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It took Zuko three days to realize he couldn’t see and two weeks to accept it as fact.

 

When he’d first woken up he hadn’t registered much other than the sheets. They were so much coarser than the sheets back home. Itchy threads scratched his legs and, no matter what he did, comfort always eluded him. He tossed and turned, but it was no use. And the more he didn’t sleep, the more he thought.

 

He had been such a fool to disrespect his father. Speaking out at a war meeting? It would have been idiotic to expect any less than what he got. Punishment was harsh in the Fire Nation, but it was fair.

 

He still remembered looking up at his father’s face as tears streamed down his cheek. The tears had felt cold as ice as he begged for forgiveness, for mercy. And, for a moment, he thought he might get to walk away. 

 

But then his father had held his hand up to Zuko’s face, cradled his cheek in his palm, and let loose white-hot flames. They’d seared Zuko’s face, agonizing pain leaping from one side to another. It had taken a moment for the pain to register and, in that time, all he could do was smell charred skin and burnt hair.

 

Zuko had still been conscious when his father dropped him to the floor. He’d felt his head knock against the ground before darkness filled his mind, but then he couldn’t remember anything until the rough sheets.

 

And the sheets were so, so rough. They were all he could think about for so long that, at first, Zuko didn’t register the other sensations creeping up on him. The gentle swaying of a boat on the water. Cool gusts of wind when the doors opened, soft murmurs and quiet voices. A bandage pressed tightly around his face. But then, before he could think about any of them for too long, the itching of the sheets would drag him back.

 

The next time he woke up he hadn’t even realized he’d fallen asleep. Warm, callused hands were unwrapping the bandages around his face.

 

“Who is it?” Zuko asked, scooting away from the hands, pushing himself further into the sheets.

 

“It’s me, your uncle.” The bandages fell from his face, and he saw his uncle pick up another. But he didn’t see him, not really, just the vague shape where he assumed his uncle would be, a slight difference in color, the briefest movement.

 

“Uncle, I can’t see you,” Zuko said, his chest beginning to rise and fall with sharp, racing precision. No, he reminded himself, he had to breathe.

 

“It’s just your burn. Unfortunately, it’s gotten a bit infected. It should clear up in a few days though, you have nothing to worry about.” His uncle put some kind of cold cream on his face before gently rewrapping the bandage.

 

“A few days? Uncle, I can’t wait that long. I have to,” Zuko said before pausing. What did he have to do? The need, the drive to do it was deep in his chest, and yet he couldn’t remember what his father wanted from him. All he knew was that it was important.

 

“To capture the Avatar? I’m sure he can wait for you to heal, Prince Zuko. You have to make sure you’re strong enough before you face him.” His uncle got off the bed where he’d been sitting next to Zuko. It sprung up behind him, but Zuko still ran his fingers along the small indentation where he’d been sitting. “Do you want me to stay?”

 

Zuko thought for a moment. “Could you bring tea?”

 

“Of course. You know I’d never turn down the opportunity to make tea. I’ll see if Asoko can bring us some duck too.”



The next morning his uncle came in to unwrap his bandages again. Zuko hadn’t slept much the night before, still wrapped up in those rough sheets. But in the time he’s laid awake, he’d come to a decision: he wanted to know what he looked like.

 

Every time he tried to picture himself all he could picture was smooth, unburned skin. But he could feel that he didn’t look like that anymore. He knew the scar stretched from from the edges of the right side of his face across to his left, covering his entire ear on that side. He could feel the pain across his eyes and the bridge of his nose, down his cheeks in spots where sparks had landed. It was hard to know anything for sure, but he suspected his left eyebrow and parts of his hairline had burnt off too. The scent of burning hair still hung heavy in his nose.

 

“Uncle, after you unwrap my bandages, leave me for a minute,” Zuko said as the pressure from the bandages fell away.

 

“Of course. But I made us tea, and you know how I feel about cold tea.” It sounded like his uncle had smiled with the last few words, but Zuko couldn’t be sure. His uncle removed the last bandage and the fresh air hit his face. Zuko kept his eyes closed as his uncle got off the bed, his footsteps tapping on the ground towards the door. Once he heard the door shut Zuko opened his eyes.

 

He knew his uncle said there’d been an infection, but Zuko had expected to at least see what he’d been able to make out the day before. He’d expected shapes, colors, movement. Instead, all he could make out was the vague blur of a flickering candle. His breath hitched as he stood up, knocking something off the bed with him. With his hands pressed against the wall he walked until he found what he assumed was a mirror, cold and smooth.

 

He tried to look at his reflection, but he couldn’t see anything until he took his hand and waved it in front of him. Even then it was only the barest flicker of movement visible in the mirror.

 

He did everything he could to see his own image. Squinting, drawing the mirror closer, holding it farther out, nothing worked. His vision was cloudy, foggy, sandy. 

 

Hesitantly he drew his hand up to his face. If he couldn’t see, maybe he could feel what he looked like. Shaking hands tapped his cheek and came away wet. Was it blood? Pus? He couldn’t tell. All he knew was that it hurt to place his fingers on the wound, even with touches as soft as down.

 

“Prince Zuko, you shouldn’t touch your injury. It’ll only make it worse,” his uncle said. He hadn’t even noticed the man was behind him. 

 

“I just need to know what I look like, uncle.”

 

“Wait for the infection to heal, and then you’ll be able to see yourself. Patience yields the best results.” Uncle’s footsteps were soft until they stopped. He must have sat down on the bed.

 

Holding onto the wall for protection, Zuko inched back to where he had been sitting before. He settled next to his uncle, who handed him a warm cup of tea. 

 

“I don’t want to be patient, Uncle. Just tell me what I look like.” Zuko finished his tea quickly and handed the cup back to his uncle, careful to feel his uncle’s fingertips before he let go. In return for the cup he got a bowl with chopsticks. He tentatively took a bite, happy to discover rice instead of some rare delicacy only Uncle Iroh enjoyed.

 

“It doesn’t matter what you look like. It’s only who you are on the inside that counts.” 

 

“Uncle, I don’t care about your sayings. Just tell me how my face appears,” Zuko said, his voice raising against his control. His uncle shifted on the bed next to him.

 

“Can we please discuss this another time?” Uncle’s voice was tinged with something akin to fear, a softer rolling version, so Zuko didn’t press. He simply ate his rice and tried not to think about the itchy sheets or the feeling of the bandages as his uncle rewrapped his head.



By the third day Zuko realized his sight was gone. Occasionally, after his uncle took off his bandages, he would catch a glimpse of movement, but those were few and far between. Most of the time all he could register was the absence of anything.

 

Over the next few days Uncle promised that the infection was dying down. Any day now he’d been back to normal, as close to normal as possible, and his sight would be back. That’s what Zuko told the crew as they stifled giggles at the young teenager pressed against the ship’s walls.

 

On more than one occasion Zuko tried to figure out who they were, the soldiers and sailors who laughed at him. He was in charge of this ship, he wouldn’t be made into the punchline of anyone’s joke.

 

He could recognize the crew’s voices, the difference between those with deep voices like crumbling caves and those with words as light as air. Different footsteps would let him know when someone new approached. His system of identification wasn’t perfect, and he couldn’t attach any names or other traits to the people he knew, but it was better than nothing. He could avoid the heavy-footed man with the dewy-soft voice and the woman with the twinkling lilt, because they were the most cruel, but no one could help him identify them.

 

He’d tell his uncle and the other crew members that he needed to reprimand a woman with a voice like birdsong, and they’d ask if she was tall or short. Lean or fat? What color eyes? What color hair?

 

He tried to explain that he didn’t know, he couldn’t see her, but didn’t they recognize their shipmates by anything other than sight? Maybe they shrugged, but Zuko couldn’t tell.

 

In the second week, five days after Uncle declared him infection-free and several minutes after a particularly frustrating conversation about why Zuko had to have scrolls read to him, Zuko accepted that, at least for now, he was blind.

 

He tried to cry to his uncle that night, but all that came out were aborted sobs and dry heaves. Somehow part of his father’s flame had burned his tear ducts, and Zuko couldn’t even have the mercy of tears. 

 

But this was what he deserved for being a failure of the highest caliber, to his father, his family, his nation.



Uncle Iroh took the news of Zuko’s new blindness with more grace than expected, though maybe that was just Zuko being pessimistic about his uncle’s near unfashionable support. It was a month into their voyage when his uncle decided Zuko was well enough to train again.

 

“Uncle, I don’t think this is a good idea. I can’t see. How am I supposed to control my firebending?” Zuko asked, keeping to the center of the deck as much as possible. He’d been up long enough to know the layout of the ship so he could get around without clinging to the walls, but the decks were still uncomfortable. So many unaccountable variables he couldn’t memorize.

 

“The way you always have. Firebending is energy, and energy is all around us. We can’t see it to begin with, and yet I know you harnessed it before.” His uncle’s footsteps got louder as he got closer to Zuko. Suddenly warmth was at his face as his uncle created a flame next to him. He tried not to flinch.

 

“Where is this flame?” Uncle Iroh asked. “Try to feel it. Not just the heat, but the heartbeat. The energy.”

 

“It’s in your palm,” Zuko replied. This was a ridiculous exercise. Firebending was fighting, power, control, all the things Zuko had lost.

 

“Which one?”

 

“Left.”

 

“How did you know that?”

 

Zuko had to think for a minute. How had he know? It had been instinctual. He hadn’t had to think, the answer had simply been there. All he has to do was sense it.



It was almost harder to relearn firebending than it had been to learn it in the first place, and bending had never come easily to Zuko. Yet he loved the push and the pull of fire and of energy. He craved the burn of pushing himself, testing the limits of what he could do. 

 

With his uncle’s help, he slowly began to find new ways to experience the world. See wasn’t the right word, because that wasn’t what he did. But he learned to focus on the sounds around him, to feel the energy of every little thing.

 

One day, in the midst of his frustration, he let out a ring of energy. It wasn’t fire, just something one step short of ignition. Just like that, he could tell the layout of the room. It was deep in the hull of the ship and he knew it by memory at this point, but this was different. He sensed each shape, each object. Focusing, he did it again.

 

He felt himself growing stronger each day, his arsenal of skills growing exponentially. Using his own technique, the rings of energy, he could sense what was going on in the room, could feel each individual person, animal, object. He wasn’t nearly as good a fighter as he used to be, but he was learning. He was improving. 

 

As he trained he liked to spar with the crew members. Admittedly he was terrible, never winning a fight, but that wasn’t the point. He was holding his own, if only for a moment at a time, and that was really all he needed.

 

It was easier to fight the firebenders because their energy was more focused. Easier to detect. He still lost, but it took them two minutes, three minutes to defeat him rather than thirty seconds.

 

Then one day he was sparring with Asoko. And he won. It had been a long fight, almost five minutes, and the nectar of victory was nearly as sweet as the burn of fighting. He’d forgotten how nice it felt to win.

 

That night, as he was eating dinner, he heard his uncle walk up to Asoko. 

 

“You didn’t have to let my nephew win, but I appreciate you doing it for him. I think he needed it.” Uncle’s voice was soft and gentle.

 

“That’s the thing, General Iroh. I didn’t let him win. He beat me on his own.”

Chapter Text

Zuko felt energy building before the flames raced past him. He stepped to the side, letting them race into the frigid polar air.

 

“Is that the best you have? I told you I wanted a challenge,” Zuko yelled.

 

“I’m trying as hard as I can,” Tuzai said, his breath heavy and labored. Another streak of flame brushed past him, but Zuko brought it through his hand and back towards the sound of the voice.

 

Tuzai wasn’t his friend because Zuko, as a rule, was not friends with people who were below him. But that didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy the company. 

 

“You know I can tell where you are when you talk. I need you to take this seriously if I’m ever going to catch the Avatar,” Zuko said. He listened for Tuzai’s distinctive footprints, heavy on the left, light on the right, and sent a barrage of fire towards him.

 

“I am taking this seriously! If you want a challenge, get General Iroh.” 

 

“You know my uncle’s busy playing Pai Sho and eating all our rations,” Zuko said with a smile. Tuzai laughed, and Zuko wondered what he looked like. He had a nice laugh, so Zuko liked to imagine he had a nice face to go along with it, but he had no real proof. 

 

Whenever Zuko asked about appearances the other people on the ship would get shy, never giving him a good description of their mutual  shipmates. It was pretty much a given that they were pale with dark hair. They were from the Fire Nation, after all. Zuko would appreciate knowing about their scars and moles instead of having those same two traits described to him over and over again. Unique traits would be more useful, and none could be as embarrassing or shameful as a face-long scar.

 

“It’s getting dark, Prince Zuko.” Tuzai’s footsteps stopped. “We should head inside, see what’s left over from dinner.”

 

Zuko stood on the deck of the ship and placed his hand up in the air. He’d been so busy with Tuzai that he hadn’t noticed the wind kicking up or the swift onset of a night chill, even colder than the mind-numbing air usual to this awful region.

 

“Here, I’ve got you,” Tuzai said, gently grabbing hold of Zuko’s arm with his soft hands. Sometimes Zuko wondered how Tuzai got out of work to keep his hands so soft.

 

“Get off me.” Zuko yanked his arm away. “I’m not an invalid. I can take care of myself.”

 

“Of course, sir, I meant no disrespect.”

 

“Let’s just go see if there’s any Dragon Chicken left.” Zuko walked as fast as he could just to prove he was able to.



He was on the deck with his uncle when he felt it. The energy, so different from what he’d experienced before in his life, was light and yet almost eternal. Zuko couldn’t explain what it was, exactly, but he knew it was important.

 

They were still in the South Pole, Zuko’s least favorite location they’d traveled to yet. It was cold and damp and boring. Some of the crew members told him that the icebergs were beautiful around them, but that wasn’t helpful to Zuko at all. All he could feel were passing walls of ice, with nothing but cold water to break them up.

 

But here, this energy, maybe it made this whole awful trip worth it.

 

“Uncle, there’s something over there,” Zuko said, trying to point to where the epicenter of the energy was.

 

“There isn’t anything,” his uncle said before turning around. “Come, let’s get some tea. It’s getting cold up here.”

 

And so they kept sailing. But the memory of that energy nagged at Zuko for the rest of the day and into the morning. 

 

He was standing on the deck of the ship with Asoko when she grabbed his shoulder. He could feel her arm moving to point something out, but he couldn’t see what it was.

 

“What? What is it?”

 

“Prince Zuko, there’s something glowing. I think it’s a flare from one of our ships.”

 

“Then we should go investigate. Come on,” Zuko said, pulling her towards the center of the ship.

 

He could tell several of the crewmen were on deck. “Everyone! Set sail towards that,” he paused, unsure what to call it, “that glow!”

 

There was some grumbling, but Zuko tried to stop it with the best glare we could muster, although he wasn’t sure how successful his efforts really were. No one would, or could, seem to give him a straight answer about how expressive his face was.

 

The harsh wind whipped his cheeks as the ship cut a fast pace through the icy water. He gripped the railing of the ship as hard as he could. 

 

When they got there Asoko helped him down from the ship despite his protests, her warm hands on the small of his back. He really was fine. People didn’t need to help him all the time. If anything he only needed to learn how to fend for himself better. That had been the whole point of his quest in the first place, to learn how to take care of himself. 

 

The second his feet touched the ground he knew that something powerful had been there. With his almost-fire (which he still hadn’t thought of a better name for) he could tell that they were next to an old Fire Nation ship, although it seemed a bit smaller than the average. Zuko tried not to think about the fact that it was bigger than his own ship. 

 

Someone in the crew yelled out that they had seen two figures disappear over a hill, but it was too late to send someone after them. 

 

Zuko climbed back on board the ship without a word to any one else. He knew he had missed something important, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. That energy still gnawed on his mind, the memory of something powerful, new and ancient.

 

He paced back and forth across the deck, his back rigid and his shoulders tense. Think Zuko, think.

 

“Prince Zuko?” His uncle came up behind him and rested his hand an inch above Zuko’s shoulder. Zuko nodded and he brought his hand to rest, gently holding Zuko in place.

 

“What do you want, Uncle?”

 

“I want to make sure you’re okay. I know you’re under a lot of pressure right now.”

 

Zuko scoffed. “Like you’d understand.” He paused for a moment, shaking his uncle’s hand off and beginning his pacing again. “The Southern Water Tribe lives near us, right?”

 

“They do.”

 

“Good. Set a path there.” Zuko turned and walked towards the staircase. He heard his uncle moving slowly behind him but it didn’t matter. 

 

Zuko was going to find out what he had felt no matter the cost. He couldn’t risk losing any chance to find the Avatar and, with him, his honor. 



The first thing Zuko noticed about the Southern Water Tribe was how lifeless it seemed. 

 

Usually, when they visited different cities and ports, Zuko could feel the feet of hundreds or thousands of people moving around. He could hear chatter, the pumping of blood, the gentle rhythm of bending. Life, death, the continuum. 

 

But here it was silent. No footsteps. No breath. No hum of life. The only reason he knew it wasn’t deserted was that he heard his uncle’s quiet reassurances.

 

“Show yourselves,” he said, trying to sound as loud and powerful as possible. These people would respect him because they would fear him, as it should and would work for all time.

 

Suddenly he heard the sound of someone racing towards him. He felt a metal object race past his face and he held his hand out. The solitary figure fell to the ground. It was strange how light he had been, barely registering as he was tossed into the snow.

 

Suddenly something hard and metal hit him in the back of the head. He could have sworn he heard the figure mumble a stifled boomerang into the snow.

 

As he was rubbing the back of his head he heard someone rush down a hill on what sounded like the back of an animal. They laughed and got off, their feet light against the ground. Their energy was different, that same power he felt before. No. It couldn’t be.

 

“The Avatar’s here?” He thought. Zuko’s heart raced. It couldn’t be. This had to be some kind of trick. But he couldn’t take any chances.

 

Zuko turned to his crew, the men and women he had spent so many hours in the cramped hull with. “Burn everything you can find. If we can’t find the Avatar I don’t want to leave anything standing.”

 

“The Avatar’s not here,” an old woman said.

 

“Don’t lie to me.”

 

“Wait,” a voice said. It sounded young and light, bouncing in the air but weighed down in that moment by sincerity. “I’m who you’re looking for. I’m the Avatar.”

 

“Nice try, kid. I know how old the Avatar is.”

 

“I promise it’s me. Can’t you see my tattoos?” His uncle made no sign of movement, so Zuko cleared his throat.

 

“Yes. Of course.” He turned to Tuzai. “Apprehend him.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“You promise to leave these people alone?” The Avatar asked, his voice so young. Maybe it was just a trick, though, some spirit world way of making his voice seen younger than it was. That’s what it had to be.

 

By way of an answer to the Avatar’s question, Zuko instructed his men back on the ship. As he walked away he could have sworn he felt a shuffle and energy close to waterbending. But all the waterbenders of the Southern Tribe were dead. 

 

Zuko had nothing to worry about.



There wasn’t any better way to say it. Zuko was giddy. 

 

He finally had the Avatar in his grasp. Yes he’d have to give up his crew when he passed through the Gates of Azulon. Yes he’d have to abandon the strange normalcy he’d built on the sea. But that didn’t matter. His father would smile at him and draw him close. His honor restored, Zuko would walk in between his father and his sister as they discussed matters of state and of the military. Zuko would be wanted again.

 

 He could finally prove he was still useful.

 

Like most things in Zuko’s life, the good times didn’t last long. He knew the disaster was coming before it happened and yet he couldn’t do anything to stop it. 

 

The Avatar was good at fighting and Zuko wasn’t used to fighting benders who controlled elements other than fire. Feet light, the Avatar evaded capture despite the best efforts of the crew. Zuko tried to figure out where he was, to send out his not-fire, but it was no use. He was losing.

 

But slowly Zuko began to understand how this new fight worked. When fighting firebenders you had to be strong. You had to be sturdy. Hold your place, redirect the flames, stand secure. 

 

Fighting the Avatar, however, required flexibility. When fighting the firebenders on the ship, Zuko had to know their every move as they made it and had to be present in anticipation and retaliation. 

 

But fighting the Avatar was different. Instead of knowing what was happening, he had to predict where the Avatar would be next.

 

After he figured this out Zuko began to do better. He was only helped by the fact that they were battling on the ship he’d called home for three years. Zuko knew every crack on the deck, each out of place nail, every rope and pulley. He obsessively made sure everything got put back in place the same way every night so that he could navigate the deck with ease. The Avatar didn’t know the ship, and Zuko used that to his advantage as much as possible.

 

Wind whipped past his hair and blew out the flames he had sent towards the Avatar. It was strange, but Zuko could have sworn the child, if he was one, was fighting on the defensive. 

 

Zuko sent barrage after barrage of fire. If the Avatar was going to create defenses, Zuko simply had to overwhelm them.

 

And he knew he was getting close to victory until there had been a roar and a pounding throw of ice that nearly knocked Zuko off the deck. Then the Avatar was gone.

 

That night Zuko stayed up after everyone else had gone to sleep, clearing the deck of ice. His eyelids dropped and his hands were heavy with blisters but he couldn’t stop. He had to find the Avatar again, no matter what. And this time he wouldn’t let him get away.

Chapter Text

Few people filled Zuko with as much rage as Zhao. It wasn’t just that the man was an asshole (that was an undeniable fact). Everyone accepted he was an asshole. Zuko accepted it, Uncle accepted it, the pigeons that ate the harbor muck accepted it. The full extent of the problem wasn’t that Zhao was an asshole. The problem was that he seemed to have a fixation on making Zuko’s life as terrible as possible. 

 

After Zuko’s embarrassing defeat by the Avatar who, according to his crew, looked like a child and flew on a giant furry flying buffalo, whatever that was, Zuko needed to get his ship repaired and stock up on supplies.

 

And for that he had to visit Zhao’s fleet. 

 

The harbor the fleet was docked in smelled disgusting. It was the perfect scent for Zhao, that human boot scum of a man. The smell of rotten fish seeped through the porous mud and men milled around who had gone too many months at sea without a good bath. Dirty water was constantly dumped off ships and the thick snow from Fire Nation engines hung in the air.

 

Zuko’s ship creaked to a halt and the crew disembarked. While everyone else began loading the ship, Iroh and Zuko went to meet Zhao. Zuko hadn’t wanted to at first, would have preferred carrying sacks of rice or taking a break to meditate in his room, but Uncle said they’d been summoned. It would have been rude to decline, and they couldn’t lose anymore favor, Uncle reminded him.

 

Zuko could feel mud squish beneath his boots as they walked between the ships, dodging sailors and carts of food and weaponry. The sounds and smells were overwhelming, clinging to his skin and dampening his ability to perceive what was going on. He grabbed onto his uncle’s arm to lead him and was thankful when Uncle made no comments on his silent request for help. Iroh just accepted it and continued walking.

 

The flap of Zhao’s tent was smooth silk, cool to the touch despite the persistent sweating heat brought by all the docked ships. Uncle lifted the tent flap to let him in, but Zuko still ran his hand along it to try and capture a second of the refreshing texture.

 

Inside the tent it was cooler than outside. Of course Zhao would find and keep to himself some way to escape the pounding heat. Zuko would have been more shocked if Zhao had shared his secrets with the other men and women of the Fire Nation Navy.

 

“Zuko, it’s good to see you,” Zhao said. “Please sit.”

 

“It’s Prince Zuko.” He slowly sat down, finding a pillow and adjusting to face the sound of Zhao’s voice. He heard his uncle sit down behind him.

 

“Of course, Prince Zuko. Sometimes I forget whether or not the Fire Lord lets people keep their titles in banishment. You’ll have to excuse me.” 

 

“We both know my banishment is only temporary, Zhao.” Zuko tried to scowl, still not sure how effective it was. He would need to interrogate Asoko about it later.

 

“I do mean no disrespect. And please call me Commander Zhao if I call you Prince.” Zhao moved a bit, adjusting on his own pillow and turning towards a smooth surface that gently reflected the surrounding sounds. When Zhao’s voice faced Zuko again the sound of something porcelain being set on the table rang through the tent. “Would you like some tea?”

 

“No, I don’t want your tea.”

 

“I was only trying to be hospitable. I’ve heard you saw something interesting recently, and I want to discuss it with you,” Zhao said. The sound of tea hitting the edge of a cup rang in Zuko’s ears.

 

“I haven’t seen anything in three years.”

 

“Your condition. Right.” Zhao took a sip of the tea and smacked his wet lips. He must have done it on purpose, been so loud, because he knew it bothered Zuko. “Nevertheless, I heard you encountered something interesting. Or, rather, someone interesting.” The empty cup hit the table.

 

“Other than snow and ice there isn’t anything of interest down in the South Pole.” The crew had sworn themselves to secrecy about what they had seen. They knew how important this was to Zuko. Surely Zhao wouldn’t know.

 

“The rumor I’ve heard says something different. I heard you found the Avatar.”

 

“The Airbender? We all know he’s dead, if he existed at all,” Zuko said. Keep it casual, keep it composed. “He hasn’t been seen in a hundred years.”

 

“Strange, because I heard that the Avatar himself beat you in a fight.” Another cup of tea was finished. “Let me remind you that it would be treasonous to let a threat to the Fire Nation run free.”

 

“I’m not a traitor!” Zuko yelled. He steadied his fists before he smacked them on the table.

 

“Then you’ll help me find the Avatar. I can’t let him escape through the hands of a child. A child who can’t fight properly no less.”

 

“We both know that isn’t true, Zhao.”

 

“Commander Zhao,” the man sneered.

 

“Zhao, I’m just as good a bender as you are. If not better.”

 

“I’m sure your crew members will tell you that as much as you need them to. But they have to tell you that. Out here it’s different. No one will go easy on you. And I can guess that’s already what happened with the Avatar.” 

 

Zuko could imagine what Zhao’s face looked like. If his voice was anything to go by he had a haughty demeanor. He knew it wasn’t accurate, but he couldn’t help giving him Azula’s hair and the thin cheeks of his father. And, just for good measure, a massive birthmark across his chin. It may not be accurate, but Zuko could allow himself a little fun sometimes.

 

“Zhao. You know I need this. I’m willing to fight for it. The Avatar is mine to capture.” Zuko was seething. 

 

“If you’re really willing to fight,” Zhao said, taking a moment to drive his point home, “I challenge you to an Agni Kai.”

 

Uncle’s hand was on Zuko’s shoulder, a gentle warning. 

 

“Zuko, don’t give him what he wants,” his uncle whispered into his ear.

 

“Get off me, Uncle,” Zuko said, shaking the hand away from his shoulder. He turned to Zhao. “I accept. Meet me outside.” He stood up, anger boiling beneath his skin. Zhao had no right to impede on what was rightfully his.



Zuko dropped his shirt to the muddy ground. Not only did it impede his movements when he bent, but the more contact his skin had with the air the better he was able to sense the heat and energy around him and the more effective his not-fire was at detecting the world around him.

 

He faced Zhao and took a brief moment to analyze the man’s opening stance. Zhao was keeping his center of gravity low, his feet firmly planted into the ground. Energy raced through his hands and spine, fast and deep. The air began to crackle as Zhao launched his first attack.

 

Zuko dodged, taking the opportunity to land a hit of his own along Zhao’s side. He could tell by the lapse in energy it created that it had hurt, but Zhao wasn’t fazed for long. The next time he attacked he sent a rapid-fire barrage towards Zuko, scrapping along the edge of his scar and lightly singing his left leg.

 

Zhao was determined and strong but he was messy. Too much anger, something Uncle always said was a problem for Zuko.

 

Zhao was less concerned with how each move landed than with ensuring that he got as many out towards Zuko as possible.

 

They kept at it, the time creeping up towards six minutes when Zuko finally defeated Zhao. 

 

Zuko reached out for his shirt which his uncle handed him. He wiped off the mud he could feel beneath his fingers and slipped it back on. Hands steady he readjusted his ponytail to pull the stray hairs back into place.

 

“Zhao, the Avatar is mine. I will find him and I will restore my own honor.”

 

Zhao didn’t respond.

 

“And don’t call me weak. I may not be able to see, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when someone looks pathetic.” He turned his head up at the crowd who had gathered around him and Zhao. He could hear their whispers and quiet footsteps. “Don’t stop working because of us. There’s still a war to win.”

 

With that the bustle of the harbor began to return to normal and Zuko stuck his arm out for his uncle to guide him.

 

“That was good fighting, Zuko, but it won’t work in the long run. Zhao’s still going to go after the Avatar. Violence alone has never solved anything.”

 

“It doesn’t matter.” Iroh tapped his arm to lead him around a spilled basket of sheets. “Is the ship ready to sail?”

 

“Yes. We can leave as soon as the crew gets back on board,” his uncle told him.

 

“Good. I don’t care what Zhao thinks he can do. All we need is to find the Avatar before he does. And then we can finally go home.”

Chapter Text

The ship gently rocked on the waves. A calming rhythm. Back and forth, back and forth. Zuko breathed along with the sea, feeling the candles he’d set up gently grow and fall. Breath was control and control was power. He had to master himself before he could truly defeat the Avatar.

 

His uncle’s footsteps sounded at the door. In the years he had spent without his sight, Zuko had gotten good at recognizing people by the sound of their feet alone, the way they carried themselves and distributed their weight. 

 

“The only reason you should be interrupting me, Uncle, is if you have information on the Avatar,” Zuko said. He kept his hands on his knees, the candle flames gently contained, moving with the ocean and with his breath.

 

“There is information, but I don’t know how much you’ll like it. Don’t get too upset about it,” Uncle said, his voice light and soothing.

 

“If there’s one thing you’ve taught me, Uncle, it’s that keeping a level head is critical to being a good leader. Whatever information you have, I’m sure I’ll be able to handle it.” He breathed with the fire.

 

“Okay then.” Uncle stopped and Zuko could feel him shifting his weight from one foot to another. “We have no idea where the Avatar is.”

“What?” Zuko asked, losing control of the flames, which shot out of his control. Breath, Zuko, get yourself back under control. Still, his skin crawled with pinches of heat. No matter how often Zuko was angry, and it was very often, he still couldn’t stand the feeling. Little prickles of fire and electricity always crackled just below his skin and his ability to hear sounds dampened. When he was angry he felt even more in the dark, which never helped his mood. Losing control of himself and his senses was more terrifying than he liked to admit.

 

The flames stabilized and Zuko could hear something behind him. He realized it was Uncle fanning himself. 

 

“We can’t trace his path.” There was a crinkle as a map was unfurled. “He’s very elusive.”

 

Zuko sighed. He had assumed that once he knew the Avatar was out there he would be easy to find. It would be only hours, only days before he had restored his honor and was back at his father’s side. How wrong he had been. 

 

“Obviously, Uncle, the Avatar must be a master of evasive maneuvering. There’s no other explanation.”



Since his injury Zuko had gotten to be much less of a picky eater. Not that he was picky before. Food was food. But he had opinions back then and he liked to stay relatively close to his own lines.

 

But now, when Uncle gave him a bowl of food, he’d eat it. He could get an idea of what it was from smell and feel on the chopsticks, but if he didn’t ask the particularities would often be lost before he tried the food. And you can only eat a bite of sea prune marinated seal so many times before your body stops rejecting it outright.

 

That night it was smoked fish. They were in the waters off the Earth Kingdom so the food wasn’t particularly interesting. He still couldn’t figure out how the other nations managed to eat their food with so little spice. It was just bland.

 

And then he heard it. The Avatar was on Kyoshi Island. And Zuko’s ship was near Kyoshi Island. Finally. Fate was smiling down at him.

 

“Uncle, ready the rhinos.” 



He stood next to his steed, patted her side and adjusted her saddle. She grunted when he ran his fingers along the ridges of her skin.

 

“Are you sure you want to ride these again?” Asoko asked, walking up behind him and startling him more than he would like to admit.

 

“I thought we agreed not to mention the incident.” His voice was sullen. This wasn’t the mood he wanted on the day that would become his greatest victory.

 

“We agreed? I remember you lying on the ground, screaming at us to leave you alone,” she said. 

 

“How was I supposed to see the tree, Asoko?” He waved his hands in front of his face. “I’m blind. And I’d only been like this for a couple months. I had no idea what I was doing.”

 

“Ah the good old days. Back when I could still beat you in a fight.” She sighed.

 

Zuko felt heavy pairs of footsteps approaching them on the deck.

 

“Go away,” he said to her, “I don’t want people thinking I have friends.”

 

“Did you just admit we’re friends?”

 

“Go away!”



It was nice being back on dry land, Zuko thought as he rode on the back of his rhino. He could hear the loud thumps of the feet of the other animal’s behind them hitting the ground.

 

“Come out, Avatar!” He called. “I know you’re here!”

 

Suddenly Zuko felt quiet footsteps dashing along the roof of a nearby building. Before he could react he heard a thud as one of his crewmembers fell off their rhino. 

 

Everything was fine. He could hold a couple girls off.

 

He was knocked off his rhino, but it was okay because he could still find the Avatar.

 

He was fighting the Avatar, but it was okay because he knew he can win.

 

He couldn’t win.



“Asoko!” Zuko yelled before storming back to his cabin.

 

He’d lost to the Avatar. Again. 

 

Azula had been right when she mocked him for being weak. He couldn’t do the only thing his father asked of him. He hadn’t even been able to burn that village for disrespecting him and hiding the Avatar because as soon as the crew had boarded the ship the Avatar had climbed onto something that, according to Asoko, looked like a massive dragon sea thing and put out the flames. Uncle said it was an Unagi that had stopped the fire. The name didn’t help the fact, though, that where there should have been smoke there was now only steam.

 

“Yes Prince Zuko?” Asoko asked, her light footsteps in his doorway.

 

“What have I done to deserve this? Why can’t I capture the Avatar?” He sat down on the edge of the bed and then flung himself backwards.

 

“I feel like that’s the kind of question you should be asking General Iroh,” she said, sitting on the bed next to him. 

 

“But he’ll give me some sort of philosophical answer about the meaning of life.”

 

“What?” She put on her worst impersonation of his uncle. “You can never reach your destination in life without the journey.” Zuko tried not to smile. “By the way, I have my finger up like he always does.”

 

“I completely forgot he did that,” Zuko said. It had only been three years. How had he already begun to forget how people looked?

 

“He does, even about the most mundane things. Once he gave me advice about how to get stains out of my uniform with that exact voice, his eyes half closed and his finger up.”

 

Zuko laughed, though he pretended not to.

 

“That sounds about right. He used to do that to me and my sister when I was a little kid.”

 

The silence was more comfortable than Zuko was used to.

 

“I can’t believe we got beaten by those girls today. Honestly, though, the fact they kept their makeup intact the whole time was the most impressive thing to me,” Asoko said.

 

“Wait, they had makeup?”

 

“Yeah? They’re the Kyoshi warriors. They dress like Avatar Kyoshi.”

 

“I don’t remember what she looked like, Kyoshi. It’s been awhile since I saw her.”

 

“I’ll have to show you. Sit up.” Asoko shifted on the bed and Zuko used the sensation to turn towards her. “Here. Imagine that your whole face is painted white.” She moved and then stopped. “Is it okay if I touch your face?”

 

Zuko thought for a moment and then nodded his consent.

 

“Okay, so you’ve got the white face paint, and then you have red paint all along here.” She ran her fingers from the edges of Zuko’s nose past the burned skin around his eyes and to the edges of his hairline. “Plus you have this awesome green outfit with black leather armor and a frankly terrifying fan. And now you’re a Kyoshi warrior.”

 

“It seems like you like you’re impressed by them,” he said.

 

“They’re still Earth Kingdom. Although they do have some pretty badass makeup skills. I know mine just can’t live up to theirs.”

 

“Want to compare?” Zuko asked and he heard Asoko giggle next to him.

 

“If only the rest of the crew knew you weren’t a complete hardass.”

 

“But they’ll never know.” He turned to where he thought Asoko was. “I need you to promise me you won’t say anything. The crew needs to respect me. They need to fear me.”

 

“But people respect General Iroh, don’t they?” She asked. “And he’s not feared.”

 

“That’s different. Uncle’s well, he’s,” Zuko raised his hands and gestured to something that didn’t exist. “And I’m, I’m just not like him. Not as good as him.” Zuko turned away from Asoko. “Can you leave me alone? I’ll see you at dinner.”

 

“Of course.” The bed softened when she got up and Zuko heard her footsteps approaching the door. “But I’m just warning you that, if you’re late, I’m going to tell your uncle to give me your duck.”

 

“You wouldn’t dare,” he said.

 

“We’ll see!” 

 

She closed the door and Zuko was alone.

 

Chapter Text

Of course Uncle would do this. Just go into the woods and not tell Zuko that he was leaving. As if Zuko wouldn’t worry that he’d gotten lost or killed or captured. Not that Zuko was worried or anything. They just really needed to go if they were ever going to find the Avatar.

 

“Uncle? Where are you?” Zuko yelled. He could hear his voice echoing through the trees. It was slow going through the woods. He was sending out his not-fire pulses, but they were much more effective at finding large objects and moving targets. He grunted and steadied himself as he tripped over another root. Those were much harder to detect. “Uncle?”

 

“Over here, Prince Zuko!”

 

“That’s not helpful!”

 

“Follow my voice. I’m right ahead of you,” Uncle said. Zuko could tell they were in some kind of clearing, though Uncle was surrounded by hot water and air.

 

“Uncle, we need to get going. I know we’re close to the Avatar and I can’t lose him again just because you want to waste time.”

 

“I’m not wasting time. Come here,” he said, waving some of the hot air towards Zuko, “join me in the hot springs.” So that’s where his uncle was. “It’s never a waste of time to relax.”

 

“I don’t have time to relax. Every second we spend here the Avatar gets further away.” He slowly paced back and forth where he was fairly certain there were no roots. They didn’t have time for this. They needed to go. 

 

“We’ll find him. Don’t worry, take your uncle’s advice. The water’s perfect. I heated it myself.” Uncle let out a puff of heat.

 

“Enough!” Zuko yelled. “We don’t have time for this! Get out of the water and get presentable.”

 

Zuko could hear water splashing over rocks as his uncle stood up. There was a spike of energy as his uncle bent the water off of him. 

 

“Uncle, put some clothes on.”

 

“What makes you think I’m not dressed?”

 

“You just got out of the water. Now please, I don’t want to imagine what you look like,” Zuko said and shuddered. He couldn’t believe he had to put up with this. They should have set sail an hour ago.

 

“I apologize, Prince Zuko.”

 

Zuko could hear fabric rustling as his Uncle got dressed with the speed of a sloth bear. His uncle’s back creaked as he stretched, but Zuko could heard something else. As his uncle walked towards him there was a rustling in the bushes.

 

“Who’s there?” Zuko called. Small footprints scampered across the ground.

 

“A meadow vole,” his uncle said. “I should have known.”

 

But Zuko could have sworn he sensed something else. Something bigger. Suddenly the ground began to tremble and rocks encircled Zuko’s hands and feet. He couldn’t move. 

 

Earthbenders.

 

He couldn’t tell how many there were, but he could hear them walking towards him and his uncle.

 

One of them spoke. “Look, they’re Fire Nation soldiers.”

 

“Not just any soldiers. That one’s the Fire Lord’s brother, the Dragon of the West. Look at his clothes,” another said. He had a slightly deeper voice. “And now he’s our prisoner. They both are.”

 

Zuko tried to struggle but the more he moved the tighter the rocks became around his wrists. There was nothing he could do as shackles were bound around his arms and legs and he was hurled over the back of an animal he didn’t recognize. At least he could still hear Uncle’s steady breath close to him.



It was disorienting being on the back of an animal he couldn’t control. He had no sense of the landscape as they rode. It was a bumpy method of travel and sometimes rocks would occasionally be kicked up by the creatures as they walked. One smacked Zuko in the face. 

 

There was a bit of wind that whipped his hair and Zuko could sense a torch being carried by a soldier up ahead, but other than that he felt stiflingly blind. 

 

“Where are you taking us?” Uncle asked.

 

“We’re taking you to face justice,” the deeper voiced soldier said.

 

“And Tuzai?” For a moment Zuko wanted to bark that he wasn’t named that, but then he decided against he. Zuko would never say it out loud, but the best course of action was often simply to follow his uncle.

 

“He’s a soldier. He’ll face justice to. All of you Fire Nation people can rot for each other’s crimes for all I care. You’re all the same.” The man spit and Zuko could hear it hitting the dirt path.

 

“Right. But where, exactly, are you taking us to face justice?” Uncle’s voice was steady, his breathing even.

 

“A city you know well. You once lay siege to it for six hundred days.”

 

“Ah. The great Ba Sing Se.” If Zuko didn’t know better he would have said there was wonder in his uncle’s voice.

 

“A city greater than you ever were.” The soldier’s voice was filled with malice as he hurled out the last word.

 

“I acknowledge my defeat. I was tired. My men were tired. We all wanted to go home.”

 

“The brave defenders of the city didn’t have that same luxury, General.”

 

With that the group lulled to a steady silence and Zuko was left trying to follow the flame up ahead. It was his best sense of what was going on. Maybe if he concentrated he could try to sense where the heat bounced off the wall. 

 

He trained his senses towards the flame and, slowly, an idea began to form about the landscape around them. To his left the heat bounced off a wall or cliffside while on his right there was nothing but air. If he got the chance, his best hope of escape would be to leave off the right side. He didn’t trust himself to be able to find handholds on the cliff face fast enough to escape.

 

After a while he heard the soldiers speaking to each other. It was the higher voiced one and a third soldier, one with a medium tone of voice.

 

“Can you believe they let this guy be a soldier?” The higher voiced one said from the creature both he and Zuko were riding.

 

“I know. His face looks awful. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I was on the front lines.”

 

“I can’t believe he can even see, much less fight,” the medium voiced soldier said.

 

“I guess the Fire Nation’s more desperate than we thought. That’s got to be good for us.”

 

“I’m right here,” Zuko said with a huff. “Take my cuffs off and see how good of a soldier I really am.”

 

“Tuzai,” his uncle said, his voice a warning. The higher voiced soldier snorted and Zuko seethed. They had no right to talk about him like that. If he’d known they were in the clearing he could have fought all three of them. He was just caught off guard, that was all.

 

They continued riding for a few more minutes, the three soldiers talking and joking with each other, only sometimes at Zuko’s expense. He bit his cheek. All he was doing was biding his time, he promised himself, biding his time until he found the perfect moment to free himself and his uncle.

 

Suddenly he felt something above him. It was large and powerful, cutting through the air like a sewing needle. Zuko had never felt anything like it before it in his life. His uncle gasped and then the feeling was gone.

 

“What’s the problem, General?” The deep voiced soldier spoke.

 

“Nothing.” His uncle paused. “Well, actually, my handcuffs are too loose. My old joints can’t take it, all the shuffling and sliding and shaking.” 

 

“Too loose?” The soldier asked, confusion in his voice. 

 

“Yes, that’s right. The cuffs keep jangling on my wrists. It’s very uncomfortable. I would really appreciate it if you could tighten them,” Uncle said. Zuko assumed he was holding out his arms as his shackles jangled.

 

“Very well. Corporal, tighten the general’s handcuffs.” Zuko could hear footsteps as the medium voiced soldier jumped off their mount. “And, while you’re at it, do the same for the other prisoner.”

 

Something was off. His uncle wouldn’t just ask for something like that. And then, slowly, he began to pick up something. A twinge of energy in the air. 

 

Of course.

 

As the high voiced soldier pulled him off the creature Zuko took a deep breath in. When he felt the soldier’s hand an inch from his, he summoned what he could bend while in chains and heated his hands at the exact moment the other man touched the metal. 

 

The soldier screamed and Zuko could hear the one who had been sent to tighten Uncle’s handcuffs do the same. Zuko hurled himself down towards the right, into the cool night air. 

 

He slammed into rocks but came to a screeching halt at the bottom of the cliff. A moment later his uncle joined him. Rocks tumbled from the cliff face above him and he heard the feet of the soldiers pounding against the rock as they raced towards him and his uncle.

 

“They’re too dangerous, Captain,” one of the soldiers said. “We have to do something.”

 

“We will. They must be dealt with immediately,” the deep voiced soldier said, “and they must be dealt with severely.”

 

If it was a fight they wanted Zuko was more than ready to deliver. He’d been itching to do this from the moment he’d first met the soldiers by the hot springs. 

 

“The general’s dangerous hands must be crushed,” one of the soldier’s said. The ground trembled for a moment, that half moment between bending intent and bending action, and Zuko used the opportunity to push his uncle away. With his not-fire he could feel a large rock next to him and he wrapped his arms around it, using it to break his chains. The rock the earth bender had sent at them came crashing down through empty space. 

 

“Excellent job, Prince Zuko.”

 

“You taught me well,” he replied as he used his boot to break his uncle’s chains.

 

“Surrender now. It’s five against two,” the deep-voiced captain of the soldiers said. “You’re outnumbered.”

 

“True,” Uncle said, energy swirling through him and jumping up and down his skin. “But you’re outmatched.”

 

The ground shook as the soldiers began to bend. He could hear rocks whizzing past his face. His uncle’s chains rattled as they slammed into one of the rock. Zuko took the momentary distraction of his uncle as an opportunity to hurl fire towards the footsteps of two of the soldiers. 

 

His uncle grunted and Zuko heard several of the soldiers fall to the ground. The ground shook and the energy around them changed. Zuko could sense a large part of the ground floating up before there was a crash and the soldier fell to the ground, followed immediately after by the crash of the earth.

 

The soldiers below it cried and groaned but Zuko turned away. He and his uncle began the walk back to the ship. Suddenly and without grace he tripped over a root. 

 

Sighing, Zuko held out his arm. “Uncle, would you mind guiding me back to the ship?”

 

“Of course not, Prince Zuko. It would be my pleasure.”

Chapter Text

Zuko heard the other ship crashing through the water and felt the presence of the firebenders onboard. He silently cursed. Only one commander would come to bother him with such awful timing, right as he was hearing that he’d lost the Avatar. Again. 

 

Zhao was back.

 

He tried to scowl and affect a cruel air while he waited the whatever humiliation Zhao had planned. Eventually a soldier from the other ship boarded Zuko’s boat, his steps heavy and even. He had the air of someone who thought they mattered more than they did. Zhao hadn’t even granted Zuko the honor of showing up himself.

 

The soldier’s voice approached Zuko as he told him that the hunt for the Avatar was a top priority. If Zuko knew anything, and the soldier’s voice implied that he did, it would be treasonous to not report it to Admiral Zhao.

 

Admiral Zhao. The bastard had gotten a promotion.

 

“I’ve got nothing to report to the Admiral,” Zuko told the soldier. He tried to look the smug soldier in the eye, but was impeded by the fact he couldn’t see where the soldier’s eyes actually were. “Now get off my ship and let us pass.”

 

“Admiral Zhao is not letting ships in or out at the moment,” the soldier said. His tone was flippant and disrespectful, as if he were telling a toddler something they should have already known. Don’t antagonize your sister, don’t steal fruit tarts from the kitchen, don’t sail your little ship where it doesn’t belong. 

 

Zuko couldn’t stand it.

 

“Off my ship!” Zuko yelled. “Uncle, point this man away.”

 

“Of course. One moment.” His uncle moved in his seat. Zuko could hear his uncle’s breath and the breath of the other crew members his uncle had been beating at Pai Sho. Unfortunately Zuko couldn’t join in the game as the pieces lacked distinction other than paint, but he secretly enjoyed listening to the games anyway. Usually. Not now.

 

“Excellent! I take the pot!” His uncle said, metal clinking against metal. “But you’re all improving. I’m sure you will win if we play again. But first I must show this kind man back to his ship.” Zuko could hear his uncle stand up before he and the soldier walked away, their footsteps fading together.



Of course Zhao captured the Avatar first. Justice was a falsehood and Zuko it’s willful believer. His honor, his throne, his family. All ripped away from him because Zhao had to feel important.

 

Apparently Zhao had the Avatar at a base near where Zuko’s ship had docked for the night. The base was strong. Well guarded, well armed, well supplied. There would be no escape from a place like that. No one would be able to save the Avatar, not those water tribe kids he hung out with, no one. Well, almost no one.

 

Zuko ran his thumb along the mask. He remembered what it looked like: blue and white, chipped paint, imperfect carved wood. It had been his mother’s. She’d always loved theater. After each play they went to see together she’d spend hours talking about it with Zuko, going over the sets and the costumes and the chemistry of the actors. More often than not her opinions were just her enthusing about the art of theater itself, but he also knew how much joy she got from trashing the Ember Island Players.

 

The mask in his hands was an antique from a Fire Nation classic. He wished he remembered what it was, the play, because his mother had loved it so much, but the name was completely lost to him.

 

He tightened the mask around his head, adjusted it so it covered his face completely. His clothes are tight and comfortable. Indistinct and allowing for ample movement. As he’d been picking them out that night he was glad he had convinced Uncle to help him sew different buttons onto his outfits so he knew which ones were which. For his mission that night he didn’t want anyone to know he was Fire Nation, and it would have been awkward to show up in bright yellows and reds.

 

The boat was loud as he left. Everyone else was singing and slamming their feet against the ground for Uncle’s music night. At least everyone was distracted, and the sound masked his footsteps. Zuko crept along the deck before gently climbing over the side of the ship and slipping into the night. He’d practiced the route with Asoko and Tuzai earlier, pretending it was a game to see if they could spot him. Good training for all of them and nothing more

 

As Zuko slunk through the night he could feel the weight of the blades on his back as he moved, a reassuring presence. Firebending was all well and good, but Zuko had always been most proud of his ability with weapons. That wasn’t some magical ability, it was work he’d put in himself.

 

Zuko flinched as he stepped on a particularly loud stick. It crashed beneath his foot and he stopped midair, waiting to hear anyone approaching. No one came so he sighed and kept moving.

 

A gentle breeze picked up as he approached the base. He could hear the quiet footsteps of guards in the distance. 

 

The base was buzzing with energy. He was dozens of feet away and it was still apparent. Firebenders practiced in the night air and prepared food in the kitchens. People moved and breathed and buzzed. It wasn’t going to be easy to break in, but Zuko liked a challenge when he was confident in his success.

 

From the path behind him Zuko heard a cart rattle. This could work. Without disturbing the cool night air he grasped onto the underside of the cart. The wood bit into his hands as rocks kicked up from the path hit his back.

 

Eventually the clattering stopped and Zuko could hear a guard’s footsteps moving beside the cart. His footsteps circled Zuko. Slowly the guard’s breath got louder and Zuko realized he was going to look under the cart. He waited for the right moment and moved, hiding where the guard couldn’t see him in the cart. It worked and Zuko was inside. No going back now.

 

Moving through the building was easy. Too easy. He’d felt so many people, and yet the hallways seemed deserted.

 

Two voices filled the space, and Zuko realized why he didn’t hear anyone.

 

“Yeah, I can’t believe the admiral’s giving another speech in the courtyard. It’s cool that he found the Avatar and all, but we also have work to do,” the first voice, a woman, said.

 

“I know! It’s counterproductive to just have us all stand around doing nothing while he inflates his ego.” The man’s voice was deeper, his steps more uneven than the woman’s. Zuko pressed himself to the ceiling and listened to them.

 

“For once I’m glad we’re on guard duty.” The two soldiers laughed.

 

“I just wish we were with Li guarding the Avatar. Do you think he’s actually going to get to see him?” The man asked.

 

“I don’t know. If we hadn’t just passed the turnoff I’d stop back and ask him for a glance. But it’s fine, we can just do it on our next rotation. The Avatar’s going to be here for a while,” the woman said. So the Avatar was close. All he had to do was travel in the opposite direction of the voices and he was sure he’d be able to sense the Avatar’s energy.

 

The man spoke again. “It’s still so cool that we get to be this close to the Avatar.”

 

“Something to tell the kids about, right?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

As soon as they walked away Zuko jumped off the ceiling, landing gently on his knees to protect his ankles and dampen the sound of his descent.

 

It didn’t take long to find the Avatar. His guards weren’t quiet or subtle.

 

Taking out the guards was easier than it should have been. Once he was Fire Lord, Zuko was going to have to improve security. 

 

He swung the door to the Avatar’s cell open and heard what sounded like a ribbit, though that couldn’t be right. His palms were sweaty where he held his blades and the Avatar screamed when he saw him.

 

Zuko tried to roll his eyes, though the effect would have likely been lost even without the mask, considering his right eye had the habit of doing what it wanted to and a half-roll from one eye just wouldn’t cut it.

 

Still, despite that, he swung the blades and cut through the chains he heard clanking next to the Avatar.

 

“Who are you? What’s going on? Are you here to save me?” The Avatar asked, questions pouring out of him like water from a tap.

 

Zuko nodded and pointed to where he thought the door was. He began to walk, the Avatar’s light footsteps behind him. There was another ribbit.

 

“My frogs! Come back! And stop thawing out,” the Avatar said, much too loud given the circumstances. Zuko didn’t even want to know what he was talking about. He gestured to the door. “I’m sorry, I need to get these. My friends need them.” As if that explained anything.

 

Eventually he convinced him to leave and they trudged through the sewers. Zuko could hear soldiers walking above them as water and sewage seeped through his clothes.

 

Blessfully they made their way back into the dry world. Zuko tripped on a rope and nearly threw it away in anger before realizing he could use it to scale the menacing wall he’d sensed up ahead. 

 

He couldn’t feel the ground anymore when he heard a soldier call out that they were on the wall. There was a crack and then Zuko was falling, air whipping his face. Zuko couldn’t feel anything besides the wind and the steady sting of his hair until soft air dropped him onto the dirt. 

 

Zuni fought his way out of the base beside the Avatar, making mental notes of the boy’s fighting style in between fending off blows and being glad the Avatar was a pacifist for Zuko’s sake as a mortal.

 

He heard Zhao’s voice when they were surrounded, so close to escape. “Hold your fire! The Avatar must be captured alive.”

 

Without thinking Zuko took his blades and held them up to the Avatar’s neck. He tried not to let his hands shake.

 

Zhao opened the door. Maybe he wasn’t quite as dumb as Zuko took him to be. Or maybe that was giving the man too much credit. 

 

He was so close to getting away when a dull pain, as much as he could feel through his scar tissue, struck him in the face. His back slammed to the ground and slowly the sound of the world dimmed to nothing.



When he woke up the Avatar was talking to him. The words didn’t register and Zuko’s weak attempts to stop the boy escaping were for naught. 

 

At least Zhao, that smug asshole, didn’t have the Avatar. There was still time for Zuko to restore his honor.

Chapter Text

Zuko was in his room when he heard two pairs of footsteps approaching. He recognized them both. The audacity of Zhao. Not only did he show up on Zuko’s boat unannounced, but he clearly defered to Uncle before Zuko as leader of the ship. Zuko was Crown Prince. He would appreciate it Zhao treated him as such.

 

The door creaked open and his uncle entered. Alone.

 

“Uncle? What do you want?” Feet shuffled as Zuko waited for an answer.

 

“It’s about our plans. There’s a bit of a problem.” Zhao’s footsteps echoed off the walls as he followed Uncle. Zuko thought the effect might have worked better if he could actually see what was going on.

 

“I’m taking your crew,” Zhao said. 

 

No. He wouldn’t do that to Zuko. His crew wouldn’t do that to Zuko. Not Asoko, not Tuzai.

 

“What?” Zuko yelled, straightening his back and trying to calm his racing heart. “You can’t do that!”

 

“But I already did. They’re joining me for a little expedition up north.” Zuko could have sworn he heard Zhao gloating through that awful diplomatic voice he liked to adopt.

 

“Uncle,” Zuko pleaded, “it’s not true. Right? It can’t be true.”

 

“I’m afraid it is.” There was silence and Zuko imagined his uncle was shaking his head or clutching his chest. “He’s even recruited the cook.”

 

Of course Uncle would be most concerned about the food. Zuko did his best to roll his eyes.

 

Zhao spoke again, that awful condescending smirk of a voice flowing like tar. “It’s very sad that you can’t see my victory over the Avatar. But you of all people should understand why there can’t be any distractions. Not with something this important.”

 

Zuko fumbled for words. He tried to steady himself, to breath and to process the information. “My crew wouldn’t leave me like that. I know they wouldn’t. They’re loyal.”

 

“That’s strange. Because the thing is, they’ve already agreed to join me.” Zhao made a little tutting noise and Zuko could hear his footsteps echoing off the metal ground of the room. “Now this is interesting.”

 

“What’s interesting?” Zuko asked.

 

“These blades. I didn’t know you were trained to use dual ones, Prince,” he said, sneering out the last word.

 

“I’m not.” Zuko tried to affect an air of confusion. “Are there dual blades in here? I’m not sure what’s on the walls to be honest, it was already furnished when I arrived.”

 

“Really? You can’t see what’s up here?” Zhao asked, and for once he actually sounded confused.

 

“I’m assuming you're pointing to the wall. And no, I can’t see it. Why would I lie about that?” Act innocent, he told himself. It was his very last line of defense

 

“Have you heard of the Blue Spirit?” Zhao asked.

 

“No. What is it?”

 

“A better question would be who it is.” Zuko could hear Zhao’s dry fingers rubbing together. “They’re a vigilante who’s been causing problems for me and my men.”

 

“I guess they haven’t done anything important enough for word to travel.” Zhao made some sort of noise of protest or confirmation. Zuko wasn’t sure which it was.

 

“I would think someone of your standing would be better up to date on matters of our nation. No matter,” Zhao said. “I really should be going.” He paused. “If you want to say goodbye to your crew, I would recommend going now. They’ll be leaving with me when they pack their uniforms.”

 

As soon as Zhao’s footsteps faded away Zuko began to sprint down the familiar passageways. He could feel every breeze and every burst of heat from the boilers, could sense the quiet murmurs and hums of the crew.

 

Before he knew it he was in Asoko’s room. He could hear her breath hitch when she realized he was there.

 

“Zuko?”

 

“It’s me.” He slowly sat down on her bed. A bag slid towards him where he rested and bumped against his leg. 

 

“Zuko, I’m sorry, you know I have to go. It’s for the good of the nation.” He felt her sit down next to him. 

 

“But what about me? What about what’s good for me?”

 

“The Fire Nation always has to come first. Always.” She sighed and placed her hand on his. Her fingers were callused, he realized, and so were his. They hadn’t been when he first set out to find the Avatar.

 

“But I thought I was your friend. I thought you cared about me,” he whispered.

 

“I do. I do care about you Prince Zuko. But my loyalty will always be with my country and with my people.”

 

“And with my father? The Fire Lord?” He tried to sound calm, but he knew his voice came out as scarred and awful as his face. Asoko didn’t say anything. “It’s okay, you don’t have to reply”

 

“It would be treasonous to be loyal to anyone other than your father. And I’m not a traitor.” The bed sprang back into place. “I hope you’re not a traitor either.”

 

The bag was lifted off the bed and Zuko could hear her gentle footsteps walking towards the door before she paused. He realized he was running his fingers over the cracked skin of his cheek.

 

“Zuko, I know you worry about how expressive your face is.” He went to say something but she stopped him. “I know you too well, don’t try to make an excuse to me.” Her voice cracked an almost imperceivable amount as she spoke. “I just wanted to say that you wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s something I admire about you.”

 

“Then how am I feeling right now?”

 

“You’re upset.” She moved from one foot to the other and Zuko heard her bag sliding against the fabric on her back. “But I want you to know it’s okay. This is for the good of our country.”

 

“Wait,” Zuko said, “before you go there’s something I want to give you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the dagger his uncle had given him on the return from Ba Sing Se.

 

“Zuko,” Asoko said as he walked towards her, “I can’t take this. Please. Keep it.”

 

“No, take it. I want you to have it.” He felt her fingers brush against his palm as she picked up the dagger.

 

“In that case thank you. I’ll keep it with me, I promise.” They both heard the other crew members walking down the hallway. “I need to go, Zuko. I promise we’ll meet again.” With that her footsteps joined the others in the cold metal hallway.

 

“For the good of the country,” Zuko called as she left.

 

“For the good of the country,” she called back, her voice fading away into nothing.



Later Zuko and his uncle floated on a raft in the dark, deep ocean. The cold chilled him to his bones. The Northern Water Tribe hadn’t fallen, the Avatar had escaped, and the scent of blood was thick in the air. 

 

Sometimes their raft would bump into something large and Zuko was glad he was blind. Otherwise he might not be able to pretend that everything was driftwood.

 

As the hours turned to days the scent of blood melted away and was replaced with the smell of putrid decay. It was icy and delayed, but it was there nonetheless.

 

It must have been the third or fourth day when Uncle brought him the dagger. 

 

The metal was ice cold from floating in the frigid water and Zuko’s fingers trembled as he held it in his hands. It was so familiar and yet, at the same time, so distant. 

 

“Where did you find this, Uncle?” Zuko asked, his voice trembling.

 

“It was floating, caught on some driftwood. I assumed it fell off the raft.” There was a gentle splash as Uncle paddled through the water. “You should really be more careful with your things. We need to conserve every resource we have if we want to survive.”

 

“Of course. I’ll be more careful next time, Uncle,” he said, hiding the knife in the folds of his coat. 

 

Asoko wouldn’t have lost that dagger. She was too sentimental, too careful with the few things she kept.

 

The thought played over and over in his head, a mantra more chilling than the air.

 

Asoko wouldn’t have lost the dagger.

Chapter Text

Zuko was well acquainted with the specter of loss. She was his childhood friend, his constant playmate, his confidante. She guided him around life’s corners and taught him to eat and breath and sleep. Every morning when he awoke Loss was waiting for him and every night she tucked him into bed.

 

No one knew him better than Loss did, and that was a fact he’d accepted long ago. A part of life. Just as the sky was blue and the ocean deep, Zuko and Loss walked arm in arm.

 

He’d lost his cousin Lu Ten and she had wiped his eyes and promised the worst was yet to come. Now was not the time to waste the last of his tears.

 

Then, when he needed his mother most, she had disappeared into the night. Never to be heard from again, more than likely dead. That night Loss whispered that she would be back soon. He need not fear her departure.

 

At age thirteen he lost his honor and his youth, his father and his face, his vision and his future. Burned off on that day he wished every night he could undo. 

 

He lost his crew to Zhao and to the North Pole. Asoko, Tuzai, the men and women who’d traveled with him across the ocean. At night, when Uncle dragged them all out, they used to do music nights together. And now all of them were gone, under the shadow where Zhao used to be or somewhere deep in the bottom of the ocean. He wouldn’t ever need to use his knowledge of their breath and their footsteps again.

 

Zuko had lost a lot in his life. He wasn’t about to lose his sister too.

 

He knew Azula, he swore he did. His sister could be cruel and she could be calculating but she was still his sister. She was still, deep inside, a child. When they were little younger he used to threaten anyone who talked down to her. Ready to defend her honor at a moment’s notice. Most of the time it had been Ty Lee doing it, and it had never ended well for Zuko. But it was the thought that counted. Somewhere in between peals of laughter he thought she might find it endearing.

 

And then their father promised his sister the moon and back because she was the better sibling. She’d stopped going easy on him, had begun leaving little scars up and down his arms and legs from training. Before she’d sent him flying, but always in a way that wouldn’t leave a mark the next day. At the urging of their father the aches followed him every day in the palace.

 

He still remembered what those scars looked like. Pale, white, smooth, with a half second of folded skin at the edges. Sometimes he’d run his fingers over them at night when he missed Azula. All he needed was something, anything, to tether him home. 

 

So of course, when his sister arrived, he trusted her. He had to. She was his sister.

 

That had only made the pain worse when she’d betrayed him for their father. Taken him prisoner. He’d already lost too many people. He didn’t need this. He had even been ready to accept her words without question if it meant being in his father’s arms again. Desperate he’d been stupid.

 

The dirt at the edge of the river bit into his knees. He’s already ran his shaking hands through the water but it wasn’t enough. He needed something to calm his chattering nerves, something to focus on. Mediate, breath, relax, think. Repeat as necessary.

 

He took a breath. It didn’t help.

 

“Prince Zuko, are you okay?” Uncle said from behind him. A hand rested on his shoulder. 

 

“Yes, I’m fine. And I’m not much of a prince anymore, Uncle. Azula made that clear. Just call me Zuko from now on.”

 

“Only you can decide who you are. Don’t let her determine your fate.” A cold metal blade pressed to the back of his head. “Hold still. I don’t want to cut you.” 

 

Zuko left one hand in the water and brought the other to his knee to keep himself from moving as Uncle began to cut through his hair. He could hear the strands breaking one by one, a cacophony in his ears that he couldn’t escape. “Your philosophy doesn’t work for titles, Uncle. That would defeat their purpose.”

 

He could hear the final strand of hair break. His head felt much lighter. That traitorous shaky hand held itself up only half at Zuko’s behest.

 

“May I?” He asked.

 

“Of course. It’s gone,” Uncle said. There was a quiet splash as Uncle cleaned the knife. He always kept obsessive care of his blades, something he’d passed on to his nephew. How many times had Asoko made fun of him for sharpening his swords twice as much as he used them?

 

No, he wasn’t going to think about her. He wasn’t going to think of any of them. He needed to move on. 

 

“Thank you Uncle.”

 

“Are you sure you’re okay? I know your hair meant a lot to you.”

 

“It’s fine.” He stood up and wiped the dirt from his knees. Numbness still lay in his hand from the ice of the mountain water but he nursed the throbbing pain. Finally he had something to focus on.

 

The were at the border of the Fire Nation and the Earth so they set off into the forest of the latter. It was the safest and sanest move.

 

Zuko ran his hand along the smooth back of his head. He had spent years growing out his hair, his last connection to home. And it was all gone in a matter of moments.

 

At least he still had his uncle, for whatever that was worth.

Chapter Text

Zuko might snap if his uncle gave him one more piece of advice. He could only use so many drops of wisdom before they became unbearable, and that point had long been crossed. If he had to estimate Zuko would say the point had been a good twenty miles back. And now violence, or at least a lot of screaming, was in the air.

 

“Oh, back in my day,” Uncle said, slapping a hand around his nephew’s shoulders, “when I was still young, still your age-”

 

“Please, whatever you’re going to say, it’s not necessary.”

 

“I’m just trying to give you some life lessons. You know I’m old,” he said with a laugh, “and age breeds wisdom.”

 

“Sounds like something an old man would say.”

 

They walked along in silence for a few more minutes, though Uncle would sometimes break in to point out interesting flora and fauna, none of which was much use to Zuko. He was sure the flowers were pretty if you had the ability to see.

 

“Are you still upset about what happened at the last house we stopped at?” Uncle asked.

 

“No.” Zuko tried to roll his eyes and scowl. He was still angry, but Uncle didn’t need to know that.

 

“I thought it was sweet that you said I was your father.”

 

“It was an accident!” He threw his hands up in the air. “I wasn’t thinking!”

 

“I’ll still take it as a compliment.”

 

Without warning the ground began to shake. Zuko was sent sprawling to the ground by some kind of rock or dirt and the wind was knocked out of his lungs.

 

He heard his Uncle mutter something about his tailbone before he felt footsteps. They were strong but Zuko could tell that whoever he was hearing wasn’t big. A child most likely. 

 

Energy radiated off them in waves. Strong, powerful, probably an Earthbender. That would explain whatever had knocked him down.

 

“Who are you?” The voice sounded young and female, no more than twelve or thirteen.

 

“I’m Mushi and this is my son Li,” Uncle said, the lies easy on his tongue.

 

“Adopted son,” Zuko mumbled. He wasn’t about to let his uncle off the hook that easily. Although, to be fair, these kinds of things were often beyond his control.

 

“Ah semantics.” The rocks around them heaved and shook. “You wouldn’t mind helping me out, would you?”

 

“I can’t, Uncle, I’m stuck too.”

 

“I was talking to,” Uncle paused. “Actually, I never asked your name. What is it?”

 

“My name’s Toph,” the girl said before the ground encircled Zuko and placed him back on his feet. He made a mental note not to fight Toph if at all possible.

 

“You seem like a fascinating young lady Toph. Would you care to join me and my son for tea?” Of course Uncle would invite a random stranger to share a pot of tea with them. Not like they had places to be or things to do.

 

Uncle and the girl set about making the tea while Zuko waited ten feet away. He wasn’t sulking, that was for sure.

 

Eventually he heard his uncle calling his name, his fake name at least. A warm metal cup was placed in his hand. He sipped the tea, letting it wash over his tongue and soothe his throat, dry and hoarse from the day of traveling.

 

“You seem a bit young to be traveling on your own,” Uncle said, almost a question to the girl.

 

“Well you two seem a bit.” She waited a moment before making a noncommittal grunt. Uncle laughed. Why wouldn’t he? Could he tell what she was saying? Was there some visual conversation he was missing?

 

“Don’t insult my Uncle. He can take care of himself.” Zuko tried to sound casual, but he knew the scar and general lack of volume control didn’t help that aspect of his presentation. But if his uncle wasn’t going to defend his own honor then Zuko would have to do it for him.

 

“And you can’t?” The girl’s voice lifted in the way people’s voices lift when they’re making fun of you.

 

“I’m fine too!” Zuko swallowed the rest of his tea in one gulp, burning the back of his throat. He knew it would bother him for hours if not days to come.

 

“Hey, it’s fine. Relax.” There was a rumbling as the earth moved. He wondered what the girl was doing. “No one ever takes me seriously, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take care of myself.”

 

“I’m sure you can take care of yourself if what you did with those rocks earlier was any indication,” Uncle said, his voice pacifying. Zuko heard tea sloshed in the pot as it was passed between the other members of the party.

 

“That’s fine. But you didn’t even let me pour my own tea.” Zuko heard tea hit the bottom of the girl’s cup as Uncle poured her another cup.

 

“I was only trying to set a good example for my son. But more importantly I wanted to pour you tea so I did. It’s as simple as that.” More tea hit the bottom of a metal cup, either Uncle’s or the girl’s. Zuko couldn’t be sure.

 

“It’s just that my friends, the people I’m traveling with, they don’t take me seriously. They see me and they think I need protection, that I need help. I know it’s because I’m this young girl and because of the,” there was a pause as she illustrated something visually. Zuko couldn’t see what it was, but felt it might be rude to get any clarification. “It’s frustrating.”

 

“I can imagine. More tea Li?” It took Zuko a moment to react to his uncle’s words but then he nodded and his cup became warm again. He took another sip.

 

“You should talk to them,” Zuko muttered to the girl. “It’s better to let them know now then to let it fester.”

 

“He’s starting to sound like me.” Uncle laughed. “But you should listen to him. Talk to your friends. They’ll surely understand.”

 

“Thank you both,” the girl said, “for the tea and for the company.”

 

“It’s been a privilege and a pleasure. I’m always excited to meet my fellow weary travelers.”

 

Zuko heard the girl stand up and move around before stopping again. “Where are you traveling again anyway?”

 

“We’re refugees on our way to Ba Sing Se,” Uncle replied. They were refugees in a way, weren’t they?

 

There was a rustling and what sounded like an exchange of paper between Uncle and the girl.

 

“This will help you. Beifong passport. It’s worth more than gold, I promise, and I won’t need it anymore. Good luck!” Zuko felt her bending energy fade away with her footsteps until it was just him and his uncle on the road.

 

“Well hello there Li Beifong. It’s good to meet you,” Uncle said.

 

“The same to you, Mushi Beifong.”

Chapter Text

If Zuko had known how easy it was to be a Beifong he would have tracked the earthbender girl down a long time ago. The identification papers she’d given them really were worth more than gold.

 

Not only had he and his uncle been let into Ba Sing Se with almost no second glances, they’d been given roomy accommodations in the nicest part of town. Finally they had an opportunity to learn the inner workings of the city and the machinations of those in charge, and all Uncle wanted to do was make tea.

 

“Zuko, there’s nothing wrong with settling down into a noble profession such as tea making,” Uncle said, the rich smell of brewing tea filling the kitchen of the little shop Uncle had found for them to work at. Zuko hated it there, hated everything about it. Whenever his fingers touched a surface they’d come away with a thin layer of dirt, and if that didn’t show the depths of his fall from grace he didn’t know what did.

 

“But Uncle, we finally have a chance to take Ba Sing Se for the Fire Nation. I know we can. We may never get another chance as good as this one.”

 

“So this is how you want to repay Toph’s kindness? By taking over her city?” Uncle sighed and Zuko imagined him shaking his head. “Violence doesn’t breed peace. I thought you would know that by now.” 

 

Uncle’s dagger weighed heavy in his pocket. He tried not to think of Asoko. “Here, put this on.” An apron was shoved into his hands, starched and stuff.

 

“Uncle, I’m not some common tea server. I’m a prince.”

 

“Everyone should know humility, Zuko. Now go, our customers are waiting.” He shoved the tray into Zuko’s hands and pushed him out into the tea room to fend for himself.



At least the tea shop was far from where they were living. Zuko didn’t think he’d be able to stand the embarrassment of the new people he met seeing him at work. He needed these people to take him seriously if he was ever going to be able to take the city for his country.

 

Zuko and two of the new people he’d found, Belo and Mio, were sitting in a grassy field in the inner rung of the city. The plants beneath Zuko’s feet were dewy and smooth and the sun beat down on all of them.

 

“Hey, Li, I heard your cousin’s in town,” Belo said. He was an earthbender though not a good one, the son of a General and a famous earthbending master, both of whom, as Belo had once confessed to Zuko after a particularly long night, were disappointed by how he’d turned out. 

 

“Which one?” Zuko asked, as if that would be any help. He needed to avoid the Beifongs as much as possible. He doubted they would accept a scarred teenager they’d never seen before without question.

 

“Toph Beifong. The scary one.”

 

“She once threatened my cousin at a party,” Mio chirped in, light and breezy. She was always spinning stories about her family’s long past as diplomats and aristocrats, though this one wasn’t too involved.

 

“A real celebrity,” Zuko said, hoping the sarcasm came through.

 

“No, but that’s the thing.” Belo lowered his voice conspiratorially. “I heard she’s traveling with the Avatar.”

 

“That can’t be. The Avatar’s not even real,” Mio said with a laugh. 

 

“No, I saw him when me and Mushi were traveling to Ba Sing Se.”

 

“No shit, really?” Mio had never been one to keep polite conversation.  It wasn’t in her nature.

 

“He’s real and I’m sure my cousin’s traveling with him. It’s exactly the kind of thing she would do.” In fact he had no idea what she would do other than drink tea with his uncle, but that seemed like a good thing to say.

.

 

Mio handed him a barbecue bun and the conversation shifted to discussing Belo’s latest remarkable earthbending failure. 



“Uncle, I’m not working another shift,” Zuko mumbled for the bed. He’d been out with Belo and Mio all night and then his uncle had awoken him with the sun. His head was killing him slowly and his stomach was moving much faster.

 

“I know you’re tired, but you should keep busy. It’s good for you.”

 

“I am keeping busy. I’m learning about Ba Sing Se so I can lead it’s fall.” He threw his arm over his face. “We’ve already discussed this.”

 

“I know, my nephew. But have you thought about taking a break? You don’t need to be chasing your honor every moment.” Uncle’s voice was soft and in that moment Zuko had never heard a more grating, condescending set of words tumble out of someone’s mouth.

 

“Take a break? How can you say that? Without my honor I’m nothing, just a disgraced former prince without anyone left in their life.” Zuko was fuming from the bed.

 

“You’ll have me. I’ll always be there for you.”

 

“That doesn’t count Uncle. You had to be by my side, my father said so.” Zuko could hear his uncle brewing tea. Had they ever had a conversation without it?

 

“You know I didn’t have to come with you. My brother, your father, he asked me to stay. He wanted you to be alone. But I couldn’t leave you.”

 

“Oh.” Zuko hadn’t known that and he almost didn’t want to now that it was out. Suddenly there were so many more ways to let his Uncle down, to disappoint him. 

 

“Tea?”

 

“Yes please.”

 

That afternoon Mio and Belo teased him when he showed up late. He swore he was just sleeping in too much. It would have compromised the reconnaissance mission if they’d thought anything else.



He and Uncle were invited to the royal palace. To serve tea. They’d done this on their own merit, not as members of the royal family and not as Beifongs. It felt better than Zuko would ever admit.

 

This should be his opportunity to assassinate the King and his advisor that all the nobles said ran the country. He had the dagger, the opportunity, the motive. But it seemed wrong to do. 

 

Rationally he knew that Asoko would want him to take over Ba Sing Se. She always wanted what was best for their nation no matter the cost. Honor and country had driven her, and she’d see this as a positive good, a necessary evil at worst.

 

But still his brain screamed at him not to do it. It was Asoko’s voice creating the racket but it wasn’t her words. 

 

Mio and Belo would be disappointed if he subjugated their home. It had to be done, it was inevitable, but that didn’t mean Zuko thought they would understand.

 

Not that they mattered. But just as an afterthought. 

 

The dagger weighed heavy against his chest where he’d hidden it. He didn’t have to decide yet. He could still go and decide once he was in front of the King serving the tea. Maybe he could even slip some poison in the beverage itself, but then Uncle might get blamed. He couldn’t have that.

 

“Are you ready to go?” Uncle asked, his hand gently pressed against Zuko’s shoulder blades. 

 

He tried to do his best to smile. “Absolutely.”

Chapter Text

Zuko had a choice. On one side stood his sister, asking him to return, and on the other stood his uncle, begging him to stay.

 

That morning he had a vague notion that he would have to make an important decision, but he never could have guessed it would be this one. Because somewhere, deep in his soul, he thought he would never see his sister again. But that wasn’t true, was it?

 

Of course not. 

 

Azula was here in Ba Sing Se. 

 

He and Uncle had sat in the waiting room of the imperial palace for hours, wasting time before their audience with the king. Zuko had drummed his feet on the ground and carded his fingers through his hair, tested the strength of his lip by biting it and picked at his nails until he could feel the wet blood on his fingers. Uncle, for his part, had calmly organized tea leaves, charting idly about the weather and the times.

 

And then Azula has shown up. He’d seen his sister before, back when she nearly arrested him, but he hadn’t noticed how much older she sounded then. In the years he had been away her voice had gotten deeper, more sure of itself. He wished he could see how she looked. How much taller she was.

 

She told him that she had seized control of Ba Sing Se. Voice haughty, sentences long and smirk audible. He could come with her back home if he wanted to, that was his choice, or he could stay and be a traitor with his Uncle.

 

A part of him wanted to stay with his Uncle. The man had been kind to him, helped him heal after his injury, taught him to fight again. Cut his hair and showed him how to mend his clothes.

 

But the war needed to end as fast as possible. It had already taken too many lives, scorched the earth of countless more. He had felt that terrible loss himself. 

 

The Fire Nation would one day rule the world. That was inevitable. Better for them to do it tomorrow than in ten years. People would die today with the fall of the city, but it would be less than if that fall were to happen tomorrow or the next week or the year after.

 

“I’m sorry Uncle,” Zuko said as he joined his sister’s side.



It was strange being back in the Fire Nation. Years had gone by since he’d last tasted the food of the capital, last felt the smooth sheets of the palace, last smelled the salty air of the coast, so similar to the smell of the sea and yet different enough to tell him where he was. Home.

 

Seeing (well not seeing, but being with) Mai and Ty Lee was amazing. He didn’t realize how much he missed them until Mai told him that she was glad he wasn’t dead and Ty Lee crushed him in a five minute hug. Halfway through she whispered that he was a better hugger than Mai, not that anyone was keeping score.

 

His sister was distant but she had always been that way. Ever since they were kids and their father realized how talented she was. How could she stay at his level when she was always fated to rise above?

 

But sometimes, when all of them were training or hanging out in the recesses of the palace, she’d sling her arm over his shoulder and tell him she was glad he was home.

 

The only thing that could have made being home again better would be if his father would talk to him. That lack of contact was a bit concerning

 

At first he thought it was a coincidence. Being Fire Lord was a big job and his father was a busy man. Meetings, diplomacy, military strategy. They took time and they took effort. Of course he wouldn’t always be there for his kids, especially now that they were getting older and finding their own ways in the world.

 

But after two months it was almost infuriating. Just hanging on, the edge of a problem. Especially considering the fact that none of Zuko’s titles or honors had been restored. Zhao, if still alive, may have outranked him. That was a grievance Zuko wasn’t going to let die.

 

One day, right when Zuko was on the verge of hunting his father down and confronting him, he finally found a moment alone with his sister.

 

“Azula. We need to talk.” He reached towards her with his palm outstretched.

 

She tapped it to let him know she was paying attention. “Well that certainly isn’t foreboding. What do you want?” Her tone was always terse, but so was everything about her.

 

“I want to talk to you about our father. And about my titles, but mostly about our father.” He ran his fingers through his hair, finally growing long again. He sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Is he avoiding me?”

 

“He avoids both of us.”

 

“More than usual I mean.” He waited for his sister’s reply. The longer it took the more he worried.

 

“I’m trying to find a way to say this nicely.”

 

“Well that’s a first.”

 

“Shut up, you ass. Father’s just, he’s just.”

 

“Spit it out. Please.” Zuko could tell that his voice wavered but he tried to remain poised. Weakness was for cowards and traitors, and Zuko was neither. 

 

“He just doesn’t want you to lead anymore, what with your eyes and everything. Doesn’t want you to be Fire Lord after him. I mean, you didn’t really expect him to let someone like you lead. Did you?”

 

All Zuko could hear was the sound of swords clashing near the barracks down the hall. His voice spoke without him willing it too. “Of course. You’re right. You’re always right.”

 

His sister put her hand in his shoulder. “I’ll talk to him when I see him tomorrow, okay?”

 

“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

 

With that Zuko was left standing alone in the hallway. The world was fuzzy in his ears and, for the first time in years, his eyes burned. An aching, crushing pain. He wished, in that instant, that he could still cry.

Chapter Text

Zuko had no future in the Fire Nation. That was clear. His father had written him off, his sister knew not to let sentiment get in the way of ambition. He would miss Ty Lee and Mai but he had lost people before. Sacrifice was always necessary, the only constant in life.

 

He didn’t leave a note when he left. He wished he could have, but he hadn’t been able to write in years. Not since he lost his sight. Another thing his father had taken from him so callously. 

 

There was fear in his chest. But excitement lived there too, co-habitating his soul in the face of the daunting task that lay ahead of him.

 

He was going to confront his father.



Zuko walked through the tunnels where he knew he’d find his father. They’d once been the paths of streams of lava and Zuko could feel the oppressive heat on his face. It was almost suffocating, sulfur and steam and ash sticking to the hair of his arms and to the edges of his lungs. The fire inside of his chest was gone and he knew the eclipse was here. His lack of sight was more uncomfortable than before. It had been so many years since he’d lost his vision that he had gotten used to using his not-fire, so used to it that he didn’t recognize that he did it constantly anymore. Well, he hadn’t noticed before. Now that it was gone he couldn’t help but feel it’s absence.

 

The rough, jagged walls bit into his hands as he pressed his palms against them. He’d walked these tunnels for hours the day before, trying to memorize the twists and turns so he would be able to find his way around without his bending. Still, he could only pray he’d make it to his destination in time. 

 

The wall fell away and Zuko knew where he was. He could hear his father’s breath.

 

He took two steps to the left to where he remembered the middle of the entrance being.

 

“What are you doing here?” His father asked, his voice floating across the room and thrashing through the air.

 

“I wanted to talk to you, father, before I left.”

 

“Waiting until the eclipse to talk? I was hoping I wouldn’t have to add cowardice to the list of your deficiencies.” Zuko couldn’t see, but he knew the smirk his father was making. In all the years he lived Zuko doubted he would ever be able to wipe that smirk from his memory.

 

Footsteps passed Zuko on either side as the guards his father must have stationed filed past him. Their armor clanked against itself as they faded away.

 

“I’m no coward. But I can’t leave without telling you the truth. All of it.”

 

“Go on then, get it over with,” his father said, his tone light. Zuko’s chest filled with rage but he smashed it down. He didn’t have time for that.

 

“I didn’t take down the Avatar. My sister did, back in Ba Sing Se.”

 

“And why would she lie to me?” His father asked. As if he didn’t believe his own son. As if he’d always trust the prodigal daughter, no matter what she did. 

 

“Because he’s not dead. The Avatar’s still alive and I’d bet he’s leading the invasion today himself.”

 

There was silence in the room, nothing but that oppressive heat. It gnawed through Zuko’s hair and clothes to stick to his skin.

 

“Get out,” Ozai seethed. “Out! I don’t want to hear it!”

 

“I already told you I was leaving father,” Zuko said, unsheathing his blades. “We both know what that means.”

 

“Listen to me or you won’t be able to draw another insolent breath.”

“I don’t need to listen to you anymore. You were never going to respect me. You hurt me, and you spent my life telling me that pain was for the greater good. That the damage we did to each other, to the other nations, was just a way of sharing our own greatness. As if we haven’t destroyed lives, destroyed cultures, for what? We haven’t spread a great society, we’ve spread fear and hate and lies. I’ve caused so much suffering. I can’t do that anymore. I need to undo what I’ve done, to spread peace and love where I’ve spilled blood.”

 

Ozai laughed. “Iroh’s gotten to you. I’m not surprised. You’re both disappointments to this family.”

“I’ve learned so much from my uncle, yes, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without you. If you hadn’t scarred me, blinded me, I never would have realized the lies I’d grown up with. I’m going to find my uncle. He’s the only one who’s ever been a real father to me All I hope is that he has it in his heart to forgive me.”

 

“He’ll forgive you, he’s always been too soft with you. It’ll be perfect, the two of you can spend your days brewing tea.” Ozai said with the sneer and haughty air he’d had with his son since the day he realized that his youngest child was better. “Your sister did in a day what your uncle couldn’t in six hundred.”

“And what good did taking Ba Sing Se do? We’re still fighting this war. People are still dying.”

“And what are you going to do about that Zuko? Kill me? Is that why you have your swords? I did hear that your uncle tried to teach you despite your obvious physical failures.”

“You did this to me, father. And I’m not here to kill you. I know my own destiny, and it’s not to bring about your end. Your fall will be at the hands of the Avatar.” He re-sheathed his swords and turned around, walking back to where he remembered the wall to be. The flame in his chest was already beginning to return and he knew the eclipse was winding down. “Goodbye father.”

 

As he began to walk back through the tunnels, pressed to the wall, he felt his bending return. There was a crackle of energy in the air and Zuko could feel a bolt of lightning racing towards him. He let it play across his skin, dig into his bone and touch each inch of him from head to toe. For a moment it threatened to devour him, to eat him from inside and leave nothing but a smoking husk.

 

But just as his uncle had taught him he let it slide through his body and back towards his father. It sapped his energy but he took his father’s shock as an opportunity to run as fast as he could away. With the eclipse over he was able to feel the presence of the walls again. 

 

Up ahead he could feel four people. One was his sister but she left before he got there. He followed the other three. They seemed so familiar but he couldn’t quite place it. Finally he crossed their paths and he finally recognized one of the people. A familiar earthbender, small and firm in her step.

 

“Toph?” He asked.

Chapter Text

“Li?” Toph’s bewildered voice echoed through the tunnel. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Running away. What are you doing here?”

 

“Same as you apparently.”

 

“Not to break up this little moment, but what is going on here exactly?” One of the other figures piped up, his voice echoing off the walls as they sprinted together as a group. The voice seemed so familiar, something about the energy he radiated. How light his feet were on the ground, barely hitting the ground as they ran. But Zuko didn’t have time to figure it out, too concerned with using his not-fire to stop himself from tripping.

 

Toph spoke again. “Aang, Sokka, meet Li. I had tea with him and his uncle once while we were traveling.”

 

And oh, Zuko suddenly remembered where he recognized those figures from. They were the Avatar and his Water Tribe friend.

 

“Toph, I hate to break it to you, but that’s Zuko.” Aang’s voice was comforting, soft. Not the Keats but winded from the tunnels. His voice, the voice of the Avatar, should have been condescending. But it wasn’t. 

 

“Who?” She asked.

 

“Zuko,” the third person, the one who must be called Sokka, said. As if Zuko’s name came up a lot. Under normal circumstances he would be equally terrified and flattered, but he could sense no flattery in Sokka’s tone. 

 

“I still don’t know who you’re talking about,” Toph replied as the ground shook and somewhere, far away, a soldier made a cut-off scream. Zuko made a mental note: don’t get on the bad side of the earthbender. Well, more than you already have.

 

“The Fire Nation Prince? The one who chased us down for months and kept trying to murder Aang?”

 

“Oh that one.” Toph’s voice made it clear that nothing was cleared up.

 

And then they were out.

 

Air hit Zuko’s face as they raced from the tunnels. Zuko’s feet pounded against the ground. He could hear his people, the people he’d abandoned in the Fire Nation, getting closer. Could feel the burning energy of their bodies.

 

Every second they spent running the closer the soldiers got. There wouldn’t be any escape, they’d be captured. Tortured. Zuko shook his head. He couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t think about the accidents that would befall him, would befall the people he loved.

 

Eventually they made it to a group of people, benders and non-benders alike. Mostly earth, a scattering of waterbenders. Now that Zuko was thinking about it it was much easier to identify the different energies of bending.

 

There was some discussion that Zuko wasn’t privy to. From what he could make out they could fly on the back of the Avatar’s creature, the one Asoko had spent hours talking about on the ship, but there wasn’t room for all of them.

 

“So what’re we going to do with him?” The Water Tribe boy asked. Ah, he must be talking about Zuko, who made a conscious effort to stop looking so anxious.

 

“Well we can’t take him with us. He’ll probably stab us or take us prisoner, and then this will have all been for nothing,” the waterbender girl said. Zuko nearly flinched at her tone, venomous and seething.

 

“But what’ll happen to him if we leave him?” The Avatar asked.

 

“Nothing. Can’t you see this is a trick?” The girl, he thought her name was Kenuya or Katara or something, said.

 

“But why would he run?” The Avatar sounded so innocent. It almost hurt. Not that they had anything to fear from Zuko, not when he’d betrayed his family like this, but still. It was the principal of the matter.

 

“Ask him!” Katara almost yelled. “Ask him why he ran!” There was silence and he realized they were waiting for his answer.

 

Zuko couldn’t give one.

 

“Take him with you. I trust you will be able to take care of yourselves. Me and the other adults will stay,” an older voice said, one Zuko had no chance of recognizing.

 

“We can’t take him and leave you dad,” the waterbender girl pleaded.

 

“Go. We’ll be fine. I’ve survived worse.”

 

And Zuko was practically thrown up into the air and onto a large and smooth wooden surface.

 

“I would hold on if I were you,” Toph whispered. Zuko struggled to grasp onto something before they suddenly were soaring through the air. Wind pounded against his face and burned his cheeks but he laughed. He’d never felt anything like this before in his life.

 

The ride was quiet. Solemn. There was an air of uncomfortable defeat in the group and Zuko bought it best to hang away from everyone else, lest someone’s wrath send him sprawling onto the ground or into the ocean below.

 

The creature they were riding touched down onto some kind of surface and the wind died out.

 

Aang told them that the group was at one of the old Air Temples. Hadn’t he and Uncle been here before? Zuko couldn’t remember.

 

Zuko went to help the Water Tribe boy, Sokka, lug the bags off the back of the creature. He’d spent the whole trip with supplies digging into his back, he’d be as good a help as any of getting them off. But Sokka just yanked the bags out of Zuko’s hands and made a sound akin to a hiss.

 

He didn’t know what to do so he felt around with his feet to make sure there were no drop offs and plopped onto the ground.

 

Something massive and wet ran along the side of his face.

 

“Appa likes you!” The Avatar cried and the creature, which was standing closer than Zuko had realized, brayed.

 

“For my part I still don’t trust him,” Katara said. “We should have taken dad instead.”

 

“That’s fair,” Zuko said.

 

“Please tell me he’s not about to betray us already.” Zuko could feel the water in the air shaking around the girl’s fists.

 

“I’m not! I swear!” Zuko threw his hands up. “It’s just that I deserved to stay there. Face the consequences of what I’d done.”

 

“And that was?” Sokka asked.

 

“I spoke against my father. Again.” Zuko held his head down.

 

“I’m not about to figure out what that means. I don’t trust you, and I want you to know that the second you step out of line you won’t be able to think long enough to do it a second time.” With that Zuko could hear the girl’s footsteps pounding away against the stone floor.

 

“For my part I trust him,” Toph said. A fist hit his shoulder, but gently. Almost friendly even. There was some grumbling and Zuko could hear the rest of the party leaving. The Avatar had already chased th waterbender girl out of the room.

 

“I’m glad you trust me Toph. Oh,” he reached into the back of his clothes where he’d stashed his Beifong papers. He couldn’t bring himself to get rid of them, even when he was back home. “Do you want these back?”

 

“What are those?” She asked.

 

“Don’t you recognize them? They’re the papers you gave me and my uncle.”

 

“Oh. I can’t read.” She said it as if it were obvious, as if Zuko were stupid for not realizing it.

 

“Why can’t you read? Aren’t you from a noble house?” He racked his brain to see what he could remember about the Earth Kingdom. “Do they not teach girls to read and write in the Earth Kingdom?”

 

Toph laughed. “No, no, I’m blind.”

 

“Really?”

 

“It’s usually obvious from the eyes. I just assumed that you knew.”

 

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t see. Not because of you, I didn’t want to imply that, it’s just. Well. I’m blind too,” Zuko stuttered. 

 

“Really? Do the others know?” She asked.

 

“I thought they did, but maybe not. Why? Do you think they’ll kick me out?”

 

“No, no. I’m just thinking about the opportunities we have to prank Sokka. I still need to get back at him for last time.” 

 

A hand gently tapped his. “Blind buddy fist bump?” Toph asked.

 

Zuko nodded, wondered how much of it she could sense. “Blind buddy fist bump.”

Chapter Text

The whole group sat around the flickering campfire. Zuko could feel the sparks as they flitted through the air, bounced off the stone floors and columns of the temple, and crept into the early night air. 

 

There was an awkward silence permeating each of them as Zuko sipped from his bowl of plain fish soup. If Katara ever stopped hating him he’d have to introduce the group to Fire Nation food. He missed nasal-cleansing spice already and he’d only been without it a couple days.

 

But really, if he were being honest, Zuko was only thinking about food to distract from the fact that no one but Toph wanted to talk to him. Katara was still bitter that they’d left their father, the infamous Water Tribe leader Hakoda, behind while taking Zuko. Sokka continues to be whatever he was. Aang was nice but he didn’t trust Zuko as a teacher. Hadn’t even bothered to be alone in a room with him.

 

At least he had Toph to keep him company.

 

Speaking of the angry little earthbending child, his only almost-friend walked towards the group. She’d been planning for tonight for the last few days, discussing her plans while they sparred in the morning, excitedly talking in between crushing boulder blows.

 

According to Toph she only sparred with Zuko because he didn’t expect her to fix her hair in the morning like Katara did, but Zuko suspected that she secretly liked training with him. It was nice learning with someone who also used their element to experience the world, who couldn’t see and yet wasn’t helpless. They'd even been teaching each other a couple poses that produced interesting energies in the other’s bending. The two of them would have to spend more time on that, the interchange of bending disciplines, after Toph’s plan was complete.

 

“I was thinking,” Toph said, her voice already distorted with food. Hadn’t she only been here a moment? “You guys are all at a disadvantage.”

 

“How so?” Katara asked.

 

“Well,” Toph took a sip of her soup, “none of you can fight in the dark. Except me of course. You’re all so dependent on light.”

 

“But why would we need to do that? Fight in the dark?” Aang leaned towards the fire, more of the heat and energy bouncing off of him onto Zuko.

 

“I don’t know Twinkle Toes. But you’ve got me as a member of the team here. Might as well learn.”

 

And here Zuko’s part began. “I think it sounds like a good idea. If Aang wants to defeat my father he’ll need every tool he can get.”

 

“You don’t get a vote,” Katara snarled. “But I guess it sounds like an interesting idea.”

 

“So you’re in?” Toph asked.

 

Katara answered that she was. Aang, Sokka, and Zuko agreed.

 

“This is going to be so much fun,” Toph said as her empty bowl clicked against the ground.



A few minutes later Sokka finished all the food no one else wanted and collected the plates. He handed them off to Katara and Aang who had long ago devised a system of using waterbending to clean the plates. Katara relented to letting Zuko dry them, a task Aang usually did with airbending, in order to save time for all of them. If she had the firebender, Zuko presumed, she’d eventually have to use his powers for something.

 

After everything had been put back into place Toph began to lead them deep into the cliff face. As they walked deeper and deeper into the stone tunnels Zuko could feel the change in the air. Cold began to creep through him and he used his fire to keep himself warm. The air got a bit stuffier, yet at the same time there was something pure and ancient about it. Zuko wondered if he’d ever noticed this air before. He probably hadn’t, too consumed by his fruitless quest to get his honor back. Whatever honor even was.

 

“Sparky, I know you’re keeping yourself warm with firebending over there,” Toph said to him, her voice echoing off the rough stone walls of the temple.

 

“So?”

 

“So spare a bit for your poor blind friend.” Zuko laughed but carefully bent the heat around Toph, using the lowest grade fire he could to try to keep her warm.

 

“How’s that?”

 

“Awesome. I can’t believe we didn’t have a firebender before, this is great.”

 

“Can you keep it down?” Sokka asked. “These are sacred grounds, I’m sure Aang doesn’t want us disturbing them.”

 

“No, please do,” Aang said. “Back when I was your age,”

 

“Still not funny,” Katara mumbled.

 

“Is too, Katara.” There was a pause and Zuko assumed the Avatar was sticking out his tongue or something similar. “Anyway, back when I was your age these hallways used to be so loud. We’d race each other up and down them. The older monks always complained,but Monk Gyatso promised that they secretly found it endearing.”

 

They walked for another minute or two, Aang telling stories about his life that Katara and Sokka had heard a thousand times, beaded in their comments, all of them criss crossing paths and looping in and out of tunnels until Zuko was thoroughly lost.

 

Finally they made their way into a massive open room buried deep within the mountain.

 

“And we’re here,” Toph said. She held Zuko back as the others walked in. “Remember to ease into this. Sokka’s got to think you’re bad, remember?”

 

“Of course.” She let him go and he followed her inside.

 

Once inside she gave them a brief talk about being in touch with their element, their surroundings, their inner self. To pay attention to all their senses, not just sight. To touch the ground and feel what it has to say, to taste your opponent in the air.

 

“But you really just have to practice. Katara, Aang, you want to go first?”

 

They both said they were up for it.

 

“Zuko,” she told him, “get the lights.”

 

He felt across the room for the light, both for the warmth and the matching coolness of shadow. He drew the last remaining drops of sunlight towards him and the room became cooler in only a moment. 

 

For two benders as powerful as they were, Aang and Katara were terrible at fighting without light. Zuko could feel their clumsy movements stumbling through the dark, could tell that none of their hits were landing.

 

Eventually they began to get the hang of it, though their bending was still heavier and less certain than they would be if they could see their opponent. And this was with someone they sparred with regularly. They’d be completely lost in real combat.

 

Aang and Zuko were next. Zuko could sense every move the Avatar made the second he sent his air out into the world and it took everything in Zuko’s power to wait two seconds before reacting. He still managed to dodge a few blasts, but overall he didn’t come across as a good fighter. The plan was in place.

 

The Water Tribe siblings sparred and Zuko was surprised by how good Sokka said. Of course Toph promised this would be the case and he was quickly learning to trust her judgement, but still. His grace and poise was a surprise. Something about him just screamed of a less sophisticated fighter, and yet that wasn’t true.

 

“Pretty good,” Toph said when both of the siblings were sitting in the dark and panting. “But I think Sparky’s better.”

 

“Are you blind?” Sokka asked. “I mean metaphorically because, well, you know.”

 

“How much are you willing to bet that Zuko can’t beat you?”

 

“What’s your offer?” Sokka said. Zuko could sense him leaning back on his forearms, calm and secure.

 

“You take over my chores for two months and both me and Sparky get five favors, no questions asked. Anything we want.”

 

“And if I win the fight?”

 

“Same deal,” she said. “We do two months of chores, you get five favors from both of us.”

 

“Well I’m that case I pretty much have to fight Zuko.” Sokka’s almost dry palms rubbed together, a sound that echoed through the cavernous room.

 

The two of them, Sokka and Zuko, stepped into the center of the room. In the interest of complete fairness Katara tied a blindfold around both of their eyes. The cool fabric was nice against Zuko’s scar, which was going through one of its periodic flare-ups of pain.

 

At first Zuko fought the way he had against Aang. He needed Sokka to let his guard down. It began to work as Zuko decreased his response time, slow enough that Sokka didn’t notice but fast enough to leave the other boy tired and leaking heat through his forehead.

 

With one final blow Sokka was sent sprawling to the ground.

 

“Do you yield?” Zuko asked.

 

“Ugh, yeah.” He heard Sokka flop over. “Give me a minute.”

 

After a second of waiting Zuko reached his hand out and Sokka took it. As he was pulled upwards Sokka asked Zuko how he’d managed to pull off that victory. 

 

Zuko shrugged. “I guess I’m just a fast learner.”

Chapter Text

“Come on, one more try,” Sokka pleaded. It was getting late, the sun beginning to fall away behind the horizon. Zuko could feel his firebending getting weaker as night approached, could feel the cool beginnings of dusk shadows resting on his arms and the backs of his legs.

 

“We’ve been at it for hours, Sokka, we should just head back to the main group. See what Katara’s making for dinner.” Zuko hoped there would be some spice in the meal tonight, but he understood that his hopes were far fetched. Apparently no one outside of the Fire Nation understood the beauty of not being able to feel your face. The more comfortable Zuko got the more he wanted to bring it up to the rest of the group. But that seemed rude. He didn’t want to push his luck.

 

“Just one more round. I need to win at least one,” Sokka said. “Do it for my ego?”

 

“Fine.” Zuko adjusted his feet to get in position. He and Sokka had been sparring since the boiling sun was pounding their backs. Sokka had tied a piece of cloth around both of their eyes to make sure they couldn’t see, an attempt to replicate the conditions of Toph’s lesson. 

 

This time, when they fought, Zuko was finally pinned down. Back home he might have brushed it off and said he let Sokka win, but he wasn’t back home. Instead he congratulated Sokka and they went back to the group. No one’s honor or familial legacy was at stake. It was just two friends working to help each other get better.

 

Zuko could get used to that.



After dinner Zuko and Sokka sat together on the cool stone floor of the temple. Occasionally small insects would crawl over Zuko’s hands, the half-second pause before he’d smack them away. It was quiet, the sun long past set and the last fleeting breath of the campfire left to soar into the air.

 

“Zuko, you know the Fire Nation pretty well right?” Sokka asked, his voice much quieter than Zuko was used to.

 

“It’s where I’m from. So yes.”

 

“And the prison system? Do you know it?”

 

Zuko nodded. “I’m royalty, it comes up in the standard courses. Plus, my father used certain prisons as a threat on many occasions.” Zuko’s first instinct was to laugh, quiet and awkward, but he’d learned that didn’t play well with any of the members of the Avatar’s group. Except Toph, but her reactions weren’t classifiable or predictable.

 

“So where do you think they took my dad?”

 

The answer, to Zuko, was obvious. But a part of him felt that telling Sokka would be a bad idea. It would make him worry, would make his fear and guilt fester like an open wound, infected and leaking. Uncontrollable, maddening, constant.

 

Just like Zuko’s guilt over betraying his uncle.

 

No. It wasn’t the same. And Sokka deserved the truth

 

“Your dad’s probably at the Boiling Rock.”

 

“Where?” Sokka asked.

 

Right. Sokka wasn’t from the Fire Nation, he didn’t know the lore of that notorious prison. Zuko had to tell him. It was Sokka’s right, no matter how much it hurt.



Zuko should have known that Sokka would take his insight into the Fire Nation as an opportunity to go find his father. To break into the Fire Nation's impenetrable prison with the intention of breaking out again with extra people in tow as soon as possible. Nothing risky about that.

 

“I still think this is a bad idea,” Zuko said, his arms across his chest as the wind smacked his face. He and Sokka were aboard Appa, in route to the last place Zuko would ever recommend visiting.

 

Appa brayed his support, though Sokka probably took it as a sign that Appa disagreed with Zuko.

 

“Too bad,” Sokka said. There was a snap and they were flying even higher, the cloud droplets smacking his cheeks and sending shivers down his spine.

 

“You know, Sokka, back home we have these things called War Balloons. They’re powered by firebending, and they’re so much more comfortable than flying.” He reached over to pat Appa on the side, careful to stay secure on the saddle. “No offense to Appa of course.”

 

“Me and a friend actually invented the War Balloons,” Sokka said, as if it weren’t a big deal.

 

“Really? That’s awesome!” Zuko hadn’t ever thought of Sokka as the inventor type, but now that he said it the idea made perfect sense.

 

“Yeah! Balloons for war,” Sokka said, a bit more enthusiasm creeping through.

 

“Once this war’s over, I’m sure you can come up with so many uses for them outside of war too.”

 

“Why would you want that? Isn’t your family all pro-war?”

 

“Hey, not all of us like violence,” Zuko snapped.

 

“I know, I know, you’re reformed.” Zuko was sure Sokka was making some sort of reductive hand motion that was unfortunately lost for the non-visual.

 

“I was talking about my Uncle,” Zuko said.

 

“So he’s all you left behind? Back in the Fire Nation?”

 

“I didn’t even leave him behind. I betrayed him, turned my back on his teachings.” Zuko couldn’t cry, but a traitorous part of him wanted to. “And there’s no one else for me there. The only other people I cared about, my crew, they’re dead. My best friend Asoko.”

 

“What happened to them?”

 

“Aang happened. It was up in the North, when I tried to capture him.”

 

“Give yourself some credit. You did kidnap him.”

 

“Fine. When I kidnapped Aang, after that. When the Avatar destroyed Zhao’s. They all drowned, or were impaled on the debris, or froze in those icy, icy waters. Their bodies floated next to me and my Uncle.” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe the smell.”

 

“I’m so sorry Zuko. I had no idea.”

 

“It’s okay, it’s in the past. I need to move on.”

 

They flew along for a few more minutes.

 

“If it helps,” Sokka said, “my girlfriend turned into the moon that same night.”

 

Zuko laughed and it was wonderful. Because it did help, hearing that from Sokka, and because Zuko needed the catharsis. He laughed because he was allowed to laugh and he laughed for reasons he would never be able to comprehend. He laughed and no one hit him for it, he laughed and reveled in the laughter.



Getting into the prison was easy. It was staying hidden that was proving to be a problem.

 

At first they had been fine, grabbing a pair of guard uniforms and slipping into the closest group they could find. They didn’t find Hakoda, but they did find Sokka’s girlfriend Suki (ex-girlfriend? Zuko was unclear on the status of their relationship).

 

And they continued to blend in, and Zuko knew he was a half step from danger at every turn. In fact, when he was discovered, he almost expected it.

 

And all that had tipped the other guards off was a simple question about color.

 

Because Commander Uke wanted the scroll with red string, not the scroll with blue string, and Zuko just couldn’t tell them apart.

 

And then questions were being asked that Zuko didn’t have good answers to, and suddenly all of Zuko’s secrets were out to the world.

 

He was immediately sent into a jail cell, cold and musty. It almost reminded him of his days in the  Earth Kingdom, the worst ones when he’d contemplated turning himself in to the Fire Nation. Anything to escape the dryness and the rain and the mud.

 

Time passed slowly until it didn’t and he, Sokka, and an assortment of prisoners were racing through the final hallway before they would burst out onto the loading bay for the air ferry, their ticket home. Just two more corners.

 

He could feel the heat and energy of the loading bay up ahead. But the guards were catching up. No matter what they did they were kids and starving prisoners. They needed to escape before the guards caught them. Needed an advantage. And those feet behind them were so fast.

 

“Zuko,” Sokka whispered, his feet pounding against the ground, “I have a plan. I need you to get rid of all the light. Can you do that?” Zuko nodded. “Good. As soon as I stop running it needs to be as dark as possible.”

 

A moment later Zuko heard Sokka stop, his shoes squeaking against the floor. With a breath Zuko summoned the burning light from the torches. Around the bend the sunlight shone through, but he prayed the light itself was faint enough to confuse anyone with sight.

 

He was right.

 

As they stepped off the ferry Zuko thought about how easily those guards, the useful ones with sight, had lost all control. They couldn’t survive a day without sight. Zuko had once been one of those people. But his father chose his destiny, changed it forever, and created who he was today. For better or for worse.



Later, after Sokka and Hakoda had caught up for hours, Sokka snuck up on Zuko. He was thinking, brooding as Uncle would say, in his usual spot on the temple floor.

 

“Back so soon?” Zuko asked. “Don’t you want to spend time with your dad?”

 

“I do, but Katara should get to see him too. I can’t take up all his time.”

 

The moonlight shown. Zuko wondered if it was Sokka’s girlfriend shining down on them, congratulating them for rescuing Hakoda. Or maybe she was warning Sokka never to trust a member of the Fire Nation. After all, everyone knew how fundamentally flawed their characters were.

 

“I wasn’t sure how to bring this up,” Sokka said, “but when were you going to tell us you were blind?”

 

Zuko sputtered. “What? How did you know?”

 

“Well I’m not stupid. I figured it out at the Boiling Rock.”

 

“Oh. Do you think the others know? Aang and Katara?”

 

“No. I love them, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not the most perceptive members of our group.”

 

“I guess you’re right,” Zuko sighed. “But promise you won’t tell?”

 

“Of course not. Wouldn’t be much of a friend if I did.”

Chapter Text

Katara didn’t like him. This was clear to anyone within their immediate proximity. Zuko may not have always been the best at catching social cues people hurled at him, but Katara wasn’t exactly subtle.

 

“Don’t touch that,” she snapped, batting his hand away from the pile of dirty dishes. “Me and Aang have it under control.”

 

“I was just trying to help,” he replied, more harshly than he wanted to.

 

“Well we don’t need your help.”

 

Zuko frowned and walked away, following the sounds of chatter to where Toph and Sokka were debating the relative merits of different fighting techniques.

 

“Zuko! Can you please talk some sense into Sokka?” Toph asked. “His opinions are terrible.”

 

Sokka piped up some argument to the contrary and they bickered for a few more moments before Toph stormed off, presumably to throw some rocks around and let off steam.

 

“Sorry about that,” Sokka said.

 

“It’s fine. At this point I wouldn’t expect anything less. She’s just kind of just like that, right?”

 

“You should have seen her when she and Katara first met. It was a complete disaster.” He tapped Zuko’s shoulder to let him know that he was still there, still close to his side. He didn’t need Sokka to do that, but it was nice having someone he trusted trying to do these little things for him.

 

“I can imagine,” Suko said. They sat for a few more minutes, just the two of them. “Speaking of your sister, I wanted to ask-”

 

“Why she doesn’t like you?”

 

“That,” Zuko stammered, “was my question exactly.”

 

“Don’t worry, it’s everyone’s first question when they meet my sister. Really meet her.” Sokka sighed and tapped his fingers against the stone floor, calm and frounding. He was searching for words and Zuko left him the time to find them. “It’s not that Katara’s cold. She’s one of the most loving people I know, once you get down to it, but things have been hard for her. For all of us, but she was there when they found our mother’s body. Saw her, gone and alone on the ground. I think she’s still haunted by what she saw. She still wishes she  could have done something to stop it.”

 

“That’s horrible,” Zuko whispered.

 

“And she’s impulsive and reckless and quick to anger. I’m not going to blame all the spikey parts of her personality on what happened to our mother. That’s unfair to Katara, she’s her own person.”

 

“I get that. I do, I promise.”

 

They sat together, under the fading sunlight, and Zuko felt safe. No one was going to hurt him here, there were people who cared about him and who he knew would protect him. Zuko trusted Sokka and Toph, Suki and Aang. He didn’t trust Katara, but that trust wasn’t as life-threatening as back home. Here he knew she wouldn’t kill him in his sleep, would never humiliate and scar him for her own sick sense of power.

 

But it would be nice if she were a little less hostile.

 

“The sunset’s really pretty tonight.” Sokka paused for a moment. “Wait, is that insensitive? Because you’re blind?”

 

Zuko laughed but pretended he didn’t, stifled it under his permanent neutral scowl. “I would honestly prefer if you just treated me like any other friend. And I can almost see it. It’s like feeling the energy of the sky, and when I really focus I can almost imagine the dips and swirls that you’re seeing. It’s not the same as seeing it, I remember that, but it’s just as beautiful in its own right.”

 

“That’s so cool,” Sokka said.

 

“Yeah, I guess it is.”



Apparently there was important Avatar business that required everyone but Katara and Zuko to leave for three days. If Zuko didn’t know any better he’d think that he and Katara were being left to resolve their issues.

 

“So,” Zuko said, letting the word drag on. He and Katara were sitting around a campfire, congealed and cold congee in his bowl. Katara had picked up the recipe in the Earth Kingdom but hadn’t picked up any of their standard toppings. 

 

“So what?” Katara snapped.

 

“So how are you?” He finally asked. He could feel so much energy radiating off of her, waterbending fueled by anger and fear and love and an agitated sense of peace.

 

“I’m stuck with you, so I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.”

 

“I’m sorry the others left you with me, okay? But I didn’t ask for it either.” She made a disdainful noise and grabbed the rest of the food out of his hands. The fire hissed as she tossed his food on top. “If you’re going to be like that at least let me people you clean up.”

 

“I’m perfectly capable of doing it on my own, thank you very much.”

 

“I’m so sorry your majesty, will you ever forgive me?”

 

“You know,” she said, water trembling as she slammed a plate she was washing down, “back home I’m considered just as important as you and your sister. In the South me and Sokka are the children of an important leader, and I don’t ever want to hear you say that my tribe isn’t as important as yours.”

 

With that Zuko stopped talking, preferring to hold his hands over the fire to drive away the chill in the air, a cutting thing only amplified by the cool stone structure they sat in.

 

“I’m sorry about what happened to your mother,” Zuko said the next morning at breakfast, “Sokka told me about it and I wish it didn’t happen like that. I'm just so sorry.” He poked around in the congee but didn’t take another bite. He almost believed she was only making it to get on his nerves.

 

“What would you know about my mother?”

 

“I don’t know much, only what your brother told me. But I understand. The Fire Nation took my mother away too, took away everyone I ever loved. Even the people who only passed through my life for a moment.” He tried not to think about his crew, Asoko, the people he’d left in Ba Sing Se.”

 

Katara played with the necklace around her neck. A betrothal necklace if Zuko remembered correctly. He’d never excelled in their classes like his sister had. “I didn’t know your mother died too,” she said.

 

“We’ve all lost people to the Fire Nation. It’s destructive and all-consuming and I wish it wasn’t that way. I want to fix it.”

 

“You say that now,” she said, kicking dirt over the fire but not putting it out. He could feel the fire flicker, her boot scraping along the ground. “But wait a few years and see what you’re saying then. Everyone in the Fire Nation is the same.”

 

“I can’t make any promises about my future and I apologize for what I’ve done, but I can still change. I’ve seen my uncle do it, I know that I can too.”



Everyone came back cautiously. Sokka later said they were worried they’d find Zuko frozen to a wall half a mile into the cliff face. Instead, Katara and Zuko were sitting about ten feet apart, quietly eating. 

 

“You’re back! How did it go?” Katara asked when she saw them, rushing over to Aang. She would never admit it but Zuko could tell how protective she was of the Avatar. Of course mentioning this would likely put Zuko in danger of bodily harm.

 

“It was good,” Aang said. “How was spending time with Zuko?”

 

“She’s shrugging,” Sokka whispered.

 

“I assumed.”

 

“But that’s a good sign,” Sokka replied.

 

They all sat down to eat and finish the meal Zuko and Katara had begun. When they were done Katara and Aang got up to do the dishes. Zuko began to walk away with Suki and Sokka before he was called back by Katara.

 

“Where do you think you’re going, Zuko? Come help me and Aang clean up.”

 

Chapter Text

Somehow Azula had managed to find them. Zuko wasn’t sure how she did it, how she always returned like a malignant mole. But here she was at the temple, her oh so familiar voice calling him. He had to stop her. He had to protect the Avatar.

 

And for some reason Sokka wouldn’t let him fight his sister alone

 

“Come on, just accept the help,” Sokka yelled over the cries of the wind whipping their faces. They were back to back on the top of Azula’s airship as she sent volley after volley of lightning and fire towards them.

 

“I can take her on my own. There’s no reason for you to put yourself at risk,” Zuko replied. He deflected a shot from his sister, the heat of the lightning fading into the air beside him. 

 

“Is wanting to help my friend no longer allowed? I mean come on, you’re just as bad as Aang. He once insisted we leave him in prison instead of just heading out of town because he wanted to prove the innocence of Avatar Kyoshi. I did get to be a detective though, which was cool, but-”

 

A blast of cold fire grazed the side of Zuko’s chest and he stumbled back, almost knocking over Sokka. “That’s really interesting Sokka, but can we please discuss it when my sister isn’t actively trying to kill us.”

 

“Have I said before how messed up your family is? Because it’s really messed up. I’m pretty sure Katara would never actually try to kill me, just threaten it.”

 

“Another time!” Zuko yelled. He could feel his sister gathering energy to send a bolt of lightning toward them. That could cause them serious problems, that could hurt Sokka. He wasn’t going to let that happen.

 

Before his sister could strike he ran into her as hard as he could, sending them both tumbling off the airship’s roof. It may not have been the smartest option, but no one could say it wasn’t effective.

 

He and Azula tumbled through the open air. His grip loosen and he let his sister go, felt her slide away before his senses began to dull. He thought he heard someone call his name.

 

And then water was enveloping him, drenching him from head to toe. It was cold and sharp, reminding him where he was. Hands gripped his arms and pulled him on top of a large wooden saddle he recognized to be Appa’s.

 

“Zuko, you idiot, you could have died,” Suki said. Her words were shaky and he realized she had been the one to lug him onboard. 

 

“Did my sister,” he mumbled, afraid to say it, “is she dead?”

 

“No, she somehow managed to grab onto a cliff face. I think she used her hair piece like an ice pick. Who does that? I swear your sister’s indestructible,” Sokka said. His voice was loud but Zuko could hear the same tremble that Suki had.

 

“Sokka! I’m so glad you’re okay!” Zuko said.

 

“Yeah, we picked him up before we had to save you. Do you know how much energy it took to bend a water cushion that wouldn’t kill you?” Katara asked.

 

“A lot?”

 

And she laughed gently. “Yeah. But I’m glad you’re safe. You had Aang scared out of his wits.”

 

“Sorry,” Zuko mumbled.

 

“Just promise not to do it again,” she said.

 

“I promise.”

 

He hoped he could keep it.



The flight was quiet. Both Sokka and Suki had nestled to Zuko’s side, insistent that it wasn’t because they were worried about him. Occasionally Katara and Aang would talk to each other in the quiet laughing manner they reserved just for the two of them. But other than that the silence was impermeable.

 

Eventually Aang spoke up. “So where are we going exactly?”

 

“Well, I assumed you had a plan,” Toph said. 

 

“I kind of thought Sokka would come up with one. You’re the plan guy, right?” Aang asked.

 

“I guess I am. And my plan is to open the floor to any ideas!” No one responded. “I’ll get the ball rolling, we can see where it goes from there. So it needs to be somewhere no one would expect to find us, but where we can also have a certain level of luxury. I’m not sleeping in any more caves.” 

 

No one responded beside the gentle murmur of the clouds.

 

Zuko wasn’t sure if he was established enough in the group to give a suggestion. They still had every right to distrust him. But it was worth a shot, giving his opinion.

 

 He touched the edge of his scar, hesitant, but he trusted the Avatar and his friends not to punish insubordination the same way the Fire Nation did. 

 

“Have you thought of Ember Island?” Zuko piped up.

 

“No,” Sokka said. “What is it?”

 

“It’s a beach island off the coast of the Fire Nation. It’s mostly vacationers. Me and my family used to go during the summer, I think our old house shouldn’t have anyone in it right now.”

 

“I mean, we don’t have any better options,” Katara said.

 

“And I’d love to go to the beach,” Aang added.

 

“I’ve even been practicing my sand bending,” Toph said. “I’m ready to show Zuko my skills.” She punched him in the arm, something he’d come to recognize as the ultimate Toph show of approval.

 

“I can’t wait to see it,” he said, trying his best to wink at Sokka.



Luckily for Zuko the beach house was empty. It would have been incredibly awkward if Zuko had led them right to the Fire Nation forces.

 

Instead the Avatar and his friends settled into Zuko’s old house without issue. He could feel the spirits of his childhood in every bump in the wood grain and every uneven floorboard, but having everyone else around was helping more than he’d like to admit.

 

“Zuko,” Sokka shouted, his footsteps echoing off the hallway where he’d once played with his sister, “Zuko there are actual beds here. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve slept on an bed?”

 

“A while?”

 

“Exactly! It’s been too long.” He cracked his spine. “My back’s killing me.”

 

“You sound just like my uncle. He’s always complaining about his back or his joints.”

 

“Should I take that as a compliment?” Sokka asked. Zuko nodded in response. “Awesome. Me and Suki were going to go into town today to get some food. I would invite you along but…”

 

“What? Why not?”

 

“It’s, uh, well the scar’s pretty distinctive.”

 

“Really? How bad is it? Honestly.” 

 

Sokka took a moment to respond. “It’s not bad, it’s just unique. And covering half your face. Which is cool, all power to you, scar’s can be really interesting, but you’re also wanted for treason. So not getting recognized is probably in your best interest. In all of our best interests.”

 

Back on his ship Zuko would have blown up if someone talked to him like that. Every member of his crew knew not to bring up his face unless they wanted their teenage commander to scream at them for half an hour before storming off to complain to Asoko.

 

But here Zuko appreciated the honesty.

 

“I get it,” Zuko said. “Just pick me up some fire flakes.”

 

“Got it, hotman!”

 

“Hey! Don’t take that from Aang!” He cried out as he heard Sokka leaving. “No one says that in the Fire Nation except grandmas!”

 

“Sorry, can’t hear you,” Sokka’s distant voice called with a laugh.

 

That night Zuko got to hear Sokka eat fire flakes for the first time, and the joy of that far outweighed any annoyance he still harbored about the group's horrible use of slang.

Chapter Text

They settled into a routine on Ember Island. Every morning Zuko and Aang would rise with the sun to train. After about an hour Katara or Sokka would make breakfast before waking Suki up. They’d spend a few more hours messing around before there’d be murmurs spread through the group. Someone needed to wake up Toph.

 

It was a terrifying job, one likely to get you a boulder straight to the head. But it had to be done or else she’d complain for hours about missing the best part of the day. Zuko was convinced she only did it to prod Aang, but he couldn’t prove anything.

 

After a hearty discussion it was decided that Zuko would wake Toph up, just like he did every afternoon.

 

“Toph,” he whispered, knocking at her door. She grunted and flung herself over. “Toph you need to get up. Katara’s almost finished lunch.”

 

“Go away,” she grumbled. He carefully walked over, making sure no rocks were itching up in the air. Without ceremony or warning he tugged at her sleeping bag to try to toss her out of it. There might be plenty of beds but she insisted sleeping as close to the ground as possible was good for her. Something about earth and her spine. It was a very long monologue, he could be forgiven for not following all of it.

 

“Hey!” she shouted, sitting up. Zuko dodged a flying pair of rocks that hissed beside his face. “I was comfortable in there.”

 

“And now you’re not, so get up. I think Katara’s going to stab me with a shard of ice if I don’t get you down soon.”

 

“Fair,” she said. “I’ll be down in five minutes.”

 

Twenty minutes later she came into the kitchen, trailed by yawns and sighs. 

 

Zuko handed her lunch, a bowl of noodles that finally had some spice in their bones. There was nothing Zuko loved more than plowing through three bowls of noodles that reminded him of home while everyone else struggled to get through a few bites. Sokka couldn’t stand the heat either, but that didn’t stop him from finishing whatever everyone else didn’t eat. 

 

“So I have a surprise,” Katara said, crinkling and rummaging with a piece of paper before holding it up. “Ta da!”

 

“The Ember Island Players? Who are they?” Sokka asked, his words muffled by food.

 

“They’re a theater trope,” Zuko said. “My mom used to make us see Love Amongst the Dragons every year, and they were always terrible. It’s a beautiful story and they butchered. The costumes alone.” He shuddered.

 

“But this production’s about us! It’s about Aang! We have to go see it,” Katara said, the sound of her rolling up the scroll filling the air.

 

“You’re right, we can all see it together,” Toph said.

 

“That’s the spirit!” Katara paused. “Was that a blind joke?”

 

“Why are you even still asking?”



When they were all disguised to Sokka’s liking (apparently all Zuko would have needed to go into town was a large hood) they began the walk along the cliff side to the theater. It had been a hot day but the cool breeze of the ocean mixed with the burgeoning night to make a pleasant walk. He and Toph dawdled in the back of the group, with everyone in the front excitedly chatting about what they thought would and wouldn’t make it into the play.

 

“I feel like I’m gonna learn a lot from this,” Toph said. “There’s so much stuff they did before I got here that I’ve never gotten fully explained.”

 

“You’re telling me. I only remember what happened when I was trying to kidnap Aang, probably murdering or maiming Sokka and Katara in the process.”

 

“At least you were there,” she said, kicking pebbles into the ocean below them. After a moment there would be a quiet splash, only delayed by the grip of the fall.

 

Their seats in the theater were good, though not nearly as good as the ones he and his family used to have every summer. He didn’t mind. Certain sacrifices had to be expected when one lost their royal status. And it wasn’t like Zuko could see anything anyway. Sokka tried to give him an overview of what was happening and where he was, but Sokka was distractible. He couldn’t get out more than two or three lines of description before he started talking about something else completely unrelated.

 

A hush fell over the crowd as an older man walked on stage. His feet were slow and steady, the walk of someone who had done this a thousand times before and who was prepared to do it a thousand times again.

 

“Esteemed members of the Fire Nation, tonight I’d like to welcome you to a very special show. An original right from our island, welcome to the Boy in the Iceberg.”

 

The crowd applauded and Zuko could hear the creak of poorly-oiled machinery as the curtain was drawn away. Thunder, created by the waving of a large metal sheet if he remembered correctly, rippled through the audience as the first two actors walked on stage.

 

“Uncle!” One of the actors, light on his feet but heavier on the left, said. “I need to find the Avatar and restore my honor!” He took a few steps and a ringing sound echoed through the theater and the crowd erupted into laughter.

 

“Zuko, what have I said before? You need to be careful,” the second actor said with a sigh. 

 

“I’m fine!” There wa another ringing, this time further to the right.

 

“Nephew! What did I say?”

 

“It doesn’t matter because I think I finally see something.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“My honor.” There was more raucous laughter.

 

All Zuko could do was sit there. This wasn’t good.



The walk back was quiet. No one was happy with the way they were portrayed but no one wanted to bring up any complaints. Except Toph of course, who was excitedly jabbering on about how great the buff guy playing her had been. But Toph was the exception to the rule, she always was.

 

Eventually Katara spoke. “Those were some weird portrayals right?”

 

“Yeah, completely wrong,” Aang said. “I’m not just a little stupid kid. And Zuko’s way more competent than that.” 

 

“And they made him blind, which is a strange choice.”

 

“Oh no, Zuko’s blind in real life,” Aang said.

 

“What are you talking about?” Katara seemed genuinely confused.

 

“I mean, it’s pretty clear he can’t see, at least not well. Have you not seen the massive scar on his face? And his eyes don’t really track anything.” He put his hand on Zuko’s arm. “I mean, that is true, right?” Aang laughed, a little timid. “It would be super embarrassing if you could see.”

 

“No, no, I’m blind.” He waved his hand in front of his face. “I see nothing.” What else could he say? This situation had never come up when he was preparing to meet the Avatar.

 

“That is the definition of being blind, Sparky.”

 

“How come none of you are surprised?” Katara asked. “Did you all already know?”

 

There was silence for a moment and Sokka whispered that everyone was nodding. Zuko replied that he was blind not stupid.

 

“I can’t believe no one told me. And you, Zuko,” she said before slowing down, questioning what to say, “are you good?”

 

“In what way?” No one seemed to get his joke so he soldiered on. “But yes, I’ve been blind for three years, I’ve pretty much figured out what I’m gonna figure out.”

 

“Cool, Cool,” Katara whispered. Toph kicked a few more rocks over the cliff and they whistled into the water. “So are we going to talk about this?”

 

“I was hoping we wouldn’t,” Zuko said. 

 

“That seems fair,” she replied.

Chapter Text

“What sort of bullshit is that? There’s no way I’m letting you fight your sister alone,” Katara yelled next to him. “Oh don’t look so surprised Zuko. Did you really think I’d let you throw your life away like that?”

 

“I’m sorry, I’ve just never heard you curse before.” 

 

“Now is not the time,” she said, her voice exasperated and rising over the growing din of electrical chatter in the air.

 

“Enough talking,” Azula said, her voice wavering. Her energy was wild, radiating off of her in great bursts and rippling through the air. “If Zuzu won’t fight me alone that’s fine.” She spit out the last word. “But get it over with already. I have a coronation to get to.”

 

Zuko let the energy of the air wash over him. His skin began to heat as he got ready to fight his sister. 

 

“Be careful fighting Azula. There’s something off about her. I can sense it,” he whispered to Katara.

 

“I know you can’t see, Zuko, but that’s incredibly clear from looking at her,” Katara replied.

 

The air cracked and his sister sent a searing hot blast of lightning towards them. Zuko stood in its path and let it run through his body and out through his other hand. It burned, just a bit, but it was pure power and pure energy racing through his body. He felt serene and twisted. No matter how many times he redirected lightning Zuko thought it would always remain this profoundly beautiful and profoundly spiritual moment. 

 

His sister was saying something but all he could register was the shock in her voice and the waver in her bending.

 

While she was distracted Katara was able to lure her to the edge of the courtyard, over a pit of water. And then his sister was captured. The rattle of her chains and the hoarse cries of her screams as she was led away would ring in his ears for the rest of his life.



His father was defeated. Aang has taken away his bending, something that was now apparently possible. Yet another reason Zuko was glad he fled his nation when he did.

 

“So I guess we’re going to have to address the elephant bear in the room,” Sokka said, leaning on his non-injured leg. Zuko’s old home, the city he’d grown up in, was wearing the rags of its former glory. His father may have been cruel and power hungry and tyrannical, but that was all the people of the Fire Nation knew. It had only been weeks and there was already unrest boiling inches below the surface of the nation. It was Zuko’s rightful place to take the throne since Iroh had turned it down, but the idea still terrified him. 

 

“And what’s that?” Katara asked. The tea cup she had been drinking from clinked against her saucer when she put it down. The sound was hollow.

 

“The fact that no one’s leading the Fire Nation. And I know you need some time to adjust,” he tapped on Zuko’s shoulder, “that’s okay, but someone needs to lead the country until you’re ready. There’s a power vacuum, and we know what happens when there’s one of those.” He made fake explosion sounds with his mouth. “I’m miming a disaster, Zuko.”

 

“You really don’t have to narrate these things to me. I can figure things out. And you don’t do that for Toph. She can’t see either.”

 

“Well Toph scares me, okay?”

 

She punched him in the arm, the sound bouncing through the air. “Damn right I do.”

 

“While this is all very entertaining,” Aang interjected, “Sokka does bring up a good point. I know your uncle said he wouldn’t rule the Fire Nation, but I’m sure he could act as a regent until you’re ready to take over.”

 

“I’m sure he will but that’s not what I’m worried about,” Zuko mumbled, running his fingers through his hair and trying not to touch the scar down his face.

 

“Well what is it then?” Aang asked.

 

“I mean look at me. Look at my face. Do you really think the Fire Nation will accept me as their leader?”

 

“Of course they will. After your father I think they’d accept an uprooted bush,” Toph said.

 

“Thank you. That’s such a boost to my confidence.”

 

“What I’m trying to say is that you’ll be fine. You’re gonna make a ton of mistakes, of course. I’ve seen you, it’s going to be terrible for a couple years. But you’ll figure it out. And if anyone causes problems for you I will personally find them and threaten them.” Her fist connected to her palm. Zuko never wanted to be on the receiving end of one of Toph’s threats. 

 

“I’ll be there for you too,” Sokka said.

 

“Us too,” Aang and Katara added.

 

“Thank you,” Zuko said to all of them. It didn’t encompass everything he wanted to say, but then what could do that?



Zuko finished packing his bag, slipping the last pair of clothes in. His blades were already securely tied to his back and he’d gotten more than enough food from the palace kitchens to last him until the next city. There was so much he needed to do, so much he needed to say before he could accept the throne, and he doubted this would come close. But it was somewhere to start.

 

The journey ahead of him was daunting but he was ready. Iron would be acting as regent until he got back, ensuring that the Fire Nation didn’t fall into chaos when he left it. Zuko could finally get closure on all that he had left behind.

 

A knock sounded on his door. “Zuko, you weren’t really planning to leave without me, were you?” Toph asked.

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“I’m coming with you. That is okay, right?”

 

He nodded. “Yeah, yeah it is.”

 

“Good.” She picked his bag up off the bed and her footsteps headed towards the door. “Now, where are we going first?”

Chapter Text

They’d travelled as far as they could on land. Zuko wanted to take a ship the whole way. It would be much smaller than the one he’d travelled on with his uncle, despite his new status, but it would be comfortable. It would be familiar. Alas, Toph complained the second her feet disconnected from the solid ground.

 

But eventually he’d had to coax Toph on a ship, convince her to cross the ocean against her wishes. And here they were, pulling into a port that smelled familiar.

 

Zuko had made the crew swear three times over that they weren’t flying any Fire Nation symbols. He trusted them not to disobey his orders, but his trust didn’t extend far enough that he wasn’t light on his feet, alert and ready to sense any oncoming attacks.

 

But docked without issue and the crew left him and Toph, off to do whatever it was people did when they weren’t around Zuko. He let his shoulders down and walked off the gangway, swaying a bit on the rely solid ground.

 

Toph sighed and her body hit the ground as soon as she stepped off the gangway behind him. “Ah, sweet sweet Earth. How I missed you.” 

 

“How long is this going to take?”

 

“Be quiet, Sparky. I’m sure you’d understand if your bending got taken away every time you stepped on a boat.”

 

“Can’t you just feel through the metal?” Zuko asked.

 

“It’s not the same. This earth here is so much purer. So much deeper.”

 

“Yeah, it’s also the dirt of a major city’s port. Do you know how gross that is?” 

 

“Ugh, way to ruin the mood. Let’s just go where we’re going if you’re going to be like that,” she said with a purposely exaggerated groan.

 

Zuko began to walk through the bustling dock. He’s been practicing with his bending, learning how to sense the dozens of bodies and creatures and stones that littered a city. Children yelled to his left, a merchant haggled with a street seller to his right. People breathed out warm air and created cool pockets when they breathed in. Warm figures dotted the street, carrying boxes of stinking fish and fresh fruit, heavy and sweet.

 

It was much quieter once they left the docks, though the streets of the lower ring were still loud with creatures and the voices of people. It was a different kind of sound, a sedentary kind that promised a fresh day in stale circumstances.

 

“Where are we going again?” Toph asked, tugging on his sleeve.

 

“The Upper Ring.”

 

“And you’re just going to walk there? Take the train?”

 

“Of course. That’s the only way to do it.”

 

Toph laughed and cracked her knuckles. “You really don’t know anything. Come on. And avoid the Dai Li.”

 

“Who?”

 

“You’re absolutely helpless,” she muttered as she pulled him down into a cold tunnel. It seemed old, the ground unsteady beneath his feet. A thin layer of water splashed onto his legs with each step, and Zuko wasn’t sure whether it had soaked up from the ground or dropped from the ceiling. 

 

Sound echoed around him, and he began to lose track of where he was. Each stone felt familiar, each time like the one before. He focused on Toph’s heat ahead of him and pretended he wasn’t afraid of what would happen to him down here if he lost her.

 

They walked through the seemingly endless web of tunnels for longer than Zuko was comfortable with, but eventually Toph pulled him up a ladder and back into the sun.

 

“Here, come on,” she said, pulling him away from the spot he’d rooted himself in beneath the sun’s rays. He needed that energy, just like she needed the strength of the ground. “Let’s get some food before we start looking for whatever you’re here for.”

 

They found a small bakery that smelled warm and Toph ordered two of every bun they had, just so they could sample them all. And because she said Fire Nation food wasn’t as good as Zuko claimed. He scoffed at her claim but couldn’t deny the pleasure of biting into a perfectly smooth steamed pork bun.

 

As they were walking out of the store Zuko heard a familiar voice. It couldn’t be this easy, but Zuko wasn’t going to push his luck and deny what was near him.

 

“Li?”

 

“Belo?” Zuko turned towards the voice and was crushed in a massive hug.

 

“Li, I thought you were dead.” Belo shook a bit as he held Zuko, but Zuko let him stay there. It was nice being back around his friend, even if that title was shaky, just a normal kid who wasn’t wrapped up in the future of the world.

 

“I’m sorry Belo. I meant to come back, I meant to explain.”

 

“It’s okay. Come on, both of you can head home with me. We can talk there.” Belo’s breath shook. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

 

And so they stayed with Belo. A week later Belo’s father had loaded them down with food and their hosts had accompanied them back to the ship. It had been a joyous week, catching back up with Belo and Mio, avoiding talking about the Fire Nation and the Avatar. Toph answered any questions she could and showed off her metalbending skills, something Belo still insisted must be a magic trick. Belo’s mother had made a metal sheet quiver, though, so Zuko suspected he was beginning to believe.

 

Toph complained the whole first day they were back on the ship. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t stay in Ba Sing Se. They had a good thing going there, they didn’t need to ruin it by getting back on one of those floating coffins.

 

But she’d eventually calmed down, spending her free time bending the walls of the ship into faces and other things that scared the crew enough to bring the issue up with Zuko. There wasn’t anything he could do, of course, but he was glad he didn’t have to see the supposedly horrifying creations Toph was leaving for everyone.

 

The air was chilly up here in the North. Zuko’s coat was heavy but the cold still creeped in, piercing his arms and legs and sending his teeth chattering through his skull.

 

Toph had crept below deck an hour before and huddled next to the fire powering the ship. He could feel her down below, soaking up the heat. Everyone else on board was giving him space. He wanted to tell them they didn’t need to fear him as Firelord. They didn’t need to, they shouldn’t, but it gave him a moment of quiet. For that he was grateful.

 

They weren’t going to the Northern Water Tribe itself. Zuko wouldn’t be well received, and anyway it just didn’t feel appropriate. Too many chances for a diplomatic crisis. Zuko wouldn’t risk the future of so many people just to make himself feel better.

 

So here he was, his legs dangling over the edge of the ship, miles away from the nearest settlement. The cold metal dug into his thighs as he carefully ran the dagger between his hands. His dagger, his uncle’s dagger, Asoko’s dagger.

 

After he’d left Ba Sing Se he’d tried to keep it hidden away, out of sight so he wouldn’t have to think about it. But he couldn’t do that anymore, not after everything that had happened.

 

The air was cold and the dagger was colder. He almost wanted to hold onto it, to keep it a moment longer, but instead he let it drop into the water. It fell for a moment before it splashed into the water.

 

It wasn’t where Asoko died, but she’d died in the sea. This was as close to her as he was ever going to get again.

 

He swung his legs back onto the ship and pulled the hood of his coat up, yelling to the crew to turn the ship back towards warmer waters.

 

He found Toph where he’d last sensed her, crouched next to the flames. With a nudge to her shoulder he sat down and joined her.

 

“You okay?” Toph asked.

 

“Yeah,” he said, “I think I am.” Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but it wasn’t good to dwell on such things.

 

“Good. Now, I have a list of places Katara, Sokka, and Aang won’t shut up about.”

 

“But you can’t write.”

 

“It’s in my mind. Obviously.” She said the last word like it didn’t need to be added.

 

“Okay, what’s on the list then?”

 

“I want to go back to the Earth Kingdom. Ditch the ship. The Avatar Day Festival’s soon, the one with the unfried dough Sokka still complains about, and then after we could go to Kyoshi Island.”

 

“I don’t know how well I’ll be remembered there,” Zuko said, rubbing his neck.”

 

Toph punched him in the shoulder. “All the more reason to go.”