Once, on a dark winter night, when Zuko was quite young, and Azula even younger – back when she had been only as mischievous as any other child and hadn't yet become either a liar or a prodigy – their mother sat with them in the lantern-lit garden and told them a story.
"Some people say that if a tool that humans have made – an umbrella, for example, or a sungi horn – if that tool becomes very old, it will grow its own spirit, take on a new form, and find its way to the Spirit World. But, if it's thrown away just before it's finished becoming its own spirit, then it becomes a hateful demon out of anger." Here she had growled and made a scary face, though Zuko and his sister only laughed. "So a lot of the time, people would make ceremonies to broken objects before they threw them away, if they had been old, so a demon wouldn't come to haunt them. But one day, an old woman dropped a rusting sewing needle before she could put it in with the pile of old needles she had, and it slipped between the floorboards and she forgot about it...."
Years later, his mother gone and his grandfather dead, Zuko couldn't help but remember the old story and wonder if it was true. If buildings could count as tools.
Lately something was different about the palace, and it couldn't just be that Mom was missing and nobody would say what had happened to her. It couldn't just be the way Azula's star was rising high and he was struggling to keep up with her more than ever before.
The window was always open, no curtains obscuring it. Even when a silver moon hung nearly full out in the sky, his room was incredibly dark every night now. Sometimes he could chase the shadows away for a while with his firebending, but he had to sleep at some point. He had tried lighting candles, but they were snuffed out by drafts on even the stillest of nights, and one of his tutors had seen the light from his window late at night and scolded him for staying up so long.
"You need proper rest to learn, my prince," he said. But rest did not come so easily any more.
Sometimes Zuko wished his room was smaller just so he could curl up in the corner with his blankets, back to the wall, and feel safe from whatever it was that made the room so dark. But it would be ridiculous to be woken up in such a position – Mom might have understood, but the servants wouldn't – and his room was too big for even that to work.
Even during the day, it was hard not to be jumpy. When he passed mirrors and other shiny things, he saw reflections move and vanish and would belatedly realize that the reflected image had no real counterpart. He felt eyes on him in empty rooms and heard indistinct whispers in deserted corridors.
Outside was fine. When he fed the turtle-ducks, or practiced his firebending forms on the grass, there were no strange shadows or eyes on his back. It was only when he had to return to the palace for dinner or for lessons that these things started up again.
"Never forget who you are," Mom had said, and whenever he felt about to jump out of his skin, when half the night had gone and he was too petrified to sleep, he repeated her words to himself. He was Zuko. He was the crown prince, son of Fire Lord Ozai and Ursa. He was a firebender. He was a fighter, and he would never give up.
Even if the palace itself hated him. With any luck, it loved Azula. It probably left pleasant fragrances in her room and made sure doors were unlocked for her.
Zuko trained himself not to look too hard at reflections. He ignored the whispers. He didn't sleep well most of the time, but sometimes if he fell asleep fast enough it would work out, or he could doze between when lessons ended and when he was expected for dinner.
The only good thing about his banishment was that the ship was quiet and the candles didn't go out, and once the pain of the wound on his face had faded to a dull ache, he slept more soundly than he had since Mom had disappeared.
Even now that he was Fire Lord, the odd shadows and the vague whispers haunted the palace.
His ability to ignore the strange happenings in the palace had been dulled by his time away, and the brief time he had returned before, heavy with a conflicted heart, hadn't been enough to sharpen it again.
A week into his reign, he was working late with Sokka on some plans for the near future, and everything went smoothly up until the door – which had sat propped slightly open to allow airflow for hours now – suddenly slammed itself shut. They both jumped; Sokka bumped the inkstone they were using, causing ink to spill over the edges and onto the table, while Zuko nearly caught a sleeve in a candle that had suddenly flared up.
Sokka grumbled at the mess and grabbed some of the crumpled papers lying around – the plans that had been rather obviously terrible – and shoved them at the ink, then went to go prop the door open again. While Zuko pulled the now ink-soaked scrap papers into a wastebasket, he absently tracked Sokka's progress across the room in an antique bronze mirror on the wall.
When a third figure he hadn't seen before peeled itself away from the wall next to Sokka and started to slide across the room, he dropped the wastebasket. A muffled curse came from the door as Sokka jumped and stubbed his toe or something. "What gives?" he demanded.
Something in Zuko's face must have given away his unease, or maybe it was the way he was staring at the mirror, because Sokka came around and peered into the mirror as well. From the way he started to glance between the mirror and the room, it seemed he was able to see the shade as well, until with a soft sigh, the figure vanished before it had reached the other side of the room.
"What was that?"
"I don't know," Zuko said. He forced himself to look away from the mirror and picked up the last piece of paper. Thankfully, the wastebasket hadn't tipped over when he had dropped it, so he just set the ball of paper into it and shoved it to the side. "It just happens, sometimes. Since I was a kid, at least."
"I knew this place was creepy, but I didn't think it was haunted, too. I guess a place as old as this, it might pick up a few ghosts."
"I'm not sure it's ghosts," Zuko admitted. "Sometimes it feels like the building itself is watching."
"Maybe you should get Aang to look at that while he's here. Since he's the 'bridge between the worlds' and all that spirit stuff."
Zuko frowned. "He's way too busy to bother about something like this."
Sokka shook his head. "He'd be happy to help out. Maybe there's some spirits here he gets to put back in balance." He started to roll up what plans they had managed to get written down and thought out; following his lead, Zuko picked up the brushes to give them an initial rinse. "Besides, between you and me, he's kind of freaking out about the whole 'restoring normal relations and harmony between the nations' thing. He's prepared to do it, we have to do it, but it's such a huge task. I bet he'd be glad to have a distraction." He paused as he fiddled with a scroll, then broke into a grin. "Besides, if the palace really does hate you, it's gonna make our job a lot harder if it kills you in your sleep. And we'd kind of miss you."
"Thanks," Zuko said dryly, but he couldn't help but smile back.
He met Aang and Katara over breakfast the next day (Sokka having slept in, Suki meeting with her warriors, and who knew where Toph was) and explained the story to them. It felt crazy to say it all aloud in a way he never had before, but they took him seriously; Katara nodded along and Aang started to give the room around them a contemplative look as Zuko finished.
"I thought this place had a lot of negative energy," Aang said. "It feels... dark. I don't think it's a spirit, but maybe all of the feelings of war and hatred this place has gotten in the past hundred years has built up."
"Can you fix it?"
Aang gave him a bemused smile. "I think we can clear some of the negative energy out if we do a purification ritual. That should give more positive energy a chance."
Zuko had no idea what kind of purification ritual Aang meant. He had vague memories of rituals from childhood, begging the spirits to look over and protect him, and later Azula; he remembered Mom telling him about how there had been chanting outside the bedroom when she had been in labor with him and then his sister, not long before she had disappeared. He'd heard the whispers about how he was 'lucky to be born' and had wanted to know why.
"Did it hurt?" he had asked, and she had laughed and set her hand on his head.
"Your sister was very eager to be born. You took more time. After a while, everything seemed to blur. I was so tired, and yes, it hurt, but I could still hear the sages chanting outside, and I knew you were going to be safe and healthy." She pulled him into her lap, then. "And then they put you in my arms, and even though the midwife was worried that you weren't crying, I thought it was because you were just tired from fighting so long, just like me. That's what's going to make you into a strong Fire Lord some day."
He swallowed against the memory – he'd figure out where Mom had gone as soon as he could – as he listened to Aang explain his preparations. Other than those childhood ceremonies and those around funerals and coronations, he hadn't experienced any spiritual rituals himself. The Fire Nation had disdained them and focused on the might of humans during the war; now Zuko wondered if that was yet another mistake made by his forefathers.
There was a pot of purified water – he didn't know what made it purified – and incense that strongly reminded him of Uncle Iroh and his cousin, and Aang took his beaded necklace off and held it in his hands. "Where do you feel these things the most strongly?"
"The throne room." He'd always felt ill at ease there even before he'd noticed the unnatural darkness of the room, even when was there with his family, even when he was there fighting for his father's approval.
"Not surprising," said Katara as they started down the corridor towards it. "I bet a lot of evil went down there."
"Probably more than we can imagine."
There wasn't much going on in there right now – Zuko had yet to sit on the throne – but there were a couple of servants cleaning the place. They cleared them out and opened the place up as much as was possible. Without the fires, it was really dark.
Following Aang's directions, Katara went around the room, splashing the purified water here and there, while Zuko lit the cones of incense one after the other as they burned into wisps of smoke. Aang sat cross-legged in the middle of the room, not moving except to shift the beads through his hand, chanting something that Zuko didn't understand. It must have been ancient. The sound of it was strange, but also surprisingly soothing.
When Aang finally finished, Katara returned from the other side of the room. "It feels better in here already," she said brightly.
"Yeah... it does." Zuko looked around in wonder; there were no longer stubborn shadows clinging to every corner, and the air no longer pressed upon him.
"Where to next?"
They spent the rest of the day like this, moving from the war-planning rooms to the agni kai arena to the wing that held the personal corridors.
"How did your spirit stuff go?" Sokka asked as dinner, but he hardly needed to; Aang was smiling, and Zuko had set a small decorative mirror on the wall across from him just so he could look at it and only seen normal reflections. "Well, that's good. Now we don't have to worry about some ghost trying to smother Zuko in his sleep."
"It wasn't a ghost, Sokka," said Aang, his voice taking on the lecturing note that it had with Zuko earlier.
"Yeah, whatever, you fixed it."
"Thank you," Zuko said. "The palace feels so different now. Like... a place to live, and not a prison."
Aang sent him a pleased look before digging into his rice. "You might want to get rid of anything that has really bad memories attached," he said after swallowing. "But I think you'll be okay as long as you don't fill this place with fear and anger again."
He didn't think it was necessary to get rid of much of anything, but he did order the throne room to be renovated. If nothing else, it inspired too much fear when it need to project stability and confidence, and it really needed more windows. When he saw the new arrangement, he didn't think of his cold-eyed grandfather, or his angry father; he thought of how warm it looked, ready for conferences late into the night, and how brightly the many lanterns lit the room.