The water rolled under the bridge. The water that wasn’t quite like water, was more like water than any water they’d ever seen, that sucked light into itself, and poured the light back out through frozen cracks in its surface, rolled under the bridge, and over it. The water that flowed like water and grabbed like hands and claws wrapped around the bridge, and Zuko backed away, his fight with Zhao forgotten. The water closed in around Zhao, closed in and clasped him to itself.
Zhao wriggled in the water’s hand, and a thick fog of shock filled Zuko’s mind and wouldn’t empty. He staggered back, his mouth opened, as Zhao twisted and fought.
Zuko shook his head to clear away the fog. “Take my hand!” he shouted, holding out his arm.
Face twisted with hate, Zhao reached. “This means nothing, boy!” He snarled as his hand fastened onto Zuko’s wrist.
Zuko moaned low in his throat in pain. He could feel the bones bend and grind together under Zhao’s grip, but he grabbed the man’s wrist anyway and pulled. He dug his heels into the bridge, but they just skidded on the ice. His legs hit the railing and caught. His ankle twisted and snapped. He could hear it before he started to scream, and the scream bubbled in the water as he slipped below the waves.
“I’ll deal with him. He’s my creature.” The world around Zuko stilled, and for a moment, he couldn’t feel anything, not even numbness. He couldn’t feel anything except that he wasn’t breathing.
“He killed my wife!”
“Tui’s my sister,” the first whispered. “He’s mine.”
One of the voices loomed over him, and the other came to stand next to it. “What about the other one? He’s yours too. You’re not asking for him. She’s your sister, but you’re not asking for him.”
“You can’t keep this one,” the first voice spoke again. Zuko opened his eyes, but everything was too bright and he closed them again. He wasn’t sure everything had stilled. He wasn’t sure it had ever been moving. “He didn’t do anything to Tui.”
“I didn’t- I didn’t mean to take him.” The second voice shook and broke.
“No!” the second voice shouted. “Not anymore, she’s dead! Don’t you get that? Tui’s not coming back. She’s not... coming back...”
“Be quiet,” Zuko moaned, reaching up to cover his ears. The light poured in through the cracks in his eyelids and it was too bright.
“La, he has to go back.” The voice cracked and popped, and Zuko turned his head to get away from it.
“He can’t, Agni,” the Ocean Spirit murmured. “He’s already dead.”
“What are we supposed to do with him then?” the sun spirit demanded, exhausted. “You took him. He was supposed to be Firelord, and now what am I supposed to do? Find a way to get the princess pregnant? Make Iroh fall madly in love? La-”
Zuko started shivering, and once he started, he couldn’t stop. They wracked his body and snapped his teeth together so hard he was afraid they were going to shatter. “What...”
“Shh shh shh,” Agni laid his hand on Zuko’s head, rubbing circles on his bare scalp. “You’re-” his voice hitched, and a tear fell on Zuko’s cheek. It burned, but it felt good, and right, and he stopped shivering. “Safe now.”
“Hurts,” he mumbled. “Not right.”
“No, I know,” the Sun Spirit soothed. “But it will be.”
“Excuse me,” a new voice breathed. The air around Zuko, the air that never entered his lungs, or moved when he spoke, grew even brighter around him, until not even his closed eyes helped block it out, but he couldn’t open them anyway.
And the air was so cold.
The voice nagged at him. He should know it. He knew her, he- She put her hand to his forehead, pushing Agni’s hand away chasing away the warmth and rightness away. The new hand was cool, and dry, and his eyelids unstuck, and he couldn’t speak.
The erstwhile princess of the north glanced at him before turning back to the other spirits. “What about what the m- Tui did with me?” Her hands went to the binding around his phoenix tail and pried it away. There was no warmth inside him anymore, no light, no fire...
He opened his mouth to scream, but she covered his mouth. “Shh, it’ll be alright; I’m going to bring you back.”
“You should have waited,” Agni breathed. “I could have done it. I still needed him.”
“What are you-” Zuko struggled to sit up.
Agni put his arm under Zuko’s and helped him to his feet. “Guess he’s yours now-”
Yue cut them off with a wave. “I just want you to know I didn’t do this for you. I don’t know anything about you, except that you tried to kidnap the Avatar.” But she smiled at him. “But your uncle tried to save Tui, and I think he wants you back.”
Zuko looked down. “Thank you.”
“He- the Avatar’s the last hope for my people,” she murmured. “I guess you’re going to know what that’s like now.”
Zuko couldn’t choke the question past his lips and the silence stretched on.
“What’s all this crying about anyway?” Agni smiled, pulling Yue close. “We’re supposed to be celebrating a birth, and,” he put Yue’s hand in La’s and closed them around each other. “A wedding.” But the tears were still pouring from his eyes.
When Zuko woke the second time, there was ice all around him and he was buried in furs. His chest rose and fell with his breath again. He could feel his heartbeat, but there was no rush of warmth with it. He coughed experimentally, but no water came out of his lungs. Something... wasn’t right. He burrowed down into the furs to avoid it for a little longer.
“Where-” he breathed. “Where...”
He could feel the ice under the furs. He could feel the water rushing under the ice.
“My hair-” He tried to get up, but his legs and arms tingled and prickled with numbness.
“Settle down, young one,” the old woman pushed him back down, surprisingly strong. “We had to cut it off. It was too tangled up with the net they fished you out with.”
Zuko’s hands flew to his head, brushing the soft fuzz on top of it. “How- how long was I out?”
“A few weeks.” She handed him a cup of water. “Drink.”
Zuko put the cup down without drinking and tried to stand, but when he pulled his hand back from the cup, the water followed. Zuko stared at it in mute horror, just before he fell over.
The old woman, with the dark, wrinkled, Water Tribe skin tucked him back into the furs. “You’re not ready to be up yet. Relax, heal. And drink your medicine.”
Zuko didn’t reach for the cup. “What just happened?” The words came out as a thin rasp. He couldn’t comprehend anything through the ebb and flow of the water all around him. “I can’t- I...” There was nothing to his heartbeat but blood pulsing through him, no fire, no fire at all. “Where’s Uncle?”
As soon as he blurted those two words out, he cursed himself. He was an idiot; he always had to do something stupid and ruin everything-
“Your uncle’s waiting for you.” She pushed the cup into his hands and folded his fingers around it. “When you drink that, I’ll send him in.”
“What did you do to him?” The sudden sick fear that he and Uncle might be prisoners barely registered, but he latched onto it. It was normal, sane, almost safe next to the rushing and tugging of water and ice all around him.
“Nothing!” She held Zuko down, her bony hands digging into his shoulders as he struggled. “He’s fine; you have to relax!”
The cup of medication tumbled over, and froze on the ice floor. It thawed and flowed back into the cup, before she pressed it back into his hand. He could feel every ripple and tremble of it in the cup. Defeated, he raised it to his lips and gulped down the strange, foul, salty liquid inside.
She patted his shoulder comfortingly. “That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?”
Zuko didn’t have the words to reply. He just growled.
Her hand left his shoulder, but she smiled at him reassuringly as she left the room and pulled the skin curtain across the door.
Zuko pushed himself to his feet and hobbled weakly to the wall. He let it bear his weight as he made his way to the door. Poking his head around the skin curtain, his eyes darted up and down the corridor, and he slipped out, to lean against a different ice wall.
His legs gave out from under him at the sound of his uncle’s voice. He crumpled to the ground, panting as his uncle and the healer woman ran to him.
Uncle’s arms slipped around him and pulled him back to his feet. Zuko could feel the arm jostling his bruises, even through his uncle’s robes and cloak, and through the parka they must have put on Zuko while he slept. “Nephew, you’re supposed to be resting, not-”
“Trying to escape?” he gasped heatedly. “Like you shou-” He broke off, trying to catch his breath as Uncle gathered him into his arms.
“We are not prisoners, Prince Zuko,” Uncle soothed, pushing him back towards his room until he let his uncle help him through the door.
“They cut off my hair.” He shivered. The air didn’t come through his words, and they came out high, like metal grinding on metal.
“Shh,” Uncle murmured. “You should be lying down.”
“You said my name,” Zuko croaked. “Before. They’re going to know...” His eyes fluttered closed, and then open again.
“It’s alright, Prince Zuko. They already know.”
Zuko’s feet slid out from under him, against the ice, in the strange Water Tribe slippers. His eyes wouldn’t stay open. His heart was beating, but he could barely feel it through the rush of blood. He was lying down, but he didn’t remember getting there. Through the haze, a flash of suspicion shone through. “You drugged me! That medici-”
“It’s a shame, really,” a deep woman’s voice whispered. “You would have been a good Firelord.”
Zuko’s heart was still beating. The Spirit World had air to fill his lungs. He breathed so deep it hurt, just to remind himself he could.
“We needed you, you know, Agni and I.” She shook her head, and Zuko could hear her veils rustling. “We were so glad Ozai kicked you out.”
Zuko’s eyes snapped open. He pushed himself up in the water. It covered his wrist, but he couldn’t feel it moving, not the way he had when he had been awake. Lava flowed beneath the water, impossibly, in pools, like the paint on the woman’s face and shoulders. “Who are you?”
“Of course you wouldn’t know,” she breathed. “It doesn’t matter.”
Zuko thought it did matter.
“I don’t know why you came back, but we’ll take you anytime you come. Rest a while.” She smiled, and touched the gold crescent on her forehead. “If you die again, I’ll take you back.”
Zuko shuddered. His skin went clammy and cold.
Voices floated around Zuko’s head, and he buried deeper into the furs.
“What do you mean you’re not going to teach him?” Those sounds couldn’t come out of of Uncle. Uncle never made sounds like that.
The Dragon of the West might have.
“Yugoda can teach him,” a second voice drawled, younger and sneering. “If it’ll keep him out of trouble.”
Zuko opened his eyes and yawned, inhaling fur. It stuck to his tongue and the back of his throat.
“Trouble? He needs to be able to fight!”
“The moon spirit might have saved him, but she’s a woman, and you know as well as I do that makes her softhearted and silly-”
Uncle’s laughter rumbled on the thin, frozen air. “You really should meet my niece.”
“The point is, you’re both dangerous, and we might have to take him in, but we are not going to teach him how to take us apart from the inside!”
Zuko pushed the fur down from over his head. “You drugged me,” he accused, eyes narrowed at his uncle.
“Zuko!” Uncle bent over him. “You’re awake.”
“No thanks to you,” Zuko snapped.
“If you think we’re teaching that-”
“Be quiet,” his uncle ordered.
“You’re not in the Fire Nation court anymore. Whose brother you are doesn’t matter-”
“I believe I told you to be quiet while I spoke to my nephew, Hahn, you said your name was?”
Zuko glanced up at the Water Tribesman who told had told Uncle they weren’t going to teach Zuko. “Leave,” he rasped.
The young man swept out, but before he let the skin curtain fall, he turned back and stood in the doorway. “The council’s not going to let you stay here, General. You’re free to take your nephew with you, of course. Actually, yeah, please, take him, that way we won’t have to deal with him.”
The curtain swung behind him. Zuko picked the bits of fur off his tongue and hacked on the ones down his throat, trying to bring them to the surface. “Teach me what?”
Uncle stroked the fuzz on the top of Zuko’s head where his phoenix tail had been. “Waterbending.”
“I’m not going to learn,” he spat. “I’m not going to stay here!”
“You are still weak, nephew,” Uncle, told him, still stroking his hair. “Last time you woke up, you fell right back to sleep.”
“Because I was drugged!” Zuko reminded him.
“That was just broth, until you were well enough to eat, nephew.” Uncle helped him sit up. “You fell asleep on your own.” Zuko tried to rise to his feet, but Iroh pushed him down. “Prince Zuko, you have to rest.”
“Prince of what?” Zuko forced himself to his feet. “I’m a waterbender.”
“No!” As he yelled, his arms thrust up to push his uncle back, and ice thrust up from the floor in their wake. Zuko sank back down onto the pile of furs, gazing at the two new ice spires, his face and stomach contorting as if the disgusting salty liquid he drank earlier was about to come back up. He swallowed it down as hot tears started to prickle at his eyes. He tried to blink them back, but they fell anyway. Uncle’s arms came down around him, and Zuko shoved him back, tears pouring down his face. “No, I’m a firebender, not... No!”
Uncle’s embrace became more insistent. This wasn’t... Uncle always backed off. The last time he hadn’t, right after he’d woken up on his ship after the Agni Kai with his father, Zuko had set his sleeve on fire.
He couldn’t do that now.
“It’s alright,” his uncle murmured, squeezing him tight.
“‘T’s not,” Zuko mumbled into Uncle’s shoulder.
“It’s not!” Zuko tried to pull away again, and found himself trapped. “Fire is...”
Uncle ran his fingertips through the short bristles on Zuko’s head, rubbing circles onto his scalp. “I know.”
“No you don’t!” Zuko howled. “You never had it just be... gone, just not be there anymore; it feels like your heart’s stopped beating, but you’re not dead, and it won’t let you die...” It was strange how hot the tears were running down his cheeks and the back of his throat. Water was supposed to be cool.
Uncle squeezed harder. He pressed his nephew against his chest harder. His fingertips rubbed harder, soothing and unknotting Zuko, until he could feel his Uncle’s heart beating, and feel his uncle’s blood rushing around his body. His uncle was warm; even through his cloak and robes, and even through Zuko’s stupid parka, he was warm. Zuko sobbed into his shoulder as his uncle spoke, and tried to let the words just wash over him. “It is not the end of the world.”
Zuko wrenched himself away and shot to his unsteady feet. “Shut up! You have no idea-”
“She gave you back to me!” his uncle thundered. “I thought you were dead, but you are here, alive, and, nephew, please!” Zuko backed up until he hit the wall, his mouth hanging open, the cold sweat just starting to bead up under his parka and soak into the fur.
“She gave me back for you!” His voice caught and came out more like a whine than a yell, a wounded little sound that he didn’t quite know how to stop. “She said she wasn’t doing it for me, that she liked you and thought you’d want to have me back-” Zuko rested his weight against the wall. The ice was frozen, still, and at least a little bit safe. He didn’t even how what she meant. Was he supposed to never leave Uncle’s side? Did she mean that his whole purpose now was to follow Uncle around and keep him happy?
When Uncle came over to him, Zuko looked away but let him hold him.
The moon was a thin crescent, just barely starting to wax again after the new moon, and long after the sun had made its brief winter trek over the sky, it hung in the air outside Zuko’s window, shifting the waters in his body around and around, not letting him rest.
He leapt to attention when the animal skin curtain rustled, but when he saw it was just his uncle, he moved back to the window. “Yugoda tells me you didn’t eat your dinner,” the general chided.
Zuko glanced at the unidentifiable boiled meat and seaweed with distaste. “I thought you were asleep.”
“You should be asleep, Prince Zuko.”
Zuko stared out at the moon pointedly. “I can’t.
“Does it feel like the sun?”
Zuko started nodding, then shook his head. “It keeps moving, and it keeps pulling at you...” He swallowed and shook his head again. “Why does everybody know?”
“The waterbending.” Zuko choked out. “Why does anyone have to know? Why couldn’t you just have gotten me out of here without anyone finding out about... He’s never going to let me come home.”
Back when Zuko had first begun hunting the Avatar, when he had still been making the rounds of all of the Air Temples, his uncle had told him what the Fire Nation did to waterbenders. He had handed Zuko a cup of tea, and walked him to his cabin, and told his nephew in explicit detail about warehouses full of wooden cages and dry air, and cups of water held out on sticks to people chained so that they couldn’t even hold it to their own mouths. He had told Zuko that if he were going to condemn someone to that, he had to know exactly what he was condemning them to. At the time, Zuko had thought that if he found the Avatar (when he found the Avatar) it would be a devious old master, and he had sworn that he would be willing to do whatever it took to protect his country. Uncle had left him alone to think about it.
Zuko was thinking about it now, and it was the only reason he was where he was, standing in front of the chief of the Northern Water Tribe and his council. He knew what happened to waterbenders who didn’t have an impenetrable fortress and an army of their own to protect them. “Your own master waterbender vouched for my uncle.”
“But Pakku is no longer here, and it’s not just your uncle, is it, Zuko?” It was all Zuko could do not to demand Chief Arnook give him his title. The moon spirit might have made him a waterbender, but he was still Fire Nation, and he was still the Firelord’s son. But even royal failures knew when they were supposed to shut up and give someone what they wanted to hear. “As Katara tells it, you chased her, her brother, and the Avatar all over the world. She says you abused her grandmother, a member of the Northern Water Tribe, in an effort to extort information.”
The words choked in Zuko’s throat. “You can’t-”
“The spirits might have made you my problem, but they didn’t bother to give me any instructions on how I am supposed to deal with you.” Chief Arnook shook his head with a faint smile. “Your own father threw you out of the country, didn’t he.” Zuko tried to speak, but Arnook cut him off. “Now, Yugoda tells me your uncle confided in her that he was glad she’d been able to heal your broken ankle and other injuries before you awoke and had a chance to fight her. If you can’t even keep your temper when someone’s trying to help you, we can’t trust that you won’t be a danger to the tribe.”
“How’s healing class going with old Yugoda anyway?” Hahn drawled. “My niece says all the other little girls are scared of you.”
Zuko breathed hard through his nose. “Do you have a point?”
“Just thought you’d be relieved to know after everything, you still have it. I mean, a class full of six year old girls?” He sucked air in around his teeth derisively. “Hardened warriors, Zuku.”
Short and pale as Zuko’s hair was, the flush of his scalp was visible all the way around his head. The ice underneath Hahn gave way with a resounding crack and splintered. Ice shards drove themselves like hooks through Hahn’s parka and into his skin. Zuko could feel the pinpricks of blood trickling down them. Hahn shot to his feet. Chief Arnook raised his arm to keep him back, but he shoved it aside and charged Zuko, pulling his arm around to swing his fist at Zuko’s head. In one sharp motion, sharp, like a firebender, not fluid, he jabbed his arms up and forward to block the blow and wrapped his hands around Hahn’s arm. He jerked Hahn around by his arm, forcing him down to his knees and his arm back against itself until he grunted in pain. “Think I’m intimidating now?” He spoke too softly for anyone but Hahn to hear, but his voice shook with anger.
“Nephew!” Uncle called, but he didn’t step forward.
“You needed Yue to save your life.” Hahn hissed. “When your admiral tried to kill me, I got back to shore on my own.”
“That’s enough!” Chief Arnook commanded.
Zuko released his arm, but when Hahn started to rise, he shoved him away. The Water Tribesman lost his footing on the ice and landed on his arms, face down. Zuko stood over him. “My name’s Zuko. And I’m still a Fire Nation prince.”
“Prince Zuko.” The emphasis Chief Arnook put on his title made it sound like an obscenity, but Zuko ignored him.
“I think I intimidated your whole tribe. I think that’s what your chief just said was why I’m being kicked out,” Zuko spat. “I think you’re trying to have it both ways. Either I’m pathetic, or I’m a threat. Your choice.”
Arnook nodded to the woman to the left of him and she waved one hand forward. Icicles ripped themselves out of the floor and lunged for Zuko. She waved her hand back, and another row of icicles jumped up behind Zuko, pinning him against the first. “Despite what happened to my daughter, Hahn is still my choice for heir, Prince Zuko.” the Water Tribe chief hesitated before adding, “Of the Fire Nation. If you remained here, Hahn would one day be your chief. If you can’t even accept that, I have no idea why you even thought you would want to stay here.”
Zuko hung in the icicles, unable to move and refused to hang his head as Hahn took the opportunity to flee back to his seat on the ice bench beside his chief. The skin around Zuko’s lips grew white with rage. Whatever words he should be saying refused to come. When he had still had his fire, the words would have come out as flames. Now they just didn’t come at all.
“We’re in a precarious position without many of our most powerful benders. We can’t afford trouble from within as well as without. My daughter might have made you Tribe, even as you stand there denying it, but I have to consider the whole tribe. There’s a trading ship in the main lock, that was to be heading for the Earth Kingdom today. I asked their captain to delay until you arrived.”
“You’re lucky,” one of the men on the council smirked. Zuko had wondered if any of them could speak at all. “Usually we just drag people like you onto the ice.”
“Yeah,” Zuko scoffed. “You might as well.”
“A word of advice, before you leave, Prince Zuko, the whole world is wondering how vicious you had to be before the Fire Nation saw you as too dangerous even for them.”
“That’s not why-”
“You will never be able to hide who you are with your hair and your scar,” Arnook spoke over him. “If you want to survive, you will learn to control your temper. If you’re lucky, one of the Earth Kingdom generals will take you in to spite your father. They won’t take well to being disagreed with.”
The icicles melted and spilled away, finding the pits in the floor and hardening to fill them. Zuko spat on the floor. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he snarled. “There’s no safety here for me anyway.” He pointed straight at Hahn. “Once he’s chief, the Fire Nation will be able to conquer you with a leaky bath tub! If it takes that long. Sozin’s comet is coming back, and the Avatar’s gone-”
“Enough, nephew.” Iroh laid a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, which flexed beneath it. “Come. We have a ship to catch.”
Zuko let his uncle’s hand guide him, clenching his teeth. “Okay. Get me out of here.”
“You know, the moon and the ocean spirits are supposed to push and pull each other.” Hahn smiled, his eyes narrowed in satisfaction, from his place at the right hand of his chief. “If Yue dies, what do you think the ocean spirit’s going to do to you?”
“That’s enough Hahn!” Zuko could hear Chief Arnook shout, but he didn’t turn around. His Uncle’s hand gripped his parka in warning as they stepped out into the sunlight and marched down to the lock. The pain and devastation he had felt the first time he had embarked a ship to take him into exile was missing as he mounted the gangplank. All that he felt was a cold sort of anger, and a sick sort of fear.
Ao kissed his wife. She thought he was a businessman, but then, she also thought she was Earth Kingdom. No one was supposed to know a Dai Li agent. They had to be spectres, eyes watching from the rooftops, a knock at the door in the middle of the night. Every day he left home, cloaked in middle ring respectability, bought a sticky role at a small bakery, and met up with a few other agents who would open the tunnels for him. Mudan thought she was Earth Kingdom, not a Fire Nation soldier captured at the end of General Iroh’s siege of Ba Sing Se. Ao’s colleagues told him stories about how busy they had been, turning all of the prisoners of war into citizens of Ba Sing Se. They couldn’t kill them, after all. The Dai Li weren’t monsters.
They said Ao had taken down six agents before they had opened the earth up beneath him and managed to drag him to Lake Laogai. That’s why he was Dai Li instead of one of the faceless servants and clerks who staffed the Dai Li headquarters. That’s why he knew he had once been someone else. He didn’t care. He knew that was the mindbending, but that didn’t stop it from working. The Dai Li were allowed to know. He had to know why he could firebend. There was no war in Ba Sing Se, except for the Dai Li.
He would have liked to have known who Mudan had been. When he asked they told him she had said her name was Rinzee. He never asked about his own.
Mudan set his dinner down in front of him and chatted about the price of potato-chokes and how the lady down the street was pregnant again, and it was too soon after the last baby. Ruili snuggled, resting on her mother’s hip until she wriggled down. When his daughter had first made sparks with her fingers, Mudan just laughed. Things like that happened in Ba Sing Se, she reminded him. Why, just last year, remember, Yeng’s boy had started bending air, could you believe it? Since he watched Yeng airbend every day amongst the Dai Li, yes he could. Yeng’s ancestors had been captured in a war so long ago no one remembered it except the Dai Li.
His wife had been a soldier before. He wondered if she would have been a good Dai Li agent, but women in Ba Sing Se didn’t fight, and he would do anything to preserve the traditions of Ba Sing Se.
Ruili toddled over and sat in his lap to steal food off his plate, and he kissed her hair. Out of the corner of Ao’s eye he could have sworn he saw a woman with a huge hat and red paint on her face, but when he looked at her, she was gone.
“Luuu Tennnn, Luuuu Tennnn!” The woman with the painted face had a sweet voice sang the name over and over again in his ear, and he turned away from her, but she just moved with him. “Luuuu Tennnn!”
“I’m not Lu Ten,” he snapped, rolling over again, and yanking his blanket up over his head. He was lying in a river, but that didn’t bother him. The water was warm, and he was so tired...
“Yeah.” She tipped her hat back and had to hold it with her hand to keep it from falling. “That’s what you think.”
He groaned. “Go away.”
“Ha, no, you’re in my river.” She flashed him a grin.
“Your riv...” The words came slow and dazed.
Her face grew serious. “Besides, I have something to show you.” She straightened her hat and held her hand out to him.
He didn’t take it. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I was sleeping, and I’m not who you think I am, so go find this Lu Ten and bother him!” by the time he finished, he was shouting at her.
She frowned and tipped her hat back so he could see her roll her eyes. Her fingers closed around both his wrists, and she dragged him down, under the river. Her hands became stone, pinning him to the wooden arms of one of the chairs beneath Lake Laogai.
“Why did you bring me here!” he yelled at the woman with the red swirls of paint on her cheeks, thrashing against his bonds. “Who are you?”
“Of course you’d have no idea who I am,” she shook her head, “being royal and all. Your people know me, but ever since your great grandfather took my comet and named it after himself, your family has done its best to forget about me. I am the Painted Lady, mistress of the hidden fire.”
“We are the Dai Li,” the faceless agent intoned as he set the fire between them whirling, pushing the lantern surrounding it around the tracks. He could feel it, even when he closed his eyes. It beat inside him the same way it beat against the glass. “Keepers of Ba Sing Se’s culture. You are in the safest city in the world, and it’s safe because of us.”
Ao remembered those words. He remembered saying them, and setting the lanterns spinning. It’s just what firebending Dai Li did.
Nothing in him remembered sitting here. It didn’t. That part of him was supposed to be gone.
“No!” He cried, slamming his head back against the chair.
“Just tell me who you are, Lu Ten, and I’ll take you home,” the spirit woman whispered. “To your wife and daughter.”
“I’m not going to tell you anything!”
The agent snorted. “Don’t worry. It’s impolite not to at least give us your name, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to give you a new one, Ao.”
He knew that voice. That was Ganshu’s voice. Ganshu was his partner. The fear curdled in his stomach.
She cupped his face in her hands and rubbed his cheek with her thumb. “I’m sorry, Lu Ten.”
“Don’t call me that!” he sobbed, twisting his head to bat her away.
“Luuu Tennnn,” she breathed into the dank, still, underground air.
The fire in the lantern beat inside his mind, drawing his whole being with it. He drew breath into his lungs like his father taught him to, and pulled the fire in with it, desperate to stop the movement. Some part of him tried to remind himself that he didn’t have a father to teach him things like breath of fire, that he was Ao of the Dai Li, but that part was buried beneath the panic and uncertainty. “Nooooooooo.”
The agent who must have strapped him to the chair pressed his rock glove to Ao’s mouth as the Painted Lady dissipated. Ao could see his face beneath his face. Duan, another friend. His daughter sometimes babysat Ruili. When he took his hand way, the rocks remained, closed around his face, robbing Ao’s breath and voice. “You’re safe now. Stop fighting. You’re one of us.”
Ao tried to scream as the fire spun around him. The fire wasn’t under his control. He was under the fire’s.
Ao woke up still trying to catch his breath, his dream spilling through the cracks in his mind until he couldn’t remember any of it.
“If they think we’re going anywhere near an Earth Kingdom general, they’re crazy,” Zuko muttered to Uncle. The ship rocked underneath him, lulling him into a false sense of home.
Uncle glanced back at the sailors on the other side of the ship. “Agreed.” He said grimly. The two of them stared at the waves together, remembering the Earth Kingdom captain who had tried to drag Uncle in chains to Ba Sing Se. “It won’t be that hard to hide,” Uncle whispered. “We’ll claim you were sick as a child and the fever turned your hair white.”
“You’ll go back to the Fire Nation,” Zuko snapped. “You’re not going to get arrested because of this!”
Uncle took both of Zuko’s hands in his. “I’m not leaving you, Nephew.” He drew Zuko into his arms, but Zuko stiffened, so he let him go. He winked. “I’m not that easy to get rid of.”
The cabin door was barred on the inside, so Zuko pulled his knife out of his pocket and slid it between the edge of the door and the door frame. He pushed the bar up and out of the way, and pushed the door open, holding his breath until it swung all the way open without creaking. Deftly, he rummaged through the cabinet beside the little writing table, eying the sleeping captain warily, until he found a bottle of ink. After he closed the cabin door, he slid the bar back into place with his knife and decended the ladder into the hold, picking his way around the, the sleeping Water Tribe sailors to his hammock.
The next morning, when everyone left him alone below deck, he froze the moisture on the wood into a clumsy, clouded mirror and pulled out the bottle of ink out of his sleeve. The cold stung his bare skin as he pulled off his parka and his undershirt, shivering and clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering.
He dipped his fingers into the ink bottle and ran them through his hair. For an instant, black streaks remained in the hair behind his fingers, but almost as soon as the ink landed, it beaded up on the tips of the short, fuzzy strands and dripped down, staining his scalp, but leaving the white untouched. The ink dribbled down Zuko’s back, sinking into the waistband of his pants.
He grimaced as a groan dragged itself out of his throat.
“I tried that when I was thirteen.” Zuko jumped at the sound of the former Water Tribe princess’ voice. He whirled around, eyes flicking around the darkness below decks. “It didn’t work for me either.”
He finally caught sight of her, floating near the underside of the deck. She was faint and translucent, the boards of the deck almost as clear behind her as around her, more like a film of silver on the wood than a solid woman. “How are...” he trailed off.
“The moon’s still up.” She smiled at him with the sort of warm smile she must have learned to give before she learned to talk. Zuko... had never been good enough at that sort of thing. “It’ll be up all day. Of course it’s very thin, but it’s there.”
Reaching behind his back to catch the ink on the heel of his hand, Zuko swallowed. Hastily, he dragged his parka back over his head, smearing ink all over the fur. He tried to keep his eyes on her, but she was so insubstantial, she seemed to slip out from under his gaze.
Yue floated down, but stayed back when he stiffened up and glowered. For a moment, she just stood across from him. “I’m sorry,” she murmured at last. “I jumped in before the Fire spirits could save you. If I’d known Agni would have sent you back... I’m sorry.”
There was probably something polite, or respectful he was supposed to say about how she couldn’t have known, and how she saved his life, but he didn’t have the will to find the words. His glower deepened.
“I thought I might teach you waterbending, if you wanted me to.” She glanced at his bubbled and clouded glass mirror. “It’s the least I can do, after I took away your firebending.”
“I don’t want to learn waterbending.” It was, wasn’t it? The least she could do. “Get out.”
He said the last two words softly, dangerously, as if she couldn’t crush as easily as she could stand there, as if she couldn’t pull back the thin, fragile thread of life she had given him. Her expression flickered. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I would have given almost anything to learn to bend.”
“Why?” he croaked.
“They don’t teach girls to bend at the North Pole.” Yue shook her head, all of her transparent, misty hair shaking with it. “Didn’t you notice?”
“But the woman, sitting next to your father, she bent-”
“Tui taught her, before.” She stared off into the distance, and Zuko wondered if she could see through the ship’s wooden walls. “I think- La gives the impression that she enjoyed being subversive.” She closed her eyes and seemed to come back to her self. “After Katara, Pakku had to let in other girls. Things are changing. It’s... good to watch. I wasn’t even allowed to study healing. It was all too base for a princess to be involved in.”
“My sister fights. She’s a bending prodigy.”
“I know.” Yue opened her eyes again and looked back at the wall. “She’s part of the reason you should learn waterbending. She’s sailing to the Earth Kingdom right now, to bring you and your uncle back in chains, as traitors, and unless you’re very lucky, she’ll find you.” She paused, and Zuko had a sinking feeling they were both thinking the same thing. He’d never been lucky. Azula got to be lucky, not him. That was just the way things were. “You need something to surprise her with.”
“Traitors?” he yelped. “We’re not... Father-”
“Your father sent her to apprehend you both.” She put a hand on his shoulder. He couldn’t feel it. “I’m sorry.”
“He would never-” Zuko stuttered. “He loves me. This- this is your fault!”
“This isn’t about that.” Yue closed her eyes again, but didn’t take her hand off his shoulder. He wanted so badly to shrug it off, or push it away, or something, anything. “He doesn’t even know yet.”
The skin around his mouth pinched together. His whole body felt too hot with furious disbelief. Without his firebending, too hot was still not quite hot enough. “Then why?” His voice broke.
Yue seated herself regally on top of a cargo crate, floating a few almost imperceptible inches above it. He could see those inches through her. “He thinks you’re useless. He’s a cruel, evil man who doesn’t love anyone, and he doesn’t think he can use you anymore.”
“He’s not like that!” he yelled.
“I suppose that isn’t the sort of thing you can say to someone and have them believe you.” Yue glanced up at the underside of the deck pointedly. “He’s wrong, you know. You’re not, if it helps.”
His good eye narrowed. “Get out.”
She put her hand on his shoulder again, and when he tried to force it away, his arm went right through. “The first human waterbenders learned from Tui, and still, there’s something about learning it from the moon, for whom it comes naturally. You can’t be a firebender, but you could be a master waterbender.”
“Get out,” he repeated icily.
The ice mirror Zuko had made melted as soon as Yue raised her hand and refroze, perfect, clear, and round. The woman who bent the whole ocean every second barely had to flex her power and the best Zuko could do was nothing. “Aren’t you going to look at yourself?” she asked. “Isn’t that why you made the mirror?”
Zuko’s lips pulled back over his teeth and he spat at her, but the spit didn’t hit her. It didn’t even go through her. It just... fell short.
“You’re going to leave yourself defenseless because you’re too afraid to admit things have changed?” She demanded, not moving. “And when your sister comes, you’re going to let your uncle fight her alone? And if he’s hurt because you don’t fight with him, are you going to just sit there, unable to heal him because you chose not to learn what I have to teach?”
“Go away,” he snarled, crossing his arms. “Go bother someone else.” He slumped against the curved walls of the ship, eyes slits, narrower than even the burn scar left his bad eye. A horrible, cruel idea floated to the surface of his mind. “Isn’t the Avatar supposed to be the bridge to the Spirit World? Aren’t you supposed to be talking to him?”
Yue closed her eyes and opened them again, pressing her finger to the bridge of her nose, as if she could still get a headache. “When I brought you back to life, I put a piece of my own life inside you. If I die, you become the moon. There is no one else I’m supposed to be talking to more right now than you.”
“And that other one?” he challenged, baring his teeth. “You’re just all-” He stopped mid-sentence, some belated sense of piety the last few years with his uncle must have instilled in him creeping out to silence him before he went to far.
Yue shifted uncomfortably. “The Painted Lady?”
“Whatever her name is!”
“You were supposed to be her golden boy; when you became Firelord, you were going to set everything right-”
Zuko recoiled, squeezing his arms around himself and hunching over self-protectively. “But I was never going to be Firelord,” he sneered. “You just said that. Father was never going to take me back, even if I still had- I grew up with Azula, and you are nowhere near as good as her. I’m not stupid! If you’re going to lie to me, at least keep your lies straight!”
“I’m not lying!” Yue’s hands flew up as if she thought he was going to strike her, as if he could. “You were supposed to be the one to teach the Avatar firebending, and if he won-”
“Are you telling me my destiny was to betray my country?” The clear, perfect mirror on the ship’s wall fractured and fell to the floor with a bang like a bomb. “Never.”
“It isn’t betrayal! After what he did to you, I don’t even know how- Your father’s the kind of man who would do something to convince you of exactly what kind of man he is, worse than what he did when he burned your face and banished a little boy for doing the right thing! And if he did it soon enough...” She put her hand back on her shoulder. He really wished she would stop doing that, even if he couldn’t feel it. When she spoke again, her voice was much softer, kind. “You’re the kind of man to do the right thing.”
“He’s not like that!” Tears streamed down the unscarred side of Zuko’s face. “I don’t know why you keep trying to tell me he is! You, maybe, but you say the Painted Lady’s a Fire spirit, and...”
Yue brought her hand up to wipe the tears off his cheek. The water ran under her almost invisible fingers, but when she pulled her hand away, the water followed. “Zhao killed the moon.”
“What does that that have to do with anything?” The air that came out of his mouth with the words left frost on his lips that burned with cold.
“He had an army with him. He told your father, and The Firelord gave his,” Yue swallowed and held up her hand when Zuko tried to interrupt, “Enthusiastic approval. Do you know what would have happened if I hadn’t been there to become the moon? Your uncle knows.”
“Zhao’s-” He closed his eyes and fought down a small, triumphant smile. “Zhao was, an idiot, and Father wouldn’t-”
She grabbed his arm, and her hands solidified around it so that he could feel the tightness of her grip. “He did. He killed Agni’s sister, and almost unbalanced the entire world just to win a victory that would mean nothing to him as soon as it was won! He’s so short-sighted, he doesn’t even realize what things like that would do to him, to the Fire Nation, and your sister is the same way.”
“She’s brilliant,” Zuko said, very quietly.
Yue nodded, and looked away. “Yes, she is, and you can’t be Firelord now, and Agni and the Painted Lady are scrambling to find someone else who won’t ruin things further, and you’re mine now, and I have no idea what to do with you, and I don’t know what to do with any of this, and La barely talks to me, and I have to do something-”
Horrible, loud sobs choked off her words, and she cried like a human woman, head buried in his shoulder. At an utter loss, Zuko forgot himself and tried to rub her back, but his hand went right through. Slowly, her sobs grew quieter, until she shuddered and clenched her eyes closed before opening them again, pushing herself back under control.
She let him keep patting her strangely solid hands with his own free hand, and didn’t speak for a long time. “Listen, you don’t have to do what I want you to do with waterbending,” she said at last, shakily. “You can do whatever you want after you learn.”
Zuko dropped his head, and it turned into a nod as he sank down to sit on the ribs of the ship, and Yue smiled a watery smile. “You really think I’m the kind of man who does the right thing?” he muttered.
She let go of his arm. “Agni and the Painted Lady do. They told me about why you were banished.”
Zuko flushed with something that wasn’t quite anger, and wasn’t quite humiliation. “Oh.”
“You were smart not to listen to my father, you know,” she murmured. “About going to one of the Earth Kingdom generals. Tell your uncle I think you should go to Ba Sing Se.”
Zuko’s expression hardened again, and he shot to his feet. As he marched out of the hold and onto the deck, he didn’t even look back at her, before he dutifully told Uncle her message and became furious all over again.
Ao leaned anxiously around the doorway, his hands behind his back. “You wanted to see me, Sir?”
Captain Wen waved him in. “Ganshu tells me you haven’t been sleeping well,” he said without preamble.
“I hope my job performance hasn’t been suffering,” Ao said stiffly. “I’ve been doing my best.”
“It’s nothing like that.” The captain sat down behind his writing table, smiling reassuringly. “You know we don’t like to keep the same people assigned to the Lake Laogai facilities. Perhaps you’ve been under there too long, the stress taking its toll.”
“I...” Ao began, but he stopped, unable to think of how to continue.
“Now, there’s a position opening up on the northern coast. They need an agent to examine refugees and trade-goods coming into the city. It’s not as many as who come through the Serpent’s Pass, but you won’t have to answer to anyone but Long Feng.”
“I’m not-” Ao begged. “I’ve just been having these dreams. I’m fine, you don’t have to send me away-”
“I’m not exiling you, Agent Ao. It won’t be permanent. You could use some fresh ocean air and time in the country.”
“I won’t be able to firebend,” he murmured.
“No.” Captain Wen pulled a rice paper sheet off the top of a stack on his writing table and bent his stone inkwell towards himself. “No, you won’t. We don’t usually like to send firebenders out of the city, but right now, unless you’d rather we mindbent you again-”
“No!” Ao yelped.
“So you’ll take the post, I take it?” Captain Wen asked, unscrewing the inkwell lid and rummaging around the table for a brush.
Ao nodded, defeated. “What am I supposed to tell Mudan about why we’re moving?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” The captain’s lip quirked. “Don’t look so glum, Agent Ao. It’ll only be a year, and they’ll probably promote you to captain when you come back.” He pushed the rice paper across the table, to Ao. “Now, take this down to one of the clerks, and be ready in three days.”
“Don’t worry about your wife.” Captain Wen smiled. “We keep a house open for the agent stationed up there. “It’s nice. Your Mudan will love it.”
Ao took the piece of paper and stepped out of the office. As soon as the door closed, he covered his face with his palm and puffed out a sigh. His feet hissed against the floor in their soft soled shoes. Light poured through the windows as he wound his way through the corridors to the wide open, central office of the Dai Li headquarters. He had a mailbox there, and a writing table he shared with three other agents. He didn’t go to it. He picked his way through the noise and the bustle, and the other agents until he caught a clerk with his eyes on the floor. Ao grabbed his arm and pressed the piece of rice paper with his new assignment onto it into the man’s hand. “Hey, can you process this for me?”
“Yes agent,” the clerk said without inflection. The clerk didn’t keep going, didn’t walk away. Ao realized he hadn’t let go. The clerk stood there with Ao’s hand around his arm, eyes on the floor, not talking, and something cold filled Ao’s stomach like it was trying to kill his inner fire, drown it, snuff it out. The clerk said nothing; he just stood there.
Ao quickly let go and the the clerk started shuffling away. “Wait!” The clerk turned at the word, his head snapping up. Ao saw his face for the first time. There was no expression on it. Ao wondered if it would look different if there were. Them man’s eyes were an indistinct brown, and Ao couldn’t tell if he had been Earth Kingdom or Fire Nation before he fell into Dai Li hands. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t a bender. If he were, he’d be Dai Li or dead. “Go,” Ao mumbled, waving him away. “It’s nothing.”
At least he wasn’t like that. At least Mudan wasn’t like that, emptied out and blank, and if she didn’t know or didn’t notice why fires grew brighter around her when she exhaled, and her food was never too cold, that was small next to her still being there, wasn’t it?
He didn’t know how he was going to keep her safe outside of Ba Sing Se.
Lu Ten’s borrowed armor pinched under his arms, but the gold on his own was just too visible, flashing in the sunlight. The defenders on the wall aimed their rocks and arrows for him when they saw it. His father said that was one more reason he should stay behind the lines, but where was the honor in that?
The hair at the back of his neck prickled, and he twisted around. When he saw the Fire Nation armor, he let his breath out. “What are you doing back there?”
Ozai’s personal guard, who he had sent with him to keep his favorite nephew safe winced. “It’s nothing, Prince Lu Ten. I’m supposed to be keeping you alive, remember. Turn around, keep your eyes on the battle.”
Lu Ten smiled and spun back around sending a fistful of fire into the gaping hole in the outer wall and the Earth Kingdom soldiers pouring out of it. But the prickling didn’t go away.
He felt a knife, working his way though the gaps in his armor. Lu Ten pivoted back around and grabbed the wrist holding the knife, breaking the man’s elbow on his arm and tossing him to the ground. The man screamed in pain and dropped the knife “Keep me alive huh?” Lu Ten shouted, but there were still Earth Kingdom soldiers rushing out of the breach in their outer wall. They weren’t normal Earth Kingdom soldiers either, but terrifying ones with dark green robes and rocks on their hands. “Who sent you?” he yelled at Ozai’s guard, blasting fire at the strange soldiers, realizing it was stupid as soon as it came out of his mouth. The man just moaned and pulled his broken arm to his chest.
The fire thundered out of his hands and feet at the green robed, faceless fighters who had somehow surrounded him while he was distracted. The fire landed on them, and the robes of one of them lit up like a coal furnace, searing his arms and legs. The man’s helmet fell back as he rolled around on the clay ground. Lu Ten lashed out, the fire in his hand shifting, elongating, into a rope. It whipped around one of the men’s neck and across his face, and Lu Ten knew that was a killing blow. It wasn’t the first. He’d learned how to tell.
The men in green robes fell back as their comrades’ screams filled the air. Lu Ten whirled his whip of flame over his head and struck it down, dodging the grasping stone hands that flew towards him. He breathed out fire in their faces, and attacked and attacked, and attacked, until his breath roared in his chest, and as he leapt for the throat of the one in front of him, the ground opened up below him. A new set of rock fingers caught his wrists and pulled them behind his back as he fell.
As the ground closed up over him, he figured his uncle had what he wanted after all.
The fire spirit with the hat and the painted face fell beside him through the blackness, one arm on her head to keep her hat on, the other pressed to her side, trying to keep her skirt down. His fingernails skittered over the faceless black walls she lit up, trying to find a handhold, anything to stop him from falling. “You did this!” he shouted. “What am I going to do with my wife, and Ruili, how am I going to make her understand that she can’t- Do you want my family to...” He couldn’t say the word.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered as another spirit appeared beside her. The short, plump man with a black beard and a topknot reminded him of someone. Agni the sun spirit took his wife’s hand. “We’ll keep your family safe.”
Ao landed in his bed, trying to remember the name Lu Ten. He knew he had heard it somewhere before.