An easy enough order, for other people, but he has the sense he’s doing it wrong. His guests come from the train on time, looking exactly like the portraits he was shown. Yet their own smiles falter the second they see him.
He must be doing it wrong.
He cinches his smile further, tightening his cheeks like screws, and steps across the train track. What comes next is a statement of truth. His name is Joo Lee. His assigned role is to escort the Avatar around Ba Sing Se- to follow him closely. But somewhere in the script, there’s one other element out of order. He hasn’t spoken yet, but in the silence of his own head, he’s unconvincing.
“Hello, my name is Joo Lee,” he says. “I have been given the great honor of showing the Avatar around Ba Sing Se.”
Three of his guests- the names are Katara, Sokka and Aang, according to the posters- have stopped still to gawp at him. Then they speak in unison.
“What?” asks the fourth child, Toph. “Where?”
“...Who’s Zuko?” Joo Lee finally says.
(He’s off-balance. Off-script. There’s danger here.)
They all fall silent, expressions unreadable. Joo Lee doesn’t get an answer. He’s not sure why he expected one.
“You must be Sokka, Katara, and Toph,” Joo Lee says next, like he’s supposed to. “Welcome to our wonderful city. Shall we get star-“
“Hey,” Sokka interrupts. It’s not polite of him, but Joo Lee obediently falls silent. “Of all the cockamamie plans you’ve cooked up, this has got to be the weirdest. What, you think you’re gonna broil us in the middle of a Ba Sing Se train station? Or just freak us out with that smile until Aang surrenders to make it stop?”
They’re off-script again, disastrously so. Sokka fires a barrage of questions in his face, words flung and piercing like shards, incomplete and incoherent and utterly incomprehensible.
Joo Lee’s mind blanks.
“Seriously,” Sokka’s saying when it returns, “what’s the plan here?”
Joo Lee seizes his chance. “I was hoping to show you to your new home in the Upper Ring!”
He says it as brightly and firmly as he can. No one can resist a firm enough hand.
Indeed, Sokka’s questions subside in the face of Joo Lee’s smile- now widened further. Katara speaks instead.
Joo Lee blinks. “I’m afraid I don’t know any Zuko.”
“He’s telling the truth,” Toph says.
She’s defending him, though he doesn’t trust it. Help always comes with an impossible condition, tucked in somewhere.
“I can see with my feet,” she explains, “and I can tell when someone’s lying, because their whole body says so. He’s been telling the truth.”
“But,” Aang says, “you sound like Zuko, and you look exactly like him, except for, um, the face.”
“You mean the smile?” Toph snorts. “I can’t see it, but it sounds hilarious.”
“No,” Aang replies quietly. “I didn’t just mean the smile.”
Toph frowns. Joo Lee would too, if he could stop smiling.
“Okay,” Katara says hesitantly. “We’ll...follow you, I guess.”
“This is the Lower Ring, where our newest arrivals live, as well as our craftsman and artisans- people that work with their hands,” Joo Lee declares, trying for dramatic flair. A second later, he lifts a hand to gesture out the window.
Nobody seems to care.
He lowers his hand.
Aang’s staring at his own folded hands, pensive. “Maybe Zuko had an evil twin.”
“I’m pretty sure Zuko was the evil twin,” Sokka retorts.
Joo Lee opens his mouth to repeat his speech-
“He already said he doesn’t know your Zuko, give it a rest,” Toph grumbles. She’s sitting beside him. The other three are all crunched into the opposite side of the car, as far from him as they can manage.
“He can’t be Zuko,” Katara agrees, fiddling with a delicate vial. “Look.”
They pass into the Middle Ring. Joo Lee knows a speech for this too, and if he coordinates better, the hand gestures should flow smoothly this time.
“This is the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se,” he announces proudly, “home to the financial district-“
Sokka cuts in, “What if-“
“The financial district,” he repeats, raising his voice and grinning even more intensely. He’s supposed to do this. He can’t give up. “And shops and restaurants, and the university.”
The second the words escape his mouth, it strikes him- he got the syntax wrong. Sokka interrupted as Joo Lee was reciting from the script, and he couldn’t recover perfectly. Thus, even though he knew the words so well, he fell into a run-on, conjunctions overflowing, too many “ands,” and wasn’t that terribly predictable?
Why does that feel predictable?
“Hey, Joo Lee,” Sokka says. Inexplicably, he’s sharpening his sword during their ride.
“Could you stop with the creepy smiling?”
It’s another statement of truth. Joo Lee wants nothing more than to be smiling, He can’t stop. Everything is wonderful in Ba Sing Se- how could he want to do anything else?
When Joo Lee wakes in the morning, he is already dressed in spring green. He isn’t hungry. He’s never hungry.
(Better than before, he thinks treacherously. His brain pounces to pluck the thought out. Still for a stolen moment he asks himself, before what?)
His hands rise to his head for a moment, to gather his hair back- for a ponytail, perhaps, or a top-knot. He finds his hair’s far too short for either. Shame curdles in his stomach again, though he doesn’t spend time trying to guess why.
He’s not certain when his hair was cut, or if it was ever long. He’s not certain where he is. He’s not certain of anything since leaving the Avatar safe in his designated house, with the door crashing shut.
The four friends have clustered in a line, on one side of their new sitting room. Joo Lee stands on the other half, itching to fidget though it’s surely not allowed. He keeps his chin high to face the interrogation.
He’s done nothing wrong, as far as he knows. He also knows, deep in his bones, that it doesn’t matter.
“And how long have you lived in Ba Sing Se?” Aang says with a deep frown.
“For my entire life,” Joo Lee answers.
Aang, Sokka and Katara are taking turns at shooting out questions, consulting a frighteningly long scroll in Sokka’s possession. They say it’s a matter of learning about Ba Sing Se. Joo Lee supposes it’s easier than shepherding them around outside, where there are even more rules and even more dangers, so he acquiesces. He has to follow the rules.
Joo Lee has no scroll of his own. Still, he feels as surprised by his own answers as by their questions, like he hadn’t known these things before. Like he’s an understudy called into a role with too little practice, reading off cue cards held in the shadows off-stage. He learns his lines as he says them.
It occurs to him, distantly, that that’s strange.
“Where in the city?” says Katara.
“I was born in the western quarter of the Lower Ring. However, through skill and hard work, my parents advanced to the Middle Ring when I was still a young child.”
“Where’d you go to school?” Sokka demands.
“The Obsidian School for Boys.”
“Who was your favorite teacher?” Toph says, jumping in before Aang’s turn.
“I don’t know,” Joo Lee says before he can stop himself.
The other three glare at him in unison.
“How can you not know?” Katara asks. “Did you have several favorites, and you can’t break the tie?”
Joo Lee keeps his back straight even when it’s sore. Especially when it’s sore- there’s no point to anyone knowing. Yet his frame crumples a little now, and he forgets to stretch his smile quite as wide, and he squints, trying to recall his favorite teacher. Any teacher.
The words unearth themselves somewhere deep, deeper than the rest, and Joo Lee glances nervously at Toph, the self-proclaimed lie detector. Any second now, she’ll catch him and shout his deception from the rooftops.
Toph lifts her eyebrows, but she’s silent. She seems to accept his invention as fact, and the others accept her judgment in turn. It might be a lie. A snare she’s setting, so she can hold this secret over him and spring the trap at a more convenient moment.
Joo Lee looks down at this girl who’s years younger than him, with plots in her head and a murderous edge to her smirk. He ought to shake where he stands. In some foggy way, it only feels familiar.
“Hey, Joo Lee?” Sokka asks as his final question that afternoon. “Who do we talk to about meeting the Earth King? We’ve got urgent news about...something urgent.”
“The Avatar requests a meeting with the Earth King,” Joo Lee informs a Dai Li agent that night.
“Tell them the waitlist’s six months,” comes the reply.
“The Avatar isn’t known for waiting,” Joo Lee replies. “Except for that one time. With the hundred years. If you make him wait, I’m afraid he’ll do something dramatic to get his way.”
“Something childish,” the agent snorts to himself. “Fine. Tell him we’ll speed it up to two months.”
“Two months?” Aang squawks. “But we need to see him right now about the war!”
Sokka jabs him in the ribs, but not before Joo Lee hears those words and tilts his head.
He’d like to scowl, but it’s not an option. Not when he’d have to trade in his smile. His cheeks hurt from all the smiling he does, like they’re not used to the position, so he resolves to work them harder. They’re not allowed weakness.
“Which war?” Joo Lee asks.
As he asks that he smiles, well-mannered and polite as always. The manners run deep, embroidered into every muscle. Being under no such constraints, the four of them shoot four identical looks of disdain his way.
“The big war? You know, the one where the Fire Nation’s trying to take over the world?” Toph says.
Joo Lee tilts his head the other direction- it’s the most he can do, to express himself. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. There is no war in Ba Sing Se.”
That’s a comforting sentence, pounded like a lullaby into his half-sleeping soul, yet the four of them proceed to loudly lose their minds. There’s a lot of hollering and criss-crossing questions, some cast like stray arrows in Joo Lee’s direction, though mostly they battle each other. Sokka waves a foot-long scroll in the air, paper rustling as he shrieks, and Aang gesticulates wildly, bending breezes on seeming accident. Katara and Toph trade jabs (“He’s lying,” “He isn’t,” “He must be”) until Joo Lee doesn’t know who’s right. The world fades behind a veil, like the curtain falling at the end of the show, and their chaos turns surreal like a prolonged dream. Like a theatrical melodrama, long-rehearsed without any role written for him.
They holler, and Joo Lee loses his mind as quietly and unobtrusively as he can.
He uses their restroom that day and catches sight of his face in the mirror. It’s a well-formed visage- golden-brown eyes, eyebrows so sharp they seem drawn into place, pale skin. His left eye doesn’t open as wide as his right, but otherwise there’s a pleasing, unbroken symmetry to his face. He taps it to make sure it’s real, and it’s warm under his fingers, if powdery. Like he’s been left somewhere and covered by a fine veil of dust.
He’s suddenly aware he’s never seen this face before.
“What if the Avatar visits the Council of Five instead?” Joo Lee asks that night. "Would that be faster?”
The Dai Li agent narrows his eyes. “That’s a secret military group, how’d the Avatar know about it?” He doesn’t wait for an answer before sighing. “We should be able to make that happen faster, sure.”
The Avatar never mentioned the Council. Joo Lee isn’t sure why he himself brought it up- how could he know Earth Kingdom military secrets?
In rare moments of quiet, Joo Lee can hear a voice in his head.
“We’re so lucky to have our walls to create order.”
There are walls in his head; he keeps crashing clumsily into them. But he’s glad at least that he knows what they’re for.
“Joo Lee, can you turn around?” Sokka says. “Aang has stage fright, bending in front of people.”
That feels untrue. Yet why would Joo Lee know better than the Avatar’s own traveling companion?
“He doesn’t have to!” Aang protests. “I love bending in front of-“
“Zip it,” Sokka says. “You want to give away all your secrets to-“
He jerks his head towards Joo Lee. It might’ve been subtle, if Joo Lee wasn’t still turned towards them, waiting for final orders.
“He’s not Zuko,” Toph snaps.
“You still haven’t explained his left eye,” Sokka says.
“Eye problems happen, Sokka!”
“Fine! Since we’re not flambéd yet, I’m willing to pretend you’re right. But still, do you want the you-know-who knowing everything?”
“You mean the Dai Li?” Joo Lee offers. “They know everything anyway. They monitor everything in the city, to ensure order and security!”
He delivers this statement in his peppiest, most reassuring tone. Somehow, none of them seem comforted. Joo Lee’s not surprised at his efforts failing catastrophically.
“Why don’t you take a walk outside?” Katara suggests. “You can wait in the gym lobby.”
He can’t. He considers leaving the Avatar for one moment, but rage blinds him. It floods his brain and ignites like a toppled barrel of blasting jelly, and he hates himself for even thinking of walking away. It’s a matter of duty to the Dai Li. They told him to keep a careful eye on Aang.
Joo Lee closes his fists and takes a few, calming breaths in a studied rhythm.
(Not a studied rhythm. Why would anyone ever study breathing?)
He says, “I’ll turn away, if it makes you feel more comfortable.”
And Joo Lee does as he promised. He turns his back towards all of them as pandemonium breaks out- Sokka, Katara and Toph let loose in a training yard, simultaneously tackling the Avatar with their weapons and bending. The rock trembles under Joo Lee’s feet as Toph tears the ground up one chunk at a time. He closes his eyes.
They might kill him, like this. It’d take only one wild projectile to the back of the head- an ice dagger, or a slab of stone. The threat of danger dangles overhead, unmistakable. He can’t muster the slightest fear. Not even interest. The farce goes on around him (Sokka yells “Sneak attack!” loud enough to alert the whole neighborhood), and he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about not caring, either.
Then Aang squawks, and another barrel of blasting jelly explodes in Joo Lee’s head. He spins around, because Aang’s not allowed to die, not on Joo Lee’s watch, that fact’s the one constant center in this whirligig world.
For no reason at all, Joo Lee snaps into a combat pose. Both feet planted, one before the other. Both hands up, palms facing outwards. It’s a useless pose against the wall of water that’s abruptly redirected into his face.
“I’m so sorry! Are you okay? I shouldn’t have-”
Below his own coughing and the rush of water in his ears, Joo Lee hears Aang apologizing profusely until he stops suddenly. Aang must’ve remembered there’s no need. Nobody needs to say sorry to Joo Lee, and he’s not even hurt now, just soaked with streams of off-white paint on his robe.
He looks up at them, trying to determine where the paint could’ve come from. Joo Lee didn’t know there was wet paint in this gym, but surely he’ll be scolded for letting them bend with it and thus ruining a construction site. That he didn’t know isn’t a good excuse.
Katara, Sokka and Aang stare back at him in horror.
“Your face,” Katara gasps, quietly.
On instinct, Joo Lee reaches up with both hands to touch his face- he feels no pain, but that could be the numbness shielding him. His right hand comes back wet with water. His left hand comes back gummy and covered in sludge- beige and exactly the color of his face. For an idle moment, he wonders if the Avatar melted his skin off.
“What in the world?” Joo Lee breathes. He looks back up at them. “What happened?”
They exchange glances. Joo Lee can’t decipher them- it’s not in him to know how. The world’s always been like a Pai Sho game for him, where he started off missing all of the most powerful tiles in his set.
“You were wearing really heavy cosmetics,” Sokka finally says. “High-quality stuff. I didn’t know you could do that with makeup.”
“Do what?” Joo Lee asks, one eye wide. A second late, he remembers to put the smile back on. He can’t give up on that, even if the rest of his mask’s shattered to dust.
When Aang answers, his voice is solemn. “Your make-up was covering up a burn scar.”
Joo Lee stares at himself in the mirror of the gym’s shower room. This face seems more realistic than the other one, if he considers the visuals alone. But there’s a story behind this face that he doesn’t know. In all likelihood, he shouldn’t want to.
(He tries prodding at the bumpy, reddened skin, in case it’s just another layer he can peel back, but this one seems fixed in place.)
Aang slipped in at some point.
“It looks like it hurt,” Joo Lee observes neutrally, with only half a smile. It’s like he’s speaking about a stranger.
“Yeah,” Aang mutters in agreement. “I hadn’t thought of that before.”
Then Aang’s expression softens, like he cares more than Joo Lee does for the man in the mirror.
When Joo Lee wakes the next morning, there’s a new line in the script playing in his head: "While on duty, don’t let the left side of your face be touched by anything, even water.”
He catches a glimpse of himself in polished metal, on the way to the Avatar. The scar’s gone, like he’d dreamt it up in the first place.
“We brought you some things,” Aang tells him when he enters the house that day.
“I do not require gifts,” Joo Lee replies promptly. “The city of Ba Sing Se cares for all its servants generously.”
“You don’t have to take them,” Katara replies. Her enthusiasm level matches his; it’s frankly concerning. “We just thought you’d find them interesting!”
Joo Lee broadens his smile. If they want him to be interested, he can’t disappoint.
“Here,” Sokka says, shoving a sharp, curved piece of metal in his face. “This is a genuine Southern Water Tribe boomerang. And take a look!” He steps outside and chucks away the boomerang with a special twist of his hand. Then, against all laws of physics, the boomerang comes right back to him.
“It’s epic in combat,” Sokka informs him. “I bet if I threw it at you, you wouldn’t know to duck it on its way back.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t,” Joo Lee says, eager to show his interest. “That’s a very exciting weapon, and speaks to the remarkable craftsmanship of Water Tribe artisans. I’ve never seen anything like it before!”
As Sokka crumples with disappointment, it gets harder and harder for Joo Lee to sustain his smile. What’s the point, if he tries his best and it always fails?
(Rise and fight, someone ordered. Someone significant. Still, Joo Lee can’t recall why, or what they said just after that.)
“What about this?” Katara hangs something in front of him- a piece of carved blue stone, hanging from a ribbon. “It’s a Water Tribe betrothal necklace.”
“It’s lovely,” Joo Lee chirps automatically, tripping over himself in his desire to please. “Very realistic waves. I mean, they’re not that realistic, but they’re a very nice artistic reinterpretation of an ocean. Which makes sense. Because Water Tribe. Congratulations on the engagement?”
Going by the audience reception, Joo Lee blew that even worse than last time.
“She’s not engaged to anyone,” Aang tells him icily before magically recovering his spunk. “But hey, you like the theater!”
“Uh, everyone does! So I’ve got a little game, based on the Avatar test. Just go ahead and look at these.” He blows a white panel of cloth off a table, revealing an array of random knick knacks. “All of these are from a theater gift shop near here. Which one’s the best?”
Joo Lee surveys them, eyes flitting back and forth. He points at an elegant fan, decorated with a painting of a sparrowkeet. “I think that’s the most expensive.”
“...Yeah, it was,” Aang says. “But what’s the best?”
Joo Lee blinks. “Doesn’t that depend on what you’re looking for?”
“Uh. Well, which one feels the most you?”
Impressive- the Avatar managed to make the question even more intractable. Joo Lee sets his jaw and examines all the items. There is a dancer’s robe with long, flowing sleeves of white, and a puppet for a shadow play, dressed in green. A ticket stub- crumpled and stained, like it was rescued from the street- lies besides an advertisement for a new comedy. At the back, there’s a deep blue mask with stark white features, with a grotesque, toothy grin.
(A scene strikes him: a forest at dawn, with white light broken by a branching canopy, falling soft in fragments as someone leaves him-)
(Traitor. Ghost. Unnatural. The only way you’re wanted is dead.)
Joo Lee tears his gaze from the mask.
“That,” he answers, “or that.”
He points at the crumpled ticket stub and the puppet, and then he looks to Aang for approval. It doesn’t come. Aang just deflates before his eyes, collapsing like a punctured lung.
It had seemed like a free choice without a right answer, but Joo Lee should know better than that.
He smiles, and wonders if he looks like that mask right now.
He dreams that night of long, flowing curtains of white. Of endless hallways where nobody’s lurking in the shadows, because everyone left long ago.
“Aang needs to learn firebending,” Toph announces the next day.
There’s silence. Belatedly, Joo Lee realizes he’s meant to say something.
“There are no firebenders in Ba Sing Se,” he declares.
“Because there’s a war?” Katara challenges.
“Because the risk of fire would be unacceptable, given the crowds.”
“Why not build everything out of stone?” Sokka asks him.
“I don’t know.” Joo Lee says that often, nowadays. These children ask difficult questions.
“I’m a firebender,” Aang points out. “And I’m allowed in Ba Sing Se, and I promise to be super-careful this time. But I still need a teacher. Can you help?”
“I cannot find you a firebending master,” Joo Lee replies evenly, though his heart’s racing ahead of him, hammering like it knows something he doesn’t. “Because there are no firebenders-“
“In Ba Sing Se, we got it,” Sokka finishes.
They’re all staring at him.
Why are they always staring at him?
“I was hoping,” Aang says quietly, wringing his hands, “that maybe you could help me yourself.”
Joo Lee promptly corrects him. “I’m not a firebender.”
“Because there are no firebenders in Ba Sing Se?” Toph says. It sounds like a challenge, though Joo Lee doesn’t know how he could have offended her.
“Because I can’t bend fire,” Joo Lee replies.
It’s even more circular, as logic goes, but it’s true. He abruptly recalls a dusty town, an earthbender advancing down a road with hammers, a world of pain as rock juts from the ground to stab him in the gut. Two swords lying useless at his side.
If he could bend fire, he wouldn’t have lain there and taken it.
If he had fire, he’d still have a whole face.
(If he had fire, he’d have to be the weakest human in history to fall so often, so he doesn’t have fire. He can’t.)
“Okay,” Aang says, and suddenly there are hands on his shoulders. “Okay. Can you just breathe for a second?”
(Oh. He’s gasping for breath, doubled over, on the verge of passing out.)
“So you don’t firebend,” Katara finally says, with stinging kindness. “But you can still help give us another set of eyes, right? An unbiased observer as Aang starts his training?”
“It’s an honor,” Joo Lee chokes out, “to be so close to the Avatar as to help.”
Something about that sentence seems off, like when a note on a tsungi horn gradually loses its air, going flat.
“I don’t know how to practice firebending,” Aang tells him, looking up at Joo Lee with huge, questioning eyes. Joo Lee’s not sure what question they’re asking. He’s sure he doesn’t have the answer.
Then the Avatar picks a bright leaf, from a bouquet that the Dai Li delivered fresh from a local florist in the hopes it might please him. He twists it from the branch and sets the center on fire, even as he plops down cross-legged and holds the leaf by its edges. He holds it delicately and breathes in, eyelids crumpled in concentration. He’s trying to keep the fire from spreading. Still, the bright green of the leaf loses ground, second by second, as the fire eats away at it from the inside. A few seconds later, there’s nothing left but a pile of shriveled ashes and the acrid stench of smoke.
Aang opens his eyes. They all stare at the ashes, silent like mourners.
“You were holding your breath, like the flame scared you,” Joo Lee finally observes. “That seems like a bad idea.”
Aang beams at him- a radiant, genuine smile, utterly unearned. Joo Lee goes red and hot with shame.
“I didn’t do anything special,” he mutters.
“You’re totally right,” Aang chirps. “I think it matters a lot in firebending, how you use your air.”
“Well, sure, even I know how to breathe.”
“You know a lot of things,” Aang replies easily, without a trace of guile.
Joo Lee breaks away from his gaze to look back at the ashes, strangely panicked by the scrutiny.
Joo Lee isn’t hungry, usually. But he stays at the house past curfew, watching Aang breathe and burn through one leaf after another. The fire’s glow- thin, strictly confined, too brilliant to ignore- transfixes him.
“Dinner!” Toph says, suddenly jumping to her feet. She throws open the door to reveal a woman carrying by a silver tray.
“Joo Dee,” says Joo Lee.
“Joo Lee,” says Joo Dee.
Katara looks between them both. “Have you met?”
“No,” they say simultaneously.
“May I stay for a bit more?” Joo Lee asks. “The Avatar and his guests still require assistance.”
Joo Dee narrows her eyes at him, but her smile never wavers. The juxtaposition’s a little creepy. “Of course! As always, we have ordered more than enough of every dish, sampling from fine restaurants all around the city. An extra mouth would be quite welcome.”
Joo Lee’s stomach growls, and he clutches it, reminded briefly of the plodding shamble of an ostrich-horse, of unending plains and a relentless sun. A meaningless flight of fancy, of course. There are no unending plains in Ba Sing Se.
Painfully aware he’s trespassing on their dinner, he waits to be served, taking his plate last. Katara asks him what he’d like, another question that puzzles him. He’d like what they’ll give him. He’s not going to ask for more.
“Why have you given me so much?” he says, when she heaps more food onto his plate than the others. “Surely the Avatar….“
“You’re thin,” she answers. “Not...not dangerously, but I think your ideal healthy weight might be a bit higher.”
“You’re supposed to be built like a tank,” Sokka says from across the room, around a mouthful of noodles.
“He’s not supposed to be anything he doesn’t want to be,” Katara retorts before looking back to Joo Lee. “But...I’m still worried that you might’ve had to go without food, at some point.”
“No one goes hungry in Ba Sing Se,” Joo Lee replies automatically.
Katara’s right, though. She’s the healer of the group, and she wouldn’t say something like that if she didn’t know it was true. Joo Lee looks down at his body- waxy, fragile limbs swimming in green- and finds it alien.
He takes the plate and eats. He’s not sure anymore whether he’s really hungry or just exhausted.
“Here.” Toph places something else by him- a cup of light-colored tea.
Joo Lee sniffs it- a fragrant, well-brewed jasmine. That’s the calming one, isn’t it?
He feels like a wrecked warship, abandoned to dust. It’s empty, at first glance. Still, the halls are littered with booby traps, with trip wires still ready to snap and bombs just biding their time.
Just one sip of jasmine sparks an explosion, deep in the boilers of his brain.
He sets the cup back down, barely forcing himself to swallow the first mouthful. Maybe he misjudges the distance. Maybe it’s the sudden shaking in his hands. Either way, the earthenware clatters against the floor, spilling gold.
“You okay there?” Sokka calls, frowning.
“My apologies. I’ve never liked jasmine,” Joo Lee replies.
He’s glad he’s practiced his smile for so long. It stays without buckling, stretched thin over sudden fury.
Katara’s holding something up in front of him- the vial, shaped like a narrow cone. On top glistens a silver crescent. Joo Lee slips, mesmerized by its gentle swinging as it dangles from a thin black thread and catches the light-
“Do you remember that at all? The oasis?”
After a moment, Katara sighs. “I was just saying I’d like to try healing you. It might be able to heal your scar, or...other things.”
Joo Lee blinks. “I didn’t know waterbending could reverse scars like that.”
“It can’t, usually.” She bites her lips. “It’s just this water that’s special.”
“Thank you for the kind offer,” Joo Lee says, “but no.”
She blinks. “Why not?”
Her voice is harsh, and Joo Lee’s pulse ratchets up a notch. Still, he speaks.
“You travel with the Avatar,” he points out, trying to spell this out clearly. Shouldn’t it be obvious? “You face lethal threats regularly.”
“You’d know,” Sokka mutters.
Joo Lee continues: “So you ought to save it for a more important time, for someone who matters. I don’t deserve it.”
“See?” Sokka exclaims. “That’s what I said!”
“I don’t think it’s that easy,” Aang interjects, “to say one person deserves healing and another person doesn’t. You’ve been through a lot, Zu- I mean, Joo Lee. I think you might be a whole new person all over again, if you’re given a second chance!”
“Yeah,” Sokka says, “but what happens when we just get a whole old person?”
Joo Lee waits for someone to explain, but no one does.
“Obviously, Joo Lee’s in a terrible position,” Sokka continues, “and if we had infinite spirit water and there wasn’t a war on, we could go around handing out magical band-aids to everyone, but if we’re practical-“
“I’m not in a terrible position,” Joo Lee said at some point in there, though no one listened. It’s like he’s gone invisible.
(It occurs to him, then, that the “terrible position” might have been a euphemism, just an allusion to the terrible scar sprawling across his face. They shouldn’t be able to see it, not under the makeup; Joo Lee himself forgets about it for days at a time. But perhaps they can’t un-see it.)
(He’s invisible, or else monstrously conspicuous for the worst of reasons. There’s never been any space in-between for him.)
When Joo Lee’s mind loops back to the present, the four of them are looking at him expectantly.
“What?” he asks.
“So can Katara try healing you?” Sokka says, concern flitting across his face.
“Yeah,” he says. “Though we’d appreciate it if you repaid the favor afterwards, tried being nice for a while.”
There’s always a condition. Though why they’d go to such lengths- to any lengths- for Joo Lee’s help escapes him.
He looks at the four of them, united in their resolve, and has the sinking feeling that it won’t matter if he resists.
He shrugs. “Whatever you want.”
“The energy’s all twisted up,” Katara tells her friends, placing wet hands on either side of his face.
Ignoring the gentle glow at his periphery, Joo Lee stares down at the rich green carpet of their sitting room. He doesn’t comment.
“It’s the same thing on his face and in his head,” she murmurs. “Layers and layers of scar tissue. There are solid walls, blocking the flow of chi.”
That all sounds alarming. His eyes drifting closed, Joo Lee doesn’t care particularly about any of it.
“Just tackle it bit by bit,” Sokka advises, “top-down.”
Aang’s voice floats in from somewhere else. “No, you’ve gotta resolve the root of the problem, or he’ll never get anywhere!”
The pressure around his temples intensifies, and suddenly Joo Lee is somewhere else- in a world of green carpet, but it grows threadbare before him until patches go missing. Beyond it, there’s nothing but ocean.
No- worse. There’s a volcano on the horizon. A gleaming city on a hill.
Joo Lee lunges forward.
His eyes snap open, and his gaze falls on the Avatar. For a moment, he’s high on fury, tempted to do the unthinkable. He could pin the Avatar’s wings, so he’ll never disappear again. He could seize Sokka’s boomerang and press the sharp end down through bone. He could open his mouth and spit dragonfire.
He doesn’t, because his job’s to escort the Avatar. Nothing more.
He doesn’t, because Aang is a boy of thirteen years, looking up at him with foolish, childish hope.
(Weak, the both of you, whispers a familiar voice. He wants to cling to it.)
“Zuko?” Aang pipes up, tearing him briefly from his reverie. “Are you okay?”
“What do you feel?” Katara prompts, when the sentence slips from his grasp.
“I feel like I’m on fire.”
It’s elegant, the way he crumples on their forest-green rug as the whole world slips away once more.
“I don’t know what happened,” someone sobs, far away. “I just tried using this spirit water to heal him, it’s not supposed to be dangerous at all but his temperature spiked and I don’t know how to break the fever-“
In the daze, Joo Lee wonders who they’re talking about. It seems like they really care.
There are a million voices in his head, clamoring, sniping, chipping away. Two are loudest.
There’s the man with the dark green robes, the huge, smooth forehead and the braid down the back. He’s stern. Humorless. His voice is subtle and dark, fit for shadows.
There’s the other man. It’s hard to see- to remember his face, as if his features are perpetually in darkness, but the rest of him is bright. The red of his robes is brilliant as the glint of gold in his hair. His voice is sharp and brazen and bright as wildfire.
“You are useful,” the first man croons in his ear. “You are a faithful tool for your country. Your loyalty is unquestionable. It is important and appreciated.”
He goes on and on, in lilting, hypnotizing cycles. Joo Lee’s lulled by the circular logic. He follows it around and around, like a lantern on a ring-shaped track. The shadows smother him, swaddle him. He tries so hard to believe. He can believe, he can forget who he is if he only tries hard enough-
“Please,” laughs the other man, cutting straight through the shadows. “You? A useful tool for your country? We both know not a word of that’s true.”
He blinks his eyes open and finds himself in a room of stone, lit in eerie green. There’s bellowing, somewhere nearby. It sounds inhuman, horribly familiar, though Joo Lee can’t place it.
He fades away again.
When Joo Lee wakes up properly, his head feels clearer. The world looks clearer. His hand flies to his left cheek. The skin’s still uneven, probably pink and red, but when he tries opening his left eye the muscles listen. He doesn’t remember the last time that happened. Then he tries closing the right eye, fully expecting the world to go blurry, and it doesn’t.
When he stops to think about it, he realizes he began smiling entirely on accident.
“The Avatar and his team have asked after you,” Joo Dee tells him. “We were worried they’d chase you down under the lake if we didn’t send you back.”
It’s not clear why that seems absurd, patently backwards. Regardless, he bursts out laughing.
“Hi again!” He scurries back over the threshold, grinning wide.
“You’re back!” Aang zooms over on a spinning sphere of air. “We missed you.”
“I missed you too,” he says easily, without a second thought.
“You okay?” Toph says. “You’ve got a...a spring in your step. I’m worried Katara added onto the brain damage.”
As Katara scoffs, Sokka comes up close and peers at him. “Did it work?”
“Yeah! The scar isn’t gone, but I can see properly out of my left eye, and I don’t think I could before. You also unfroze some of the muscles.” He turns to Katara and bows. His first instinct is to put one fist down below and place an open palm above, but he quickly corrects himself and uses the proper form. “I am grateful for your kindness.”
She smiles back at him, strangely unsure. “But did it...work?”
“What’s your name again?” Toph says. “I hit myself in the head with a rock yesterday, it’s gone all fuzzy.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. My name’s Joo Lee, and it’s very nice to meet you again!”
They all exchange meaningful glances again. Joo Lee doesn’t ask. He’s used to being the last one in on a secret.
“Where’d they take you, while you were sick?” Aang turns back to him, radiating concern.
“Not far.” He shrugs. “There’s a health resort inside the city, at Lake Laogai.”
There goes another round of secret glances.
“Yeah, we’ve heard of that place.” Sokka’s cheer sounds forced. “Hear those remedies make you a whole new person- ow!”
Toph stomps on his foot.
“We...did a lot of research while we were with Joo Dee,” Aang informs him. “That’s the lady who substituted for you. And we found something you definitely won’t find interesting.”
Joo Lee squints, trying to gauge whether that was sarcastic. “Can I know what?”
He zooms away and then zooms back, holding a scroll. He unrolls it and shows it off. It’s a series of illustrations, of a woman in red shifting from one pose to another. He might mistake it for a dance, if not for the plumes of flame whirling around her.
“Joo Lee,” Aang says solemnly, “would you do me the honor of being my firebending master?”
“I can’t bend fire.”
Aang’s eyes are sad as he nods. “I know.”
Aang shifts from pose to pose, like the lady on the scroll. There’s no fire yet, but Joo Lee can’t look away. Though it’s preposterous, a non-bender presuming to train the Avatar, he’s determined to do his best anyway.
(He’ll fail, inevitably, but it’s nice to pretend sometimes.)
“Try throwing your full weight into the punch,” he calls to Aang. “It’s not only the arm movement, there’s a lunge with your whole body.”
“Thanks, Sifu Lee!” He repeats the movement, now with more force.
“You’re good at this,” Katara murmurs behind him.
“I’m just following the scroll,” he replies without looking away from Aang.
Katara peers over his shoulder. “I wouldn’t have guessed about the lunge from that drawing.”
She falls silent again. Joo Lee looks back at the scroll- pulls it taut until it goes no further.
(There are endless scrolls of firebending forms, unfurling themselves in his mind.)
Aang adds flame to his katas. Joo Lee finds himself breathing when Aang should, a grand inhale before a grand plume of fire, short stabbing exhales during a volley of fireballs. He calls out his advice, and he convinces no one but himself that he’s gleaned it all from the scroll.
They invite him for dinner again, a few nights later.
(“Can I stay?”
“Go ahead. I hear you’re far better at corralling them than I was.”
Joo Dee’s smile grows and cools in a single movement.)
He’s hungry- a certain fact, this time. Katara puts an entire pot of soup before him with its warming candle, even though he’s no longer sick, and she pours him a cup of tea.
“It’s oolong this time,” she says encouragingly. “Not jasmine.”
Joo Lee thanks her with a smile he truly means. He leaves the cup on the side, just drinking his soup and listening as the four friends banter among themselves, talking about their adventures before Ba Sing Se. Toph regales them all with tales of her time as a competitive earthbender.
“So that’s how I took down Fire Nation Man the third time! Gotta give him credit for resilience though, I’ve never seen anyone come back that many times to get their butt whooped.”
“That’s the mark of the Fire Nation, isn’t it?” Joo Lee says without thinking.
“What, losing over and over and never admitting you’re outmatched?” Sokka jokes.
He shrugs. “I guess.”
Joo Lee’s eyes have locked onto the small warming candle under his soup. It’s stationary, not on a track. Still, there’s a steady, unnatural rhythm to it that lulls him and unlocks something. It grows and ebbs, like a breathing lung.
“You can’t give up,” Joo Lee murmurs. “You’re not allowed. You have to keep throwing yourself at the wall, over, and over, and over, until there’s nothing left of you at all.”
Where did his smile go?
Embarrassed, he shakes himself and looks up at them, and then he grabs his teacup so he doesn’t have to face their stares. He gulps down a full cup of a rich oolong and he doesn’t let himself consider the flavor until he’s swallowed the last drop.
All tea’s just hot leaf juice, but his traitorous nose discerns finer notes.
He hurls the empty cup between Katara and Aang, straight at the wall behind them, and he’s on his feet before the shards hit the floor.
“What the hell?” Toph exclaims.
“Are you all right?” say the boys, and, “Calm down, Lake Laogai did a number on you-“
He can’t hear any of that over the sloshing of water. Katara’s shot to her feet too, bending the tea and the leftover soup, the liquid between her hands a distinct threat.
He ought to stand his ground and fight this out, even if no one’s told him the battle lines.
Joo Lee turns on his heel and runs.
“Play the role you’ve been assigned,” the man in green rumbles in his dreams. “Beyond that, you have nothing and no one. You are nothing.”
“For once,” says the bright red voice, “I agree.”
He slinks back the next morning. He doesn’t have a choice. He could tell the Dai Li that he failed, that he antagonized the Avatar and lost his band’s trust, but surrender will only get him another faceful of pain.
“I’m sorry,” he blurts, the second he darkens their door. “I don’t know what came over me, and I wasn’t angry with you, really, and it was wrong of me to lose control that way. If you want to never see me again, I’ll understand.”
For a moment, he considers prostrating himself and groveling on the ground. The impulse rises rapidly, like he’s done it before, and he tries tracing that thought to its origin-
Sokka interrupts the search. “Look, don’t take this as an invitation for a repeat, but I for one found last night weirdly comforting. It was a matter of a time before you broke something, and I’m glad it’s not one of us!”
He says it with an easy smirk. The others chuckle with him, albeit nervously, and Joo Lee wonders if he’s allowed to join them, though he’s not in on the joke. He wonders if the appropriate reaction is shared amusement, or personal shame, or gratitude, or another spike of anger. All his feelings fade away before he can identify the right one, and the world falls back behind its wall.
All of the sudden, he’s sitting on the green carpet, and they’re staring again. He doesn’t know why it tempts him to crawl under the rug.
“We researched a lot, when you were gone,” Aang says, before proudly adding, “We got thrown out of three separate libraries!”
Joo Lee does a full-body flinch.
Toph frowns. “Not the point, Twinkletoes.”
“What Aang means,” says Katara, “is we looked up things besides firebending exercises. And you seemed- not better, but happy, so we thought maybe you didn’t need to hear this.”
Joo Lee’s curled up at some point without meaning to, one knee tucked under his chin. “Hear what?”
They pause again, with pity written all over their faces.
“Don’t treat me like I’m fragile,” he snaps. “Nobody’s ever bothered with that.”
“We know,” Toph says, without any of her usual, enviable self-assurance.
Sokka inhales deeply. “Look. Joo Lee. The things that happen at Lake Laogai are. Uh. Not great? Is that a fair characterization?”
He looks around and gets three nods. Joo Lee holds still.
“Yeah, so, uh. They brainwash people.”
Joo Lee’s still and silent.
“You know what that means? ‘Brainwash’?”
“It means you educate someone who you think is wrong about a lot of things.”
“I...okay, yes, that is technically true, but there’s an element of extreme pressure here.”
“Well, of course.” Joo Lee tips his head. “Some people are born slow, almost impervious to knowledge. You have to go to extreme lengths to get things through their skull.”
Sokka’s eyes bulge out. “No, but the Dai Li are literally remaking people!”
“Obviously,” he counters. “What else should cultural protectors do, if they’re not elevating people with their instruction?”
“They prey on the vulnerable to find new recruits,” Aang says. “They look for orphans, prisoners, widows. People who are alone. People who hated their old lives, badly enough that they’d want to give them up.”
“That’s what a government institution should do, right? Spread new opportunities to people in trouble?”
“Brainwashing bad,” Sokka declares, over-enunciating like he’s addressing a toddler. “Lake Laogai? Very bad. ‘Gives the Fire Nation a run for their money’ levels of bad.”
“Lake Laogai is a safe and well-respected sanctuary for restoring mental balance, established by Avatar Kyoshi herself,” Joo Lee responds. The sentence sounds eerily familiar as he says it. He delivers it in a monotone, still smiling as Sokka drops his face into one hand.
“If anyone’s got a different angle,” he mumbles, muffled by his palm, “save me.”
Another awful hole opens in their conversation.
“Can I tell you a story, Joo Lee?” Katara asks, gently, like he’s a frightened child. “It’s not about the Dai Li or Ba Sing Se or the Earth Kingdom at all, I promise.”
Joo Lee doesn’t respond.
She takes his silence as assent. “We read it in the library. It’s about a Fire Nation prince. He was thirteen, and he went to a war...a meeting. Just a regular meeting.”
Joo Lee lets her words flow past him. The story she sketches is a larger-than-life melodrama. He absorbs the general outline of the plot, but the emotions pass him by.
“And they all stared in silence as the prince screamed. All the nobles, even his own sister, just stared. And they didn’t protest when the Fire Lord packed his son onto a boat, and said he couldn’t come home until he found the Avatar, who hadn’t been seen in a hundred years,” Katara concludes, reduced to mournful whispers.
Sokka sighs weightily. Aang discreetly rubs his cheeks and his nose. Toph frowns steadily at Joo Lee.
He’s missed his cue, hasn’t he?
“What’s the point of the story?” he says, too late.
He can’t even manage his usual flare of irritation at the fact that they keep staring, shamelessly, instead of answering him. He’s empty as a clump of reused tea leaves- drained, and drained, until there’s no color left to wring out.
“There’s...no point,” Katara answers, eventually. “It was senseless violence. It’s not a fable. It really happened.”
“Hey,” Toph probes, “what do you think the point is?”
Joo Lee tries. He really does.
“I think it’s a valuable example,” he says, “relating to what we were just talking about. The prince was disrespectful to one of the top advisors in his nation. That’s not an acceptable quality, in a prince. It makes sense that the Fire Lord would resort to extreme measures to teach him.”
“Wait,” Sokka says. “You’re still on the Fire Lord’s side? You think that was a demonstration of nice parenting?”
“I don’t know about nice, but-“ Joo Lee fidgets, eyes darting to his own lap- “how could any father do something like that, if not out of necessity and love?”
They won’t stop staring.
“Wow,” Toph at last intones. “Did anyone else seriously underestimate the depth of the brainwashing here?”
Katara sighs, eyes glimmering with unshed tears. Joo Lee doesn’t care.
“If it’s worth anything,” Aang finally says, “the rest of us are rooting for the prince.”
They return to safer ground after that. To Aang’s firebending practice, silent except for the rush of flame and Joo Lee’s random suggestions. His suggestions must be wrong, without any factual basis to speak of. He can’t guess why the Avatar’s patronizing him, pretending to cling onto every word he says.
He comes to, briefly, when he shouldn’t. There is a breakfast tray on a stone table in front of him, There’s fruit, and soup, and a cup of green tea. He drinks it, and senses nothing but bitterness.
(It’s the tea that’s bitter. Scalded leaves.)
He dreams of sun-warmed waves, so shallow they lap his knees, with sand only a few feet away. He’s not alone on the beach. A girl laughs.
“I invented a way to charge both hands at once,” says the man in red, for once not speaking to him, for once pleased. “With a sufficiently blank mind, it’s possible to isolate the positive and negative energies simultaneously. It took me long enough.”
“You’re a splendid firebender, my love.”
There’s a hum in reply, colored by the barest uncertainty.
“Joo Lee,” Aang says seriously, “where do you go at night? Lake Laogai?”
He nods. “It’s always refreshing.”
“Have you ever...heard anything from outside your room? Like a large animal roaring?”
There are wailing lows, bouncing uncontainable down the halls, echoing in his sleep. Joo Lee shouldn’t remember them so well.
Joo Lee shouldn’t say what goes on in Lake Laogai.
“Of course not,” he tells Aang, as firmly as he can.
(He catches Toph’s glower, as soon as he says it.)
“Whatever happens next,” Katara says, grasping Joo Lee’s hand before he leaves for the night, “we won’t forget you. We’ll never leave you behind.”
He knows it’s a lie before she does.
(Isn’t it nice, knowing you’ve never really had anyone? Better than knowing you drove everyone away.)
Joo Lee eats supper in the dining hall when it’s placed before him. He drinks the gunpowder tea. It’s weak, stale and old. He feels nothing about it. The man in green looms at the front of the room, his face veiled in shadow.
(Joo Lee doesn’t have to look to know there are a hundred other Joo Lees around him, eating the same meal.)
“Your service is, as always, appreciated. There is a storm on this city’s horizon, and I shall count on your faithful dedication to help weather it-“
“Sir!” A lesser Dai Li agent bursts in the door. “The Avatar’s friends have broken in to free his bison. The two girls have split off. They seem to be heading down towards the barracks.”
“I’d like them captured alive,” the man in green says smoothly. “But dead will do.”
The agent nods and disappears.
A hundred Joo Lees turn to him in synchrony. Too late, Joo Lee realizes he’s spoken.
“You- you can’t,” he stammers out. “The Avatar’s mine.”
The desperation breaks his voice.
Shadows twist around the man’s face, and his next words ring unnaturally through the room. “Joo Lee, the Earth King invites you to Lake Laogai.”
I’m honored to accept his invitation.
The man lifts his eyebrows.
“But I’m not,” Joo Lee stutters, though he’s more certain of this than anything else in his life. “I’m not honored. There’s no honor for me without the Avatar.”
A pair of agents leap from the shadows behind him, pinning him down. He gives up without fighting. He always does.
“Please,” he screams as they drag him away, “please, I promise you I’m loyal-“
It does as little good as ever.
Then there is nothing but men in the shadows, and a candle on a track.
“There is no war in Ba Sing Se.”
“I know,” he whispers.
“Here we are safe. Here we are free.”
It might be true. Joo Lee doesn’t care, one way or the other.
“Did you hear the Fire Nation Princess?” the agents gossip in the background, at the start of a shift.
“Yeah. She’s the best thing that’s happened to this place in a century.”
The words slowly wind around to Joo Lee, as if through muddy water.
“No,” he shouts, “she always lies, she always lies, you can’t trust her she always lies-“
His voice is hoarse. There’s no sign anyone’s heard him.
“Agents! Get out here. We’re moving against the Avatar right now.”
“You can’t do that,” protests Joo Lee. “That’s wrong.”
No sound comes out.
They leave him. There’s nothing left but the candle, and the quiet scrape of metal on metal as it goes in its circles.
The candle glows brighter when he breathes in. He must be imagining it.
In the silence, he thinks of a princess, splashing his face with warm ocean water and giggling madly at an ambush well-executed, and the candle explodes in a glorious fireball. He flinches. Catches the glass with the left side of his face.
He sits in a locked room with a candle that’s gone out. No one comes for him.
There’s a tremendous noise as centuries-old stone breaks and drops an underwater fortress to the bottom of the lake- a fortress, and everyone inside it. He’s not sure of it until the water flows under the door, eclipsing that last sliver of light. It pools by his feet and licks at his ankles.
He is not a waterbender. He isn’t an earthbender either, or a firebender, and there are no airbenders left but for the Avatar. But they left his hands unbound, relying on loyalty and candlelight to keep him in place, and his mind is perfectly, inhumanly empty.
With two fingers on each hand, he separates the positive and negative energies.
He isn’t firebending.
Lightning splits the wall in two.
A wall of water replaces it, but he seizes a breath in time and he knows how to keep it, how to conserve the air. He kicks off the green robe that threatens to tangle him and he kicks, moving on some unearthed instinct towards where the sun should be.
He drags himself to dry land and stays there for a minute, watching the glorious, red sunset.
He drags himself away, up and over sloping hills, until a train station comes into sight. His clothes- a tunic and pants he’d worn under his robe, loose and funeral-white- have dried themselves during his wandering. His hair falls down his neck, shaggy, now long enough that he could do something with it, though he won’t. He touches his face and finds neither paint nor powder- no mask over plain, rough skin.
The train car is empty. No one’s asked him for a ticket, and he doesn’t know where it’s going.
He takes a seat.
It’s dark when he gets off the train. The streets of the Lower Ring are quieter than he’d been told to expect. Red banners fly amidst the green.
“The walls fell,” he hears.
He wanders until he’s at the mouth of an alley, its shadows seemingly endless.
“Never forget who you are,” calls yet one more voice. He steps into the shadows and collapses against a wall, gasping against the familiar feeling that he’s once again utterly failed. He doesn’t know who he is, or what he wants, or whether he’s ever been wanted in his life. He remembers nothing, nothing of use but-
He offers a coin at the first restaurant he finds. The coin’s grimy from the gutter where he stole it, and the waitress glares at him. He leaves the cup on the table after a single sip.
“Hey, aren’t you going to order anything else-“
He runs out the doors and roams on, as whispers fly and the tanks roll in, clanking through the streets.
“The Avatar came back, after they chased him out,” he hears as he weaves through the crowds. “Flew straight to Lake Laogai, but the Dai Li’d sunk it already, with all the prisoners inside.”
“Kid, you think we’re open on the day the Fire Nation invades Ba Sing Se?”
“Do you have tea?” he asks again, not comprehending. He smiles, politely as he can.
The man rolls his eyes and serves him a watery black tea of indeterminate variety. He drinks it all, because he’s thirsty and his voice is threatening to die again, but it’s not what he’s looking for.
He stumbles from street to street, begging for directions to good tea. The soldiers in armor laugh at the look on his face, or maybe just the scar. The civilians give him directions, sometimes. Sometimes he gets looks of pity or scraps of food or money instead.
“That’s what you’re spending that money on? Just saying, you look you need food more than-“
He eats the buns she brings out because they’re there- soft and warm and meaty. But the cup is full of salty tea. It tastes like she brewed it from tears.
He may be invisible, and worn out to the point of uselessness, or perhaps he was born that way. Still, propped up only by the summer sun, he walks all the way to the heart of the eastern quarter, because one girl days back said this was the finest tea in Ba Sing Se.
“May I have a cup of tea?”
The hostess at the front takes one look at his bedraggled hair and his clothes- torn and stained until they’re the color of tea too- and laughs in his face.
Some days, time blurs into one long pour of disappointing tea, as hard to follow as a dream. On others, the hours stretch and the world is too sharp and bizarre. It makes no sense, no matter how long he looks, though everyone’s stopped looking at him. He drifts in his off-white clothes and takes food when it’s thrown out, scraping off mold when he needs to, and stoops for coins one at a time.
“Boy, let me take you to a clinic, they’ll get you food and medicine-“
He slips out the window when the healers aren’t looking.
There’s talk of fine tea in the west, so he sets his course and chases the sun to the other side of the city. He can, if only because the sun is moving differently from normal, so slowly it might never set. He crumples against walls, sometimes, when the weariness threatens to topple him head-first into the road. He passes other tearooms without stopping. He can come back if he needs to. If he needs to he’ll walk around the Lower Ring again, and again, like a candle trapped forever on a circular track.
It’s dark, by the time he arrives at the humble shop. When he knocks on the wooden door, there’s silence.
Then a woman opens it. “Hey, sorry, we’re closed.”
“Can I have some tea?”
“The hours are dawn to dusk, says so on the sign.”
“Tea?” He’s forgotten his smile. His voice cracks. “Please?”
He jumps as something cracks, behind the girl. Behind her stands a man- small and round, with his grey hair cut short and his golden eyes stretched wide, as if in recognition. A teacup lies shattered at his feet.
He doesn’t know this man.
“Asmi,” the man says. “He is welcome.”
“But we’ll have to re-clean wherever he sits-“
The man strides up and holds the door open wider, letting him cross the threshold. He sits down nearby and keeps his eyes trained on the table.
“We’ve already been going for ages, Mushi, it’s the solstice!”
The man stops. “The solstice? I had forgotten, but of course it would have to be.”
“Have to be what?” she asks.
“The solstice is the day the spirit world is closest to ours,” he murmurs cryptically, his voice hoarse. “You may go for the night, Asmi.”
She shoots them both strange looks but obeys, shutting the door quietly behind her.
The man comes to stand by his table, and he looks back up at him.
“Who are you?” the man asks.
He stays quiet.
“What do you want?”
The teamaker swallows hard. “Please stay as I fetch it. I will only be a moment. Please, don’t leave.”
He nods, looking back at the table.
When he glances up again, the man’s returned with a pot full of water and a few jars of solid ingredients. The water isn’t steaming, and there is no fire in sight.
“Should I?” he offers.
The man looks up at him, startled. “Can you…”
He nods. Places a hand on the side of the earthenware pot. Warms the water inside until soft curls of steam wisp from the top.
The man makes a choked-off noise. “But ghosts cannot bend fire, in this realm...”
“I’m not a firebender.”
Now the man watches him with an impossibly peculiar look, even as they fall back into silence. With practiced movements, he mixes leaves into the pot along with a piece of ginger and a spoonful of ground cinna-cloves, but he doesn’t stop watching.
It’s alright, somehow.
They wait for the tea to steep.
“Perhaps this will not be to your liking,” the man says at last. “I do not brew spiced tea often, but it is widely loved in the Fire Nation.”
There is no answer.
The man pours a cup and passes it across the table to him. He takes a sip.
Takes another sip.
Inhales sharply, and all the dying candles in the shop flare back to life.
Uncle’s voice is broken, and there are tear stains down his cheeks. This isn’t real. Uncle’s breathing hard and gazing at him with hope and awe, like he’s precious. This isn’t real, but Uncle rises and comes closer, as if scared he’ll wisp away at the slightest touch, and then kneels down beside him and places two hands on his cheeks and holds him like he’s small and very, very fragile.
As the walls fall, he lets himself cry.