Eyes glaze over as he watches the fire burn in front of him. Claps echo around everywhere inside the tent, and the ringmaster bows and grins as he watches the monkey finish juggling the torches.
“And now,” he says. “For our final act!”
Trumpets fanfare, and the crowd cheers again. Sokka looks on with boredom, his expression completely empty and blank. Beside him, his sister jerks him out of his daze.
“Sokka, look!” Katara exclaims, pointing into the circus ring. “It’s the Circus Boy!”
The ever popular Circus Boy is what attracts everyone into this town to visit. It is said that he was raised by dragons, that he can breathe fire. It’s what most people want to see when they stop by this city, and it’s what Sokka and Katara are here for in the first place.
Sokka has little interest; actually, he has no interest at all. He turns back and looks into the circus ring, still bored. He stares, unimpressed as the introduction to the Circus Boy’s arrival starts, and pays no attention—until the boy comes out.
“And here is our Circus Boy! The Scarred Dragon!”
The figure of a boy suddenly appears out of nowhere in the middle of the rings, while its edges rise with fire. Sokka finds that he can’t take his eyes off of him, as the boy does a series of backflips and tumbles into the ring, fire emitting from his body. It is not until the boy flips onto a post on the middle of the ring, high above the captivated audience, when Sokka can see him clearly.
The boy looks around Sokka’s age, perhaps a little older. His hair is as dark as ashes and flutters in front of his face. He looks fit and healthy, though perhaps a little on the skinny side, and tired as well. He is young—but exceptionally skilled in acrobatics, and while his control over the fire around him seems magical, there is just something about him that makes Sokka lose track of everything else all of a sudden.
But the most remarkable thing about the Circus Boy is the large scar over his eye, and Sokka can see why he is called the Scarred Dragon. It is cut into his face deeply, leaving red marks that may have been bloodstains, shed permanently. The scar looks old and stained, and Sokka realizes it must have been caused by fire.
“… and that’s the end of our performance! Goodnight all, and come back soon! Walk safely!”
“Come on, Sokka, let’s go,” Katara’s voice says suddenly in his ear.
Sokka looks around, and sees people getting up to leave, and glances into the circus ring to see that it is empty. As he gets up, he wonders where the time has gone.
In the night, Sokka can’t go to sleep, because he can’t stop thinking. The image of the Circus Boy, the Scarred Dragon, flashes in his mind as he twists and turns in bed. The boy looks weary, exhausted as he stares at Sokka, and there’s something about him that makes Sokka not want to take his mind off of him.
When he wakes up (though it feels like he hadn’t fallen asleep at all), he and his sister go through the town, shopping. Katara goes to vendors right and left, and Sokka doesn’t mind much as he follows her, so as long as he can see her. He helps her pick out clothes, and buys a few weapons and bags for himself with the money he’s been saving up at his own village. Sokka likes shopping, actually; it gives him a chance to explore, and he always likes learning something new.
After the seventh shop they peek into, Katara spots an accessories store a little far off down the street. She runs to it, without Sokka noticing until a few moments after, and Sokka, being the protective older brother he is, dashes after her, calling, “Wait!”
It is then when he runs by the circus tent in the middle of town. He doesn’t think much of it for a millisecond, but then all of a sudden his eyes catch a glimpse of a red scar, and he turns to look around. He peers inside, and sees the Circus Boy sitting in a cage like an animal, drinking a bowl of soup.
Sokka stays back a little and pokes his head in the doorway, subtly. The boy is in the back of the tent alone, and Sokka cannot help but steal a few moments, just staring at him. The boy’s eyes are red and baggy as Sokka sees up close, his makeup only messily put on. His clothes are mere rags, and his performance clothes a little ways off look itchy and uncomfortable. Sokka pities him, as he watches the boy eating alone.
He’s considering walking into the tent and saying hello, when all of a sudden, the ringmaster comes in with a whip. Sokka thinks he is evil at first, until he sees that the ringmaster looks miserable as he says to the boy, “Zuko, your father wants to see you.”
The boy pops his head up, and as a handsomely dressed man comes into the tent, the boy says, “Father?”
“Hello, son,” Zuko’s father says with an expressionless face. “I see that you’re doing well.”
Sokka snorts quietly to himself. If “well” means being sitting in torn clothing inside a cage and eating by himself, then of course Zuko is doing just fine.
But the boy nods, and he asks, “Are you going to let me out soon, father?”
The man glances around to the hay around them inside the tent, a few bales sitting in the corner. Sokka inches back in case he can see him. Then the man looks back to the boy inside his cage.
“I think I’ll let you stay a little bit longer,” he replies. “Show you some discipline. Learn something about life.”
“Father, I’ve been in the circus for eleven years!” the boy protests, raising his voice.
But the man cuts him off. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that!” he shouts, and the boy falters a bit. “You will stay here longer, and that is final.”
“How much longer?” the boy asks, but the man turns and starts to walk away. “Father? Father!”
The man does not turn around, and exits the tent through the side he had come in from. The ringmaster looks at Zuko pitifully, and then follows him.
“Sokka! Look what I bought!” a voice says next to Sokka’s ear suddenly, and he turns to see Katara behind him, beaming and holding what seems to be hair decorations.
Katara looks at him strangely, realizing he’s near the circus tent. “Sokka? What have you been doing?”
“Oh, nothing,” Sokka replies, turning back around. But his head is swimming with the words of the Circus Boy’s father, ringing in his ears. “Come on,” he says, putting his hand on his sister’s back. “Let’s leave.”
Originally, Sokka would have told his sister about the Scarred Dragon and about what he had seen. But he felt like it was a secret, something that he should keep to himself. So he did.
He and his sister stay in the village a little bit longer. They buy things and see sights—but still, Sokka cannot get his mind off of the boy. He wonders what he does every day, what his father does. He hears about him constantly around town, about the circus, and a small part of Sokka feels strange.
A few days later, they pass by the same side of the circus tent again. Sokka manages to glimpse in and see the Circus Boy sitting there alone, soup in his hand once more.
He turns to his sister. “Um, Katara, I’m going to go somewhere for a while. You can explore around town by yourself, right?”
“Yeah!” Katara looks eager. But then she looks at Sokka funnily. “Where are you going?”
“Oh, this… place. I saw they had nice boomerangs,” Sokka lies uncomfortably.
But Katara buys it, and beams. “Okay! You don’t have to worry! When you’re done, come find me.”
Sokka nods, and then watches with mild amusement as his sister runs off. Then he turns around to look in the tent again.
Thee boy is still sitting there, but his empty bowl is now placed at the edge of his cage. He sits there, fire dancing in his hand.
Sokka has never seen anything like it before, someone holding fire. Intrigued, he leans into the tent, and accidentally trips a little, snapping on a piece of hay on the ground.
The boy’s head shoots up immediately, looking to the doorway. The fire disappears from his fingers, and his eyes narrow. “Who are you?”
“I…” Sokka hesitates as he stands inside the shadows o the tent. “I was just…that was cool.”
“What are you doing here?” The boy glares at Sokka a little longer. Sokka shifts uncomfortably.
“I… I thought you might be hungry, so I brought you something.” Sokka brandishes a loaf of bread he had prepared that morning, from inside his bag.
The boy stares at it. “Bringing food to the freak, huh?” he says with a spiteful voice, though his eyes are gazing at it hungrily.
Sokka shakes his head rapidly. “No! Well… I am bringing you food…” he says. “I just—Do you want it or not?”
The boy looks like he’s about to say no, but the bread seems to be tempting him so much. Finally, he says, “Fine,” and Sokka comes over to his cage and slips it between two of the cage bars.
Sokka watches as the boy seems to be looking at it cautiously at first, as he takes one bit. But then after chewing it slowly, he suddenly attacks it with his mouth; Sokka looks on in amazement at his furious teeth, lashing the bread to shreds until it’s all gone.
When the boy looks up and sees Sokka standing there, watching him, he turns red in embarrassment. But Sokka remains staring.
“What’s your name?” he asks him, though he knows already.
“Zuko,” the boy replies, eyeing Sokka, cagy. “What’s yours?”
“Sokka,” Sokka answers, looking at Zuko peculiarly. “What… What exactly do you do here all day?”
“You mean besides performing for ten minutes for the circus every day?” Zuko laughs hollowly. “Train all afternoon, eat soup twice a day, and sleep. It’s only in the mornings when I can do anything else. And I’m limited to stay in my cage.”
But then his eyes narrow as he feeds Sokka this information, and he puts his guard up again. “Why do you want to know?”
“It must be so… lonely,” Sokka remarks, thinking of Zuko’s father. He considers asking about him, but then decides against it. “Why are you here anyways?” he decides to ask instead.
But Zuko seems to think it is the end of their conversation. “That’s not for you to know,” he replies. “Now please, just get out of here before I light you on fire.”
Sokka doesn’t think Zuko would do that. But he leaves anyways.
However, the next morning, Sokka decides he won’t give up on Zuko. After sending his sister off to another part of town again, he shows up in Zuko’s tent once more.
This time, Zuko has a monkey with him, and Sokka recognizes it from when he and Katara had seen the circus.
Zuko glances up when he hears the crackle again, and he immediately glowers once he catches sight o Sokka. “What do you want? Come to ask me a bunch of useless questions again?” he sneers.
Sokka looks at Zuko warily and shakes his head. “No,” he responds, and pulls out bread from his bag much like the day previous. “I brought food again.”
Zuko stares at the bread with the same look from before, but he takes it with slightly more trust in Sokka this time. But instead of wolfing it down, it breaks it apart and hands one half to the monkey, who starts boggling it down instantly, before eating it himself.
“Is this… Is this one of your friends?” Sokka asks him, indicating the monkey.
Zuko nods from eating. “Yeah. As you could probably tell, I’m the only human act.”
“Oh.” Sokka glances around warily. “Are you friends with all the animals?”
“Yeah. Well, most.” Zuko chuckles a bit. “The fox doesn’t like me all that much.”
“Oh.” Sokka looks at Zuko a little bit longer. “Why wasn’t the monkey here yesterday?”
“Technically, we each have our own small tents in here.” Zuko points up at the ceiling, as if indicating the entire circus tent. “But the animals like to come out once in a while and see me. As long as they don’t get caught.”
“Get caught by who?” Sokka questions, though he’s pretty sure he already knows the answer.
“The ringmaster,” Zuko responds. “But he doesn’t do much to us, just makes us practice a little harder and longer. But when my father comes, and if he catches one of them—he punishes us.” He flinches at the thought. “Severely.”
“What, does he whip you or something?” Sokka jokes.
But Zuko turns around and looks at Sokka. “Yes.”
“Oh…” Sokka turns around and flushes pink a little, embarrassed.
Zuko looks at Sokka a little bit longer, as if trying to figure him out. Sokka stands there awkwardly, glancing around and observing the monkey. But his gaze goes back to Zuko when Zuko asks, “What are you doing here again, anyways?”
“I just—” Sokka stutters for a minute. “I just wanted to make sure you were well.”
Zuko doesn’t say anything, but instead turns and faces the other side of his cage with the monkey. And even though he is silent, Sokka can tell that he wants to be alone, that he wants him to leave.
So Sokka does.
Sokka comes into Zuko’s tent with the bread again, and this time, the monkey isn’t there. While he eats the bread, Zuko tells him about his training.
“My performance is basically the same thing every day, though the ringmaster tells me to do something different each day to shake things up,” Zuko explains.
Sokka’s eyes go wide. “Different every day?”
“Well no,” Zuko says quickly. “I mean, that’s what he tells me to do, but if I do a routine that I did two days ago, no one would notice." He munches on the bread carefully.
Sokka stares at Zuko. “And how long have you been here?” he asks.”
“Ever since I was five,” Zuko glances up thoughtfully. “I’m sixteen now.”
“But why?” Sokka asks, frowning as he leans against the cage.
Zuko opens his mouth for a moment, and then closes it. Then he glares at Sokka. “You’re doing it again.”
“Doing what?” Sokka gives him a blank look.
“Talking to me and making me tell you basically my entire life story,” Zuko says. “You’ve been doing that for the past two days. And now you’re doing it again.”
“What can I say?” Sokka chuckles and shrugs his shoulders. “I’m a pretty sociable guy.”
Zuko nods, and he stares at Sokka for a few moments.
Sokka just looks at him right back. “So are you going to tell me why you’re here?”
He doesn’t expect much of an answer. And he doesn’t get one, because at this, Zuko’s face hardens and he turns away.
They continue to have small meetings in the mornings over the next few days, until it’s noon and the ringmaster comes, and Sokka leaves promptly. Zuko still refuses to tell Sokka why he’s here, but it talks a little about his adventures in the circus.
“And one time,” Zuko is explaining, “when I was nine at practice, the tiger was so starving that he almost ate the monkey!”
“Did he?” Sokka asks eagerly.
Zuko scoffs. “You saw the monkey was still alive a few days ago, didn’t you?” he says. “But he was just so hungry and whining that the ringmaster had to go out for a little and buy raw meat for him before he tore us all to shreds!”
Sokka chuckles and gazes through the bar doors, his eyes fixated on Zuko as Zuko stares back. Then Sokka asks, wondering.
“Do you have any siblings?”
Zuko looks uncomfortable at the question at first, but then he’d decided he’s opened up to Sokka enough already, he answers. “Yeah. A sister. Her name’s Azula.”
“Why…” Sokka starts, but then realizes Zuko probably won’t answer.
However, Zuko interrupts him. “Why isn’t she here?” he finishes. “She’s always been a favorite of my dad’s. And I’m not. That’s why.”
Sokka is tempted to ask Zuko again why he’s here. But after three tries, he’s given up. So they just stay there in silence.
Sokka considers busting Zuko out, but decides against it. Of course, he wants to—but he doesn’t know what to do with Zuko after that, and he likes to have a full plan before doing so. Plus, he doesn’t even know if Zuko wants to come out—obviously, Zuko is not in the best condition, but he seems content.
He watches the next day as Zuko heats his soup, small flames dancing out his fingertips. While Zuko hadn’t done it the first times Sokka was here, he’s started to a while ago and Sokka didn’t say anything. But now he does.
“How do you do that?” Sokka questions, looking at the fire coming out of Zuko’s hand. “Where does the fire come from?’
“Oh.” Zuko pulls his hand back and drinks his soup, avoiding Sokka’s eyes. “I was born like this.”
“I… Born like this?” Sokka frowns a little. “What do you mean?”
“With the fire. I’ve always had power over fire.” Zuko fiddles his finger, and a flame shoots out of his palm again. “Before I couldn’t really manage it, but now I have better control.”
“Is that why you’re here?” From behind the cage, Sokka cocks his head to indicate the tent. “In the circus?”
Zuko switches the fire between his hands and doesn’t look at Sokka staring at him behind his bars, again. “Yeah,” he answers, gaze fixed on the flame. “I was thrown out of my house by my father.”
“Why?” Sokka can’t help pressing.
He notices that Zuko’s eyes cloud with shame as he responds. “He thinks I’m a freak. He found out that I could control fire when I was four. That’s why I have this.” He indicates the scar on his face. “I was playing with it, experimenting when he came in, surprising me and making me burn myself.
“He called me a monster.” Zuko chuckles cynically. “And he sent me here. And I know he doesn’t want me, he doesn’t count me as his child.”
Sokka remains quiet for a moment, and remembers the first day he had been inside the tent. “But you want to come out?” he says.
“Only so I don’t have to do this anymore. My father runs this town, and he gets nearly all the money the circus earns. I don’t want to give him the money.” Zuko looks at him. “I don’t want to work under my father, Sokka.”
Sokka stares back at Zuko, and he swears he sees tears in Zuko’s charcoal eyes.
“Can’t you just melt the metal and get out of here?” Sokka asks Zuko.
Zuko shakes his head and shrugs. “I can, but I don’t know where I’d go after I escape. If I wait for my father to get me out, I can go back to my old house, and I can get things to help me leave.”
“Oh.” Sokka plays with one of the brass bars. “Can I come in with you?”
Zuko seems chary, but when he looks at Sokka again, he cannot help but give in. He nods, and Sokka watches in astonishment while Zuko puts his hands on the cage bars. Smoke comes out of his hands, and he softens the metal before pulling them apart with a grunt, into a hole wide enough for Sokka to fit into.
Sokka climbs in and sits next to Zuko. Then he looks around. “This is nice,” he states. “I mean, it’s not terrible.”
“Yeah? Try living in here,” Zuko scoffs, but he doesn’t seem too offended by Sokka’s words. He picks up a piece of hay from the cage floor and burns it with his fingertips.
Sokka watches. “Do you ever wish you didn’t have this… ability?”
“Are you kidding, of course I do!” Zuko shoots a look at Sokka, who is playing with the hay as well. “If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be here! I wouldn’t be shunned from my family! My father would love me!”
Sokka looks at Zuko for a moment. Then he turns away, words pushing at the tip of his tongue.
Sokka finds that every time Zuko looks at him, Sokka feels like he’s being set on fire—literally, of course not, but heat rushes to his cheeks and runs down his body. He finds that every time Zuko touches him or catches his eye or speaks, he is enflamed; he tries to push it away, but it is there.
Katara questions why they are still in town for so long, but Sokka tells her that they are here for a long vacation. He just wants to stay with Zuko, as long as he can, he doesn’t want to leave him.
“Your father sounds like a great man,” Zuko tells Sokka enviously after Sokka has told him about his family.
Sokka beams with pride and bows his head down. “He is,” he agrees. “I want to grow up to be just like him.”
“You will be,” Zuko says confidently.
Sokka blushes, but eyes Zuko, casting his gaze up. “Why do you want your father’s love so much? Why do you need it?” He picks at the hay beneath his feet.
“Because he’s my father. He’s supposed to love,” Zuko tells him. “He’s supposed to love his son.” He stares at Sokka, tears hiding behind his eyes.
Sokka’s gaze lingers on Zuko. “I don’t think if he loves you now, he’d love you any more without your fire.” He glances down once more. “He should love you the way you are.”
“You don’t know him. He wouldn’t love me,” Zuko argues. “Before he did. But now he doesn’t, because he knows.”
“Zuko, the fire is part of who you are,” Sokka presses. “Without it, you wouldn’t be who you are.”
“I don’t want to be myself.” Zuko’s angry eyes burn into the ground and he swallows, as if trying to hold something back. “I wish I didn’t exist.”
Sokka is looking at Zuko, but at these words, he suddenly takes Zuko’s chin and stares into those ashen eyes. And his face is so close to his, and suddenly the gap between their lips closes, and they are kissing, and Sokka feels like he’s on fire. He kisses him, and he feels Zuko kissing back, hungrily, fiercely. Then Sokka pulls back and gazes into his eyes.
At first it is awkward, but Zuko and Sokka become accustomed to the new kind of relationship they have. The next day, when Zuko opens up the cage bars once more, and Sokka climbs in, Sokka sits significantly closer than before. Embarrassed and remembering the previous day’s events, Zuko blushes.
“What if you really did escape? You can come and live with me,” Sokka says, though he’s avoiding Zuko’s eyes as well, recalling yesterday.
Zuko shakes his head. “I’d have nothing, though.”
“We could provide for you,” Sokka points out.
“I don’t want you to,” Zuko tells him. “It wouldn’t be enough, anyways.”
Sokka feels oddly comfortable so close to Zuko, and instinctively, he places his hand on top of the other boy’s. “We’d have enough for you, Zuko.”
But Zuko just looks at him, though his cheeks are enflamed with pink at their clasped hands. “I’m okay, Sokka, really. I’ll just wait until my father lets me out. It won’t be that long.”
Sokka glances at him doubtfully. Yet Zuko adjusts his hand in Sokka’s so that they’re closer and warmer, and Sokka wants to sit like that forever.
Zuko decides to show Sokka some of his tricks the day after, in the late morning. He melts the bars and gets out of his cage, and Sokka grins with excitement.
“C’mon! Show me the moves!” he says, stepping back and watching.
Zuko smirks back. “I will, don’t worry.”
He takes a deep breath, and while Sokka gazes at him, Zuko puts his hands together in concentration. Then he opens his eyes, and begins.
His routine starts with a series of tumbles, with his hands at his sides, flames shooting out of them. Then in the center of the tent, he forms a small ring of fire, standing in the middle of it. His hands go up and fire rises, barely brimming the ceiling and leaving small burnt marks. Sokka watches in awe, as the fire turns into a serpent, which swirls around him as eh trains them to travel in designs around him. Then they simmer down and take forms of other animals—all the animals in the circus, Sokka realizes.
Zuko faintly finishes by throwing small sparks in the air, and as they glitter like stars in the sky, he does a backflip and lands just as they fade out. He’s panting deeply, and Sokka is pretty sure he’s gawking at him.
“Yeah, it’s supposed to be longer,” Zuko breathes, and Sokka notices he’s gasping, “but since we’re in a small area… yeah.”
“That was amazing!” Sokka exclaims.
Zuko childes, and smirks at Sokka again. “Haven’t you been to our circus before?”
Suddenly, Sokka is cut off when he hears a familiar voice booming outside the tent, “And get that monkey back in its cage!” followed by a loud screech. Zuko and Sokka freeze.
“Quick, get out, that’s my father!” Zuko hisses to him, shoving him towards the exit.
Sokka starts to make his way over, but when he hears the voice getting closer to them, saying,
“Ungrateful little animals…” he quickly stops and turns around. Zuko glares at him while bending the bars back together, already inside his cage.
“Sokka, what are you—?”
Just as Sokka dives behind two bales of hay to make himself unseen, the tent doors flap open loudly, and Zuko shuts up. Sokka peers behind a stack to see the richly dressed man from before enter, and the man glowers at Zuko upon arrival.
“What are you doing?” he booms, and Sokka crouches down in fright.
Zuko looks up to his father innocently. “What does it look like I’m doing?” he questions.
“Don’t use that tone of voice with me!” The man turns around, pacing. “I have something to tell you, Zuko.”
“What? Am I finally getting out?” Zuko asks eagerly.
His father chuckles. “Quite the contrary,” he replies, walking back and forth once more. “I—”
But suddenly he stops when he looks up, and sees the slightly burnt ceiling. His eyebrows crease into fury, and he scowls up at it, before turning to Zuko and pointing to it.
“What is this?” he shouts, so loudly and Sokka takes his head and hides it back in fire again. “Have you been outside your cage?”
Zuko’s eyes widen in horror. “No!” he lies quickly, trying to explain. “I was just—”
“These bars are warm.’ Zuko’s father goes to the slightly crooked cage walls and feels them. His eyes pierce through Zuko. Then he turns around to the ring master, who has been standing there in the doorway.
“Unlock the cage!” he commands.
The ringmaster does as he is told, and opens the gated doors. Zuko stares at his father.
“Father, what are you—”
“Whip!” his father bellows.
Sokka stares in horror when the ringmaster brandishes out a whip, regretfully. He hands it to Zuko’s father. The look on Zuko’s face is an expression Sokka never wants to see again.
“Out!” he orders Zuko.
Zuko comes out hesitantly at first, his gaze remaining on the whip, but when his father yells, “Out!” again, he leaps out in fright. He falls to the ground. His father immediately cracks the whip on his body on the floor.
“Don’t—you—ever—disobey—my—orders!” he roars, with each snap of the whip on the crouching Zuko. Tears are springing into Zuko’s eyes from the pain, as he bites on his lips to prevent himself from crying out, to give his father any pleasure.
“Sneaking out of your cage! What were you doing, off getting extra food?!” Zuko’s father looks down at him. “You look like you’ve gained some weight. I bet you were. Don’t ever do it again.”
He continues hurting to Zuko with the whip. Sokka can see the bloods form the cuts seeping through his shirt. Sokka is crying as well, silently in his corner, as he watches Zuko in pain, and Sokka feels like a thousand knives have all been stabbed into his chest at once.
Zuko’s father finally finishes, and as he hands the whip back to the ringmaster, he smirks down at Zuko. However, Sokka notices it is different from Zuko’s, with an emotionless expression instead of sparkling, dancing eyes. Sokka can’t bear to look at Zuko’s father, the sweating man in the large suit.
“That should teach you,” his father snarls, spitting down at Zuko’s body while Zuko kneels over on the ground, crying. “By the way you’re not getting out. Ever. You’ll be working here every day for the rest of your life.”
He and the ringmaster leave. Then Sokka rushes out of his hiding place and to Zuko, kissing him and trying to heal his wounds.
“You have no choice now,” Sokka says to Zuko as he presses his homemade icepack to the other’s shoulder. “You have to escape.”
“But-But where will we go? And when?” Zuko looks at Sokka hopelessly. “In broad daylight?”
“No…” Sokka thinks carefully. “When’s your next performance?”
“Tomorrow. Why?” Zuko glances at Sokka, and winces which moves the ice to another wound from the day before.
Sokka looks down and meets Zuko’s eyes. “Perfect then,” he says, a plan formulating in his head. “You’ll escape tomorrow, right after that, and even if anyone notices you’re gone, it’ll be busy so we can just leave with the crowd.”
“But…” Zuko stares at Sokka. “Where will I go?”
Sokka moves closer to his lap, until he’s almost sitting on him. “You have me. Remember? You can come to my home.”
“But—” Zuko begins.
Sokka stops him with a quick kiss, then pulls away and blushes. “You’re staying with me,” he states.
“Okay,” Zuko whispers back. He hopes so.
Sokka doesn’t come the next morning. Zuko is worried at first; he had never failed to come any day. But then he remembers Sokka had told him before that he had to prepare to leave, since apparently his sister had gotten a little too settled in their town.
Zuko waits nervously backstage that night, as the circus goes on. He spots Sokka in the stands almost immediately, with a girl who’s a little shorter than him. He is glad that Sokka has come to the circus again. This last performance is for him.
When he finally goes on, Zuko does his routine perfectly. His eyes never leave Sokka as he flips and dances, and he swears the entire audience is deathly quiet until he is done.
“… and that is the end of our performance! Good night all, and come back soon! Walk safely!”
Applause roars, but he doesn’t care. Zuko rushes back into his tent, while everyone leaves and the ringmaster begins to clean up. He gathers everything he wants to bring—a boomerang-shaped piece of brass, which he had made with Sokka, and his blanket—and then slips out of his performance clothes, puts the hood of his shirt up and rushes outside.
People are walking and looking around, but nobody recognizes him. Zuko feels lost for a second, until he sees the hill where he has agreed to meet Sokka, and spots him with his sister once more. Zuko runs to them.
“Sokka, what are we waiting for?” Sokka’s sister is saying.
Zuko appears behind Sokka suddenly and taps him on the shoulder. Sokka jumps and spins around, but when he sees that it is Zuko, he smiles at him. Then he brings him around so that his sister can see him.
“Katara, this is Zuko,” he says to her, and Zuko reveals his face a little so Katara can see. As Katara gapes in amazement, Sokka turns to Zuko.
“Glad you made it safely,” he whispers to him.
“Of course. It was your plan, after all,” Zuko replies.
Sokka blushes, but turns around to Katara, “Come on, let’s go.”
As they start heading out of the village, Zuko turns around to see the circus tent one last time. He doesn’t know if anyone has noticed he’s gone yet, but he wonders how long it will fare without him. A part of him has a strong hope it fails, and his father loses all money, he loses his job, he loses everything. Yet somehow, Zuko wants to keep the circus still close to his heart.
“Come on,” says Sokka’s voice suddenly, breaking him out of his thoughts. Zuko turns around as Sokka pulls on his arm, and he sees that while Katara his taking off, Sokka is still with him, concern in his eyes.
“You’re with us now,” Sokka tells him, leaning forward to kiss him on the mouth. Then he pulls back at smiles at Zuko, eyes laced into his. “You’re with me.”
Zuko nods and smiles, and as Sokka leads him away, Zuko realizes that he never wants to be with anyone else. Because only with Sokka, Zuko feels like someone loves him, that he loves himself. He feels that the strongest fire is in his heart.