Zuko was confrontational, once. He trained himself out of it--learned to bite his tongue at war meetings and the dinner-table, in front of snide customers and rude vendors who refused to sell to gold-eyed strangers.
But, sometimes, everything builds inside him. An alarming number of Fire Nation warships have been sighted lately, and the weather is still cold, which makes him miss the humidity of Caldera City, which makes him feel twisted-up inside because the thought of returning to the Fire Nation makes him sick--
It’s almost a relief when he hears the bitten-off scream. He follows the sound into a back alley, and finds a group of three--and an elderly merchant guarding his purse.
The bald man eyes him up and down. Zuko has been a tea server for almost three years, and he dresses like one, too. He’s not worth robbing.
“Fuck off, kid.”
Zuko pulls a knife out of his waistband, the pearl hilt flashing in the moonlight. “Leave him alone.”
They laugh, a rough sound that echoes down the alleyway. The merchant looks like he’s going to cry. He looks older than Uncle.
Zuko readjusts his hold on the knife, warming it just enough for the metal to flash gold. They stop laughing, then.
They rush him, and he kicks out, a ribbon of yellow fire following the arch of his foot, pushing them back. He dispatches one, and then two, and then whirls on the third. The man spits, “Ash-maker,” and Zuko jumps off the wall and knocks him out with the hilt of his knife.
The men are sprawled, unconscious, around him. The merchant had slipped away during the fight.
Zuko stashes his knife away. He’s bruised, he can feel it. Before he goes to breakfast tomorrow, he’ll have to check to make sure everything is covered by his clothes, or else he’ll have to deal with the crew’s fussing.
And then someone says, “You’re a firebender.”
Zuko turns. In the mouth of the alleyway is a boy. He’s small and brightly coloured, like a bird that’s flown too far South.
Zuko is awkward when customers bring their children onto the Jasmine Dragon, which only makes the crew laugh at him and Iroh grin into his tea. He has no idea how to make this kid go away without scaring him.
But he will scare him, if he has to.
Most people see the Jasmine Dragon with its kitschy second-hand furniture and hand-painted signs and understand that it is both Fire Nation and harmless. That’s not always the case, though. Some people can’t fit the words firebender and innocent together.
If this kid goes running through the dark marketplace screaming his head off about a firebender, they’ll get run out of port. Again. And Uncle always looks so sad when they have to escape from angry mobs …
But the boy just bounces closer. And smiles. At Zuko. “I told Katara and Sokka that good firebenders existed!”
The boy steps into a patch of moonlight, and Zuko sees his big eyes, his orange and yellow robes, the blue arrow tattooed on his forehead.
Zuko knows that symbol, those colours. Before Uncle had fished him out of his fixated depression, he had spent weeks hunched over century-old scrolls, staring at illustrations of long-dead Air Nomads.
“I’m looking for a firebending teacher,” says the airbender. He’s so young and earnest. Zuko is going to throw up on his shoes. “Will you teach me?”
“You’re an airbender,” Zuko says.
The boy cocks his head to the side. “Yeah?”
“And you need a--”
“Oh.” The boy laughs. “Yeah, I’m the Avatar!”
Zuko pushes past the kid--the Avatar--and sprints through the port, shoving desperately through the crowd as he goes. The airbender calls after him, “Where are you going? Hey! Wait!”
But Zuko’s lungs are too tight and his vision is beginning to tunnel. He runs up the plank of the Jasmine Dragon and through the familiar corridors, tearing past the baffled crew.
When he’s safe in his locked room, Zuko topples over, landing on his knees. He doesn’t have the Air Nomad scrolls anymore. Uncle convinced him to return them to the Air Temples where they belonged--not just because it was the right thing to do, but also to stop him from being tempted to keep searching for the Avatar. He doesn’t need the scrolls, though. He knows what he saw. He knows.
He had abandoned his hunt for the Avatar three years ago.
But it seems that the Avatar had found him anyway.
Uncle knocks on the door. “Zuko? Are you alright? Jee said he saw you return from the markets in quite a state.”
Zuko buries his face in his knees. It had been some time since he had had such a violent panic attack, and now he just feels weak. Drained of all his energy.
“Nephew? Please open the door.”
“Go away, Uncle.”
“Are you hurt? If you’re hurt--”
“I’m not hurt!” Zuko’s voice cracks. He closes his eyes, shoves his face in his knees. “Go away.”
There’s silence. Then: “It’s just me, Zuko. I want to see if you’re alright. Please don’t push me away again.”
Zuko will never be able to refuse Uncle, not after everything he has done for him. Not after Zuko decided all those years ago that, if he didn’t want to keep living for his father or his people or even himself, then he would keep living for Uncle.
He gets up on shaky legs and unlocks the door.
Uncle looks at him with those keen eyes and pulls him into a hug. Zuko sinks into it.
“Uncle,” he chokes out, “I saw him.”
“The Avatar. I used my firebending when I wasn’t supposed to and this boy with airbending tattoos ...”
He can feel his throat closing up again.
Uncle closes the door. He guides him to the low table, his hand never leaving Zuko’s back.
“Do you want to chase after him?” Uncle asks.
“No. I gave that up years ago. I don’t want to go back to--” My father. “--the palace. The Jasmine Dragon is my home now.” A thought occurs to him, then. Though Uncle has always seemed so happy running this floating tea shop, entertaining customers below his social status, he has always been very aware that Uncle’s main reason for staying was because Zuko couldn’t return to the Fire Nation. “Do you want to go home, Uncle?”
Uncle brushes hair out of Zuko’s face. “The Jasmine Dragon isn’t just your home, nephew.”
Zuko nods, because he’s run out of words and his eyes have grown heavy. When Uncle gets up and leaves the room, he knows he’s only going to fetch them tea, but Zuko wants to latch onto his sleeve, anyway.
Sokka stares at Aang, the world’s last hope, the Fire Nation’s greatest threat, the nuisance Katara rescued just to make his life infinitely more difficult.
“Aang,” he says, “the goal is to stay away from firebenders.”
“But I need to learn firebending sometime!” Aang protests. “And when are we going to find another good firebender? You said it yourself: the entire Fire Nation is against me. How am I going to find a teacher if we avoid all firebenders?”
“He does need a firebending teacher,” Katara says. Sokka sends her a betrayed glare, and she raises her hands defensively. “I didn’t say we should trust this one.”
Aang drops onto the log beside her, puppy eyes on full display. “But Katara!”
“We don’t know if he really is good, Aang. You said you saw him take down a group of thieves, but that doesn’t mean he’d be willing to work with the Avatar, against his own people.”
“He didn’t try and fight me,” Aang tries.
“Yeah, he ran away when he realised who you were,” Sokka says. “That definitely screams ‘make me your firebending teacher.’”
Aang wilts. “But ...”
Katara pats him on the shoulder. “We’ll keep an eye out for more good firebenders, okay? We’ll find you a teacher, Aang. Don’t worry.”
Sokka scoffs, crossing his arms. A good firebender. As if.
Iroh usually holds crew-wide meetings in the mess hall. It’s the largest room on the Jasmine Dragon, and the place where everyone naturally congregates. So when Iroh calls a handful of them into the control room, Jee immediately knows there’s a problem. A teenage-shaped problem.
It’s a tight fit with half a dozen adults, but they manage, waiting patiently to hear what happened to the Jasmine Dragon’s youngest crewman.
“Thank you all for coming,” Iroh begins. “I thought it was best to debrief you all as soon as possible. This has shaken Zuko up a great deal.”
“Is he okay?” Chef says. “I didn’t see him at breakfast. He didn’t get into another brawl, did he?”
“Zuko is resting,” Iroh says, which only makes everyone look more alarmed. The kid is all action; he hates staying still. Iroh waits a beat, then announces, “My nephew found the Avatar last night.”
“I thought he abandoned that,” Jee says, wide-eyed. “It’s a fool’s errand. He couldn’t actually have ...”
“Perhaps I should rephrase. The Avatar found Zuko.”
“Oh,” Jee says. “Oh, fuck.”
“Is he okay?” Chef asks again. Chiyo looks ready to shove her way out of the control room and track Zuko down. As the ship’s designated medic, it’s an expression she wears fairly often.
“Everyone, please calm down,” Iroh says. “It sounds as if my nephew and the Avatar only bumped into each other. And it sounds as if the Avatar is even younger than Zuko.”
Jee grimaces. “Sir, I know you want to see Zuko make friends his own age, but really. The Avatar?”
Iroh doesn’t look at them. His gaze is focused on the bay outside, the water rippling green-blue beneath the morning sun. “No, of course not, Jee. Of course not ...”
The crew exchange glances. That tone of voice does not bode well for them--or for Zuko.
That morning, Zuko pours tea like he did when they first opened the Jasmine Dragon, when he was an inexperienced thirteen year old who had spent his entire life being served, not serving others.
He knocks over a cup and spills tea across one of the new tablecloths Uncle commissioned from Kyoshi island. Thankfully, the customer at that table is an older woman that seems endeared by Zuko. Or maybe she’s just too busy flirting with Iroh to care. For once, Zuko is too exhausted to be grossed out.
He takes the tablecloth down to the laundry room. Chiyo is there, and she laughs when she sees the tea-stained cloth.
“Did Daichi try and do a trick with the teapot? Don’t follow his lead, kid. You’ll never impress any girls or boys by accidentally spilling tea down yourself.”
Zuko glares down at the ruined tablecloth. Uncle had seemed so excited when they had picked them up last month.
She throws a pillowcase at him, and ignores his angry splutters. “We’re playing cards on deck tonight. You had better be there.”
“You can’t organise a game night every time you’re low on funds,” Zuko says. “We know you cheat. No one’s going to bet against you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Zuko opens his mouth to tell her off, but then Daichi bursts in, apron still on, holding up a still-steaming bowl. “Zuko, Chef made fire flakes!”
Zuko squints at him. “Chef only makes fire flakes on special occasions.”
Daichi lowers the bowl. “It’s, uh. My birthday?”
“That was last month. We had a party. You got drunk and tried to tip me overboard.”
Daichi exchanges panicked looks with Chiyo. Zuko sighs. They must know about last night. About the brightly-coloured boy who barely comes up to Zuko’s shoulder. About the Avatar, seeking him out three years into his banishment. News travels fast on the Jasmine Dragon.
Zuko snatches the bowl of fire flakes out of Daichi’s hands. They’re extra crispy, just how he likes it.
He doesn’t like their fussing--but he appreciates it, anyway.
“If Kyoshi Island is neutral territory,” Aang begins, “then you must get lots of neutral ships passing through here. Ships from other nations, even.”
Sokka knows exactly where Aang is going with this. He tries to kick Aang, but he’s too tightly bound, and he only manages to jerk his leg to the side, more a twitch than a proper attack. “Aang, quit talking about that firebender!”
The very-scary-looking-but-still-a-girl warrior glares down at him. “Firebender?”
“Yeah,” Aang says, oblivious to the menace in her voice. “He’s about Sokka’s age, though he’s a little taller--”
“The more I hear about this guy, the more I hate him,” Sokka says.
“--and he has long black hair, and a big scar on his face, and he saves people from dangerous thieves!” Aang smiles at them, far too happy for someone bound and held at fan-point by a bunch of girls. “He’s a good firebender.”
Good firebender. No matter how many times Sokka hears that, it doesn’t sound any less ridiculous. Firebenders aren’t good.
The girl-warrior brightens. “Oh! You must mean Zuko.”
“You’ve met him?” Aang asks.
“Sure,” she says, looking far less menacing now that she’s talking about Zuko, the firebender, and not their apparent trespassing. “He serves the best tea I’ve ever tasted. He stopped by only a month ago. His uncle had commissioned a bunch of tablecloths from a local artist. Such a lovely family.”
“The nice firebender has a nice firebending uncle,” Aang says gleefully.
“Are you sure this is the same guy?” Katara asks on the other side of the totem pole.
The girl-warrior gestures at one side of her face. “Huge scar? Long braid tied with a yellow ribbon? Gold eyes?”
“That’s him!” Aang says.
“There is,” Sokka says through his teeth, “no such thing as a good firebender. This guy is conning all of you.”
The girl-warriors are back to looking scary again. They brandish their fans at him. Delicate objects should not look so dangerous.
“His name is Zuko,” says the girl-warrior, “and he’s our friend.”
Aang beams up at them. “I want him to be my friend too. He’s going to be my firebending master, after all!”
Aang flips out of his restraints, landing neatly on top of the totem pole. “I’m the Avatar!”
The girls let them go fairly quickly, after that. Sokka rubs at his wrists and glares at Aang, who is too busy soaking up the island’s combined admiration to notice.
“This is very good tea,” Katara says. She’s not just making small talk; the tea really is amazing. Maybe the best she’s ever had, even if it does taste as though it has been steeped for too long. “It tastes almost exotic ...”
“A good friend of mine delivers it regularly,” Bumi says. “It’s the best tea in the world.”
Aang perks up. Sokka is already glaring across the table, like he can predict the next words out of his mouth.
“The Kyoshi Warriors also mentioned a very good tea they get delivered regularly,” Aang says. “You wouldn’t happen to know a good firebender called Zuko, would you?”
“Why, of course. He’s a good lad. Bit surly, but he’s a teenager, what can you do?”
Katara puts her cup down. “You’ve met Aang’s firebender, too?”
“Katara,” Sokka hisses, “he’s not Aang’s firebender--”
“Yes, of course!” Bumi says. “I think of him like my very awkward, very grumpy nephew.”
“Even though he’s a firebender,” Aang says, casting a smug glance at Sokka.
Bumi looks baffled. “All firebenders aren’t evil, you know.”
“All firebenders aren’t evil,” Aang echoes. “See, Sokka!”
Sokka eyes Bumi, idly dipping lettuce leaves into his tea. “Right. I’ll take his word for it.”
“If Bumi knows and trusts Zuko,” Aang says, “then I do too. I’ve decided: I want him as my firebending teacher. No one else.”
“Have you two even had, like, a conversation?” Sokka says, scratching his arm. The feel of creeping crystals lingers on his skin. “You said he ran away when he saw you. Why do you keep forgetting that part?”
“I can be very persuasive,” Aang says, smiling the smile of a twelve year old who knows exactly how cute he is. Sokka knew those puppy eyes were on purpose.
“We have had two different people confirm that this Zuko character is okay,” Katara says. “I still don’t trust him completely, but if we find him again, we should at least try and talk to him.”
Sokka glares at his traitorous sister, scratching his elbow harder. “Fine! Fine. We’ll talk to the firebender.”
Aang cheers, leaping into the air.
“But only if we run into him again! It’s a big world. What are the chances that you’ll meet the same person twice?”
“Hey, look,” Sokka says, pointing. “Tea!”
The angular ship stands out against the humble fishing boats docked around it. Not just because of its size, but because of the hand-painted banners hanging over the side. One reads, “WELCOME.” Another simply says, “TEA.”
Sokka leads Katara up the gangplank. Mismatched tables are set up across the deck and lanterns are strung up, softening the sharp accents of the ship. It’s a windy day. Sokka wonders how the lanterns stay lit.
This floating tea-shop seems safe; most of the tables are full, and the ship is decorated with kitschy furniture and hand-painted signs. And no place that smells this good can be dangerous.
“Shouldn’t we wait for Aang before stopping somewhere?” Katara asks.
Sokka waves her off. “He’ll find us eventually. He’s probably off having another mini-adventure. In the meantime, we deserve tea.”
A teenager in a tea-stained apron approaches them. His hair is braided down his back and tied with a canary-yellow ribbon. Sokka tries not to stare at the nasty scar burnt into one half of his face.
There’s something familiar about him, but Sokka can’t pinpoint what, exactly. Surely he would remember such a brutal scar stamped across such a pretty face. Surely his nose would remember smelling such amazing tea.
The teenager raises a hand in greeting. “Hello, Zuko here. I’ll be your server for today. Would you like to be seated or would you like to continue browsing?”
Katara gasps. Sokka elbows her in the side. It isn’t as if she’s never seen a nasty scar before--people in their tribe have plenty of intense-looking scars from the Fire Nation raids. She should know better than to be rude about it.
“We’ll keep browsing, thanks,” Sokka says, and steers Katara towards the display of various teas.
Katara is still staring at the boy. For once in his life, Sokka hopes it’s because he’s an attractive boy and not because of the burn.
Sokka studies the teas laid out on the embroidered tablecloth. The design is familiar, too. It almost reminds him of the green-blue designs on Kyoshi Island.
He picks up a ceramic pot full of orange-red tea and sniffs at it. It smells spicy and almost burnt, like curry simmering over a campfire.
“That’s a special Jasmine Dragon blend,” Zuko says, coming up behind them. “It’s my favourite. Would you like to try some?”
The tea server brews them a small sample with quick efficiency. Sokka sips at it. It’s even spicier than it smells, and twice as good. Better than any of the watery tea Sokka has sampled in other towns. Strange, though. Who wants their tea to have a kick to it?
Sokka looks at the tea server again. He’s unnaturally pale for someone who works on the deck of a ship all day, directly under the sun. And at this angle, his eyes seem almost gold.
Sokka blinks. It isn’t the angle. On closer inspection, his eyes are, very clearly, gold.
Who has gold eyes?
And his accent. It’s subdued and barely there, like a rock worn smooth by time, but he doesn’t sound like an Earth Kingdom native, or speak like he’s from the Water Tribe. Aang has an alien lilt to his words that the tea server is missing, but there’s still something there--a faint, foreign inflection ...
“Wait,” Sokka says, “wait, wait, wait.”
“I’m very sorry about this,” Katara says to Zuko.
Zuko blinks at her. “About what?”
“The big red ship,” Sokka says, gesturing at the seemingly harmless tea shop. “The foreign features. The weird spicy tea. You’re Fire Nation!”
Zuko stares at him flatly. “And what about it?”
“The Fire Nation is evil!”
Zuko’s polite expression vanishes. “We’re just selling tea, we’re not doing anything wrong. We have nothing to do with the war.”
Sokka scowls. “Everyone in the Fire Nation is the same. This whole thing is probably a trap to lure us into a false sense of security!”
Zuko scowls back. His scowl is better than Sokka’s. It’s probably because of the scar. Or maybe people in the Fire Nation just train their kids to master the act of looking angry. “A trap? How could you say that? We’re minding our business and trying to make a living, just like everyone else.”
Sokka points at him. “That’s what someone setting up a trap would say.”
Katara puts a hand on his shoulder. “Sokka, calm down. Don’t you realise who this is?”
Sokka pulls out his boomerang, brandishing it under the tea server’s nose. “I know exactly who he is, Katara. He’s Fire Nation, and I don’t trust him. Why didn’t he just tell us he was Fire Nation in the first place, if he’s so innocent?”
“Because of how you’re acting right now,” Zuko says. “And besides, it’s not like we were hiding. The Jasmine dragon is run out of a decommissioned warship.”
“He’s right, Sokka,” Katara says. “And remember what the Kyoshi Warriors and King Bumi said about Zuko? He’s good. They vouched for him. And so did Aang.”
The pieces fit together in Sokka’s head. This isn’t just a rogue Fire Nation citizen, this is the mythical nice firebender.
“You’re Aang’s firebending teacher,” Sokka realises.
Zuko takes a step back. “Excuse me?”
“I’m sticking with my trap theory,” Sokka says stubbornly. “This could all be some big plan to take advantage of Aang’s kind nature. Everyone knows the Air Nomads were super forgiving and nice.”
Zuko looks like he’s going to throw up.
“Look, I can see Aang from here. Why don’t we just ask him?” Katara leans over the side of the ship, waving her hand in the air. “Aang, over here!”
There’s a rush of air, and then Aang is perched on the railing, a bag of fruit slung over his shoulder. He opens his mouth. Then closes it. Immediately, he zeroes-in on Zuko.
“It’s you!” Aang jumps off the railing and bounces closer. “Hello! I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Is this your tea shop? Can you teach me firebending?”
“It’s you,” Zuko says.
“Aang, stay back,” Sokka says, holding his boomerang like a sword. “This is probably one big ploy so he could capture the Avatar.”
Zuko laughs. The sound comes up rough and---sad, almost.
“No. No, I wouldn’t--” Zuko shakes his head. “Get off our ship.”
Another server comes up behind Zuko, eyes narrowed. “Are you okay, Zuko? Are we fighting these guys?”
“There’s no fighting on the Jasmine Dragon,” Zuko insists.
The crewman nods. “Okay, fine. Are we escorting them off the Jasmine Dragon and then fighting them?”
Thin steam wafts out of Zuko’s mouth. It doesn’t look like an intimidation tactic--if anything, he looks like a metal teapot screaming on the stove, spiralling past boiling-point.
“No,” Zuko says through his teeth. “They’re leaving. We’re staying.”
“I’m getting Iroh,” says the crewman, before disappearing below deck.
Aang inches a bit closer. Sokka had been worried about Aang’s safety, but in that moment, it looked as though Zuko was the one in danger of being kidnapped. Not Aang.
“Wait,” Aang says, “please. I’m looking for a firebending teacher and--”
The crewman returns with a kindly old man in tow. Iroh touches Zuko’s shoulder and says softly, “Nephew, is everything okay?”
Zuko huffs out another breath of steam. “I don’t want them here, Uncle.”
Iroh claps his hands together. “Alright, then. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you three to please leave.”
“But,” Aang says.
Iroh hands out little wrapped bags that smell delicious and then bustles them off deck, down the gangplank, and into the marketplace proper, all with a smile and an unflappable grace, like he is escorting them home, not manhandling them away from his nephew.
“Thank you for frequenting the Jasmine Dragon,” Iroh says. “I hope to see you again soon!”
“Didn’t you just kick us out?” Katara asks, dazed.
Aang has already unwrapped his bag. “Oh, there’s biscuits in here!”
With a wave goodbye and wish for them to have a great day, Iroh disappears back up the gangplank. Customers are quickly shooed off and the gangplank is lifted, and the Jasmine Dragon is streaming out of port less than an hour after the Avatar had stepped foot on deck.
“I’m not hungry, Uncle.”
“Perhaps some more tea, then.”
Zuko sighs and nods, allowing Iroh to fill his teacup back up. Although Iroh is worried about Zuko, he’s glad that this has happened now, after he has spent three years gently parenting Zuko. If the Avatar had bounced onto their deck when Zuko was still twisted up from Ozai’s violence, then his nephew would have had a very different reaction.
The spirits truly are working in their favour. This is a stroke of fate. He knows it.
Iroh allows silence to settle over the room. He considers strong-arming Zuko into a round of Pai Sho, but decides against it. If Zuko wants to finish his tea, disappear into his bedroom, and immerse himself in theatre scrolls, then Iroh will let him.
“I don’t want to chase after the Avatar,” Zuko says abruptly.
Iroh sips his tea. “I know.”
“I don’t want this to destroy the life we’ve worked so hard to build.”
And Iroh is proud of him for that. He’s glad that Zuko could lay down the wild chase Ozai had sent him on and embrace a more humble life. Zuko learned how to live for himself and not the approval of a man who would never be satisfied.
But he has known for some time that this run-down ship and the company of a dozen adults isn’t what Zuko needs.
Iroh lays his hand over Zuko’s. “You deserve more, nephew.”
It’s a testament to their years on the Jasmine Dragon that Zuko doesn’t jerk his hand away. “More? What else is there? The palace? Uncle, you don’t think we should go back there, do you? My father …”
“No, no. Of course not. But beyond this ship. Beyond the war. Don’t you deserve more out of life, Zuko?”
Zuko stares blankly at him. He clearly doesn’t understand what Iroh is saying. He never had regarded himself very highly. Even now, after years in Iroh’s care, he still doesn’t think he deserves any extra kindness the world has to offer.
Zuko isn’t ready for what Iroh has to say.
Iroh puts down his tea. “Never mind, nephew. I heard you purchased another theatre scroll from the markets yesterday. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“I don’t know what you saw in that guy,” Sokka fumes. “He seemed like a real jerk to me!”
“You were a jerk to him first,” Katara says.
“Are you taking the firebender’s side? I thought you were my sister.”
“Stop being so dramatic.”
“Sokka,” Aang whines. “Come on. He’s a firebender. A good firebender! And he’s our age!”
Sokka shoves another biscuit into his mouth. They taste amazing--soft like melting butter, with a kick like cinnamon to them--and that just makes him angrier. “We should focus on getting to the North Pole.”
“But Zuko is right there,” Aang says. “When are we going to get another chance like this? Katara?”
Katara bites her lip. “He seems like he doesn’t want to be around us though, let alone teach you firebending.”
“We have to at least try!”
“How?” Sokka asks. “You saw how he reacted to you. If we go onboard the Jasmine Dragon, his uncle will just smile and carry us off again. Seriously, how is that old man so strong …”
“I have an idea,” Aang says, “but I don’t think he’ll like it.”
It’s a warm day. Zuko is standing on deck, soaking in Agni’s rays and tending to the steady stream of customers. It’s the kind of day that soothes his anxieties, reminds him why he enjoys this life so much.
A shadow falls over the ship, as though a cloud has passed in front of the sun. A few people gasp. Daichi holds up a broom like it’s a weapon. And then Zuko is caught around the waist and hoisted into the air.
He thrashes and tries to twist out of the hold, but they dive sharply left, and he’s thrown back against the thing carrying him.
He can hear shouting from the ship. The figures on board, waving their arms frantically and trying to call up to him, grow smaller and smaller as he rises into the air. His anger is replaced by fear.
And then he’s dropped into a saddle. The Avatar lands beside him.
“Hi, Zuko,” Aang says, as though he hadn’t just snatched him off the Jasmine Dragon, like a lion-hawk scooping up a baby buffalo-sheep. “Welcome aboard!”
Katara, on the other side of the saddle, waves awkwardly at him. Sokka just glares.
Zuko scrambles for the edge of the saddle. No one makes a move to stop him. When he peers over the side, he sees why: the ground is a very, very long way down, his ship a dot in the shrunken port. He’s stuck.
“Did,” Zuko says, “did you just kidnap me?”
“I wouldn’t call it kidnapping,” Aang says. “More like very strongly insisted you come with us.”
Zuko stares at the sheepish airbender perched on the head of the sky bison--two beings he had, until very recently, thought were extinct. Then he looks to the Water Tribe siblings, one passingly polite and the other not looking at him. Then he peeks over the edge of the saddle again.
“I’ve been kidnapped,” Zuko says, staring at the barely visible spot of colour that was the Jasmine Dragon. He feels numb. “By a child.”
“It’s not kidnapping!”
“Aang,” Katara says gently, “it’s definitely kidnapping.”
“And you’re okay with this?” Zuko asks, narrowing his eyes at her.
She smiles at him. That sugary-sweet smile reminds him, alarmingly, of Azula.
Zuko sits back down, arms crossed. The rest of the flight passes in uncomfortable silence.
When the sky bison lands in a patchy clearing, Zuko leaps over the edge of the saddle, rolling on impact, and runs for the treeline. Aang zips in front of him.
Zuko ducks and sprints in the other direction. Aang jumps in front of him again.
“Please don’t make me fight you,” Aang says, hands up.
Zuko throws a fireball at him. Aang flips into the air easily.
“Hey,” Aang says brightly. “Do you think this counts as a firebending lesson?”
“No,” Zuko says, aiming his next fireball at Aang’s feet.
Their fight can’t even be called a fight. It’s like trying to win against the wind, if the wind had a habit of smiling and complimenting his bending while the wind’s friends looked on, snickering.
Eventually, Zuko resigns himself to waiting them out. He sits on the far side of the campsite, far enough away to avoid conversation, close enough that Aang isn’t tempted to scoot closer to him.
This, he thinks, would be easier if the Avatar wasn’t a friendly preteen and over a head shorter than him. This would be easier if Zuko was the kind of Fire Prince Ozai had wanted him to be. He might have gotten away, then. But then, Aang might not have survived the encounter.
Sokka disappears into the trees to scope out the area or collect firewood or take a leak. Zuko doesn’t know. Aang unloads the sky bison and then spends some time patting the beast down. Zuko tries not to stare. Or feel jealous. No matter how soft the sky bison’s fur looks, or how cute those little happy sounds he makes as Aang pets him are.
Katara is unpacking their food and meager cooking supplies. Zuko settles more firmly against the tree trunk. He likes watching people cook. He spends as much time with Chef as he does with Jee, up in the control room, learning the local topography.
But then, Chef always seems to have a much easier time than Katara.
Katara is struggling to light her very sad looking pile of pine-needles and damp wood. She’s a waterbender, she should be able to pull the moisture out of a patch of forest debris, but no matter how much she tries, the pile stays stubbornly damp. And her fire stays stubbornly unlit.
Aang is watching off to the right. He had offered to help earlier, but she had snapped at him and insisted she could do this. But she can’t. And now she’s tempted to just give up and let them all go hungry for the night.
She has almost forgotten about their firebending captive until he crouches down beside her, making her jump.
“Here,” he says, knocking her hands away. “I’ll do it.”
He rearranges the stack of loose wood and pine-needles so that it is more structured. Then he blows a flame into the centre. It’s the most delicate display of firebending she has ever seen. If she hadn’t been paying attention, she might have thought he was an airbender, blowing on an ember to spark a flame.
Aside from the one-sided fight with Aang when he had tried to escape, he hasn’t attacked them. He is clearly a capable firebender, but there he sits, gently stoking the fire, looking calm and wind-ruffled, an apron still tied around his waist.
Katara starts preparing dinner. She doesn’t have the time or supplies for anything more than a plain stew. Sokka returns sometime later, glaring weakly at Zuko, and plants himself on the other side of the fire.
Once the fire isn’t in danger of going out, Zuko stands and hovers awkwardly in the middle of the camp. Sokka ignores him, but Aang stares intently, like the world’s most powerful guard dog, so Zuko just sighs and sinks back down again.
“Can I help?” he asks her.
Katara blinks. “Pardon?”
Zuko gestures to the vegetables resting in her lap, and repeats, “Can I help?”
She eyes him warily. “Can you even cook?”
“Of course I can cook,” Zuko says. “Everyone can cook, can’t they?”
“You’re a teenage boy.”
Sokka snickers on the other side of the campfire. He’s sharpening a short tree branch, supposedly to intimidate Zuko.
Katara points the ladle threateningly at Sokka. “If you say cooking is women's work, I swear ...”
“Well, who cooked in the tribe?” Sokka says. “Not the men. We hunt, you cook. It’s just nature, Katara.”
Zuko squints at Sokka. “What are you talking about?”
“There are roles women do,” Sokka says slowly, like he thinks Zuko is particularly dense, “like cooking and cleaning, and there are things men do, like hunting and protecting.”
Zuko turns to Katara, eyebrows raised. “Is he serious?”
“Unfortunately,” Katara says, resigned.
“Women are more than capable of hunting and fighting,” Zuko says. “If you spoke like that in the Fire Nation, someone would set you on fire.”
Zuko stares down at the beginnings of dinner. From the increasingly sour expression on his face, Katara can tell Sokka’s words are getting to him. Though if that is because he’s offended or baffled she isn’t sure.
No one speaks after that. Zuko silently takes over most of the cooking, and Katara lets him, simply because she isn’t sure how to stop him.
Once stew is cooked and served, they settle back down. The sun has begun to set, casting their campsite in shades of pink. The blazing fire keeps them all warm.
Sokka shoves a spoonful of stew into his mouth and moans. “Katara, you’re fired. Zuko, you’re our chef from now on.”
Katara is too busy eating to be offended. “It is good. Thank you, Zuko.”
“Good? It’s brilliant!”
“Glad you think so,” Zuko says, putting his empty bowl aside, “because you’re helping me clean up.”
Sokka squawks but he isn’t fast enough to dive out of the way. Zuko snags him by the back of his shirt and hauls him in the direction of the river.
“Aang, grab the rest of the dishes,” Zuko says.
“But--” Aang starts.
Aang follows along obediently, arms full of dishes. And suddenly, Katara is alone in front of a roaring fire with only Momo and Appa, the sound of Sokka, Aang and Zuko’s bickering growing quieter.
She isn’t sure if she is ready to think about good firebenders, but in that moment, she decides she likes Zuko after all.
Night falls and the Water Tribe siblings curl into their sleeping bags to go to sleep. Aang sits down next to Zuko, ready to take first watch.
They might seem like they’re just kids, whining about chores and making jokes at each other’s expense, but Zuko shouldn’t forget that this is the Avatar and his companions. They were successful in snatching him off the deck of his home, after all. They’re smart enough to watch him through the night.
And the Avatar is, it seems, smart enough to cheat at cards.
Zuko squints down at the cards stacked on the forest floor. “You’re definitely cheating.”
The Avatar blinks up at him, all innocent big eyes. “I’m not. How could you say that?”
Aang’s next hand is just as impossibly good as every one of his previous turns has been. Zuko throws his cards at him, stomps to the other side of the campsite, and slouches against the trunk of a tree.
Across the campfire, Aang pouts at him. Zuko pointedly ignores him.
It takes less than an hour before Aang grows bored and dozes off. Zuko lingers for a few moments to make sure he’s deeply asleep, but the sight of the Avatar--curled in on himself, so small and isolated on the grass, a strange orange-yellow huddle that has no place in the world--unnerves him too much. He gently steps around the sleeping teenagers and slips out of the clearing into the trees, heading towards the nearest port.
Zuko returns to the ship just after midnight. Uncle and Chef are on deck, playing Pai Sho under the stars.
Chef stands up abruptly. Uncle just smiles, far calmer than Chef.
“Nephew,” Uncle says, eyeing Zuko for fresh injuries, “how was your evening out?”
“It wasn’t an ‘evening out’, Uncle. I was kidnapped by the Avatar and his friends. It was …”
He doesn’t have the words. He’s still shaken up inside, because he had given the Avatar up as a fool’s errand years ago; because even now that he knows the Avatar is real, returning to the Fire Palace is the last thing he wants to do; because every time he gets close to the war, Zuko feels like his insides have twisted into knots.
Because the Avatar had seemed so normal, brushing down Appa and cheating at cards and laughing at Sokka, elbow-deep in the river, scrubbing dishes. Just a kid.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Uncle says.
“What?” Zuko says.
“You need a bath, nephew,” Uncle says. “Go and freshen up. Chef and I will bring you tea and something warm to eat.”
Zuko doesn’t like serving customers that are his own age. He doesn’t like the way they talk to him--like how the older women talk to Uncle.
It’s almost a relief when the girl who had been fiddling with his sleeve and asking inane questions about his work schedule and restaurant-preferences looks over his shoulder and shrieks. “What is that?”
Zuko turns. It’s the sky bison, Appa, descending quickly towards them, the Avatar balanced on his head.
Zuko untangles himself from her grip and dashes back to the samples table. He pulls the tablecloth back and grabs his dao blades.
Aang jumps off Appa and dives onto the deck. Zuko rolls to the side. With an arc of his swords, he sweeps Aang’s feet out from under him and twists him around. Aang pushes up with a burst of air before he can faceplant into the floor.
Aang reaches out, tries to grab the front of his shirt. Zuko catches his wrists between the flat sides of his blades and twists, sending them both tumbling. Zuko rolls. Aang pushes off the ground and backflips over his head, landing directly behind Zuko.
“Love the swords!” Aang says, before grabbing him around the waist and propelling them both ten feet into the air.
Zuko is dumped into the saddle. He peeks over the edge. If he jumped from this height, he’d break both his legs, if not his back.
He sighs and sheathes his blades. When he looks up, the Water Tribe siblings are staring at him, almost the same way the young customer had been looking at him earlier.
“Marry me,” Sokka says.
“Um,” Zuko says.
“That was really cool!” Aang smiles as if he hadn’t just kidnapped Zuko for the second time that week. “I didn’t know you could fight like that. Why didn’t you just firebend?”
“It scares away customers,” Zuko grumbles.
“And swords don’t?” Katara asks. Zuko glares at her.
Sokka inches across the saddle and gently touches the sheathed weapons. Zuko jerks them away.
“Teach me,” Sokka demands.
“Hey!” Aang says. “You can’t just pinch my sifu like that. I called dibs on him first.”
“He can be your firebending master. I need him to teach me how to use those swords. Did you see that? He was all--” Sokka whips around, approximating Zuko’s fighting style. He wobbles and almost topples over the side of the saddle. Zuko grabs his tunic and yanks him back down.
“I’m not teaching any of you,” Zuko says. “Not firebending. Not sword-fighting. Nothing.”
“You taught Sokka how to be responsible,” Katara says.
“He already should be responsible! ‘Women’s work’? Honestly.”
Sokka crosses his arms and looks away, pouting. Zuko suspects the only reason he isn’t arguing is because he is still holding out hope that Zuko will teach him how to fight with swords.
Zuko looks up from the dishes. “Hm?”
“Why did you leave the Fire Nation?”
Zuko stiffens. He doesn’t look at Katara, just stares down at his hands, buried beneath the ice-cold water, going red with the cold.
“Katara,” Sokka scolds, “don’t interrogate the guy! He just offered to wash our dishes for us.”
“And I’m grateful for that,” Katara says. “But come on, Sokka. Why haven’t we seen any other nice firebenders?”
“Uh, because the Fire Nation is full of evil jerkbenders?”
“And aren’t you the least bit curious about why Zuko is different?”
Sokka drops his voice, though Zuko can still hear him clearly. “It’s. You know. His scar.”
“He can still hear you,” Zuko says loudly. His hands are starting to go numb. He warms them, creating a swarm of bubbles and a hiss of steam beneath the water. “It’s …”
“You don’t have to tell us,” Aang interjects, jumping off Appa to join them by the river. “Katara, I thought you were coming around to Zuko?”
“I am,” Katara says, “but we have to be careful. You’re the world’s last hope, Aang. We have to protect you.”
“You don’t--” Aang begins.
“No,” Sokka says. “She’s right.”
Zuko drops back on his heels, shaking his hands and warming them, creating another burst of steam. He keeps his eyes on the riverbank beneath him, muddying the knees of his pants, rather than at the others.
“Do you know what happens to a fire when it gets fed too much fuel? It grows and grows until it gets out of control, and then only a skilled firebender can extinguish it.”
“Is this a firebending lesson?” Aang asks. “Should I be taking notes?”
“No, it’s not--” Zuko cuts himself off. “I just mean that people can be like that, too. In the Fire Nation, people can become obsessed with lighting fires, especially when they’re young and still learning what it means to hold a flame. It can destroy homes. Entire towns, sometimes. And that fire-hunger can consume a person, just as it can consume everything around them.”
“Of course there are a bunch of baby arsonists running around the Fire Nation,” Sokka says. He yelps when Katara elbows him in the side. “What? It makes sense.”
“Fire-hunger doesn’t just affect kids,” Zuko says. “Or individuals. The Fire Nation has been fed too much violence and fear for too long. It’s become infected with a kind of fire-hunger, a kind that won’t stop until it’s burnt up the rest of the world. That’s why I’m not trying to go back to the Fire Nation. Going back there would be like laying down on the fire pit and letting the flames take me.”
There’s a long, ringing silence. Then Sokka says, “Spirits, that’s dark.”
Zuko shoves his hands back into the river. This time, he doesn’t fight the stinging cold. “Yeah, I know. “
Zuko returns to the boat angrier than when he had left. His anger has no direction--he should be furious with Aang, Katara and Sokka, but even he can see that they’re just being pulled along by destiny. Aang didn’t ask to be the Avatar. Katara and Sokka didn’t ask for the war to come down so heavily on their village, for the war to ravage their culture and lives. Zuko didn’t ask to be--
When Jee asks if he wants to join them for dinner, Zuko shouts at him to leave and slams the door in his face, something he hasn’t done since he was thirteen.
Uncle comes to his room shortly after with two bowls and an armful of fresh candles. He chatters on about the Pai Sho games Zuko had missed that afternoon. The crew knew better than to bet against Uncle, so the only thing Uncle had won were bragging rights.
After dinner, they meditate side-by-side using the candles. While Uncle is setting up the candles, stacking them in evenly spaced rows like the servants used to do, he says, almost casually, “You know, Zuko, a change is as good as a rest.”
“A proverb? Now, Uncle?”
“Just something to think about,” Uncle says, soothing down the back of Zuko’s hair, the way Mother used do all those years ago, before returning to his seat on the other side of the table.
The next time a shadow falls over the ship while Zuko is standing on the deck, vulnerable to an aerial assault, he twirls on his heel and shoots a funnel of fire into the air. It’s almost instinctual, at this point.
Aang shrieks and dodges, spinning higher into the air.
“Zuko,” Iroh admonishes from where he is refreshing the samples, “no combative bending around the customers.”
“Sorry, Uncle. I forgot my swords.”
Aang dives for him again. Zuko rolls out of the way, because he knows from experience that once Aang gets his hands on him, it’s all over.
“Stay still,” Aang shouts.
Zuko throws an empty teacup at him, and then another, and then brandishes the empty teapot like a weapon. “Back off.”
“Zuko!” Iroh calls again. “Stop destroying the china.”
Aang dives again. Zuko swipes at him with the teapot, feeling half-crazed. His family has a history of questionable mental health, after all. Maybe this will be the thing that makes him snap.
Zuko is so busy concentrating on Aang that he doesn’t notice the Water Tribe siblings. A boomerang hits him on the back of the head, knocking him over. The teapot goes skittering across the deck.
Zuko pushes up onto his knees, ears ringing. Aang grabs him around the waist while he’s still disoriented.
When Zuko’s head stops aching, he finds himself on Appa’s saddle, a frustratingly familiar place. He’s going to start waking up in a cold sweat at night, thinking he’s back here.
Zuko leans over the edge of the saddle. They’re too high up for Zuko to jump, but low enough that he can see Uncle waving up at him.
“We’ll be at the next town over!” Uncle yells up at him. “Have fun, nephew! Be safe!”
Zuko sighs and waves back. He’ll see Uncle again soon enough, he supposes.
It’s an uncommonly cold night. Sokka and Katara are already half-inside their sleeping bags. Aang seems unbothered, even dressed in thin cotton as he is. Zuko, however, dressed in his equally thin tunic and apron, isn’t so unaffected.
Zuko eyes the fur-lined sleeping bags the siblings are huddled inside. “You don’t happen to have a spare, do you?”
“Nope,” Sokka says, smug. “Sorry.”
“Do you want my jacket?” Katara asks.
Zuko shakes his head. “It’s alright. You keep it.”
Zuko closes his eyes and focuses his energy inward, towards his core, just as Uncle had taught him. He carefully brings his inner flame to a simmer. Warmth spreads through his body. He relaxes, exhaling steam.
When he opens his eyes again, all three teenagers are staring at him.
“What?” Zuko says.
“I’ve never seen firebending like that before,” Aang says. “Can you teach me?”
Zuko almost says, “Sure” before he remembers who he is, who Aang is. “You’re an airbender,” he says instead. “You already know how to keep yourself warm.”
Sokka leans into Zuko’s personal space, putting a hand on his unscarred cheek. He makes a content noise in the back of his throat. “You don’t normally radiate this much heat.”
“I don’t normally need to,” Zuko says, shoving Sokka away. “It’s just a way firebenders can keep warm.”
Sokka inches closer, until he’s able to leech off the heat Zuko is emitting like a furnace. It doesn’t take long before Katara is pressing in on his other side.
“We have a campfire,” Zuko protests, sitting stiffly between them.
Sokka waves him off. They’re so close that he almost smacks Zuko in the face. “You’re warmer. And more comfortable.”
“It’s cold,” Katara says, even though she’s in a sleeping bag and jacket designed to withstand temperatures at the South Pole.
It doesn’t take long for Aang to grow jealous. He throws himself over the smoking embers of their fire and into Zuko’s lap. The force tips them over.
Sprawled out into the dirt, beneath the bony weight of three teenagers, he just sighs and wonders what Uncle is doing. The crew doesn’t look for him when he’s kidnapped by the Avatar, not anymore. Just trusts that he will return home on his own. Is it music night? He hopes he’s missing music night.
“You’re right,” Aang says into Zuko’s chest. “He is warm.”
Zuko stares up at the sky, heavy with stars. He doesn’t have a downy sleeping bag like Katara and Sokka, and he misses his room on the Jasmine Dragon, and he still sometimes misses the silky softness of his childhood bed, even though he had been too young and spoiled to appreciate the opulence of the palace--but this, laying in the dirt with three laughing kids draped on top of him, is nice in a way he can’t articulate.
Zuko meant to slip away in the night, but he ends up falling asleep and waking at daybreak, still squashed between the three kids.
He cooks them breakfast. As soon as Aang volunteers to help Katara with the dishes, Sokka grabs Zuko by the elbow and drags him into a neighbouring clearing.
Sokka shoves a blunt sword into his chest. “Okay, sifu. Teach me.”
Zuko examines the sword. The hilt is rough wood, and the blade is chipped and uneven. He supposes this is another way he’s been spoiled; he’s used to the very best weapons, the very best masters. The sword bought from a coastal Earth Kingdom port on a teenager’s budget is almost laughable.
Zuko grimaces. “Don’t call me sifu. And this sword is terrible.”
“What, you can’t make it work?”
Sokka makes it sound like a dare. Zuko readjusts his hold on the sword, testing its uneven weight, the span of its reach.
“No, I can. It just sucks.”
Sokka drops into a low, unsteady stance, matching sword in hand. “Them’s fighting words, tea-boy.”
Zuko stares at him flatly. “Tea-boy?”
Sokka lunges at him, sword arched high above his head, and Zuko has to roll out of the way to avoid being beheaded.
Sokka is sprawled on the ground, panting heavily. Zuko sits primly beside him, fiddling with the cheap blade. Maybe he could melt it slightly, and then mold the weakened metal into place …
“If you hate the Fire Nation so much,” Sokka says, squinting, sweat dripping into his eyes, “then why don’t you join us and help fight them?”
“Seriously?” Zuko asks.
“We just bonded. I’m allowed to ask intense questions without it seeming like an interrogation.”
Zuko grimaces, tracing lines into the dirt with the sword. “I don’t want to fight. I just want to stay as far away from the war and the Fire Nation as I can, and serve tea in peace.”
“The Fire Nation is spreading, though,” Sokka says. “They’re all around us. So is the war. You can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend it’s not there.”
“I’ve tried fighting,” Zuko says, without saying who he was fighting, or how, or why. “I tried more than once. It didn’t work. I can’t risk losing everything again.”
They sit in silence, Sokka still panting, Zuko curled in on himself. Through the trees, they can hear the sound of splashing as Aang and Katara try to clumsily waterbend through trial-and-error.
And then Sokka sits up, shaking himself, readjusting his grip on his sword. “I feel like I almost beat you that last time. Come on, tea-boy. Let’s go for round two.”
“We were thinking about sending out a search party,” Daichi says when Zuko returns home, sometime after lunch.
Zuko exchanges his dirty apron for a fresh one and refastens the ribbon in his hair. “No, you weren’t.”
“Nah,” Daichi says, ruffling his hair as he passes, undoing the work Zuko just did. “We knew you’d come home, sooner or later. Did you have fun at least?”
“Daichi, I got kidnapped.”
“That’s not a no!”
Zuko grabs a notepad, dodges Daichi’s grabby arms, and goes to welcome a group of customers that just stumbled on board, ignoring Daichi cackling behind him.
The customers have all left. Zuko is packing away the tea sets, gently wrapping them in fabric so they don’t crack on their journey to the next town.
By the railings, Uncle is watching the marketplace. Zuko almost forgets he’s there. Then, without warning, Iroh very loudly says, “It’s so nice here.”
Zuko inspects his favourite dragon-print teapot for chips. “I suppose?”
“But I’m sure,” Uncle goes on, voice growing louder, “that RIVERMOUTH, the town we are GOING TO NEXT, will be just as nice. Yes, RIVERMOUTH is a lovely place.”
Zuko puts the teapot down carefully. “Uncle, Rivermouth is a dump.”
Uncle ignores him. “RIVERMOUTH is so quaint. Yes, our NEXT LOCATION, RIVERMOUTH, will be a good change of pace.”
Zuko grimaces and turns to Jee and Daichi, who are busy packing away the tables. “I think Uncle has sunstroke again.”
They grab him during a rare afternoon off. Zuko is browsing the markets, looking for a gift for Chef’s upcoming birthday, when the people around him start shouting and running in the opposite direction, and then Zuko is airborne.
Zuko sprawls, eagle-spread, in the saddle, staring at the blue sky above him.
“How did you even know I was going to be in Rivermouth?” Zuko wonders. “We made port barely an hour ago.”
Sokka preens. “We’re just that good.”
Zuko suspects that the entire universe is conspiring against him.
“Here,” Zuko says, after they had landed and he had made sure everyone helped unpack and cook lunch. He opens up his bag and pulls out the black-sheathed katana.
Jee had called him paranoid for carrying weapons everywhere. Chiyo said it was smart, with a tone that suggested she was surprised that Zuko was capable of self-defence. Uncle had just sipped at his tea, smiling. Saying nothing.
Sokka takes the katana with obvious awe, examining the fine script engraved on the hilt. “I noticed it sticking out of your bag, but I thought … I mean, you didn’t even try and fight Aang with it.”
“It’s for you,” Zuko says.
Sokka stares at him. “What?”
Zuko shrugs. “If you’re going to keep fighting, you’re going to need to defend yourself. You’re skilled with the boomerang, but you need something more close-range, and those swords you bought for us to practice with are going to break the first time you go up against a firebender.”
Sokka is still staring at him. “But--why? I thought you didn’t want to fight.”
They’re all staring at him now. Zuko scowls and starts collecting everyone’s dirty dishes. It’s not his turn to wash up, but he needs something to do right now, just so he can get away from Sokka’s soft, wide-eyed stare.
“I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I want you to get killed. And I have a job. I have a steady income, and plenty saved up. I don’t spend my money on much.”
The odd scroll when a new story catches his eye, and gifts for the crew’s birthday, and trinkets he thinks Uncle will like, but that’s it. He doesn’t work for the money. He works because the Jasmine Dragon makes Uncle happy, and provides them with funds that didn’t come out of the royal stipend, and because he needs something to do with his hands or else he’ll go crazy.
And it had been keeping him up at night. Those faulty swords with uneven blades, the only weapon Sokka had aside from a boomerang. Katara didn’t even know how to waterbend, yet. If they were separated from Aang, then …
“Zuko,” Sokka says, voice low. “Thank you.”
Zuko stands up, dishes in hand. “Yeah. Whatever. Don’t mention it.” And then he disappears through the trees, dishes in hand, to find the closest river. It isn’t until he’s scrubbed everything clean that he realises he should be focused on escaping and making it back to the Jasmine Dragon, not washing up for his kidnappers.
He lays the clean dishes down on a patch of grass, hoping the others will find them when they come looking for him, and then sets out towards Rivermouth.
The next time they grab him, Zuko doesn’t even see them. He’s arguing with Daichi, because the other tea server had let the tea steep for too long. Mid-sentence, Daichi swears and jumps back, and then small hands are wrapping around his waist and Zuko is being hoisted into the air.
Zuko is still holding the teapot. When Aang sets him down in the saddle, he realises just how gentle Aang had been; he hadn’t spilled any of the tea.
Sokka snatches the teapot out of his hands without saying hello, and takes a swig directly from it. “It’s good even cold.”
Katara grabs it next, taking a sip it before passing it on to Aang.
“It is good,” Katara agrees. “Why don’t you make it for us?”
“It’s not good. Daichi steeped for too long,” Zuko says, plucking the teapot out of Sokka’s hands when it circles back to him.
Sokka tries to grab it again, but Zuko rolls to the other side of the saddle and raises one leg, ready to kick Sokka away.
“It still tastes amazing,” Sokka says, making grabby-hands for the teapot. “Come on, you live on a tea boat! You’re spoiled.”
Zuko stares at them flatly. He peeks over the edge of the saddle to make sure they are flying above open water and not a town, and then throws the teapot over the side with as much force as he can manage.
Sokka wilts. “Is this because--”
“Yes, it’s because you keep kidnapping me!”
“Damnit, Aang,” Sokka says, when Zuko is next dropped into the saddle. “I said to grab him when he was holding tea!”
“Put him back,” Katara suggests. “We can try again in an hour.”
“Two kidnappings in two days,” Zuko says flatly, “because you like our tea.”
He almost suggests that they just come to the Jasmine Dragon like regular customers, but it probably isn’t a smart idea to invite his kidnappers onto his ship.
“It is very good tea.” Aang looks as though he’s seriously considering letting Zuko go back to his shift on the Jasmine Dragon, just so they can snatch him up later when he has an armful of tea.
Zuko scoops Momo up and muffles a scream into his soft back. Momo doesn’t even seem to mind. He just starts combing through the pockets of Zuko’s apron, looking for food.
The next day, sometime after the lunchtime rush, Uncle pushes a packed lunch and three bags of biscuits into his hands.
“Do you want me to deliver this to someone, Uncle?”
“It’s for you to share,” Iroh says, eyes twinkling.
“But my break isn’t for another hour--” The rest of Zuko’s sentence is cut off as he is yanked off the deck and into the sky, and then dropped into Appa’s saddle.
“Hi, Zuko,” Katara says brightly.
Sokka sniffs, peering at the bundle in Zuko’s hands. “What’ve you got there?”
Zuko sighs and unwraps the biscuits. “I brought snacks?”
Zuko doesn’t realise he’s humming until he looks up from his dinner to see everyone staring at him. He flushes, ducking his head.
“What a lovely melody, nephew,” Uncle says, breaking the awkward silence. “Where did you learn it?”
The tune, lilting and soft like a crooning voice on the wind, had been stuck in his head for days. It had come from Aang. When he sang for others, it was loud, bubbling with laughter, but sometimes, when they were flying for long stretches of time, when Aang was caught up in his own thoughts and didn’t realise he had an audience, he would sing these gentle songs. Delicate and thoughtful, a long-forgotten melody almost lost to time.
Zuko clears his throat, avoiding their eyes. “I’m not sure. I must have picked it up at port.”
The crew goes back to their dinners. No one suggests Zuko sing at the next music night, thankfully. No one says anything to him at all. It’s feels like they’re carefully not looking at him, though he catches Daichi’s gaze briefly. His fellow tea server winks at him, before being dragged back into his conversation with Kenzu, their engineer.
Zuko plays with his stew. There’s a lump in his throat, and his face is still flushed, but it’s not a bad feeling. Not at all.
When he looks up again, Uncle is smiling at him.
“You’re happier these days, nephew. I’m glad to see it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zuko says, and shoves a spoonful of stew into his mouth to hide his smile.
Uncle is playing Pai Sho with a handful of crew members, and Zuko is looking over the Jasmine Dragon’s current course with Jee, mapping the places they’ve been over the past few weeks, where they should dock in the future. It’s just a coincidence that their future route brings them closer to the Northern Water Tribe. This is their normal seasonal route. Really.
They all go quiet when a shadow falls over the Jasmine Dragon.
No one moves as they’re docked by a warship twice their size. Jee nudges him, and says, “Zuko, do you want to check if Chef is--”
“No,” Zuko says, ignoring everyone’s eyes on him. “I want to hear what they have to say.”
In the past, he’s ducked below deck when they run into warships. He didn’t like the way they addressed him, Prince Zuko, with a curled smirk, full of both respect and scorn. Before, he never cared what message they were relaying.
He cares now.
The lieutenant unfurls a wanted posted. Aang’s face stares back at him. “The hunt for the Avatar has been given prime importance. All information regarding the Avatar must be reported directly to Admiral Zhao.”
“Zhao has been promoted?” Uncle says, not even bothering to look up from his game of Pai Sho. “Well, good for him.”
Zuko only vaguely remembers Zhao. He does, however, vividly remember Aang, pleading with Zuko to teach him firebending, the way Azula would plead with him to play soldiers when they were very little. He remembers washing dishes side-by-side. Aang, falling asleep on his shoulder on cold nights. Aang, bright and small and twelve.
“I have nothing,” Zuko says, eyes on the floor, “to report to Admiral Zhao.”
“If you don’t mind,” Jee says, stepping in front of Zuko, “please get off our ship.”
“Admiral Zhao is not allowing ships in or out of this area.”
“Get,” Jee says very firmly, “off our ship.”
With a final scrutinising glance at Zuko, the soldiers leave. Jee tries to catch him by the shoulder, say something that might be encouraging or scolding, but Zuko shakes him off and disappears below deck, making a beeline for his room.
They’re not his friends.
Aang is the eye of the storm, and Katara and Sokka have sworn to stay by his side, and Zuko should stay far, far away from them.
But he remembers empty palace corridors, and the nobles and servants with their faces turned away, carefully not seeing him, and the choked silence after Ozai had burnt a lesson onto his face in front of the entire court.
He could pretend not to see, too. It would be easy. It would be safe.
At dusk, Uncle brings him dinner.
“It’s still early,” Zuko says. They don’t normally eat until well after the sun has set.
“Yes,” Uncle says, “it is.”
Uncle stares at him. Zuko feels like he’s missing something. He looks down at his noodles, feels sick at the idea of eating them, feels worse at the thought of just sitting here in silence.
Iroh heads for the door. Zuko says, “You’re not staying?”
“No, not tonight. A watched pot never boils, after all.” Uncle smile, slipping out the door. “Goodnight, nephew. You should sleep in tomorrow. You deserve it.”
Uncle leaves. Zuko stares at the door for a long moment, and then he gets up and fishes his theatre mask out from under his scrolls.
Zuko wakes up to a hazy forest ceiling and tree roots digging into his back. His head aches. He must have been knocked out.
He pushes himself up, and almost topples back down again. He squeezes his eyes shut. When he opens them again, stomach in his mouth and the world still spinning, he sees Aang. He’s curled on a branch high above, like a brightly-coloured bird roosting in the treetops.
“You remind me of my friend, Kuzon,” Aang says. “If we met in different circumstances, do you think we would be friends?”
I thought we already were, Zuko doesn’t say.
“All this time,” Aang goes on, “you’ve been so against joining us. I thought you were scared. I would understand that. I’m afraid a lot of the time, too. Air Nomads don’t believe in violence, but this is war, and I’m the Avatar, and everyone seems to expect me to use violence to fix things.
“But you’re good at fighting and you don’t shy away from violence. You know how terrible the war is, but you don’t do anything about it. Why is that?” Aang looks down at him. Even sitting so high above him, huddled in on himself, Aang’s stare pierces right through him. “What are you so afraid of, Zuko?”
“I told you,” Zuko says, voice hoarse. “I don’t want to be involved in the war. I tried that once, a long time ago. It didn’t do anything.”
“But you wouldn’t be alone.” The pleading tone is back. Zuko is almost glad; the coldness in Aang’s voice had frightened him. “You would have me, and Katara, and Sokka. You wouldn’t even have to fight the Fire Nation much! You’d just have to teach me firebending.”
“And paint a giant target on my back.”
“Zuko,” Aang begins.
“No!” That sour fear helps Zuko push himself to his feet. He paces around the forest floor. “I just want to live with Uncle, selling tea and living far away from the war. Why does it have to me? Why can’t you find some other firebender to teach you?”
“I can’t,” Aang says. “I know it’s supposed to be you. I don’t know why, but--there’s something deep inside me that keeps gravitating towards you.”
Zuko picks his mask up. He wants to hide his face. His scar. He wants to go home.
“I’m not who you think I am, Aang.”
“I can’t keep chasing after you,” Aang says. “I can’t keep wasting time.”
Zuko puts the mask on. When he turns on his heels and disappears through the trees without looking back, Aang doesn’t stop him.
A shadow falls over the Jasmine Dragon. Zuko calmly puts down the teapot and steps onto the railing. Aang picks him up and carries him to Appa’s back.
The siblings don’t smile at him in welcome. Behind the reins, Aang looks like he did that night, perched in the trees, too small and too bright to be real.
“Aang told us that you saved him,” Katara begins.
“Thank you, by the way,” Aang says. “I don’t know if I ever said that, but I was really scared and alone and then you saved me so … thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” Zuko says.
Katara frowns at him. “You broke into a heavily guarded Fire Nation fortress, risking both your life and your identity, to save Aang’s life. Why?”
Zuko hunches against the saddle, hands wrapped around his ankles. He can’t explain it to her. He barely understands it himself. Every time he tries to rationalise it in his mind, his thoughts tip sideways, like waves churned up in a storm.
“I didn’t want the Fire Nation to kill Aang.”
“They weren’t going to kill me.” Aang sounds small. He sounds twelve. “They said they were going to keep me chained up for the rest of my life. Not alive enough to escape, but not ill enough to die and be reborn.”
That would be hell for any person. But for an airbender, that lonely, sedentary existence would be--unimaginable.
“I didn’t want them to do that, either,” Zuko says, even though he knows it’s not that easy. “That’s why I rescued you.”
“They’ve been trying to capture him this entire time,” Katara says, eyes blazing. She hasn’t thought of him as the enemy in weeks, but he feels like he’s starting from the beginning all over again. He hadn’t realised her patience was a finite thing. “They’re going to keep trying to capture him and they won’t stop. And we can’t run from them forever.”
“Fighting in the war and helping an innocent kid are two very different things.”
“No,” Sokka says, not sounding angry like Katara, just sounding tired. Older. “It’s not. Not when it’s Aang. You know that. It’s why you refused to teach him firebending, right?”
Zuko throws his hands up. “I saved Aang! Why are you all so upset at me?”
Katara’s anger cracks. Her next breath is a sob, and she puts a hand over her mouth to stifle it. “He could have died. He could have disappeared forever and we might never have seen him again. We wouldn’t have even realised what had happened to him. And that could happen again. Zhao is still out there.”
“We can’t keep wasting time,” Sokka says, flat, all emotion stamped out of his voice. “Are you going to help Aang? We need to know.”
Zuko thinks about taking off his apron and flying away from the Jasmine dragon; of spending months hiding from the Fire Nation without knowing if he would ever return to Uncle; of Father finding out what he’s done and sending Azula to bring him back to the palace so he can teach him another life lesson.
It’s hard to breath, suddenly.
“No,” Zuko chokes out, throat closing off. “I’m not.”
He won’t give up the Jasmine Dragon. He won’t abandon Uncle. They’ll have to find another firebender.
“Okay,” Sokka says. “Okay.”
And that’s it.
The festival reminds them of Zuko. They smell the Jasmine Dragon in the foreign spices and smoke in the air. They hear Zuko in the music, something slow and jazzy Zuko had hummed when tending to their campfire.
But it isn’t the same. The smoke isn’t undercut with the salty ocean breeze. The music is too perfect, the singer a clear-voiced young woman, rather than one of Zuko’s throaty, wavering tunes. The not-quite familiarity only makes Aang miss Zuko more.
They don’t spend long there, though. Soon enough, Aang messes up and they’re rescued by an ex-Fire Nation soldier.
“Jeong Jeong was a Fire Nation general,” Chey says, the campfire casting his face in shadows. “He’s the only person to leave the army and live. I’m the second, but you don’t get to be a legend for that.”
“Yeah,” Sokka says, shrugging, “we’ve met Fire Nation deserters before. They’re okay people. Bit touchy sometimes, but great at cooking.”
Chey falters. “But you can’t have. People don’t just leave the Fire Nation. Well--they do. I did. But most people don’t. They can’t.”
Sokka shrugs again. “Well, everyone on the Jasmine Dragon did.”
“Maybe you’ve heard of them?” Katara says.
“Yeah! There’s our friend, Zuko …” Aang trails off, all his energy leaving him at once. “I want him to be my friend, anyway. I wanted him to teach me how to firebend, but he’s been super reluctant to have anything to do with the war. Is everyone who left the Fire Nation that scared of their own people?”
Chey stares at them, mouth open. “Did you say Zuko?”
“Yeah, do you know him? He was travelling with his Uncle Iroh. They run a tea shop.”
“A tea shop,” Chey echoes, strangled.
Sokka points sternly at Aang. “We’re heading to the Northern Water Tribe in the morning. We don’t have time to moon over any firebenders. Including this Jeong Jeong guy.”
“We gave Zuko a chance,” Katara agrees. “For weeks and weeks. We can’t do that again. We have to keep moving.”
Aang’s shoulders slump. “Yeah, you’re right.”
“But wait,” Chey says, hands up. “Wait. Zuko? As in--Zuko?”
“Yes, the tea server Zuko,” Sokka says. “Does everyone know him? The Jasmine Dragon really does get around, huh?”
“But,” Chey says, looking as though he’s been struck around the face. “Tea server? You’re sure?”
“Best in the world,” Sokka says, and then stands, stretching. “Come on, guys. We need to head out before someone wanders out of town and stumbles upon Appa. The Northern Water Tribe waits for no man!”
It’s music night, but Zuko isn’t playing the tsungi horn, even though Daichi had tried to pester him into it. If Uncle hadn’t kept sighing about missing him at dinner and being so alone on such a big ship (even though he talks with the crew more regularly than Zuko), he would still be secluded in his room.
Iroh’s singing is low and soothing. Zuko’s eyes drift to the stars. There are no clouds tonight, though he keeps expecting to see a dark figure moving through the sky, blotting out the stars as it barrels towards the Jasmine Dragon, a determined Avatar balanced on his head.
But there’s no sign of Appa. He hasn’t seen any of them in over a week, since they scooped him up just to yell at him.
One song ends and the next begins. The four seasons. One of Iroh’s favourites.
He could fall asleep here, surrounded by the soft humming of the crew. He almost always dozed off during music nights when he was younger.
His eyes slip close. And then, Jee says, “Ship approaching.”
Zuko jerks upright. Across the black water, advancing quickly, is a Fire Nation warship. Taller and sleeker and more powerful than the Jasmine Dragon.
No one moves, but the music stops. The silence rings right through him.
“We’re docked. There’s no way we can avoid it,” Jee says. Then, he turns to Zuko. “You should get inside.”
It’s what Zuko would have done a month ago, what he’s been doing for years. But now, the idea of slipping below deck, sitting in his room while everyone deals with whatever problem is sailing towards them ...
“No,” Zuko says. “I won’t leave you to deal with this alone.”
“It’s not your responsibility,” Jee says. “I’m the Captain. Your Uncle and I can deal with whoever is on that ship just fine.”
Zuko doesn’t want it to be his responsibility. When he had only been on the Jasmine Dragon, it had been easy to bury himself in tea and theatre scrolls and music nights. When he only saw customers, who treated him like an anonymous tea server, or the crew, who treated him like a little brother, or Uncle, who just wanted him to be happy.
But then he had been scooped up by a twelve year old Avatar and a pair of Water Tribe siblings, so far from their homes, just like him. Kids burning up with passion. Who knew exactly what had to be done and didn’t shy away from it.
Zuko pulls his loose hair up into a high ponytail. Not a topknot, but Fire Nation enough.
“We meet whoever it is head on,” Zuko says. “I have no reason to hide. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Jee looks like he wants to argue, but then Iroh says, “Stay by my side, nephew.”
“Admiral Zhao,” Iroh says, “welcome aboard! You’re just in time for music night. Come, join us.”
Zhao’s lip curls. The crew all pretend not to notice his disdain or the threat of the armoured soldiers at his back. Chef is still lightly strumming the banjo. But Zuko sits, stiff and very obvious, beside Iroh.
“I’m afraid I have more pressing matters to deal with,” Zhao says. “Not that I would expect you to concern yourself with such things, Prince Iroh. You look very busy.”
Iroh smiles through the insult. “Not as busy as you, it seems. What brings you aboard our ship on such a fine evening?”
Zhao waves a lazy hand, and a soldier unfurls an official order. His brother’s signature is a full stop at the bottom of the scroll.
“Under Fire Lord Ozai’s authority, I am seizing your crew. We’re launching an invasion against the Northern Water Tribe, where we will finally defeat them and capture the Avatar in one fell swoop.” He eyes Zuko, then. Iroh’s smile gets a little more brittle, though he doesn’t let the tension show. Don’t tip your hand, don’t let them know how deeply you care. “Since no one else has been chasing after him. Tell me, Prince Zuko, did you forget your father’s orders, or did you already give up?”
Lowly, Zuko says, “I didn’t forget.”
“Hm,” Zhao says. “Well, I’m afraid it’s too late. After this week, I’ll have the Avatar. You’ve already made do in the Earth Kingdom for three years. I’m sure you’ll be able to make a life there easily.”
Some of the crew look like they’re going to start throwing punches soon, so Iroh interjects, “I’m afraid you came here for no reason. The crew are here of their own volition. They were discharged from the military three years ago. They’re under my employment as private hires. You can’t recruit civilians now, can you?”
“Discharged,” Zhao repeats through his teeth. “And you have the paperwork for this?”
“Of course.” Iroh nods to Jee, who heads to the control room to find the appropriate paperwork. Technically, Jee is not the Captain of this vessel. The Jasmine Dragon is legally a shop, not a warship, and so requires no Captain; but they all know their duties onboard, regardless.
In the silence of Jee’s departure, Zuko says, “How are you planning on capturing the Avatar, Admiral? The last I heard the Avatar was rescued from your stronghold by a spirit.”
Zhao looks sharply at Zuko. Don’t tip your hand, Iroh thinks at his nephew.
“And how do you know this?”
Zuko shrugs. “Word travels fast, especially at ports.”
Zhao scowls, glare still fixed on Zuko. Iroh cannot help but wonder what he has heard about him. What Ozai might have told Zhao about him.
“Nevermind that. I am accruing an armada to attack the Northern Water Tribe head-on. They won’t stand a chance.”
Zuko blinks up at Zhao, as innocent and politely curious as he is with the wealthy customers who tip well. “And the spirits? What if one rescues the Avatar again? The Avatar is the bridge between worlds. He could summon one to his aid again.”
Zhao’s smile is sudden and twisted-up. “I’m going to deal with the spirits ahead of time. The Water Tribe are stupid enough to have spirits in a physical form right in the middle of their city--or so my sources say. As soon as we break through the walls, it’ll be simple to kill them and leave the waterbenders defenceless.”
Iroh’s placid court-face slips. “You can’t. Spirits don’t work that way. The Fire Nation needs them to keep the balance of the world, just as the Water Tribe does.”
“It doesn’t concern you,” Zhao says. “Just keep running your tea shop, Prince Iroh.”
Jee comes back with the papers, then. Zhao looks them over with a deepening scowl. It takes everything Iroh has not to strike down the man where he stands, before he can sail out to the Northern Water Tribe and do irreparable damage to the world.
Zuko puts a hand on his elbow, just out of view of Zhao’s scowl. His nephew looks at him, something especially bright in his eyes. The Avatar is there, Iroh remembers. Zuko’s friends.
Don’t tip your hand, Zuko’s eyes say. Iroh has taught him well.
Zhao shoves the papers at Jee. “So this isn’t classified as a military vessel, anymore. A tea shop. Really, Prince Iroh? You would let your nephew pull you down to his level?”
“Will that be all?” Zuko asks in the even, professional voice he uses on customers.
“Yes,” Zhao says, casting a last scathing look at the Jasmine Dragon. “That’s all.”
Zuko smiles, and it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Thank you for stopping by. We hope to see you again soon. Have a great day.”
“You should reconsider this farce, Prince Iroh,” Zhao says. “Don’t forget what I said in my letters. My offer to join me still stands, if you change your mind.”
Zhao barges past Jee and heads back to his own ship. Zuko’s polite smile stays fixed to his face until the ship has begun to sail away. Iroh thinks, yet again, that the Jasmine Dragon has taught his nephew how to be a good ruler more efficiently than Ozai ever did. If Zuko can deal with Zhao like that, he can deal with any number of nobles with dead-end ideas and backward insults.
Once the ship is shrinking in the distance, Iroh puts a hand on Zuko’s shoulder.
“Are you alright, nephew?”
Zuko’s hands clench into fists. He’s still staring at Zhao’s warship, disappearing into the black night, off to collect more souls before he makes the journey to the Northern Water Tribe.
“I have an idea,” Zuko says, “but I’m worried you’re going to stop me.”
Iroh is worried about the opposite; that he will give in to his nephew’s plan, because Zuko is sixteen years old and looks happier as a tea server than he ever did as a prince.
But because the war is plummeting into a death spin, and the Avatar is twelve years old and needs the right people by his side, and Zuko needs to embrace his royal birthright--because Zhao just confessed to a plot to kill spirits, Iroh just smiles, and says, “Tell me how I can help.”
“I’m worried,” Jee says.
“I’m almost an adult.”
“No,” Jee says, “you’re not. I don’t think a man can understand how young he is until he gets old.”
“You sound like Uncle,” Zuko accuses.
“I don’t know why Iroh isn’t stopping you from doing this,” Jee says, pacing angrily up and down the kitchen, “but I know someone has to. You’re getting very close to something you said you wanted no part in when you abandoned your mission.”
Zuko looks down at his soup. “I know.”
“Then why? You said you wanted a quiet life away from the war.”
“I do,” Zuko says, and that’s the truth. “But ...”
“You haven’t decided to regain your honour again, have you?” Chef asks, already busy cleaning the rice for their breakfast. “Because your father had no idea of your worth. You shouldn’t listen to anything he ever said--”
“No, it’s not that.”
Zuko stirs his soup, trying to find the right words for the too-big feeling unfurling in his chest. Chef doesn’t scold him for playing with his food. That, more than anything, tells Zuko how serious this is.
“People always say,” he begins, “Someone should do something. They’ve been saying it for years, now. I’ve been saying it, too. Everytime I see another ruined village or hear about people who have lost loved ones to the war, I think someone should do something about that. But if we’ve all been saying it, then nothing is actually getting done, is it?
“I think the world expects that ‘someone’ to be Aang. But he’s twelve. And if the whole world sits back and watches a kid flounder under everyone’s expectations, then they’re only making everything worse. They’re a part of the problem.”
“Zuko,” Jee says.
“And besides, we’ve been in the Earth Kingdom for over three years, now. These people--I feel close to them in a way I never thought I would. Responsible, almost. I know I don’t owe anyone anything, and I don’t want to go back to the Fire Nation, or join any sort of rebellion, or leave Uncle, but ...” Zuko stops. Pulls on his hair, still tied up in a ponytail. “But I can’t just sit back and watch bad things happen. Not when it’s the Fire Nation in the wrong.
“And if I can do something, even if it’s just something small like this … then I have to, don’t I?”
The kitchen swells with silence. Zuko pushes his soup away. His stomach is too tied up to eat, even if Chef might nag him.
But when he looks up, Chef and Jee are just staring at him. Zuko can’t read their expressions.
“It’s easy to forget sometimes, but ...” Chef begins.
Jee nods. “He really is royalty.”
Zuko jerks out of his seat, scowling. “No, I’m not. Not anymore. I’m not doing this to go back to the Fire Nation. I’m just--I’m going to go help my friends, and then I’m coming right back here again.”
“Friends,” Jee says to Chef.
“He’s finally growing up,” Chef says, and they both laugh when Zuko, red-faced, starts shouting at them.
“I must apologise about my lack of manners the other night,” Iroh says, pouring two cups of tea. A standard, bland blend. Iroh will not waste good tea on this man. “It has been so long since I was at court.”
Zhao doesn’t quite manage to hide his smirk behind his teacup. “A man of your caliber is squandered on that ship, Prince Iroh.”
Iroh sighs. “Yes, you made me realise that last night.”
“So have you reconsidered my offer?”
Iroh sips at his tea, pretending to gather his thoughts. He struggles not to grimace--both at the taste and at his words. “Yes, I accept. It will be an honour to serve as your general.”
“And what of your nephew?” Zhao says. “Unfortunately, an untrained boy like Prince Zuko has no place on my ship.”
That untrained boy already has made his way onto Zhao’s ship. That boy who looked so pale and grim, dressed in an adult’s armour so he can sneak into a city under siege. Iroh’s heart hurts for him, even if he’s so unbelievably proud.
“He’s sixteen, he needs to learn how to live on his own,” Iroh says. “The Jasmine Dragon has sailed into warmer waters. The crew will keep an eye on him.”
“Of course,” Zhao says, almost gently. “It is better for him to be out of the way. Safer. I’m sure the crew will take good care of him.”
He’ll have to send a messenger hawk off to Jee, to remind them to keep someone on constant-guard for assassins. There is no prince onboard to target, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the crew won’t be hurt if Zhao sends someone after them.
“For now, though.” Iroh lifts his teacup into the air. “To the Fire Nation.”
Zhao holds his tea up. “To victory!”
“You’re going into the lion’s den, nephew,” Uncle says, slipping through the door silently. “You can’t be caught by anyone other than a friend.”
“I know that,” Zuko snaps. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“No.” Zuko turns, then. He had grown used to seeing Uncle in comfortable green and browns. Seeing him in a red cloak fine enough for a retired General is strange. Uncle looks so stiff and washed out. And scared. “I’m sorry, Uncle. You just wanted to sell tea and live peacefully, and now, because of me, you’ve been dragged back into the war.”
Uncle cups his face. Zuko can’t help but lean into it, eyes falling shut.
“All I wanted was to live happily with you, Zuko. I never wanted your father to stop you from living your own life. But now you’re standing up for what you believe in, you’re making strong friends, you’re carving out a path for yourself--and I couldn’t be prouder.”
“I don’t want to be involved in the war,” Zuko admits, voice small, “but I don’t want my friends to be hurt either. And … and I want the war to end.”
Zuko closes his eyes, enjoying the simple warmth of Uncle’s touch, the safety he felt next to him.
“I need to help the Avatar, don’t I?”
“You don’t need to do anything, my nephew. This is your life. Only you can choose how to live it.”
“I thought I had already chosen,” Zuko says.
“We get more than one chance to make decisions in life.”
Zuko draws back with a sigh. “Right.”
“I’m sorry for nagging you. I only worry. Ever since I lost my son ...”
“You don’t have to say it.”
“I think of you as my own.”
Zuko shudders and leans his full weight into Uncle, who envelops him into a tight hug. They stand there, holding on to each other, all of their unsaid words tangible in the air.
Zuko forces himself to pull away. “We’ll meet again, Uncle.”
He climbs into the rowboat and begins to lower himself down to the dark ocean.
“Remember your breath of fire,” Uncle says quickly, leaning over the edge to watch his descent. “It could save your life out there.”
“And put your hood up! Keep your ears warm.”
“I’ll be fine,” Zuko calls up to him.
The rowboat lands with a soft splash. Zuko picks up the oars and steadies himself, pushes his thoughts away from the warm safety of his uncle and onto the dangerous journey ahead of him.
In a stroke of rare luck, Zuko finds a pack of seal-turtles diving through a tunnel in the ice. He follows them into the near-black ocean. The water is cold enough to burn. Even with his inner fire simmering in his chest, his limbs go numb. He swims as far as he can manage, comes up for air, and then forces himself to continue on.
He finally reaches the city. It’s bigger and grander than he was expecting--not because he still believes the lies he was told as a child about the Fire Nation’s superiority, but because he has never been around so much snow. Who knew you could do so much with it?
How is he supposed to find Aang, Katara and Sokka in such a large city, hyper-vigilant with the Fire Nation at their gates? He’ll be spotted. And killed.
The thought slides out of his head a moment later. He doesn’t think much of anything, after that. His feet lead him through empty streets, winding further and further up, until he comes to a round wooden door.
He climbs inside and almost chokes on the warm air. An island of grass and vegetation surrounds a koi pond. Seated by the water is a white-haired teenager he doesn’t recognise, Katara, and a faintly-glowing Aang.
“He’ll be fine so long as we don’t move his body,” Katara tells the other girl. “That’s his way over to the spirit world.”
“Maybe we should get some help?”
Katara smiles. “No. He’s my friend. I’m perfectly capable of protecting him.”
“The anmarda will be gunning for him specifically,” Zuko says loudly. The girls whirl around. “Katara, I know you’re upset with me, but please, you don’t know what Zhao is capable of. We have to get Aang somewhere safe.”
The other girl looks ready to bolt for the door. The Jasmine Dragon has been driven out of port by mobs, before. But here, there’s nowhere to go. No crew at his back. And he doubts he would survive any mob formed in the middle of the Northern Water Tribe.
“It’s okay,” Katara says, hand out, almost as though she’s ready to grab the girl if she runs. “He’s my friend, too. Yue, this is Zuko. Zuko, this is Princess Yue.”
Zuko bows, lower than he would if he was still a prince. “I’m sorry for frightening you. I know a firebender is the last thing you want to see right now, but I come with news.”
Yue doesn’t come any closer, but she also doesn’t run off and alert the guards. That’s alright. Zuko wasn’t expecting a warm reception. Not everyone is as stupidly friendly as Aang, Katara, and Sokka.
“If you’re here to warn us that the Fire Nation is planning an attack,” Katara says dryly, “then you’re a little too late.”
Zuko glances around the oasis. It’s so open, so undefended. It would be ravaged by the Fire Nation, another casualty in this siege.
“No,” Zuko says. “It’s worse than that. It’s Zhao--he’s planning on killing the spirits.”
“They’re not going to believe us,” Sokka points out.
They’re gathered in a circle on the grass, where they can still see Aang’s eerily glowing form. When Yue had left to fetch him, Zuko had half-expected Sokka to storm through the wooden door with his katana drawn.
But instead, Sokka had barrelled into the oasis and swept Zuko into a hug.
“They’ll believe us,” Katara says. “It’s Zuko they won’t believe.”
“Yeah, they’ll probably drown him.”
“Thanks,” Zuko says.
Sokka shrugs. “What do you want me to tell you, buddy? Not everyone understands the nuances of the world like we do.”
“This coming from the guy that wanted to fight me the second he realised the Jasmine Dragon was run by firebenders.”
Zuko smiles. He can’t help it. He’s in the middle of the Northern Water Tribe while it’s under siege, after years of staying as far away from active combat as he could--and yet he’s happier than he has been in weeks. Even though his body is still frozen through, his breath of life and the warm oasis air the only things keeping hypothermia from setting in. Even though a strange princess is sitting across from him, staring at him as though he’s a foreign species.
He had missed his friends. Their easy banter. The way they effortlessly made him feel included, like he belonged. He missed them.
He just wants them to be safe.
When he starts thinking that they should just grab Aang and make a run for it before Zhao gets the jump on them, Aang jerks awakes with a shout. “Zuko!”
Aang stumbles to his feet and spins around to face them. Katara tackles him in a hug. He leans into her embrace, smiling over her shoulder at them. “Hi there, Zuko.”
But Aang hadn’t been facing him when he said his name. Could he hear them in the spirit world?
Sokka must have had the same thought. “How did you …?”
Aang shrugs. “Just had a feeling Zuko would be here.”
Sokka and Zuko exchange baffled glances.
“Spirit magic gives me a headache,” Sokka says.
Zuko shakes his head. They don’t have time for this. “Aang, Zhao is coming to kill the spirits. Spirit. I don’t know, but--we have to stop him.”
Aang blanches, looking back at the calm pond. “He can’t do that. It’ll throw the entire world out of balance.”
“Uncle tried to tell him that, but he didn’t listen. He only cares about furthering the might of the Fire Nation.” Zuko can’t keep the bitterness out of his voice. Maybe the years at sea, surrounded by war-affected Earth Kingdom natives, has skewed his perception of his homeland.
When Zuko looks across the grass, he finds Yue staring back at him.
“You’re far from home,” she says softly. “Don’t you miss the Fire Nation?”
“No.” Zuko pauses. The grass under his knees blurs. He can almost hear the sound of turtleducks splashing in the royal pond, feel the sweet humidity of the air. “Yes. I don’t know.”
Maybe Zuko does still love his country, his patriotism buried deep beneath the old fear, but he does not love the people that lead it. He does not love what fire hunger has done to them.
“I loved my home and my people, but I didn’t love the way they made me feel or the pain I was forced to bear because of duty.”
Yue keeps starting at him with her unnaturally blue eyes. “I understand. I love my people, but sometimes, I think ....”
Yue looks away, towards Sokka, and startles when she finds them all staring at her and Zuko. She reflexively straightens and smoothes out her skirt. Zuko would blush if his blood was circulating normally.
“Sorry to interrupt this, uh, weird bonding,” Sokka says awkwardly, “but we were just wondering how to move the spirit-fish.”
“We’re not going to alert the Chief to Zhao’s plans?” Zuko asks.
Aang shakes his head. “It would slow us down, and I’m the Avatar. It’s my responsibility to protect the spirit world.”
Zuko stands up, his legs aching, and examines the koi caught in an endless loop. “Do you have a bowl? Or, uh. A bucket?”
Not the most sacred of containers, but as long as the spirits were safe, did they care about how dignified their rescue was?
“No,” Katara says, climbing to her feet, “but you do have a waterbender.”
They climb onto Appa with the koi fish suspended above them, still swimming in perfect circles inside Katara’s bubble.
Zuko tries to convince them to fly as far away from the invading fleet as they can, but Yue refuses. She won’t leave her people to die at the Fire Nation’s hands while she escapes to safety.
“You won’t have any people left if Zhao gets his hand on the spirits,” Zuko snaps, but Yue sits tall and unflinching under his stare. “You’re being stupid about this.”
“I’m a princess,” Yue says simply. “I won’t run from my people.”
The rest of them are benders or experienced warriors. Yue can’t do anything against the Fire Nation--and yet she’ll stand against it. She won’t run away and save herself.
“The Fire Nation will kill you,” Zuko says. “They’d enjoy it, too.”
“Zuko,” Sokka snaps.
Yue holds up a hand. “It’s okay, Sokka. He’s just as stressed as we are.”
Sokka backs down, but keeps his glare aimed at Zuko.
“It’s not just my sense of duty,” Yue continues. “I don’t know why, but I get this feeling that we have to stay close. Inside the city limits, at least. It’s like something deep inside me just … knows.”
“Me, too,” Aang says.
“Like your body is leading you forward even though your mind doesn’t know why or where?” Zuko says.
Yue nods. “Exactly like that. Do you feel it, too?”
“No, but I felt something similar earlier, when I was looking for Aang. I didn’t know where you all were or how to navigate the city, but somehow, I found the oasis almost immediately.”
Sokka throws his hands into the air. “Great, more spooky magic! Am I the only one that hasn’t had a weird spiritual experience? Katara?”
“I have no idea what they’re talking about,” Katara says, “but I trust them. We’ll stay somewhere nearby.”
“Fine,” Sokka says, “but we’re going somewhere defensible. Or at least somewhere where Zhao won’t be able to corner us.”
Hovering at the top of her city, beneath the rays of the full moon, Yue witnesses the true violence of the Fire Nation. She sees the dark stain of their tanks against the snow and the fury of their fire, great bursts that push her people back and decimate their buildings.
It lights a vast anger inside her. An alien emotion. There’s something else waking up inside her, rising like a sea-beast swimming slowly towards the surface, its body so great that it disturbs the ocean around it.
This is wrong, Yue thinks, as she watches the Fire Nation break through their inner walls.
This is wrong. As she hears her people’s screams, the smell of soot overwhelming the familiar brine of her home.
This is wrong. As the sun sets and the firebender’s attacks glow brighter in the falling darkness.
This can’t happen. As Zhao begins the trek towards them on rhino-back, a pack of soldiers behind him, ready to help him bring down the sky bison.
This can’t be allowed to happen.
Zuko shifts beside her. When she looks at him, she sees her fear reflected back at her. He’s a firebender, but even he’s frightened of the Fire Nation.
It would frighten her too, if her people had become so lost. Would she do something to stop them, like Zuko is?
But then, she has always felt voiceless. Her people are peaceful, but sometimes their decisions aren’t always right, and she feels more like an object that belongs to them than a person born to protect them. Even now, she has been relegated to the side, forced to watch her city fall.
This is wrong.
They are her people, and she has always been their’s, and no outsiders can come and hurt them.
“Uh, guys?” Sokka asks. “One of the spirit-fish is glowing.”
Yue doesn’t look away from the city, sprawled beneath them.
“Aang, did you do that?” Katara asks.
“No, I don’t know what’s going on. It is a full moon, though. Does the moon spirit always glow during full moons?”
“I don’t know.” Sokka touches Yue’s shoulder. She doesn’t move. “Yue? Yue--hey, what’s wrong with your eyes?”
Yue stands. They are a very long way up, but the distance feels like nothing to her. She is used to hanging suspended above the ground.
“Sokka, don’t touch her,” Aang warns.
“But this isn’t normal! She shouldn’t glow, she’s not the Avatar. Yue, sit back down. We can fix this. We can help you.”
Yue’s friends sound as though they are a great distance away. She manages to pull away, breach through the surface of her mind, long enough to say, “I have to protect my people, Sokka. This is what I was born to do. I won’t sit by idly ever again.”
Yue steps onto the edge of Appa’s saddle. Her friends shout at her, but she has already slipped beneath the veil of power again. She has become them and they do not waste time on mortals’ words.
Hands tear at the back of their dress, try to pull them away from the edge, but they do not move. Cannot be moved by anyone else’s will.
Yue steps into the open air. They do not fall. They float, and all at once they are more complete and more full of rage than they have ever been.
They watch from the safety of Appa’s saddle as Yue hovers above her city. Except--it’s not Yue. Not entirely. Not just her.
Her skirt has taken on a strange sheen, like wet ice glowing under moonlight. She is haloed in light. Her hair seems longer, wilder, caught in the wind, even though the night air is exceptionally still.
Sokka’s face has cracked open. He hangs over the edge of the saddle, hands outstretched. Katara holds onto the back of his shirt in case he does something stupid like jump after her.
The fighting below them slows. Waterbenders and firebenders stop and stare, mesmerized at the woman suspended above them. The Water Tribe falls to their knees in worship. Some firebenders crumple too, in fear or sheer disbelief. Yue passes by these people without a second glance.
But to the firebenders that do not kneel, she sweeps a hand through the air. The fabric of reality splinters open at her command, and those left standing are brought down, spasming in pain. Alive, but in that moment, wishing for death.
Some run. Some stay, frozen. Those that stand and try and fight, those that keep lashing fire against the melting hide of her city--those, Yue kills.
Zhao stares up at her, unmoving and defiant, still clasping the knife he would have used to kill the moon spirit. With a flick of her wrist, Yue separates his soul from his body, and his corpse lands with a thump in the snow.
When she reaches the outer wall, she doesn’t need to keep fighting. She stands, a protector, the last barrier between the fleet and the Northern Water Tribe, and waits. The ocean rises up to help her sister and pushes the ships further out. The ships don’t try to fight.
Or rather--that’s not quite true. Soldiers scramble on deck, but they can’t launch an attack at her. Their capataults will not light. Their fists will not spark. The Moon Spirit is the sister of Agni, a being made in his reflection. Firebenders rely on the refracted sunlight beaming off the moon, just as everyone else does. And he will not let them raise a hand to her.
She waits, as the foot-soldiers scramble out of the city and into rowboats. As they sail quickly out to their warships. When the soldiers have either fled or been killed, she calls to her sister. The ocean surges up once more and the ships are pushed far away from the Water Tribe in a great wave.
When they are gone, the Moon Spirit recedes, leaving only Yue, the girl, to collapse back onto the snow.
They land Appa near the outer-wall. Sokka almost breaks his ankle jumping off the saddle and onto unstable snow, but he doesn’t pause, just sprints until he’s by Yue’s side.
Aang and Katara stay on top of Appa, bracketing Zuko. He shivers between them, stupidly grateful for the warmth and the silent protection they offer.
Chief Arnook and a healer are bent over Yue. Sokka speaks quickly with them. Then sags.
He cups his hands to his mouth, and calls, “She’s okay.”
Katara sighs with relief. Aang looks like he’s going to start crying.
“That should’ve been me,” he says. “I’m the Avatar. It’s my job to protect people and deal with spirits.”
“You can’t do everything yourself,” Zuko says. “You’re a kid, Aang. You’re a person. You need to let people help you, okay?”
Katara knocks her feet against Zuko’s. “What a change of heart you’ve had, Zuko. You were fighting us for so long and then suddenly we leave you alone, and you come running after us?”
Zuko is too cold to blush, but he ducks his head, anyway. “I was worried about you. If you hadn’t known what Zhao was planning, the Fire Nation would’ve killed the spirits, and then what would the world have done?”
“Thank you, Zuko,” Aang says.
“Don’t mention it,” Zuko says. “Really. Please stop mentioning it.”
Sokka is talking very quickly with the chief. They can’t hear what he’s saying, but they keep looking back at them. The Fire Nation threat might have been dealt with, but there’s still a very real possibility that Zuko is going to get shoved down an icy ravine.
“I’ll vouch for you,” Aang says, standing. “Katara--”
“I’ll stay on guard duty,” Katara says, patting Zuko’s arm.
After a lot of quick talking and several promises that Zuko stays with the Avatar and friends at all times, they don’t throw him into the black ocean or lock him in a cell. Zuko makes sure to stick close to his friends, anyway.
Katara leads them back to the little room they’ve been staying in. Sokka trails along behind them, still in shock.
Inside, they start piling furs into the middle of the room. When Katara shoves him into the middle of the nest, Zuko goes. He’s quiet as they pile in around him, pushing in as close as they can.
“Why did you come?” Sokka asks, breaking the silence. He’s got an arm slung over Katara, his hand grasping Zuko’s jacket.
“I heard what Zhao was planning and I--” Zuko swallows, closing his eyes. Aang presses in a little closer, his nose digging into Zuko’s ribs. “I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t just bury my head in the sand, the way I’ve been doing for three years.”
Sokka huffs. “Took you long enough.”
“Welcome to the family, Sifu Zuko,” Aang says.
Zuko closes his eyes, his throat tight and burning, and says, “Thanks for having me.”
In the morning, they visit Yue. His friends crowd around the door, but Zuko hangs back. Aside from Uncle and King Bumi, Yue was the first royal he had spoken to in three years. She was his age, and so determined to help her people that she had given herself to the moon spirit without knowing if she would ever come back.
He doesn’t know her, though. Not the way Katara and Aang and Sokka know her. But she rattles him.
But then a healer slips out of Yue’s room and says, “She wants to speak with the firebender.”
“What?” Zuko says.
“Princess Yue wants to speak to you alone,” says the healer again. “Don’t keep her waiting.”
Yue’s bedroom is three times as large as the room they’d stayed in last night, with a roaring fire keeping it comfortably warm. Under a mound of furs, Yue looks fragile and wane. Though, if Zuko squints, he can still see a faint flicker of unnatural light in her eyes, as though she were lit from within.
He bows and settles by her bedside, trying not to fidget. “How are you?” he asks awkwardly.
“I’m well,” she says. “The healers say I just need to rest. Spirit encounters drain a lot of energy.”
“That wasn’t just an encounter.”
She smiles, a quick acknowledgement of her power, and then asks, “And how are you? It mustn’t be easy being in the North Pole. I’m sure you’ve found both the temperature and the people rather cold.”
“I didn’t come here expecting to be comfortable. I came here to help my friends.”
“Not many people would do the same.” She pauses, studying him carefully. “I heard that Master Pakku vouched for you, too. I hadn’t realised you were acquainted.”
Zuko blinks. “I’ve met plenty of people from the Southern Water Tribe--but not the Northern one.”
“He didn’t explain how he knew you, but Master Pakku is a highly respected waterbender, so my father took his word for it.” Yue keeps staring at him with those too-bright eyes. “Something tells me you’re not just an ordinary firebender, though.”
Zuko stiffens. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Yue hums, looking away. “Well, you’ve inspired me. You came here to stand up for what you believed in, not what your people said was right. I decided to do the same.
“I spoke with my father this morning and I stood up for what I believed in. I don’t know if he’s just humouring me right now, while I’m so drained and he’s so shaken from what occurred, but I think he listened. And even if he didn’t, I’m not going to back down.”
Zuko furrows his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“In the Northern Water Tribe, women don’t have much power. I was in an arranged marriage before everything happened. My husband would have been chief. But I won’t sit quietly as people speak for me. Not anymore.
“It helps that people saw that I can turn into the moon spirit, I suppose. They’re not going to underestimate me again.”
“Be careful,” Zuko says, a lump in his throat. “I stood up to my father, too. More than once. It didn’t end well.”
Yue’s eyes flick to his scar. Zuko nods, and she claps a hand over her mouth.
The words come tumbling out. “I spent years trying to change his mind about me. It wasn’t until I realised that I would never be the son he wanted, that I didn’t want to be the kind of person he would be proud of, that I was finally happy.”
Zuko tugs on his braid. After everything that has happened, his ribbon has managed to survive.
“I don’t like talking about it,” Zuko goes on, “but if you’re going to stand up against the traditions of your people, you should know. It can be dangerous.”
“Thank you for telling me, but my father is the chief. He’s a good man. I’m sure he wouldn’t--”
Zuko’s mouth feels glued shut. He unsticks his tongue, and says, “My father is the Fire Lord.”
“What?” Yue says.
“I thought he wouldn’t do anything either, until--until he did. The last time I stood up to my father, I was banished.”
Yue sits up, furs falling into her lap, and pulls Zuko into a tight hug. When she draws away, her eyes are wet. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that happened to you, Prince Zuko. I hope the Avatar defeats the Fire Lord so you can go home safely.”
“I already have a home,” Zuko says, “and it’s not the Fire Palace.”
He feels more tired than he has felt in a long while, even after a full night’s sleep sandwiched between his friends. Suddenly, he desperately misses Iroh and his humble, warm bedroom and the kitchen, manned by Chef, who was always there to listen and scold him for being stupid and coax his secrets out of him with cinnamon biscuits.
He’s never been away from the Jasmine Dragon for longer than a few days before. The idea of leaving with the Avatar, never knowing when he’ll see Uncle again, when he can let his guard down and relax--it burns him right through.
He needs to see Uncle.
“Zuko?” Yue prompts, gentle. “Are you alright?”
Zuko has run out of words. He nods tightly, and she takes his hand. Her fingers are small and soft between his. It’s strange to think that this is the hand that stopped a battle the night before.
“You’re okay, now,” she says, and there’s something especially soothing about her voice. He believes every word she says. The Water Tribe is crazy if they can’t see that she would make an amazing leader. “You were so brave, coming to help us. You saved a lot of people’s lives. You might have saved the entire world--if the Fire Nation had taken the spirits and the Avatar, the war might have been lost.” Yue squeezes his hand. “I suppose I should call you Prince Zuko, though, shouldn’t I?”
“I’m not a prince,” Zuko says. “Not anymore. And my friends don’t know yet. I’m not ready for them to know.”
“I won’t tell them.”
He laughs, and it sounds wet and weak. “Thanks, Yue. You’ll make an amazing leader someday.”
Yue ducks her head. He thinks, for a moment, that he’s upset her, but when she looks back up again, she’s smiling, shy but proud, and the light in her eyes is even brighter. “I will make a great chief,” she says, voice strong. “And you will, too.”
The smile drops off Zuko’s face. “What? No. No.”
“When the war is over, you must get in contact with us. We need to create some kind of trade agreement between our nations. The Northern Water Tribe has been too isolated for too long.”
“Yue,” Zuko hisses, “I was banished, remember? I’ll never be--I don’t want to be--”
“I thought the same thing, before yesterday.” She drops his hand, shooting him one last wane smile, before gesturing for the door. “Can you send Sokka in, please? I need to speak with him.”
That afternoon, Appa is packed with fresh supplies. Yue is strong enough to meet them out on the courtyard, standing tall by her father’s side.
Master Pakku is there, too. Katara and Aang’s waterbending teacher. The man who vouched for him.
“I’ve decided to go to the South Pole,” Pakku says to Katara. “Some other benders and healers want to join me. It’s time we helped rebuild our sister tribe.”
“What about Aang?” Katara says. “He still needs to learn waterbending.”
“Well,” Pakku says, “then he better get used to calling you Master Katara.”
Katara smiles, bright and proud, and Zuko remembers the girl who practiced for hours by the river, lifting wobbly water-bubbles into the air, tripping over her own clumsy stances but getting back up again, every time. He’s proud of her, too. He can’t wait to spar with her.
“Aang has two masters, now,” Katara says, nudging Zuko.
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Wait until he starts calling you ‘Sifu Katara’ every other day, then we’ll see if you’re still smiling about it.”
“You’ve decided to become the Avatar’s firebending master, then?” Pakku asks, eyeing Zuko.
Zuko looks away. “I guess so.”
“There is no guess,” Pakku says sharply. “There is only do or do not.”
Pakku sounds like Uncle--if Uncle didn’t care for tea and fine foods, and was far stricter. Zuko purses his lips together. “Princess Yue says you vouched for me last night. Why is that? We’ve never met before today.”
“I’ve had tea with your uncle before,” Pakku says, as if it’s that simple. “He’s a wonderful Pai Sho player.”
“Your family really does know everybody,” Katara says, laughing.
Zuko winces. “You have no idea.”
After a final round of goodbyes, they climb onto Appa. Aside from the night before, in the middle of the siege, Zuko thinks this is the first time he has willingly climbed onto Appa.
“Sokka,” Katara says quietly, “what about Yue?”
Sokka takes a deep, pained breath. “My place is with you and Aang and Zuko,” he says, subdued. “And her place is here. That’s all.”
Zuko doesn’t know if he’s ready to throw himself into life as Aang’s firebending teacher immediately. He needs to see Uncle, and sleep in his own futon, and spend an afternoon serving tea and reading theatre scrolls, just to get the image of the ravaged city and red corpses lying in the snow out of his head.
But--he feels like he could join them. Like he will. Like every single frustrating time they kidnapped him was just a lead up to the inevitable.
Appa takes off with a jolt. The Arctic winds burn their eyes, and they huddle together at the back of the saddle, Zuko pressed between Katara and Sokka, breathing wisps of steam, keeping them all warm.