside.
“See? Everyone is drinking it.”
“You’re a pig! You suck!” Zuko yelled. She threw the cup. It splattered onto Azula’s shocked, round face. Round, like the sun up there.
“I’ll beat you up!” Azula screeched. She stamped her foot on the ground. “You stained my dress!”
Zuko started crying— suddenly, violently. Her hands in fists, she sprinted through the thick crowd. All the people looked the same.
“Who cares?!” she heard her sister scream behind her. “She hated me anyway! She hated me anyway!”
There was a pond on the other side of the house. By the time Zuko reached it, she was panting. Her knees were grass-stained and scraped. Hair was coming undone. No more people, but everything was loud. Big and loud.
She thrust her head under the water. Now, her eyelids looked green. She felt her hair come undone, swim around in the water. She felt free of it for a moment.
She came up to gasp for air, then stuck her head back under. A fish’s mouth tickled her scalp.
I could do it, she thought. I could do it right here. I could drown myself. Then, the screaming would stop. The sun would stop.
Her lungs began to burn. I should do it. She squeezed her eyes tighter. I hate myself.
She started to see black. Her muscles heaved. Before she knew it, she was breathing again against her will.
She flopped back against the grass. It stuck to her damp arms. Coward.
The sun was bright. Her hair was heavy. She brought her hands up to her face. They were covered in tar. No, not tar; sticky licorice candy. The smell made her nose clog up.
Why can’t I feel anything?
Death smells like licorice.
“I dunno. I mean, I never really met our mom. She died when Katara was born, and our dad had to leave pretty soon after that.”
“Nah, it’s cool! He’s really brave. I have this picture of him in uniform, he looks awesome—“
“I meant… about your mom.”
“Oh, yeah.” Sokka paused. He held a clump of his hair in his hand. “Gran-Gran says Katara looks like her, anyway.”
Zuko thought about what Sokka had said as she stamped her boots off outside, careful not to track in snow. She lugged her backpack in, the grape soda-purple straps cutting into her shoulders.
Immediately, she felt it: a warmth in the house, something that smelled like green tea. Her head lifted up, and she brushed her dark hair out of her eyes.
She dropped her backpack carelessly on the floor, and checked the dining room: empty. She thought she might be mistaken, and felt heavy. Then, she heard some noise coming from the maid’s kitchen down the hall. She tiptoed up to the door and peaked in.
A grin burst on her face. “Uncle Iroh!” She ran in, her arms outstretched.
She was lifted up into the air. She almost giggled.
“Careful now! I think I might be getting too old to play jet engine.”
Zuko bounced when her feet hit the floor again. She buried her face in his chest and wrapped her arms around him— squeezed. He smelled like cedar wood and jasmine.
Her uncle murmured, “Or maybe you’ve just gotten bigger. Eleven already….” He ruffled her hair. “Looks like you’re going through another growth spurt, my little nephew.”
“Don’t encourage her, Iroh.”
Zuko felt cold. She hadn’t noticed her father. She should pick up the backpack.
“But Ozai, we haven’t even given them the presents yet.”
Azula stuck her head out from behind her dad. “Presents?”
Zuko dug her hands into her uncle’s pockets and tugged on his beard. “Where?”
“Upstairs, if you’ll give me a moment.”
She stepped back. “Right.”
She sprinted into the entryway and snatched up her backpack again. She trailed behind Iroh as he walked slowly up the stairs. Azula rushed ahead of both of them, shouting, “Come on, come on, old man!”
The guest room where Iroh stayed was on the second floor. Zuko liked it better when he was in it. The carved wooden dragon on the mantlepiece seemed silly, not frightening; the curtains were pulled back to let in the light. Already, the bed was unmade.
Uncle Iroh huffed as he bent down to rummage through his suitcase.
Azula peered over his shoulder. Her hands went quick behind her back, suddenly all business-like. “Did you get me a machine gun?” she asked clearly.
“Not quite, my dear.”
“Did father tell you how well I’ve been doing in Japanese lessons? Better than Zuzu! I can say—“
She crossed her arms, settling on her heels.
“Ah, yes. For my beautiful niece!” He held up a small, green ornament. Zuko squinted to see what it was that glinted so in the light. “A pearl dragon pin,” Iroh said. “This belonged to your great aunt.”
Azula seemed unimpressed. “You got me jewelry?”
“It is worth quite a fortune these days.”
“Six hundred dollars.”
Azula shrugged, smiling. “Thank you,” she said, and made a show of fixing it atop her bun.
Zuko fidgeted. Last time, it was toy soldiers. She hoped he hadn’t gotten her jewelry, even if it was expensive. She wouldn’t know how to wear it right.
“And for my favorite nephew… here we are.”
Zuko grabbed the package from his hands and ripped open the shiny, red paper. She saw what it was pretty quickly.
She looked up at him. “A book?” It didn’t look terribly new. But she caught herself— bowed her head. “Thank you, Uncle.”
She looked at the cover. It was faded, but the detailed outlines were still there. It had a pretty girl on it with a fan.
“Look on the inside cover.”
She flipped it open. The bright inside cover had a sticker slapped on it, reading: Ursa.
Zuko’s face went slack. She looked up at her uncle’s face. His eyes crinkled at the edges like tissue paper. She looked back down to make sure the name was still real.
“This was my mom’s book,” she said. For some reason, she felt foolish.
“She gave this book to me to keep in my house when she was away. She loved fairy tales.”
Iroh’s hand was heavy, but gentle on her shoulder. She squeezed her eyes shut.
That evening, Uncle Iroh took her out for dinner (along with a promise that he would take Azula the next day). She held his hand as the two made their way along the slippery, snowy sidewalk downtown.
Zuko couldn’t stop talking. Every time she felt embarrassed, it was overwhelmed by a need to tell him anything, everything. She didn’t think she’d talked this much in months. She told him about her math teacher, how she thought that she might be an alien (but she was only joking). And how last month, Azula got grounded for a week for talking back about a B-grade diorama. And how Ozai got this new pink dress for her and it was super uncomfortable because they had to safety pin it so it’d fit, but it still felt weird. And how Sokka helped her with her homework after school, and how bad he was at basketball but he tried to play it anyway, and how today at lunch she’d beat this kid up—
“Hey now,” her uncle said.
They were in the restaurant now. Zuko slid into the booth across from him.
“Why did you feel the need to beat him up?”
Zuko froze. Her eyes shifted over to the desert menu.
“I am not angry with you. I only wish to know.”
She looked down and pulled on her ponytail. “He called me ‘slanty-eyes,’” she muttered. “And made fun of Sokka. And…”
Her face flushed. “He called me a girl.”
Glasses of water were placed in front of the two of them. Zuko stared at hers, her feet knocking together nervously. She hadn’t felt guilty until now.
“That doesn’t seem like the worst of offenses. A girl is no insult, if that’s what you are.”
“I know that!” It had still felt bad. Zuko wished she hadn’t said anything at all. “But that’s what he said, ‘slanty-eyes girl.’ He pulled his face back at me!
“People at home think I’m not Japanese enough,” she muttered. “Now people at school think I’m too Japanese.”
“So you beat him up.”
Uncle Iroh sipped his water. “Zuko.”
She flinched and lowered her head.
“Next time this happens, you should tell your principal.”
“I know, okay?”
“Say your father is Ozai. They know he is a powerful lawyer. The only way your school paid for the new stadium was because of your father.”
Zuko looked back up. There was a twinkle in her uncle’s eye.
He continued, “If they don’t want to be sued, they may go so far as to expel this child. I suspect that was why you didn’t get in any trouble this time.”
Zuko thought back. It was true that whenever she and Sokka passed notes in class, Sokka was the only one who got in trouble.
“Violence is rarely the answer.”
“Thank you, Uncle.”
“Anything for my favorite nephew.”
Zuko smiled bashfully. She joked, “I’m your only nephew.”
“I never said anything to the contrary.”
“You’re going to your friend’s house looking like that?”
Zuko tried to get out the door, but Azula grabbed her wrist. The foyer was empty, but somehow Azula’s voice took up all the space left in it. Her eyes crept from every corner. Her nails dug into Zuko’s skin.
“Mommy wouldn’t want you going out like that,” she hissed.
“Let go of me!”
“Mommy wouldn’t want you looking like a boy.”
Zuko smacked Azula’s hand, but she still wouldn’t let go. “I’m a tomboy!” she shouted. At least, that was what the kids at school called her when she ran races and climbed trees, when she spat on the ground and made fists with her hands. She liked being a tomboy. She liked it a lot.
Azula pulled her close, and Zuko squeaked. “You’re the reason Mommy got cancer,” she said. Zuko’s eyes widened and glued to her sister's. “‘Cause you’re a bad daughter. And she knew it. You killed her.”
“You’re lying!” Zuko screamed.
Azula let go, and Zuko tore down the driveway, sprinting towards the gates of the mansion. “You know it’s true!” she called after her. “Your fault, girly-boy!”
Zuko burst out the gates and onto the sidewalk. Her sneakers slapped the pavement as she ran. Azula always lies. She turned the corner. Azula always lies.
She ran as her sister’s voice faded into the distance. She didn’t want anyone to drive her. She wanted to run.
She sped out of the entrance of Fire Point and started down the twelve blocks to Sokka’s house. The trees on the other side of the road were a green blur in her peripheral vision. She stumbled, her legs burning, hair flying out behind her.
As she ran, she felt herself lifting out of her body. It was a hot day. The ground burned beneath her feet. Her arms flew out. She turned the corner.
Zuko was alone. He ran faster and faster, his mind losing control of his body. He was light. He was air. He was fire. His long hair flew off and up, up into the sky, and he was free. He jumped, letting out a whoop. He was Zuko! He was Zuko!
He skidded in front of Sokka’s house and ran up to the door. He knocked twice, and Gran-Gran opened it. He smiled up at her. “Zuko! You came just in time for the cake.” She led him inside by the shoulders and took a look at him. “Oh, you’re growing up to be such a nice young lady.”
Zuko blinked his— her— eyes. Her feet were firm on the floor. She looked around. There was Sokka, running towards her. She felt her ribs being crushed in a strong hug as he swept her up. Sokka had gained an inch on her, now. The inside of the house was darker than the bright sun outside. Her ponytail lay flat and tangled against her back.
“Zuko!” her friend shouted.
“H-hey,” Zuko said. She shook her head as Sokka took his arms off her. He was moving so fast. Zuko felt like she was stuck in molasses, still catching her breath. “Happy birthday,” she muttered.
Sokka pulled her over to the table where five other kids were sitting. Little Katara was reading a book underneath the table. “Come on, help me blow the candles out!” Sokka said.
Zuko looked at the the twelve flames flickering on Sokka’s birthday cake. She knew it wasn’t her birthday, but she thought hard.
Sokka took her hand in his. “On the count’a three!”
Zuko closed her eyes and made a wish.
“Ugh, stop squirming around so much. Look, we can either get this over with or go home.” Azula put her hands on her hips and huffed. “Bra shopping with my big sister was so not what I wanted to do today.”
“Not so loud, okay?” Zuko pleaded under her breath.
“What?” Azula smirked. “It’s a perfectly natural development for a young girl going through puberty—“
“Shut up!” Zuko hissed, and pulled her jacket tighter over her chest. She’d been wearing Sokka’s baggy shirts for the last two months, ignoring the problem as best she could, but it had become too much. People at school had started pointing at her, noticing the lumps slowly but surely forming on her chest. They itched and made her shoulders look weird, and she just wanted them to go away.
“Well then you better hurry up. Dad won’t want us to be late for dinner.” Azula looked to one of the racks beside her in the rows of the garishly bright girls’ section. She picked out a light pink one by the strap. “Hey, try this one on.”
Zuko shook her head vehemently.
“Come on, we don’t have all day!” her sister snapped. She leaned stood on her toes so she was nose-to-nose with Zuko. Out of instinct, the older girl folded her hands over her chest, pushing down on the awkward lumps of flesh. “If you don’t pick one out right now,” Azula said, “I’ll tell the whole store you’re on your period and you’re gonna bleed all over everything.”
“That’s not true!” Zuko exclaimed. She lowered her voice. “I am not getting my period.”
“But they don’t know that,” Azula said. Zuko could smell sour candy on her breath. “They’re all gonna think you’re a health hazard.”
She panicked and grabbed at random from one of the racks behind her— two bras. “Here.” she thrust them at Azula. “You happy now?”
She stood up, scoffing. “You want these?”
Zuko’s eyes widened as she realized what she’d gotten. One bright red with bows, one lime green. “No. Wait. I take it back.”
Azula held them in the air. “Nope!” she laughed. “Too late!”
Zuko’s eyes widened as Azula strutted up to the cashier and pushed them onto the counter along with a pocketful of crisp dollar bills. She fisted her hands in her shorts and forcefully blinked back tears.
She didn’t ask for this. She wasn’t ready.
When they got home, Zuko ran up to her room, her feet pounding loudly on the floor. She locked her door and slumped against it, breathing hard. What was she going to do with this crap? She wasn’t going to wear it, that was for damn sure. Should she hide it?
She heard a little knock on the door, and jumped. “Miss Zuko? Any of your clothes need washing?”
“Go away!” Zuko shouted. She was suddenly terrified. She scrambled backward, further into her dark room, almost tripping.
The maid stalked off. Zuko heard her muttering about manners.
She screamed, throwing the bag of underwear against her door. She stamped her feet, tearing at her hair. She caught sight of the two garments peaking out of the thin plastic bag, and felt like vomiting.
She scurried over and clung the bag to her chest, then rushed to hide it under her bed. She sat on her bed and crossed her arms over her chest again. Her clothes felt wrong on her body. What was she going to do?
On Monday morning, she slinked quietly into the bathroom. She sifted through the cabinet until she found what she was looking for. She cut a long length of the Ace bandage and took a deep breath. It would be tight enough, right?
She wrapped it around her chest and tucked in the loose end. The material stretched and cut into her skin. She immediately felt the difference in her breathing, the tightness in her ribs. She quickly pulled her T-shirt over her head— an old green one of Sokka’s— and looked in the mirror again. Flat chest. She swept her hands over her torso. They were gone. She felt a sense of relief, and sighed. She could do this. She went to school with her bras and the bandages stuffed into her backpack.
All through her morning math class, Zuko fiddled with the bandages. She couldn’t slump in her chair like she normally did, because that made it too painful to breathe. She tried to take notes, but found it too hard to concentrate.
Sokka, next to her, slapped her hand with his ruler. “Zukes. What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” she whispered back.
“B-S. What are you wearing?”
“Sokka!” the teacher suddenly snapped. “I suggest if you want to get that grade above a C minus, you stop bothering your friends are start paying attention!”
Sokka blushed a faint red and crossed his arms, slumping in his seat. “Yes, Ms. Garcia.” When she turned back to the board, he flipped her the bird. Zuko giggled, then caught herself.
By the time the two got to Gym, Zuko was already panting softly. The bandages had started slipping on her sweaty chest. After the first two laps running, she stepped off to the side, her hands on her knees. Kids’ screams bounced off the floor. She felt hot and cold at the same time. Her ponytail stuck to the back of her neck.
She soon felt Sokka’s hand on her back. She winced, hoping he wouldn’t notice the feel of the bandages underneath. “Hey Zuko, you okay?” She glanced around, and then quickly pulled Sokka by the hand into the corner of the gym. Without thinking, she rushed into the boys’ changing room, pulling Sokka close behind her.
“Zuko, what are you—“
“I can’t breathe,” she wheezed. “Oh my god, Sokka, I can’t breathe.”
“OMG! What’s the matter? Are you sick?”
Zuko shook her head. She slowly pulled up her shirt until her chest was visible, struggling for breath as she stared down at the loosening fabric.
“Oh, man,” Sokka said. “That doesn’t look safe.”
Zuko shook her head and quickly pulled her shirt back down. Her throat started to hurt. “I just want them off of me,” she said, fighting back tears, pushing at her flesh with her hands. “I just want them off!” Her eyes screwed up. She clawed at her chest. “I wanna rip them off!” she screeched. “Sokka, get them off of me!”
“Woah, woah, Zuko, hey. Just a second, all right?” Zuko buried her face in her hands, blood rushing in her ears. She vaguely heard him rummaging through one of the lockers and unzipping a bag. “I have this,” Sokka said, returning to her. “Here, it might help.”
Zuko peaked through her fingers. Sokka was holding up a black sports bra. Her voice shook as she asked. “Where did you…?”
“Katara has plenty of extras. I keep telling her she’s way too young,” he said. “Here, take it.”
Zuko nodded and swallowed, removing her hands from her face to hold it gingerly, her shoulders hunched. She turned to take off her shirt. “Don’t look at me, I look awful,” she said.
“Okay, okay!” She heard Sokka turn around, and then ripped her shirt over her head. As soon as she began to peel off the bandages, she felt relief. She could breathe again. The air of the changing room was cool on her skin. She let the bandages tumble to a pile next to her on the floor, then looked down at herself. Her breasts were red and chafed. She pressed her hand against one and shuddered.
Quickly, she pulled the sports bra over her head and squirmed into it. It was a little tight, but breathable. When she adjusted it, it lay smooth on her skin. She pulled her shirt back over her head and relaxed. Just right. She registered the blue walls of the room and the posters some of the kids had hung up. She felt the air conditioning blasting on her shoulders.
“There,” she said, turning around to face Sokka again. He sat on one of the benches, messing with his short ponytail.
Her friend turned to, and looked at her. “Nice,” he said. “You totally can’t tell.”
She half-smiled, stuffing her hands in her pockets. “Thanks.”
“Hey, uh… why’d you just have that?” Zuko realized. She tilted her head. “You just carry it around in your backpack or something?”
Sokka stood up, fidgeting. “I, um…” He lifted up his shirt. His ribs showed. On his chest lay a sports bra just like Zuko’s, but electric blue with lime green piping. “Sometimes I wear one, too,” Sokka admitted, pulling his shirt back over his stomach and looking away, blushing lightly. “It, uh… sometimes it makes me feel better.”
“But you already have…” Zuko frowned. It dawned on her that maybe that was what her friend was upset about. “Hey, I got new bras over the weekend. You wanna try ‘em on sometime?”
Sokka’s face lit up, his eyebrows rising with his wide grin. “Seriously?”
“Yes!” Sokka ran over and swept her up in a bear hug before she could protest, and she laughed. Sokka felt warm and smelled familiar. She wondered why she hadn’t thought of it in the first place.
When the two sneaked out back into class, Zuko ran so fast and so hard she swore she could feel fire on her skin.
Sokka punched the air. “Wabam! Pow! Yeah, get ’im!”
“Would you shut up? I am trying to study,” Zuko huffed, chewing her long ponytail. Her History textbook lay heavily in her lap.
“Oh my gosh, you already have an A in the class— woah! Did you see that!?”
Sokka flopped down on the floor and sighed. “It’s no fun watching wrestling if you don’t give me some commentary here. I thought you said you wanted to come over.”
Zuko slammed her book shut. “I thought you said you’d help me study.”
“I lied, okay? I just wanted to get you over here.”
Zuko folded her hands over her textbook and looked down at them. Her soggy hair fell limply to her shoulder. The truth was, she didn’t want to watch wrestling. When she saw the thick, toned bodies of the wrestlers, their broad shoulders… it gave her that empty feeling again. That void. Worse was watching Sokka’s long limbs flail with excitement. She bitterly hated seeing Gran-Gran tell him he was having a growth spurt and ruffle his hair.
“Hey, Zuko? What’cha thinking about?”
Sokka sat up and shoved her shoulder. She half-smiled. He cleared his throat comically and held up a loose fist, pretending to hold a microphone. “Mr. Zuko, any comment on the riveting gameplay we see here?” he boomed.
Zuko laughed. “Well, ah, Sokka—“
“That’s Miz Sokka to you!”
“Right, Miz Sokka.” She made her voice ridiculously low like his, a cartoon impression of a man. “Ahem, the two players on the screen are certainly, ah, going at it. As you can see, that fellow there has a mean right hook—“
Sokka nodded knowingly, pursing his lips. “Indeed, indeed, Mr. Zuko. Who do you think will win this fine evening?”
She set her book to the side. “Well, it’s a tough call, but I’d say—“
“Woah, what’s that?” Sokka had switched back to his normal voice. He was staring intently downward.
Zuko squirmed. “What?”
“That.” Sokka pointed directly at Zuko’s crotch.
“Geez, would you shut up?”
She looked downwards. There, right between her legs, a big red spot was growing. She suddenly felt the stickiness on her thighs. She couldn’t breathe. It didn’t feel real, like she was watching TV. It wasn’t her body.
“Dude… I think you got your period.”
She shook her head numbly, her throat closing up. The floor swayed below her legs.
Sokka, on the other hand, was flapping his hands up and down, bouncing. “Oh man! That is so cool! What does it feel like? Are you getting cramps? Holy shit, you can get pregnant! Do you want a painkiller? Oh man, this is so great, you’re like—“ he broke off when he saw Zuko’s expression. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”
Her eyes stung. “It’s no big deal,” she mumbled. Hormones out of control, that’s why you’re so emotional, she thought. Teenage girl hormones. Teenage girl feelings.
She pulled her knees up and smushed her face into them. She felt her sports bra cut into her back.
Sokka turned off the little TV. “Oh man, Zuko, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
She nodded weakly as she started to cry. Her shoulders shook violently as she tried to hold back her ugly sobs. Her hands clung to her thighs— too wide, she suddenly noticed, for the shorts she was wearing. She felt so wrong.
“I think we have pads or something in the bathroom. Wanna go check? And look, I have this pair of bicycle shorts you can borrow. They’re red! I never wear them. Hey, Zuko? Zuko? Why did the chicken cross the road? She thought it would be egg-citing!”
He eventually ushered Zuko into the bathroom over her whispered apologies for staining the carpet (“It’s fine, seriously”) and closed the door so she was alone. She locked it sharply and sat. Avoiding the mirror and wincing, she yanked down her pants and stared blankly downwards. Her underwear was soaked. She felt nauseous. She shucked it off, balled it up, and put it in the trash.
She hurriedly pulled the pair of boxers Sokka had given her over her shins. When she opened the pad’s wrapper, she flinched at how loud it was. She tried to smooth it to the inside of the boxers like a bandaid, but it kept crinkling from side to side. She felt like crying again.
She finally got it on and stood up, pulling the boxers and the shorts over her hips. She felt uncomfortable, like she was wearing a diaper. She flushed the toilet to get rid of the pinkish drips of blood that had fallen into it, then washed her hands once, twice, three times, four, five. Her hands were red, but she couldn’t seem to get the feeling off: like slime oozing down her back, nails on a chalkboard.
She found Sokka waiting outside the room with a store-bought cup of chocolate ice cream cupped in his palms. “Here,” he said, holding it out like an offering. “We have loads in the freezer.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
“Wanna go downstairs?”
They ate their ice cream at the cluttered kitchen table. Zuko ate slowly. She could feel the drips of blood leaking onto the pad. She shivered.
Sokka swung his legs so that his feet banged against the legs of his chair, eating rapidly. He itched his neck, pulled at his shirt. “Zukes, you’ll help me get dressed after this, right?”
“You’re already dressed.”
“I feel nervous.”
“You wanna get dressed up?”
Sokka looked down at his ice cream, nodded. “Ha, sorry.”
Zuko was taken aback. He’d never apologized before. Sokka had been wearing dresses since they were eight. Why would he think that Zuko had a problem with it now? “It’s okay,” she finally said.
Sokka nodded again. “C’mon, then, let’s go!” he shouted, and grabbed her hand, pulling her back up the stairs.
“Don’t we need to clean up?”
“It doesn’t matter! Katara and Gran-Gran are only out for another two hours!”
In his room, Sokka lifted his shirt easily over his shoulders, and sifted through his closet until he retrieved the green bra Zuko had given him. Zuko averted her eyes from the garment, instead watching the way Sokka’s spine moved under his skin. She folded her arms over her chest.
Sokka arranged the straps over his shoulders, then called to Zuko, “fasten me up, yeah?” She walked up and took the clasps in her hands. It took some fiddling, but she finally got them to fasten a ways below Sokka’s shoulder blades. His skin felt warm under her fingertips. She stepped back.
Sokka peered in the small, dirty mirror propped up against his window. He reached up, undoing his short ponytail, and let his hair fall to his jawline. He tucked it behind his ears and ran his hand over his face. “I look pretty all right,” he said. “Hey Zuko, can you get me that camisole from the box at the top of my closet?”
“The blue one you gave me two weeks ago, remember?”
She fished through the dark, smelly little closet until she found the one. She put it in Sokka’s hands, and he quickly pulled it over his head, struggling a little to get it all the way on. “There we go,” he said. His shoulders lowered, like he was sighing in relief. Zuko thought she knew the feeling.
“Hey Zuko,” he said.
“Teach me how to do those hand gestures.”
“What hand gestures?”
He sat cross-legged on his messy bed. “Y’know, those hand things girls do to look cute.”
“I dunno.” Zuko sat beside him. “I don’t do that stuff.”
Zuko bit her lip. She didn’t know what to do, but she could try. “Okay, here.” She took Sokka’s wrists gently in her hands. “Cover your mouth— no, not like that. Curl your fingers. Like, uh, anime. There you go. You can pull your shoulders in, so that your hands are sorta inside your body, not outside.”
Sokka pressed his hand to his ankle, his eyelashes fluttering. “Like that?”
Sokka giggled in a very un-boyish way, his hair falling into his eyes. His smile looked realer, somehow— bursting. Zuko couldn’t help but smile back. We’re both a little weird, she thought, but we have each other.
“Girls are gentle, right?”
Zuko thought of Azula’s pointed-teeth leer. “I don’t know.”
“I mean, like, soft.” Sokka tilted his head to the side, running his fingertips over his neck and clavicle.
“I guess so.”
He closed his eyes and hummed. He took Zuko’s hand in his own. The warmth of his fingers against her own was familiar, but startling all the same. She noticed how long his fingers were, the tips disappearing into his light, lined palms.
He guided Zuko’s hand to the base of his neck and down to his shoulder where the bra strap lay. She gasped lightly as her fingertip touched Sokka’s soft skin.
Zuko felt the discomfort in her chest and legs fade. The back of Zuko’s neck felt fuzzy, and he lay his head on Sokka’s shoulder. He closed his eyes. Sokka smelled like earth and suntan lotion. He watched the colors move behind his eyes as he listened for Sokka’s heartbeat.
A door closed downstairs. Zuko flinched. Sokka scrambled off the bed. Zuko’s eyes flew open.
“Shit!” Sokka cursed under his breath. “Shit! Fuck! Zuko, cover me!”
She nodded, disoriented, and rushed to the closet where Sokka was quickly undressing. She kept her eyes on the bedroom door, her heart pounding.
“Whew!” Sokka sighed, running over to his bed and plopping back onto it in his usual clothes, hairtie in his mouth as he pulled his hair back up into its everyday messy ponytail. “Geez.”
Zuko felt frozen solid as she heard Gran-Gran’s voice calling, “Sokka, are you up there?”
“Yeah!” he yelled back. He then whispered, “quick, I have to get back into boy mode.” He bounced on his bed, flapping his hands up and down while breathing deeply.
Something in Zuko sunk. She felt empty again. That place between her legs felt sticky. She lowered her head and peered out of the corner of her eye as Sokka quickly changed back into their previous outfit.
He posed with his arms crossed. “How do I look?”
As Sokka rushed downstairs to greet Gran-Gran and Katara, Zuko sat on the bed and wrapped her arms around her pulled-up knees. She liked it here. The sunlight felt quiet. More than ever, she felt like she needed to go home. She felt like an alien, seeing her life through strange and foreign eyes. She didn’t belong with her family, but she didn’t belong here, either.
She thought of the way she’d felt when her head was on Sokka’s shoulder. There, she thought, was a start.
“You sure it’s the right key?”
“It’s my own damn house!”
“Okay, okay! Just checking!”
“So let me concentrate.”
“… Are you sure it’s the right door?”
Zuko fit the key into the lock, jiggled it furiously, and opened the door. She was met with sudden silence.
“Are you, uh…”
Zuko’s eyes shifted left to right. “I thought she’d be here.” Her heart sped up, her muscles tightening. She convinced herself it was just the sports bras. Her feet echoed loudly on the floor when she entered her house. She winced as she went, expecting Azula— or worse, her father— to jump out of a corner at any second. But the entry hall remained empty and eerily bright.
“Come on, let’s get upstairs,” Zuko said, walking fast.
Sokka held on to the back of her hoodie with his fingertips. “Hey, Zuko, did you know that Napoleon got attacked by rabbits this one time?”
“Yeah, like, how cool would that be? A rabbit stampede.”
They were on the third floor and Zuko was opening her bedroom door when something small and hard hit her head.
She startled, whirling around. She looked up. A girl hung over the bannister of the long stairway leading to the fourth floor. Zuko recognized the braid swinging back and forth, and the shrill giggle.
The girl upstairs blew a huge sphere of bright pink bubblegum and let it pop with a crack. “Heya, Zuko. Howya doin’?”
“Hey, Ty Lee,” Zuko deadpanned in return.
“Is that your sister’s friend from prep school?” Sokka breathed. “She’s so pretty.”
Zuko glared. “Yep.”
“Come on up!” Ty Lee said, wiggling her shoulders and standing on her toes to lean farther over the edge. “Your sister’s doing…” She wiggled her fingers. “… Algebra.”
“We should go up,” Sokka said.
Zuko raised an eyebrow.
“Come on, dude.” He wiggled his eyebrows. You can’t have Algebra without ALL—”
“You’re an idiot.”
“You love me.” Sokka started running up the stairs. “Come on, I’ll beat you there!”
Zuko shoved her hands in her pockets and trudged up.
She didn’t go to Azula’s room much. It wasn’t unlike her own, but green more than red. It was also spotlessly clean. Zuko rubbed her fingertip on the bookshelf near the wall— not a speck of dust. Azula herself sat stiffly upright at her wide, dark-wooded desk, her hair yanked back in its usual bun, frowning at her textbook. She looked a lot older than thirteen. Strange: her usually impeccable red lipstick was smeared to the side of her mouth. It made Zuko uneasy.
The only other thing out of place was the messy sheets on Azula’s bed, and the two girls draped upon it. Ty Lee had jumped back on, and somewhat underneath her was Mai.
Mai reminded Zuko of the fish in the pond outside. Her small, unblinking eyes seemed to stare out at the world around her, and her sleek, dark hair hung straight as wire from her shoulders. Her sunless skin evaded the air in its thick, black turtleneck. Ty Lee could not be more different: she smiled so hard it looked painful, showing enough skin to stay constantly tanned.
“What are you doing in here?” Azula snapped, not looking up.
“Ty Lee invited us up!” Sokka piped up. Zuko about wanted to die.
“Well, don’t stick around too long. I can’t… fucking concentrate with it in here.”
“You talking about me or Zuko?”
“Oh, I don’t care. Do what you want, freak.”
Sokka walked over to the bed, pointed. “Can I sit?” Ty Lee squealed and pulled him down, crushing him into the pile of girls. Zuko remained standing, doing her best to slowly melt into the doorframe.
“You should let me do your hair!” Ty Lee exclaimed. “I bet it’s really long out of that ponytail.”
“Oh, yeah? I’ve been growing it out,” Sokka replied.
Zuko found herself thinking, You didn’t tell me that.
Ty Lee put her fingers in Sokka’s scalp, and in seconds, his hair fell free. Zuko did notice how long it was, now: almost to their shoulders. Figures.
Ty Lee began playing with strands of Sokka’s thick, dark hair, and Mai craned her long body over to reach to the other side of the bed. When she sat back up, there was a half-empty wine bottle in her hand. “Do you want some?” she murmured.
Zuko blurted, “You’re drinking on a Sunday afternoon?”
Mai looked at him blankly. Ty Lee, finding this somehow hilarious, erupted into a fit of laughter.
Azula rubbed her temples. “Would you bitches shut up? I can’t fucking concentrate if—“
“I’ll have some!” Sokka grabbed the bottle and drank straight from its neck.
Zuko wanted him to stop. She wanted to get away from Azula and her glazed-over, displaced scowl. But Ty Lee was already trying to braid Sokka’s hair, and as Zuko saw him close his eyes and lift up his shoulders that way he did when he was starting to enjoy himself, she realized that he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared down at her beat-up tennis shoes, biting her lip.
“Hey. Brat. Help me with this.”
Zuko looked up. “Do your own homework.”
“Useless,” Azula muttered, shaking her head and pressing her fingertips to her face. “Completely useless.”
“When are you gonna transfer, anyway?” Ty Lee asked. “It’s been for-ever.”
Before Zuko could shrug, Azula laughed harshly. “She won’t. She’s not even fluent yet. She’d be stuck with the elementary kids.”
Zuko’s cheeks flushed. “I’m fluent enough!” Was it her fault her school didn’t have a damn Japanese class? Was it her fault that Azula got all the special treatment? She didn’t want to transfer to that stupid girls’ academy anyway, even if her grades got good enough.
“Zuko.” The voice was soft and deep, like velvet: a moving shadow. She shifted and saw Mai holding out the bottle to him, sitting cross-legged on the bed. “Don’t you want to try?”
“Yeah, it’s nice!” Sokka piped up, his hair now lying with two little braids on one side. “Might help you ease up a little.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re always so tense!”
“Yeah? Try living with these imbeciles running around your house all the time!”
“Dude, your house is a goddamn mansion. Quite PMS-ing.”
Zuko glared. She felt a hot lump rise in her throat. “That was too far.” Her voice cracked. “That was too fucking far and you know it.”
“Whatever.” Sokka closed his eyes again. “Just have a little fun for once, okay?”
“Leave me alone.” Zuko turned and almost left the room, until she heard Sokka call again.
“Isn’t it about time you got a binder?”
“A binder?” Zuko looked back at him.
“Y’know, for your chest.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
That was how Zuko ended up hunched in front of her computer alone in her dark room, her knees pulled up to her chest while she listened to the faint squeals and murmurs floating from upstairs.
She first looked up “binder,” and got a bunch of office supplies. She huffed, typing in “chest binder.” She clicked on the first link and squinted. It looked… useful. Sort of a tight tank top. The model wearing it looked East Asian, had eyes like hers. She found that oddly comforting. She couldn’t figure out whether the model was male or female.
She caught sight of a phrase: “FTM.” Some abbreviation? She typed it into the search bar.
“FTM or ftm is a three-letter initialism which may stand for any of the following: Female To Male, a term used to describe a transgender male, biologically born female, transitioning to physically become male.”
Zuko’s breath caught in her chest. “Transitioning physically to become male.” Her head rushed, and her first thought, her first, shameful thought, was How? She scrolled down, feeling dizzy. She kept seeing the same word: “transgender.”
“No.” She whispered it. Something stabbed in her chest, something like panic. “No, no.” She didn’t know anything about that. Jesus Christ. Transgender? No. No. Zuko wasn’t “transgender.” She was… a tomboy, a… a punk. She was growing up slowly. That was all.
She smashed her fingers into her eye sockets until she saw spots. Blood rushing in her head drowned out the voices from upstairs. “Transgender” was not Zuko. It was something else, something foreign and strange.
Zuko was a girl. She wore dresses when she was a kid. She liked wearing bracelets and shit, sometimes. Hadn’t she coached Sokka on how to act when he wanted to be a girl? She’d never asked him for something like that. She wasn’t transgender. She couldn’t be.
She turned off the computer. The black of the screen reflected her face. It was sudden. She looked at her own eyes, her soft cheeks. Some alien dark hair. Strangely thin shoulders. It was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. She felt her bras compressing her chest. Her eyes stung.
What was she, then? She couldn’t let that word— that thick, unfamiliar word that felt heavy on her tongue— she couldn’t let that be her. She wasn’t Transgender. She was Zuko.
Instinctively, she reached up and pressed down on her breasts. Flat. Flat, like it should be. Like she wasn’t suffocating anymore.
She turned the computer back on. She glanced around. No Azula— no dad. Her hands shaking, she typed in “ftm transgender”— then “ftm transition.”
There were pictures of men flexing, comparing: pictures of little girls, awkward with their toothy smiles, then pictures of men beside them. Strong jaws, short hair. Beards. Showing off their torsos, their carved waistlines and scars that stretched from their breastbones to their ribs. Chests were re-constructed, only red lines betraying that they weren’t what they once were. The men were smiling, always smiling. Zuko felt breathless, like she did after she’d been running for an hour, and needed water. She felt hungry. She looked at the dark hair on their faces and chests, and felt an ache, deeper than a knife, pulling in her chest. Some sort of need.
She traced that line under her breast with her finger. She closed her eyes, imagining what that would be like: flat chest, free of restrictions. Her ribs felt tight around her body. She glared to suppress the feelings that welled up inside her.
When Sokka finally left, he didn’t look her in the eye. She hurt.
“We can’t be friends anymore.”
It was surreal. Sokka’s reflection in the mirror, expressionlessly applying eyeliner. Zuko’s hands, cold on her ankles as she watched him.
She laughed; she couldn’t help it. “What?”
“Look.” Sokka put the eyeliner down and turned to face Zuko, angling his legs to straddle the chair. His face was only half made-up: half boy, half girl. He huffed and shoved hair out of his eyes. “It’s time we grew up. It’s weird if I’m best friends with a girl.”
Zuko flinched. It was like she’d been slapped. Her throat was dry.
“The guys at school are starting to call me gay,” Sokka went on. “Look, I’m only being logical.”
Zuko stood, nearly tripping. Her breathing was hard. She felt dizzy. “You’re the one wearing eyeliner!” she blurted.
Sokka’s voice stayed cold. It wasn’t like him. She wanted to punch him. “Not after today,” he was saying. “I’m quitting.”
“Quitting?” Zuko sputtered.
“Well, yeah. It’s not like I can play dress-up forever. I’m not fucking five. For Christ’s sake, Zuko.” He pulled at his bottom lashes. “I mean, what do you want me to do? Huh?”
Her hands hurt. They were in fists. She stamped her foot. “Shut UP! You sound so fucking stupid! What is wrong with you?!”
“Look, there are plenty of other guys you can latch onto. How about that transfer student, Jet? He manly enough for you? Is that why you keep looking at him and not paying attention?”
“I can’t fucking believe you!”
“It’s not my fault!”
“I HATE you!” Zuko shouted. She slammed the door on the way out of Sokka’s room. Her throat burned as she stalked out of the house. If he wanted to be an asshole? Fine. Zuko wouldn’t stop him. He sucked anyway. Shitty person, shitty friend.
Zuko stayed angry. It was metallic; she tasted it in her food. She refused to cry. She liked sitting alone, she told herself. Fuck him.
A week in, she gave in and collapsed in the shower, sobbing violently into her knees while she bit her hand. She loved him.
Word got around the school that Sokka had a girlfriend. It was that exchange student, Suki. She laughed too loudly. Zuko felt sick to her stomach.
Things were oddly quiet without Sokka. It was like it was always cloudy. Sometimes, Zuko felt like he was watching her— but she’d looked over to the other side of the room, and he’d be sitting upright, eyes glued to the board. She’d see him in the hallways sometimes, always with Suki. Suki, who wore green dresses. They laughed together. Zuko drew pictures of her and scribbled them out.
Not talking to Sokka also meant having no one to help her with math. She had Algebra 2 first thing in the morning— her only class with Jet. She sat right behind him.
She kept trying to pay attention to the board, take notes. Yet, somehow, her eyes always drifted to the back of his long, brown neck. Jet had fast fingers, and he’d often run them through his scraggly black hair. He’d tap them on the desk, on his pencil, on his lips. He chewed on straws a lot; he chewed on anything. He had a freckle on the crook of his neck. Watching him made Zuko feel strange, like she was seeing something she wasn’t really supposed to.
She ate lunch alone now, though she usually didn’t eat much. Without Sokka there, she felt naked. Her pristine bento box with its clean compartments sat in her locker. Sometimes, she bought Cheetos.
She found herself thinking about her mom a lot as she watched Jet sit on the lunch tables, flocked by girls, eyed by the guys. Zuko wasn’t really upset so much as that she felt this kind of dulled pain— like a headache that had never quite gone away. She thought, maybe, that if her mom was there, she’d understand. Maybe she could talk about it. She could wake her up like she used to, when she had a nightmare, and she’d come into her bed with her. Maybe Zuko could have put her head on her silk pajamas while she told her about how Jet swore in front of teachers, and about his freckle. How she kind of wanted to be like him: that cool, that carefree and loud. He always looks so comfortable, she’d say. He looks so good when he walks.
She would have understood.
Everyone knew that Jet played guitar. Every lunch, he’d have a crowd gather around him, and every lunch, Zuko would watch from her corner. Those people crowding around him are fake, she thought. They only like him ‘cause they know he’s popular. I’m real.
One day— a Friday— he took out his guitar and started roaming the cafeteria. His fake friends followed him around like bees, so Zuko couldn’t understand what he was singing, but it sounded beautiful. Her chest filled with a strange, foreign excitement, but she made herself small. As she heard the sounds of the guitar come closer and closer, she looked down at her cut-offs, tugging at her ponytail.
The noise was right in front of her, and it kept going. She looked up. Jet was looking right down at her. His eyes were superdark. Like soil at night. She recognized the song now. It was that Delilah one.
He strummed the final chord, and then— and then!— he sat down on Zuko’s table, right there in front of her!
“You’re in my math class, right?”
Zuko felt eyes on her. Jet’s small crowd now seemed huge.
“I-I guess.” She cleared her throat. “I mean, yeah. Yes, I am.”
“What’s your name?”
Jet put his guitar pick between his teeth and flicked it. “Me and a couple of friends are gettin’ together tonight at the cemetery. Wanna come?”
A couple people gasped. Zuko felt frozen for a moment. Her mouth moved without her telling it to. “Yeah, sure. Okay.”
“Sweet. I’ll see you there.”
Zuko stared at him as he walked back to his table. She felt like she’d been struck in the face. She didn’t know whether to be happy or not.
Father will notice. She felt a surge of panic. He’d notice when she was gone. What could she do? Skip out? Ask if she could go? She shuddered. No way.
After school, she ran up to Jet, catching him on his way into the bus. She stuttered when she looked up at him. “I, uh— my dad—“
He shrugged. “Fuck your dad.”
“I have dinner.”
“Can you sneak out?”
“Maybe?” He cocked an eyebrow. The high schoolers clamored, all trying to get on at once.
“I mean, yes. I’ll do it.”
“Good. See you at the cemetery, midnight.”
Then he was gone.
Zuko felt a grin spreading across her face. Yeah, fuck my dad, she thought. It felt good. Her chest felt like it was filled with lightning bolts.
That evening at dinner, she ate hurriedly, twitching every few seconds. She answered probing questions about homework in clipped sentence fragments. Her stomach felt like it was constricting. She excused herself as soon as possible, rushing up to her room to pace.
What would she wear? What would look cool? She almost texted Sokka. Then she remembered that Sokka didn’t matter and that she hated him.
At half an hour to midnight, she still felt like she was buzzing. She threw on one of Sokka’s old letterman jackets (which was pointless anyway, because Sokka had never even played a sport) and tucked her hair up under a red beanie. She strutted, practicing her swagger. She looked boyish, almost. She felt proud.
Her house was oddly quiet in the night. She’d never noticed how quiet it was before. The walls looked dipped in midnight blue. Every step felt loud. The stairs were now miles long. She trembled as she reached the first floor and opened a side door. Somehow, she made it out alive.
She stamped her feet. Her breath crystallized in the dark air. She shivered violently, but not from the cold. Before she could look back, she started walking away from her house. Then running.
Her lungs burned. The wind felt icy. The cemetery wasn’t far from Sokka’s neighborhood, so she knew where it was. She could get there.
Her calves hurt, but the more Zuko ran, the better she felt. Clean, almost. The fear in her head kept her going fast. She jumped at every pair of headlights, fearing they would be her father’s. But they never were, and she kept running. She didn’t look at Sokka’s dark windows when she passed.
When she arrived at the cemetery, she thought she might be in the wrong place. What if he’d left? What if he’d tricked her? Her heart spiked. She checked her watch. It was 12:05 exactly. Jet should be here. The rusty, spiked metal fence around the cemetery’s border looked menacing, and the graveyard was steeped in shadow. She felt cold now— really cold.
Out of the darkness, she heard a whistling noise. It was almost like a bird call, but she recognized it from somewhere. The sound came again.
Sighing in relief, Zuko walked up to the cemetery and clambered over the fence. Her shin got scratched on the way down, and she stumbled toward where she saw a silhouette.
Jet was waiting for her under a rotting willow tree. She shivered when she saw him, pulling her hat over her ears.
Two other people were already there: a tall, lanky guy with a pointed nose and a short, skinny kid with bushy hair and striped leggings.
“So you made it,” Jet drawled.
“Yeah.” Zuko raised her hand to the other two and nodded slightly. “Um. Hi. Zuko here. I mean, you already knew that, but— never mind.” She shoved her hands back in her pockets and cursed herself.
Jet continued like she hadn’t spoken. “This is Smellerbee and Longshot. Guys, this is the girl from that school I told you about.”
“Oh, the mysterious one with no friends?” Smellerbee asked. Her— his?— their?— voice was husky and sharp. It was laid upon an accent of some sort, with vowels that stretched in the back of her throat. Her words seemed carefully placed; it was like she’d learned English in tones, not words.
“Oh, c’mon. She’s cool. She doesn’t just go with the hive mind like the other kids. Right, Zuko?”
“How do we know we can trust her, Jet?” said Smellerbee. Longshot remained silent, but stared at her without really blinking.
“She’s coming with us tonight.”
“As long as she doesn’t fuck with the plan,” Smellerbee said. “Come on, let’s go.”
Zuko followed the group out of the cemetery, onto the sidewalk. She walked a little behind Jet, so she could watch how he moved. She tried to walk like him: hands in her pockets, slouching, furtive. Streetlights lit her way, and houses were shorter here. She didn’t ask where they were going.
Jet took something out of his pocket. “Yo Zuko, you want a smoke?”
Smoking is bad. She was ashamed that it was her first thought. She looked down at her shoes.
Jet slowed so he was walking beside her. She could feel his breath. “Well, I won’t pressure you.”
“Jet,” Smellerbee said. “She’s just a kid. Let’s just get there and get out.”
Jet shrugged. He lit a cigarette for himself. He held it away from Zuko, sighing up toward the sky. The smoke curled up toward the dim stars.
“Ugh. You’re gonna smell like an ashtray.”
Jet fixed the stick in the corner of his mouth so that his speech garbled when he talked. “At least I don’t smoke those nasty clove cigarettes.”
Smellerbee eyed him, like maybe she would kick him, but her voice was calm. “At least I have taste.”
Zuko was starting to feel uneasy. She wanted to go home. She wanted to go to Sokka’s house. But the night air felt fresh and dangerous. She tried to enjoy the thrills running through her bones.
Zuko cleared her throat, trying to lower her voice. “So… where are we headed?”
Smellerbee glared at Jet. “You didn’t tell her?”
“Chill,” Jet told her. He blew a smoke ring. “We’re just getting some supplies.”
“Supplies?” Zuko felt her heart pound faster against her ribs.
Smellerbee sighed. “We’re getting stuff to pay for my hormones.”
Zuko frowned. “Hormones?”
Jet glared at Zuko. She flinched. “If you’ve got a problem with Smellerbee, you can leave right now.”
“I… I just…” Zuko felt something prick at her eyes. She bit her tongue. “I just mean, I don’t know what kind of hormones you….”
“Jet. Chill.” Smellerbee looked Zuko in the eyes. “I need estrogen. But we can’t always pay for it. I only do this so I can get help. Understand?”
Oh. It dawned on Zuko that Smellerbee was… changing her body. Transitioning. Estrogen: what would do the opposite? What coursed through Jet’s broad shoulders, that gave him that strong jaw, handsome neck— the stuff that Smellerbee wanted to get rid of?
Something that Zuko would have to do this to get, she supposed. She flushed. She hadn’t thought of it. She wouldn’t think of that.
Smellerbee slinked into the shadows of an abandoned parking lot. Zuko followed the three of them. Crouched in the shadows, she could feel Jet’s body heat and see the outline of his muscles tense as he crushed his cigarette into the pavement.
The drugstore on the other side of the lot was dirty. The windows boarded up and coated with graffiti. Zuko’s stomach turned. “Jet?” she whispered.
Jet didn’t reply. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a jagged stone. So did Smellerbee and Longshot. Zuko’s eyes widened.
Smash! Zuko flinched. Jet was breathing hard. Smellerbee threw another rock. Glass tinkled against the asphalt. Zuko’s heart was beating fast. She felt dizzy. She couldn’t go back. Not now.
Smellerbee and Jet ran across the parking lot and smashed through what of the window was remaining. There would be cop cars at any minute, Zuko was sure. She’d go to jail. She’d flunk out of high school. Someone would kill her.
Longshot stayed crouched beside her. His silence was the only accompaniment to her startled, erratic breathing.
Jet and Smellerbee climbed back out of the window within minutes and ran back to the two of them. “C’mon, let’s go!” Smellerbee hissed. She clutched bottles of pills in her hands.
Zuko didn’t have to be told twice. She ran out of the parking lot. Adrenaline turned her legs to Jell-O. She made it a block before she started shaking and crying so bad she had to stop.
Jet and the others caught up with her. “You crying?”
Zuko shook her head, sobbing loudly.
Jet huffed. “I can’t believe this.”
Smellerbee punched Jet in the arm. “I can’t believe you!” she reprimanded him under her breath. “She’d just a kid. A kid! Did she even know what you were getting her into?”
“Smellerbee, I thought she’d be cool—“
“She isn’t the problem!” She huffed. “We need to keep moving. Hurry up.” They jogged ahead. Zuko somehow kept up. Her chest was burning.
Smellerbee told her, “It was just abandoned anyway, Zuko. No one’s worked there for months. I’m just taking what I deserve. Do you need a way to get home?”
Zuko shook her head again. She scrubbed her face off, frightened and mortified. She just wanted to erase the whole night.
She broke away from the group, hugging her arms to her chest. Every step felt like a spike through her heart. Somehow, she managed to run through the darkened streets until she was away from them. She felt a new fear: what if she wasn’t able to find her way back home? What if she got lost?
She could make it to Sokka’s house. She knew her way from there.
When she finally reached her own house, she let out a sigh of deep relief. She never thought she’d be so glad to see it. She slipped through the gate and walked the long, grassy path to the side door where she’d come out.
She crept through the cold halls up to her room, locked and re-locked her door five times, then collapsed into her bed. Fuck. She struggled out of the jacket, ripped off her hat, and buried herself under the covers. She felt something almost like guilt— but sharper. She never should have gone. She should have left them to their business.
She peeked out of the covers and stared at the clock on her nightstand. It was 2:06 AM. Softly, she started crying again. She put her grimy fist in her mouth to hold back a scream.
She did not sleep. Fear of being caught coursed through her veins in spikes. Periodically, she’d stare at the wall as her brain receded out of her body. She wanted to talk to Sokka. He’d know what to do. He’d at least say something to make it better. Instead, she was going to die. She retrieved her mother’s book from under her bed and held it gingerly. She could barely read, but she rubbed her thumbs over the thin, crinkly pages.
The next day, she went to school twitching, paranoid. She was certain that someone would sneak up behind her and pin her to the wall. She’d go to jail, or juvie, or something, and get beaten up by a prison guard. But no one came.
She stopped eating lunch in the cafeteria, foregoing it for the abandoned girls’ bathroom on the second floor. It smelled gross, but at least no one would hurt her here.
Eventually, whispers got around that Jet was moving schools again. Some said he got kicked out. Zuko felt nothing but relief.
The next Monday, she was huddling by her locker when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She flinched and whirled around. It was Sokka.
“Um… I’m sorry.” Sokka was rubbing the shaven back of his head, shoulders hunched crookedly.
Zuko swallowed. “It’s all right. I mean… me, too.”
“Do you, uh… want to sit with me at lunch again?”
“I broke up with Suki, by the way. She’s moving back to Japan. I… I missed you.”
Zuko hugged him. He felt warm, comfortable. For the first time that month, she relaxed.
“And anyway, the guy had just spit out this banana, like, all over the countertop. The other animals were pretty pissed. So the alligator was all, ‘hey! Don’t get banana all over my face!’ And the guy said— hey Zuko be careful!”
She lurched back from the side of the road. The oncoming car whizzed past her. Dizzy, she lowered her grocery bags to the ground, adjusting her red beanie and pulling her zip-up hoodie tighter around her shoulders.
“Hey man, you okay?” Sokka bent down to catch her eye.
She looked away. “Yeah. Fine.” She picked up the bags, letting the plastic again cut into her palms, and kept trudging along. Glancing at Sokka as he walked beside her, she noticed how tall he’d grown… and how far down he was slouching as he walked. “What was the punchline, anyway?” she asked.
“I forgot.” Sokka looked at his shoes. Zuko looked down, too, at the cracked asphalt and weeds growing out of the street. Sokka started rambling again. “Anyway, thanks for helping me carry this stuff. Means a lot.”
“Yeah. I mean, I figured it’s only decent.”
“I guess. Ha, since you’re practically living here now.”
“You walk that far every day to get groceries?”
Sokka shrugged. “Well, only since the beginning of, like… this semester, I think. Gran-Gran can’t really drive anymore, and Katara’s growing like a weed. A nice weed, though. Like a dandelion or something.”
Zuko nodded. Katara, at thirteen, was precocious, studious, and braided her own hair every morning. She’d reached the age when friends of Sokka’s family had started calling her a “beautiful young lady.” She’d never really thought of sisters as beautiful before, but Katara was gentle and kind. Even if she was a bit of a smartass.
Zuko had gotten many “beautiful young lady”s too, she was sure. She winced as she tried to think of a particular instant. But it was all blurred together in her head; she couldn’t quite pick out the individual parts of her life that had led her here, to the sidewalk, half a mile away from Sokka’s little, warm house. All she could remember was uncle Iroh’s beard and an eerie sense of wrongness. She suddenly remembered the thick fabric on her chest (black, with wide straps) and pushed away her thoughts.
Sokka was still talking. “… and I’m the strongest one, y’know? I can walk. It’s not a big deal. It’d just be easier if I could get my damn license already, or something. But nooo, it’s ‘too dangerous’ just because I might have ‘crashed the car five times’ or some bullshit. I didn’t crash it! I gracefully maneuvered it! And it just so happens that sometimes people put flower shops in really inconvenient places! It was brick, anyway, so only a dent in the hood. It’s not that big of a deal. No one’s gonna see.”
Zuko squinted at him as the two walked. His knuckles were white, and his shoulders were hunched up. He kept twitching his head, like he was shaking hair into his eyes that wasn’t there.
“Are you okay?” she asked softly.
“Yeah, I’m fine! I’m great, look at me!”
“I am looking, asshole.”
“So nothing’s wrong.”
The two walked in silence for another block. Almost home.
Sokka blurted loudly, “I’m not a girl.”
“Okay.” Zuko felt strangely guilty.
“I mean, I’m… I don’t want to be a girl. Not… I don’t know. Fuck. It made so much more sense in my head. It’s like, sometimes I wanna be a boy, and it’s fine. And then other times, not so much. But I don’t know. It’s like, why are there only two options, you know? I don’t wanna be, like… Katara. And be called ‘she’ and stuff. So I must be a boy. That’s it.”
Zuko nodded. She waited for him to say something else.
“I shouldn’t’ve brought it up.”
“No, it’s not. It’s really not okay. What if dad comes home and sees—“ Sokka broke off. “I don’t know. I don’t want him to see me, anyway.”
There was a clang as he dropped one of his grocery bags. “Fuck!” he shouted. Zuko bent down gripped the cans of tomato sauce and green beans. When she handed the bag back to Sokka, she noticed he was shaking.
She set down all the bags in her hands again, and took his hand. She didn’t know what to do. She rubbed her thumb over the center of his palm.
Sokka put his head on her shoulder. He smelled like burnt sugar and aftershave. “We got a letter,” he told her. He took a shuddering breath. “Dad’s still drafted for another two years. They lost too many guys.”
“Shit,” Zuko murmured.
“Yeah.” Sokka sniffed loudly. “I thought he’d be back soon. It’s just, with these new food stamps, and we’re…. Fuck, he hasn’t seen Katara since she was five. I wanted… I wanted to show him how strong I’ve got. And get good grades, and shit. And, and have ‘im meet you. But maybe it’s better he hasn’t come back. He’d be—“ he hiccuped loudly— “he’s supposed to have one son, and one daughter! I know he’ll hate me, I know it!”
“He wouldn’t hate you.” Zuko numbly patted his hair. How could anyone hate Sokka? Sure, he could be a little annoying at times, and he did sometimes put roaches in other peoples’ lunches, but that was forgivable. And being… well, not totally a boy all the time was just part of Sokka. Zuko had always pictured him, she realized, wearing his hair down, in some sort of dress or makeup. It was natural to her. It was strange to realize that not everyone saw Sokka that way— that really, it was probably just her. She tightened her hold around him.
Sokka was crying hard. His sobs hitched against her body. She’d never seen him like this, and it made her feel weird. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t… I can’t tell him I’m not the way I’m s’posed t-to be. But I can’t do this anymore.” He tensed in her arms. “Fuck, Zuko, I just… I can’t.”
She didn’t ask what ‘this’ was, and she didn’t tell Sokka it was going to be okay. She didn’t kiss his forehead and smooth his hair like she wanted to. She said, “you’re strong.”
“Yes. Look, I don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl. What matters is—“ She swallowed and moved her hand to hold the zipper of Sokka’s hoodie between her fingers. “What matters is who you are, okay?… I won’t let you down.”
Sokka sniffed and stood up straight, still shuddering every couple of seconds. “Okay.”
He smiled a lop-sided grin, his face still blotchy reddish-brown from crying. Zuko held up a fist, and Sokka smacked his curled hand against hers. They picked up their bags and continued home. Zuko dug a cigarette out of her pocket, stolen from one of the maid’s rooms, and smoked it to quiet her heartbeat as Sokka told her how disgusting it smelled. She felt satisfied when she ground it into the sidewalk with her heel.
Outside Sokka’s door, he turned and said suddenly, “you look better with your hair like that, y’know. You’d look good with it short.”
That night, Zuko crawled from her sleeping bag on the floor and shimmied into Sokka’s bed, as she always did. He adjusted the blankets around her, and she closed her eyes, taking in his scent and his warmth. The morning-memories of her father’s house melted away like butter in the dark.
Sokka took her hand in his own. Their fingers linked like puzzle pieces.
“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” Zuko whispered.
“… You mean ‘me neither.’”
“You know what I mean.” Sokka sighed. “Zuko, I… I think I’m not really a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’”
This again? Zuko already knew. She let her friend talk.
“But like, what does that leave me with? I think I’m more of a… more of a ‘they.’ Or an ‘it.’”
“Not an ‘it,’” Zuko said.
She laughed softly. Sokka had made her take off her binder before going to bed. She could already feel the unease in her chest. But it was okay. It was going to be okay.
Zuko had been in the principal’s office before.
When Sokka was seven, they’d been in History together— American History. They’d been reading about the battles between the Europeans and the Native Americans. In the middle of the teacher’s sentence, Sokka had stood up, their desk screeching back, and yelled, “That’s not true!”
“If you have something to say, you can raise your hand,” Ms. Brown had said.
Their hand shooting into the air, Sokka had protested, “What about the Trail of Tears? How come it only gets one paragraph? What about the white people stealing all the women?”
“Now, I don’t know what you mean by stealing—“
“Why is it acting like it’s over? Why does it say it was a long time ago? My great-grandmother had to go to a boarding school. It was nasty! Now I don’t know what my real last name is! How come people keep pulling on Katara’s braids at school? Why—“
“Sit DOWN, Sokka!” The teacher’s face was slowly becoming the shade of a ripe beet.
“Yeah!” taunted some blonde kid in the back. “Just ‘cause you’re black, doesn’t mean you’re the boss of everyone, smart aleck!”
“I am not black!” Sokka yelled in return. “I am Inuit! IN-OO-IT!”
And Zuko had thrown her pencil case at the boy as hard as she could. He got a bloody nose. She (he) still remembered it, sitting on Sokka’s left side as the principal eyed them down.
“I am afraid,” he said, his hands folded menacingly, “that your attire is simply not school-appropriate.”
“How come? It follows the dress code,” Sokka replied, folding their arms over their chest.
The principal rubbed his temple. He had a mole under his chin that quivered like dough when he talked. “There are children here,” he said. “Impressionable seventh graders.”
“Look, mister,” Sokka said, and stood up. They flattened their arms down their sides, turning around slowly. “You see my fingertips? They are five inches above where the skirt ends.”
Zuko nodded, pressing the already bloodied tissue further onto her (his, his— no) face. “I measured it,” she agreed. (Good.)
“The problem is not the length, as you well know. We gave you a warning last week, and you have not heeded it.”
“I still don’t see what harm a little pink streak is gonna do!” Sokka protested, sitting huffily back down. They crossed their legs at the knee. “It’s my hair, I can do what I want!”
Zuko nodded solemnly. “It’s bodily autonomy,” she said. “My father is a CEO.”
Sokka looked at her weird.
“And Zuko.” The principal turned faced her. She tensed. “Do you hold that what you did was self-defense?”
She resisted the urge to shout back at him. “After he hit Sokka, I told him to stop. He hit me, too, so I hit him back. I’m lucky my nose isn’t broken.”
“So you’ll be perfectly comfortable with me calling your father and explaining the situation?”
Zuko’s eyes widened. She saw Sokka’s expression change too. Her muscles suddenly tensed up so bad it hurt, and she felt for a moment like she was floating above her body. Like she was going to be sick. “H-he’s on a business trip,” she stuttered, “right now.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Should I call your mother, then?”
Startled tears pricked Zuko’s eyes. She glared at him to hold them back.
“Oh—“ he leaned back. His eyes changed. She didn’t like it. “I’m sorry. I forgot about your… unfortunate situation.”
“I don’t want your fake sympathy,” Zuko spat. “You can just say she’s dead. It’s not like I don’t know it.”
Sokka put their hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “It’s all right,” they said. Their voice had morphed into a forced softness. “I’ll change. I have jeans. But if you call Zuko’s father, or my Gran-Gran, I can guarantee you’ll stare down a lawsuit so big, it’ll knock your glasses right off your face.”
He scowled. “Next time, there will be serious consequences. You owe this school some respect, young man.”
“There won’t be a next time.” Sokka shouldered their backpack. “C’mon, Zuko, we need to get back to class.”
Zuko shrugged their hand off her shoulder as they left the office. Outside, kids had their ears to the wall. They sneered at the two of them. As soon as the door closed, Sokka flicked their middle finger up at the throng.
Zuko’s hands in fists, she followed them down the hall. The others followed, too. Sokka walked faster. One kid reached up, took hold of a strand of hair that had fallen out of Sokka’s bun. He pulled, ripping it out of their scalp. Sokka grabbed Zuko’s hand and started running.
Her chest burned. She wanted to turn back, hit them, make them pay. They’d hurt her friend. But Sokka kept pulling her along, their sneakers squeaking on the tiled floor, until the two were alone. They pulled a heavy metal side door open and shoved Zuko out before following her and pushing the door shut with a bang.
It was March. Mist lay on the cracked blacktop outside. Sokka shook. Their hair was coming undone. Their pretty, flower-patterned skirt was frayed. Zuko watched them wrap their arms around themself and shiver.
“Fuck,” they whispered.
“I bought this thing with my own money.”
Zuko fell back against the oppressive brick of the school wall. She kicked the ground. “You should’ve let me go back. I’d teach them a lesson.”
Sokka shook their head. “They’re too big. You’re just one guy.”
“You’re giving up?” Zuko demanded. “Just like that?”
“I’m not fucking giving up!” Sokka’s voice cracked. “Fuck, Zuko— I’m trying to survive here! Don't you fucking get it? Ugh!” They leaned back against the stone. “I saved your ass back there. Don’t pretend like you would’ve been okay with that. I actually do give a shit about you. I know as well as you your dad would not be okay with this situation.”
Zuko shut up fast. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I wish things were better.”
Sokka shook their head, laughed bitterly. “Yeah, me too.”
Zuko pulled her leather jacket tighter around her shoulders, tucking her hair back up into her hat. She adjusted his binder. Her binder. Whatever.
She fished a hollow pen out of her pocket, unscrewed it to shake the cigarette out onto her shaking palm. She pulled her lighter out from her jeans and held the cigarette tight between her lips. She flicked the fire on— lit— breathed. She felt light rain on her shoulders. She concentrated on the scent of the smoke.
Sokka reached over and snatched it out of her mouth. They put it in their own and took a deep breath. They leaned back against the wall. They muttered weakly, “I hate cis people.”
Zuko was silent. She let Sokka finish half the cigarette before taking it back.
She stood guard for them while they hastily changed into the jeans in their backpack. Afterwords, they pulled her close, kissed her on the cheek. Their breath still smelled like smoke. “You’re okay, fire boy,” they said. “You’re all right.”
“Where have you been?”
Zuko shivered. Azula smirked as she watched her sit down. (No, him, him.)
Zuko folded her hands in her lap and looked down. A strand of her hair fell out of her bun. She knew that he noticed.
“I stayed after school to ask for help in math,” she lied. “I apologize, father.”
In reality, she’d walked Sokka home to make sure they stayed safe from harm. They’d kissed her on the cheek, as they’d begun to do once a day. They’d smelled like lilacs. Not that she was going to tell him that.
“Next time, you will call,” he said as the maid served him his meal. “Azula is always punctual. I don’t see why you should be any different.”
Azula sat up a little straighter. “Father, I’ve been looking at colleges and planning for my future. Mai says she wants to go to—“
“Silence. I’m not finished talking, Azula.”
She looked back down at her food.
“Zuko,” he continued. She flinched. “Do you have any explanation for your most recent test grade?”
Fuck. She swallowed. She knew he was talking about Chemistry. Aqueous solutions had messed with her head. Even with Sokka’s after-school coaching, all-nighters, and their sitting as close as possible in class, she’d only managed an A-minus. It wasn’t enough.
“I’m sorry, father,” she said. “I’ll do better next time.”
“You will.” He looked at her from across the table. His voice seemed bigger than Zuko’s whole being. “Or you will not be spending so much time away from home. If you wish to transfer, you’ll improve your grades.”
Zuko felt her stomach churn. She ate her dinner in silence. She should never have come home. What was Sokka eating right now? They probably had macaroni and cheese. Zuko pictured them making big hand gestures while they talked, mouth full of food, telling horrible jokes to make Katara laugh.
Zuko repeated a mantra in her head, rocking gently like waves on the ocean. He, him, his, his, himself. He, him, his, his, himself.
Zuko didn’t sleep that night, though her eyes drooped with exhaustion. Every time she drifted off, her father’s face flashed angrily in her head. Her stomach felt like acid. She couldn’t stop worrying. What if she never saw Sokka again? Their stolen weekends, frantic clothes-swapping and relieved sighs: would that all just be wrenched away?
At 2 AM, she stepped out of bed, determined to make the most of her time. Sophomore year was almost over. She wasn’t going down without a fight.
She slammed her books down on her desk, flicked the light on forcefully. She held her head in her hand, staring down at her blank notebook. She had her pencil in a death grip.
The letters swam before her eyes. She couldn’t concentrate. Out of habit, she reached up and pressed down on her breasts. Fuck.
She hastily fished her binder out from under her bed. It was beginning to stretch out. She closed her eyes tight as she ripped off her shirt and pulled it over her body. It hurt, but she could breathe, at least.
She sat down again, staring at her flat chest. That word snuck back in her head like a ghost. Transgender.
Not now, she thought, covering her eyes. I can’t think about this now.
Against her will, the thoughts kept swirling. Shit, she felt so bad. So wrong. So empty.
Did she want to be a boy?
Yes. She couldn’t stop herself from thinking it, feeling it. Yes. Fuck. I wanna be a boy. I wanna be a boy so badly. I can’t stop. I want to be a boy and have short hair and swim with no shirt and run so fast I fall over. I wanna be a boy with a strong jaw and wide shoulders, and fuck. Fuck, I don’t know, leg hair and a dick. I just wanna be a boy. It’s not too much to ask.
Zuko looked up at the ceiling. I’ll believe in you if you make me a boy, she thought. I’ll go to church. I’ll get punished. Whatever you want from me, just please, please—
She pulled at her hair, and suddenly, she started crying. The sound of her own sobs frightened her. Him. Him, him, him. Zuko didn’t like those other words, those other pronouns. Wanted them to stop being so loud in her— his— head.
He breathed deeply and looked back down at his book. He could face it. Wouldn’t think about gender, wouldn’t think about the hollowness that stung between his thick thighs. Wouldn’t think of Sokka’s gentle sadness, or his father’s anger.
He did Chemistry. Then Pre-Calc. Then read the assigned passage for Lit class over and over until his eyes only skimmed over the blurry lines of meaningless text.
At 7 o’clock, he pulled on pants and his hat. He grabbed the cold thermos of stale coffee that sat on his desk and two cigarettes from under his bed.
You’re okay, fire boy, he thought to himself as he boarded the school bus. You’re all right.
Sokka bounced the basketball against the sidewalk and between his hands. It made a satisfying sort of sharp echo as the two walked along. “Where do you think you’ll go to college?” they asked.
“Shit. I dunno,” Zuko answered honestly. He thought about it for a couple seconds. “Somewhere far away.”
“You think you’ll be able to afford that? Oh yeah, I forgot you’re swimming in money.”
Zuko rolled his eyes and punched their shoulder. Even in the summer heat, he wore his beanie to keep himself from looking like… well, a girl. With his hair tucked under it, sometimes people couldn’t tell, even with his round features and delicate skin.
“Anyway, I think I wanna be an engineer.” Sokka bounced the ball harder. They were wearing loose shorts and a white T-shirt, their hair tied back in a sloppy bun.
Zuko considered it. “I think you’d be good,” he said.
“Yeah, but I’d have to get a better GPA,” they sighed.
“What do you mean? I wouldn’t have passed Calculus without you.”
“Just ‘cause I do your homework, doesn’t mean I do mine. Think fast!”
Zuko flinched, and caught the ball just before it hit him in the stomach. “Dick,” he said.
“You could get an A if you tried at all,” Zuko continued, resuming the walk with the ball under his arm. “Probably an A-plus.”
“Well, yeah, but it’s boring as hell. So I keep getting C’s, so they keep putting me in the lower classes.” Sokka blew a strand of hair out of their face. “It’s a rough cycle, man. I’d probably never afford a great college anyway.”
“I’d pay for it,” Zuko said.
“You’re not gonna pay for me! Nuh-uh. I’ll get scholarships or something.” Sokka was silent for a bit. “You really think you’re gonna go out of state?”
“Yeah.” Away from Ozai.
Zuko slowed and looked at Sokka. Their eyebrows were furrowed, their mouth open in hurt and shock. He was startled. Sokka was so blasé at school that sometimes he forgot that they were faking it. That they really did care about what people said about them. That they really cared about Zuko.
He suddenly thought of what life would be like entirely without Sokka. They’d been there for so long. Losing Sokka would be like losing his right arm. He almost panicked. Who would be there to make bad puns and macaroni casserole? Who would watch TV with him and talk in funny voices and laugh obnoxiously when he fucked up? Who would punch his arm and ruffle his hair and call him ‘man’? He saw himself, living alone and studying, bitter and anxious and sad.
“Y-you’ll get out of state, too,” he ventured.
Sokka slowly shook their head. “You don’t get it. I won’t.”
“Look, I know you can get scholarships and shit for race, but, like… no one’s really gonna take me. And Zuko, I am not going alone.” They squared their shoulders, standing up a little straighter. Their knuckles went white. “If I gotta find someone else, I’ll do that, I’ll take Katara with me or something. She could graduate early, I know she could. And I can do self-defense! But Zuko, I am not going alone. Nuh-uh. They’re gonna eat me alive.”
“… I apologize.”
Sokka paused. Zuko looked down at his feet.
They punched him weakly. “Hey, Zunior, stop looking so downcast! Let’s go home, get some ice cream or somethin’.”
The sky was bright blue. As Sokka put their hand in Zuko’s pocket and stole a quarter (“for luck!”) early June almost melted into feeling like summer.
“Don’t worry,” they rambled, “we’ll stick together somehow. Right?”
“‘Snot like I just like you ‘cause you’re there, y’know. You’re great for other things, too. Like giving me your clothes.”
“Dude! I was just kidding!”
“Ha, good thing I don’t wanna wear ‘em every day. I’d have to do so much secret laundry.”
Zuko giggled. “I’m so offended.”
“Well geez, I’m allowed to be a guy sometimes. ‘Sides, it’s not really like I’m, like, ‘full femme’ mode most of the time. Like… kind of a girl, kinda not. I don’t know if there’s a word for that? It feels good. It’s just like, I’m half girl, then half… I don’t know. Nothing, really. Just myself, I guess. But not today. Today, I’m a guy.” They nodded. “I think.”
Zuko rolled his eyes up to the sky. Once Sokka started talking about gender, they rarely stopped. But he didn’t say that. He knew that he was the only person they could really talk to.
They got home, and Sokka put their hand quick back into their own pocket.
Katara answered the door. “Back so soon?”
Sokka smushed their hand into her face as they walked in. “Shut up.”
Zuko nodded to her, then followed their lead.
Katara continued “I mean, I’m just saying. Two hours: that’s a pretty short time for you two! What will be next? Zuko sleeping in his own house?”
“Nice to see you, too,” Zuko muttered as Sokka rummaged around in the freezer for ice creams.
“You too, Zuko.” She smiled warmly.
Zuko’s eye widened. “Did you get your braces taken off?”
“Yep!” She beamed. “Just this morning!”
Her teeth were perfectly straight and white. With her hands on her hips and her homework laid out on the kitchen table, she almost looked grown up but for her round, bright cheeks. Zuko felt an odd surge of pride.
“Hey Zuko, let’s go upstairs.”
“What, don’t want me to take up all his precious time?” Katara was already sitting back down and picking up her textbook.
“You know it.”
Upstairs, Sokka flopped on the bed, half-sitting up to eat the ice cream. “Hey Zuko, paint my fingernails.”
“I thought you were a guy today.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t have nice fingernails.”
Zuko shrugged and rummaged through Sokka’s desk until he found their dark blue polish. “This one?”
“Whatever. Ooh, and lock the door!”
Zuko painted Sokka’s nails, taking periodic breaks to snag bites of vanilla. He tried not to tense, but he could the thing build up in his chest. He jiggled his leg. Should he tell them? His breathing felt fiery beneath his binder.
He turned Sokka’s long, dark fingers in his own, tracing over the cool, familiar lines of their palms. He glanced at their face. They had their eyes closed.
“You know I’m a boy, right?”
Zuko’s heart regained its regular pace. He finished their fingernails.
Azula’s toenails were painted red. Her feet left little sticky marks on the dashboard.
Zuko clenched his teeth and kept his eyes on the road. He could smell his father’s cologne on the seats. If he crashed this thing, he was dead.
Azula, pale from winter, was reading some fat book with tiny text. It sat on her legs like dead weight. Zuko didn’t asked what it was. Azula was always studying.
She huffed. “Are we there yet?”
Zuko clenched his jaw. “No.”
“Well, hurry up!”
“You’re going to have to wait.”
“I have a test this morning and I won’t miss it just because you’re being a wimp!”
Zuko squinted, trying to keep focus on the cars around him. “I am not being a wimp.”
“I can’t wait until I get a driver’s license. I don’t know why father wanted us to go together if you were just going to make me late. He knows you’re weak.” She wiggled her toes.
Zuko was silent. Stay on the road, stay on the road. He was almost there.
Azula yanked a thermos out of her backpack and tilted her head back to gulp from it. She wiped her mouth with the back of her forearm, shivering.
Zuko pulled up to his sister’s school. The sprawling lawn was green as jealousy. He scanned the small crowds milling outside of skinny teens in military-crisp uniforms. “Well? Aren’t you going to get out?”
Azula shoved her book and her thermos back into her bag, smoothed back her hair, and slipped on her shoes. She touched her fingertip to her lips as she looked in the side mirror. “Good thing you didn’t crash this car,” she murmured. “He’d kill you.” Her knees looked like paper.
“You know you won’t make it here.” Azula smirked and returned to her usual pitch as she left the car and slammed the door. She leered at Zuko through the window. “I don’t even know why you try! You’re too weak. You’re a monster.” She chuckled— straightened herself up. Walked slowly and calmly towards the building.
Zuko stared at his hands on the wheel, gripping it so tightly they shook. He tried to hate Azula. Why couldn’t he calm down? Why couldn’t he relax?
Seventeen, and here he still was, afraid of his little sister, afraid of his father. His body was soft and his voice was high, and his long hair brushed against his thin shoulders when he slept. It wasn’t right.
He ground his teeth and revved the car engine. One thought lit like a match between his eyes. He focused on its white-hot intensity. It could get him through the day.
The silence in the dining room was deafening. Zuko barely saw the huge, dark copper of the walls; he could barely see his hands. He chewed the smallest bite of rice, and it stuck in his throat when he swallowed.
Uncle Iroh had given up on trying to make conversation. He requested tea. His eyes were steady and unsettling on Zuko’s hunched form.
Zuko breathed deeply. He needed to do it. He needed to do it now.
“Father, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Zuko’s voice echoed, booming. Azula and Iroh turned to look at him. Zuko could feel his blood rushing in his ears. His heart had never beaten this hard.
Ozai huffed. “Can’t this wait, Zuko?”
“No.” He clenched his fists, digging his bitten nails deep into his palms. He stared at his folded legs. They swam below him.
“Well? Spit it out, if you want to talk so badly.”
A maid brought out a kettle. It clattered as she placed it on a hot pad on the table. Zuko gazed at the billowing steam coming out of it and tried to steady his breath.
“I’m transgender.” He looked up, looked into his father’s eyes. “Everyone thought I was a girl. Just because of my body. But I know now, I’ve always known.” He took a shuddering breath. “I’m a boy. I’ve always been a boy, and I will always be one. I am male.” He swallowed. “I want to start taking hormones.”
The only noise was the sound of Azula’s dainty snickers echoing through the room. Zuko bit his lip hard, pleading his father with his eyes. “I— I know this isn’t what you wanted for—“
“Then why are you telling me?” Ozai’s eyes were hard and cold.
“Father, please understand—“
“Get out of my house.”
Zuko’s shoulders shook. “Please—“
“Get out of my house!”
Ozai’s hand leaped out. Something was grabbed. There was noise. Wet.
Zuko recoiled, and suddenly, he felt it. Hot. It was more than hot. It was bright red, searing across his face. Intense, like fire in his flesh. Boiling hot water dripped onto his pants, and he groped at his face. It hurt, it HURT! He was screaming, clawing at his eyes, the heat unbearable.
He was being pulled out of the room, and he kicked and scrambled. Screaming, screaming. He sobbed, struggling for breath, his body wracked with pain. His hand hurt too, from rubbing at the water on his face.
Air— outside. He was shoved into a car. “Please! Please!” he screamed. “Don’t kill me! SHIT! I’M SORRY, I’M SORRY!”
“Zuko, it’s me. It’s Iroh. I’m taking you to the hospital.”
He punched the dashboard. “No, take me back!” His vision was foggy. The pain was unbearable. The car pulled out. He sobbed and sobbed. He wanted it to go away. Anything to make the pain go away.
“Hold this to your face.”
It was just a cloth. It burned more. The left side of his face was on fire. No, it was fire. Spots danced at the corners of his vision.
His chest burned. He suddenly knew what he had to do. He had a purpose. He grappled with the glove compartment, popping it open. He fumbled inside until he found it: a Swiss army knife.
He ignored his uncle’s urgent voice, dim background noise. He gripped his ponytail with his left hand, finding its base. His right hand trembled violently. He gripped the knife despite the pain surging through his body. He sawed steadily at his hair until the weight finally left. He stared down at his long, thick hair sitting in his hand. His skin was knicked. He sighed in relief. He passed out.
Zuko blinked. The ceiling was white. He felt something heavy on the side of his face. He reached for it.
He felt a hand on his. He flinched.
“Zuko, slow down.”
“Uncle?” He shook his head frantically. His body was covered in white sheets. He couldn’t see to the left of him.
“Quiet. It’s all right. I’m here.”
A large, blurry figure appeared at his feet, then came around to his right side. Zuko could see him clearly now: white beard, dark eyes. His shoulders relaxed. “Uncle Iroh.”
“How are you feeling, Zuko?”
He lifted his arm up again. He tried to feel the left side of his face. His numb, clumsy fingers felt gauze.
He remembered what happened. He cringed. “Where’s Sokka?” he asked.
“You must rest.”
He opened his eye, looked at his uncle. “Where is Sokka?”
Uncle Iroh sighed. “They’re waiting outside.”
Zuko tried to sit up.
“Wait, please. I’ll get them.”
Zuko lay down and waited as Iroh left the room. He clenched and unclenched his fists, and registered the lighter bandages on some of his fingers. He was in a room alone. One window. The white made everything seem silent.
Sokka burst through the door. Their feet clacked against the floor. “Zuko!” They sat down beside him. “Oh my gosh, Zuko, you’re awake!”
They had black hair, warm skin, and nervous, blue eyes. They were in jeans. Zuko smiled.
Sokka smiled back wobblingly. “Holy shit. Zuko.” They took his hand in theirs too tight.
Zuko frowned— winced. “Are you okay?”
“Am I okay? Christ, Zuko.” They sniffed. “I’m so happy you’re awake.”
“How long was I asleep?”
“A couple days. They gave you some sort of drug, and then they gave you surgery. So it’s not as bad as it could be. They said, well what they meant was that your eye’ll still be fucked up, but you’ll still have it. It’ll follow the movements of the other one.”
“They did a bunch of skin grafts too, I think! So it’s all okay.”
Zuko ran his free fingers over the bandages. The left side of his face just felt numb. “How does it look?”
They shook their head. “It’s not so bad.”
“You don’t have to lie.”
“You look fine, really.” Their chest heaved in a fractured laugh. They reached for his head and ran their hand over his hair. Fuzzy. He could feel their fingers running over his scalp. ”They fixed up your hair,” they told him. “You cut it up all jagged.”
Zuko closed his eyes.
“Are you okay?”
I’m scared, he wanted to say. He just grabbed their hand and held on tight to it. “Don’t leave.”
Zuko was only in the hospital for a few days more. He couldn’t work up the energy to feel fear for most of it. The panic was over, at least. Now, he felt some sort of residual embarrassment, a seed of shame that festered in his stomach like an infection. He slept, and tried to ignore the pain. He refused to look in a mirror.
He felt odd getting into his uncle’s small, peony-scented car. When he finally noticed the discomfort in his chest, his eyes widened. “My binders--“
“I got your clothes from you room while you were in the hospital,” Iroh told him.
“What… what about mom’s book?”
“It’s at my house.”
Zuko watched the palm trees move against the strangely bright sky as Iroh drove him out of the parking lot. “Where will I go?” he murmured.
“Don’t worry. I’ve been trying to get custody.”
Zuko looked down at his knees. He felt numb. “You don’t have to take me in out of sympathy.” His voice was thick. “I don’t want to be any trouble for you, Uncle.”
“It is no trouble to spend more time with my favorite nephew.”
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“I do want to. But first, I want to make you some of my favorite dumplings. I learned a recipe from a good friend of mine a while back— I’m sure I can make it again.”
Zuko swallowed the lump in his throat. He spent the ride poking at the thick flesh around his eye.
Uncle Iroh’s house smelled like jasmine tea and cleaning wipes. It was low to the ground; the patio in the back yard was lit with lemon-yellow sunlight. Zuko hadn’t been in this house since… well, in a long time.
“Your room is at the end of the hall,” Iroh told him. “How about I make those dumplings while you rest for a while?”
Zuko bowed his head. “Thank you, Uncle.”
He rushed to the end of the hall and closed the door quickly behind him He couldn’t resist anymore. He had to see himself.
He strode to the plain mirror that stood on the dresser. Oh. He ran his fingers over his skin again and again. Oh.
Angry redness stretched over his left eye and ear, distorting his features into something menacing and unfamiliar. His shorn hair left room to expose the burn. He could see every odd dip in his flesh, every mottled twist. His ear was a lump. His jawline, milk-white from the confines of his hospital bed, was the only thing left unblemished.
He placed his hand over his right eye. The world was a blur. He could see vague silhouettes here and there. But it was mostly just a mess. A shapeless, lightless mess.
He turned away and fell onto the low, soft bed. He rubbed his fists into his eyes, as if that could somehow make it go away. He wanted to feel angry at his father, he did. Instead, he just felt angry at himself. Angry, guilty, ashamed. He should have known something like this would happen. Now, he would be hideous for the rest of his life.
Zuko spent his days at his uncle’s house sleeping, mostly. He didn’t really want to do anything else. He slept dreamlessly, but every morning, he woke up with a fear seizing his chest. He had to remind himself that no one was chasing him. That they didn’t want him anymore. His thoughts muddled. He just stared at the beige ceiling for hours. Images flitted through his mind of Azula grinning, of his father burning his old pictures. He’d wanted to leave when he still lived there. But not like this. Not like fucking this.
He didn’t really like leaving the room. Eating was a chore, and made him feel nauseous. He only did so for mid-day meals, when he and Iroh would sit on the patio, and Zuko would sip ginger tea while Iroh would point out which clouds looked like what. The sunny weather seemed out of place, almost spiteful; there was nothing to be happy about.
The room he stayed in had walls painted light blue. The embroidered curtains fluttered with the breezes outside. There were pale spots on the walls— faded marks from posters and frames. It dawned on Zuko eventually: this was Lu Ten’s old room. Uncle Iroh’s dead son. He’d died so soon after mom that Zuko had never thought to console him. How selfish.
One afternoon, he dragged himself out of bed and rolled open the doors of the closet. The hangers were empty, but when he crouched down and looked, he saw stacks of cardboard boxes shoved to the back of the little space. He lugged them out and patted off the dust.
The first one he opened was full of clothes. Baby clothes, little-boy clothes. He pulled out shrunken superhero T-shirts and pairs of camo pants. They smelled like must and Cheerios.
Zuko winced when he saw the pictures in the second box. They were faded and worn, but something harder than light shone through them. His uncle was shown grinning, his hair and beard still dark, his face barely lined. The boy on his shoulders had braces on. He was shown running, jumping, yelling. This had been Zuko’s cousin. He’d barely known him. He put the pictures back and shoved that box back in the closet.
He only opened one more. This one was heavy, and clinked; when he opened it, he found it was full of toys. Little magnetic train cars sat cheerily in a heap. Zuko picked up the pieces one by one: race cars; action figures; a miniature gun; a scribbled plan for a treehouse. Zuko felt like he was holding sacred things, things that shouldn’t be touched. Remnants of boyhood, of pure days spent running, messy hair and grass stains. Never worrying about periods and hair tangles.
It was bad to be jealous of a dead boy.
After nearly a week of unanswered messages, Sokka started coming to the house regularly in the evenings. They leaned against Zuko’s bed after school, doing their homework. Zuko watched them in a fog. Sometimes, he’d cover his good eye and see how well he could still see the back of Sokka’s head. They let their hair down and let him run his fingers through it. It felt like water.
“Hey Zuko, y’know how to balance this equation?”
“Ah, c’mon, help me out here, man. I have to pass this final.”
“You already know the answer.”
“… Touché.” They scribbled it down. “It’s boring at school without you,” they told him. “No one to groan at my jokes and call me annoying.”
“Hey.” Their voice softened. “Hey, Zuko. Move over.”
Zuko wriggled to the wall so Sokka could lie beside him. He felt a little safer. He wanted to reach out for them, but he let them hug him first. His head on their chest, his heart felt like it was being wrung out.
“You’re not a bad person,” they said.
“Shut up, I’m the smart one here. If I say you’re good, then you are.”
“Oh, is that how it works.”
“Yes.” They kissed his nose and squirmed down until their face was level with his. They ran their hand through his hair, over the back of his neck. Zuko shivered. “It looks good short,” they said. “It really does. Looks more like you.”
Zuko closed his eyes and let himself feel their fingers against his skin.
“And this.” Sokka put their hand on his shoulder. “They’ve gotten really broad. You look strong.” They stroked his jawline. “And see, this has gotten so firm. And this—“ They put their fingers on Zuko’s neck, against the softness below his chin. “Swallow.”
“Feel that right there? Your Adam’s apple looks so good.”
Zuko wanted to cry. He couldn’t. Instead, he just clung to Sokka and shook until they said they had to leave.
“Click A— it’s Lobachevskian, see?”
“They’re the same damn length,” Zuko mumbled, clicking Sokka’s answer and moving on to the next question.
“Just trust me, dude,” they said. They rubbed on a new layer of chapstick and smacked their lips. Their hair tickled Zuko’s cheek as they leaned over his shoulder.
“Trust is relative.”
They gently poked the back of his head. “Whatever, O Introspective One. Hey, prom is in a week, y’know.”
“Oh.” Zuko tensed. How was he supposed to reply? “Interesting.”
“You won’t let me go alone, will you? I have this suit just lying around in my closet, you’d look great in it. Also, my dress is pretty superb, if I do say so myself.”
“I’m sure it is. I just…” he sighed, rubbing his eyes and squinting at the computer screen. “I thought I wouldn’t have to go back there. Not again.”
“Well… I won’t make you. I mean, if you don’t want to go, you don’t have to. Not my business. That one’s C.”
“You really won’t care if I don’t show up?”
Sokka huffed. “Of course I’d care. I just won’t make you.”
“Really?!” Sokka straightened up on the bed. They threw their fists in the air. “Yeah! Dude, we’re gonna have so much fun! Wait ’til you see how hot I look— A again, man— oh no wait, that one’s a B— !”
It was pretty nice to have a friend who would do standardized tests for you and lend you their suits.
Zuko ran his hand through his hair. His scar stood out sorely, but he felt… right. The fabric inside the jacket was silky-smooth. He relished the feeling. He straightened, turned. His shoulders looked broad, his gaze strong. He looked like a man.
For the first time since his exile, Zuko felt a surge of joy well up in him. It wasn’t like any joy he’d felt before; it wasn’t rushed or nervous. It was deeper than relief. He felt oddly at peace. His contentment settled inside him, cradling him. He was a man.
Banging on his door. “Get out here already, handsome!” Sokka shouted.
“Fine!” He opened the door to see his friend beaming on the other side.
Sokka's shiny, black hair was let down, falling almost to their shoulders, which were strong and bare. Zuko could see their clavicles. They straightened up, wiggling from side to side in glee, and he could see the dress they were wearing. It was bright red, with a sloping neckline, and a skirt with so many rich layers of ruffles, Zuko could hardly see Sokka’s hands when they buried them in it. The skirt part ended above their knees. He quickly looked away from Sokka’s thighs, up to their magnificent grin. They looked like the sun.
“Zuko, Zuko!” They brushed his shoulders. They smelled like vanilla. “You look so handsome! I knew it would fit you perfectly! Holy shit, you look fantastic, you’re like a trophy husband! I’m so proud.”
“Yeah, uh. You look nice, too. I mean, thanks.” He swallowed.
“Come on, come on, let’s go!” Sokka shouted, grabbing his hand and pulling him onto Iroh’s driveway, giggling giddily.
Zuko almost felt like it wasn’t real: Sokka posing on his arm for a picture, his uncle’s encouraging thumbs-up, Sokka’s hand and tantalizing grin pulling him into the car. It felt too good to be happening to him. He had to bite the tip of his finger to catch his breath again.
Pulling up to the school, darkness already making the lights glimmer like hot stars, he was apprehensive. But Sokka’s fingers were so warm, and before he knew it, he was rushing up to the school through the newly-minted summer air. He felt, for a brief second, like he was seven years old again. But this time, he was living his childhood right. He finally understood.
The gymnasium was filled with heat and noise. Nearly-graduated seniors filled the room, laughing as colored lights spun on the walls. Zuko felt dizzy, but Sokka pulled him out on the floor. “Come on, let’s get drinks,” they murmured in his ear.
The two of them hung out against the wall, sipping punch that tasted like a mixture of orange and pineapple. Whenever Sokka told a joke, they had to lean and whisper into his ear about this girl’s dress or that boy’s haircut; it was so loud otherwise. Zuko’s head spun in the close quarters, Sokka’s breath ghosting warmly on his skin. He felt almost invisible, with the lighting obscuring his scar from view.
Sokka downed the rest of their punch and grabbed him arm again. “Hey Zuko, come dance with me.” They smirked as they slipped by the punch bowl, their hips beginning to sway to deep, trembling beat of the music.
He was there, in the crowd, and Sokka was close, so close, their hands around his back before he knew it. “C’mon, you’re my date,” they said.
Zuko didn’t know what he was feeling, but he liked it. He put his hands on Sokka’s hips and did his best to move with them. He knew the students next to them were looking, and he heard whispers (“Hey, is that Zuko?” “Nah, that’s a dude”) but he pushed away his care. He focused on Sokka’s blue-grey, almond-shaped eyes— seeing him plainly, but knowing him deeply.
Their hands linked together perfectly. Zuko felt dizzy and free. The music went on and Sokka kept making jokes, laughing, and running back to get more punch, ignoring the sneers that were aimed their way. Zuko felt himself smiling more and more, laughing along whenever Sokka tripped again over their outrageous high-heels.
Some announcer’s voice boomed over the music, saying that the party was over. Someone had spiked the punch. The students made an uproar. Zuko just noticed it with an “Oh.”
Sokka giggled again. “C’mon, let’s got out of here,” they said.
“Yeah.” Zuko stumbled toward the exit at the back of the gym, and he and Sokka spilled out of the door. Their laughs hit the clean night air. It was dark now, and chilled. Zuko could see the stars, like chips of ice in the summer sky.
“Come on,” Sokka said breathlessly, “Let’s steal a limo.”
“Who d’you think spiked the punch?” Zuko whispered.
“It was me, jackass!”
“Oh, my gosh!” Zuko laughed, wheezing. His stomach hurt. “Oh, man, I love you so much.”
“Tell me more about it.”
They fell into one of the limos together. Zuko laughed at the sobriety of the black leather seats, how luxurious it seemed.
“Take us home!” Sokka shouted, leaning over the driver’s seat and shoving a wad of cash into one of the cup-holders.
“I need an address.”
Zuko spit out Sokka’s address immediately.
Sokka fell back on the seat again. Zuko gazed at them in adoration as the car slid onto the rushing streets. Everything about them looked good, every detail standing out to him like a… a mosaic, or something. He traced a light birthmark on their shoulder and sighed deeply.
Sokka reached over and suddenly, his jacket was off his shoulders.
Zuko laid his head on his friend’s shoulder, and they watched the streetlights blur together. They smelled so good. Zuko shifted, and his mouth was on their neck, and they were warm and soft, and they felt nice. He gripped their ruffly skirt for an anchor as his lips gently pressed against their skin.
Sokka mumbled something, took his face and turned it so they stared into his eyes.
“Wait, did I—?”
“Hey. Hey, Zuko.”
Before he could reply, they pressed their mouth to his. They tasted like lip gloss and tangy fruit and Sokka. Zuko put his hands in their hair, kissed them back, harder. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he didn’t care. It felt good. It felt new and exciting, but also familiar. Kissing them was easy, because he already knew how.
He stifled his anxieties, which threatened to stop his pace, and Sokka’s hand fluttered over his numb face, tracing the creases around his eye. “Hey, man, I love you. Y’know that?” Kiss. “I love you so much.”
When they made it to Sokka’s house, they stumbled up to the door breathlessly. Sokka put their finger to their lips— ssh!— and they snuck up the stairs together, Zuko trailing his jacket behind him. They made it to Sokka’s room and collapsed on the bed, a messy heap of limbs and warmth, and kept kissing. Sokka wrapped their legs around Zuko, and he was grateful for the excuse not to break it off. He let himself concentrate on Sokka’s hair, their kisses, their arms around him. He let himself relax.
Zuko woke up with his binder sticking to him like glue. Sokka’s dress was as disheveled as their mascara. But, when his friend tentatively smiled up at him, the sun just hitting their shoulders, Zuko knew.
He smiled back.
Zuko tried to glare, but couldn’t keep his grin from distorting his face. He shifted his legs on the closed toilet, his hand only slightly trembling around the syringe. “This isn’t a movie.”
“Tell that to the camera, baby!” Sokka waved their free hand around excitedly, the other gripping a cheap iPhone. Their sparkly blue eyeliner glimmered. “Come on, Zukes, say your lines!”
Zuko huffed. “Fine. Geez.” He cleared his throat. “Ah, my name is Zuko, I’m twenty-one, and this is my first shot of testosterone.”
As Sokka cheered, Zuko gripped the vial tighter, carefully positioning his thumb over the plunger. He stared at his pale thigh.
He felt a deep calm settle in his bones. He was here. Zuko thrust the needle in and pushed the plunger down.