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“Prince Zuko?”

He flinched involuntarily. Every time someone came here and spoke his name, he always ended up with bruises and an extra scar or two.

Because the only one who did was his father.

The people who brought food said nothing. He was safe enough with them. The guards were silent, too. He saw their looks of pity though. The ones of the servers as well. They didn’t want him in here any more than he did. They couldn’t do anything about it, but the thought gave him slight comfort.

But when someone spoke his name…

He shivered at the thought.

“My prince?”

He let out a shaky breath and opened his eyes. His eyes, which had completely adjusted to the darkness after all these years, immediately squeezed shut again when he realized that there was a light in the room. A torch being carried in one of the guard’s hands.

Through his eyelids, he saw the torchlight decrease a bit. After another moment, he eased open his eyes once more.

His gaze landed on the guard with the torch first and then moved to the Fire Sage beside him. He furrowed his eyebrows. He didn’t think anyone knew he was down here but his father, his sister, and the servers and guards. Definitely not a Fire Sage .

“Can you hear me?”

Zuko swallowed. His mouth was dry. His throat was dry. They were always dry.

The water was never enough.

He nodded slowly.

“All right, that’s good, that’s good,” the Fire Sage breathed out. “Do you know why I’m here?”

Zuko thought for a moment. The only thing he could think of was-

My father?

His voice was so quiet that if the room wasn’t completely silent no one would have been able to hear it. It was weak and hoarse from disuse, and the never-ending cold that he stayed in probably didn’t help matters either.

The guard visibly winced at his voice, and the Fire Sage pursed his lips. “Yes, something did happen to him.”

Zuko raised an eyebrow as if to ask What?

The Fire Sage looked away for a moment before speaking again. “Your father… He was defeated by the Avatar. During Sozin’s Comet. Your sister was beaten down and eventually captured, but she was never officially crowned Fire Lord anyway and, well, your father never officially revoked your claim, so…” The Fire Sage looked like he didn’t really know what to say. He took a deep breath and turned to Zuko, looking the teenager in the eyes. “Prince Zuko, you are to be crowned Fire Lord this afternoon.”

Zuko’s eyes widened and he audibly gasped, even if it hurt his throat to breathe in so much cold air without attempting to heat it a bit in his mouth first. Fire Lord?

The Fire Sage sighed before turning to the guard and nodding.

The guard looked so relieved to open his cell that Zuko might have thought there was something wrong with her.

Another guard, one of the four assigned to watch Zuko throughout the day, opened the door for them. Zuko struggled to stand. He hadn’t stood in probably months. Maybe closer to a year. He had barely passed getting to his knees before he collapsed in a heap on the floor.

The two guards rushed forward toward him. They hovered at his side and after a moment Zuko swallowed his pride and nodded to the female one who had unlocked his cell. She gave him a tight-lipped smile before nodding to the other guard. She moved behind him and lifted him by the arms while the other guard lifted him by the legs. 

One of the two food servers was waiting outside with a wheelchair in front of her. She was wringing her hands together and looked about ready to cry when Zuko emerged from the doorway in the two guards’ arms and was lowered into the waiting chair.

He wondered why these people seemed so happy to see him. They saw him all the time.

Whatever. 

The Fire Sage walked by his side. The server girl pushed the wheelchair and the guards flanked her on either side. What a menacing group they must be. A Fire Sage. A servant. Two guards. And a crippled prince who was about to become the ruler of a broken nation.

They reached a flight of stairs and the server girl moved aside so that one guard could lift the wheelchair from the front and the other could lift from the back. They moved slowly up the stairs, and Zuko admired every crack in the stone, every flicker of a torch they passed. He savored it. It’d been so long since he’d seen anything but the same dark, cold stones. As they passed another torch, he ended faced a bit closer to it, and, Agni, was it warm .

He had forgotten what warmth felt like. True warmth. Not searing heat or the warmth you got when you were so numb it burned. Just… warmth

Finally, they came to a door. The server girl slipped past them and opened the door, moving through it and holding it open. Zuko’s wheelchair was placed on normal ground again and the girl moved to push it once more. They moved through a final hallway before the Fire Sage opened a final door and-

They were in the palace.

Zuko hadn’t known, for the however-many years he had been down there, that he was being kept right under the palace . They just… popped right out of a random door in the wall into the palace. His home . As if it were nothing . They turned and Zuko was slowly wheeled through the corridors.

After years of stone walls and cold, biting air, there was suddenly the warmth that came from being at the heart of the Fire Nation. The royal palace, with its red decor and deep golden accents. Zuko felt tears welling up in his eyes, and his arms were too weak to wipe at them.

The curtains were all drawn. He wondered what that was for. The Fire Sage must have seen him furrow his eyes at the first of the covered windows they passed because he glanced at Zuko and said, “The servants heard you were coming out today. They made sure to cover all the windows in the palace that you might pass by on your way to your bedroom. So as to not overwhelm you with the light and fresh air of the outside world yet, I presume.”

The server girl gave a nod of confirmation.

They turned a final time and Zuko was greeted by a large door. He stared up at it as one of the guards moved to open it. This was… the door to his bedroom. A room he hadn’t been in in years. Just… here .

The guard opened it and the server girl wheeled him inside.

She bowed to the Fire Sage, the two guards, and then very low to Zuko before turning on her heel and leaving the room, closing the door behind her.

“Someone will be down soon to get you ready,” the Fire Sage said. Zuko nodded absently. He turned a bit and noticed the curtains drawn in front of the balcony of his room.

He spoke without realizing it at first. “I want to go outside.”

The three others jumped at his sudden words. “What?”

“I want to go outside.”

The guards exchanged glances before the Fire Sage sighed and nodded. “Very well.” He turned to the guards. The female one grasped the handles of Zuko’s wheelchair. The Fire Sage walked along beside him as the male guard moved over to the curtains. As they reached them, the man, his face solemn, pulled the curtains back.

Zuko winced at the light. It was so bright that it hurt .

“Was the sun always that bright?” He asked. The guards stifled laughter as the Fire Sage cracked a smile and nodded.

“Yes, my prince, it was.”

Zuko hummed. He hated how hoarse his voice still sounded. Hopefully, that would go away soon.

He let the warmth of the sun wash over him for the first time in years. He always knew when it was day or night in the cell. He could tell. Perks of being a firebender. But he never saw the sun.

For the first time ever, he was grateful for the thin rags he was forced to wear. It was a rough fabric that ground into his skin and it was thin, and there were no sleeves at all, so he was always cold. Always cold . Now, though, the thinness of the fabric and the lack of sleeves gave him so much more area to absorb the sun’s rays. 

Zuko was crying again.

“My prince! Are you all right?”

Zuko nodded and waved the Fire Sage off. “Fine,” he said, and the voice was still scratchy. He expected it would be for a long time. “Just… missed this.”

The Fire Sage nodded and backed down.

Zuko could have sat there for hours, but then there was a knock at the door. He nodded to the male guard who called for whoever it was to come in. A woman strolled in followed by two men carrying what looked to be very expensive clothes.

“My prince,” the woman said, bowing low to him when he was wheeled back inside. The men followed her lead. When she emerged from the bow, she finally seemed to get a good look at him as her eyes widened. She opened her mouth to speak but seemed to think better of it. She turned to the men and flicked her hand to the side. They set the clothing down.

She turned back to Zuko. “I am here to help prepare you for your coronation this afternoon.”

Zuko nodded. After a moment, he asked, “What’s your name?”

She blinked. “My… My name?”

“Yes, your name.”

The woman looked completely taken aback, and Zuko didn’t blame her.

In the Before (before the burn, that is), Zuko had been the only member of the royal family to be even slightly kind to those who worked in the palace. His mother had grown up out of the palace, with the common people, and had taught her to treat others equally. She had spent so much time with her son that he had grown up with many of the same ideals. They were roughened in the years between her banishment and his burning, but it was still there nonetheless.

Plus, the guards and servers were the only ones who showed any sort of kindness to him. He barely got any food, but on the days he was fed, he never failed to notice the small bit of extra rice or piece of fresh komodo chicken that somehow managed to sneak into the prison food he was being fed. He never failed to notice the guards outside trying to discreetly heat the food before the server girl brought it in. They never spoke, probably weren’t permitted to, but their gestures of kindness didn’t go unnoticed.

His years of imprisonment hadn’t been kind. In any way. But those few gestures made it just a bit more bearable.

He had softened, that was for sure. He lived in conditions on par with some of the worst peasants in the Fire Nation, or even the whole world, and he had gained a newfound respect for all of those lower in status than he who had to find a way to survive in the world. At least he was fed sometimes . Those people always went hungry.

Either way, he had come to understand that they were all human. Even the nations that separated them were just boundaries. They were all human, at the core of it all, and that had never been more prominent in his mind than now, as this woman stood before him, shocked to her core that he would ask her name.

After a moment, the woman seemed to find her voice. “Pim,” she said. Zuko nodded.

He looked over his shoulders at the guards. “And you?”

The guards looked just as shocked as the woman, if not more. They had stood by during his torture for years (not that they had a choice, he thought), and now he was asking their names as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

The female guard recovered first. “Ming, my prince,” she said.

“Lee,” said the other guard a moment later.

“Nice to officially meet you,” Zuko said. “I’m Zuko. Guess you already knew that, though…”

There was silence, and he wondered if he had said something wrong. Then, one of the men who had been carrying the clothes and had followed the woman in said nervously, “My name’s also Lee.”

All eyes turned to him, and he seemed like he wanted to sink back into himself. Zuko realized, suddenly, that this man was not a man. In fact, he looked younger than Zuko himself.

“Nice to meet you, Lee.”

Lee nodded.

The other man, who actually looked like a man , said, “My name’s Shu.”

“And it’s nice to meet you, Shu.”

Shu nodded.

Zuko whirled around to the Fire Sage. “And…you? What’s your name?”

“Shyu,” the Fire Sage responded. “I am the only one to survive an encounter with the Avatar at Avatar Roku’s temple because I defied Admiral Zhou and your father to assist the Avatar in speaking to his past life.” He paused. “I am… sorry if you are upset by this…”

Zuko observed the man for a moment. “You… helped the Avatar and defied my father?”

Shyu nodded slowly.

“Then you’re all right in my books.”

Zuko had never seen a man look so relieved and so confused all at once.

Pim turned to the two who had carried the clothes in and said, “Lee, Shu, you may leave. Thank you for helping me.” The two gave her a bow, then gave a lower one to Zuko, before turning and leaving the room.

“My prince, is it all right if we begin dressing you?”

Zuko swallowed and nodded. His throat was still dry.

As Pim turned to the clothing that had been set on the table, Zuko turned to one of the guards, Lee, and asked, “Do you think you could find me some water? My throat is unbearably dry”
Lee’s eyes widened beneath his helmet and he nodded. He disappeared from the room a moment later.

It had been a long time since there had been people willing to do anything that he asked, let alone full-on bow to his every whim.

When Lee returned with the water, he was sat down on the chair again and given the cup. His hands shook so much with it clutched in them that Ming ended up gently taking it from him and holding it to his lips herself.

Zuko took a small sip. Then another, then a full gulp, and soon enough the cup was gone. A small bit dribbled down his chin. He wiped it with the back of his hand unconsciously. He glanced up and saw Ming with a napkin in her hand, half raised toward his face to wipe it for him. He blinked as he realized this.

Huh.

He smacked his lips. The water had gone right into his stomach. His mouth was still dry. His throat was still dry.

“Can I have more?”

At that moment, as if on cue, the door opened and a servant walked in. In fact, it was the same server girl who had pushed him in the wheelchair before. She held a large jug of water with a ladle inside of it. She walked over to them and took the cup from Ming’s grasp. Lee took the jug from her and she ladled some more water into the cup before holding it to Zuko’s lips again.

He downed three more cups before deciding to let it rest to not drink so much that he throws it all back up.

He didn’t want that. When he had been imprisoned, he often threw up his food. That was when he appreciated the extra rice or chicken or something that was snuck in because he was barely ever able to keep down the first bit of food. There would be such large gaps between the time she was given food that his stomach would refuse to hold it at first. Then, he’d have the extra food to eat afterward to have something in his body.

When he would fall asleep, finally, he’d wake up an hour later (he barely got any sleep, of course) to find his cell cleaned.

Those were times that almost made him smile.

Almost .

He turned to the server girl as she took the jug, placed the ladle inside, grabbed the cup, and moved to place it all on a table. He asked her name, and she nearly dropped the jug in surprise before responding, “Keeli.”

The process of getting the robes for the coronation on was unbearably arduous. He still couldn’t stand on his own (Shyu suspected it would take weeks of therapy for him to be able to walk on his own), so it was basically two hours of being lifted by Ming and Lee while Pim dressed him with the help of Shyu.

Zuko refused to look down at his body as they changed him, staring straight ahead at a painting of a beach that hung on the wall. He had never noticed that when he had slept here for thirteen years. How?

He might not have looked at his chest or his arms or his legs, but the others in the room certainly did. Keeli constantly had tears in her eyes. Pim’s lips were tightly pressed shut, wobbling ever so slightly. Ming had to look away every so often, and Zuko tried to ignore the sniffles that came from her when she did. Lee’s eyes either were on his body or the ground. Mostly the latter. Shyu held his hands behind his back, standing ramrod straight, but Zuko didn’t fail to notice the way the man trembled ever so slightly once in a while.

With the way they were all acting, Zuko didn’t know if he wanted to see what he looked like.

So he didn’t.

As Pim adjusted a gold band near the shoulder, he asked the room, still staring at the painting, “How long was I imprisoned?”

There was silence.

Then, Pim turned to Keeli and said quietly, “There’s a calendar. In my… In my bag.”

Keeli nodded and grabbed the bag from the floor near the table. She shuffled through it before pulling out a scroll. She unrolled it and handed it to Ming. When the guard raised an eyebrow, Keeli’s face went red and she muttered, “ I can’t read .”

Zuko frowned. He’d have to change that.

After a long moment of quiet, Ming said, “My prince… I know how long you were… locked up…”

Zuko’s mouth was dry again.

“How long?”

A pause. Then-

“A few months over three years, my prince.”

Zuko felt something roll over him. Over three years? He would be sixteen, almost seventeen then. In fact, he was probably unrecognizable.

Even if you ignored the dozens of scars he surely had.

Plus the one he knew was on his face. His eyesight was bad in that one, and he could see the scarred red skin around it. He knew it was there. 

Zuko’s hair was choppy. It was messy, and it reached about his neck. It was never brushed. His hair had been shaved when he had been imprisoned and had grown out since then. It would get longer, of course, but over the years he was imprisoned, sometimes he would wake up to find it shorter as if someone had cut it when he was sleeping.

Zuko’s throat hurt every time he took in a breath. He wasn’t used to this warm air. Well, honestly, he wasn’t used to any air above freezing.

It was a wonder he wasn’t dead, honestly.

It also hurt to talk. It burned , honestly. Every word felt like running a knife along the inside of his neck. He would try to reduce the amount of talking he did, but he wondered how much he would be able to limit it when he was the ruler of a nation despised by the world.

Fire Lord .

The idea still wasn’t really fathomable in his mind. Every since the start of the After (after being imprisoned, that is), he had banished all ideas of anything but cold stone walls, deafening silence, and hot pain. He lived in that cell, and he expected that, when his father finally grew tired of him, he would die in that cell.

Forgotten to the world.

Fire Lord Ozai’s failure son, who rebelled against his father, and paid the price. A boy lost to history.

Would anyone even know his name?

But now…

Now he was going to become Fire Lord. He was going to be the one thing that had been unreachable to him. The one thing that his father had used against him was now within his grasp.

Finally, he was placed down in the wheelchair one final time.

“Would you like to look at yourself, my prince?”

Zuko nodded and Keeli moved behind him at Pim’s beckon to grab the handles of the wheelchair, pushing him toward a mirror at the other side of the room.

He realized, suddenly, that his old bedroom was larger than probably ten of his cells combined. Probably more, actually.

He blinked, and his reflection blinked back.

He was in front of the mirror, staring back at himself.

Zuko, honestly, did not recognize himself.

He had always been pale, but this was insane. He was as white as a sheet of paper, and his skin looked sickly. It was sickly, honestly.

His face was sunken. He looked like he was dying. Well, he was dying, slowly, every moment that he was in that cage.

Locked up like an animal.

His skin was pale, and the scar on his face stood out like a sore thumb.

The skin of it was mottled. He swallowed down a lump in his throat and resisted a wince. That hurt . The scarred skin was dark around the eye, lightening as it branched out, ending around his ear. He could still see the golden iris of his eye within the depths of the leathery skin.

His hair was thin and the rich color it had always had was faded. He wondered if he could ever get that color back. He hoped so. He liked it. It was his mother’s hair.

Zuko knew, somehow, that the rest of his body was as bad as what he could see here. He couldn’t stand. He had barely eaten while locked away. He was, honestly, probably nothing more than skin and bones. 

A shell of what he once was.

A broken boy, who was chipped away at for years by his father, and yet refused to yield.

He wondered if that was how the world would see him.

He was weak, but he managed to clench his fists. If they wanted to view him that way…

He would make that change…

“Thank you,” he said. He was acutely aware of how scratchy and hoarse it was again.

Pim bowed to him. “Of course, my prince.”

He was wheeled out of the room and into the corridor. They slowly brought him to one of the many baths. Once inside, his wheelchair was pushed up against one of the fountains and his head was gently coaxed backward, as his neck apparently did not want to bend that way.

Finally, Keeli was working her fingers through his hair. She was gentle, carefully undoing knots and tangles whenever they turned up, not grimacing at the dirt and blood he knew laced the strands and must be turning the water dark.

He wondered if she was the one who cut his hair every month as it grew longer.

When his head was raised from the water, a few bursts of hot air were provided by Shyu to dry it quickly. Keeli brushed through it again with a comb before Pim took over to pull it up into a royal topknot. Zuko didn’t really want to wear the traditional style, but he knew he had to for the coronation.

There was the sudden sound of bells ringing in the distance.

“What is that?” He asked.

“The coronation is ready to begin,” Shyu said, gazing in the direction the bells were coming from. “They’re going to speak for a bit, and then you’re going to go in and be crowned.”

Zuko nodded. “Who is present for this?”

“The remaining Fire Sages. Guards. Nobles. The usual. There’s a large gathering of common folk beyond the gates, though.”

Zuko thought for a moment before turning to Shyu and saying, “Open the gates to them.”

The Fire Sage blinked and he was aware of the others gaping at him, but he refused to back down. “What?”

“Open the gates. Let the common folk in.”

“But… why?”

“I am to be their Fire Lord, too,” Zuko said. “They deserve to witness me become it.”

Shyu was frozen for a moment before bowing. “Of course, my prince. I’ll go tell them right away.” And with that, he was gone.

Zuko turned to Keeli, who was now gripping his chair, her knuckles white. He could tell she was fighting not to cry, but for the first time that day, it seemed like she was fighting happy tears.

“Can you bring me to the door I need to go out of?” He asked. “I’d like to listen to what they say.”

They made their way through the palace, the only noise being distant sounds from outside and the rumble of the wheels below him against the ground.

Finally, they made it to the front doors of the palace in front of the main courtyard. Keeli positioned Zuko directly in front of them before turning to Ming. She was shaking a bit as she asked the female guard, “Could you please help me get put together?” 

As the two worked on that, because Keeli wanted to look her best when she pushed his chair out for him to be crowned, apparently, Zuko strained to listen to what was happening outside.

Two days ago, on the day of Sozin’s Comet, the Avatar Aang and his allies defeated the Fire Lord Ozai and the Princess Azula, ending the war. Now, we are here to crown a new Fire Lord. Fire Lord Ozai’s firstborn son, and official heir to the throne, the Prince Zuko!”

There was an insane amount of cheering. It sounded as if the whole capital city was out there. He thought back to when Shyu had said there was common folk gathered outside the gates, and when he had commanded they be let in. He supposed that it might be the whole of the capital city.

Let us celebrate the return of our Crown Prince, banished all those years ago! Prince Zuko!

Then, the doors slowly began to open. Keeli, whose hair was now straighter and pinned back using a band from Ming, scrambled over and grasped the handles. Zuko couldn’t see the crowd yet. Then, the doors were all the way open and Zuko was wheeled forward.

The cheering increased.

Then, he was in view of the people.

And everyone fell silent.

It was so instantaneous, they might as well have all dropped dead. 

Keeli held her head high. Her sandals against the stone as she slowly pushed him forward was the only sound in the whole courtyard.

Zuko’s golden eyes quickly scanned the crowd. They were all Fire Nation. 

No Earth Kingdom.

No Water Tribe.

No Air Nomads.

No Avatar.

Just… his people. He could see the noble at the front, barely blocked off from the excited commonfolk by a small line of guards. It mattered not, though. All eyes were on him. No one moved. All was silent.

Then, Ming and Lee moved forward from the doors as one solid unit as Keeli rolled him to a stop.

The two guards picked him up, Ming by his arms, Lee by his legs, and placed him in front of the Fire Sage. They held him up a bit more and he moved his legs so that when they set him down again, he would be on his knees, facing the people.

His people .

All was quiet as the Fire Sage moved in front of him and, slowly, placed the crown into his topknot.

Then, the man backed away, and opened his mouth, but then stopped when Zuko raised his hand.

All was quiet.

Zuko grit his teeth and moved one leg to where it was in front of him. Then, slowly, he braced himself and pulled himself to his feet.

His legs trembled, and he nearly fell backward, but he had to do it.

He had to stand.

For himself.

For his people.

For his nation .

Then, he was on his feet. His whole body shook a bit from the effort, and he wanted nothing more than to sink into the wheelchair a few feet away, but he refused to yield. He looked out at his people as the Fire Sage picked up where he had left off.

“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!”

There was a pause, then it was repeated in full. Every person there said it, screamed it, and it was so loud that Zuko was sure that it could be heard all the way in Ba Sing Se. He felt a smile appear on his lips. The first real one in over three years. A tear slipped from his one good eye.

All hail Fire Lord Zuko!

All hail Fire Lord Zuko!

All hail Fire Lord Zuko!

Chapter Text

Zuko stepped (well, was wheeled) outside of that door a prince, and steps (is wheeled) back inside a Fire Lord.

It still feels weird.

A few moments after he had been crowned and managed to get to his feet, Zuko’s legs had given out. Keeli must have noticed it just before he did, because the wheelchair was suddenly behind him, her hands around the handles. Zuko sank back into it with as much grace as he could manage (which wasn’t very much, unfortunately).

The cheers continued as Keeli slowly pulled him back into the palace, Ming and Lee flanking either side of them. Then, the doors were pushed closed, the cheers were muffled, and things were calm.

“You did wonderfully, my prince,” Keeli said. Her eyes widened and she coughed. “I apologize. You did wonderfully, my Lord .”

That was going to take some getting used to. Zuko cracked a smile. He realized, suddenly, how chapped his lips were. “Thank you.”

Keeli nodded and returned the smile with one of her own.

Shyu appeared from one of the corridors. “Your Majesty,” he greeted, bowing lowly. That was also going to take some getting used to. So many new titles .

“What else is there today?” Zuko asked. “I remember that after my father’s coronation-” His voice wobbled a bit as he spoke but he didn’t stop- “there was a ball, right?”

Shyu nodded. “Indeed, my Lord. There will be a ball tonight for the nobles to celebrate your coronation.”

Zuko nodded. 

“What of the common folk?”

Shyu’s face fell and he stayed silent. It was clear that he didn’t know.

“Er, Your Majesty, if I may?”

Zuko turned to Lee. The guard’s face turned red but when Zuko gestured to go on, he seemed to gain back a small bit of strength.

“Well, er, my Lord, during coronations, the common folk tend to throw a party of their own, out on the streets. I remember it from when your, er, father was crowned. My mother ran a booth for food and I helped her. It’s very… lively. Don’t worry about the common folk feeling left out, though. There are plenty of festivities out there that I’m sure are planned for tonight to go around,” he explained.

“We all expected for Princess Azula to be crowned Fire Lord soon, so there were ideas for the celebration in the streets already laid out. They were there, just were hurried along, I’m sure, when word got out that you would be crowned today,” Keeli said before seeming to try to sink into herself for speaking without being spoken to. “My… My Lord…”

Zuko nodded and craned his head backward to look at her. “Thank you, Keeli.”

A small smile appeared on her face and she stayed silent.

Pim took a step forward.

“Yes, Pim?”

“My Lord, there are two hours left before the commencement of the ball. I just… Well, I thought you might want to know.”

Zuko’s lips formed a tight line and he nodded. “All right.” He thought for a moment before addressing the group at large. “Could you all please accompany me back to my chambers?” He realized as soon as the words left his mouth that, if he commanded it, they would be forced to. He would rather they do it with a happy heart, though.

There were almost simultaneous waves of agreement. Then, they were walking.

They passed servants in the corridors working together to pull the curtains over the windows down, to let the light in.

The workers stopped what they were doing as the odd group passed. They’d give waves to Keeli and Pim, nods to Ming, Lee, and Shyu, and scramble to bow for Zuko before he waved them off awkwardly. That was always going to be odd. 

They finally reached Zuko’s chambers and he was pushed inside.

The door closed a moment later.

And all was silent.

Then, Pim spoke.

“Your Majesty, forgive me if this is out of line, but…” She hesitated before asking, “Where were you all these years?”

Zuko felt the ground fall out from under him. The noise drowned out, the sights fell away, and suddenly he was in that little prison cell again, under the palace, no light, no warmth, nothing , with his father standing over him. 

“You don’t even know where you are, do you, Prince Zuko?” The man asked as he paced in front of the cell. “Do you know where you’ve been for all these years?”

He couldn’t answer him, couldn’t bring himself to speak.

“Speak!” The man yelled suddenly.

He didn’t. 

He couldn’t.

There was fire in the man’s hand, then, and then there was a fresh burn on his arm. Bright red, the skin still sizzling.

He screamed .

“-Lord!”

Zuko blinked, and he was in his bedroom again. He was shaking, violently, and his hands were gripping the armrests on the wheelchair so hard that if he had been any more than skin and bones they might have broken. A few strands of hair had fallen from the topknot and stuck to the sides of his face because of the sweat.

He blinked once more, and things came into focus. Ming was off to the side trying to calm Pim, who looked like she wanted to die right then and there, tears streaming down her face. He picked up a few words she was speaking.

“- band and he- ” “ -ughter- ” “ only thr-

Lee, Keeli, and Shyu were in front of him, all watching his movements with wide eyes as if worried he was going to blow up at them at any moment.

If he was any other member of his family, he might.

But he wasn’t .

Keeli’s head turned and she took a few steps toward a table before grabbing Pim’s bag from before off the ground and sorting through it. A moment later, she pulled out a rag and let the bag drop to the ground again. 

She approached him slowly.

“My… My Lord?” She held the rag up and bit her lip.

Zuko swallowed. His throat was dry again. That was gonna take a while to fix. He nodded.

Keeli stepped forward and slowly dabbed the sweat off of his face. She carefully swept the stray hairs from his eyes, taking extra care to not touch his skin or the scar. She backed away a few steps, bowed, and turned back to put the rag away.

Zuko’s eyes moved from her to Pim and Ming, still off to the side. He took a breath and said as loudly as he could without hurting his throat too much (which wasn’t very loud, unfortunately), “Pim?”

The woman turned to him so quickly he was surprised she didn’t topple over. Her lip wobbled and her eyes stayed glued to the ground, but she said, “Yes, my Lord?”

Zuko wet his lips and thought of the right words to say before responding, “I’m not… I’m not upset with you… You… You know that, right?” He was aware that he still had a tremble to him. 

Pim’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth for a moment, shaking a bit as more tears fell down her face before she removed the hand and nodded, a wobbly smile on her lips. “Thank you, my Lord. Thank you so, so much.”

Zuko furrowed his eyebrows. He didn’t know what she had been expecting him to do, but it was apparently something pretty bad. He’d have to go back to that later.

“A bath,” he said suddenly, seeming to startle the other occupants of the room. “I… I need a bath. A proper one. Before this… ball…”

“I can… take you to the bathhouse, My Lord,” Keeli said. “And run a bath for you, if you wish.”

Zuko nodded. “That would… That would be nice.”

He realized it had been over three years since he’d had a bath. He wondered why he didn’t smell… awful. Instead, he detected a small hint of… citrus(?) on his skin. He remembered when he was being dressed, feeling quick spritzes of water on his body. He thought for a moment and realized that it must have been a citrus oil of some kind. Thank would explain it.

Pim and Shyu both bowed and exited the room before Keeli took her place at the handles of the wheelchair, Ming and Lee took their places beside her, and they began to move out of Zuko’s chambers.

The journey through the palace to the royal bathhouse was one that blended together in Zuko’s mind. He was most aware whenever they passed a servant, who would immediately stop what they were doing and bow along with saying either, “Your Majesty,” or, “My Lord.” Every time it happened, Zuko felt… something… building in his chest. He didn’t know what it was.

Then, suddenly, they were there. The royal bathhouse. He furrowed his eyebrows. It looked different than the last time he had seen it.

Ming must have noticed his look of confusion, because she said, “Your Majesty, the bathhouse had a renovation about a year ago after… an unfortunate set of circumstances.”

“... What circumstance?”

Ming looked like she was nervous to respond as she looked away. So, instead, Lee spoke up. “It was this hot day, like really hot, and the water heaters sorta forgot , I guess, so the water came in and it was already super hot, and they really overheated it, and then the, er the Fire Lord wanted an extra hot bath, and, well, you can probably see where this is going… The whole of the old bathhouse was burned and the two water heaters were put on probation. So, they had to rebuild this place. We use coals and fires for heating water, now.” In the end, Lee’s voice had a hint of amusement to it.

Zuko cracked a smile at the idea of his father getting burned in a bath .

The inside of the bathhouse was much more efficient than Zuko remembered it being. Lining the walls were a million types of soaps and fragrances, so many that he lost count on the second row. There were three doors on the opposite side, all leading into a separate room for the actual bathing, he supposed. There were couches around a pool of water in the center, the Fire Nation insignia carved into the stone. Sunlight flowed through the skylight above the pool, illuminating the water.

Keeli wheeled him into the centermost of the three rooms across the way. She stepped back to allow Ming and Lee to assist him in getting out of the coronation robes.

“My Lord, may I ask what soap you would like.”

Zuko thought for a long moment before remembering the one his mother always used.

“Orange-Lavender.”

Keeli nodded and moved from the room.

As they undressed him slowly, Zuko kept his gaze firmly off his body, like before. He did not want anyone else to see his initial reaction to how he looks.

Ming and Lee, though, can see every inch, and it is clear that it must not to be good.

In an effort to lighten the mood, apparently, Lee spoke. “My mother used to make Orange-Lavender soaps for the royal bathhouse. She did it especially when Fire Lord Azulon was still, er, around.”

Zuko’s face scrunched up as Ming pulled off yet another layer of the clothes. “You said she used to? Why’d she stop?”

“Well, er, when Fire Lord Ozai rose to the throne, he commanded that she stop making them.”

“Why?” That seemed like a random thing for his father to command.

“He said the smell was too happy .”

Zuko sat there, stunned, for a moment, before he snorted.

Ming and Lee watched him in shock. He realized that the snort was the first sort of real sound of amusement he had made in over three years.

He wondered if he’d ever be happy enough to laugh again.

“I’m sorry, but, too happy?

Lee grinned at the words and nodded frantically. “Yes, My Lord.”

Zuko shook his head, his eyes a bit wide. “My father was crazy.” Finally, the last piece of clothing was removed, and Zuko was left in his undergarments.

Ming and Lee shifted positions at that moment and picked him up off of the wheelchair. Lee placed his legs in the water and then Ming adjusted herself behind Zuko before gripping under his arms and lowering him fully into the water like he weighed almost nothing.

Well, considering how little he had eaten for the past three years, he supposed that he probably did weigh almost nothing.

As Ming and Lee moved to leave the room, they opened the door to reveal Keeli on her way back in. She slipped past the two guards and made her way around the bath before reaching a part of the wall on the other side where a socket was carved out. She opened up the container of soap she had tucked under her arm and poured a generous amount into the hole. Keeli closed the container and twisted the knob on the wall below the socket. There was a hissing sound and then a moment later small, soapy bubbles began to rise in the water. 

Keeli stayed silent and kept her eyes on the ground as she moved around the bath and toward Zuko. When she reached him, she hesitated for a brief moment before placing the other soaps next to him. 

“Thank you, Keeli,” he said quietly.

Her face turned a bit red and she nodded before bowing and leaving the room.

Zuko sighed and leaned back against the cold stone that made up the siding of the bath he was in. Pool was more appropriate. The moment his back touched the stone, he zipped away from it. He adjusted himself to make sure that he was sitting more in the warmth of the water than before.

He knew that there was no reason to act this way, but…

The cold stone on his back reminded him too much of the life of imprisonment he was leading only hours before.

The cold stone on his back reminded him too much of a life that wasn’t his anymore but had been. 

The cold stone on his back reminded him too much of moments when he was in that cell and felt the same searing cold against his skin as he was thrown against the wall.

“Stand up, Prince Zuko. Stand and fight. Prove to me that I was wrong, and maybe I’ll let you go…”

Zuko got to his feet shakily a week into his imprisonment. The thirteen-year-old child could see every detail of his father’s face in the light of the shirt burning a few feet away in the corner. The moment his father had walked in for his first ‘visit’ to his imprisoned son, he had sent a jet of fire Zuko’s way, catching the young boy’s shirt immediately. He had quickly taken off the fabric and thrown it in the corner to burn.

Zuko shook his head.

“Father, I can’t fight you!”

Ozai scowled and Zuko tried to stop his gaze from flickering to the small flame growing in his father’s palm.

“You are still weak , then?”

Zuko grit his teeth. He was not weak. He would prove that, he would prove to his father that he was strong , and he would get out of here, find the Avatar, and free the world of the wrath of the Fire Nation.

“No! I’m stronger than you will ever be!”

That had been the wrong thing to say .

Zuko gasped out of the memory. His breath was gone again. Why couldn’t he get any air into his lungs? Why couldn’t he breathe? Why couldn’t he fight back? Why couldn’t he escape? Why couldn’t he prove that he wasn’t weak? Why couldn’t he breathe?

There was a knock at the door that shook Zuko right out of his thoughts.

“Your Majesty? Are you all right in there?”

Zuko swallowed, took a deep breath, and called back, “Yes.” He winced. Okay, he understood, no more talking loudly, got it, thanks, body.

Zuko’s gaze turned back downward. Through the water, he could see the skin of his chest and legs and arms. 

It was all so dirty .

His body was just covered in grime and dirt and blood . He really was nothing but skin and bones, to the point where he could literally count every one of his ribs without missing one.

He pressed his lips in a thin line and forced himself to not think about how it got that way. He was not about to have another flashback in this bath.

Zuko turned and saw the small scrubber that Keeli had set next to the soaps. He mentally thanked the girl (who was actually older than him, but details, details) and took the scrubbed in his hands. 

Zuko lifted one leg above the water and slowly began to scrub at the knee.

It was painful work, and about two seconds in he had to stop to keep from crying out. His body was just covered in cuts that never healed right, breaks that never healed right, things that got infected, untreated burns, scars , and none of it was fun to scrub. He tried again before shakily setting the scrubber down and going at it with his hands again.

He moved down his leg, almost crying out again when he rubbed at his ankle. He supposed that was an injury that hadn’t healed right either.

Now that the adrenalin high of the coronation was gone, Zuko could feel every little bit of pain his body had to offer. And it had a lot of it.

Two of his fingers didn’t really bend right. Half of his joints ached. He wondered if whatever healer he saw would even be able to help him.

Finally, though, every speck of dirt and blood was gone. Erased from his body, being replaced with the blue-purple-black-green mottled skin of bruises that were still healing, the indents in his body from the literal hundreds of scars he had, the red marks of burn scars. 

The blood and dirt were banished from his skin only to be replaced with something that many would consider to be much worse.

Zuko took one look at the first scar his eyes landed on when he was fully cleaned, a red one on his chest, and he refused to look anymore. Maybe tonight, when he was fully alone, but not now.

Not now.

Zuko breathed in. The room smelled of Orange-Lavender now. The smell reminded him of his mother.

He cleared his throat and prepared for the pain that would come when he spoke. “I’m done!” There it was. A searing stab in his throat that faded to a pulsing ache a moment later.

Keeli appeared in the doorway first. She bowed before Ming and Lee entered, doing the same. Keeli had a towel draped over an arm and when Ming and Lee lifted him out of the water, she quickly dried him down before wrapping him in a robe she got from… somewhere. He was placed in the wheelchair a moment later.

Keeli turned the wheelchair around and pushed him out of the room.

The next hour-and-a-half went by in a flash. One moment Zuko was being pushed back to his room, the next he was fully dressed and being pushed to the ballroom.

Apparently, many nobles had offered up their own handmaidens and servants and some even their own children to just push Zuko around in a wheelchair all night . Pim had supposed, as she dressed him, that it was their way of trying to get into the new Fire Lord’s good graces.

Zuko had immediately turned to Keeli and half-asked half-told her that she was to continue doing her job of wheeling him through life. Because where had those nobles been when he was starving in a cell beneath the palace . Yeah, that’s right, living it up in their little rich lives while he starved . He trusted Keeli more than he trusted any of those people, and he had only known her name for a few hours. But she had given him extra food, against direct orders, he was sure, just to make sure that he wasn’t as hungry as he might have been. She hadn’t been one of the nobles, who stood by and watched as his face (and whole world) burned by his father’s hand. She was a simple servant girl who was kind enough and brave enough to give a starving boy extra food. And that meant something to him.

And so Keeli wheeled him into the ballroom. As soon as the words had left Zuko’s mouth, Pim had sent Ming off to get new robes for the servant girl. Pim had put Zuko’s hair in the traditional topknot once more, slipped his crown in, and then turned to do Keeli’s hair. Keeli had twirled once in the robes she was given, laughing as she exclaimed, “I feel so fancy! ” Pim had pulled her hair back into an elaborate but simple-looking braid before sending them on their way.

As they approached the ballroom doors, flanked once more by Ming and Lee, the two guards standing there slid attention. Zuko nodded to them and they opened the doors wide.

There was a blow of a horn and the room fell silent.

Zuko was wheeled forward and was very much aware of the many eyes on him.

Your Fire Lord Zuko!

The nobles all bowed as if they had practiced this (they had, he thought), starting with the ones closest to him and branching out to the edges of the room.

Zuko turned to the man who had announced him, who looked very shocked to suddenly be caught in the Fire Lord’s gaze, and said quietly, “Rise.”

The man nodded. Zuko could see his throat bob before he opened his mouth and called to the room, “ Rise!

The nobles rose from their bows and made a path for him through the room. 

Zuko decided he didn’t like this ball.

Keeli turned him around at the other end of the ballroom. Ming and Lee moved and, as gracefully as possible, lifted his wheelchair up and onto the raised platform where the throne normally sat. 

Then, the music started up again.

It was slow, traditional music. The kind that made the room feel more muffled than it already was. The kind of music that reminded Zuko of those times in the Before, when he’d be forced to go to a random ball and nobles would be pushing their daughters at him as he tried to sink into the wall and just disappear.

He hated this kind of music, but he knew that, unfortunately, he had to keep up appearances for these people.

“What happens now?” 

Keeli leaned down a bit to be near his ear. “Well, er, my Lord, I used to serve food at balls when I was just starting out with working here, and, well, usually the nobles will line up to talk to the Fire Lord for around one minute before bowing and walking away, and it just keeps going.”

As if on cue, Zuko looked up and saw a line of nobles forming in front of him.

A man a few feet diagonally to the left of him (and off the platform), said loudly, “ The Governor Chon, his wife Wyte, and their heiress Ateme.

Governor Chon stepped forward and dipped into a bow. His wife curtsied beside him before ushering her daughter forward to do the same.

The daughter was at least five years older than him, and Zuko did not like the way she was fluttering her eyelashes at him, seeming to pucker her lips. 

“Your Majesty,” Governor Chon said, rising from his bow. He seemed like a smarmy type of man. He had money, and he thought that made him better than everyone else. “It is an honor to be in your presence.”

His wife nodded beside him. She seemed like the fluttery sort of lady who he used to see clinging to the arms of men whenever he was forced to attend a ball when he was younger.

The daughter scared him the most, though. She was eyeing him like he was nothing more than a prize to be won, a way to snatch power. Her gaze went over him as if she was just scheming in her mind for how to best grab at him.

“Thank you,” Zuko forced out through gritted teeth. If they noticed how raspy his voice was, they didn’t react. The three in front of him bowed again and moved away.

As the next group of nobles approached, he looked out over their heads and saw a line of them going off into the room. He managed to suppress a sigh. This was going to take forever

An hour in, the drinks and food were brought out by what could only be described as an army of servants.

He realized how dry his mouth was.

“Keeli, could you get me some water?” He asked quietly

Keeli nodded and moved from his side to go off toward the drinks table.

Zuko turned to the next group of nobles with tightly pressed lips. 

After going through three more families, Zuko realized that Keeli had been gone for far too long. He had the announcer hold the next group and scanned the crowd. His eyes went to the drink table first, then traveled out from it.

Finally, he found Keeli.

And someone else .

A nobleman he hadn’t talked to yet. One of those who always seemed to have a woman hanging off of his arm. He was off to the side, along the wall that Zuko was seated by, actually. His arm was in front of Keeli, pushing her up against the wall, forbidding her from escaping. Zuko could see the goblet of water shaking in her hand, a few drops spilling over the edge and onto the floor. Her eyes were wide and she was pressed up against the wall as much as possible, trying to get away from the man as much as she could. Zuko thought back to earlier, while he was being dressed for this ball, and remembered her mentioning that she had a husband and two children.

Oh, this man was in for it .

“Ming, Lee, get me off of this platform.”

Ming looked confused. She opened her mouth to speak, but Lee, who had followed Zuko’s line of sight and had seen the same thing, held up a finger and pointed at Keeli and the nobleman (who Zuko was going to call ‘Handsy’). Ming abruptly closed her mouth and narrowed her eyes. The two of them lifted Zuko’s wheelchair off of the platform. Ming grabbed the handles and pushed Zuko much faster than was probably safe for the chair, but he couldn’t find the heart to care right now.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Handsy looked up with a scowl on his face. “Can’t you see we’re busy?”

“I’m pretty sure the lady doesn’t want any part in whatever it is you’re doing,” he said, glancing at Keeli. He gave her a look , and she managed to understand it. She nodded.

Handsy snickered, eyeing the wheelchair Zuko was in. He was somehow so oblivious that he failed to notice the crown on his head. “And you’re gonna stop me?”

Zuko pressed his lips in a firm line and nodded. 

Handsy laughed out loud. “Yeah, all right, sure. What’re you gonna do, cripple? ” Handsy took a hand off of the wall, giving Keeli the chance to escape. She moved around the nobleman and stood about a foot behind Zuko.

Handsy took a single step toward Zuko and found two swords pointed at his throat.

“What the-”

“Not a step closer,” Ming said, her voice hard. She held the sword to the man’s neck so steadily, it was like she was a statue. Lee stayed silent, but his sword was just as rock-solid.

“What are you doing!” Handsy cried, trying to take a step back. When Ming pressed her sword a bit harder to his throat, he stopped.

“You are in the presence of His Majesty, the Fire Lord Zuko,” Ming said, and Zuko watched with strange satisfaction as Handsy’s eyes widened, flicking to Zuko. “You have just insulted and threatened His Majesty, so I believe it would be in your best interest to apologize .”

Handsy nodded and, as soon as the swords backed from his throat a bit, he fell to his knees in a full bow. He was whimpering out apologies, and Zuko realized with a flash of terror that if he was his father, this man’s head could be on the chopping block.

Oh, Agni

“Rise,” Zuko said. His voice was hoarse still. He wondered when that would go away. Probably not for a long time. Handsy shot up and kept his eyes on the ground. “You are free to go, but you are never to place an unwanted hand on one of my household again, or there will be consequences.” Handsy nodded, managed out a few grateful words, and slipped away.

Keeli handed Zuko the goblet of water. It was still almost completely full. He sighed. Back to the nobles, then.

Another hour passed, and Zuko felt the sun go down. He hadn’t felt the sun since maybe two months into his imprisonment. He hadn’t even felt it this morning . But he felt it now. He felt it go down, felt night settle over the world.

As the sun left the sky, Zuko was shocked out of the stupor he had fallen into from this ball. As time went on, he kept meeting more and more nobles, and their faces all began to blend together. He started simply nodding to them after they had said their pieces. He couldn’t bring himself to speak anymore. He couldn’t think. The traditional music filled his brain and drowned everything out. The ballroom was nothing more than a mass of colors and noise.

The one thing he didn’t miss was the hungry gazes of the single noblewomen he met. He saw the way they looked at him. Just like the heiress of the first family. He was nothing more than a prize to be won in their eyes.

He hated it.

“How much longer is this ball, Keeli?”

Keeli thought for a moment before responding. “The ball lasts five hours, my Lord. It began at seven o’clock and is supposed to finish at midnight. The sun just set so… it’s almost halfway over.”

Zuko swallowed. His throat was dry again. “I need to…” His words failed him.

Keeli looked down at him. “Yes, My Lord?”

“I need to get out of here.” The surroundings were stifling now. The music drowned out everything else. Zuko shivered. The air in here was freezing . It was the middle of a Fire Nation summer, so outside was insanely hot. That made it so that the richest of the rich got the luxury of the coldest air that they could possibly provide.

The air was freezing .

It felt like the air in his cell

Keeli, I need to get out of here now .”

Keeli exchanged glances with Ming and Lee who nodded and lifted the wheelchair off the platform and onto the ground. Keeli grabbed the handles and began to turn toward a door. The announcer and some of the nobles at the front of the line looked like they wanted to protest, but when their eyes fell on Zuko’s shaking form, they wisely remained quiet.

Keeli wheeled him toward a door off to the side. Lee moved ahead of them and wrenched open the door. 

The door closed behind them, and then the noise and the music was muffled. The air was warmer here. It was better .

Keeli pushed him down the hall for a few more moments before turning.

They were on a balcony. The air was even warmer. It was a small balcony, one that he had never seen before, but just happened to be there. Out here, Zuko could hear the sounds of the festivities going on at the party in the streets.

He thought of the cold air, the suffocating manner of it, the way it reminded him of his imprisonment. He breathed in the warm air of the outside, and the shaking that had built up at the thought melted away.

“I want to go to the party?”

“Are you sure, My Lord?” Ming asked. “You’re ready to return and face the nobles again?”

“No, no,” Zuko said, shaking his head. “No, I want to go to the party in the streets.”

He could tell that, behind him, the other three were exchanging glances.

“Are you… sure?”

He nodded. He glanced down at the clothes he was in. “I’ll need to change, though.” He turned back to them. Keeli, Lee, take me to my chambers, please. Ming, could you go find Pim? Tell her I sent for her. And have her bring more casual clothes with her.” Was it ever not going to feel weird to just command people? Maybe not. Definitely not any time soon.

Ming nodded, bowed, and left the balcony. Keeli turned the wheelchair around and Lee took his place beside her and they left the balcony as well. 

The corridors were near barren as they went.

“Where… Where is everyone?”

“Well, the servers and cooks are off working on the ball, I think,” Lee said after a moment. “The guards are doing their normal rounds. Everyone else, though, is probably off at the party in the streets. You know, enjoying their free time with their families.”

Zuko nodded slowly. He wondered how often those who worked in the palace got to see their families. He knew a lot of them lived in the servant quarters, but their families didn’t. And they all had families (most of them, at least). So how often did they see them…?

Then, they were at his chambers.

Pim and Ming appeared at the end of the hallway a moment later.

Pim changed him into some casual clothes. They were comfortable, and light, and currently Zuko’s favorite outfit out of the four he had worn over the past three years (prison outfit, coronation outfit, ball outfit, and this one). A flowy red shirt and pants underneath a dark maroon and golden yellow sort of tunic, with a golden yellow band around his waist, and dark shoes.

“Pim, could you possibly make my hair more casual, too?”

Pim nodded and pulled his hair out from the royal topknot. She took a bunch of it and tied it up into its own simple topknot, letting the rest of it fall messily around his head. She slipped his crown back in and stepped away, satisfied.

Keeli wheeled him over to the mirror and he looked at his appearance before nodding. Other than the complete sickly look of his skin and the gauntness that made up his body (he really needed to get some meat on his bones), he looked almost… normal. Like he hadn’t just been freed from over three years of suffering.

“All right, let’s go.”

It had taken a bit of negotiating, but the guards had eventually let them out a side gate, as long as Ming and Lee stayed with him. Zuko may have also used a voice that he may dub his ‘royal ordering voice’ as he told them that he was going out, but who knows?

Keeli pushed him through the streets, her wavy hair simply pinned back now after she had taken it down once they left the ball.

Everything was so lively . Children ran through the streets, people chatted, fireworks went off overhead. The air was warm and thick with smells rather than just the empty cold air of the ballroom. 

For a few minutes, people paid their little group no mind. After a while, though, he could see the whispers of the people as they passed. Zuko kept his eyes forward or up, looking at the streets ahead or the stars and sparks above.

He should go stargazing tonight.

He hadn’t seen the stars in a long time.

He didn’t know if he even really remembered what they looked like.

Fire moved through the air as performers went through routines. Zuko raised a hand to his nose and smelled. Still Orange-Lavender. That stabilized him.

He sniffed in again, and the smell of spices reached his nose. 

“Keeli,” he said. “Can you go to that vendor and get me some water and the lightest thing they have?” He wasn’t stupid. He knew to go easy on his body.

Keeli nodded and slipped away. She went up to the vender and spoke to him for a moment. When the man seemed to want to argue over money, she sighed and pointed to Zuko a few yards away. Zuko gave a little wave for emphasis. The man’s eyes widened and he gave a little bow in Zuko’s direction before nodding to Keeli, handing the food and water to her without any more argument.

The water was lukewarm. The food she had gotten was spice rice. Normal rice that was so packed full of spices and flavoring that it was dyed orange, with little flecks of red in it. He remembered eating spice rice before his imprisonment. It had never been his favorite, but it was good. He took a bite.

It was the most flavorful thing he had eaten in over three years. The spices burned his tongue. He felt like he was going to burn up from the heat in his mouth. It was so good

He took two more bites and decided that he was not going to be able to stomach any more of such a spice-heavy food. He downed the water and looked to the vendor who was staring at him with clear nervousness in his eyes. Zuko nodded to the man and raised his empty cup. The man seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. He gave Zuko a smile and turned back to the next customer in line.

Zuko’s little group moved through the festival, and he knew that people knew who he was because they seemed to clear a path for him as they moved through the streets. No one approached him, but Zuko could feel eyes on him. He held his head high. He was grateful, actually, that these people weren’t like the nobles. They saw their bit of the Fire Lord and then they went on with their business. They didn’t try to stop him, or to slide in with him, or to play any sort of courtly games that the nobles played. They just… saw him.

Then, suddenly, a little girl ran up to him. He saw a woman who was probably her mother moved to the edge of the crowd go to grab her before freezing when her eyes landed on Zuko.

“Excuse me?” The little girl said. Zuko held out a bony hand to keep Ming and Lee at bay.

“Yes?” Zuko asked, trying to keep his voice as normal as possible. He didn’t need his people knowing that there was something wrong with him from the raspiness in his voice.

“Are you really Fire Lord Zuko?”

Zuko felt the edges of his lips try to perk up, and he nodded. “I am indeed.”

The girl’s eyes widened. “My mom said you were, but I didn’t think so, ‘cause earlier when I asked her if you were gonna be at the party, she said you had a fancy ball thing to go to instead.” After a moment, the girl seemed to think over her words. Then, she asked, “ Did you have a fancy ball thing to go to instead?”

Zuko nodded. “I did.”

The girl scrunched up her face. “Then why are you here?”

Zuko looked around as if checking for people watching them. Then, he looked at the girl. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Her eyes widened and she nodded frantically, her lips slightly parted in surprise.

“I did go to the ball,” he whisper-shouted. That was the least strained his voice had felt all day, actually. “But it was boring .”

Her eyes widened and she stepped back. “ Boring? But it’s a fancy ball thing! All the rick fancy people get to go! Why was it boring.”

Zuko shrugged. “All the people there just want to talk about money and marriage. It was boring. And it was cold in there. I like the warm air out here.”

“So… do you like our party more?”

Zuko couldn’t help the genuine smile that went onto his lips for the first time in three years. It was small, and it vanished after a split-second, but it was there for a tiny bit of time nonetheless. It was clear from the way they acted after it faded from his face that Keeli, Ming, and Lee had noticed it as well.

“I like your party a lot more.”

She grinned and turned to the woman in the crowd who looked like she was having a heart attack. “Did you hear that, Mama! The Fire Lord likes our party more than the fancy ball party! He said so himself! I told you we throw the best parties!” She turned back to Zuko and gave him a final beaming smile. “Thanks for coming to our party, Fire Lord Zuko! Next time, I’ll make sure it’s even more fun, so you’ll have to come again!”

Zuko nodded and watched as she gave the sloppiest (yet most adorable) bow he had ever seen before disappearing into the crowd. Her mother looked at Zuko for a long moment before he waved with his hand. She gave him a bow of her own (much less sloppy than her daughter) before moving into the crowd after her child, fading from view.

Zuko couldn’t remember ever enjoying himself this much.

Three hours later, around midnight, he reached his room. He was exhausted but had never had so much energy in his body in waking memory.

Ming and Lee helped him up while Pim got him into his nightclothes and Keeli prepared his bed. Lee lit the candles she put out and Keeli was kind enough to leave a full jug of water along with a cup for him to drink if he needed any that night. The two guards carried him to his bed and placed the wheelchair in the corner of the room. All four of them bowed to him one at a time before leaving the room, the last one of them closing the door on the way out.

Zuko sunk into the bed and felt that something was… wrong .

The bed was soft, so soft in fact that it almost hurt to lay on. He had slept on the cold stone ground of his cell with nothing but the rough fabric on his back for over three years, and now he was expected to just go to sleep in one of the softest beds in the world?

He had been laying on the cold stone ground less than twelve hours ago .

He felt his heartbeat quicken. He couldn’t do this right now .

Zuko sat up straight in bed and tried to control his breathing. And by that, he meant try to make it quiet enough that whoever might be stationed outside his door couldn’t hear it.

Zuko felt all the pillows on the bed and found the hardest one. It was one on the very bottom, firm, not too soft. It would be perfect. He tossed it onto the ground a few feet away from his bed, in the middle of an open area of the floor. He grabbed a sheet from the bottom of his bed, balled it up, and tossed it down as well. He grabbed the thinnest blanket from the bed and threw it before turning a bit and getting off the bed. The moment he tried to stand, he collapsed, thankfully falling down on top of the pile he had just created. 

Zuko fixed the messy bundle up into a makeshift bed on the floor. He crawled over to the side table where the water and candles were. He took the water jug first, then the cup, then the candles, one-by-one. He could only hold one thing at a time, and with the jug, he was stretching it. He just wasn’t strong enough to do anything, was he?

Zuko took a long drink of the water. It was cool in his throat. He moved the water and the candles a few feet away from where he was going to be sleeping.

He curled up under the blanket. His head didn’t sink into the pillow. It was comfortable, but not too comfortable. Better than a cell, any day. Maybe one day he would be ready to sleep on his bed, but that day was not today.

That day was not today.

Zuko breathed in as he closed his eyes, and caught a whiff of the candles. He realized that they were scented. He furrowed his eyebrows and breathed in again before a small smile found its way onto his face as he recognized the scent.

Orange-Lavender.

Chapter Text

Zuko fell asleep for the first time at one in the morning. Then, he promptly woke up thirty minutes later in a pool of sweat. It was so warm here. He grabbed the edge of the blanket and pulled it off. He didn’t trust his legs to be strong enough to kick it off. He hadn’t really used his legs in over a year, he was sure. He breathed in the cool air being pumped into the palace. It wasn’t as cold as in the ballroom. Far from it, actually. More like the temperature one would get from a small breeze on the summer air. He realized then that he hadn’t felt the wind in over three years. That was a strange thought. 

Sleep found him again.

 

“Father, please, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you were right, you were right, please, just let me go!”

There was silence. Then, a moment later, a voice came from above Zuko.

“You’re begging me?”

Zuko shivered, keeping his eyes on the ground before he nodded shakily.

“Yes.”

He was completely unprepared for the foot that came flying at his stomach. Zuko couldn’t resist letting out a cry as he shot back and smacked into the cold stone wall.

“Pathetic,” Ozai hissed, his footsteps echoing in the room as he slowly moved closer. “You’ve not even been here a month , Prince Zuko. This proves to me that you are just as weak as I always knew you were.”

There was a flash of light and then pain .

Zuko sat straight up and slapped a hand over his mouth before he could scream. If he screamed, his father would know . His father always knew…

Zuko’s eyes burned with tears that slipped down his face. He took deep breaths through his hand before pulling it away from his face slowly and easing his eyes open, wondering if there was any room in his cell tonight.

There wasn’t. Because he wasn’t in his cell. His eyes were used to the dark, they adjusted immediately. His gaze moved from the painting of the beach on the wall ahead of him to the candles beside him. They were completely burned out.

He could tell from the light level that it was still the middle of the night. Knowing him, he had only been asleep for an hour at most. That was how it always was.

Zuko reached for the water and got a cup, lifting it to his lips and downing it in two gulps, trying not to wince at the ache it caused in his throat.

Zuko scrubbed at the tears streaks on his face. He was shocked by how soft the fabric was on his skin. Was it silk? Probably. He wouldn’t be surprised.

He slowly got back down, his head against the pillow, and closed his eyes.

He was asleep seconds later.

 

An hour-and-a-half later, Zuko twitched in his sleep, his face contorted as he fought off the demons plaguing his mind. Coincidentally, they all had the face and the voice of his father… If he woke up, well, he had become a master of covering his screams, so no one was any the wiser.

 

Zuko had lost contact with the sun two months into his imprisonment. He hadn’t seen the light of Agni in weeks, he had been in the cold that entire time, he had gotten scarily used to his conditions, but the moment he felt the connection snap still burned bright in his mind.

Zuko sat in his cell. It had been maybe a week since he had stopped counting the days. He wasn’t sure exactly how long it had been since he had stopped. He wasn’t counting .

His father had visited the day before. That was probably why he didn’t feel like moving right now. He was scared that he would irritate whatever injury he had surely gained the day before. 

The day seemed quiet. Calm. Strangely calm. Zuko felt something inside of him, something that knew that something was going to go wrong today. He just didn’t know what it was.

Then, around mid-day, he found out what it was.

One moment, he was just sitting up against the wall, counting the cracks to pass the time, the next moment he was on the floor, writhing in pain.

The two guards were in the room in seconds. They were speaking to him in hushed tones, but he couldn’t hear them over the pain , over his own screams .

Then, one of the guards slammed a hand over his mouth to keep him quiet. This wasn’t as bad as when his father had burned him, but it was a close second. This was a searing pain across his whole body. Zuko spasmed, and the guard that wasn’t keeping him quiet held his arms down on the ground to keep him from moving around too much. He was sure that it wasn’t that difficult. He was way below weighing what any thirteen-year-old should at this point, he was sure, let alone a prince .

Zuko felt tears stream down his face as he felt something inside of him change . Something just… snapped . It just… wasn’t there anymore.

Finally, the screams faded, and the guard slowly removed his hand. Now, Zuko was just gasping, sweating, shaking. His body ached .

He realized, suddenly, what was wrong.

“What happened to the sun?” He murmured out the question. The guards exchanged glances.

Zuko let out a sob. “I can’t feel the sun!” He cried. “I can’t feel it, it’s gone, I can’t feel it, I can’t feel it-”

For the first time since he had come down here, Zuko didn’t know that night if he went to sleep before or after the sun had gone down.

He didn’t stop sobbing before he fell asleep that night.

Zuko didn’t feel the sun as it came up that day. He had felt it go down the night before, but he had been awake. He had been aware . He didn’t wake with the sun that morning. Maybe one day, he would.

But not today...

Not today...

 

Zuko woke up to a knocking on his door. He wondered why he was so warm . The cell was never this warm, unless his father was there, with fire in his hands, malice in his eyes, and a grin on his face. The thought made his body go cold and shaky. He squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t do this right now, please , father, please, just let me rest, I’m so tired , father-

Your Majesty? Are you awake?

There was a muffled voice through the door. Zuko’s eyes shot open, and he saw a ceiling that wasn’t just stone. Where was he? Was he dead? Had his father finally killed him, finally ended it? Was he finally free of that life he had been leading (if you could even call it a life )?

He squeezed his eyes shut as he sat up before opening again and looking around. There were the burned-out candles next to him and the half-gone water jug, and there was the blanket over his legs. When had he pulled that back on? He couldn’t remember.

He realized, suddenly, that there was someone waiting for a reply on the other side of the door.

“Yes,” Zuko responded, and he winced at the pain it caused him. He would give anything to get the pain that came whenever he spoke to go away.

The door opened and revealed two people that Zuko didn’t recognize. He could see the flash of confusion in their eyes before they converged down on him.

Their hands were grabbing at him, and they weren’t gentle enough, and he could feel the pain of whatever injuries he had gotten in the last two months, probably, flaring up. 

“Put me down, please,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady despite the aching in his body. The servants bowed their heads and lowered him to the ground. Zuko watched as they hovered close to him, and he didn’t recognize any of them. He knew what they were here for, but he couldn’t let anyone else see his current state right now. He didn’t want them to, and for the first time in years, what he wanted mattered .

“My Lord?” One of the servants asked, waiting for instructions. They all acted like he was going to blow them off if they took even one step out of line. He supposed that, after working for his father, they had probably come to expect that. Zuko was going to have to work to show them that he wasn’t his father. He wasn’t . He didn’t want to be, and he wasn’t going to be.

“Could you… Could you please just… leave me?”

The servants all bowed. One of them seemed to think for a moment before asking, “Is there anyone you would like for us to send for, My Lord?”

Zuko thought for a moment before nodding. “Yes, please.” He fell silent before realizing they were waiting to hear who. “Erm, please send for Keeli, the, um, servant girl, as well as Ming and Lee, they’re, um, guards, and Pim, she, uh, I think she works with clothing?” He sounded like he had no idea who he was talking about, but the servant nodded, bowed again, and left the room with his companions.

Zuko realized as he was alone that there were probably multiple people with those names in those professions. Especially Lee . There were a million Lees and a million more Kuzons. Lee was even more popular in the Earth Kingdom, but it was still pretty common in the Fire Nation.

Thankfully, though, the servants seemed to know which ones he was talking about, probably from yesterday when he was being pushed around the palace.

Ming and Lee arrived first. They bowed to Zuko before moving closer and carefully lifting him off of the ground, placing him on the bed. He could have smiled at the way they knew exactly how to hold him without irritating his still-healing wounds too much. He could have. He didn’t.

Pim arrived next, clutching some clothes in her arms. She bowed as best she could with the load in her arms.

“My Lord,” she said when she rose. “I have three different outfits here. I’m not… sure of your preferences, yet, so…” She trailed off.

Zuko shrugged. “I’m not sure I really have preferences, to be honest.”

Pim seemed to try and stifle a laugh (which she managed), but the smile was still there as she set the clothes down.

As Zuko was looking over the clothes, which Pim called ‘ business-casual ’, Keeli appeared in the door. She gave a low bow before approaching, making sure to close the door behind her.

“Your Majesty,” she said.

“Good morning, Keeli,” Zuko said, nodding to her.

She sputtered for a moment before nodding her head and saying, “Good morning, My Lord.”

Zuko turned his eyes to her and realized, suddenly, how hungry he was. He was used to being hungry, of course, but now he had the ability to actually do something about it .

“Keeli, could you go get me something to eat?” He asked. He knew he could just state it, could just command it, but it felt better this way. “Something… small. And light. I don’t think... I don’t think I can handle anything more right now.”

Keeli nodded quickly, gave a bow, and left the room.

Zuko had selected the second outfit, one that looked fairly comfortable but had a professional air about it, after asking for the input of Ming and Lee (who both looked very taken-aback when he asked their opinions). Keeli appeared again about ten minutes later with a tray of food as well as a new jug of water. She laid it out for him. She really had chosen simple food. There was a very small helping of rice with two small slices of what looked like some type of fruit, as well as a few pieces of what looked to be some sort of meat.

“What kind of fruit is that?” Zuko asked, staring down at the orange slices.

“Mango, m’Lord,” Keeli responded. She must have seen his eyes turn to the meat because she pointed at that and added, “And the meat is Komodo sausage.”

Zuko hummed. He hadn’t had sausage in quite a long time. Over three years, in fact. Huh. Fancy that.

Zuko took a small bite and reveled in the flavor. There was so much of it. And the meat wasn’t dry . It was cooked perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that Zuko thought he might cry. The rice was the same thing he was fed in prison, but, Agni , if it wasn’t better than the rice he had eaten down there… It was actually moist . There was flavor, real flavor, not just something that was thrown together and could just as well have been fed to the rats.

If he didn’t cry at the sausage or the rice, well, he was damn well about to cry at the fruit. It was so sweet and so juicy and the flavor just exploded in his mouth. It was like the sweetest thing he had ever eaten, and Zuko had devoured both slices within the span of the next thirty seconds. 

Zuko wanted more, it was just so good , but he knew that Keeli had been logical in her choice of portion size. Anything more and he would probably be throwing up soon enough, and he didn’t want to empty his stomach, and he also didn’t want his throat to burn any more than it already did. 

He turned to Keeli, gave her a nod, and said, “Thank you.”

Keeli’s lips pressed into a tight line and she nodded before reaching forward and silently handing him a cup of water. Zuko accepted the cup gratefully and drank the water. He frowned as he handed it back to her. The water was good, cool and soothing, but it had washed away the lingering taste of the mango that had been left in his mouth. That was unfortunate.

Keeli left to put the tray away as Pim began to get him ready. She was much faster with it this time around, and barely slowed down when she peeled off his nightshirt to show the scars across his chest and back. Barely . Ming and Lee shifted him when Pim needed them to. Zuko wondered how fast they would be at this in a few weeks.

As Ming and Lee sat him down on the edge of his bed, Keeli reemerged in the doorway. She gave a bow and entered the room. Zuko wondered how she was able to open and close the door so quietly .

“I want to call a meeting today,” Zuko said. “With the… With the council.”

Ming nodded, bowed, and was gone a second later. She reappeared less than a minute later, bowed , and closed the door behind her. “The council is being notified, and the meeting is scheduled for about thirty minutes from now.”

Zuko nodded. “Thank you, Ming.” He saw Ming breathe out some sort of sigh, but she accepted his words of gratitude simply with another nod.

There was silence before he spoke.

“Pim.” The woman in question turned to him. “You asked me yesterday where I… where I was for the past few years.” Pim swallowed but nodded shakily. 

“Yes, my Lord, I did.” She paused before seeming to dare to ask a question when she added, “What… What of it?”

“Well,” Zuko began, shifting a bit and digging his fingers into the soft fabric of the comforter of the bed. It was so squishy . “Do you know about what happened a little over three years ago?”

Pim pressed her lips into a tight line and shook her head. “Not… particularly. I mean, most of the palace knows that you spoke out in your father’s war room, but nothing more than that. You kinda just… disappeared. Then yesterday you were suddenly back. There were theories, of course, but I don’t really think any of those were right…” She glanced at Keeli who gave the smallest of nods, her eyes trained on the ground.

Zuko took in a deep breath. “Well, I did speak out of turn, so, er, that’s correct, I guess. My… My father was very angry. He said that I had to take part in an Agni Kai to regain my honor or… something… I thought he meant I had to fight the general, so I agreed.” His throat was tight and tears were welling up in his eyes at the memory, but he pressed on. “I was a fool .”

There was complete silence. No one except for Zuko and Ozai probably knew all the details, so even if most of the people in this room had seen him in that cell, they didn’t know everything, and they were clearly very interested.

“I turned around at the Agni Kai and…” He swallowed, and it hurt. He wiped hastily at his eyes. “I turned around, but instead of the general, I saw my father .”

There were gasps all around, and though they were immediately muffled, Zuko didn’t care. Maybe one day these people would understand that they didn’t have to hide their emotions around him.

“I didn’t fight him, I… I couldn’t . He was my father . So, he… he…” Zuko’s words failed him and his eyes burned again as he gestured vaguely to the scar stretching across a third of his face. He saw out of the corner of his eye as Pim covered her mouth. Ming had an arm wrapped around Lee whose eyes were closed, and Keeli was shaking slightly but looked determined to see this story through. 

“When I woke up and realized what had happened, and was told that I was banished and had to find that Avatar to ‘regain my honor’, I just…” He balled his hands into fists in the softness of the comforter beneath him and stared down at his feet intensely. “I just couldn’t . I went up to him and I told him that I was going to find the Avatar, and then I was going to help them defeat him.” Zuko chuckled dryly and raised a hand to rub at one of the burn marks near his shoulder that he had gotten that day. He didn’t know why he was laughing. It wasn’t funny. “I was so stupid . So, so stupid…

Zuko breathed for a moment, gathering his bearings. No one dared to speak.

“I was captured and locked away in a cell. I didn’t know then, but I guess it was under the palace the whole time. My father would come down every so often to… talk. Actually, we didn’t do that much talking. I… You can probably figure out what happened instead.” He could only assume that Pim nodded because he didn’t bother looking back up. He was on a roll in this story, and if he stopped he didn’t think he could start back up again.

“I was thirteen when I went down there, and I’m past sixteen now, so I was down there for a bit over three years.” He sighed. “It… honestly didn’t feel that long. I think after a few months, all the time just blended together into one long period of just… pain. That’s the best way to describe it.” He gestured to Ming and Lee. “They were two of my guards. They alternated with two other ones that I… haven’t met yet. Officially, at least.” He waved a hand at the server girl who was the only one other than Zuko who had managed to not start full-on crying yet. “Keeli was one of the two food servers down there.” 

He remembered the day before.

“Yesterday, the Fire Sage, Shyu, came down there and told me that… that the Avatar had defeated my father and my sister, and that I was to be crowned the new Fire Lord. And, well, I guess you know what happened from there.”

There was a heavy silence over the group. Then, Pim spoke. Her voice was thick with the tears still streaming down her face.

“You were… You were thirteen?

Zuko nodded, his eyes still trained on the ground. He had said his piece. He couldn’t bring himself to speak anymore. His throat ached from the amount he had spoken during the story.

Then, suddenly, there were arms around him.

Zuko stiffened for a moment, and he almost pushed her away. Pim was being as careful as she could, but it seemed that her embrace of him had been on instinct more than anything.

She pulled herself back and her face was so red it looked like she might explode. She bowed her head and shook a bit.

“I-I’m sorry, my Lord, I wasn’t thinking, I-”

Zuko blinked. “It’s… It’s fine, Pim, I…” He felt his face burn a bit. “I kinda… liked it.”

Pim’s eyes widened.

“I just… I haven’t had a hug in… in years.”

Pim nodded. “Still, my Lord, I was out of line. I won’t do it again without express permission.”

Zuko knew that he was not going to be able to fight her on this. The staff in this palace had it ingrained in their heads that they were less. Less than the nobility, less than the royal family, less than the Fire Lord . While Zuko knew that he had a higher status than them (of course he did he’s not stupid ), that difference in status didn’t make them any less human than he was.

There was a knock on the door. All eyes turned to it and Zuko gave a small nod to Ming who called in her smooth, confident voice, “Come in.”

The man that was in the doorway bowed low and said, “Your Majesty,” before taking a step closer. “The council is gathered in the war room.”

Zuko nodded. “All right, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

As the door closed, Ming and Lee converged on him, lifting him up and off the bed as Keeli pushed the wheelchair over from the other side of the room. Zuko was placed into the wheelchair and Pim held open the door as Keeli wheeled him out. Pim gave a quick bow before turning and going down the opposite side of the corridor, disappearing around a corner a moment later.

Zuko braced himself as they moved toward the war room. The last two times he had been in there, he had spoken out in a meeting and been forced to fight an Agni Kai, and he had stood up against his father and been captured, sentenced to that prison cell. Zuko wondered where that cell had come from in the first place. Had his father always had it? What was it originally for? 

“What would you like us to do while you’re in the meeting?” Ming asked as they turned a corner.

Zuko took in a breath. The air was warmer as they passed a window. He hadn’t thought about what they would do. Normally, the war room was just for the council, the Fire Lord, and whatever royal family was permitted to be in attendance. No guards, no servants, just the higher-ups. Zuko frowned. Well, he was the Fire Lord, wasn’t he? He could, literally, do what he wanted. Thinking of that, he responded.

“I want you all in there with me,” he said.

Lee, who was flanking them on the left, literally tripped and almost fell into a sprawl on the floor. In hindsight, the guard had probably been expecting anything but that. Well, they’d all just have to learn to expect the unexpected when it came to him, he supposed.

“Are you… Are you sure , Your Majesty?” Keeli asked after a moment. 

Zuko nodded firmly. “I am.” He paused before continuing, “The men in there… They all served my father. Everything he did when it came to this war. I don’t… I don’t know exactly what he had planned for when the comet came, but I’m sure it was bad. They all were going to stand by when that man wanted to sacrifice a whole division of new recruits. Agni, that man is probably on that council . I just…” His words gave out. “I want to have people in there that I feel I know . You all are the closest thing to people that I think I can… can trust .” 

The other three were clearly very shocked by his words, but they nodded nonetheless and stayed silent.

Zuko dwelled on his last words.

Trust .

Trust was a strange thing.

Zuko didn’t trust anyone, but if he had to choose people he did , the three walking near him would definitely be on that list. As he was wheeled down the hallways, Zuko found himself wishing that he could trust people. It would be some sort of solace in this strange new situation he found himself in.

But he couldn’t.

Trust was a strange thing.

People said it was strong, but it wasn’t . It was so easily broken that it might as well be made of an already-shattered pane of glass.

Zuko had trusted his mother, and though she hadn’t expressly betrayed him (in fact, he was sure Ozai had mentioned once during a ‘visit’ that Ursa had been banished in exchange for saving Zuko’s life), she had still left him behind. She had still left . Everything had fallen apart after that.

Zuko had trusted his uncle. Uncle Iroh. When he was younger, taking vacations on Ember Island, or just hanging around the palace, he was always able to rely on Iroh. His uncle had promised that he would always be there for Zuko. Zuko had understood when Iroh went away to war, and he had understood when Iroh had returned after Lu Ten’s death. However, when Iroh had returned, he had been a shell of a man, broken, despairing over the loss of his beloved son. Then, a year later, after barely talking to Zuko at all over those months, Iroh just left . Went off to try and go on a Spirit World journey or something, and just didn’t come back. Zuko was sure that his uncle had returned at some point, but it must have been after Zuko was locked away. Either way, Iroh had promised to be there for Zuko, and then he hadn’t . Zuko understood why he wasn’t there, but it still hurt nonetheless.

And then, finally, Zuko had trusted his father . And look where that had gotten him . Burned, banished, thrown in a cell for years.

So, yeah, Zuko had decided barely a week into his imprisonment that he was done trusting people. And that was not going to stop now.

He blinked and was startled by the sight that greeted him.

The side entrance to the war room. The one used by the Fire Lord.

He had snuck in here only three years ago, and yet it felt like a lifetime. He was younger back then. Innocent . He wasn’t burned and cut and scarred and broken back then. 

My, how things changed.

“Ready, my Lord?” Keeli asked, shaking him out of his thoughts. Zuko swallowed. His throat was dry. He nodded.

The two guards at the door held open the curtains and bowed their heads as Keeli pushed him into the room, Ming and Lee just behind them.

The curtains closed and Zuko realized that the flames that the Fire Lord was meant to sit behind weren’t lit. He wasn’t going to try to light them, either.

“Bring me down to the normal floor,” he said quietly, trying to make sure that the council couldn’t hear him. “I don’t… I don’t want to be back here.” Maybe one day he would sit back there, but not until he could light the flames himself . Which might be never , he thought bitterly. 

Ming and Lee nodded and worked together to get him off the platform. Keeli followed and took her place at the handles.

“Lee, light the flames, please,” Zuko said. “We’re still gonna need some light in here.”

Lee nodded and shot a quick burst of fire at the end of the line. The flames caught and followed the train of black powder all along to the other side of the room. Zuko turned away as the flames got bigger. 

“Make sure I’m turned away from those when we stop,” he breathed out, his eyes on a dark pillar. 

“Yes, my Lord,” Keeli said.

They were moving again, and then Zuko was turned and in his wheelchair, in front of the war council. They all watched him with such scrutiny it almost hurt .

Zuko took in a deep breath and focused on the heat of the flames behind him.

He was really not going to like this meeting, was he?

Chapter Text

Zuko had, in all honesty, always thought that being Fire Lord at a war meeting would be great . He’d be in charge, and he’d have a whole council to help run the country.

He realized now that there was a fatal flaw with this system of government.

The Fire Nation had been made to where the only people who counseled the Fire Lord were the royal advisor (if there was one) and the war council. The war council. That… probably wasn’t the model of a perfect government. Because, even if there was peace, there was always the presence of war . He’d have to figure out how to fix that.

Right now, though, he just needed to figure out how to survive this meeting.

As soon as he came into view of the council, the men surrounding the table rose to their feet in unison.

Zuko resisted the urge to squirm as their eyes followed him. He saw most of the eyes staring at him widen a bit as they realized that he was not on the Fire Lord’s platform, instead being on the normal floor with the rest of them. Zuko was a bit impressed by how they were able to keep their faces complete expressionless masks. It would probably be a useful skill to learn, now that he thought about it.

Keeli positioned him directly in front of the council and Ming and Lee stood on either side of her. Zuko wondered how formidable they looked, with the fire flickering behind them, staring ahead as if these people hadn’t just been the leaders of the offending side of a worldwide war.

Zuko knew that the war had to end. When he was able to think coherently, it was one of the things that he thought about the most while imprisoned. He had realized as soon as the general said all those years ago that they should just sacrifice soldiers that the war didn’t just hurt the rest of the world, it hurt the Fire Nation too .

If the Fire Nation was so great, and was just sharing their greatness with the rest of the world, then they shouldn’t be sacrificing soldiers, let alone new recruits. If the Fire Nation was being hurt by this war, and yet they were winning , what was it like for the Earth Kingdom, for the Water Tribes? For the Air Nomad, Zuko bitterly thought, making sure not to make it plural. After all, there was only one left: the Avatar.

As he lay awake last night, Zuko’d had a revelation of some sort.

He thought about how the servants and the guards and all the common people were, well, just as human as he was. He had realized that a while into his imprisonment, when he started noticing the extra food Keeli was giving him. Last night, though, he had realized that if the common people of the Fire Nation were just as human as he was, then so were the people of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes . And their lives, all of their lives, were affected by this war. That had to end now.

So, here Zuko sat in front of the war council, in front of men who all wanted this war to continue (because of course they were winning ), ready to tell them that he was ending it.

“Sit,” he said when he broke out of his thoughts from a light tap on the back of his shoulder from Keeli. It was discreet, she had been careful of that, he was sure, but it was there.

The men all bowed their heads and slipped down into seated position. They all did it so cleanly that they nearly made no sound at all. It was actually kind of impressive, he thought.

“My Lord,” one of them said, standing up. Zuko nodded to him, swallowing to try and force down the lump in his throat as the man’s piercing brown gaze turned on him.

“You are?” 

Zuko recognized the man, of course, but he couldn’t place a name. In fact, there are very few people he could probably see and place a name to that he knew from the Before. He knew Ozai, obviously. He was sure he could recognize Azula if he saw her (not that she’d give him the chance to get it wrong). He knew Ozai , obviously. His mother was always cemented in his mind. Uncle Iroh , though… He didn’t think he even remembered what his uncle looked like in the Before. He most definitely would not be able to place it now.

“General Chung, sire,” the man, General Chung , replied, and then seemed to wait for the signal to continue.

Zuko gave a nod to him to go on.

“I speak for all of us when I say that the council is very ready to see how you rule this country. We eagerly anticipate your reign for many years.”

They had clearly chosen the best actor, the best manipulator out of all of them. But they didn’t know what he knew. He had spent over three years in a cell with only Ozai for occasional company. Ozai, who was one of the most skilled liars in the world. And even before that, he had lived with Azula , who was the best manipulator and the best actresses in the whole of the world. He would probably still not be able to tell when his sister was lying (she surely only got better with age), but, still, living with her lies for so long made everyone else’s lies look unbearably weak.

Maybe, though, he was getting too cocky. He probably wasn’t that good at telling a lie from the truth. 

Honestly, it was probably just the fact that he knew , deep down, that this man, this council , was lying

These people had supported his father and the war. Agni, they benefited from the war. They didn’t care for how it affected the common people (no matter the nation), they just cared for themselves and the glory that winning might get them.

Zuko knew better than to say any of this, though. So, instead, he chose to say, “I am grateful for all of your support.” It hurt to say those words, beyond just the normal ache that he was quickly becoming accustomed to.

Chung nodded and sat again.

“What is the current status on the war?” 

Zuko was trying to sound as professional as possible. In front of anyone else in his staff, he would try to be as human as possible. He wanted the common people to know that he was going to try and be their Fire Lord, too . However, in front of these people, he had to be more than a person . He had to represent something. He had to show that he was strong . He was quite sure (as in quite hopeful ) that these men didn’t know where he had been for the past three years, but the last that they saw him, he was on his knees, screaming as his father burned his face. He needed to show that he was stronger than that.

He wondered if his scar made him look more menacing to them.

One of the men stood up. Zuko turned his eyes to him and the man gave a small bow.

“War Minister Teru, at your service, Your Majesty.” Ah, now Zuko understood why the rest of the council had elected Chung to speak first. Teru was much more obvious about his dislike for Zuko than the man before him had been. “We suffered a defeat during Sozin’s Comet when the Phoenix King Ozai and the Crown Princess Azula were both captured by the Avatar and his associates, who also took down the air fleet, which made it so that we were not able to complete our goal of burning the Earth Kingdom to the ground.” Zuko felt his blood run cold. Burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground? That was what his father was going to do? Ozai had gloated about it over the past few weeks, occasionally, but Zuko had thought he was bluffing, just trying to get a reaction out of his son. But to hear that it was real? That was terrifying .

“Go on,” Zuko said, forcing the words out.

“Despite these setbacks, we are certain that as long as we don’t let up on the war effort, we can retake Ba Sing Se and finally finish this war, officially achieving victory for our glorious Fire Nation,” Teru finished, jabbing the point of his shoe at Ba Sing Se on the map in front of them.

Zuko blinked. “You want to… continue the war?”

The councilmen all turned to him as Teru’s eyebrows furrowed. This man wasn’t very good at hiding his emotions, either.

“My apologies, Your Majesty, I don’t understand your confusion.”

Zuko’s fists tightened. “The Avatar defeated my father and my sister. The war is over.” He resisted adding a ‘right?’ at the end. No use in appearing childish in any way.

“The war can still continue, my Lord. Just because Phoenix King Ozai and Crown Princess Azula were defeated does not mean that the Fire Nation was defeated,” another man said as Teru stepped back and sank into a seated position.

“I don’t think you’re hearing me right, War Minister,” Zuko said. “This war is not continuing.”

“My Lord, the Fire Nation is winning this war,” one more pressed. “Your Majesty wishes to just throw all of it away, all of the benefits we are reaping, the spoils we are retrieving each and every day as we march through more and more of the Earth Kingdom?”

“No one is truly benefiting from this war,” Zuko said as firmly as he could. “Our soldiers die every day, the common people suffer-”

“The common people can suffer for the sake of the greater good of the Fire Nation,” another man growled. 

Zuko was losing them. He could see it on their faces. They were slowly beginning to realize that he was a teenager . A teenager with a lot of power, sure, but a teenager nonetheless. 

“The common people are the Fire Nation!” Zuko exclaimed. He didn’t wince at the pain caused from the increased volume of his words. He didn’t .

“What would you know?” Zuko recognized this man when he turned to face him. He didn’t know the man’s name (he would find out after the meeting that he was General Bujing, who happened to be the Head General in the council which was just lovely ), but he knew him. This was the general he spoke out against. The general who came up with the plan to use new recruits as bait, the plan that Zuko sacrificed everything to stop from coming to fruition. “You’ve never met the common people . You just spent the last three years off being… being pampered by your father away from the rest of society, and you’re still nothing more than a spoiled brat!

Zuko was shaking, because the tone of voice gave him a vision of his father, standing in the dark cell, a single flame flickering in his hand for light as he reminded Zuko once more of what a disappointment he was .

“My Lord…” Ming’s calm voice shook him out of his thoughts. Bujing seemed to realize that he had made a mistake, but the man was less afraid of Zuko than he should be. It made Zuko feel… small

Zuko’s mind was going haywire. These people were never going to respect him. Never . He needed to replace them. His thoughts moved to that. He needed to replace them, but he couldn’t . He needed a council, and these men had more power than most people in the Nation. He needed reliable people, but he didn’t have any, so he had to keep this council together until he was able to replace them all.

And, in the meantime, he might as well just change the council up completely. Make it like governments he had read about when he studied under that one tutor when he was younger… Zuko couldn’t remember his name, he had disappeared about two months into teaching Zuko, but he had always been the most interesting tutor. The man had always focused on making it so that Zuko’s lessons were from a worldwide perspective. He was actually probably the reason why Zuko started thinking that maybe the war wasn’t a good thing. Then, one day, he was just gone . Zuko had a small idea where he might have gone.

Ozai did like to banish people…

His eyes moved to a man at the end of the council’s table, at the other side of the room, watching him with eyes that seemed to look right at his very core. Zuko squirmed under the gaze. The man’s hard eyes reminded him of his father’s. The floor swayed a bit.

“Meeting dismissed,” he managed to say. Keeli, thankfully, took that as a signal, and he was suddenly being turned around and pushed out of the council’s view. He heard them get up as soon as he was out of view. Ming and Lee lifted him onto the Fire Lord’s platform and Keeli pushed him out the door and suddenly they were back in the corridor.

When they were back in Zuko’s room, there were three people waiting.

Lee suddenly squealed and moved from Zuko’s side to embrace one of them (a woman).

He stepped away from her and both of them had a wide grin on their faces. Lee turned back toward Zuko and his eyes widened, his face going red.

“I… I apologize, my Lord.”

The edges of Zuko’s lips itched to go up, though they didn’t, and he nodded. “It’s all right. Who… Who is this?”

Lee’s throat bobbed and he nodded. “This-” He moved the woman in front of him, and she gave a wave, her face like an apple- “is my little sister, Tyne.”

“Nice to meet you, Tyne.”

She seemed shocked to her core by his words before her smile widened. “Actually, we already know each other.”

Zuko blinked. “What?”

Her face reddened. “Well, kinda… I was one on the other guard shift for you over the past few years, along with Anzo over there.” She pointed to a man standing a few feet away. Anzo gave Zuko a firm nod. He seemed like the calm type of person.

“Oh, I thought I recognized you all.” His eyes moved to the last man. “You… You were the other food server, right?”

The man nodded and gave a small bow. “Gun Ta, at your service, my Lord.”

“It’s nice to officially meet you as well.” Zuko’s gaze moved over the three new additions before he asked, “Is there… a reason why you all came here, though?”

“What, like meeting you officially after hangin’ around you for three years wasn’t enough?” Tyne asked. 

Zuko felt a smile tug at his lips again, but it fell away again a moment later.

“Actually, Your Majesty, I came to meet you because I wished to before I moved,” Gun Ta said. Zuko’s eyes widened a bit.

“Where are you moving to, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Gun Ta blinked. “Of course not, Your Majesty. I’m moving to Tofule Island, on the west side of the homeland, to pursue my dreams of becoming a chef and opening a restaurant now that I’ve saved up enough money to buy a house.”

Zuko nodded. “Congratulations. I wish you the best.” He put away the reminder in his head to (anonymously) send some money to the man to help with his restaurant. Maybe if Zuko was ever over there for business, he could visit the place.

“What about you all?” He asked, turning to the others.

“Well, I’ve been wanting to officially meet you for quite some time,” Anzo said, wringing his hands together.

“And I just came along cause I didn’t wanna be left out!” Tyne exclaimed, her eyes gleaming. Zuko wondered if she was always this peppy.

A thought appeared suddenly as his mind wandered back to the war. “I need one of you to gather up information on war prisoners being held by the Fire Nation.”

Anzo gave a small nod. “I will, my Lord,” he said.

Anzo and Gun Ta both bowed and were out the door so quickly Zuko thought for a moment that maybe he had just imagined them all. Then, though, he saw Tyne talking to Lee off to the side, and he was brought back to reality.

“I also bring news, Your Majesty,” Tyne said after the door closed.

“Yes?”

“Princess Azula was beaten in battle by the Avatar’s waterbending master and is now being kept by the Avatar and the Earth King in Ba Sing Se,” she explained. “One of our spies delivered the news upon return to the homeland.” 

Zuko blinked. Azula? He hadn’t seen Azula in over three years… He wondered how much she had changed. She was always… strange… in their younger years. Like there was something wrong in her head. She was very skilled, and she enjoyed scaring thing, hurting things. Like the turtleducks in the palace pond. Like her friends. Like Zuko . And she was their father’s favorite for that. His attention fostered her behavior and her firebending. When he had last seen her, her flames were a blinding white color. He wondered what they were now. Her goal had always been to get to blue. He wondered if she had achieved that yet. He wouldn’t be surprised. Her fire got hotter every day.

“Azula?” He breathed.

Tyne nodded, her foot tapping against the floor. “Yes, my Lord.”

“How… How is she?”

Tyne chuckled sheepishly, tugging on the ponytail she had looped over her shoulder. “Just as scary as I’m sure you remember.”

Zuko shivered. “Ah.”

A moment passed before Zuko took a deep breath and spoke.

“Do I… have an office? I can’t… I can’t remember…” He knew his father had done his work as Fire Lord somewhere , but he wasn’t sure where .

Lee nodded. “Yeah, it’s, like, right below us, I think.”

“I need to… to go there.” He turned his head around to look at Keeli. “Could you… take me there?”

Keeli’s cheeks grew red. “I don’t know where it is.”

Lee waved her off. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it. Follow me!” He turned to his sister. “Actually, Tyne, could you take my place guarding His Majesty while I lead the way?”

Tyne nodded, the corners of her mouth quirking up seemingly involuntarily. Zuko wondered if she was always smiling. That must take a lot of effort.

Keeli pushed him through the corridors behind Lee, who looked very professional for a man leading a disabled teenager to an office.

“Here we are, my Lord.” Lee pushed open the door and Zuko was wheeled inside, Tyne and Ming following them inside.

The office wasn’t as big as Zuko thought it would be. Granted, it was still enormous , but, knowing his family, he had thought it would be much more grand than it was.

The right wall from the door was almost all windows, though the curtains were drawn across them, so there was only a bit of sunlight streaming through the cracks.

“Keeli, can you open the curtains?”

She was there a moment later, pulling back the curtains. Tyne moved to help, holding the curtains in place as Keeli tied the red fabric back with a golden rope hanging from the wall.

Zuko moved his eyes from them as they did their task to continue observing the rest of the room. Right across from the door, there was the desk. It was big, that was for sure, made of some kind of dark wood with golden accents. He could see that the chair (which matched the desk in wood) must be so cushioned that one could just sink right into it. He remembered the bed from last night and realized that he might need to work his way up to this chair, with its soft red cushions and regal carvings in the side.

In front of the door, there was a large open space filled only by a deep maroon-colored rug. There were two chairs set off in the left corner nearest the door, and Zuko realized that it must be for if there were ever guests or if he ever had to have a meeting. One of the servants would probably move it over for whoever had to sit down.

The room lightened as Keeli and Tyne tied back the final curtain. In the back left corner (the one without the chairs), there was a potted plant that was what he imagined his height had been when he was thirteen. It looked like a lavender plant, but the flowers were shorter and an off-white color.

“What plant is that?” he asked, furrowing his eyebrows.

“Um… it’s a citrus lavender bush, I think,” Tyne replied. “Mother used to grow them when she made the Orange-Lavender scents for the palace. The essence from the flowers makes the Orange-Lavender. It makes the room always have an undertone of it if it’s grown correctly.”

Zuko smelled in deeply, and realized she was right. He could smell the Orange-Lavender draped in the air. A smile tugged at his lips again, but it didn’t appear. Not yet.

Zuko’s eyes moved to the desk again. More specifically, his eyes moved to what was on the desk. There was a neat pile of papers on the right of the chair behind the desk. He felt his heart sink. That’s a lot of paperwork. Zuko knew that it must be for him. After his father and sister were captured, after the war ‘ended’, there was probably so much work for him to do that he would be drowning in it.

His gaze shifted again, and he felt his blood run cold.

Because there, on the left wall, just hanging and looking down at him, was a painting of his father.

The cold, hard eyes of the man in the painting stared down at him, stared into his soul. Zuko felt himself go pale, and he wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. His hands gripped the handles of the wheelchair and he shivered. He felt cold. He swallowed, and it hurt, and he wanted to wince, but he couldn’t, because that would show weakness, and his father would not like that. His father wouldn’t like that, he can’t show weakness, he can’t show weakness, he can’t show weakness, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe…

“My Lord!”

A hand on his cheek pushed and forced his face away from the painting. He blinked, and instead of the calculating gaze of Fire Lord Ozai, he was staring into the concerned ones of Tyne and Keeli. In the corner of his eye, he could see Ming and Lee perched on the two chairs from the corner, covering up the painting with a curtain that they had gotten from… somewhere…

“My… My Lord?” Tyne asked carefully. 

“Get it out of here,” he said, and it was hard to say, and the words were strained, and they hurt . “Get it out, please, please , get it out, get it out, get it…”

Ming and Lee pulled down the painting and carted it out of the room.

“What’s going on?” A deep voice from the doorway asked.

Tyne’s eyes flicked up and widened a bit. “Anzo?”

“Hello, darling. What’s… going on?”

Steps moved around the wheelchair and then Zuko’s gaze moved to Anzo as the man walked into view.

“Your Majesty?”

The words directed at him shocked him out of his stupor, and Zuko realized suddenly that he couldn’t breathe. Spots danced in his vision and he desperately gasped for air, but none of it would actually go into his lungs.

There was a hand on his shoulder, suddenly. Zuko could feel the calluses on the thumb that was brushing against his neck. He blinked and looked into the chocolate-brown eyes of Anzo.

“Breathe with me, my Lord. In-” He breathed in slowly, but didn’t feel like he had gotten any air- “Hold-” He did- “Out.” He repeated the actions with the man in front of him before he got control over his breathing again. Anzo smiled gently and stepped away, removing his hand from Zuko’s shoulder. “There we are.”

Zuko licked his lips (which were still really dry) before saying, “Thank you. How did you… How did you do that?”

Anzo shrugged, looking away. “My sister once had a boyfriend who… wasn’t the nicest. After they… broke up… she had a bit of a… reaction… whenever she saw him in public, so I learned how to help calm her down.”

Zuko nodded. He could tell that there was a deeper meaning to his words, but he couldn’t figure it out for the life of him. His eyebrows furrowed. “Wait… Why were you even here in the first place?”

Anzo pulled out a stack of papers from under his arm and held them up. “I retrieved all the information on war prisoners in the Fire Nation.”

Keeli wheeled Zuko behind the desk. Tyne pulled the regal chair back and Ming and Lee reappeared to pick him up and place him on the chair before pushing it in. Anzo set the papers in front of him before moving away.

“My Lord, would you like lunch?”

Zuko looked up at Keeli and nodded. “Yes, please.”

She gave a bow. “I’ll send for it.”

Zuko thought of the cold gazes of the generals, admirals, the war ministers on the council, who wanted him off the throne and had enough power to try and do it.

Then, suddenly, he thought of his father. And his mother . And his grandfather .

It was simple. Almost sweet. Just a few drops in a drink, and that’s it. A cloudy liquid that smelled of cakes and seeped into the bloodstream and slowed the heart and closed the throat and fogged the mind and ended the life…

“Keeli, I want you to observe the chefs while they make the food. Make sure that there is no… tampering.”

Keeli blinked before her features softened and she nodded. “Of course, my Lord.” She bowed again and disappeared through the door.

The other four guards all bowed as well before disappearing through the door, lining up to guard the office outside.

And just like that, Zuko was alone.

He smelled in, and the Orange-Lavender from the citrus lavender bush hit his nose, calming his nerves a bit.

He turned down to the papers in front of him and pushed the stack back before pulling off the top one. His eyes fell to the words on it and scanned them. He had been terrified that maybe, after three years, he wouldn’t be able to understand them, but…

He could still read .

A tear fell from his eye before he could stop it. This was something his father hadn’t been able to take from him. He wiped at the drop before it was even all the way down his cheek.

Zuko shook himself away from the wave of elation and moved back to the contents of the paper. Information on war prisoners in the Earth Kingdom colonies. Zuko sighed. This was gonna be boring .

Keeli arrived about thirty minutes later with some lunch and a pitcher of water. She pointed at one of the two dumplings and said it was vegetable and that the other was meat. There was a small bowl of spice rice as well as a few small pieces of fruit. Keeli explained that they were pitted cherries.

Cherries had always been Azula’s favorite.

The dumplings were small, so Zuko managed to finish all of his food. Keeli left halfway through and returned a few minutes later with a refilled jug of water, which she left on the table along with the cup he had been drinking from when she took the dishes to be washed.

Zuko spent an hour in silence as he moved through the papers slowly, before stopping at one. His eyes widened. He didn’t know there were war prisoners there… They must be important

Zuko steeled his resolve and when Keeli came in five minutes later to see if his water needed to be refilled, he had her call the other four in as well. 

“What is it that you need, my Lord?” Ming asked, her voice calm and strong as always after they had all bowed and entered the room.

He looked down at the papers one more time before turning his gaze back up to them his eyes steely. 

“I want to go to the Boiling Rock.”

Chapter Text

“How long should it take to get to the Boiling Rock?” Zuko asked as Keeli wheeled him through the palace corridors.

“Well, your grace, if you want to take a ship, then I’d estimate about a week,” Ming said. “I used to work there in transfers so I had to estimate travel times a lot.”

“You said ‘ if you want to take a ship ’? What do you mean by ‘ if ’?” Zuko asked, turning to face Ming, who was flanking his right side.

“Well, there are always the war balloons, er, the blimps, right?” Tyne said from Zuko’s left. “You could get to the Boiling Rock in, what, a few hours? Didn’t Princess Azula do that at some point?”

Anzo nodded. “She did.”

Zuko blinked. “ War blimps?”

“I mean, if the war is ending… It is ending, right?” Tyne glanced at Zuko as she asked the question. His thoughts flew to the war council and their lack of regard for the common people of all nations who were suffering from this war. He nodded as firmly as he could. “Okay, yeah, so if the war is ending, then those blimps will probably be used for leisure and travel now, anyway, right?”

“Plus,” Anzo butted in. “There are only the small and medium-sized blimps now, anyway, and the medium ones were designed for recreation of the royal family or highborn.”

Zuko furrowed his eyebrows. “What… What happened to the… the ‘big’ ones?”

“Fire Lord Ozai used all of them during the comet and the entire fleet was destroyed, your grace,” Anzo replied. Out of all of them, Anzo looked the most put together. His hands were folded neatly behind his back, his eyes straight forward, and he had an imposing presence very befitting of the ideal soldier or officer. Yet, despite this, his presence was also… calming, in a strange way.

“Lee, could you run ahead and make sure the blimp is ready when we get there? And, uh, can you get Pim there, too? Ask her to bring some sort of outfit that’s… less formal, but still like… professional. I’m sure she can find something. Make sure someone brings my papers as well, please, I should work while we’re traveling.” Lee nodded at the request and broke off from where he was (next to Keeli, on her right) to walk faster. He turned down another, smaller hallway that was often used by the staff of the palace and disappeared from view. Anzo took a step backward from where he was on the left of Keeli to stand a few feet behind her instead, covering the back end of their small procession himself.

“Do we have to go through the city to get to the blimp?” Zuko asked.

“Yes, my Lord,” Anzo said. 

“If you would like to get to the Boiling Rock and back before midnight tonight, my Lord, then I would advise taking an alternate mode of transportation, like the palanquin,” Ming said from her position less than a foot behind him on his side. “It would be much faster than us walking through the city, and much safer .”

Zuko bit back a sigh. He really didn’t like palanquins. They were quite useless, why would you need to use manpower to get people around like that? It reminded him of stories of slavery in parts of the Earth Kingdom millennia ago. Agni, the soldiers used animals or walked themselves, Zuko didn’t need to be carried in an overly fancy chair, with curtains drawn to keep him inside and to keep the common folk out .

Suddenly, he had an idea.

“No, no, I want a carriage,” he said, before wincing a bit when he realized how much of a child he sounded like. “Animal-drawn. And no side streets, either. I want to go directly through the center of the city, on the main road to the airships.”

To their credit, no one was surprised, though he saw Ming raise her eyebrows out of the corner of his eyes while Tyne’s eyes widened on his other side.

“My Lord, if I may…” Keeli trailed off, waiting for him to give her permission to speak. It made him want to scowl. As long as he was in charge, he didn’t want anyone to be scared to speak.

“Go on.”

“May I ask why you’d like to go through the center of the city?”

He supposed that the animal-drawn carriage made sense. It would be much faster than a palanquin, and wouldn’t require someone to literally bear the weight of him on their shoulders.

“There has been a war going on for the past one-hundred years,” Zuko said quietly, his eyes on the stone tiles that moved below the edge of the wheelchair in front of him. “The world has suffered, but the Fire Nation has suffered, too. Those people out there, my people, have had to deal with Fire Lord after Fire Lord who doesn’t care for them . I… I don’t want to be any closer to my father in anyone’s mind than I already am. I… I want to show everyone out there that… that I’m different.” He straightened his back a bit. It was aching in his shoulder. “They’re all people, they’re all human , and I’m their Fire Lord. The only way I can be a good one is if they help me become one. I need to show them that I care. This is one way I can do that.” After he had finished, there was silence. He bit his lip and said, “Sorry if that didn’t make any sense.”

Ming nodded slowly beside him. “Don’t worry, your grace. It made perfect sense. I promise.”

Tyne grinned widely and broke the calm air about them as she exclaimed, “I don’t think you have to worry about the people not liking you, though, your grace. They already like you! After you opened the gates for your coronation and left the ball for said coronation to come to the party in the streets on the same day , you’re already in the good graces of the common folk as a whole, I’m sure.”

Zuko felt something flutter lightly in his chest and he almost cracked a smile. Instead, he turned to Tyne and said, “Thank you.”

Her smile brightened even more and she gave a small, sloppy bow that he thought was probably supposed to be bad if the overexaggerated flourish was anything to go by. “Of course, your Majesty .”

If anyone was going to make him smile or laugh for real for the first time in years, he was betting on Tyne.

“Tyne, you may want to be a bit more respectful when we’re around other nobles,” Anzo said, his deep voice ringing out through the corridor.

Tyne raised her hand and held it back behind her toward Anzo, where Zuko couldn’t see it. He heard both Keeli and Ming try to cover up their snorts, and Zuko whirled his head back to look at what Tyne was doing. 

She wasn’t looking at Anzo, but she was holding her hand up behind her and had her middle finger up at the other guard, her face very smug about it. Zuko settled back into his chair as her hand dropped and he blinked a few times and wondered to himself how he had never realized how human these people were. They joked around with each other, seemed more like real friends than Azula and her friends ever had. Azula and her friends had been forced to be together. These people chose to be like friends, chose to be friendly with each other when they didn’t have to because they were all working together.

It was a strange change of pace from what he was used to back when he lived in the palace (and obviously it was a change of pace from what he was used to over the course of the last three years, but he didn’t really want to think about that right now. Every time he did, it didn’t end well). He found that he liked it. 

Zuko had never really had a real friend, except maybe Azula when she was still too young to show her prowess at firebending and, therefore, still too young to be reached by their father’s influence. Was this how friends were supposed to act? Not trying to kill each other every few minutes? That was a strange concept. Or, maybe, he was the one whose concept of friendship was strange.

He probably was.

They reached the front doors, finally. There were guards stationed at the doors (as there should be, honestly), and they gave him a bow before pulling open the doors and gesturing their group outside. Tyne disappeared off to the side to get a carriage, moving off into a side hallway as Keeli pushed him into the outdoors. 

Ming actually groaned when she saw the steps before she seemed to resign herself to her fate, gesturing to Anzo to help her and together the two carried Zuko down the steps. It took a few minutes, but they made it to the bottom relatively quickly. Zuko guessed that he probably didn’t weigh that much, though. The bulk of the weight was probably in the wheelchair itself if he was being honest. He would never admit out loud but those three years in that cell had most likely made it so that he was a bit smaller than he should be for his age. 

He realized, suddenly, that Keeli was gone.

When they reached the bottom of the steps, Zuko heard the clop of hooves against the stone and turned his head to see Tyne sitting on the front of a carriage, holding the reins of the dragon-moose that was pulling the carriage.

“They insisted on giving me the most regal carriage, and also tried to supply their own riders, and so I just stole this one when they weren’t looking instead,” Tyne said, hopping off of the front of the carriage after she brought the animal to a halt. “I thought you’d want this one more, your grace.” She gestured back at the simple carriage behind her.

Zuko looked at it fully for a moment. There were no unneeded gold embellishments on the sides, it wasn’t a shocking red that popped out from everything else. It wasn’t overly large, either. Probably just the normal amount of room. He would guess maybe four people could fit in there if their elbows were touching. Instead, the carriage was dark brown wood, with deep maroon accents along the edges formed into the shape of small flames. He nodded. “I like it. Thanks, Tyne.”

Tyne grinned widely and bowed to him.

“Are three komodo rhinos enough?” Lee’s voice rang out through the courtyard. Zuko could see members of the staff looking out of the windows across the palace out of the corner of his eye, all of a sudden, but he ignored them in favor of turning to where Lee was coming from. Lee was holding the reins of three komodo rhinos out as if offering them.

“They should be,” Ming said. “Tyne, you control the carriage, Lee, you go in front of the carriage, and Anzo and I will flank the back. Keeli can sit with Tyne on the front of the carriage when she gets back.”

The others all nodded together. 

“What about Pim?” Zuko asked, furrowing his eyebrows and turning to Lee. “Is she coming?”

Lee nodded quickly. “She’s already on her way there. She went as soon as I asked her.”

Zuko shifted a bit in his seat and nodded. “Okay.” After a moment, he added, “Thanks.”

Lee’s face darkened a bit but he gave a smile and a small bow.

Ming and Lee placed him into the carriage as gently as possible.

“Is there anything you need, my Lord?” Ming asked from where she stood outside the carriage, holding the door.

Zuko’s dry throat screamed at him to speak, but he shook his head instead. “No, thank you, I’m all right.”

Ming moved a bit, her head turning to something he couldn’t see, and suddenly Keeli was there as well, returned from wherever she had been, holding a tray in front of her.

“I thought you may want this,” she said, placing one foot inside of the carriage to boost herself up a bit. She balanced the tray on one hand before reaching up and pulling at a red strap coming out of the wall across from Zuko. She pulled it down and a small table popped out, hanging down and settling above his knees. Keeli set down the tray and backed out of the carriage, bowing to Zuko before she stepped toward the front of the carriage and out of view. Ming gave him a bow as well before she closed the door. Zuko stared at the door for a moment before pulling the lock down into place. He did the same thing for the other door as well before settling back in his seat.

The food was light. He was grateful for that. There was a large container of water, with a lid on it to keep it from spilling when they were on the road, he was sure. For the food, there was simply a small bowl of pink berries, purple berries, and cherries. He tried them. The cherries were sweet, very sweet, but not as juicy as he would have expected. There was a little hole in the center, and it took him a moment to realize that cherries normally had pits inside it. These ones probably didn’t to make sure he didn’t choke. The pink berries were very juicy in comparison to the cherries. They were sweet enough, with a bitter aftertaste. The purple berries were a normal balance between the other two in terms of how much juice exploded across his tastebuds, but they were sour . They made his face scrunch up, but they were still good , so he ate them all. 

The water was a bit warm, which probably came from being out in the middle of the Fire Nation summer for some time. It didn’t matter to him, and Zuko drank maybe half of the water before covering it again and pushing it away.

A moment passed, and suddenly there was a rumbling, and then they were moving.

Zuko heard the gates open but couldn’t see where they were, only the shadows dancing with the light that flowed through the curtains.

They were moving away from the palace, and he could hear the gates shut behind them when there was another sound that joined the mix. The hum of people chattering to one another. Hushed whispers as the carriage and its entourage moved along the main road to where the airships supposedly were.

He picked up a few things as they went.

Who is that?

Is it the Fire Lord?

No, the Fire Lord’s carriage is fancier than that.

Could be him …”

He came down to our party last night instead of going to the ball. Maybe he doesn’t want fancy things .”

No, no, it’s definitely some other noble .”

The royal family uses palanquins, idiot .”

Zuko clenched his fist a bit before he pushed the small table that was hanging in front of him backward. It moved with him and he stopped it when it was above the seat across from him, no longer restricting his legs in any way. Then, he grabbed at the curtain to the left with his bony hand and wrenched it open.

There was a sudden onslaught of gasps followed by cheers and he shifted a bit to be closer to the opening and positioned his face right in the window. He heard people gasping his name and was shocked for a second that so many of these people were that happy to see him. Even when his father was Fire Lord and went through the streets for one reason or another, the cheers were always more polite. More professional. More forced . He was probably horrible at reading people and emotions right now (since the only person he had really talked to for the last few years was his father, and the only emotion he had known was pain . Was that an emotion? It had sure felt like it), but it really seemed like these people liked him. At least someone did.

Zuko watched the people seeming to form a line of their own that they wouldn’t cross. He supposed that they were all used to having to be pushing the boundaries of the concept of ‘in-line’ and, though he wished that his people felt like they could be themselves and be free around him, he felt happy that they were making this line on their own. It made him feel… at ease…

Zuko’s eyes spotted a child near the edge of the crowd, near where Lee must be riding in front of the carriage, staring at him in awe as he moved toward him. The child’s hair was dirty, and he was small for his age, Zuko was sure. Not starving (like Zuko probably was, honestly), but definitely underweight . The child clearly needed to eat more, but Zuko realized, with a start, that the child probably didn’t have enough money to.

Zuko’s right hand shifted around the seat while he waved lightly with his left, searching desperately for some extra leather to grip in his fingers, to take out the anger he had at the fact that there were people, children , going hungry right in the capital city .

Suddenly, his fingers felt something cold. A sort of rounded pentagon. He grabbed it and pulled it to his lap, looking down at it. It shined in the light flowing in from outside, glinting with gold. Gold . It was a gold piece . Only in a carriage for nobles would he find spare gold pieces just lying around

He tightened his fingers around the gold piece and looked back out. The child from before was almost right outside his window. He locked eyes with the child, turned to face the window fully, reached his arm out, and lightly tossed the gold piece to the child. Maybe the kid can at least get some food tonight, now.

The child caught it on instinct and looked down at it, his big eyes widening even more and a smile appearing on his face. He gave one of the sloppiest bows Zuko had ever seen before he fully disappeared from view.

Zuko remembered riding in these carriages a few times when he was younger. It had been the easiest way to transport him, Azula, and his mother to the barge they would take to get to that… island they went on vacation to every summer. What was it called? Burner Island… Fire Island… Ember Island… Ember Island , that was it! Ember Island… Sandy beaches, tropical trees, plays that were butchered every year, his mother laughing, running through the shallows of the ocean with his cousin, with his sister, his father smiling for some of the only times. Them being a family .

The carriages had… drawers, underneath the seats, full of expensive little knick-knacks, things that nobody needed, but were there just because nobles are rich and want to show it. Maybe there were things in the drawers in this one that he could give to a few people, people who looked like they needed it. He would fix the Fire Nation as soon as he could, but for now, he would do what he could to help a few people live until then .

He bent down and reached around under the seat, searching for a drawer to open. He found one and pulled it out. His shoulder still hurt. Inside, there were random iron screws and bolts. Things for repair. He shoved it closed and reached around for another. His fingers wrapped around another handle and he pulled it out. A random assortment of jewels. He furrowed his eyebrows. There was probably better. He pushed it closed and found one more. He pulled it open, and inside there was just a heap of gold. A pile of golden pieces shining innocently up at him. Zuko blinked and grabbed up a handful of them. Not many were able to really fit, and a few fell between his fingers and back into the drawer below, but he sat back up, his back cracking a bit as he did, and he winced at the sound as he settled back into his seat. 

Zuko shifted a bit and turned back toward the window. He took a gold piece in his free hand from the ones he had in his other and searched for someone who he thought really needed that gold.

He spotted someone who looked maybe a few years older than he was (or maybe they were his age, just healthier ). They were covered in dirt, their hair hung around their shoulders, and Zuko honestly couldn’t tell if they were a boy or a girl. Zuko flipped the coin around in his hand before he reached up and tossed it to the teen as he passed them. They looked stricken, but caught it nonetheless, and bowed to him as he passed, gaping as he moved on.

As they rode through the streets, Zuko continued tossing out gold pieces. One to a man, two to a woman and child, one to a boy, one to a girl, three to a husband and pregnant wife, one to a brother, one to a sister. 

By the time they left the city and the calls of the common folk faded, the drawer was over halfway empty, and there were dozens of people who weren’t going to go hungry tonight. That thought made him feel good. He would work on helping his people as soon as he could, but, for now, at least he could help a few .

Another maybe ten minutes passed, and Zuko spent the time finishing off the water and staring out the window at the passing area as they moved up and over the edge of the volcano.

Finally, they slowed to a halt. Zuko pulled the curtain closed and a moment later, there was a knock at the door. Zuko pulled the lock up and the door swung open to reveal Ming standing there. She bowed and mumbled, “My Lord.”

“Whoo, Agni, my butt is sore after that!” Lee exclaimed from where he was, in front of the carriage and out of view. Ming grimaced and her face grew red in embarrassment for her fellow guard.

“Sucks for you,” Tyne said from her position at the front of the carriage, also out of Zuko’s view. “This seat right here is real comfortable, if I do say so myself.”

“Well, isn’t that just wonderful for you .”

Tyne gasped, and even if he couldn’t see it, Zuko could tell it was overexaggerated. “ Thank you.”

“Shut it.”

“Lee,” Ming called sharply. She nodded toward Zuko and a moment later Lee appeared as well, looking a bit sheepish.

“Er, sorry, my Lord.”

Zuko shook his head. “It’s fine.”

Ming and Lee both lifted him out of the carriage and carried him around to where Anzo was unstrapping the wheelchair from the back of his komodo rhino.

“Here you are, your grace,” the man said, setting it down on the ground. Zuko gave him a nod of gratitude as Ming and Lee placed him into the wheelchair and Keeli came around from the front to take her place at the handles.

As they moved toward the airship, Zuko wondered how there could ever be ones bigger than this one. Apparently, though, there had been a whole fleet of larger ones, they had just all been destroyed during the comet.

There was a ramp waiting for them, and two guards stationed at the entrance.

The inside of the airship reminded Zuko of the inside of the barges that his family used to take to Ember Island. It was touched-up well inside, but when you moved through the main areas, you could still hear the mechanics of the ship moving behind the walls.

They moved to a lift and were brought up to the top deck, where the captain was waiting to take off.

“Greetings, your grace. It is an honor to meet you,” the captain said, bowing lowly when Keeli pushed him onto the bridge. “I’ve been told you wish to travel to the Boiling Rock?”

“Yes,” Zuko said, nodding. “How… How long should that take?”

“I’d estimate around two to three hours, at the most,” the captain responded quickly as if he had prepared for this. “We selected the fastest ship in the fleet for you, my Lord.”

“Thank you.” He turned to the people around him and asked, “Does anyone know what time it is now?”

“About thirty minutes past one, my Lord,” one of the men said from his position near a variety of controls.

“All right.” He strained his head to look at Keeli. “Is there anywhere private we can go?”

Keeli pushed him to a private study, following the directions of another one of the men on the bridge. 

The study was little more than a large room with a desk and a large window, but it would work. The four guards of their little group filed in after Keeli pushed him in and behind the desk. Lee shrugged off the bag Zuko hadn’t even realized he had been carrying and pulled out the stack of papers that had been on his desk in his office in the palace. Lee set the stack down in front of Zuko, just a little off to the side, and bowed before backing away.

“Thank you.”

They all seemed to take that as a sign to leave. They filed out and before Anzo shut the door, Zuko could see them already taking up positions outside of his door. He could have smiled at the care they seemed to have for him.

He turned down to the desk and pulled a paper down from the top of the stack. He had some work to do.

Zuko moved through the papers methodically. Pull one, read one, sign one (or don’t), push one, pull one. Thankfully, most of the work right now was just petty disputes between nobles that he couldn’t care less about if he tried. He imagined when he started issuing orders and decrees of his own, the work would start to get much more important, and also much harder . He wasn’t looking forward to that happening.

As he was reading through another document (what a surprise), there was a knock at the door. He knew that none of the guards would let someone past them unless they were sure he wouldn’t be in harm’s way, and he hadn’t heard a scuffle of any kind outside, so he called, “Come in.” His voice cracked painfully on the second word and he reached for the water Keeli had brought not ten minutes after he had started working.

“My Lord,” Anzo said, bowing and closing the door behind him. Zuko furrowed his eyebrows and swallowed the water before nodding to the guard.

“Anzo. What is it?”

“I just bring news, your grace,” Anzo replied. “The captain says we should arrive at the Boiling Rock in about ten minutes’ time.”

Zuko nodded. “Ten minutes, all right, sounds good. Thank you.” When Anzo didn’t move to leave, Zuko straightened a bit and looked the guard in the eyes. “What is it?”

Anzo, to his credit, didn’t shift uncomfortably like his companions often did when Zuko’s full attention was on them.

“Permission to speak freely, my Lord?”

Zuko nodded almost immediately. “Permission granted.”

Anzo’s eyes flicked to stare out the window for a moment before he opened his mouth and spoke. “I was stationed at the Boiling Rock for three years. Transferred about five years ago to the prison in the capital.” Zuko nodded along with the story. “I requested the transfer myself because… your Majesty, the Boiling Rock isn’t like what the stories say. It’s worse . People there are prisoners, so they are being rightfully punished, and it’s a good location that prevents escape, but half the time they are treated like less than dirt . Guards will provoke prisoners just to have an excuse to throw them in the cooler, to hurt them for a bit by cutting off their firebending.” Zuko felt something bubble up inside of him at that. He knew what it was like to not have firebending at your disposal (even if his was much more long-term than that of these prisoners). “I just… The workers there, especially the higher-ups and the warden, are very pandering to nobles who visit. And they’re really, really good at it. I just… I wanted to warn you so that you can see the Boiling Rock as it is, and not as this amazing high-security prison that the officials will want to make it seem.”

Zuko dwelled on this for a moment, processing Anzo’s words before he nodded slowly. Zuko managed to find his voice and breathed out, “Thank you.”

Anzo cracked a smile and bowed before leaving the room.

Not even a minute later, Keeli appeared as Zuko was signing the document he was on. Ming and Lee joined her, and then Pim showed up as well.

“My Lord,” she said, bowing as they all did when they entered the room. She had new clothes draped over her arm. “I brought you new clothes. Not necessarily formal or appearing in public as the all-powerful Fire Lord , but not business-casual either. A bit of both, actually.”

The maroon fabric was laced with golden accents on every edge, much different from the near-completely red clothes he had previously been wearing. The clothes, though, were still a top and bottom instead of a full robe, which Zuko was slightly grateful for because it got hot sitting in a formal robe while in a wheelchair.

Lee and Ming placed him in the wheelchair and Pim also re-did his topknot, still allowing some of his hair to fall down and frame his face. She nodded at him when she looked from the front and gave another bow. “I’ll patiently await your return, your grace.” Zuko swallowed. His throat was dry. He gave her a nod as Keeli pushed him from the room.

The trek up the side of the volcano to get to where the gondola was would probably have been much faster if Zuko could walk and Ming and Lee didn’t have to carry him in his wheelchair up the whole thing. They actually stopped and switched with Tyne and Anzo halfway through because they needed a break.

There was a guard waiting for them when they reached the gondola. The guard nodded and gestured them on before calling to his comrades on the other side and shutting the door.

The gondola was dreary and cold, despite the steam rising up from the boiling water below and the fact that it was a Fire Nation summer. Maybe it’s not the temperature that’s cold , he thought a drop of sweat fell down his face. Maybe it’s the gondola. There were people, countless people, who had taken this gondola to the island and never taken it back because they had died in that prison. And, sure, maybe some of them, maybe even most of them deserved it, but that didn’t make it feel any less wrong .

And then, suddenly, they were there. The gondola was slowing to a stop on the top of the worst prison in the world. The door opened and the guards of the Boiling Rock bowed to him as Keeli pushed him out, the other four of their little group following directly behind her in an orderly fashion.

A man wearing the warden’s headpiece approached him and bowed deeply.

“Fire Lord Zuko,” he said when he looked back up. “I’m sorry we don’t have anything really prepared for you. There’s been a lot going on. First, there’s the war, and then there’s the fact that I was just instated as the warden after my predecessor was discovered scheming to let one of the prisoners here out just because she’s his niece.” The man spat at the ground to the side, scowling, before he put on a calm smile again. “Nonetheless, let me be the first to welcome you to the Fire Nation’s most prestigious prison, The Boiling Rock. What is your business at our fine prison today?”

“War prisoners,” Zuko said after a moment of observing the man. “I received word that war prisoners were being held here. I’d like to see them.”

The warden looked taken aback but, to his credit, he recovered quickly. “Of course, your grace. There are only two war prisoners here.”

“Bring them somewhere where I can speak to them,” Zuko said finally. “Before that, I’d like to go look around the prison.”

“Of course,” the warden said. “I’ll call the very best of my officers to give you the grand tour-”

“Actually, I’d like to go on my own, if you don’t mind.”

The warden blinked at him before bowing his head. “But of course, your Majesty. The Boiling Rock is yours.”

“Thank you.” He thought for a moment before asking, “Where is that… niece of the previous warden?” If it was the niece of a warden of this prison, she had to be highborn. Zuko was very curious to find out what she had done to get locked in here .

The warden paused before replying, “Cell A4, East Wing.”

“Thank you.”

The guards parted as Keeli pushed him forward. Anzo moved to the front of their group to guide Zuko through the prison.

“What’s that way?” Zuko asked, pointing to a hallway that they passed.

“Those are the coolers,” Anzo said gravely. Zuko thought of the feeling of not being able to create fire, how horrible that feeling had been the first time he had felt it, and he shuddered. 

“Yeah, no, I don’t need to see those.”

A prisoner scowled at him as he moved by the moment they entered, and then saw his crown in his topknot and took a small step toward him only to be met with a sword at his throat from Ming and the threat of fire playing in Lee’s hand. The prisoner scurried away, and Zuko reached up to pull down his topknot, allowing the hair to fully fall around his head loosely. He tucked the crown away into a pocket in his shirt.

The people here looked miserable . Zuko wondered what they had done to deserve being treated this badly . He would have to change some things in prisons, too, then. Make them livable , make the people in there learn to be better instead of just making them suffer.

“Where’s that cell with the niece of the other warden?” Zuko asked Anzo after they had toured the entire prison and the prisoners were mostly out in the yard.

Anzo led them to a cell in what seemed to be a more private part of the prison. Zuko placed his hands on the wheels of the wheelchair before saying, “Keeli, I want you to let my wheel myself in. I don’t want anyone else in view. Just me at the girl.” At their protesting looks, he said, “I’ll be fine. You’ll all be there to jump in if need be. Just close the door behind me and listen in.”

They literally could not protest with him, so they all nodded and Keeli positioned him in front of the door before stepping away as well. Anzo pulled the door open after unlocking with the keys he had gotten from another guard earlier. Light filtered into the cell and Zuko steeled his resolve. He had survived Ozai . He could survive whoever this lady was

He wheeled himself in and the door slowly closed behind him.

In another life, he might not be able to see anything in this room, because the light from the window was very minimal, but his eyes adjusted immediately.

In the corner, there was a girl who looked much younger than he thought she would be . Maybe just a little older than he was? What had she done to get locked up in a place like this? Then again, he had gotten locked up in a place worse than this for much less, he was sure, so anything was possible .

She looked well-fed, and he realized that, from what he had seen with the other prisoners, they were all well-fed. Well, at least this place was getting something right.

“Who are you and what do you want with me?”

All right, then, getting straight to the point. 

The girl stood up from where she had been in the corner, and leaned against the wall, looking down at him from across the room and not even hiding that she was unimpressed.

Her hair was dark and shiny, with long strands in front and bangs that all came together to frame her face nicely. She carried herself as if she would rather be anywhere but here talking to him . If you could call it talking . She acted like she didn’t care .

Then, suddenly, she locked eyes with him and opened her mouth to speak again, and everything just fell into place .

He remembered a little girl playing with his sister. An apple on her head. Then, fire was there instead. He remembered this blinding fear for a split second as he tackled her into the fountain. He was on top of her, and Azula was laughing, and the other girl was laughing, and the girl beneath him was scowling. His face was red, and her face was red, and they were both dripping wet as he stormed off. Girls are crazy…

“I said, who are you and what do you want with me?”

It was more of a demand than a question.

Zuko felt his heart pounding, and it sort of hurt , and his throat was dry and his mouth was dry and his mind was dry because he couldn’t remember her name .

He thought of smirks across a courtyard, of denial, of burning apples and laughing sisters, and of a time when he could say that he might have actually been happy , and it clicked.

She went to speak one more time, her face scrunched up with irritation, but he managed to find his voice and speak.

Mai?

Chapter Text

Keeli had been six when she first stepped into the royal palace, clutching her mother’s hand tightly as she accompanied the woman to work for the day. She remembered being completely blown away by the entire thing. Reds swirled together in the walls, golden dragons winding around pillars, their glittering ruby eyes seeming to stare into her soul. Her mother had tightened her grip on Keeli’s hand and led her away.

When Keeli was ten, she was in the palace with her mother again when there was sudden chaos. People were yelling, running up and down corridors, and Keeli’s mother had pulled her away to the quarters for those servants that lived in the palace. The chaos hadn’t calmed down by night, and so they stayed there, Keeli drifting in and out of consciousness until day broke. Then, news spread through the palace that Princess Ursa, wife of Prince Ozai, had given birth to a son and that the child’s spark was small when he was born. The baby had been strong enough, but early , and his inner fire was dim, they claimed. If he lived through the first month on his own, there was a suspicion that Prince Ozai would end the child himself. It would be easy to make it look like an accident when the child was so young.

Keeli had cried into her mother’s chest that night as her mother tucked her in, before turning to the setting sun, letting the rays fall over her face as she prayed to Agni to let the royal baby live. She had never seen a royal baby before, and she wanted him to live long enough for her to get the chance.

Maybe Agni had heard her prayer because one month later, the baby was bathed in the light of Agni in front of the gathering of nobles, the common folk gathered outside, and Keeli with her mother inside of the palace, cleaning the floors and straining to see the event. She listened as the Fire Sage called out to the crowd, saying a weird bumble of words that she hadn’t really processed before she watched him raise the quiet boy up into the sunlight and call out, “ Prince Zuko .”

Her mother had rapped her on the hand when she cheered with the crowd. Now, Keeli understood why. The palace was a dangerous place to be. Best not to draw attention.

Keeli had been twelve the first time she had met the Crown Prince’s son, Prince Lu Ten. She had been off in the palace cleaning the floors alone (while her mother worked in the royal quarters) when she had heard the whistling from the other end of the corridor.

A random melody that Keeli recognized from the festival a few months ago to celebrate Prince Zuko’s birth and naming filled the hall, bouncing off the walls and swelling in her soul.

Keeli fought to not freeze and look up. Anyone moving through these corridors with such ease was most definitely someone of high standing.

Then, suddenly, as they were nearing her, the footsteps stopped. The whistling stopped.

“Whoa, you’re young .”

Keeli had looked up involuntarily before immediately dropping her eyes again, scrubbing at the floor harder than before.

“How old are you? Five?”

The voice hadn’t gone through puberty, it cracked, and Keeli had retorted without thinking, “You’re not exactly an old master yourself,” she had said before her eyes had widened as she realized who she was talking to and adding on hastily, “My Prince.”

There had been silence, and the movement of Keeli’s hands had stopped as her thoughts took over the majority of her.

Then, suddenly, the prince had laughed. It was such a loud, joyful sound that Keeli had begun to join him, their laughs spinning through the air in a boisterous harmony.

“You’re funny,” Prince Lu Ten had said when they both had calmed. “What’s your name?”

“Keeli, my Prince,” Keeli had replied, scrambling to her feet, her scrubber forgotten.

The prince had grinned. “I’m Lu Ten. Nice to meet you, Keeli.” 

Keeli had cracked a smile and nodded before bowing lowly. A moment passed before Lu Ten did the same, though not quite as low.

The two had grinned at each other when they rose, and Lu Ten had stayed with her while she worked that day.

And thus began one of the world’s most unusual friendships.

When Keeli was thirteen, she was officially signed in to work at the royal palace. She got full wages (which still weren’t that much, but it was more than when she had worked under-the-table cleaning floors), and it was great because her father had gotten injured recently and wasn’t able to work. It was hard to do manual labor when your foot was turning the wrong way. So, at least until he healed (which was going to take months), Keeli and her mother were her family’s only sources of income. Keeli and her mother, working day and night to feed themselves, her father, and her four siblings.

Keeli had worked every day, and almost every day she had seen Prince Lu Ten.

They would talk together, and they never got in trouble, so they kept talking. Lu Ten would talk about his favorite and least favorite part s about being a prince. He would talk about how his uncle scared him, and his father loved him, and his aunt was kind to him. He spoke of his cousin Prince Zuko, and how the little boy seemed to stick to his mother like a lifeline. He spoke of his other cousin, the recently-born Princess Azula, who had lit her curtain on fire three weeks after coming into the world, and who he was worried for, because she already had his uncle’s favor.

In turn, Keeli would speak of her own family. She would speak of her calm father, whose hands were rough when he worked but soft when he came home and embraced her. She would speak of her mother, who was so hard, but who loved them all so fiercely. She would speak of her younger brother by five years, who would roll in the dirt one minute and then sweep through the house on a cleaning spree in the next. She would speak of her other younger brothers by six years, the twins, one of whom loved to paint and the other of which could carve little statues from anything and make them look professional. She would speak of her younger sister by four years, who skipped through the streets in the day, making mischief, and then weaved words into stories in the night, turning into a scholar of a sort.

They had spoken of other things too, of course, but those were the ones most present in her mind now.

When Keeli was fourteen, she had met Crown Prince Iroh, Lu Ten’s father.

“There she is, father,” Lu Ten had said, his voice echoing through the empty corridor as he had finally found Keeli that day. “Father, this is my friend, Keeli. Keeli, this is my father, Crown Prince Iroh.”

“She knows who I am, son,” Iroh had said, sending a calm smile Lu Ten’s way. Keeli stared into the crown prince’s eyes as he looked at his son and saw the love bubbling behind them.

“It’s an honor to meet you, my Prince,” Keeli had said, bowing lowly.

Iroh had turned to her and given her a nod. “Any friend of Lu Ten is a friend of mine,” Iroh had said. Then, in an act that she was sure broke all sorts of rules, Iroh had taken a step forward and wrapped her up in an embrace, pulling his son in as well, to where Keeli’s face was less than a foot from Lu Ten’s, and she could feel his breath on her skin until they were released.

Six months after that, Keeli met Iroh for the second time. Alone. No Lu Ten in sight.

“Ah, Miss Keeli,” Iroh had said.

“My Prince,” she had greeted, dipping into a bow, the broom clutched in her hand.

“Oh, no, nothing of that, there’s no one here but us,” he had said. “Walk with me?”

“Of course, my Prince,” she had said, moving to his side. She made sure not to move in front of him, staying just a few inches behind him.

“So, how long have you known my son?” 

Well, at least he was cutting right to the chase. No cushioning questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” or, “How’s your family?”

“I’ve known him about a year-and-a-half, my Prince.”

Iroh had nodded slowly, seeming to take this in, and suddenly Keeli realized that he might already have known that.

“My son considers you a friend, did you know that?”

Keeli almost shook her head before thinking for a moment and then nodding slowly. “I did, my Prince.”

“He’s rejected every playmate ever brought in for him. Every noble child we could find. He rejected all of them, whether outright or through ignoring them. Every noble child was rejected, yet you, a peasant girl, have found a friend in him.”

Keeli’s face had gone warm. She hadn’t known that.

“Would you like me to… stop, my Prince?”

Iroh had shaken his head quickly. “No, no need to do that. I just want to tell you something.” He had stopped and turned to her and Keeli had tightened her grip on her broom as she took a risk and looked up into his eyes. He didn’t scream or slap her, so she kept her gaze steady with his.

“Yes, my Prince?”

“Friendship is a precious thing. Keep it close to your heart. My son is the most precious thing in the world to me, and the only piece of my wife left in the world, too. He may not seem it, but when it comes to the big things, he’s a fragile boy. He’s never had a real friend. Don’t break that.”

Keeli had found herself nodding. Iroh had given her a smile, though there was now more weight behind it. He had patted her on the shoulder once before turning and walking away. She had watched him until he disappeared around a corner and moved out of view.

That had been the day that Keeli realized, as she spoke to Lu Ten later, that he was the first friend she had ever had as well.

She had cherished their friendship more since that conversation she had had with his father. It had unlocked something inside of her and she had made sure to commit every moment they spent together to memory, because one day he was going to be Fire Lord, and she was just going to be another servant, and these days were going to end.

Keeli remembered most vividly the day she had finally admitted these thoughts to her best (only) friend, as they sat on the railing of his balcony, looking out at the city while she was supposed to be cleaning the room behind them. The city had been having some sort of party, but Keeli had been forced to work, and so the two friends had taken to looking out at the muffled festivities going on down in the streets

Keeli had been so immersed in the flickering lights of the city as she spoke that she hadn’t realized she was crying until he had placed a hand on hers and squeezed it to provide the most comfort he could.

“Do you ever think about it?” She had asked, looking out at the city still, but moving her hand to take his in hers and squeezing back. “How one day all of this is going to end, and you’re going to be the Crown Prince, and then the Fire Lord , and you’re gonna marry some princess, and I’m gonna be a servant for the rest of my life, trying to keep my family alive, and we’re not going to even look at each other anymore, and these days are going to end and-”

She had been cut off by him placing a hand on the side of her face turned away from him. He had turned her toward her, and pulled her a bit closer, and pressed his lips against hers as fireworks exploded in the background, their colors lighting up the night sky.

Keeli sometimes wondered what would have been different for her if she had managed to not fall in love with Prince Lu Ten of the Fire Nation.

Maybe her life wouldn’t have ended up being as painful.

When Keeli was eighteen and Lu Ten was nineteen, he had followed his father off to war. 

“We’re gonna take Ba Sing Se,” he had told her as the two of them sat on the floor of an abandoned corridor.

“But that city hasn’t fallen in a century of war. What makes you think that it’ll fall now?”

Lu Ten had frowned. “Cause this time my father is leading us. He’s one of the best generals in history. Trust me, one day you’ll read about him in all of your history books at home!”

Keeli had flushed and the topic had changed as she reminded him, “I can’t read, Lu.”

His face had turned red and he had smiled softly and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll help you one day, I promise. As soon as I come back from war, as soon as the war is won, I’ll teach you every day until you get it.”

Keeli had cracked a smile in return and nodded. “All right, sounds good.” She had stayed silent for a moment before asking, “When are you leaving?”

“Half a month.”

Keeli had taken in a shaky breath. “All right. All right.” She turned to him. “You better get back fast.”

He had chuckled. “I will.”

The day he had been to leave, he had been waiting at their normal meeting spot when she got there. He had been pacing up and down the hallway when she approached.

“Keeli,” he had breathed out when he spotted her, meeting her halfway.

“Hi, Lu,” she had murmured.

They had stayed there together for as long as they dared before Lu Ten said, “I need to go.”

She had nodded into his chest before turning her head to look up at him. “Promise you’ll come back soon, all right? Promise me , Lu Ten.”

Lu Ten had chuckled and nodded. “I promise.”

“I’m serious , Lu Ten.”

He had stopped his laugh and looked down at her, his eyes steely with resolve as he clutched her hand in his and squeezed it. “I promise .”

She hadn’t been afraid then, because he had never broken his promises before.

It turned out that the most important one was the one he ended up not keeping.

He hadn’t come back.

When Prince Iroh returned two years later, she had tried to speak with him about Lu Ten, but he was lost. He looked as lost as Keeli felt. She knew that she shouldn’t feel like he had it worse than Iroh. He had lost his son , but he had had more years with Lu Ten. Keeli hadn’t had half of her life, and Iroh had been with Lu Ten since the beginning. She just wanted to talk about him with someone. But then, suddenly, Fire Lord Azulon was dead, and Prince Ozai was crowned Fire Lord instead of Prince Iroh, and Prince Iroh was leaving a year later to go on some sort of Spirit Journey that he never returned to the Fire Nation from.

Keeli had been twenty-four years old when she had been summoned by Fire Lord Ozai.

Servants like her were never summoned individually to the Fire Lord, especially if they had never spoken with him before, but she had no other choice.

The guards had escorted her inside and stayed there, and she could feel their steady breathing on her neck as she bowed as low as she possibly could to the Fire Lord behind the roaring flames.

“Rise,” the deep voice above her said. She slowly rose from the bow and trained her eyes on the flames, making sure not to accidentally make eye contact with the man sitting behind the fire. He addressed the guards when he said, “Leave.”

Fire Lord Ozai had gone onto explain that she was to serve his son (the one who was recently banished) before explaining that Prince Zuko was not banished. He was imprisoned

He told her she would carry on with her usual duties and would only feed the prince a certain amount once a week, and she would give him water every other day. There was another food server to serve him one other time during the week. The first time she would go to give the prince food, one of the guards would come to get her to bring her to where he was being held so that she knew how to get there.

Keeli had gathered up the food that had been instructed to give the boy the next morning, the first day she had to give him food. A male guard appeared as she was measuring out the rice.

“Keeli, right?” He asked, his voice echoing through the empty room. Keeli had jumped a bit and nodded. He had cracked a smile. “Cool. I’m Lee.”

“You’re here to… take me wherever I’m supposed to go?”

Lee nodded and the smile fell away. “I am.”

She grabbed the tray and followed him out the door.

“Just to let you know, you’re not allowed to complain about him. Or say anything else about him to anyone . We’ve already lost one blabby-mouth guard in the four days we’ve been guarding him,” Lee explained. “It’s… It’s bad, but you can’t say anything about it, got it? If not for yourself, then for your family.”

Keeli had felt dread settle in her stomach and nodded.

They had gone through a random door in a random hallway and the door had opened to reveal a stone hallway with cold stone stairs and flickering torches that didn’t seem to make anything warmer.

Finally, they made it to the end of the long hallway and made it to a door. There was a female guard there. Ming , her mind had supplied, remembering the name Lee had mentioned on their way down the stone stairs.

Ming had nodded to her and Lee and moved to unlock and pull the cell door open. The two guards fell into place as Keeli stepped forward, making sure that the tray didn’t tremble in her hands. 

The door slid shut and there were the cell bars in front of her that separated her from the tiny figure in the cell. Actually, Prince Zuko hadn’t lost any weight yet. He was wearing prison rags instead of the regal clothes she was used to seeing him in. For once, he truly looked his age. He didn’t look like a prince who was arrogant, but innocent, and kind, and, good , and who complimented servants on their hair once in a while, and who wanted to become a good Fire Lord, and who had defended new recruits against his father, and who had paid the price .

Keeli’s fist had tightened when she saw the burn marks on his face. She remembered the Fire Lord telling her to figure out some way to treat it. Ozai hadn’t wanted his son to die of infection so soon.

Keeli had pulled out the key Lee had handed her, unlocking the door and kneeling to place the tray of food down.

The boy had watched her as she placed the food down. He had looked up at her when she straightened up again.

“What is this?” he had asked.

She had tightened her lips and nodded to the food.

“Food?” His eyes had moved to the rice and chicken. She had nodded.

She had watched the prince as he greedily ate his tiny portion and gulped down the water. She had prayed to Agni that he wasn’t so unconditioned to food already that she threw it up as she had seen with people starving on the streets of the city.

He hadn’t, thankfully.

She had taken the tray and empty containers away, studying his burn with her eyes one more time before deciding to look for cures or salves for intense burns in her grandmother’s old book. She could ask her husband to tell her what she needed. At least he was able to read. She had nodded to the imprisoned prince before locking the cell again and knocking twice on the door. It had slid open to let her out. She had never moved so fast as she did then to get back into the regular palace, away from this hellhole.

Keeli still came back every day. One day, while she had been moving down to deliver some water for that day, she had heard screaming, followed by sobbing, followed by more screaming. She had heard a mix of words like “ sun ” “ can’t ” “ where ” and “ feel ”. She had increased her pace and walked to an open door to the cell. She had strolled in to see Anzo and Tyne, the two other guards, holding the prince down as he thrashed around. Keeli had watched in horror for a moment before toward Tyne and leaning down so the guard could whisper in her ear. Tyne had explained that the prince had lost his connection to the sun after so many days in here, in the cold, in the dark, without the sun. Keeli had winced. She wasn’t a firebender, but she knew people who were, and she was sure that it must hurt to feel such a strong connection severed.

She had handed the water to Anzo who placed it on the floor a few feet away while she had moved around Tyne to be by the sobbing boy’s head.

His eyes had been glazed over in pain and fear, and he didn’t seem to really register her presence as she pulled his head onto her lap. Though he would never remember it, Keeli sang to him that night, for hours on end, until he drifted into unconsciousness. She had reached through her mind for every song she had ever heard as she sang melodies of her childhood.

She sang of rainbows and colors splashing over clouds in sunsets. She sang of heartbeats and quiet nights and fair maidens waiting to be whisked away. She sang of cold nights and warm embraces and forbidden loves. She sang of flowers in bloom and moonlit fields and sparkling oceans and she sang of cold stones and sad smiles and new dawns on the horizon. She sang of fathers, of mothers, of sisters, of brothers, of families lost and families found, and she sang of a little prince who just wanted to do what was right, and she sang of what it had cost him. She sang of that little prince until the little prince below her stilled into unconsciousness.

Keeli had met her husband when she was younger, but she hadn’t seen him for a long time.

She hadn’t thought that she would ever be able to love again after Lu Ten, she would leave the continuation of the family to her four siblings, she was never going to love again.

Then, one day, when she was twenty-two, about a month after Prince Iroh had left, Keeli had been down by the harbor, looking through the market for better deals than in the center of the capital city, when she heard a voice from a nearby ship.

“Off with you, then, off! I’ve half a mind to report you! You’re lucky I’m in a good mood, boy , I’m normally not so kind to stowaways.”

She had watched out of the corner of her eye as the captain of a ship tossed a young man off onto the docks. She had clicked her tongue in disappointment at the stowaway, but she had softened when she saw the scars he sported across his face. He was clearly a soldier or had at least seen some sort of battle . She had sighed at the pity growing in her heart for the man as she moved closer.

“You need some help?” She has asked, extending a hand to help him up.

He had turned to her and blinked as if he was looking at someone else instead of a stranger. She had raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not gonna hold my hand out forever, you know.”

He had nodded and grabbed the hand, accepting her help as she pulled him up. He was taller than her when he fully stood up.

She had looked up at his face for real this time and quickly scanned it. He had a long scar right over one of his eyes, so he must be half-blind. His hair was cut into a buzz-cut. He had quite a few injuries that looked like they hadn’t healed right. She could have scowled.

She had realized then that he was still holding her hand. She had gone to take it away when he tightened his grip on her and pulled her away and into a nearby alley.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” She had cried, wrenching her hand away from him. She had moved to run but he grabbed her arm. She had stopped and whirled around to look at him. “What do you want?!”

His lips had moved wordlessly, uselessly, for a moment, before his face had fallen even more and he had whispered out, hope filling his voice, “ Keeli?

She had stopped struggling completely, choosing to stand in shock instead because he knew her name .

“How do you know my name?”

He had smiled at her as if he had not heard her venomous words and reached up to brush a strand of hair behind her ear. She hadn’t moved.

He had let out a small, breathy laugh. “I’m sorry I…” His words failed him, and his golden eyes met hers and he sighed, the smile still playing on his lips as he took a deep breath and said, “I know it took a while, I didn’t come back soon , but I came back. I promised , and I never break a promise.”

She had frozen because there was only one person that this could be. She had reached up and cupped his cheek, tears threatening to spill over. Then, after a long moment, she had breathed out, “ Lu Ten?

He had laughed wetly, nodding into her hand. She had felt her heart stop and she was laughing now too, and she was crying now too, and they were both giggly, sobbing messes.

“I don’t understand, they said you died, Lu, you died .”

He had shrugged and spread his arms. “Guess I didn’t.”

She had taken him back to her tiny house and they had sat on her bed together, side-by-side, talking.

“What happened?” She had asked, tracing a finger over the long scar running over his right eye.

“My uncle,” Lu Ten had replied bitterly. “He tried to have me killed. During the battle, like ten assassins came at me, dressed as Earth Kingdom, but wearing the family crest and bending fire. He wanted to be Fire Lord, and I was in the way, so he tried to have me killed. I… I can’t see out of this eye, now, and my hearing in my left ear is half gone. Not all the way, but enough to where it gets annoying. Half of my shit never fully healed, and my shoulder always hurts, and it all just… sucks…”

“Does it hurt?” She had asked, hesitating with the finger moving on his scar.

“Not when you touch it.”

She had continued.

“Why don’t you announce that you’re alive?” She had asked.

He had shaken his head. “My uncle is already Fire Lord. He has even more power than before. He’ll just have me killed. My father is nowhere to be found. And… I never even wanted to be Fire Lord, anyway. It’s kind of nice that I don’t have to be that anymore.”

“What… What do you want?” Keeli had asked, meeting his eyes.

He had placed a hand on hers and squeezed. “You.”

Keeli had married ex-Prince-who-was-now-in-hiding Lu Ten in front of her family and her closest friends about six months later. Then, a year after that, she had given birth to twins, a boy, and a girl, Kobe and Zara.

The day that Keeli had first seen the state that Prince Zuko was in now in his new… conditions… she had gone home and told her husband immediately.

He had flipped right out.

I’m going to kill him, Keeli, I’m going to kill the Fire Lord ,” he had growled out, trying to push past her as Keeli desperately held him back.

“Lu, no, stop , think of the kids, think of the kids .”

He had hesitated, and she had managed to push him back into a chair. She had moved behind him and played with his hair, which was still in the buzz-cut style after Lu Ten had decided he liked it more this way.

“One day, darling, one day, and, trust me, I hate it too, I do, I do, but he’s the most powerful man in the world, both in terms of power and in terms of politics. You know this. You’re the one who told me these things.”

He had nodded slowly, a scowl still on his face.

“Just… if this was right when you had returned, maybe it would be different, but now we’ve got the kids, too.”

Lu Ten had stiffened and nodded. “You’re right,” he had said after a moment. “Obviously.”

“One day, I promise. One day.”

That day had come when Prince Zuko was crowned Fire Lord over three years later. Keeli had managed to spot Lu Ten (who went under the guise, Lu Lee) lifting Kobe and Zara up so that they could see. They waved to her, and she resisted waving back as a sixteen-year-old who had seen horrors worse than any of them slowly struggled to his feet and stood to face his nation.

That night, as the festivities of the party in the streets finally died down, Keeli’s children requested a song for bed. She took a seat on the edge of their bed in the main room of the house as Lu Ten sat on one of the chairs around the table, listening closely as she began to sing.

She sang of rainbows and colors splashing over clouds in sunsets. She sang of heartbeats and quiet nights and fair maidens waiting to be whisked away. She sang of cold nights and warm embraces and forbidden loves. She sang of flowers in bloom and moonlit fields and sparkling oceans and she sang of cold stones and sad smiles and new dawns on the horizon. She sang of fathers, of mothers, of sisters, of brothers, of families lost and families found, and she sang of a little prince who just wanted to do what was right, and she sang of what it had cost him. She sang of that little prince until her own little prince and princess below her stilled into unconsciousness.

She sang of that little prince as a boy struggled to fall asleep in lonely quarters in the palace.

She sang of that little prince as her eyes were on her husband, his amber eyes staring out the window at the sparkling palace in the distance.

She sang of that little prince until the noises of the streets died down, leaving only her voice to blend with the night air and lull the world to sleep.

Chapter Text

She was on her feet in less than a second, her eyes gleaming through her narrow lids as she glared at him. “How do you know my name?”

Zuko didn’t process her question, instead simply letting out a small breathy laugh (the only kind that didn’t make his throat explode in aches) and whispering, “ Mai .”

“Listen, I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m not telling you anything. I don’t know where the Avatar is, I wasn’t working with him, end of story. So, I suggest you get out,” she growled, clenching her fists and taking a step into the light. The small bit streaming from the window gave her a menacing silhouette that reminded Zuko strikingly of someone else that he knew. He turned his eyes down and away from her and tried to force the image of his father from his mind. He wouldn’t cry, he wouldn’t break down, not here, not now. He saw her feet move a bit and when he looked back up, she was out of the light again.

The image of his father was gone. For now.

Leave ,” she hissed.

Zuko stared at her and took in her appearance for a moment, not really hearing her words.

She had the same kind of gleam in her eye that he remembered from his childhood, but everything else had changed. Her dark… aura… was about the same, sure, but the rest of her had shifted. 

When he had known her, there had still been that air of childhood innocence, the kinda that they had all had back then before war and treachery had touched the very core of the royal family. She had seen the world, the real world, not the sheltered one they had grown up in. He could tell from the way her eyes seemed darker, the way that they had been touched by the cut-throat nature of the war that had been waged. He recognized the darkness because he had seen an even worse case of it in himself when he looked in the mirror that morning. Different cause, same result, though one was worse than the other (obviously, he remarked to himself bitterly).

 It was strange to replace his last memory of Mai with this version. She was so much older. She was pretty, he had to admit, but after everything that had happened, a childhood crush that he may have once harbored wasn’t there anymore. Not much from his childhood at all was there anymore.

Zuko wet his lips as best he could and as Mai opened her mouth to speak, he did instead, his scratchy voice filling the room.

“When you were a kid,” he began, trying not to wince at how hoarse his voice was. He was suddenly very aware of the fact. “When you were a kid, you were friends with Princess Azula.”

Mai raised an eyebrow and leaned back against the wall, no longer two seconds from attacking him, but not off guard all the same. She didn’t need to be on-guard, anyway. It wasn’t like he could do anything. He couldn’t even stand . “Where are you going with this?”

He ignored her and continued. “You played with her in the courtyard sometimes, with another girl. And then, sometimes, her brother would show up. He would walk with his mother, and the princess would call him over and he’d be forced to play with you.”

Mai was watching him with such a calculating gaze, it was scary. 

His childhood was all a blur right now. He hadn’t thought about it much while imprisoned, and the memories had faded a bit, so he latched onto the clearest one he had of Mai.

“One day, you were playing and the princess called her brother over.” Zuko paused. “He… He didn’t want to play, but his mother forced him to. The princess… The princess put an apple on your head and then caught it on fire, and her brother… her brother thought it was going to burn you, so he… he tackled you into the fountain…”

Mai’s eyes widened for a split-second before going back to neutral, and if he was focusing on her more than on the memory, he might have seen the gears turning in her head. 

“And… and he was on top of you, and the apple was there in the water, and it wasn’t on fire anymore, and the princess and the other girl were laughing at you two, and the brother got up and left because…” He took in a shaky breath and snapped out of the memory enough to move his gaze to meet hers. “Because… Because girls are crazy…”

Mai stared at him for a long moment before her guard seemed to drop. Her face fell and she asked weakly, for once looking as young as she actually was, “ Zuko?

He nodded as best as he could and waved his hand, fighting for it to stay strong and actually move when he wanted it to. “Hi, Mai.”

She took a small step forward, and it looked almost involuntary. “Oh, Agni, Zuko .” She paused and asked carefully, her tone suddenly hard, “Where were you?”

He blinked. “What do you mean?”

“For the past three years, where were you?” Her gaze was cold all of a sudden. She had recovered from the shock of seeing him pretty quickly, then.

“What, Azula didn’t tell you?” He asked, furrowing his eyebrows. He would have thought his sister would have excitedly told her friends how her traitor brother was being tortured by their father, paying for his crimes each and every day.

Mai shook her head. “I asked her about you. She didn’t know where you were either. She didn’t believe your father when he said you were just being raised in a secure location, but she never got your exact situation out of him.”

Zuko’s mouth was dry, and he was acutely aware of it all of a sudden. “She didn’t… She didn’t know?

Mai nodded. “No one did.” She sighed, and her shoulders sagged a bit before she crossed her arms. “Why are you here?”

Zuko reached inside of his robe and carefully pulled out his crown. He held it into the light and saw the recognition flash in her eyes.

“Oh, I see,” she said, her voice bitter. “I see how it is. You’re finally back, and you’re the Fire Lord now, and you’re here to, what, annoy me out of existence in place of Azula while she and your father are off burning the rest of the world to death. Very funny, I’ve gotta say. I’m laughing-” She took a menacing step forward- “Can’t you tell?”

Zuko stared up at her from his wheelchair before averting his eyes to his feet and saying, “That’s not why I’m here.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Then tell me, oh wise and powerful Fire Lord, why are you here?”

“War prisoners,” he said after a moment. “I heard some were being held here. I came to see them. I didn’t…” His voice faltered for a moment. “I didn’t know you were here.”

“War prisoners?” She snorted. “All right, sure, say I believe you. Why is the Fire Lord bothering with war prisoners when the war is already won?”

“I…” He searched for the words. “Mai, the war is over .”

“Obviously.”

“What I mean is that… that…” This was hard to explain, apparently. “The Avatar beat Azula and my… my father… during Sozin’s Comet, and then I took the throne, and the Fire Nation is backing out of the war.” He dared to look into her eyes, and she wasn’t even trying to hide the shock. “The war is over ,” he said firmly.

“The war is over,” she repeated weakly. She tugged on a lock of her hair and twirled it lazily around a finger. “ Over .” She looked up at him. “ That must have gotten a lot of points for you in the world, huh?”

He shook his head. Maybe, in another life, he would have laughed, but that wasn’t going to happen here. He wondered, still, if he would ever be happy enough to laugh again. He hoped soon. He didn’t really remember what it felt like to laugh, but he knew he liked it. “Not really,” he replied, breaking out of his thoughts. “No, the world kinda hates all of us, still.”

She shrugged. “The world’s stupid.”

“Well, I mean, we did start a war that went on for a hundred years,” Zuko said.

Mai’s lips pressed into a thin line. “ We didn’t start anything.” Her gaze turned back to him again. “Zuko, where were you for the last three years?”

Zuko tightened his grip on the handles of his wheelchair. His eyes stung a bit and he shook his head. “I don’t… I don’t…” His thoughts flashed to when he had told the truth to Pim earlier this same day, and wondered why it was so much harder to talk to Mai about it. Maybe because he knew Mai from the Before. “I can’t …”

Mai’s eyes were on him, but after a moment her voice rang out into the room as she said, “Okay.”

Zuko’s shoulders untensed from a position he hadn’t even realized they were in in the first place.

“How did you get in here, Mai?” Zuko asked after a moment.

Mai chuckled dryly. “Betrayed Azula.”

He nearly choked. “You betrayed Azula?

“Me and Ty Lee, yeah,” she nodded. 

“But…” He thought back to what he remembered of his sister the last time he had seen her. “But Azula’s so scary .”

“She got even scarier .”

Zuko shivered at her words. 

There was a pause before he spoke again. “What did you… What did you do , exactly?”

Mai was silent, and Zuko thought for a moment that she wasn’t going to respond at all. Maybe she hadn’t even heard him. But, then, she spoke again.

“When we were tracking your uncle in the Earth Kingdom-” She glazed right over it, but Zuko’s mind blipped at the mention of his uncle. He only had one of those, Uncle Iroh, who he hadn’t seen since he was eleven or twelve, was chased by Azula and her friends across the Earth Kingdom? Nobody had mentioned his uncle since he had gotten out the day before ( Agni, had it really only been one day? ). Mai kept talking, and Zuko snapped out of his own head to listen- “Ty Lee and I got separated from Azula. We had a plan if it ever happened, of course, Azula always has a plan. We would meet her at the drill in Ba Sing Se.” The drill? What was she talking about? There was a lot that Zuko still needed to be filled in on, apparently. Maybe Mai could help with that. 

“While we were traveling, we met a lot of people. We weren’t traveling under the… best conditions, per se, so we relied a lot on the weakness, ahem -” She coughed and changed the word- “ Kindness of others.” She paused for a moment, seeming to gather her bearings before she continued. “When we met back up with Azula in Ba Sing Se, everything seemed to go back to normal for a while, but then…” She hesitated. “We accompanied Azula on a visit here, to the Boiling Rock, because she was desperate to get more information out of one of the war prisoners they have here. She revealed while she was talking to the prisoner that she and Fire Lord Ozai were planning on burning down the Earth Kingdom with the comet. We thought… We thought she was joking . The prisoner did too, Azula got nothing out of her.”

Mai wet her lips and Zuko realized then that his finger was hitting the wood of the wheelchair handle repeatedly as he listened to her story.

“When we were leaving, Ty Lee asked Azula about it. She asked if Azula was lying. Azula said she wasn’t, and she wasn’t lying . Ty Lee… Ty Lee begged her to not burn everything , because she always cared about the people we met there more than I did. She had made friends, and I guess she couldn’t let them burn to death or something.” Mai shook her head. “She’s always been too nice for her own good.”

Zuko would have nodded had he not been so focused on her words.

“Azula said that Ty Lee was foolish. She was childish. She said that they had to burn everything, they had to, and that crying about it wasn’t going to help, but Ty Lee wouldn’t stop , she wouldn’t shut up .

“Azula… turned to me and asked me what I thought, and…” Mai turned away from him, staring at the cracks in the wall instead for a moment before her shoulders shifted down a bit and she continued. “I don’t know, I don’t know why I said it, I don’t know why I was so stupid , but I just…” She shrugged. “I guess I told her what I thought . Azula moved toward me and Ty Lee and I went at her at the same time, and then she was on the ground with a knife holding her wrists down by the fabric around them and totally chi-blocked. Then, well, then there were guards everywhere and we landed here.”

Zuko blinked and his eyes stopped stinging so badly. “Ty Lee… is she here too?”

“Yeah. At least, I think she is,” Mai said. “I haven’t really been let out since being put in here, but I would assume she would’ve locked Ty Lee in here, too.”

There was a wave of silence that fell over them, and Zuko observed Mai as she stared up at the stream billowing into the sky through the tiny window. At least she had a window, he thought bitterly. He hadn’t had a window. Then, he realized that he would never wish what he had gone through on anyone , and that he should be happy that Mai got a bit of luxury in her little cell.

“Come on,” he said before he realized the words were coming out of his mouth. “We’re leaving.”

She stood up a bit straighter and turned back to him. “What?”

“We’re leaving. I’m leaving. You’re… You’re coming, too.”

Mai stared at him for a long moment with a completely blank expression before saying, “I’m not arguing, just surprised.”

“I had no idea.”

He realized that that might have been the first thing that could be considered a joke that he told since he was freed. Which was only yesterday , so maybe that was good progress? Could sarcasm be considered a joke? If he had known at one point in his life, he didn’t know anymore.

He backed the wheelchair up and knocked his hand against the door a few times.

“I’m coming out,” he said as firmly as he could. 

Zuko realized as the door slid open and Mai took a step forward that his hands were shaking.

He clenched his fists.

It didn’t help.

“Your grace, is she coming as well?” Anzo asked, and his calm voice grounded Zuko. He glanced at the guard and nodded.

“She is.”

The door slid closed after Mai took the final step out.

“I’m sure Pim has something better you can wear back on the airship, Miss,” Keeli spoke, breaking through the silence.

Mai sighed and tugged at the sleeves of the prison uniform they must have forced her into, because, from what she Zuko remembered, she had always been so well-dressed when they were younger. “What a dream that would be,” she said, scowling. “This is scratchier than a bale of hay.”

“Anzo,” Zuko said, turning his head. “Do you know where we might find Mai’s… accomplice?”

Anzo, to his credit, seemed to figure out quickly that Mai was the other teenager who had come out with Zuko. He nodded after a moment.

“I believe so, my Lord,” he said. “It is most likely that they would have been held in the same area. I would be led to believe they would be in this same block, unless this place has severely changed since I was last here.”

“Could you and…” He scanned the members of his little party. “...Tyne go and check the cells in this block.” He turned to Mai. “What does she look like?”

“Long hair, annoyingly happy, responds to the name Ty Lee,” Mai supplied.

Anzo and Tyne both bowed before splitting and going in opposite directions. A moment later, the large room was filled with the scraping sounds of opening doors.

“So, Fire Lord, huh?” Mai spoke, filling the silence that had fallen over the group.

Zuko nodded. “Yeah, they just came down to me one day and were like, ‘Hey, you’re Fire Lord now,’ and then I was crowned, and here we are.”

Mai’s brow furrowed a bit but whatever she wanted to ask was clearly not the question that came out of her mouth. “When were you crowned?”

“Um… Yesterday?”

Her eyes widened a fraction of an inch as she rounded on him. “Yesterday?” She asked, though it sounded more like a demand or an accusation than anything. Zuko shrank back a bit and nodded.

“Yeah. Like, in the afternoon, I think. I don’t know, I’m not good with time.”

That wasn’t true, he just wasn’t used to being aware of the passage of it and the time of day it was .

“So, you’ve been Fire Lord for one day and you decide to, what, finish a war, visit war prisoners in the Boiling Rock of all places, and then stumble across your sister’s childhood murder friends?”

Lee sputtered. “ Murder friends?

Keeli raised an eyebrow. “Sister?”

Mai gave a smile that was so mischievous it was scary. “I’ve probably taken down more people with my pinky finger than all of you combined,” she said.

Zuko remembered when Mai would practice with her knives in one of the courtyards when they were younger and nodded. “You probably have.”

It was Ming who spoke next. “I believe it. I know who you are. I know what you’re capable of. I believe it.”

Mai offered a grin that didn’t quite meet her eyes as Tyne approached from their right, gripping a teenage girl by the arm.

Mai! ” The girl exclaimed, back-flipping out of Tyne’s grip and springing onto Mai, pulling her into an embrace.

“Hey, Ty Lee,” Mai said, and the smile that appeared actually looked genuine this time.

Ty Lee pulled away and was beaming at Mai. “Did you hear? We’re being let out! By the Fire Lord! See, I told you Azula would come around!”

Mai’s smile fell into a frown. “Ty Lee… Azula’s not the Fire Lord.”

Ty Lee faltered. Her smiled froze in place. It didn’t look real anymore. “What?”

Mai pointed a single finger at Zuko. She had really sharp nails.

Ty Lee turned around and looked down at him. She was much less guarded with her expressions than Mai was, and he was a bit ashamed to admit that he didn’t remember much about her from when they were children. In fact, probably the only reason that he knew her name was because Mai mentioned her by name just a few minutes ago while they were talking.

“Who are you? ” Ty Lee asked, blinking. Her eyes seemed really big as they stared down at him.

“Um, I’m Zuko,” he said. “Fire Lord. Zuko. Fire Lord Zuko.”

Ty Lee’s eyes widened almost comically. “ Zuko? ” She rounded on Mai. “Like, Zuko , Zuko?” Mai’s lips quirked up in the corners as she nodded in confirmation. “ Oh, Agni! ” She turned back to Zuko and blinked, her smile falling for a moment as she seemed to think of something. “Wait,” she said. “ Fire Lord? ” Zuko nodded slowly. “ You’re the Fire Lord?! I thought Azula had that locked down for sure! Man, could this day get any crazier?” 

A beat.

Ty Lee’s face fell.

“Wait, if you’re the Fire Lord…” Her eyes widened, though this time it seemed to be out of horror. “What happened on the day of the comet?” She rounded on Mai, her face frantic. “Did they… Did Azula… Did they actually…” She cut herself off by slamming a hand over her own mouth, muffling the miserable whimpers trying to escape.

“The war is over, Ty Lee,” Zuko said after a moment. “I ended it. My father… They didn’t… burn… the Earth Kingdom. The Avatar… stopped them.”

Ty Lee’s hand moved away from her face and she looked down at Zuko again like she was seeing him for the first time. Then, a smile broke out on her face, and it looked more real than Zuko thought it could. 

“Ty Lee, no springing onto the Fire Lord,” Mai said, placing a hand on Ty Lee’s shoulder, seemingly to hold her back. Zuko sent the most grateful look to Mai that he could.

“Sorry, sorry.” Ty Lee backed up a step, but she was bouncing on her toes as she did.

“All right, so…” Zuko thought for a moment, his gaze focused on the floor so as to not get distracted. “Um… Ming, can you take Mai and Ty Lee back to the… the airship? The rest of us… er, let’s go find those actual war prisoners.” He paused for a moment and then added, “If they… If they bother you when you’re trying to leave, just… just say that I said it was okay. They can… They can bring it up to me if they have a problem with that.” 

Ming gave a firm nod and placed a hand on both Mai and Ty Lee’s backs. Mai took a step forward away from her touch, but Ty Lee didn’t react in the slightest.

“Anzo, do you know where they might have put the prisoners for us to speak with them?” Zuko asked, his eyes still on Mai and Ty Lee’s retreating forms.

“There’s a meeting room near the warden’s quarters. They might be there.”

Anzo led the way through the prison again, and Zuko once more found himself drowning in thoughts.

Or, more accurately, drowning in memories .

Memories he thought had been lost forever to the sleepless nights and painful days of his imprisonment were slowly seeping back into his mind. Not full ones, but little bits. 

Mom, can Zuko play with us?

I don’t want to play with you!

Well, I think that’s a wonderful idea, Azula .”

Just shoot the apple off of the other person’s head .”

Aw, they’re so cute together!

Girls are crazy!

He wondered why that memory was so present in his mind. Maybe because it was one of the last ones of its kind before everything went downhill. Before his cousin died, and his grandfather died, and his father was crowned, and his mother left him .

“Here we are, my Lord,” Anzo said, breaking Zuko from the confines of his own mind.

“Can one of you go inside and check?”

Anzo disappeared into the room and then emerged a moment later with the warden.

“Your Majesty,” the warden bowed. “The war prisoners you requested to see are just inside.”

Zuko wet his lips. “Two of them?”

“All two of them, your grace.”

Zuko nodded. “All right. Okay. Anything I should know about them? Like… are they… violent?”

“They know that if they defy that’s the end of it for them,” the warden said, a scary smile overtaking his features.

“Okay,” Zuko said, fighting past the lump in his throat. “Okay, I want everyone else out of there. Just me and the prisoners.” He narrowed his eyes when both Lee and Tyne went to argue. “You heard what I said.”

There was a wave of bows in his direction before Anzo slid the door open. The warden beckoned out his own two guards that had been inside and bowed to Zuko before stepping back. 

Keeli slowly pushed him inside and positioned him in front of the table that the two prisoners were seated at. Zuko kept his eyes on his feet as Keeli released the handles. He heard her shoes move against the stone away from him and then heard the scraping sound of the door closing.

He could feel the gazes of the two prisoners on him. The two sets of eyes probably trying to glare him into oblivion.

He was the Fire Lord , though, and whether they liked it or not, he held the power here. He was the Fire Lord .

He cleared his throat, which was starting to ache again. He would have to get some more water when they got out of here.

Slowly, Zuko moved his gaze from his feet up to the two prisoners. They… weren’t what he was expecting, exactly.

The first was a man, probably old enough to be his father, who had dark hair to his shoulders with beads tied into the locks near the front. Blue beads, he noted. Probably Water Tribe, then, if Zuko’s knowledge of the world was anything to go by. The man’s eyes (blue as well) were hard and narrow and Zuko immediately averted his gaze when their eyes met. He made a note to himself to not make eye contact with that man again any time soon.

The other prisoner was a girl, and she looked to be about his age. She was so young , probably just a teenager. What was she doing locked up in the highest security prison in the world as a war prisoner? Her auburn hair was short, and when he met her eyes he saw the same thing that he had seen in Mai’s earlier. She had been touched by war, though he supposed she had been on the receiving end of it instead. Her eyes were just as cold and hard as the Water Tribe man’s had been, and Zuko shifted his gaze again after a moment.

“So, uh, hi,” he said awkwardly. Great start, really establishing what you’re here to do, Zuko. 

“Hi,” the man responded, though his tone was anything but welcoming. The girl’s glare just hardened as she said nothing.

“So, yeah, uh, I guess you’re, uh, probably wondering… who I am?”

“I honestly couldn’t care less,” the girl said, and Zuko nearly jumped at how angry she sounded.

“Well, uh, I’m gonna, uh, I’m gonna tell you anyway, I guess,” Zuko said, and he wondered how he was ever going to survive running a country. 

He shifted under their gazes a bit before saying, “So, um, I’m Zuko. Er, Fire Lord Zuko. Yeah. I’m the… I’m the Fire Lord… My name is Zuko.”

They both straightened a bit, but their shoulders tensed.

“The Fire Lord?” Water Tribe (because Zuko didn’t feel like coming up with anything else right now, so Water Tribe it was) asked, though his voice sounded mocking, so Zuko resisted nodding his head in agreement. Sure enough, he added a moment later, “And why would the oh so powerful Fire Lord pay a visit to us lowly war prisoners?”

“Well, I guess you could maybe be considered just ‘prisoners’ now,” Zuko said, though it was more to himself than anything. He wondered if there was policy for that. “Wait, no.” The war wasn’t even officially over yet. It had been one day . There was still a lot of paperwork. He would give it at least another month, if not more, for things to settle down enough for the world to really come to an agreement.

The girl’s eyes seemed to widen a bit and his eyes snapped to her as she spoke. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Zuko shifted in his seat a bit as he thought up an explanation. “Okay, well, er… About… three days ago, there was this comet. Called Sozin’s Comet. It-”

“Grants firebenders unimaginable power, we know,” Water Tribe interrupted.

“Er, yeah, it does that. So, uh, my father, the old Fire Lord, and my sister were going to use its power to, well, burn the Earth Kingdom.” At their looks, he shrunk down. “Yeah, uh, just full-on burn it. But, er, don’t worry! The, er, the Avatar and his, um, his... friends, I guess, defeated both of them. I mean, some stuff still got burned, I’m sure, I actually haven’t gotten to that point in any paperwork or anything, but, like, I don’t think anyone died, so… Yeah… The… The war is over. I’m ending it.” He paused. “I mean, I could continue it, but like… I don’t want to? Like, my family’s kinda sucked for the last few generations, and I guess I want to, er, change that? Yeah…”

The two prisoners stared at him and their guarded expressions had fallen in that moment of shock.

Zuko’s throat hurt from all the talking.

“So, uh…” He cleared his throat again, and wished once more for more water. “What are your names?” He extended a hand over the table.

He was great at conversation, he knew.

The girl looked like she didn’t want to respond. The man didn’t seem to want to, either.

Then, as Zuko was preparing to pull his hand back, feeling strangely dejected, the girl scowled and shot her hand forward, grabbing his in hers.

Zuko flinched , and hoped very much that they didn’t notice. The way the man’s eyes flickered made him think at least he had.

“I’m Suki, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, and this is Hakoda, Chief of the Southern Water Tribe.”

Well…

Shit...

Chapter Text

Oh, man, oh, shit, oh, man, oh, shit, oh, man, oh, shit, oh, man-

Zuko’s mind didn’t seem to want to form any other words than what it was currently running on repeat.

Because, of course, the two war prisoners at the Boiling Rock were important people! It wouldn’t make sense for them not to be. It was the Boiling Rock , for spirits’ sake!

But, still, for one of them to be the leader of the warriors of what he was sure from a lesson he could barely recall from a few years ago was supposed to be a neutral party, not to mention the fact that said warriors and little island-nation-thing was named after a past Avatar wasn’t the best luck. The fact that he was now noticing that her shoulder wasn’t quite right and her right arm had a spot with a burn that hadn’t healed correctly didn’t help things either.

Then there was the man, who was the chief , the leader , if you would, of one-half of one of the two nations that his country had been at war with for the past century. That was just his luck, wasn’t it? Two people who probably hated Zuko just for what he represented . Not that many people liked what he represented, he added bitterly in his head. Then, like with the girl, the chief had a few unhealed injuries as well. A burn here and there, and two fingers that didn’t look like they could move properly.

“Hey, Fire Lord, snap out of it!”

Zuko blinked, and his gaze flicked from the girl ( Suki , he reminded himself) to the man ( Chief Hakoda ), and suddenly the blue beads made even more sense. Actually, it was a shocker that the chief had been allowed to keep those in his hair while he was imprisoned. He would have thought those would have been swiftly taken from him.

“Sorry, sorry,” Zuko said, shaking his head a bit. He hadn’t even said too much yet (much less than he was sure he would have to, he probably owed them a lot of explanations), but his throat was already aching, and his voice sounded raspier than usual. “I… I got, er, caught up in my thoughts, there, I guess.”

Suki raised an eyebrow and shifted a bit, straightening up just a small bit in her chair. “I could tell.” Chief Hakoda stayed attentive in his chair, his arms crossed and his shockingly ocean-blue eyes trying to stare holes into Zuko’s skull if the intensity of his gaze was anything to go by.

Zuko moved his gaze away and fiddled with his fingers below the table. He hoped that they couldn’t see. He had been squirmy before, but now that he knew who these people were, now that he knew that these people were really pretty damn important , he felt like he wanted to do nothing more than run (or, er, wheel ) out of the room.

He wondered, vaguely, why his nerves were getting the better of him now when they hadn’t at the council meeting earlier. He supposed that it was because of the circumstances. During the meeting, he had, technically, held the power. He was the one in charge. He could have, if he so chose to, banished all of those council members, ruined their lives (but that would come back to bite him in the butt if he did, he was sure). Still, he was the council’s ruler, and they had to listen to him, at least a bit.

With Mai and Ty Lee, though, he was reminded of Before, when life was peaceful (or at least seemed that way), and he had been unprepared, and so desperate for them to like him, that he had stumbled over his words.

Zuko was finally processing everything that had happened to him in the last day, too, and it was a lot .

He, silently, cursed his father once more. He felt this way (and might always feel this way) because of his father . He hated that man . The image of his father appeared in his mind and he forced it away as quickly as he could.

Everything was just so much , though, as he thought about it. It all was catching up to him as he sat in his wheelchair across from these two war prisoners. 

He knew that if he thought about it too much, he would break down. That couldn’t happen. He blinked away the stinging feeling in his eyes and his gaze flickered over the wood of the table, tracing the lines, distracting his mind.

He kept repeating to himself that he didn’t need to be scared of them. He was more powerful than them. He had done the same thing when he was in the council meeting, and he had managed to get through that. That had been bad.

Here, though, with these people, it was even worse.

Zuko didn’t really have power over them. He couldn’t command them to speak. He had to make a good impression on them, and the fact that right now was when everything was starting to catch up with him wasn’t helping either.

These were the first world leaders he was meeting (he didn’t know if the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors counted, but he was going to tell himself she did, just to be safe), and it was already under horrible circumstances. Circumstances that had him being the Fire Lord and yet looking as if he had just crawled out of a war zone (when, in reality, the war zone was inside of him, a constant struggle with himself), and that had them being prisoners. War prisoners .

Yeah, these weren’t very preferable circumstances at all.

“So, uh, I was wondering if you could, er, tell me about how… how things are? In the world? I don’t know how, uh, how long you’ve been… here … but, I’d like to hear what you have to say. Uh, please?”

Suki raised an eyebrow. She did that a lot, didn’t she? Or maybe she didn’t, except when she was stuck with him.

“Why would you want to know what the world is like right now?” Suki asked though it sounded to Zuko more like a demand than anything. “Wouldn’t you know yourself? You’re the Fire Lord . You and your nation’ve been attacking the world for the past century.”

Zuko’s thoughts flicked to the sheltered life he had led up to when he was thirteen, and then his mind turned to more than three years that he spent locked away in a cell, and he wanted to, for a split-second, scream at her no, he didn’t know, because how could he when he was kept in the palace forever, and then locked below it to the point where now he couldn’t even feel the sun ? But, he didn’t. Instead, he realized that he had been silent for much too long to be normal and started a bit as he nodded shakily. “Yeah, no, of course, I know how the world is, but… but that’s from the Fire Nation’s perspective. And you’re, uh, not from the Fire Nation, so, uh, I wanted to hear your thoughts on the… on the matter.”

Hakoda snorted and Zuko turned to him suddenly, but the man said nothing more. After Zuko had talked about the end of the war, about wanting to change things, the chief hadn’t said a word, and Zuko wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing at this point.

“You want to hear… our side of the war?” Suki sounded shocked, but her face didn’t really show it. Or, maybe it did, and he was just even worse at reading people than he had been in the Before. He wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.

“Yeah,” Zuko nodded, trying to keep his voice strong. It wasn’t strong. More than anything, actually, he just tried to keep it from wavering.

Suki exchanged glances with Hakoda before she turned back to him and her shoulders seemed to relax a bit. Wait, had her shoulders been tense before? He hadn’t been able to tell, if they had been.

“All right,” she said, snapping his out of his wandering thoughts. “All right.” She sounded like she was reassuring herself more than anything. She looked up at him once more, but wasn’t meeting his eyes. That was probably for the best. He didn’t know if eye contact was a good idea right now.

He remained silent as she seemed to gather her thoughts. He suspected it would take a lot out of both of the prisoners ( they’re not prisoners, now, he reminded himself. What should he call them instead?) to tell their stories, just as it had taken a lot out of him to explain his to Pim, and he had been sure that she was a sort of ally to him. These two people were being asked by an enemy to talk about some of the hardest moments in their lives. That would be a lot harder than what he had done, he was sure.

Finally, after what felt like both forever and no time at all, Suki sighed quietly and opened her mouth to speak.

“I’ve only been directly involved in the war for maybe a year,” Suki explained, her voice much softer than he had heard it be when she was talking to him before. Now, though, she seemed much more in her own mind than out of it, which would explain the change in tone. Her eyes, staring off into nothing more than anything, were softer, too. “And I was locked up in here for at least the last… two months.” 

Two months? She looked surprisingly good for someone who had been in the Boiling Rock for at least two months. Then, his mind flickered to images of the prisoners that they had passed on the way here, and he remembered how they had all seemed remarkably well-fed, actually, and the thoughts all fell away.

“I’m from the island of Kyoshi, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors.” Zuko nodded. She had said that earlier. “Kyoshi was a neutral party, up until about a year ago, when the Avatar showed up and we found out that he had returned.” She paused. “Even though we weren’t participants of the war, we knew enough about it. We do a lot of trade, and so we got merchants from all over, all of them giving us news about the rest of the world. After the Fire Nation came and burned down our village to try and get to the Avatar, we revoked our neutral status and joined the fight against them. I led the other Kyoshi Warriors to the mainland, where we contributed to the cause in any way we could.”

She seemed almost completely lost in her memories. Zuko was watching her, and his eyes flickered to Hakoda for only a second, before moving back to Suki. The chief hadn’t been looking at Suki at all. His eyes had been firmly glued on Zuko and Zuko alone.

“I ended up crossing paths with the Avatar and his group later on in the Earth Kingdom. I helped them get to Ba Sing Se, and later helped his bison before being captured by the Fire Nation Princess and being brought here.”

Zuko dwelled on her words for a moment before he asked, “You’re friends with the Avatar?”

She nodded, but it almost seemed involuntary, because a moment later, her features hardened, her eyes darkened, and her lips twisted into a scowl. “If you’re only here to get information about the Avatar from me, then you’re wasting your time. I’m not saying a word.”

Zuko froze, processing her words for a moment before he frantically shook his head. “No, no, no, I-I was just surprised. That’s… That’s all. I was surprised.”

She eyed him for a moment before turning her gaze away from him. He suddenly came to realize that she was done talking.

Hesitantly, and a bit unconsciously, his gaze wandered to Hakoda. The man met his eyes and Zuko hastily broke the contact, choosing instead to stare at one of the beads dangling from the chief’s hair.

“I’m not telling you anything, Fire Lord ,” Hakoda said, and his voice was colder than what Zuko imagined the South Pole that he hailed from to be like.

Zuko swallowed, and his throat was dry enough that it hurt, to an extent. He nodded. “Okay. I understand.” 

If Hakoda was surprised by his response, it didn’t show. Or, maybe it did, and Zuko was really bad at reading people. Which he probably was.

“I… I’ll be right back.”

Zuko wheeled himself backward toward the door and tapped a few times. The door opened and Keeli rounded his wheelchair and pulled him out of the room, leaving the two prisoners behind.

When he was in the hallway and the door was safely closed, Zuko let out a breath he hadn’t known he had been holding. 

“That was awful ,” Zuko breathed. He was very aware of the attention of his little group of staff was very much solely on him, but he was too distracted to care. “Like, really bad .”

“What… What happened, my Lord?” Keeli prompted from her position behind him, her voice drifting from over his shoulder.

“The girl is personal friends with the Avatar and his group.” There was a look exchanged amongst those gathered around him, but he couldn’t tell what it was about. 

“And… the man?” Lee asked tentatively. “I mean… surely he’s someone important too, right?” He looked around desperately at his companions. Tyne gave Lee a smile and a small nod, and he seemed to settle almost immediately. Zuko was confused for less than a second before a managed to remember that Tyne was Lee’s sister . Of course, her reassurance would calm him down.

Zuko’s mind snapped back to the task at hand. The man, they wanted to know who Hakoda was.

“He’s… Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe.”

If any of them had been drinking water, they probably would have all just spat it out simultaneously. The reactions were varied: some confused, some nervous, some a weird mixture of the two.

Chief of one of the Water Tribes? A war prisoner?” Tyne asked, her voice breathy. “Are you serious?

Zuko nodded, and Anzo did too.

“The Southern Water Tribe is much weaker than it used to be,” Anzo explained. “Fire Nation raids wiped out all of their waterbenders, and they’ve been reduced to next-to-nothing, especially when compared to their northern counterpart.”

Zuko’s eyes widened. “Wait, wait, wait, we stole all of their waterbenders?”

Anzo nodded.

“Well… where are they? We can get them out, let them go, we can-”

“Your grace,” Anzo said, gently interjecting, but Zuko couldn’t care less either way. “Your grace, the last waterbender was captured years ago, and all of them have surely perished by now. The waterbender prisons have been all but abandoned for what has to be decades, now.”

Zuko felt something sink inside of him. His nation, his people, his family had wiped out an entire branch of benders. All of the waterbenders of one of the two centrals for waterbending. Gone. Zuko had never even seen a waterbender. He couldn’t imagine going somewhere where there were supposed to be as many waterbenders as there were firebenders here at home, yet not finding any.

“What would you like us to do about the prisoners?”

“We’re taking them with us,” Zuko said.

Once more, glances were exchanged that he didn’t understand. Finally, Tyne managed to ask, “Why?”

He furrowed his eyebrows and remembered the few burns that dotted the prisoners’ skin, the way Suki’s shoulder hadn’t looked right, or how Hakoda had two fingers that were pointed in directions fingers shouldn’t be able to point in. 

“They’re hurt. Burns, things that didn’t heal right. They’re not gonna get good medical attention if we just let them go , and…” He tried to think of a way to make this sound more like a logical choice than something based solely on the fact that he wanted them to feel better. “And… if we deliver them to the rest of the world healthy , then it can help! You know, like, make the world think maybe we’re not so bad?” He sounded more and more unsure the more he went on.

But, nonetheless, his group nodded. 

The door opened and Keeli quickly pushed him back inside before bowing and leaving again.

“Uh… hi… again…” 

This was awkward. How do you tell two war prisoners that you were going to help them get better without sounding like you’re trying too hard?

“Hi,” Suki said, and even if the word was completely bitter, it gave him enough reassurance to keep going.

“So, uh, I’m gonna, er, take you. Back to the capital, er, the palace, I mean. Cause… Cause we’re the closest place with good healers and… and you look… like you’ve seen better days. So, uh, yeah. We’re gonna go back to the capital and then… then we’re gonna get a healer or something. Yeah.” That couldn’t have gone any worse.

Suki crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “What happens then?”

He blinked. “What?”

Hakoda picked up for her. “What happens after we’re all ‘healed’? What do you do with us then?”

“Oh, uh…” He hadn’t thought that far in advance. “Well, I guess…” It wasn’t that hard to figure out what he would do, though. “I guess I’ll… I’ll let you go. It’s probably been a while since you’ve been home, anyway.” Zuko tried not to wince at his own words. He knew what it felt like to not be home for years, to not feel safe for years.

It was clear, even to him, that they didn’t believe him, but they seemed to choose not to argue. Zuko moved back a bit and rapped his knuckles against the door a few times. The door opened and Keeli stepped inside. Lee and Tyne followed her, moving across to stand by the two prisoners. Tyne unlocked Suki from her handcuffs (how had Zuko not noticed those before?) and Lee did the same for Hakoda. The two didn’t dare fight as the guards brought them to their feet and guided them with a hand on the small of their backs. Zuko knew it was only because they wanted to try and get closer to freedom, but it still made him slightly glad to see them cooperating a bit with him.

Keeli wheeled him out of the room, Tyne and Lee guiding Suki and Hakoda respectively behind them. Anzo inserted himself behind Zuko and Keeli, forming a sort of border between the prisoners and him. 

As they moved through the prison, Anzo directed them from behind Zuko and Keeli until they were in front of the warden’s office. 

“Anzo,” Zuko said, and the guard took a step forward to be in Zuko’s line of view.

“Yes, my Lord?”

“Could you go inside and get whatever… paperwork I need to, like, officially… transfer them?” He didn’t know if ‘transfer’ was the right word, but he also didn’t particularly care.

Anzo gave a nod followed by a bow before he disappeared into the office.

Zuko fingered the crown he still hadn’t put back in his hair. “Keeli?”

“Your grace?”

“Could you please…?” He didn’t put effort into forming the words, instead just weakly raising up the crown. Keeli blinked before nodding and taking a step around to the side of the wheelchair. She plucked the crown from his grasp and his hand fell back to his side as Keeli re-tied his hair before she slid the crown onto the simple topknot and stepped back again.

“Thank you,” he said a moment later.

A beat passed before Keeli replied, “You’re welcome, my Lord.”

Anzo stepped out a few moments later. Zuko nodded to him and they got back into their original order. Anzo directed them out of the prison, and they weren’t stopped until they made it to the gondola.

“We look forward to your return, your Majesty,” the warden said, giving a bow so low that Zuko wondered how he didn’t stumble forward. The guards behind the man gave bows as well, though not as low as the warden’s. Zuko nodded to all of them at once as they rose. The warden looked like he wanted to say more, but his eyes flickered behind Zuko and his throat bobbed as he seemed to think better of it. The guards parted and one pulled the gondola door open. Their strange group loaded into the gondola and the door slid shut a moment later.

The gondola felt just as dreary and cold as it had when they had made their way over. The sun was glaring through the steam that was rising up from below. The late afternoon was switching to evening, and the sun was burning brightly in the distance. The steam was too thick, and the gondola too chilled, for Zuko to be able to feel the sun’s heat on his skin, but just seeing it, poking through the billowing white vapor, made him feel a bit better inside.

They finally made it across the boiling lake and moved down the cliffside, the airship finally in view. The guards standing at the entrance bowed to him and stepped to the side. It seemed like all Zuko had to do was blink before they were inside the hallways of the airship once more, pipelines and valves lining the walls and ceiling before they moved up another floor and those things were all covered from view.

They finally made their way to the bridge.

“My Lord,” the captain said, bowing to Zuko as he entered, an action that was quickly copied by the rest of the crew in the room. “Back to the capital?”

Zuko nodded. “Yes, please, Captain.” The man bowed once more before turning around and giving orders to his crew. Keeli pushed him out and they moved toward the office that he had been using earlier. However, instead of going inside the room, they passed right by it and entered into the next one. This one had a window as well, which was nice, and seemed to be a bit bigger. It was designed to be a sitting room instead of a study. There were two figures sitting on one of the couches. He blinked, and realized that it was Mai and Ty Lee. Pim was standing a few feet away from them, and she bowed as soon as he entered.

“Mai,” Zuko said, his voice a bit choked. He hadn’t really thought about how nice it was to have familiar friendly faces from the Before. “Ty Lee.” He took in their new outfits, much more traditional casual Fire Nation clothing than the prison uniforms they had been in earlier. “You guys look… good.”

Ty Lee grinned widely. “I know, right! These clothes are so comfy!

Mai’s lips quirked up a bit for a split-second before her eyes wandered to behind Zuko and narrowed. Ty Lee seemed to follow Mai’s gaze, but her eyes widened instead of narrowing. Both of the girls were on their feet in seconds.

“What are you doing here?” Mai asked, and Zuko turned his head to see that she was addressing Suki, whose face was hard and eyes were slits as well.

Me? What are you two doing here?”

“Why we’re here is none of your business,” Mai responded, yet it almost sounded like a growl.

“And why isn’t it? You were the ones who locked me in that prison, anyway,” Suki said. Zuko’s gaze flickered back-and-forth between the two of them, his eyes widening a bit. Mai and Ty Lee had been the ones to lock the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors in the Boiling Rock?

Ty Lee gasped. “ We didn’t lock you in there! Azula did! We just helped capture you!”

Mai scowled and nudged Ty Lee in the side. “ Not helping ,” she hissed, before turning back to Suki again, her eyes cold. “Azula commanded that we help her, and we couldn’t exactly say no to her. She had us locked in the Boiling Rock, too. Zuko just got us out. So… shut up.” If anyone else had said it, the ending would have sounded awkward or something, but it was very graceful and powerful coming from Mai. Then again, everything was.

Suki scowled and opened her mouth. 

Zuko actually tuned out their argument after that. He didn’t want to have to listen to them bicker, especially as whenever he did listen, it seemed like their insults were just getting more and more petty.

Suki and Hakoda had both stepped farther into the room, and Zuko found himself with a wandering gaze and a wandering mind.




Zuko’s eyes met the chief’s for a moment and he felt himself freeze. His gaze quickly moved away, so fast that he wondered, vaguely, if it was involuntary. A skill ground into him after years. He knew that he shouldn’t be scared of them, he held all the cards here, he shouldn’t be scared , he had all of the power here .

Except, he didn’t, did he?

No, he didn’t.

Because, now, these people weren’t war prisoners , they were important world leaders, in one way or another, and they were here in his nation, the nation that they had been fighting against for years, and he had to make a good impression. He couldn’t just threaten them into submission (he didn’t think he’d be able to, anyway. They seemed strong, they had to be strong, and he… wasn’t). 

He had to be smart, he had to play his cards right , and he noted that what he was trying to do had never been something he was good at. Azula was the people-person of the family. Azula was the one who could read people, the one who could manipulate people, the one who could get people to do whatever she wanted.

Zuko was the one who couldn’t firebend correctly. He was the one who couldn’t talk to people right, the one who stumbled over words and apologized too often. He was the mama’s boy, the one who wouldn’t ( couldn’t ) look at his father in the eye. He was the one who moved too slow, who talked too fast, who couldn’t think quick enough, who couldn’t remember to not speak his mind. He was the one who never understood what was going on. He was the one who tried too much and failed too often. He was the one who walked through the gardens and fed turtleducks instead of lighting trees in flames. He was the one who got a dagger he didn’t know how to use. 

He was the one who loved a sister who wanted nothing more than to see how long it would take him to put out the fire she lit on the sleeves of his clothes today.

Zuko felt his breathing pick up a bit. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t really seeing anything, more just thoughts flashing forward in his mind than anything.

He was the one who loved a cousin who was older than him, who was wiser than him, and who died before him by many too many years.

He was the one who loved an uncle who was so torn by the loss of one that he’d abandoned another.

He was the one who loved a mother who sacrificed everything to save him once, but who disappeared too quickly to be able to save him again.

He was the one who loved a father who looked down at the sparks that flew from his palm with such fury that it scared him.

He was the one who loved the cousin who left, who loved the uncle who left, who loved the mother who left

He was the one who loved a father who didn’t leave, who stayed , and who stayed much too long .

He was the one who loved a father who didn’t feel any shame at all as he burned his son’s face. 

He was the one who loved a father who thought that it was justified to throw a thirteen-year-old boy into a cell for three years beneath the very place he was raised.

He was the one who loved a father who put him somewhere where the only light he would get, the only warmth he would get, was searing and white-hot against his skin.

He was the one who had, in another life, loved a father who had never known what it was like to love.

His eyes burned for some reason. Then, a moment later, his eyes were wet and tears were spilling over his cheeks. Someone was speaking his name, btu he couldn’t tell who it was. He wasn’t really hearing them, wasn’t really registering the hands that were touching his shoulder. One of them pressed too hard on a spot that had never healed right and he flinched.

He was the one who had spoken out once and regretted ever since that moment. He was the one who had sunk to his knees and begged, begged to be spared by the one person who should have never put him in danger in the first place. He was the one who had been burned, who had been beaten, and starved, and who had still managed to realize that he still felt the same about the words he had said at that meeting as he had when he had said them.

He was the one who had spoken his mind and suffered for it.

He was the disappointment .

Zuko wasn’t in the room with the foreign leaders anymore. They were in the study. 

He didn’t care, because he was barely able to process the fact anyway.

He couldn’t think.

He couldn’t do.

He was the disappointment-

He was the disappointment-

He was the disappointment .

He had always been the disappointment.

Chapter Text

Hakoda had never been a man of brash action. He sat to the sidelines, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike , like a predator, stalking its prey through the wilderness. Hakoda thought of himself as the predator, because he knew that that’s what he was. He was silent, he was strong, and he was deadly.

It was a wonder that he ended up as the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. Well, actually, he did . He’d be an idiot to not . But it was more the fact that once the chiefdom was given to him, he was able to mold himself and the position into something that he could actually work with. 

Hakoda had been a quiet child. At first glance, one may have even thought him weak . Anyone who looked a bit further, though, would know that that was a mistake. Hakoda was not weak . He was strong, and he was silent, and he was deadly.

Ever since Hakoda had been a little boy, there hadn’t been any waterbenders left in his tribe. He knew that there were more waterbenders in the world, of course, up in the Northern Water Tribe. Their sister tribe had always been stronger than them as, after all, they were just a piece that broke away and made their own way in the world. Hakoda had never been to the northern tribe, and after the war had started the two of them had lost connection, so he had never even written to the water tribe across the world, let alone seen it .

As Hakoda had grown up, the Southern Water Tribe had seemed to get smaller and smaller. 

As a teenager, maybe around fifteen, he had gone up to his mother and pointed out that the village seemed smaller than it had been when he was younger. She had laughed, patted him on the shoulder, and said he was being silly, it was just him getting bigger, not the village getting smaller, but he had seen the way her eyes had glazed with sadness as she spoke, how she looked out down the small road toward a hut that he knew used to be there but wasn’t any longer.

Hakoda was thirteen when he saw his first dead body.

There had been a winter chill that had blown through, harder and colder than any they had experienced in the past few decades. People had frozen in the streets, in their homes, in their beds. Whenever there was a let-up for a tiny bit of time, people would desperately haul ice from anywhere they could find it to block more holes in their huts. People would take ice from outside of the village, from the village walls, from the homes of those who had already perished from the cold. It had been horrible. When it was all finished and the chill had finally let up for good, Hakoda had run to the homes of all of his friends, calling them out to play in the warmer air. He had gotten Bato, Konak, Tirlek, and Ronka, four of his friends, and was outside the house of a fifth, ready to grab up him and head out to play.

Hakoda had pushed aside the ice and shoved open the flap, excited to see his friend (whose name was Erkulo), when he had stopped and stared, his eyes suddenly wide and his breath suddenly gone. For instead of finding his friend, ready to go off and play waterbenders and firebenders, he found the cold bodies of a family who had perished in the chill, Erkulo himself curled up against the wall, his skin blue and his eyes glued open, unseeing.

While that incident had most definitely traumatized Hakoda when he was a young boy, he had forced himself to move past it, accepted it as a part of life, and continued on living.

Hakoda was sixteen when he saw his first death.

His father had called him out to join the men of the tribe in the fishing for the day (because Hakoda was a man of the tribe, after completing his round of ice dodging two years ago), and Hakoda had gathered up his supplies to join them.

They had been floating along, just trying to catch a fish, when the canoe Hakoda and his father were in, along with two others, were pulled away from the group in a rough current. 

As he followed his father’s desperate commands, Hakoda had looked ahead, watching the canoe that was in front of them. The other canoe had hit a chunk of ice, suddenly, and while most of the occupants held on, one of them didn’t have a good enough grasp. He flew out of the canoe and into the water with a shout and floated farther down through the current. Hakoda’s eyes had been glued to the man, who continued to flail and yell until his head suddenly slammed into another hard piece of ice and his calls abruptly fell silent. He had stopped moving and had continued to move down the current until they reached the end of it, where just a few yards into the calmer water, he started to sink. 

The other canoes were too far away to reach him, and no one was moving to dive into the freezing water to help.

As Hakoda and his father’s canoe had passed by the sinking man, now multiple feet below the surface, Hakoda had noted that the water above the man was stained red.

Hakoda had been eighteen when he had seen his first Fire Nation raid.

He had often heard stories before of the Fire Nation raids of old. The ones that used to occur so often that even children recognized the signs of one approaching. Those had stopped after the last waterbender had been captured, around twenty years ago. There had been two decades of relative peace. The Fire Nation still attacked, but they never directly attacked the main Southern Water Tribe, instead focusing on smaller congregations more on the outskirts of the South Pole, or choosing to take down tiny fishing ventures that went a bit too far out.

Then, that all changed when, one day, black snow fell from the sky.

Hakoda could still remember the day vividly, even now. He had been walking with Bato away from training, just laughing and shoving each other as they strolled down the streets, watching a few girls that were passing on their daily chores. Bato had opened his mouth to catch a snowflake on his tongue when he had suddenly coughed and spit at the ground after catching one. Hakoda had patted his friend on the back and looked at the spit on the snowy ground, slightly darkened. He had looked up and seen that the snow was turning black. He had furrowed his eyebrows. He had known that he had heard of the black snow from somewhere before. He had felt his eyes widen as he had remembered. The black snow was from the beginnings of stories about the-

Fire Nation! ” A man called from the edge of the town. There had been a pause before people had erupted in a panic.

Men, with me! ” Hakoda’s father had called from his position on the wall. Hakoda and Bato had exchanged glances before moving forward through the crowd of the market. Women were gathering up what they could and sprinting farther into the relative safety of the village, running into whatever house was closest. Teenage girls and boys who hadn’t yet come of age scooped up the younger children and carted them off inside while others herded more people into buildings, pushing on ice and pulling flaps closed to try and block the homes off from the invaders.

Hakoda and Bato had grabbed up their weapons and yanked on their armored parkas before joining Hakoda’s father up on the wall.

There had been silence for a moment, and everything had been still, almost peaceful. It might have been peaceful if it wasn’t for the abandoned state of the village, the men lining the walls and the square with their weapons raised and their faces shielded from the dark snow flurrying down toward the earth.

Then, suddenly, out of the blurry snow in the distance, a large, dark shape had emerged. The bow had opened and crashed down and in moments Fire Nation soldiers had swarmed the half-mile stretch between the walls of the village and the shore the ships had landed on.

Two more ships had emerged and dumped out their soldiers as well.

There had been a moment of silence again, where everything was still, before a single Fire Nation soldier had let out a yell and the entire legion charged forward.

Hakoda’s father had released a cry as well, which had quickly been echoed by the rest of the warriors, rippling out along the wall and into the group of men behind them in the square. Hakoda had gripped his spear tighter before he had nodded to his best friend beside him and followed his father into the fray of battle.

The two sides had charged at each other, red and black at blue and brown, before they crashed together. Flames flew through the air and Hakoda could see the wall being manned by those from the square, fighting off any stragglers who had managed to squeeze through the Water Tribe line.

Hakoda had fought against those who didn’t have any fire power to their names, unarming them as best he could and kicking them into the snow. Sometimes, when he had to, he would shove his weapon through an opening in their armor and push and push until it struck the plate of the back of their armor. Red would fall onto the snow and Hakoda would have to look away and run away and throw himself into another fight to force the image of the fallen soldier from his mind.

Hakoda had been eighteen when he had killed a man for the first time.

All of Hakoda’s friends had killed at least one man that day, and one of them, Tirlek, hadn’t lived long enough to see the Fire Nation soldiers retreat.

Hakoda had watched, panting and relieved, as the last soldiers had returned to the ships and the looming shapes had finally faded into the snow once more. He hadn’t been able to relax until the snow wasn’t tinted by even the tiniest bit of soot.

The tribe had started by piling up the bodies of the Fire Nation soldiers outside of the village while others moved the bodies of the Water Tribe warriors who had fallen inside to be cleaned and wrapped for burial.

What are we doing with them, Dad? ” Hakoda had asked, standing beside his father, who had been sporting a new cut on his cheek.

The Fire Nation burn their dead, ” his father had replied as if that explained everything. “ It is how they honor them. Returning them to the flames .”

So… what are we going to do?

We are going to burn them, Hakoda ,” his father had stated firmly. “ We may have been enemies when they were alive, but they were still fighters, and they died fighting. They have gained our respect and we shall honor them by disposing of them the same way that they would want to be if they were still alive.

Hakoda had stared off at the women now working near the soldiers’ bodies to make a fire that they could use to light the make-shift pyres and nodded in understanding.

The smoke had risen into the sky in such a tall, firm column that Hakoda had been worried that it would make more black snow.

The next evening, as the full moon had been rising in the distance, the Water Tribe dead had been cleaned, wrapped, and had been said farewell to by their families and friends. The tribe had all lined up and filed out, walking in silence across the expanse of snow to the bank that the Fire Nation had come up on just the day before. They had spread out, fanning into two lines before a few of the men had moved in, pulling sleds with the concealed bodies behind them.

Hakoda’s father, as the chief, had stepped out of line and moved to stand directly in front of everyone. He had given a speech about the nobel sacrifices of those who had died before moving to the first body and announcing the name of the dead man. The tribe had looked out at the moon, mumbling a prayer to Tui and La, and then two more men had stepped out of line and moved to each side of the body as Hakoda’s father had reached down and pulled the flap over the man’s face closed. The two tribesmen had lifted up the man, taken two steps over, and dropped him off of the edge of the ice, into the freezing-cold water below.

This cycle had continued on and on until the last rays of sunlight were gone from the sky and the moonbeams had made the snow shimmer with a silvery light.

Hakoda had been eighteen when he had attended his first mass funeral for a battle.

It was not his last.

Hakoda had been eleven when he had first seen Kya. 

He had been training with his father and the other boys, learning how to hold a spear, when his eyes had wandered down the road and landed on a pretty girl standing in the marketplace, talking to someone that had to be her mother. He had stared at the girl for a long moment before making a face and turning around. Ew, girls

Hakoda had been fourteen when he had spoken to Kya for the first time.

He had just passed his ice dodging trial the week before, and he was ready to do it again, even if his father had expressly declined his request. So, instead, Hakoda had gathered up a few of his closest friends and convinced them to go ice dodging with him again.

They had taken a wrong turn, rocketed the wrong way, smashed into the shore outside the village walls, and had all been thrown right out of the boat.

Hakoda had woken three days later to a girl scowling down at him.

You’re a total idiot, you know that? ” She had asked, moving away from him to grab up something from a nearby table.

What… What happened?

You and your idiot friends went ice dodging and crashed right near the village and almost died ,” she had said, turning back around with a wooden bowl in hand.

What’s that? ” Hakoda had asked, pointing at the strange brown contents.

Nothing that tastes good. Now, eat up!

Hakoda had scowled down at the mush in the bowl and shaken his head. “ No, no, I’m not eating that .”

Oh, come on, it’s not that bad, ” she had said, but the glint in her eye had told him otherwise.

Eventually, after he had refused multiple more times, she had taken advantage of the weakened state he was in to pin him down with one arm and force the slop down his throat with the other.

Hakoda would never admit it, but the weird remedy had actually made him feel better .

Hakoda had been twenty when he had first eaten dinner alone with Kya.

He had also been twenty when he had kissed her for the first time.

Surprisingly, the two events did not coincide with one another.

Hakoda had eaten dinner with Kya inside of his own hut while his father had been out fishing and his mother had been visiting an old friend. Hakoda had known he was blushing that night, but Kay had blamed all of her own fluster on the fact that it was cold outside.

As for the whole kissing business, it had actually been an accident. Hakoda had been talking to Kya when Bato suddenly had popped up behind her and given her a push. She had flailed and fell right onto Hakoda who, not expecting it at all, had fallen to the ground. Kya’s lips had just happened to fall right onto his. Granted , Hakoda may have kept the kiss going a bit longer than necessary, but he hadn’t back then, and still didn't really care about the fact,

Hakoda had been twenty-two when he had asked Kya to marry him.

He had been twenty-three when she had finally said yes.

The village had continued to shrink over the years, so everyone knew everyone, making it so that a wedding of the chief’s son and the healer’s daughter had become the event to be at for the few hundred people.

It had been short, sweet, simple, and perfect.

Other than when the penguin had gotten in.

That had been a disaster.

Hakoda had been twenty-five when he had suddenly been barged in on while sitting inside his home that he shared with his wife. He had looked up at the man in the doorway who had managed to just say, “ It’s your father .”

Kya had told him later that night that she had done her best, but he was too far gone by the time she had gotten to him.

And, just like that, Hakoda had been made the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe.

Hakoda had been twenty-six when his son had been born. His wife had stared down into the intelligent blue eyes of the small boy before she had said, “ Sokka .” Hakoda had nodded and been handed the child next. He had been too stunned to speak.

Just about a year later, his second child had been born. His daughter, who he looked into the eyes of for ten long minutes before deciding on ‘Katara’ as a name.

Hakoda had been twenty-eight when it had seemed like his life was perfect.

Hakoda had been thirty when his son had been arguing with his daughter and the freshly cleaned water from the pot in the fire had risen up and splashed right over the boy. Hakoda had felt a cold settle into his heart as he turned to his daughter, who was staring at him as if nothing had happened at all.

Kya ,” he had said as the woman walked in at that moment. “ Katara’s a waterbender .”

The gasp of horror that had come from his wife’s lips had reaffirmed what he had already been feeling.

Being a waterbender was dangerous. Hundreds of them had been captured and killed by the raids, and if the Fire Nation caught wind of there being another waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe, they would come all the way down to the South Pole to wipe the little bender right off the face of the planet.

Hakoda had encouraged Katara to be as careful with her powers as possible, but she had been a child , and there was almost so much they could do.

Within a month, the entire village had known.

Hakoda had been thirty-three when his wife died.

Katara had explained to him what had happened through her tears, and he had gathered enough on his own anyway. They had been looking for the last waterbender, and Kya had lied and given herself up to save Katara. 

Hakoda had forced his two children to sleep in his bed that night, his arms tucked around them, hugging them close on either side, refusing to release the last little bits of his wife that were left living in the world.

They had held a funeral for her, and dumped and empty shroud into the icy depths of the sea.

Hakoda had been thirty-eight when he had taken every last one of the men from the Southern Water Tribe, said goodbye to his children, and sailed off across the great horizon to the Earth Kingdom to join directly in the fight against the Fire Nation.

Saying goodbye had been hard, and he still remembered the way Sokka had stood on the shore, looking out at him with a painted face, watching as his father and his dreams sailed away before his very eyes. It had pained Hakoda to leave his son behind, but Sokka had to protect Katara and the village, and he hadn’t been ready yet.

Hakoda thought back to the invasion and almost laughed at how far his son had come.

Hakoda had been forty-one when he had seen Sokka again. He had been in a war meeting when the flap had suddenly opened. It was most definitely one of the happiest moments of his life, watching his son walk in, looking at Sokka for the first time in around three years. It had been absolutely amazing. He had been jealous when Bato had told him of his encounter with Sokka, Katara, and the Avatar . He had no reason to be jealous now. He had his son back.

And then, just as soon as he had come, Sokka had left with the Avatar, returning to the heart of the Earth Kingdom to supposedly save his sister. Well, Hakoda couldn’t argue with that.

When he had next seen his children, they had all been crying, Katara more accurately sobbing her eyes out. Sokka had been carrying the Avatar in his arms, and the poor kid had been burnt to a crisp.

Within the night, they had captured a ship and used it as their disguise.

Katara had barely spoken to him since they had captured the ship and gotten the Avatar ( Aang ) into a stable condition. When he had found out three weeks later that she had just been missing him, had just felt lost without him, his heart had broken again and he had gathered his teenage daughter in a hug like she was five again, five nad suddenly motherless.

The invasion had been perfect until it wasn’t. 

He had never been more proud of his children, on one hand, watching Sokka lead the troops to victory when he couldn’t, and watching Katara slice through metal and soldiers with her waterbending like a knife through butter.

On the other hand, it had still fallen apart. Everything had, somehow, gone wrong. Well, Hakoda knew how. The Fire Lord had been expecting their arrival. Aang hadn’t found him in time, Azula (the Fire Nation princess) had distracted them, and, in the end, it just hadn’t been their day.

Hakoda had forced his children to leave him behind and watched as they flew off into the sky, away from him and his men as they were captured.

They had carted his men off to prisons all over the place, and Hakoda himself was placed in the Capital City Prison for a few weeks before being transferred to a place called the Boiling Rock. 

Hakoda had heard whispers about it, whispers that said things about how it was the worst prison in the world, a giant hunk of metal surrounded by a boiling lake, the only way across being a gondola hanging over the steaming water.

Hakoda had agreed, once he had gotten there, that it was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as being in an active war zone. That changed people, traumatized them, ruined them. He had seen it in even the best of his soldiers. Tui and La, he had seen it in himself at times.

A few weeks into his imprisonment at the Boiling Rock, he had met a teenage girl only to find out that, lo-and-behold, she was Sokka’s kinda-girlfriend, and close friends with the Avatar’s whole little group (what was the last idea Sokka had thrown out for a name while they had been on the ships on the way to the invasion? The Gaang? Hakoda liked that one, it was a good one). Hakoda had started speaking mainly to the girl, Suki, and discovered that she was a well-traveled girl, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, and she was only taken down by the Fire Nation Princess Azula herself and her two little friends.

Life was moving as normal in the Boiling Rock after a while. One day, the sky had turned red and Hakoda and Suki had sat outside in the yard that was noticeably more empty than usual (considering all firebenders were locked inside during the comet). Hakoda had watched the comet streaking across the sky when Suki had said, “ Do you think they’ll win?

Hakoda had nodded firmly. “ They will. They have to.

Nothing had changed after the comet had ended. Firebenders were allowed into the yard again and things went back to normal. 

Over the next two days, there was no news of anything about the war. NOt about victory or defeat, and it had Hakoda on the edge of his seat.

Then, one day, a guard appeared at his cell door. He sat up and glared at her as she strolled in without a care in the world.

“Come on, bub,” she said, placing a hand on her hip. “You’re wanted in a meeting room.”

Hakoda furrowed his eyes and stood up. The guard handcuffed him behind his back and led him through the prison. He lost track of the turns after a while, unfortunately.

Finally, they reached a door. The guard moved him aside for a moment to unlock it and push it open before shoving him inside roughly. His eyes widened as his gaze met Suki’s. He was locked in beside her, in a chair at the table. The guard stared at them for a moment before leaving the room, closing the door behind her.

They sat in silence for a few long minutes before the door opened again. Hakoda was prepared for anything, and, honestly, for some reason, he was expecting the Fire Lord or some member of the government or royal family.

Hakoda had seen portraits of the Fire Lord before. They had been everywhere on the ship that they had captured, and it was impossible to not come across one in the aftermath of a battle.

The Fire Lord was a grown man, maybe around Hakoda’s age, and he was intimidating and strong and powerful . No one could deny that.

Suki had described the Fire Nation Princess with enough accuracy to ensure Hakoda that she envisioned fighting her every night when she fell asleep.

The figure that came in was neither.

Well, technically, it was two figures that emerged through the doorway. One was a young woman with her hair tied back, traditional Fire Nation clothes on, and the other was a teenager , a boy who was being pushed in the wheelchair by the woman. The woman positioned the boy in front of them, released the handles, gave a small bow, and backed out of the room.

The boy stumbled through his introduction, and Hakoda took the time to observe him. He seemed thin, but Hakoda couldn’t really tell with all the fabric the clothes draped over him. They seemed to be chosen especially to make sure that no one could really tell how thick they were.

The boy’s face was gaunt, his hair tied up messily, his eyes a bit sunken in, and, of course, there was a giant burn scar across his face. Training accident, maybe? A nasty training accident, sure, but a boy had cut off his own hand back at the Southern Water Tribe when Hakoda was younger, so it was definitely possible.

Then, the boy said something that snapped all of Hakoda’s attention right to him. “ So, um, I’m Zuko. Er, Fire Lord Zuko. Yeah. I’m the… I’m the Fire Lord… My name is Zuko.”

This was the Fire Lord? This scrawny, awkward teenager. He couldn’t be much older than Sokka was.

Also, yeah, Fire Lord? Definitely a training accident.

Then the teenage Fire Lord went on to explain that his father, Fire Lord Ozai, had tried to burn down the Earth Kingdom with the power of Sozin’s Comet, but Aang and the others had stopped them, and they had both been captured. Then , the boy explained that he wanted to stop the war. 

Without a Fire Nation victory.

The world was officially mad.

The boy reached forward his hand but neither Hakoda nor Suki reached out to take it. As he was pulling it back, Suki suddenly grabbed it and introduced them. The moment her hand grabbed the boy’s, he had flinched . Like, full-on flinched . Okay, there was definitely something wrong with this boy.

Then, the boy wanted to hear their stories. Their stories . Hakoda narrowed his eyes and resisted shaking Suki to tell her to stop. She was playing right into enemy hands as she talked about her journey to this point.

When the boy turned to him hopefully, Hakoda narrowed his eyes even more, turning his gaze into a glare as he growled, “I’m not telling you anything, Fire Lord.

The boy had left for a moment before returning and telling Suki and Hakoda that he was taking them to the capital city for proper medical treatment. 

Hakoda’s mind immediately flicked to ‘political prisoners’, and he asked the Fire Lord’s plan. The boy looked confused , as if he hadn’t generated a lie beforehand, before he said that he guessed he would just let them go.

Out of all of the answers he had expected, that was not one of them.

They had been guided out of the prison, which was a miracle in-and-of-itself, and Hakoda sent a thank you to the spirits as they stepped off of the gondola.

They moved through the giant airship and eventually ended up in a sitting area where Suki suddenly had a face-off with two girls. It just so happened that the two girls who had helped the princess imprison Suki were two of the new Fire Lord’s friends. Wasn’t that just wonderful .

The Fire Lord seemed a bit out of it when his eyes met Hakoda’s. They stared into each other’s eyes for a moment before the Fire Lord suddenly looked away frantically, his gaze fast and flitting over things that he didn’t seem to be seeing.

The boy’s breathing picked up a bit and Hakoda watched as his eyes widened and he started to shake slightly, his knuckles grasping the handles of the wheelchair he was in turning white.

The teenage girls in the room stopped arguing and the Fire Lord’s two friends were staring at him with a mixture of shock and fear. So they didn’t know what was going on, either. Interesting…

The boy’s chest was moving up-and-down faster and faster, and he was trembling at this point. Suddenly, Hakoda was pushed aside as a large man who he recognized as one of the Fire Lord’s guards entered the room and knelt by the boy’s side. He was speaking in low and quick words, but they didn’t seem to be helping.

The man turned and called over his shoulder, “ Ming! Lee! Get in here!

Two more guards appeared and stared at their leader in shock for a moment before moving to help him.

Hakoda looked into the Fire Lord’s eyes from where he stood off to the side, frozen. The boy’s good amber eye was wide with terror, and completely glazed over, as if he was stuck somewhere completely different. He was making tiny whimpering sounds that were actually pretty sad to listen to, honestly. His mouth started to form the word “no” over and over again.

Hakoda clenched his fists as suddenly the guards were carting the Fire Lord out of the room, tears streaming down his pale face.

When they were gone, all was still for a moment before one of the girls, the dark and scary one, exploded at him. “What did you do to him?”

Her friend appeared beside her and, to be honest, her glare was more terrifying to see than the other’s was.

“I didn’t do anything,” Hakoda managed to say, mostly too caught up in his thoughts to say anything more.

The two girls glared at him for a moment longer before the dark one stormed out of the room, her friend who seemed like she belonged in the pink outfit she was wearing following along quickly.

Hakoda met Suki’s gaze and the girl gave him a questioning look, but he didn’t answer. He was too busy thinking about where he had seen that glazed look in the boy’s eyes before. It reminded him heavily of warriors that he knew, ones that came off of the battlefield and then sometimes experienced something that made them think that they were right back there again.

But that was ridiculous, because those men were Water Tribe warriors, fighting for freedom, and this boy was a pampered prince who’d had a training accident when he was younger.

Still, though, it was not was he was expecting, and Hakoda felt like there was something more genuine in this boy than anything any other Fire Lord he had ever heard of had shown.

Hakoda stared off in the direction the boy had just been carted off in, the empty doorway, and made a vow in himself to maybe try to give this boy a small chance. Just the one. But a chance.

Cause even if that whole show just now was a big fake, then he at least deserved it for top-notch acting skills.

Chapter Text

Everything was quiet.

Zuko blinked and breathed in slowly through his nose. The air was cold against his skin.

He was sweating.

Why was he sweating?

His lungs were burning. His throat hurt.

He took in a gasping breath. Why was it so hard to breathe? Why did it feel like there was a weight on his chest? Why did it hurt so much? He breathed in a few more times, and the burning dissipated a bit.

His vision was hazy. He blinked his eyes a few times and realized that they were oddly cold. His fingers, which felt strangely disconnected from his body, reached up and touched against his face. His fingertips grazed over the skin of his cheek and came away wet. Was he crying ?

That was weird. Why was he crying?

Zuko, with his eyes now clear, glanced around at his surroundings, finally registering where he was. The study. The leader of the Kyoshi Warriors was gone, the chief of the Southern Water Tribe was gone, Mai and Ty Lee were gone, Anzo, Tyne, Lee, Ming, Pim, and Keeli were gone.

He was alone.

Zuko’s mind slowly sorted out the thoughts, the memories of what had happened.

Mai and Ty Lee had been arguing with Suki, that was what he remembered first. Zuko had been watching, he hadn’t had enough energy to stop their yelling, and then… then his eyes had met Hakoda’s.

The hard gaze of the chief had reminded him of his father…

That’s what had happened…

Zuko’s breath hitched in his throat at the thought of it. He could remember thinking back to his father, thinking back to the hard glares and the cold eyes he had received during his imprisonment. He could remember his breathing picking up, and then everything seemed to blur together. Zuko could barely even remember what it was he had been thinking of at the time, let alone what had been going on around him.

The room was empty. That thought resonated in his mind again as he snapped back to reality once more and remembered where he was. He turned his head and looked out the window. They were moving over the water still, and the light was orange now instead of the normal yellow hue. The sun must be setting, he was sure of it. At least it wasn’t right in the view of his window. He may be adjusting to normal light levels, but having the light of Agni straight-on would definitely be too much for his poor eyes to handle.

He turned away from the window and redirected his gaze to the desk. The documents that he had been working on before going to the prison were sitting right there, as if nothing had changed at all, when in reality, he had found two old friends of his sister, had found two world leaders who were also chummy with the Avatar, and then had proceeded to have a breakdown in front of all four of them. 

What a great Fire Lord he was .

He really was an idiot , wasn’t he? All good impressions he may have made on those people were probably out the window, now. Suki and Hakoda probably thought that he was a weak little attention-seeker who can’t end this war, who they could never work with, and Mai and Ty Lee probably thought that he was just as crazy as his sister.

He realized that his breathing had picked up as his lungs started to burn again. He coughed and focused all of his energy on calming his breaths. He couldn’t afford to have another freak-out right now. There was so much to do.

Zuko shifted his attention back to the desk again, and the documents on it.

He didn’t have the energy to face the people right now, but he could definitely do some more of that work. That would have to do for now.

He placed his hands on the wheels of the wheelchair he was in and carefully directed himself around the desk and in front of it. He grabbed the desk’s underside and pulled himself in so that his legs were underneath it and he could properly do his work.

Zuko grabbed the document he had been doing before leaving the airship for the Boiling Rock and placed it in the finished pile. He had finished it right before leaving, thank Agni.

He pulled one from the pile of those he still had to work through, which was unfortunately much bigger than the finished stack.

Zuko looked down at the paper, his eyes scanning over the characters. It was a request from the warden of a small prison on the east coast of the Fire Nation mainland, asking for more money to help accommodate the prisoners that were overflowing in their little local jail.

Zuko was halfway to signing his name when a thought hit him. He furrowed his eyebrows and placed the brush down, shifting back a bit to open the small drawer in the desk. Sure enough, there was blank parchment within. He grabbed the top piece out of the drawer and placed it beside the document in front of him.

He quickly wrote out a few notes, glancing back at the document a few times to help himself keep his train of thought.

He finally had everything written down and quickly signed the document and also signed off on a grant much smaller than the warden had requested. It was no matter. The problem the man was having would be fixed soon enough.

He moved to the next document. It wasn’t one for him to sign. Instead, it was simply a complaint from two officers from a different prison, this one in the northern Earth Kingdom colonies. The two officers explained in their letter that they were concerned about the amount of violence occurring in their prison and the fact that common thieves were being kept with murderers just one room away from one another. They added that they weren’t happy with how there was no official way for deciding how long someone is imprisoned, and how it was the whims of the higher-ups more than anything. They cited a specific incident in which a man who had cut off another’s hand in a street fight over some apples was released in six months while one who had stolen a loaf of bread from the warden himself had been locked up for ten months before being freed.

Zuko frowned and folded the letter up, placing it in the empty drawer to the right, the blank paper having come from one on the left.

He would need to come back to that later.

He pulled the next document and finally began to fall into a rhythm. He tucked a paper away into the right drawer every so often to look over later. Once in a while, he’d have to pull out a paper from the left drawer after his notes filled up the one he was already writing on.

Time passed, and quite a bit of it, he was sure, as the light from the window behind him eventually fell away, leaving only the glow from the torches near the door and in the corners behind him to light his way.

He was surprised by his lack of fear of the fire glowing on the torches’ tips.

He was sure that he would be terrified of fire after everything that had happened involving himself and the burning element. His back ached, and he wasn’t sure if it was real pain or just phantom.

Zuko shook himself out of his mind and shifted his attention back to the documents in front of him.

About another hour passed before Zuko was shocked out of his work-induced stupor by a knock on the door. It wasn’t a hard knock, actually, it was really rather soft-sounding, but it startled him nonetheless, and he took a few moments to gather his bearings and reign in his breathing. Then, once his breaths were normal against, he called out, “Come in,” and winced at the pain caused by the words and the scratchy way they sounded when he spoke.

The door opened to reveal both Anzo and Keeli.

“Your grace,” they said in unison, bowing at the same time before each taking a step into the room.

“We’ve just landed,” Keeli said after a split-second of silence.

Zuko blinked and turned his head. He could see that they were on the ground from the rays of light falling over the earth as they spilled from the windows of the airship. He hummed.

“We are. I… I didn’t even realize.” His face heated a bit and he turned back to his work and then to the other two. “... Sorry.”

Keeli’s eyes were on the documents in front of him, the pile of finished that had gotten steadily bigger, and her eyebrows were furrowed, though he couldn’t tell the emotion. Anzo, on the other hand, shook his head, a small smile playing on the guard’s lips as he said, “It’s quite all right, your grace. No harm, no foul.”

Zuko nodded. His eyes moved to the torch flickering over Anzo’s shoulder before he asked, “What… What happened? Like, to get me… in here, I mean?” He thought he knew what had occurred, but it was mostly a blur, and he wanted to make sure he had it right.

Keeli’s mind was still elsewhere, it seemed, but Anzo sighed, turning his eyes away for a moment before speaking. “You… Something happened to… freak you out, I suppose… We brought you here, and when we weren’t able to calm you down, and you only seemed to get worse whenever someone touched you or spoke to you, we simply elected to let you be.”

Zuko nodded. That was about what he had summed up himself. He furrowed his eyebrows. “Did I… Were the… the, er, foreign leaders in the room, when I, uh, freaked out, or was that all in my head?”

Anzo winced but nodded. “They were.”

Zuko sighed and clenched his fists to keep his hands from trembling. “Agni, I’m an idiot .”

Anzo blinked. “What?”

Zuko hadn’t even realized he had spoken out loud. His face heated a bit and he shook his head. “Nothing, just… freaking out like that, it was… stupid of me. It was over nothing.”

Anzo scrunched up his face and opened his mouth to speak, but Zuko’s attention was caught by the work again and he realized how much he still had left to do. He looked up and said, “Keeli?” The woman snapped out of her daze and immediately was behind him, her hands on the handles of the wheelchair. Anzo finally seemed to choose to leave whatever it was he was going to say for another time, instead gathering up the documents (thankfully keeping them separated) and slipping them into different pockets in the bag that Zuko just now noticed was in the corner of the room before following them out and closing the door to the study behind them.

Tyne, Pim, Lee, and Ming were already outside when they made it there, the carriage waiting for them. Mai and Ty Lee stood by Tyne, while Suki and Hakoda were between Lee and Ming. The captain of the airship and four of the guards also stood at the exit.

“My Lord,” the captain said as they approached, giving a bow that was mimicked by the guards behind him.

“Thank you, Captain,” Zuko said. “You made the trip timely and smooth.”

The captain gave Zuko a small smile that showed that he was proud of himself as he nodded and said, “My pleasure, your grace.”

The captain and his guards bowed one more time before backing away and allowing them easy passage over the bridge and off of the airship altogether.

Both Suki and Hakoda were eyeing him oddly, and Zuko made sure not to make any sort of eye contact with them that lasted more than half a second. He was quite wary about freaking out again. That was very stupid of him, and he couldn’t afford to do it again, especially so soon and in front of the two foreign leaders again .

Zuko looked back at the carriage again. It was modelled the same way as the other one had been, a dark wood with deep maroon flames garnishing the sides. This one, however, was definitely different, as it was slightly bigger, and being pulled by two dragon-moose rather than one.

“This one seats eight people rather than four, your grace,” Keeli said as she pushed him over the bridge. “Anzo sent a hawk ahead once we realized we were taking extra people with us.”

Zuko nodded and glanced at Anzo. “Thanks, Anzo.” 

The guard gave the same calm smile he always and nodded silently in response.

“Pim, you can ride with me,” Ming said as Anzo moved to assist Keeli with getting the wheelchair over the bump where the bridge met the earth. “We miscalculated. We don’t have enough animals.”

Pim nodded, and Zuko’s eyes flew up and counted as quickly as he could. One, two, three, four, five, counting himself . He furrowed his eyebrows. The carriage sat eight people.

“Pim, you can ride in the carriage if you want.”

Pim’s face morphed into one of pure shock, and he saw it reflected by all the members of his staff (including the captain and his guards). He winced.

Pim seemed to recover finally as she stuttered out, “Your… your grace, I couldn’t … It’s not… It’s not appropriate.”

Oh, Zuko knew that . He may completely unconditioned to social cues of any kind (he had never been particularly good at them in the first place, either), but he knew that it was not socially acceptable for someone who was basically an upgraded seamstress to ride in the same carriage as anyone of high social standing (honestly, it probably wasn’t socially acceptable for her to ride in any carriage in general). Zuko, though, was the Fire Lord , and he didn’t particularly care what was socially acceptable. If it was easier if Pim took one of the extra three seats, then she was going to take one of the extra three seats , social rules be damned .

“Pim, get in the carriage,” Zuko said, putting on his best ‘Fire Lord’ voice. It probably wasn’t very good (if the voice crack in the middle of it was anything to go by), but it was a direct order, and Pim didn’t argue anymore. Her face was bright red, but she gave a small bow before ducking through the open door of the carriage and settling down inside, shrouded by darkness and generally out-of-sight.

Suki and Hakoda were gestured inside by Ming and Lee next, and the two shot glances at Zuko before climbing in after Pim. Mai and Ty Lee hopped in next, and finally Keeli pushed the wheelchair around to the other side, opening the door on the opposite side of the carriage. Ming and Lee, who had followed them over, lifted Zuko up as Keeli opened the door. The two worked together to put him in an empty seat inside of the carriage before Lee folded up the wheelchair as best he could and tucked it onto the seat opposite Zuko.

Zuko glanced to the side to look at the other occupants of the carriage.

The wheelchair was directly across from him, and Ty Lee sat in the seat next to it. Next to her was Suki, who looked like she would rather be anywhere but there at the moment. Pim was in the last seat in that row, her face still tinged red, and looking slightly uncomfortable at having the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors right next to her.

The seat across from Pim was empty, and then there was Hakoda, his face the same impassive mask he seemed to love to wear, and then there was Mai in the seat right next to Zuko.

There was a flickering of light from outside the open door on Zuko’s right and he turned his gaze to watch as Keeli took a step inside, ducking down as she pulled herself into the carriage. She clutched a torch in her hand and lit the little basins in each corner of the carriage before sliding up the grates, barring the flames from the rest of the carriage. For some reason, the fire being caged made Zuko feel just a bit better about it.

The light from the small torch in her hand spilled down over Keeli’s skin, and Zuko noticed for the first time that she had tiny burn scars dotting her hands, wrists, and forearms. 

“Keeli?” Zuko asked, knowing his curiosity would only get worse as time went on if he didn’t ask now. All attention turned to him, and he did his best to ignore the other pairs of eyes, instead focusing in on Keeli herself.

“Yes, my Lord?” She asked, bowing her head for a moment.

“Where… Where did those burns come from?” He asked, gesturing to the scars splayed over her skin.

She started a bit and looked down at the scars as if just noticing them for the first time before she smiled lightly and looked back up at him. “My husband’s a firebender, and my kids both inherited that… gift. None of my immediate family can firebend, so I wasn’t used to it when I was younger. Raising two volatile children who can also control fire resulted in this.” Her smile turned a bit bitter. “My husband tried to help, but there was only so much he could do.” At his questioning gaze, she added vaguely, “He was in the war.”

She wasn’t hiding the fact that it was a sensitive topic, so, though he wanted to pry further, he decided to let it be. He didn’t want to ruin his relationship with Keeli from trying to get in too deep, anyway. That wouldn’t be good.

Keeli offered him a small smile (people seemed to be doing that a lot, lately, and he found that, strangely, he liked it. It was nice having a smile directed at him ) before stepping out of the carriage, torch in hand. The door closed a moment later, leaving Zuko with only the company of the others in the carriage, the only light now being from the flickering fires in the corners within the small hollows barred off from the rest of the carriage.

There was a small jostling and then the carriage started to move.

They were all silent for a bit, Zuko’s eyes tracing the lines made by the wood on the wheelchair positioned on the seat across from him.

His fingers bunched up in the fabric of his pant leg. He glanced down at it. It was a strange material. Incredibly soft, and very light, but not like silk. Silk was slippery and stuck to your skin when you started to sweat. This one was different.

“Pim, what material is this?” He asked, both desperate for the answer and for conversation.

Pim started a bit, turning her attention from the small opening in the curtain that she had been staring out to look at him instead. “What?” She coughed, her face red. “I mean, er, what, my Lord?

Zuko pulled at the fabric over his leg and asked, “What kind of material is this? Cause, I mean, it’s soft and light, but it’s not silk , at least I don’t think it is, unless they made some sort of new kind of silk while I was-” He was suddenly aware of the other people present beside just him and Pim. He cleared his throat (which hurt really bad, oh Agni)- “uh, gone.”

Pim’s face turned even darker in hue as she said, “I, uh, I made it. With the, er, the help of my two cousins. We were all seamstresses in my… my home village. We were experimenting with new ways of spinning fabric and one of my cousins was playing around with her firebending and we accidentally created that fabric with a certain blend of fibers and the right amount of heat. I just… started using it when making some of my clothes.”

Zuko blinked as he processed all of the information, but one thing stood out in particular. “Wait, you made this?”

Before Pim could respond any more than a nod, Suki snorted unkindly and said, “ Most people make their own clothes, Fire Lord .” The way she said the title was more mocking than anything. “Not that you’d know anything about that.”

Zuko’s mouth ran dry at her words and his throat started to ache again. He wished for some water. He bit his lower lip for a moment before slowly settling back into his seat, turning his attention back to the lines in the wood of the wheelchair.

Don’t talk to him like that.

Zuko’s attention shifted immediately from the wood of the wheelchair to the woman who had just spoken.

Pim wasn’t the most menacing of people. Zuko had only known her for little more than a day, but he could tell that just by looking at her. She was pretty short, her dark brown hair was just to her shoulders and thin and always pulled back and perfectly cut, her stature was small and her features were rounded out. Nothing particularly scary about her. However, in that moment, with her fists clenched, allowing everyone to see the callouses covering her hand (probably from pricking herself with a needle. She was a seamstress, afterall), and her chestnut eyes blazing with a fire that she didn’t actually wield, she looked more terrifying than Zuko could ever have imagined. Her eyes weren’t on Zuko, though. They were locked on Suki, sitting right beside her.

“What?” Suki managed to ask. 

“You heard me, girl,” Pim said sharply, her words biting. The word ‘girl’ sounded particularly cutting, which was odd, because Pim couldn’t be more than seven years older than Suki was. “You dare to talk about the Fire Lord like that again in front of me, and you might just find a needle in your eye.”

Suki’s face was pale in the flickering firelight, her eyes wide, and Zuko noticed that the other occupants of the carriage were wide-eyed as well. 

Pim’s gaze met Zuko’s, and instead of turning red or anything, she pursed her lips and gave him a firm nod before turning back to looking through the gap in the curtains again as if nothing had happened.

No one talked for the rest of the carriage ride.

The airship had apparently landed in a different location than where it had taken off from, in an attempt to get them closer to the palace, and, as a result, they weren’t going to be heading directly through the center of the city, instead taking some backroads to get to the palace.

After the last twenty minutes of the ride were spent in complete silence, there was the sound of groaning as gates opened outside of the carriage. Zuko’s gaze broke away from the wood of the wheelchair and his hand moved to open the curtain next to him to peek outside. They were moving through the back gates of the palace, going toward the back stairs instead of the front ones (obviously, they were in the back ).

About one more minute passed before the carriage turned and finally rumbled to a halt.

There was a bit of rustling as the animals pulling the carriage probably shifted a bit and Tyne and Keeli were most likely getting off of the front.

There was a beat and then the door next to Zuko opened.

“Your grace,” Keeli said, bowing her head as she pulled the wheelchair out. Anzo took it from her and unfolded it as Ming and Lee both moved to help Zuko out of the carriage. They set him down in the wheelchair and Keeli grabbed the handles and turned him around so that he was properly facing the open door of the carriage. Mai and Ty Lee climbed out next followed by Suki and Hakoda, and then finally Pim, who Zuko just now noticed looked a bit sick in the face. She had probably never been in a carriage before, now that he thought about it. She seemed to stumble a bit when she got out before straightening up and glaring at Suki again. 

“I forgot how much carriages suck ,” Mai said once the carriage door had been closed and a group of servants had come to get it and the animals to put them away.

Ty Lee shrugged and leaned against Mai, who looked very annoyed by the touch but made no effort to push the other girl away. “I don’t know… It wasn’t that bad.”

Mai scowled. “Ships are better. Air or sea. They’re better.”

Ty Lee stared at her friend for a moment before nodding and hugging Mai’s arm. “Yeah, you’re right, Mai.”

Mai nodded. “I know.”

Suki was eyeing the other two teen girls with thinly-veiled disgust (even Zuko could see that) while Hakoda wasn’t even looking in their direction anymore, instead staring up at the palace. If he was impressed, though, he didn’t show it. Well, maybe he did , and Zuko just couldn’t tell.

“So that’s the palace,” Suki said after a moment, turning her attention to the looming building. Her eyes were slightly widened. 

Hakoda nodded.

“Have you ever seen it before?” She asked, turning her eyes to Hakoda.

He shook his head. “I didn’t make it up that far during the invasion.”

Zuko felt his blood run cold. Very cold.

“Invasion?” He breathed before he could stop himself.

All eyes turned to him. He saw the way that the guards (plus Keeli and Pim) seemed to simultaneously panic while Suki and Hakoda narrowed their eyes in suspicion. Ty Lee seemed more surprised than anything, and the look on Mai’s face was completely unreadable. That probably wasn’t due to Zuko’s ineptitude at social situations and reading people, though. Mai was a master at hiding her emotions. She always had been.

Zuko could tell from the looks his staff was sending him that he needed to rectify the situation. He cleared his throat. “Sorry, uh, I mean, you were at the… the invasion. I… I wasn’t aware of that.”

Hakoda stared at him for a long moment and seemed to be thinking about speaking before Suki opened her mouth.

“Of course he was at the invasion, he was leading it! How did you not know that? Aren’t you the Fire Lord? Shouldn’t you of all people know the details of an invasion into your nation-” She yelped- “Ow!” She turned to Pim, clutching her hand. “Why did you do that?”

Her hand shifted and Zuko saw a tiny prick of blood on her palm. His eyes moved to Pim, who had a needle held between two of her fingers. Pim shrugged. “I warned you.” She pointed the needle at Suki’s face. “Next time, I won’t be so nice.”

Suki scowled at Pim but stayed silent, wiping the blood away and settling back into place.

Zuko coughed, and it grated at his throat. He gave a small wince before saying, “Should we… head inside?”

There was a murmur of agreement and Keeli turned him toward the stairs. Once they reached them, Ming and Lee slowly carried him up the steps to the entrance. Zuko could feel the stares of the four new people, and he did his best to not look back at them and meet their eyes.

They finally made it to the top of the steps. The doors were pulled open by the two guards on duty, their faces obscured by their helmets.

There was a rush of cool air when they got inside, much cooler in comparison to the air of summer night outside.

As the doors closed behind their odd group, Zuko spoke. “Ming, Anzo, would it be possible for you guys to set up a desk inside of my chambers? So I can do some work there before sleeping?”

Anzo and Ming exchanged glances and the latter nodded before Ming turned back to him and gave a bow of her head. “Of course, your grace.” The two bowed to him before turning down one of the hallways and walking away.

“All right, then…” Zuko said, thinking over what to do next. “Can we go to the guest wing?”

Keeli started pushing the wheelchair in that direction. Pim excused herself as they walked to go prepare something for Zuko to sleep in.

Eventually, they came to one of the hallways of the guest wing: the one farthest from the royal family’s wing of the palace.

“There aren’t any guests staying in the palace right now, so all the rooms should be open,” Tyne said as the group approached the first of the rooms.

“All right,” Zuko said. He scanned the four guests before saying, “Chief Hakoda? Er, Lady Suki?” He wasn’t sure what else to call her. He would ask her when he inevitably sat down with her. He didn’t want to offend her with an incorrect title. ‘Lady’ would have to do or now, though. “One of you could take this room, and then the other could take the one right across the hall, if that’s okay?” He was sure he sounded insanely insecure, but he couldn’t really help it. He was nervous, and he wasn’t good at hiding it yet.

Hakoda and Suki exchanged glances before looking back at him and nodding, though a bit begrudgingly. 

The two looked back at Zuko and the remaining members of his group before separating and moving into one of the rooms each.

“I’ll have some clothes sent up for sleeping,” Zuko said. 

Suki narrowed her eyes but Hakoda gave him a scrutinizing look before nodding and stepping fully into his room. The door closed a moment later. Suki did the same after a second more.

Keeli turned the wheelchair and they moved out of the hallway and back to the center room of the guest wing. As she maneuvered him into another hallway, Zuko said to no one in particular. “I want guards at their doors. For protection. They’re allowed to go wherever they want in the palace once they’ve woken, but they cannot leave the grounds.” He couldn’t let them just wander off injured without getting any medical treatment first! What kind of message would that send to the rest of the world?

“Of course, my Lord,” Lee said, filling in the silence Zuko had left behind.

Lee broke off from the group for a moment to find a servant to fulfill Zuko’s two requests as the remaining members of the group moved into a new hallway.

Finally, they stopped in front of another guest room.

“Mai, Ty Lee, you guys can just… You know…” Zuko’s words were failing him for some reason.

Mai stepped forward and placed her hand on the doorway of the room on the left. “I’ll take this one, Ty Lee.”

Ty Lee grinned and hopped forward and to the other room on the right. “Then I’ll take this one.”

Zuko wet his lips before saying, “I’ll send for more clothing for you two to sleep in.”

Ty Lee turned to him and smiled. Unless he was sorely mistaken, this one seemed genuine. “Thanks, Zuko.”

Zuko’s throat locked up a bit and he nodded.

Mai’s lips quirked up and she gave him a nod before stepping into her room and closing the door behind her. Ty Lee gave a grin that seemed just a bit less real and offered up a mock-salute before ducking back into her room, the door closing a moment later.

They met back up with Lee in the guest wing’s center again.

“I sent for clothes and guards for all four of them, rather than just the Chief and, er, the Kyoshi Warrior,” Lee said, approaching them when they emerged from the hallway.

“Thanks, Lee,” Zuko said, nodding to him.

Lee smiled and gave a small bow in response.

They moved in relative silence back to Zuko’s chambers. When they entered, Anzo, Ming, and Pim were already waiting for them.

Ming and Lee worked together to quickly get Zuko into his sleeping clothes. Agni, he couldn’t wait to be able to dress himself. 

Pim pulled his hair out of the topknot and put his crown away before bowing and standing off to the side.

Zuko furrowed his eyebrows. “Pim, you can… you can go if you want.”

Pim blinked. “What?”

“Like…” His mouth was dry. “You can go… home, I mean. If you’re done. There’s… You don’t have to stick around here if you don’t have any more work to do.”

She stared at him for a long moment before her eyes softened and she gave a small smile. “Thank you, my Lord.” She gave another bow (wow, they really did that a lot here in the Fire Nation, didn’t they?) before leaving the room.

Ming and Anzo left for a bit to gather a group of guards that they deemed trustworthy at Zuko’s request. When they returned with the guards for the night, Zuko gave them, once more, express permission to leave. Ming did but Anzo stuck around until Tyne was finished putting out the papers Zuko had been doing on the desk. Then, the two of them left arm-in-arm.

Lee left just a minute after his sister, just after closing the rest of the curtains. He gave a bow and closed the door behind him.

Finally, it was just Zuko and Keeli.

She was arranging a place for him to sleep on the floor. Without him asking. That small gesture could have made him cry.

“Keeli?”

She froze for a moment before continuing her work. “Yes, my Lord?”

“What’s your family like?” 

His was so dysfunctional, he sort of wanted to know what a normal one was like.

She was quiet for a moment before standing up and turning around to face him, sitting down on the very edge of his bed (which he wasn’t going to be sleeping in) so that they were at a closer height to one another.

She cleared her throat a bit before speaking, her fingers drumming on her leg, the burn scars dotting her arm clear in the candlelight.

“My father was a laborer. He worked in one of the factories a few miles inland from the city. My mother worked in the palace. She brought me here first when I was very young to work under the table before I got a real job here.” A smile quirked at her lips. “I actually was in the palace when you were born. It was very hectic.” 

He nodded quickly, desperate to hear more. Keeli really sounded like she loved her family, and they seemed like an interesting group. 

Plus, he had never heard anything about when he was born.

She frowned. “The word around the palace was that you weren’t going to survive. Or that your… your father would… be rid of you. But then, a month later, I was looking out the window and watching you being blessed in the light of Agni.” She smiled again and glanced back at him. “You were really small .”

His face burned, but he found that he liked this side of Keeli. As soon as she had started talking about her family, she seemed to have shed off the professional shell that all people seemed to wear around him over the course of the last day. She was treating him as if he was a friend, or a member of her own family, even, rather than as the Fire Lord. He found that he rather enjoyed it.

She huffed. “Now, where was I… Oh! Okay, so I’m the oldest of five children. My sister Nari is four years younger than me. She loves to make up stories. Honestly, if any of us could read, I’m sure she would become some sort of writer. Instead, she’s the wife of a merchant.” She scowled. “One of the downsides of being born a member of the commonfolk .” 

Zuko pressed his lips together tightly. He had to remember to try and fix that. Reading and writing was so important. To think that so many people in the Fire Nation couldn’t do either? It was insane…

His attention was drawn out of his thoughts as Keeli continued to talk.

“My brother Yosuke is five years younger than me. He’s an odd one. When we were younger, he’d always roll around in the dirt outside, but as soon as anyone dragged a speck of mud inside, he’d go ballistic and go on a cleaning frenzy. He works as a servant in one of the nobles’ manors around the palace.

“My brothers Tomo and Haruki are twins, six years younger. Tomo loves to paint, and he makes them himself, because we’ve ever had enough money to afford them. He makes ‘em out of whatever extra berries he gets from the market and a weird paste he makes himself from, like, sand and some sort of ground-up leaf. Haruki likes to carve. He used to carve these little professional-looking statues and sell them in the market for some extra coin, which he’d share with Tomo to help him get more paint, and then Tomo would sell his paintings, and they’d split the extra.” Her smile turned bitter. “They always ended up giving our parents their extra money instead, when the couldn’t afford food for the month.”

Okay, yeah, the Fire Nation needed a lot of improvements.

She shook her head. “Anyway, I’ve got a lot of cousins and aunts and uncles that I can barely even keep track of, so I’ll just skip over them. Um… the rest of my family.”

A genuine smile appeared on her lips again. It was fond and loving and Zuko envied whoever had that much love directed at them.

“My husband’s name in Lu...Lu Lee, I mean.” She suddenly looked uncomfortable for some reason. “We met… We met when we were younger, around when I officially started working in the palace. He went to the Siege of Ba Sing Se, and was thought to be dead. One day, I was down in the harbor and I found him there. He was… very badly injured, but he was alive. We got married later and now we’ve got two children. Twins. Zara and Kobe. They’re three right now. Both firebenders, like I said earlier. Resulted in these.” She gestured vaguely at the burn scars on her arms. 

Zuko nodded. He furrowed his eyebrows before asking, “Keeli, how long have you worked here?”

She smirked. “Officially? Fourteen years. Including under-the-table work? Twenty-one.”

His eyes widened and he sputtered. “ Twenty-one? How old are you?

She raised an eyebrow. “Now, my Lord, don’t you know it doesn’t do to ask a woman her age?”

Zuko felt his face burn and he ducked his head. “I… I’m sorry, I-”

She laughed, and a weight lifted from his chest. “I’m kidding, your grace. I’m twenty-seven. I first scrubbed the floors here with my mother when I was six. I signed officially when I was thirteen.”

Zuko nodded. He thought for a moment, doing the quickest mental math he could before asking, “Did you ever meet any members of my family?”

She hesitated, the smile remaining from the laughter fading. “I… I’ve met you, obviously. And your father of course… I never met your mother or your sister. Or your grandfather… But… I did meet your uncle. Had a few conversations with him…” She looked like she was going to say more, but was thinking against it.

Zuko pressed on. “What about my cousin?”

A strange look passed over her face. “I knew him.”

He leaned forward a bit. “ Knew him?”

She seemed incredibly conflicted before she sighed and said, “I am… was… friends with him. We met when I was twelve. He thought I was five. I accidentally kinda-sorta insulted him.” Her face was a bit red. “Then we became friends. We were pretty close, I think, until he went off to war and… and, uh, didn’t come back.” There was a strange tone on her words at the end, but Zuko couldn’t tell what it was. Probably grief, if he was taking his best guess.

They fell into a silence before Zuko coughed and winced at the pain it caused in his dry, sore throat.

She blinked. “Would you like some water, your grace?”

He nodded, ignoring the way she had fallen right back into professionalism. “Please.”

She disappeared through the door and Zuko turned and wheeled himself over to the desk where the documents were set up. He made his way through about two before she entered the room again. She gave a bow and approached him, a pitcher of water in hand.

She poured him some water and held it up to his lips, letting him sip from it.

“You can go if you want,” he said once he had finished the water in the first cup.

She hummed, pouring another cup of water. “I could . Do I have to?”

He blinked and shook his head. “No.”

“Then I don’t think I will. I’m not even supposed to head home today. I signed up for an overnight shift for some extra pay. So, sorry, my Lord, but you’re stuck with me.”

If there was any time over the course of the last day-and-a-half that he might have smiled, it would have probably been at that moment. He still didn’t, but it was close.

Keeli sat on the couch, where he could still see her out of the corner of his eye. 

A while passed. He wasn’t sure how long it was, so immersed in the documents in front of him, but Keeli never left.

Finally, she stood up and walked outside into the hallway. Zuko ignored the way his heart sank. She returned just a moment later, closing the door behind her.

“Your grace?”

He turned his head to her. “Yes?”

“It’s one-and-a-half hours past midnight.”

He hadn’t realized how much time had passed. He had been working for at least two hours. Keeli had just been sitting there for at least two hours. He winced at the thought. She must be so bored…

“All right,” he said. He signed the document in front of him and put it in the finished pile before pushing away from the desk.

Keeli walked over to him and used one of the candles on the desk to light three new ones she had in hand before blowing out all of the old ones in one breath.

She gently and silently helped Zuko out of the wheelchair and onto the floor where the firm pillows and the thin blanket were on the floor. She pulled the blanket back and Zuko shifted himself to lay on the sheet, his head resting on the pillows. If it was anyone else, Zuko would probably have felt uncomfortable, but Keeli had an air about her that made it easy to feel safe around her. Also, she had seen him at his lowest point ever . This was nothing in comparison to that.

Keeli pulled the blanket over him with such care he wasn’t surprised that she was a mother of two.

She set the candles a ways away from him, and when he breathed in he realized that they were scented with Orange-Lavender. 

She sat next to him, leaning her head against the bed, her legs folded underneath her, her hands resting on her knees. She breathed in before humming out a small tune.

Zuko relaxed involuntarily at the light music coming from behind her lips. She quirked up an eyebrow and sighed before singing softly out loud.

She had a nice voice.

She was singing about who-knows-what, but it was pretty. Some song about spring, and then one about summer, and then one about an island off the west coast of the Fire Nation or something, and then one about the end of the war.

As she sang, Zuko realized how tired he was. His body still ached whenever he moved, and he was just exhausted .

He fell asleep right in the middle of a song about a young prince who was trying to do the right thing, and just didn’t know how.