Zuko had expected the hoards of civilians and soldiers returning to the homeland. What he hadn’t expected was the merchants and artists that began streaming into the Capital after his coronation.
Uncle said it was because of Zuko’s encouragement of the arts—very different from Ozai—and because Fire Lords in the prime of their youth inspired grand events and new opportunities.
(Uncle would then conspicuously point at a knot of attractive courtiers that seemed to lurk around the palace, and wink, and say something about how a young bachelor such as himself should be friendlier with other young men and women. Zuko would often escape at that point in the conversation, before Uncle could beckon any of the courtiers over to talk to him.)
Homecoming was an important aspect of post-war life. Zuko understood that. What he didn’t understand was why he had to welcome every mediocre performer that entered the Capital.
When the event detail crossed his desk, Zuko scrubbed a hand through his hair, disturbing his topknot, already precariously tied with what little hair he had.
“Why do I have to see them?” Zuko said. “Why do we have to let them into the city at all?”
His advisor—Yao, a woman roughly Uncle’s age who spent the latter part of the war in the palace’s prison after trying to protect the other palace staff from the royal family’s brutal reign—clicked her tongue, and said, “With the emphasis you’re placing on cultural revival, you have to be seen not just accommodating the theatre troops, but also welcoming them.”
“But you don’t understand.” Zuko tried not to act like an inexperienced, impatient teenager—largely because that was exactly what he was—in front of any of his advisors, even Yao, but there was only so much one person could be expected to put up with. “They’re the worst. Before Sozin’s comet, they put on a play about the Avatar and the royal family, and I was portrayed as an overemotional little asshole. And then they had Azula murder me on stage.”
Yao graciously didn’t point out that Zuko was—and still could be—an overemotional little asshole.
“Was this before you were crowned, my Lord? When you were still branded as a traitor?”
“Yes,” Zuko said begrudgingly.
“So technically they were following the Fire Nation protocols at the time.” Yao shuffled through the paperwork on his desk. Zuko didn’t think his advisors were supposed to touch his desk, let alone the Fire Lord’s scrolls, but Yao frequently did. “It might be flagrant propaganda, but it was perfectly legal. And they stopped performing the Boy In the Iceberg shortly before Sozin’s comet, before Ozai’s downfall.”
Yao still smiled when she mentioned Ozai’s downfall. Normally, Zuko found that reassuring. Now, Zuko just glowered at the scrolls. His hair, slipping loose from his lopsided topknot, fell in front of his eyes.
“My lord,” Yao prompted when Zuko said nothing.
“They’re the worst,” Zuko said, tucking his hair behind one ear.
“Lord Zuko,” Yao said reprovingly.
“March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers,” Yao said.
Zuko snatched up the dreaded parchment. He signed it, and passed it on to Yao, who would pass it on to the proper event planners. She looked far too smug.
“You have been writing Uncle again, haven’t you?” Zuko said. “It shows. You’re picking up on his bad habits.”
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Yao said, and laughed when Zuko scrunched up his nose at the idea of older people—parentally inclined older people—flirting.
“Go find your wife,” Zuko said. “Maybe you can help her make lunch.”
“Because, clearly, I have nothing better to do.” Just to spite him, Yao added, “She writes your Uncle, too. He’s such a lovely man. So handsome.”
“You’re dismissed,” Zuko said, almost frantic. He wished his Uncle would stop flirting with the palace staff whenever he visited. And he wished his staff would stop telling him how delightful his Uncle was.
Yao laughed as she left, leaving Zuko to a belly full of a dread and a desk full of mostly incomplete paperwork.
The royal family had been attending theatre performances for generations; his mother in particular was known for her love of the arts, and it was no secret that Zuko had inherited his deep love of theatre from her. He was constantly receiving tickets from theatre troupes who wished to endear themselves to the young Fire Lord.
Normally, Zuko loved the excuse to escape into a fictional world for a night. Normally, he tried his best to greet the actors and directors graciously, without seeming like the awkward teenager that he was. Normally, he wasn’t gritting his teeth before he had even arrived.
“You look minutes away from melting the curtains down,” Yao said under her breath.
“If I melted the curtains down,” Zuko whispered back, “would we be able to leave?”
Yao gave him a disapproving stare. It was very good. She must have been taking notes from Uncle.
Zuko made himself drop his shoulders and ply his gritted teeth apart. Meet and greets didn’t last long, a handful of minutes at most, no matter how much the directors usually wanted to grovel in front of the Fire Lord.
A nervous stage-hand lead them down a back corridor cluttered with props. There was a half-open crate of costumes shoved against one wall, and Zuko was sure that the orange sleeve and long-slitted skirt poking out of the crate was from Boy in the Iceberg. Zuko kept his eyes forward and pretended he hadn’t seen.
They were directed to a large area backstage, directly behind the curtains. Stage-hands were running around, putting up last minute scenery.
The director fell to his knees when Zuko swept around a paper-mâché tree and came into view. A handful of actors, the troupe’s core entourage, bowed behind him.
“Fire Lord Zuko, what an honour it is to have you here! I desperately hope you enjoy our performance. We have poured our soul into this work.”
“You may rise,” Zuko said.
The director bounced to his feet. His smile looked as though it had been stitched permanently onto his face. His forehead shone with sweat.
“I heard that A Mid-Summer Day’s Passion was a favourite of yours,” he continued. Unfortunately, the director was right. Zuko wasn’t looking forward to watching the Ember Island Players butcher a play he actually liked. “We’ve replaced the Blue Spirit, of course, as an act of respect for the Fire Nation. And we’ve—”
“Respect?” Zuko echoed, and the director fell silent.
They didn’t know that he was the Blue Spirit. Zuko hadn’t advertised that fact. Many of his countrymen already thought he was a traitor; they didn’t need added incentive to turn away from him.
Still, though, this man’s grovelling brought back memories of the Boy in the Iceberg. He could get on his knees, and talk about honouring Zuko all he liked, but it didn’t erase the fact that the Ember Island Players had trivialised—had actively mocked—his struggles. His friends’ struggles.
The director had Zuko murdered on-stage to the rapturous applause of the audience, and now he was trying to smile sweetly at Zuko, and welcome him onto his set, as if there weren’t exaggerated versions of his friend’s outfits tucked away backstage, as if he hadn’t orchestrated Aang’s death at the hands of his father—
“My Lord?” the director asked, smile twitching.
Yao stood on Zuko’s foot. The gesture was hidden beneath the long folds of their robes, and he bit on his tongue to hide the grimace of pain.
“I’ve enjoyed this play since I was young, yes,” Zuko continued as if nothing was amiss. “I’ve been a fan of the arts my whole life.”
The director’s plastered-on smile grew wider, and he began to sing Zuko’s praises. Zuko tuned him out to the best of his ability. As the Fire Lord, he didn’t have to smile pleasantly—thank Agni—but he did have to seem calm and in control at all times. Two things Zuko hardly ever felt.
He worked on maintaining a flat expression, and then made the mistake of looking over the director’s shoulder at the actors behind him. There, beside the woman who had played Ty Lee, was Uncle’s counterpart. He looked nothing like the real thing—too short and too round in the face, hair white rather than grey—but the sight of him was like a punch to the stomach.
Zuko remembered his counterpart flipping his long hair and striding over to his Uncle; his counterpart shoving Uncle square in the chest and ignoring the hurt little noise that Uncle made as he toppled over; his counterpart marching off by Azula’s side; the Earth Kingdom flag falling on top of Uncle, blanketing his lonely, fallen form.
The actors shuffle awkwardly under his gaze. He wonders if they’re picturing Zuko’s counterpart going up in flames, too, or the crowds boisterous celebration at the death of their young prince.
Yao presses her fingers into his side, right beneath his ribs, and Zuko bites down a yelp and wrenches his gaze away from Uncle’s counterpart.
Uncle—his real Uncle, the man that received him with open arms when Zuko returned to him—was back in Ba Sing Se, enjoying the post-war peace. He sent regular letters. He was coming to visit during the Harvest festival in a month’s time. And he had heard about the Ember Island Players’s performance from Sokka and thought it was hilarious.
Uncle wasn’t mad. There was no reason that Zuko had to be, either.
There were good parts of the play, he reasoned. He still burst out laughing if he thought about the bald woman who played Aaang cartwheeling across the stage in a fake air bending move and accidentally kicking the fake Katara in the nose, or the fake Toph screaming to echolocate, or the sheer brilliance that was the phrase Avatar State, yip yip! A Fire Lord was not supposed to giggle uncontrollably in the middle of meetings with the Head of Agriculture, but Zuko couldn’t help it sometimes.
The director had come to a stop, and silence hung in the air. Murmurs drifted through the curtain. The audience had begun to feel the amphitheatre. The performance was due to start soon.
Zuko blew out a breath, and unknotted his fingers from where they were stuffed inside his long sleeves, gripping at his wrists hard enough to leave marks. He managed a smile for the director. Some of his advisors had tried to imply that Fire Lords didn’t smile kindly at their citizens—according to them, Fire Lords didn’t do a lot of things—but Zuko ignored their advice easily.
“I’m sure the performance will go smoothly,” Zuko said, “and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it much more than I enjoyed your last one.”
The director stared at him. “My Lord?”
Zuko shook out his sleeves. Behind the director, dwarfed by the burly form of Toph, was Katara and Sokka. At the sight of them, his smile grew.
Tear-bending, he thought, and had to pretend to muffle a cough to disguise his sudden laugh.
“Do me a favour and resist the urge to reboot Boy in the Iceberg. Or make a sequel. Or even print any more posters.” Zuko thought for a moment, before he gestured at his hair, fixed into a topknot with a dozen clips keeping the short strands in place, and conceded, “Those digs about my hair were almost justified, but I am working on fixing it.”
He nodded at the director, the actors, and then turned on his heel and strode out of the backstage area, not waiting to be led away by a stage-hand. The director choked, and the actors broke out into muffled conversation. Zuko dodged around a stage-hand carrying a very familiar mask that was bright red when it should have been blue—dear Agni, this play was going to be so awful—and made his way up to his private box.
“Do you think if we slipped out now, people would notice?” Zuko asked.
Yao shot him a look. “You’re the Fire Lord. Yes, people will notice if you are or are not here.”
She scrutinised him as they took his seats. Zuko pretended to look busy by readjusting his long sleeves so he wouldn’t have to meet her gaze.
“For a moment, I thought you were going to have him banished,” Yao finally said. “I think the director thought that, too.”
Zuko blinked at her. “I wouldn’t banish someone for something like that. I … I don’t think I would banish anyone at all. I couldn't.”
“You’re a good man, my Lord,” Yao said. She smiled, and gave him a deep nod, the only way she could bow while seated. Zuko was glad the lights were beginning to dim, so no one could see the happy flush to his cheeks at the approval of an adult he respected. Her warm regard made the thought of sitting through the next hour and a half somewhat bearable.