“Tell me who you are, from the start. Don’t leave anything out.”
Chit Sang is nobody’s fool. Not that you’d know it, if you talked to his colleagues back at the Royal Fire University. See, they’d all staffed the main library together. Chit survived the same exams they did to get there. He passed the same interviews. He memorized the same citation manuals. He saved the same kids, the ones who started research papers the night before the due date.
(There were more of those kids every year, committing both plagiarism and unspeakable crimes against grammar. They skated through school on their parents’ reputations, doing the bare minimum on their assignments, like it never occurred to them to even try.)
So yeah, Chit had worked in the same halls and collected the same pay as every other University librarian. He was one of the better conservators in their archives. He had a knack for delicate restoration work, breathing moisture and life into the yellowed old scrolls his coworkers had abandoned.
Not that it mattered.
Here were the hard facts: Chit was too massive to fit down the library aisles unless he turned sideways, and he’d never given up the simpler style of speech he’d grown up with, out in a village several islands down. Sure, he’d mastered the same rules the other librarians did, the same elegant characters and pretty words, but in practice he’d liked to keep things simple. Between his bulk and the way he talked, his coworkers deemed him a brute on day one, so they ignored him. It was an unspoken library rule.
(It was better than receiving their hate, if lonelier. He kept telling himself that.)
He might’ve gotten kicked completely out, that year Fire Lord Azulon shifted half the libraries’ funds over to engineering, if Chit hadn’t provided one unique service. See, the bending department liked to expand its collections, but high-quality texts on disciplines besides firebending were hard to come by in the Fire Nation. To obtain them, the department often struck deals with an entrepreneurial sort of explorers, with a vested interest in rescuing texts from less sophisticated libraries and archeological sites where they might be exposed to damage from the elements.
(Pirates. The department bought from pirates. Amazing, wasn’t it, the crimes covered up by pretty words?)
The other librarians in his department, being dainty academic recluses, didn’t have the guts to greet their suppliers face-to-face. So they kept Chit around. He just needed to board a ship, and every iguana-parrot onboard would fly away, squawking in terror. The parrots’ owners looked close to doing the same.
(For the record, the pirates took better care of their treasures than the Fire Nation’s armies did, when they hauled the same kind of trophies back from the war.)
(Chit doesn’t say that part out loud.)
When there were no pirates around? Well, Chit might as well have been invisible…
“Okay, you can leave some things out. Maybe hurry up the story a little bit?”
Well, for several years Chit managed to stay. He ignored the casual cruelty his fellow librarians paid to all outsiders, graffiting waterbending texts, systematically torturing a visiting anthropologist from Ba Sing Se. He stayed, despite the calculated cruelty academics all directed at each other, clawing their way to the top. He stayed and kept his head down, fading into the background like he was just one more bookcase. It helped that he was the right size to be a bookcase.
He stayed and felt himself dwindle with every passing day. It’s the job that got bigger. Heavier.
“But why would you- why would anyone leave Caldera willingly?”
Look, at first they were just rumors. Easy to ignore. The history department whispered that a swath of their books disappeared overnight. They were all much-maligned, long-debunked secondary sources claiming that actually, the Air Nomads had no army to speak of. Nobody read those books anymore, yet they disappeared on an indefinite loan to an anonymous requester from higher up. A couple months later, the geography department replaced their globes. On the new ones, the colonies looked noticeably bigger and were painted vermillion red, same as the Fire Nation’s core islands. The cartographers called these maps more accurate. The old globes should’ve gotten put in storage or handed off to the university’s art museum, but they were destroyed, on orders from higher up.
But Chit Sang was nothing if not irrelevant, and the bending department escaped any such notice. They made no trouble. They had only half a shelf for airbending, a little more space for water and earth, and a full four aisles dedicated to major achievements in firebending. On the wall they had a special display just for records of illustrious Agni Kais. Like all the ones fought at the palace arena.
In the dead of winter a few months back, Chit had gotten stuck on late-night reshelving duty. When a record came in of the latest palace Agni Kai, it was his job to stick it in the display on the wall. But it was past midnight, and he was tired. On a whim, he’d opened up the box and unfurled the scroll, hoping for a rousing description of two rival generals trying to wage war against each other…
“Stepping in by the Law of Substitution, the Fire Lord decisively proved himself the victor. He tacitly rejected several appeals to mercy, valiantly grinding the opponent into submission with a perfectly executed Augmented Flaming Palm. Applied unilaterally, the attack focused on the left side of the face, centered with exquisite control on the socket surrounding the eye…”
Chit unrolled more of the scroll, skipping down to the description of the other opponent. It’d have to be someone awesome, to be worth the Fire Lord’s personal attention. Probably a high-level military minister, hardened by years on the battlefield, with years of misconduct to pay for.
“Crown Prince Zuko lost his first duel in an astonishingly dishonorable fashion, falling by his own volition to the Fire Lord’s feet and vocally refusing to fight. His unconscious form was dragged from the arena by medics, who declared him too fragile to survive the wound and the likely infection. Thus, His Royal Highness was spared the weight of living with his dishonor...”
Chit blinked and read that bit again: “Spared the weight of living.”
(Amazing, the crimes covered by pretty words.)
(Wasn’t the prince just thirteen years old?)
He’d rolled the scroll right back up and stuck it in its protective wood box. He put the box in the display, in the next available cubby. Then, Chit Sang walked away.
The death announcement came a couple days later, a fine gilded copy to be preserved in the royal history section. The city-wide funeral invitation came hours after that.
The cause of death was listed as a long, wasting illness.
“Chit.” The bending department’s head called his name without looking up at him. “Get me that new Agni Kai scroll.”
He frowned. “Those can’t be checked out, can they?”
Flipping through the day’s mail, she still didn’t look up. “It’s to be burned for inaccuracy.”
“Orders from higher up?” he said, feeling bolder than usual.
She just chuckled.
As commanded, he fetched the scroll, still shut up in its wooden box where he’d left it, and he started walking it back to her. He wasn’t a fool, he could tell this was covert business, and so he skipped the most direct route back. Instead he veered into the third-floor stacks, largely deserted and so silent his footsteps echoed like drumbeats.
(The students liked to joke those shelves were haunted.)
Chit stopped mid-aisle.
Picking at random, he pulled another boxed-up scroll like the one he was holding. Like a man possessed, he took the scrolls out of their containers, and he swapped one for another.
“Got it right here, boss,” he said, returning to the office. “Can I set that fire for you?”
She nodded, and he got out the brazier the history department used regularly and plopped the box inside. He set the fire quietly, without causing any more trouble. The real Agni Kai record was still upstairs somewhere, safe and free from flame.
It wasn’t a grand act of rebellion. The chances anyone would ever find the scroll again, much less care about the contents, were low. Still, he left the library in a strange unthinking haze that night. It wasn’t until he’d made it home that he realized all the Agni Kai scrolls had little bits of jade on the silk cords that tied them up. The one he’d switched it with didn’t.
So Chit ran.
He skipped the resignation, and he gathered the money he had in the house and lost most of it buying a rush ticket off Caldera. He ran onto the boat and off it. He ran through big colony towns and little no-name villages. He ran until a bounty hunter shot him with paralytic poison and slung him onto the back of her shirshu.
He ran right into a boy, cross and judgemental and completely alive, with a shield of hair over his left eye socket and flames on his breath. With phrasing so fancy, when he talks about firebending, he’d put the scholars back at the university to shame.
A boy with a pretty damn terrible alias.
That’s the story Chit Sang tells Prince Zuko, who’s currently totally alive and aiming a dagger at his chest. He bows his head as he tells it. Maybe his prince will stab him with that blade, which gleams unnaturally like it’s coated in something dangerous. Maybe he’ll just stick to his father’s example and blow half of Chit’s head off.
“Are you going to turn me in?”
Chit’s eyes snap up. “What good would it do me?”
The prince’s brow furrows. “Maybe you’d be rewarded for bringing your prince back.”
He presses down a snort. “The Fire Lord won’t give rewards for that. I don’t know what game he’s playing, but he’s gone to extreme lengths, convincing people you’re gone for good.”
The prince’s brow creases up more, but he doesn’t argue. He seems to believe Chit readily. That’s better than the alternative, though it’s sad in a way all its own.
(Here’s what Chit Sang doesn’t tell the prince: he was cursing himself, while he was running away. See, he’d gotten used somehow to Caldera and its games. The second he set that box on fire, even before he’d noticed the missing jade, Chit wished he hadn’t bothered switching the scroll out. Bravery’s a role not meant for him.
He doesn’t tell the prince about a girl he used to steal kisses with, between the back shelves in her department. She’d been a world-class expert on flower languages. Sweet pea for goodbyes. White roses for silence, innocence, and devotion.
Funny, she was the political one out of the two of them. She used to collect scrolls that’d never make it to the library shelves. Wild essays from Earth Kingdom philosophers. The occasional defense of pacifism. A screed against the Fire Lord, supposedly written by Jeong Jeong himself. Her banned books might’ve gotten them both thrown in Boiling Rock eventually, if Chit had stayed behind.
But he ran, and they might throw her in Boiling Rock now after they question her, if she doesn’t talk about him. Maybe even if she does. Chit saw all that coming and more, and he still didn’t stop to take her along or even warn her.
He’s nobody’s hero.)
“If we come back in the morning, you’ve got the job. If we come back with the Fire Nation military,” June says, smirking down at Chit, “take that as a no. And don’t bother running for it.”
She leaves him at an ancient hovel of an inn, several towns away from where the prince had been. Chit can’t call the place pleasant, or even hygienic, but there’s a mat on the floor and a candle on the footstool that’s doubling as a nightstand. It’s comfier than Boiling Rock. Right?
He could run. Maybe if he made it onto a boat before sunrise, the shirshu wouldn’t be able to sniff him out. Still, he stays, because both his legs are still pretty numb.
(He’d like to think it’s also the effect of a moral core, rattling around somewhere down there.)
Chit wakes with the sun. Soon enough, there’s a knock on his door. That’s good news, isn’t it? Nobody knocks right before they cart you off to your doom. When he opens the door, there’s June standing by Prince Zuko, with no soldiers in sight.
(Not Prince Zuko. Kuzon. Dammit, Chit’s got to remember that.)
“I hear firebending practice is best done at sunrise,” June declares. “Unfortunately, nobody told me that until twenty minutes ago.”
The prince smiles beside her, even while ducking his head in embarrassment.
“He’s right,” Chit says, returning the smile. “Firebenders like getting up with the sun.”
“Well, if I needed confirmation I’m not a firebender this is it,” she mutters under her breath. “Do you need an open field for this? A nice non-flammable rock formation?”
Chit shakes his head. “Not yet. Wait a few weeks. ”
He gestures for the prince to come into the room and sit. He does, dropping into the seiza position. Chit takes a seat opposite him, legs crossed in an easier half-lotus. After a second June joins them. She’s not really close by, but she drops down in the corner of the room, lounging with her legs outstretched. She sits against the wall, at the edge of the prince’s periphery.
Chit reaches for the candle and places it between himself and his student. “We’ll start by breathing with this.”
Prince Zuko frowns. “Actually, I-“ He cuts himself off. “Sorry, you know better than I do.”
“Go ahead, please,” Chit requests, right as June pokes him in the back with her foot and says, “Talk.”
He looks between them both, a little bewildered, and then he does talk. “I already know how to meditate with a candle. I used to breathe with three at a time.”
June doesn’t react. Chit does, eyebrows shooting right up. “That’s impressive, Your Roy-“
Kuzon’s eyes go wide.
“You’re really advanced,” he amends. June doesn’t seem to notice at all. She doesn’t know who he is, does she? Chit sets that question aside: “But the room just came with one candle. Anyway, this isn’t regular meditation.”
This isn’t any meditation. This is a lesson Chit made up in daydreams, when he imagined how he’d run a university firebending class if anyone ever let him. No one would. He’s not qualified.
And yet he’s about to teach the dead prince of his nation.
“You missed the plural.”
“What?” The prince tenses up, surprisingly jumpy. “I mean, sorry, I should’ve paid more attent-“
“Don’t worry about it,” Chit says. He hunches a little, trying to make himself smaller. For once it’s not about going unnoticed; he just wants to set his pupil at ease. For a literal prince, he’s carrying a shocking amount of self-doubt. “We’ll both breathe with this candle. I’ll give you a head start. You- meditate, count your breaths, do whatever you’ve got to to bend that flame to your will. After a couple minutes, I’ll come in and f- mess with your rhythm. Your job’s to fight me off. Keep that flame to yourself. Even if you lose it, do your best to get it back.”
He’s got a hundred questions written all over his face. Questions he’s clearly holding back by force.
“First rule of lessons with me,” Chit says, because bluntness could be the way to go here. “If you’re confused about something, ask.”
The prince glances at June, who gives him a minute nod of approval.
“This isn’t really a...classical way to meditate,” he finally says. “So why are we doing it like this?”
“I’ve got a deep theory reason. I’ve also got the reason it’s good in a fight. Which one do you want?”
“Um. Both, if that’s okay?”
“You ever learned about waterbending?”
He shakes his head no. Chit takes a moment to wonder at Fire Lord Ozai; his kids ought to know the basics of waterbending and earthbending, if only to fight against the likeliest assassins.
“So their whole deal in the Water Tribe is about making their defense into their offense. Imagine you’ve got two master waterbenders-“ Chit raises both his hands and starts acting the story out- “in a brawl. First, the attacker throws a wall of ice spikes at the defender. How does the defender block that? They don’t. No, they just seize control of the ice and move it off-course. I bet they’ll let it loop past them, around their back, onto the other side. Then they’ll make it into some new shape, like a massive wave of liquid, and throw it right back.”
The prince is leaning in, clearly engrossed. “So it’s redirection.”
“Exactly. Waterbending’s all about redirection. We firebenders can use the same trick.”
“Is that…” He looks to June and then shrugs. “Honorable? Relying on other people’s fire instead of making your own?”
“I say it is. Redirection isn’t easy,” Chit says. “It takes skill, practice, willpower… For most people, it’s easier to just block and attack with your own fire.”
“Then why would redirection ever be worth it?”
Chit tilts his head. “Wanna take a guess?”
It takes him a moment, but the prince comes up with an answer.
“Because making your own fire takes a lot of effort?” he offers, hesitantly. “And people get tired. And…”
Chit nods at him. He hopes it’s encouraging.
“And it could be faster,” Prince Zuko adds. “Blocking and then attacking is two steps, redirection’s faster.”
“Right,” Chit confirms. “Plus learning to redirect makes you miles better at understanding fire. You master this, I don’t know where the limits will be for a kid like you.”
He holds his pupil’s gaze for a moment. He tries to communicate that way, an unspoken message that June can’t be privy to.
The prince nods after a moment, understanding.
They get started soon after that. Prince Zuko quickly establishes his bond with the candle, its tiny flame swelling and ebbing with his steady breaths. When Chit enters the game, he has to struggle for a few seconds to wrest away control. Immediately, the prince tries to take it back, the candle flickering as it bounces between their rhythms. Though Chit manages to stay in charge most of the time, the work makes him sweat, and the prince starts launching sneak attacks after a while, letting him get lulled into complacency before he pounces with an ambush.
It’s hard work for them both, yet this boy keeps trying.
Chit doesn’t know what game the Fire Lord’s playing at, trying to rid himself of a boy with this much talent and spirit. He doesn’t know the rules here, or the traps. But as the prince claims the candle once more with a small, sneaky smile, one thing’s simple and clear.
Chit’s no hero, but his prince makes him want to be.