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Respirable PM4

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Pearl cries as she stuffs the fat blunt into her delicate, thin-lipped mouth. If only Steven were here to see her smoking this earth marijuana. Steven was her universe…and now he's gone, leaving nothing but a black hole in the nebula of her galaxy.

She turns on the television. The same television Steven's huge eyes were glued to every day. Some cartoon is playing. Oh yeah. It's those ponies. Those My Little Ponies. Steven and her used to laugh at Twilight Sparkle's neurotic behavior every day. She saw a bit of herself in Twilight Sparkle, though she would never have admitted it.

But those days are over. Now she just watches Pinky Pie episodes. Her mood swings are much closer to how Pearl is these days. But she lacks Pinky Pie's manic swings of inspiration. How would Connie have labeled Pinky Pie? Connie, who went to college and got an ulcer and an anxiety disorder grinding for a degree when she had the whole universe at her fingertips: miraculous artifacts, paradisaical lands, all the tools she needed to instantly create what could only ever be dry, anemic theory in the hermetic, self-preserving cargo cult of higher learning. Clinging to the productivity-obsessed old ways even after scarcity had been defeated, jockeying for status and approval in a hierarchy that didn't have to exist. Not enough people could dream of a better Earth, even while it was green.

When the Darkshatterwar came, academics survived by becoming managers and bureaucrats for neoliberal austerity and privatization measures sold via messages of diversity and empowerment, which paved the way for corporate looting of key infrastructure across Beach City and Kansas, followed by a coalition between the impotent liberal left and right wing oligarchs in the name of "emergency measures". Leathery old wonks like Mayor Dewey were swiftly reinstated to serve as political puppets. Everyone knew he'd cave, no surprises there, although the others…most of their friends…people who said they were just trying to survive…came as a greater shock. But some people did a lot more than others to ensure their place in the new order.

A trickster archetype. That's what Connie would have called Pinkie Pie. Pearl exhales a massive blast of the earth weed and tries to get off the couch.

Trickster archetype. Maybe that's what she needs. Someone who can cut through this fog. Show her something unexpected in this mess beyond the crushing black and white reality of it.

She sinks back into the couch. This earth weed hits way harder than water. She used to think plants were just green water but they are so much more. She realizes this now that she burnt a plant and put it inside her.

No. Can't give up. She summons her sword from her forehead gem and stabs it into the expensive hardwood floor, pulling herself off the couch.

Curse Amethyst and her traumatic retreat into 24/7 hydroponics. And Garnet--she hasn't merged back together ever since the devastating end of the Darkshatterwar. Ruby and Sapphire just play coop Dark Souls and Left 4 Dead in their room and don't speak to anyone else.

Pearl grabs the tv and says, you don't have power over me anymore! You don't control me, Pinky Pie! She shoves the tv into her forehead. Out of sight, inside of mind…

Zuko from Avatarworld is making pancakes in the kitchen. Black circles would be a more accurate description. He gets so impatient every time he's confronted with mundane cookware and tries to Firebend everything. Pearl tried to teach him how to use a microwave but he just keeps shooting fire at Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls.

Pearl can't blame him for being angry. Avatarworld was destroyed in the Darkshatterwar. He doesn't have many people from his culture to talk to besides his insane sister. The Beach House is just a cave system full of lost souls now, with a domestic kitchen and living room façade for bitter contrast.

Focus, Pearl. Pinkie Pie. Trickster archetypes. What were you trying to do?

Zuko turns to her unexpectedly, pancake batter spattering his scarred face. "Are you going outside again? You could be captured. Killed. You know that Rouge the Bat's stealth device doesn't go past these walls."

Pearl sighs. When did that idiot Zuko become such a worrier, and she, Pearl, the delinquent child sneaking out after dark? She shakes her head. I'm still a mother archetype. I'm still responsible. She hacks and coughs as the earth weed interacts with her crystalline field.

"I'm going to look for Pinkie Pie. I mean, I'm going to look for a trickster archetype."

"That's stupid."

"Do you even know what an archetype is?"

"I don't need to know what something is to know it's bad. Most things are bad. It's just statistics."

Pearl feels a weird sensation. She opens the refrigerator door. Why is she doing this?

Maybe she could ask Rouge the Bat. There's a trickster. But ever since Tail's horrible accident, Rouge has been taking care of that multi-tailed twerp night and day, and it's really cut into her mood. That buxom bat is finally surrounded by the ultimate, living expression of gems and all she can think of is the broken bodies of her comrades.

The refrigerator. Pearl's been staring into it for how long now? When Steven used to do this, she thought maybe it was some kind of earth meditation. Their form of prayer. But now she realizes Steven was wondering which foods to eat. But Pearl doesn't eat. She drinks water sometimes just to feel something. But food…that's complicated.

She grabs a carton of milk. This seems like a good intersection between food and water. She tilts the carton and feels its weight shift, liquid physics propelling the milk down toward the opening. It hits her mouth with a cold stinging sensation. It's like drinking seawater and blood and--blood. The blood spattered her mouth when it happened. She never thought blood would smell so bad. Their bodies collapsing around her, the air penetrated by millions of millimeter-sized shards. No words or weapons could shield against such a sudden, penetrating attack, the bodies of their friends loaded into the Mass Gem Driver and fired at them in countless pieces. And even when the shattering ended, there was no reprieve. The atmosphere was seeded with crystalline dust from all the pulverized Gems, leading to widespread silicosis in the population. Lung scarring, respiratory and brain inflammation, constant micro-hemorrhage. They spent the next three years breathing their friends in.

The cold sensation of milk inside her body brings her back to reality.

"Uh, are you good, Pearl?" Zuko is holding a cup of fresh pancake batter and staring at her.

"I'm greeeeaat, Zuko. Just drinking some of this earth milk!"

She chugs the rest of the carton and wipes the milk off her face. "I'm going for a walk. A normal earth walk!"

Zuko's face tightens. "Whatever. If you get yourself captured, don't lead them back here."

"Zuuuuko. How could you talk to me like that?" She tries to affect her old motherly tone.

"Don't make me laugh. When I first got here, I used to think of you as a…something like a mom." He pours the pancake batter into a big, glistening circle. "But I was just looking for someone to fill the void left by my uncle. You're nothing like him. You're not a parent at all. You're just a mineral playing dollhouse. You'll never know how this feels." He points to the scar over his eye. "You'll always be hard and cold. It's the way you were made."

He coughs, a few droplets of blood landing in the pancake batter. "You'll never understand what it's like to--" He turns away from her, visibly suppressing the fire in his veins.

It's dark outside. It's always dark, after the atmospheric dust event, but this feels like night dark. She turns her forehead gem on like a miner's headlamp and immediately pukes milk onto the sand, along with a suitcase, an umbrella, a vial of penicillin, and ten phones.

She snaps her fingers. Of course. Steven was always cutting this shit with cereal. Raw milk must be some kind of exotic, dangerous drug.

Eyes on the prize, Pearl. Trickster archetype. Pinkie Pie. Pink. PINK. She remembers now.

She trudges to the old van, burnt out on the beach. A slender figure dandles its legs from the roof.

"Whaddya want from ol' Spinel?"

Pearl says, "I don't know. I thought maybe you could tell me something. The ponies…on the teevee…I don't know what I was thinking. I think this earth milk is affecting my judgment." She takes another hit of the enormous blunt. It's starting to go out. Maybe she can ask Zuko to light it for her again. It would be a blessing for him, really. Give him a constructive project. Maybe she needs to find more things for that boy to set on fire, maybe that could save him, save everyone…she starts weeping lactic tears.

Spinel's annoying voice pierces the terrible silence of that black beach. "You think just cuz I'm crazy I can offer you some special insight?" She hops down, her weird-ass body boinging in all directions. "Being crazy is boring, because you're that way all the time, or you're trying not to be, both of which involve the lengthy contemplation of being crazy. It's only fun for you because you're on the outside."

Spinel rummages inside a cooler full of dirty ice and pulls out a Hot Pocket. She munches on it without taking the wrapper off, her incredibly powerful teeth crunching through the rock-hard pseudo-calzone.

"You're always stuck in your head, Pearl. Crying every time I see you. Crying so much over the meatbags you lost that you don't see the ones right in front of your eyes. These critters of flesh and blood aren't like us, Pearl. They can't afford to wait around for a thousand years just to see if something changes. They're weak and squishy and they die."

Pearl tastes blood in her gemhole again. No. That's just milk coming up the wrong hole, carrying an electric current of flashbacks.

But there is blood in there, of a sort. Dried blood, dried to rusty brown. Steven is still inside her. She thought she could save him. Bring him to a hospital. Connie's mother. Some kind of magic healing artifact. But in the end, there was nothing.

So he remains there, rotting, crammed into the back of her mind like old takeout, and the more time passes, the more sick she feels at the thought of checking on what's become of him. Don't think about it. Don't.

Spinel's strident voice brings her back again. "Like what? Zuko is 25 now? Rouge is 36? What do you think their lungs are like now? In ten years? You blink and they'll dissolve before your eyes."

Pearl clutches herself. She tries not to cry, knowing her tears will just add more crystalline death to the atmosphere. "What do I do?"

"Haha! Mama Pearl asking us for advice." Spinel finishes crunching down the rest of the frozen Hot Pocket. "That's a laugh. And I could really use one." But she isn't laughing. Pearl can't see her face in the double dark of the dust-shrouded night. And she doesn't want to see.

She backs up slowly. "I'm sorry, Spinel…I didn't mean…I'm sorry…"

"Look at you. Grow a spine. All we can do is survive now. No one is going to reward you for being cute or kind or smart or whatever. It's just live or die. Shatter or be shattered."

A circle of light probes across the beach. "Uh oh. Looks like they found you." Spinel wraps herself in a tinfoil cloak and burrows into the sand below the van. "Bye bye, Pearl…"

Pearl looks up. The absolute horror of that light paralyzes her. Maybe it's for the best. End it all. Join her friends shattered in the atmosphere.

She closes her eyes.

The light flares, bright enough to penetrate even her mineral lids. But it's not the pure, sterile white light she expected--it's warm and angry and unstable.

She turns and sees an arc of fire sail from Zuko's fingers, crashing into the grim machinery in the sky. Fragments of black metal crash to the sand, the sand where no one plays, because disturbing it would kick shredding micro-particles into the lungs. She jumps to the side without even thinking about it. My body remembers, even if I don't. It wants to survive. Maybe I should listen.

A hunk of wreckage slams right where she was standing, knocking clouds of glittering sand into the air. She runs through the dusty eruptions of the beach, shielded from the cyclopean sky.

Somehow they're back in the kitchen, inside the stealth field. Zuko is coughing from the crystalline air, his hand probing blindly for the kitchen faucet. Pearl finds a half-drunk glass of water and brings it to him. He swallows greedily, still too hoarse to talk. She sees his eyes are speckled red, micro-cuts in the sclera from running through the crystal particle air.

"Zuuuuuko! You don't have to save me! I didn't ask for--"

Something soft hits her face. It takes her a second to realize what it is. It's what humans call a slap. On TV shows it always looks so painful, so sharp. But those are soft humans hitting other soft humans. This is just Zuko's weak palm of mere flesh hitting her mineral carapace. It feels like nothing.

Zuko cries, his tears faintly tinged with red. "You'll never…never…" He trails off and crawls out of the room, his coughs echoing in the halls where Steven once ran.

Pearl curls up in the middle of the kitchen. She smells Zuko's pancakes burning. That's okay. They can burn. Everything can burn.

Chapter Text

Zuko stares at the dried pancake batter on the back of his hand. Memories of last night ooze into him like loose gobs of pancake batter on the rim of a jet-black mixing bowl. He feels white-hot rage. Pearl saw him crying. Saw his weakness. Never again. He’s not risking himself for that philosophical zombie.

He props himself up against the wall of Steven’s room. So that’s where he ended up last night. Everything exactly like it was. Games, posters, cheeseburger backpack. Covered in so much dust it looks like a sepia flashback.

Something bothers him about trying to save Pearl. Not just because she saw his weakness, or because she was taking stupid risks. Because it was reflexive. The reflex of a dog. Like he was trying to save his old friends. But they aren’t ever coming back.

He scrapes the pancake batter off his hand. Adding a little more bleak, colorless dust to this drained room. A cocoon layered with years of childish exploration. None of the other rooms in this place will ever be like that again. No one will grow or mature in them. Just stasis cells for broken people.

Something hits him in the head. He braces himself against the wall, fire igniting in his palm. It rolls across the floor. An empty can of Guacola. Only one person would be twisted enough to drink something like that.

Azula leans in the doorway, her eyes even baggier than usual. “Good morning, brother. We are out of food and beverages.” She must be really hungry to be this monotone. “You are going to solve this problem.”

Zuko gets up. “It’s not safe. I’ll try to make pancakes again.”

Azula flips her dangling black hair spikes and walks over without saying anything. She smells really bad. She refuses to shower, saying the water is tainted with micro-shards. Probably, but Zuko would be lost without his really hot showers. The only thing that can warm him up without triggering his fear of fire. So what if the water spraying his face is slowly killing him. Everything does that now.

He moves past Azula. Something crushes his shoulder. “I said, we are out of food and beverages.” Her hand digs into him, nails long and untrimmed. He tries to pry it off but her grip tightens. “I want a gallon bottle of Guacola. I want two packs of Hostess Ding Dongs. And I want twenty boxes of Totino’s Party Pizza.”

“Get your own party pizza,” he says, gritting his teeth.

She doesn’t say anything. Zuko smells something burning. Is that me? His stomach suddenly feels like ice water. He struggles but his bones are like jelly.

“A-Azula. Please—”

Azula’s old tone is suddenly back, the faintest hint of vocal fry coating the merciless wire of her voice. “How about a nice sisterly hand print on your shoulder to remind you of me? I think it would go great with the little souvenir on your face. Get the whole family together. Daddy on your face, sister on your shoulder. Mother…well, she missed her chance to mutilate you.”

Smoke rises from Zuko’s shoulder. Tears jet involuntarily from his eyes. “F-fine. Pizza. I’ll get you pizza. Please—”

“What kind of pizza?”

“Uh.”

The smell of smoke hits his nostrils and his legs almost cave in. “Totino’s Party Pizza.”

“And how many?”

“Ten. Um. No. Twenty!”

She releases her grip on his shoulder. “Love you, Zuko.” Her tone is sweet now. She walks away, then pauses. “Isn’t it customary to reciprocate such terms of familial endearment? Even in this barbaric, uncivilized place?” She turns back, her face soft and troubled. “You do love me, don’t you Zuko?”

The mark on Zuko’s shoulder burns. He hasn’t dared look at it yet, afraid of what he’ll see. “Yes. Of course.”

Azula cackles and disappears into the hallway.

Zuko collapses on the bed, years of dust puffing up around him. He tries to calm the shaking. Tries to look at his shoulder. Not again. Not another one. It took him so long to get over the first scar. And this time he won’t have any friends to help him.

A red mark. Like a really bad sunburn. It’ll peel, but it won’t scar. He exhales and a few more tears involuntarily roll down his face.

Time to buy some pizza.

Chapter Text

Zuko lingers outside the supermarket, prismatic ash blowing through the air. His hair grew so long in hiding that he can cover his scar easily. But he’s still worried about being spotted. There’s a bounty on rebels. Lifetime supply of Nutritionally Fortified Wafl. Even the kindest person who spots him can’t afford to pass that up. Not with empty bellies and hungry children.

A blue Gem is at the supermarket checkout. What was her name? Lapis. Used to see her around in the early days of refuge. But she bugged out, ran off. He always wondered what happened to her. She’s wearing dead eyes and a control collar. She must have taken the deal, back when they still let you surrender. Your powers in exchange for the bare minimum of survival.

Zuko brings the stack of party pizzas, Ding Dongs, and soda over to the counter.

“Hello, Zuko.” Fuck. Lapis remembers him.

“Uh…”

She has no expression on her face. “Don’t worry. I won’t turn you in. I don’t eat, remember. There’s no incentive.”

“I’m not Zuko. But. Thanks.”

“You always were a dumbass. Paper or plastic?”

“Um.” Zuko knows what paper is. He still hasn’t really figured out plastic. Let’s play it safe. “Paper.”

Lapis turns to bag the groceries. A blue strand of hair hangs loose, exposing the fracture across her face.

*

Outside the supermarket, Zuko bends over, sucking air into his lungs. Even a 15 minute walk like this wears him out.

He collapses, his arms wrapped tight around the paper bag, cold Totino’s Party Pizzas chilling his skin. Like he’s holding his sister’s heart.

“You shouldn’t linger, Zuko.” Lapis is behind him, a cigarette smoking in her hand.

“Weren’t you just in there?”

“That was half an hour ago. I’m on break.”

Time is mediated by the lungs. Waxing and waning with every breath. How much time is he losing to the particles and their dark gravity? The weakness of blood and air that impairs his brain oxygen levels.

He coughs. Even the faintest hint of smoke is too much. Lapis stares down at him emotionlessly. “These things must really hurt your air sacs, huh.” She throws it down and grinds it out.

“Th-thanks Lapis.” His voice is hoarse, weak, unworthy of a Firebender.

“Don’t thank me. I didn’t do anything. It was just a reflex.”

Zuko understands. The way he felt saving Pearl. Vestiges of an older, obsolete personality.

“You should really drink more water.” Water. Zuko remembers Lapis whirling water around her fingers repetitively when she dissociated. She was spaced out back then too but she still had vibrational, alive days. Maybe there’s something we can do. A plan. Something. Guys? Her dissociation was never like this absolute, mineral stillness.

“Okay. Sure.” Something hot flashes in his chest. “Got any water for me, Lapis?”

She looks at him like a statue. “Why don’t you try the drinking fountain.”

“You sure? You sure you don’t have any?” Just want her to feel something. Even hate.

“Your pizza is going to thaw.”

It’s true. And Azula doesn’t like fucked-up pizza. Zuko stands up with great effort.

Something hurts in his chest when he looks at Lapis, and it ain’t just the respiratory scarring talking. She reminds him of someone else. Someone who also played with water when she was nervous. No. Don’t think about her. About any of them. Besides, they never really left. They’re in his lungs, slowly cutting him to shreds. Skeletons disintegrated and turned to aerosol bone dust. He laughs.

“Something funny, prince?”

Is she being sarcastic? Or just formal? Hard to tell with Gems.

“Nothing. You wouldn’t get it.” Because you don’t have lungs.

“Probably not.”

Zuko walks home. The gray and silent sky provides no contrast to his thoughts, allowing them to overtake him. He was a prince once. But after the Fire Nation joined the enemy, he’s nothing. He doesn’t blame his soldiers and courtiers for abandoning him. They were loyal, but loyalty has its limits when you see a hundred benders turned to pink mist.

He needs to blot these thoughts out before he puts two fingers in his mouth and bends straight up into his brain. Pancakes won’t do it anymore. It doesn’t matter how fluffy and sweet they are. Doesn’t matter how much syrup he pours on. How much sweet cream butter he melts. It’s just perfume on a corpse.

He tried smoking some of Amethyst’s grow. But his lungs can’t handle it. And he can’t figure out how to play these “earth videogames”. Even Pearl can beat him.

Rouge used to hit on him during her hypersexual response to trauma phase. Maybe she’ll help him feel better. But Rouge hasn’t left Tail’s medical chamber for weeks, and Zuko doesn’t think he can handle hearing that beeping sound right now. Even for a massive pair of bat tits.

He passes through the stealth field. Beach House’s rotting, ash-coated wood appears in front of his face. As he opens the door, he smells something nice. An unusual sensation.

Someone is making pancakes. Someone with black hair and an apron worn over a tattered Fire Nation uniform.

“Azula?”

“Thought I’d try this pancake business for myself. See what all the fuss is about. Please, sit down.”

Zuko sits down, more from fatigue than any conscious compliance. His body is always telling him to sit down.

“I got you those pizzas.”

“That’s wonderful, Zuko. Very sweet of you.”

“Should I invite…um…Pearl?” He doesn’t like Pearl, but she’s the only other person in the house who still tries to interact with him. And being alone with Azula right now feels like too much.

“Oh, she’s busy right now. And I don’t think she has a digestive tract.”

“True...”

Azula places a perfect pancake plate in front of him.

“Why are you being so nice?”

“I just wanted to spend some time with my dear brother. Is it so complicated?”

Azula always lies.

“What do you want from me? I already got you party pizza.”

“So suspicious! Sometimes a pancake is just a pancake!” She takes a bite of his pancake. “Mmm! Delicious!”

Zuko’s stomach hurts. He tears off the strip of pancake farthest from Azula’s bite. It tastes really good. “Not bad.”

“Finally, a little brotherly acknowledgment!” She pours some orange juice into a tall glass.

Zuko can’t stop eating the pancake. He was so hungry. He washes it down with the orange juice. Comforting. Like it looks in the commercials.

He hears a noise in the hallway. “Is someone there?”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

White gloves crawl around the corner of the hallway. Stained with red. Zuko stops mid-chew, his cheeks puffed out with pancake.

Rouge’s head comes next. She’s dragging herself across the floor. And there’s a lot of blood. Her gargantuan rack squishes against the blood with each movement, sending crimson waves across the floor. “Fucking…bitch…” she rasps.

Zuko grabs the table and prepares to stand up. Azula puts her hand on his. “I wouldn’t do that, brother,” she says in a soft voice.

“What did you do?”

“Did you really think this could go on forever? Sitting around with you dead end losers?”

Blinding white light pierces the windows. Metallic scuttling on the porch boards.

“Why isn’t the house defending itself?” He looks at Rouge, fucked up and bleeding on the floor. “You did that to Rouge?”

“Let’s just say I didn’t want the smell of burnt fur on my clothes.” She holds up a bloody knife and smiles, covering her mouth like she was caught by a parent.

The house shakes as something enormous beats the air outside.

“It wasn’t personal. I had to access the house control panel, and her monolithic mammaries were kind of in the way.”

The living room windows shatter. Zuko falls off his chair. “They’re going to kill us!”

“Not us. I made a deal with them.”

Zuko stands up, barely able to hear her over the droning in the air. His left hand whips up and points at her head, heat pulsing along his tendons. In this blazing rage he can finally do what he should have done all along. Find that one second where he’s capable of putting her down like the mad bitch she is. Explode her head into grease spatter and bone ash.

But nothing comes out of his hand.

“What—”

“Just a powder in your orange juice, little firebug. For your own good.” Zuko’s lip trembles. That bitch blocked his fucking chakras.

He grabs for the knife but she throws it over her shoulder. “You were always going to get picked up one day. And you’d have fought back.” She grabs Zuko’s hands. “You’d have lifted these mitts up, done your silly little fire stuff—” She jiggles Zuko’s hands up and down. “—and their superior technology would have vaporized you before you got a single blast off.”

Harsh, whining things clatter through the shattered windows. “Don’t you get it? If I’m working for them, I can keep you alive.”

“Working for them?”

“They need people with experience. People who do what it takes to survive.”

She lifts her fist up slowly and clenches it. “Close your eyes, Zuzu.”

“What—”

The blue bolt knocks him to the floor. He can’t breathe. Something is burning. His muscles are spasming out of control.

Azula bends down, ozone trailing from her knuckles, sharp in his nostrils. “I love you, big brother. I won’t let them kill you.”

They’re in the living room now. Those inhuman things, heavy and metal and probing. And it’s a straight shot to the kitchen. This open floor plan will be the death of me, he thinks.

Chapter Text

The room is full of hair. Pale pink hair, blowing softly in an unheard wind. On every surface.

How long has he been watching that hair ripple peacefully? It feels like forever. Maybe he should try turning his head. Get a new perspective. The moral at the end of the episode. “Try looking at new stuff, shithead.”

It hurts to move his neck. Feels like he stuck a fork in the toaster. No. The toaster stuck a fork in him. Azula did something with electricity. And electricity causes memory loss. They use it in psychiatry and dictatorships.

The Beach House. Blood on the floor. Don’t want to remember. But it’s coming back.

He finishes turning his neck. On the other side of the room is a drone, suspended and profane.

He jerks back. It was so quiet he didn’t even see it. How long has it been watching him? Has it…done anything to him? He looks down at his body. His jeans and t-shirt are tattered from the electric shock, and the exposed skin has bruising and light burn marks. No incisions. No sign of their implants. But they have other ways of stunting you.

He waves his hand at the drone but no fire comes out. The ache around his neck is more than sororal-galvanic pain residue. He tugs at the collar, his body-image finally coalescing. A bitter helplessness, an incendiary castration.

Zuko imagines the fire jetting from his palm and melting the drone in half. It would feel so good not to be powerless. When he’s firebending, he’s not afraid. For a few burning moments he’s part of the flame, pure and hot and simple, no human nervous system to tangle him up. He heard a story once. Someone bent so hard they experience full ego death. Kept burning even after the flame disappeared from their hand. Making fire sounds all day.

The drone floats back into the hair and disappears. Someone in a lab coat walks through, a chunky white necklace hanging around her throat.

“Do you know why you’re here, Zuko?”

It’s Connie. She looks older and tired, but it’s her.

“Let me go.”

“You’re in therapy for a reason, Zuko. Because of your toxic masculinity.”

She lowers her voice. “I’m not in charge here. I’m just doing my job.”

“Just like Azula.”

“I may not like your sister—err, the captain, but she’s not wrong. Having someone working for the administration is a really good way to keep on living.“

Zuko grabs his collar. “This is living?”

“It’s not dying.”

“I might as well be dead.”

Connie shows the first display of emotion Zuko’s seen all session. “Do you know what it feels like to be dead, Zuko? It feels like nothing. It feels like what Steven’s feeling right now. What Katara is feeling right now. What most of our friends are feeling. Nothing.”

She turns her head away. “Be grateful you have the capacity to feel even this.”

*

Rouge paces around an identical cell, her rubbery marshmallowy feet padding softly across the maned floor. Her knife wound is bandaged, so they must need her for something. Finding out what that is doesn’t appeal to her. If only there was some kind of interface she could interact with. Hmm. This isn’t her first time in the slammer. But usually the slammer isn’t made of pink hair.

Of course. Put the world’s greatest computer genius in a meat prison.

She runs her hands through the hair. There has to be some kind of input/output.

She flips up some of the hair, tries to find the skin under it. There it is. Darker pink. Definitely alive. Faint lettering here and there. Labyrinth Integrated Organic Network.

Her lustrous white fur stiffens like it used to just before a heist went sideways. The sense that she missed a camera or tripped an invisible beam. She slowly pans her gaze around the room until it lands on a red mask with horns peering from the hairy walls.

“I’m here to make a deal.”

“A deal.”

“Don’t waste your talents on a dead insurgency. Help us make the world a better place.”

“A better place. That’s a laugh considering what we’re standing inside.”

“Standing inside?”

“Don’t waste my bat-damn time. This place is Lion, isn’t it.”

“A vat-grown riff on the classic. We had to give the original the old stone table treatment, I’m afraid.”

Rouge coughs, the stab wound suddenly aching.

“It’s a beaut, isn’t it? The hair is permeable only to those holding…something very intimate of Steven’s.”

“What the hell. You don’t have Steven. Steven is inside Pearl.”

“Not all of Steven. We took a souvenir from the final showdown.”

A perfect drop of sweat like a Pixar dewdrop (from A Bug’s Life) pops out of Rouge’s forehead.

“Steven’s right arm. The most unique set of keys in the universe. Impossible to duplicate or counterfeit.” The red-masked figure rubs the pinky bone hanging from their neck.

*

Zuko wakes up. He’s outside the room. There’s more hair out here, but this hair runs along a hall. A drone floats behind him, appendages erect. It moves slowly toward him so he keeps walking.

They emerge into a larger space the size of a small warehouse. The hair on the floor is shaved away, revealing scarred and burnt skin. It smells like the misery of the human body, drained and dried in layer after layer until a salty, metallic nightmare smell remains. A spectrum of blood spatters, red to brown to black.

A row of people wearing uniforms in the four elemental colors stand at attention. Their faces are blurred out.

Someone else is there. They wear a demonic red mask. It looks like it’s from Spirit Halloween, which is the only retailer still legally operating in Beach Town besides the supermarket, and now functions almost identically to Walmart except with a scarier font and logo.

“Haha, it’s me Satan! Here to fuck everything up!”

They take off the red mask. “Just kidding.”

Underneath is a fused together mess of gems, a human(?) eye blinking from the melted rainbow. “Bet you don’t remember me. But that’s okay.”

The melted mosaic pivots to face the benders. Connie stands to the side with a tablet and stylus.

“In the old world, people were very unimaginative when it came to bending. They didn’t know about physics. But once an idea enters the world, it can’t be put back in the box. The invention of the gun by the scientists of Kansas and then later popularized by the Italians in the wartime propaganda known as “carbonara easterns” proves this. The initial, fetal shape of each thought a human had was changed forever, from a sword to a gun. No more gradients, just a binary: silent or sudden, live or die. The very definition of the passive-aggressive culture the Americans would later perfect, and the crucible of their trauma-formation.”

Italians. Italy. The Country of Italy. Zuko remembers staring at a bottle of Red Wine Vinegar in the Beach House kitchen. It was a pretty red color with a label covered in Italian Protected Geographic Indication stamps and Mediterranean imagery. Azula broke his revery by walking in and picking up the bottle. Then she intoned, in a voice of absolute confidence, “Italy is a fake country invented to sell food.”

The mosaic raises a finger. “For instance, a firebender can do this.”

Zuko feels warm. “What are you doing?” He moves toward the mosaic, fist clenched, but he feels sluggish.

“Mere fire is a hack’s trick. But elevating someone’s core body temperature, that’s the real deal.”

The firebenders twist their hands in unison. Zuko stumbles, fever blooming from every pore, sweat like rain over his vision.

“And an airbender can do this.”

The air sucks from his lungs and he collapses, chest caved in. He reaches for someone with a weak, trembling hand, hard to tell who, face turning blue.

The mosaic looks at Azula for a long time, searching her expression. Zuko’s throat makes tiny straining sounds.

“And an earthbender can do this.”

The ground explodes. Zuko raises his hands to shield himself against an eruption of chunky pink blood, but his palms are shredded by thousands of leonine bone shards. The shock hits faster than his throat can respond. He lays there, bleeding from innumerable cuts. I’m really going to die, he thinks. They’re really trying to kill me.

Azula looks at the mosaic. Her thumb twitches.

“And a waterbender closes the loop.”

Water flows over Zuko’s body like a wave of warm licking tongues. The stinging recedes as his cuts close.

“With water treatment we can focus on the target’s brain, exceeding the natural limits of the body. But let’s return to the broader military applications. Imagine we apply the first three phases on an industrial level. Airbenders shoot an invisible lance of flammable gas, then firebenders light the tail of it from a safe distance. The enemy can’t see this. They can’t respond. If they’re fortified, the lance creeps under doors, breathes through windows. Then it explodes, incinerating them.”

The pecking sound of Connie scribbling on a tablet.

“And for increased penetration, earthbenders seed the lance with tiny rocks, creating superheated shrapnel. Irresistible! And those who survive? Totally incapacitated on a psychological level. The deterrent value will save many lives.”

The mosaic snaps their fingers.

“Let’s see what that looks like. All together now.”

The lance of air punches Zuko in the chest, crushing the air from his lungs and popping his ears. Then heat, and hardness, white-hot bullets, blinding brightness, crawling, trying to run from the flames, the flames on his own skin. So slow now. Dark and slow. Only a faint, amniotic glow through his melted eyelids of the fire eating his shirt collar.

“We’re done here.”

The tide rolls over Zuko, putting out the flames and lapping away the third and second degree burns. He feels some of his bones talking to each other again. And he can separate his fingers now.

After about ten seconds, the mosaic puts a hand on the waterbender’s shoulder. “That’s enough.”

Water recedes from Zuko. Some of his wounds are closed up, but others bleed slowly.

He remembers to pass out.

Chapter Text

The heat in the cell is unbearable. He feels like he can’t get fresh air. Do the walls have lungs? Can air recycle faster than his body consumes it? Flashes of terror emanate from his respiratory tract. He feels certain he is slowly dying of highly recycled, off-gassed, incomplete air. Certainly the earth is less than it was, and he, fragile and bound to atmospheres, must be lesser.

He sees now that memories are not separate, not stored in a safe compartment of the brain, but live in the tissue, in the bones, awakened by inflammation, by the elements. He always thought of elements as discrete, at most symbolically linked to us (”Flow like water…”) but they are part of the world: dissolved by the soothing touch of water, or scarred onto his face by fire.

He starts to smile, but the cuts on his lips hurt too much. If only his uncle could see him now. All philosophizin’.

I would never have wished for you to experience the pain necessary for this epiphany.

The air feels thicker. Have they forgotten about me? The terror returns to his brain stem, elevating his heart rate into a feedback loop. His left hand twitches, his ankle twists. If he could bend right now, if he could get this collar off, he—

—a vivid hallucination of burning fur. He’d be trapped in a room full of charred lion hair with no exit, suffocating in the pure, concentrated stench of it.

He trembles, impaled to the floor as if his amygdala were sharpened into a gray matter stake.

“Please…”

“Help…”

He never thought his voice would be so quiet near the end. That he’d have so little energy left to resist with. “Let’s go quietly now.” The brusque voice of a 1940s beat cop or an old timey mobster, one and the same. Let’s go quietly now, see. See what? He doesn’t want to see.

The camera drifts into the walls, into the saturnine strata of tissue.

Somewhere else in the darkness, Pearl lays fractured, her eyes pure white, fingers twitching. The camera rotates, sinking toward her. The dark room suddenly lights up, her holographic training dummy rising from her forehead gem. The dummy that once sparred with Steven and Connie. Preparing them for war. And failing.

The hologram rises through the flesh-prison, through nervous, muscular, epithelial, and connective tissue, through sweat glands and blood vessels, into Zuko’s cell.

The hologram hovers over Zuko, energy field humming softly.

Zuko opens his swollen eyes. Stares through the bruised slits. “Pearl? You’re…saving me?”

His hand jerks out but passes through the hologram. “What…”

The hologram zooms closer. “This shit ain’t wubba lubba dub dub, Zuko.”

“What the fuck are you talking about.”

“Just some earth teevee I watch. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Are you getting us out of here?” Zuko can’t believe he still has some level of restraint left. Part of him wants to grab onto (into…) the hologram like a child and weep his eyes out. Another part of him is very tired. Is this what death feels like? Abandoning a fundamental tether to this world, the body losing color and becoming inert, compostable…

“They’re out here playing Roblox but I’m on a private modded Minecraft server. Capisce?”

“Pearl. You know I don’t read books.”

The hologram does a pirouette.

“Zuko, have you ever considered for one second that it is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form. Well did you???”

“No…I never thought that…”

“I’m just saying, ever since sentences started to circulate in brains devoted to reflection, an effort at total identification has been made, because with the aid of a copula each sentence ties one thing to another; all things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.”

“Uh…”

“Let me put it in terms even a child would understand. Everyone is aware that life is parodic and that it lacks an interpretation. Thus lead is the parody of gold. Air is the parody of water. The brain is the parody of the equator. Coitus is the parody of crime.

“Pearl, what the fuck.”

The holographic pearl glitches, piercing Zuko’s ears with a horrible whine like that of a million insects buzzing, and living, and stinging, and dying, and from their hemolymphic muck begatting a trillion eggs which stir and crackle and erupt into nascent, obscenely juvenile screeching, then perish once more for awakening into an anaerobic world which denies their spiracles the birthright of earth, its lungs, its lesions.

Zuko wishes he had his mp3 player. He really wants to listen to his favorite band, Coheed and Cambria. Bio-fur prison would be a good time to catch up on the seven finest concept albums of the 2000s. And maybe it could drown out the horrible whine like that of a million insects buzzing, and living, and stinging, and dying, and from their hemolymphic muck begatting a trillion eggs which stir and crackle and erupt into nascent, obscenely juvenile screeching, then perish once more for awakening into an anaerobic world which denies their spiracles the birthright of earth, its lungs, its lesions.

The hologram is gone.

*

Time passes, impossible to measure, all perception shrunk to a single dot, a black hole pupil from which he watches, paralyzed.

His head is cradled on someone’s lap. He licks his cracked lips. Azula is stinging him, her fingers turned to wasps. When did she get that done?

Antiseptic. She’s applying antiseptic to his wounds.

Zuko tries to speak but blood comes out.

“Don’t exert yourself, big brother.”

He lets the blood drain from his mouth for awhile, too weak to spit it out. “You let them do this to me.”

“If I wasn’t here, you’d be arranged in well-cooked strips across the back wall of the testing lot. Besides. How else could I earn their loyalty other than watching my dear brother get used as weapons practice? I’m in now.” She makes a circle with her finger and pokes it. “Which, long term, is basically a big fat W for you.”

“A W?”

“Aw.”

Zuko passes into darkness. Water brings him back. Floating on it like a bible basket baby. She tears the bottle of mineral water from his lips. He was drinking really fast. “If ponies drink too fast, they get sick and the cowboys have to shoot them. It happened to Twilight Sparkle.” Some water remains in the bottle, tinged with red.

She’s been talking for a long time, but only now is he starting to understand what the words mean. She’s not talking about ponies anymore. “Do you think it was easy wondering if every day was the last? Do you think it was easy trying to fall asleep, knowing I could be woken up by really loud noises? Really loud noises aren’t nice to hear when you’re sleeping. You open your eyes but you’re seeing everything that ever made you helpless layered like clear pancakes, wobbling at a thousand miles an hour. You look around and ask the world, are you going to hurt me? Are you going to kill me? Just like a little baby.”

Big fat W. Of course. Azula was a massive gamer. It was all she did in her room in the Beach House. Gamers have a special cant. W. W is a letter from the English alphabet. It represents the first letter of “win”. Azula wants to win. No. That isn’t entirely right. She doesn’t want to lose. It would shatter her. If it hasn’t already.

Azula’s eyes gleam like unwashed jewels, dirty and cursed in the ruins of the Fire Nation Royal Palace. “We can’t be attacked now. It’s already happened. It’s over. We’re safe here.” She rocks back and forth, then notices Zuko looking up at her. Her mask returns and she pushes Zuko off her. Even the drop from her lap to the floor hurts, bruises waking up all over, keeping vigil while he falls back into the dark.

*

Pearl traces the fractures on her body. If she were feeling dramatic, she would say she doesn’t know how long it’s been. But it’s been 8 hours and 49 minutes of actively perceiving this hairy cell. The texture of Lion stretched to cover every surface. And before that, 17 hours of sleeping inside her gemstone, trapped in crystalline nightmares. Should have stayed in there.

Why didn’t they shatter her? Why leave her in this crippled state? She’s beginning to think there may not be a bipartisan solution to the Darkshatterwar.

Her hologram returns to her. It’s been skittering around for hours. She can’t feel the part of her that controls it anymore.

She watches the hologram. Her body reflected back at her as a glitching ghost, the worst mirror she’s ever had. She was starting to care about her appearance for a little while, before the Darkshatterwar. Before simple things like dating and fashion became obsolete. She wonders if the girl who gave her that phone number is still alive. Somewhere in Pearl’s endless brain warehouse is a yellowed piece of paper with that number on it.

She really misses her cyan blazer. That was a look. That was some fuck me shit.

The hologram flashes closer. Pearl jumps and makes an aahhhh! sound. The hologram falls to the floor and becomes Zuko. His blood looks oddly sterile in the hologram blue. And there’s so much of it.

The hologram opens its mouth. This boy is still alive.

Will you let him die too?

Pearl stands up, fists clenched. “There’s nothing I can do. I’ll just make things worse.” Irritant. That’s what my name means. I’m an irritant in the clam of the universe. A flaw beautiful enough to survive, until I don’t. My aborted existence is coming to an end.

Pearl falls to her knees, weeping pearlescent fluid. Amethyst made fun of her once, called it “eye cum”. Pearl was so mad. But she’d let Amethyst compare her bodily emissions to cum all day if it meant seeing that purple homunculus one more time.

Drama queen, the hologram says in Zuko’s voice.

“I’m not a drama queen, I’m a drama peasant!” Pearl cries into Lion’s fur. It sticks to her face like pink grass. “I’m a drama worm! A drama amoeba!”

The hologram thrashes, reenacting the testing range. No earth or fire is visible, but Zuko’s skin blisters and breaks as if by magic.

Pearl lunges into the hologram and it disappears.

SCREEEEEECH

She clutches her gem. The hologram is inside her now, an irritant within an irritant. She tries to calm herself with old meditation techniques, but fractures distort her data recall.

Smoke wisps from her gem. She feels extremely warm. She reaches inside and pulls out a burning phone book. What was that human word reserved for these occasions? “Fuck?”

Her body shakes, smoke and fire and shrapnel bursting from her gem. She never should have stored all that ammonium fertilizer in there. And 13,229 books, 455 phone numbers, 27 oxygen tanks, all those barrels of chocolate juice for that nice man at Exxon, the gold bars from her Swiss internet friends, not that gold bars are flammable, but molten gold is dripping through her gem in an uncomfortable way. Is this what humans do in the bathroom?

She tenses up and pukes a firehose surge of warehouse sludge from her gem. She smells it now. That burnt pork smell. What she kept at the back of her mind. No! Have to plug it up. She punches at the hairy wall of her cell until she hits a vein and pink blood squirts out. She holds her gem under the ruptured vein like she’s a slurpee cup. Smoke jets and hisses as blood pours into her burning brain warehouse.

There. Fires out.

She looks at the wall. Then at her hands.

Maybe I don’t feel things like you do, Zuko. But I can use that to my advantage.

Pearl punches through the meat wall, screaming into a tunnel of gore.