Chapter 1: Water
The water rolled under the bridge. The water that wasn’t quite like water, was more like water than any water they’d ever seen, that sucked light into itself, and poured the light back out through frozen cracks in its surface, rolled under the bridge, and over it. The water that flowed like water and grabbed like hands and claws wrapped around the bridge, and Zuko backed away, his fight with Zhao forgotten. The water closed in around Zhao, closed in and clasped him to itself.
Zhao wriggled in the water’s hand, and a thick fog of shock filled Zuko’s mind and wouldn’t empty. He staggered back, his mouth opened, as Zhao twisted and fought.
Zuko shook his head to clear away the fog. “Take my hand!” he shouted, holding out his arm.
Face twisted with hate, Zhao reached. “This means nothing, boy!” He snarled as his hand fastened onto Zuko’s wrist.
Zuko moaned low in his throat in pain. He could feel the bones bend and grind together under Zhao’s grip, but he grabbed the man’s wrist anyway and pulled. He dug his heels into the bridge, but they just skidded on the ice. His legs hit the railing and caught. His ankle twisted and snapped. He could hear it before he started to scream, and the scream bubbled in the water as he slipped below the waves.
“I’ll deal with him. He’s my creature.” The world around Zuko stilled, and for a moment, he couldn’t feel anything, not even numbness. He couldn’t feel anything except that he wasn’t breathing.
“He killed my wife!”
“Tui’s my sister,” the first whispered. “He’s mine.”
One of the voices loomed over him, and the other came to stand next to it. “What about the other one? He’s yours too. You’re not asking for him. She’s your sister, but you’re not asking for him.”
“You can’t keep this one,” the first voice spoke again. Zuko opened his eyes, but everything was too bright and he closed them again. He wasn’t sure everything had stilled. He wasn’t sure it had ever been moving. “He didn’t do anything to Tui.”
“I didn’t- I didn’t mean to take him.” The second voice shook and broke.
“No!” the second voice shouted. “Not anymore, she’s dead! Don’t you get that? Tui’s not coming back. She’s not... coming back...”
“Be quiet,” Zuko moaned, reaching up to cover his ears. The light poured in through the cracks in his eyelids and it was too bright.
“La, he has to go back.” The voice cracked and popped, and Zuko turned his head to get away from it.
“He can’t, Agni,” the Ocean Spirit murmured. “He’s already dead.”
“What are we supposed to do with him then?” the sun spirit demanded, exhausted. “You took him. He was supposed to be Firelord, and now what am I supposed to do? Find a way to get the princess pregnant? Make Iroh fall madly in love? La-”
Zuko started shivering, and once he started, he couldn’t stop. They wracked his body and snapped his teeth together so hard he was afraid they were going to shatter. “What...”
“Shh shh shh,” Agni laid his hand on Zuko’s head, rubbing circles on his bare scalp. “You’re-” his voice hitched, and a tear fell on Zuko’s cheek. It burned, but it felt good, and right, and he stopped shivering. “Safe now.”
“Hurts,” he mumbled. “Not right.”
“No, I know,” the Sun Spirit soothed. “But it will be.”
“Excuse me,” a new voice breathed. The air around Zuko, the air that never entered his lungs, or moved when he spoke, grew even brighter around him, until not even his closed eyes helped block it out, but he couldn’t open them anyway.
And the air was so cold.
The voice nagged at him. He should know it. He knew her, he- She put her hand to his forehead, pushing Agni’s hand away chasing away the warmth and rightness away. The new hand was cool, and dry, and his eyelids unstuck, and he couldn’t speak.
The erstwhile princess of the north glanced at him before turning back to the other spirits. “What about what the m- Tui did with me?” Her hands went to the binding around his phoenix tail and pried it away. There was no warmth inside him anymore, no light, no fire...
He opened his mouth to scream, but she covered his mouth. “Shh, it’ll be alright; I’m going to bring you back.”
“You should have waited,” Agni breathed. “I could have done it. I still needed him.”
“What are you-” Zuko struggled to sit up.
Agni put his arm under Zuko’s and helped him to his feet. “Guess he’s yours now-”
Yue cut them off with a wave. “I just want you to know I didn’t do this for you. I don’t know anything about you, except that you tried to kidnap the Avatar.” But she smiled at him. “But your uncle tried to save Tui, and I think he wants you back.”
Zuko looked down. “Thank you.”
“He- the Avatar’s the last hope for my people,” she murmured. “I guess you’re going to know what that’s like now.”
Zuko couldn’t choke the question past his lips and the silence stretched on.
“What’s all this crying about anyway?” Agni smiled, pulling Yue close. “We’re supposed to be celebrating a birth, and,” he put Yue’s hand in La’s and closed them around each other. “A wedding.” But the tears were still pouring from his eyes.
When Zuko woke the second time, there was ice all around him and he was buried in furs. His chest rose and fell with his breath again. He could feel his heartbeat, but there was no rush of warmth with it. He coughed experimentally, but no water came out of his lungs. Something... wasn’t right. He burrowed down into the furs to avoid it for a little longer.
“Where-” he breathed. “Where...”
He could feel the ice under the furs. He could feel the water rushing under the ice.
“My hair-” He tried to get up, but his legs and arms tingled and prickled with numbness.
“Settle down, young one,” the old woman pushed him back down, surprisingly strong. “We had to cut it off. It was too tangled up with the net they fished you out with.”
Zuko’s hands flew to his head, brushing the soft fuzz on top of it. “How- how long was I out?”
“A few weeks.” She handed him a cup of water. “Drink.”
Zuko put the cup down without drinking and tried to stand, but when he pulled his hand back from the cup, the water followed. Zuko stared at it in mute horror, just before he fell over.
The old woman, with the dark, wrinkled, Water Tribe skin tucked him back into the furs. “You’re not ready to be up yet. Relax, heal. And drink your medicine.”
Zuko didn’t reach for the cup. “What just happened?” The words came out as a thin rasp. He couldn’t comprehend anything through the ebb and flow of the water all around him. “I can’t- I...” There was nothing to his heartbeat but blood pulsing through him, no fire, no fire at all. “Where’s Uncle?”
As soon as he blurted those two words out, he cursed himself. He was an idiot; he always had to do something stupid and ruin everything-
“Your uncle’s waiting for you.” She pushed the cup into his hands and folded his fingers around it. “When you drink that, I’ll send him in.”
“What did you do to him?” The sudden sick fear that he and Uncle might be prisoners barely registered, but he latched onto it. It was normal, sane, almost safe next to the rushing and tugging of water and ice all around him.
“Nothing!” She held Zuko down, her bony hands digging into his shoulders as he struggled. “He’s fine; you have to relax!”
The cup of medication tumbled over, and froze on the ice floor. It thawed and flowed back into the cup, before she pressed it back into his hand. He could feel every ripple and tremble of it in the cup. Defeated, he raised it to his lips and gulped down the strange, foul, salty liquid inside.
She patted his shoulder comfortingly. “That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?”
Zuko didn’t have the words to reply. He just growled.
Her hand left his shoulder, but she smiled at him reassuringly as she left the room and pulled the skin curtain across the door.
Zuko pushed himself to his feet and hobbled weakly to the wall. He let it bear his weight as he made his way to the door. Poking his head around the skin curtain, his eyes darted up and down the corridor, and he slipped out, to lean against a different ice wall.
His legs gave out from under him at the sound of his uncle’s voice. He crumpled to the ground, panting as his uncle and the healer woman ran to him.
Uncle’s arms slipped around him and pulled him back to his feet. Zuko could feel the arm jostling his bruises, even through his uncle’s robes and cloak, and through the parka they must have put on Zuko while he slept. “Nephew, you’re supposed to be resting, not-”
“Trying to escape?” he gasped heatedly. “Like you shou-” He broke off, trying to catch his breath as Uncle gathered him into his arms.
“We are not prisoners, Prince Zuko,” Uncle soothed, pushing him back towards his room until he let his uncle help him through the door.
“They cut off my hair.” He shivered. The air didn’t come through his words, and they came out high, like metal grinding on metal.
“Shh,” Uncle murmured. “You should be lying down.”
“You said my name,” Zuko croaked. “Before. They’re going to know...” His eyes fluttered closed, and then open again.
“It’s alright, Prince Zuko. They already know.”
Zuko’s feet slid out from under him, against the ice, in the strange Water Tribe slippers. His eyes wouldn’t stay open. His heart was beating, but he could barely feel it through the rush of blood. He was lying down, but he didn’t remember getting there. Through the haze, a flash of suspicion shone through. “You drugged me! That medici-”
“It’s a shame, really,” a deep woman’s voice whispered. “You would have been a good Firelord.”
Zuko’s heart was still beating. The Spirit World had air to fill his lungs. He breathed so deep it hurt, just to remind himself he could.
“We needed you, you know, Agni and I.” She shook her head, and Zuko could hear her veils rustling. “We were so glad Ozai kicked you out.”
Zuko’s eyes snapped open. He pushed himself up in the water. It covered his wrist, but he couldn’t feel it moving, not the way he had when he had been awake. Lava flowed beneath the water, impossibly, in pools, like the paint on the woman’s face and shoulders. “Who are you?”
“Of course you wouldn’t know,” she breathed. “It doesn’t matter.”
Zuko thought it did matter.
“I don’t know why you came back, but we’ll take you anytime you come. Rest a while.” She smiled, and touched the gold crescent on her forehead. “If you die again, I’ll take you back.”
Zuko shuddered. His skin went clammy and cold.
Voices floated around Zuko’s head, and he buried deeper into the furs.
“What do you mean you’re not going to teach him?” Those sounds couldn’t come out of of Uncle. Uncle never made sounds like that.
The Dragon of the West might have.
“Yugoda can teach him,” a second voice drawled, younger and sneering. “If it’ll keep him out of trouble.”
Zuko opened his eyes and yawned, inhaling fur. It stuck to his tongue and the back of his throat.
“Trouble? He needs to be able to fight!”
“The moon spirit might have saved him, but she’s a woman, and you know as well as I do that makes her softhearted and silly-”
Uncle’s laughter rumbled on the thin, frozen air. “You really should meet my niece.”
“The point is, you’re both dangerous, and we might have to take him in, but we are not going to teach him how to take us apart from the inside!”
Zuko pushed the fur down from over his head. “You drugged me,” he accused, eyes narrowed at his uncle.
“Zuko!” Uncle bent over him. “You’re awake.”
“No thanks to you,” Zuko snapped.
“If you think we’re teaching that-”
“Be quiet,” his uncle ordered.
“You’re not in the Fire Nation court anymore. Whose brother you are doesn’t matter-”
“I believe I told you to be quiet while I spoke to my nephew, Hahn, you said your name was?”
Zuko glanced up at the Water Tribesman who told had told Uncle they weren’t going to teach Zuko. “Leave,” he rasped.
The young man swept out, but before he let the skin curtain fall, he turned back and stood in the doorway. “The council’s not going to let you stay here, General. You’re free to take your nephew with you, of course. Actually, yeah, please, take him, that way we won’t have to deal with him.”
The curtain swung behind him. Zuko picked the bits of fur off his tongue and hacked on the ones down his throat, trying to bring them to the surface. “Teach me what?”
Uncle stroked the fuzz on the top of Zuko’s head where his phoenix tail had been. “Waterbending.”
“I’m not going to learn,” he spat. “I’m not going to stay here!”
“You are still weak, nephew,” Uncle, told him, still stroking his hair. “Last time you woke up, you fell right back to sleep.”
“Because I was drugged!” Zuko reminded him.
“That was just broth, until you were well enough to eat, nephew.” Uncle helped him sit up. “You fell asleep on your own.” Zuko tried to rise to his feet, but Iroh pushed him down. “Prince Zuko, you have to rest.”
“Prince of what?” Zuko forced himself to his feet. “I’m a waterbender.”
“No!” As he yelled, his arms thrust up to push his uncle back, and ice thrust up from the floor in their wake. Zuko sank back down onto the pile of furs, gazing at the two new ice spires, his face and stomach contorting as if the disgusting salty liquid he drank earlier was about to come back up. He swallowed it down as hot tears started to prickle at his eyes. He tried to blink them back, but they fell anyway. Uncle’s arms came down around him, and Zuko shoved him back, tears pouring down his face. “No, I’m a firebender, not... No!”
Uncle’s embrace became more insistent. This wasn’t... Uncle always backed off. The last time he hadn’t, right after he’d woken up on his ship after the Agni Kai with his father, Zuko had set his sleeve on fire.
He couldn’t do that now.
“It’s alright,” his uncle murmured, squeezing him tight.
“‘T’s not,” Zuko mumbled into Uncle’s shoulder.
“It’s not!” Zuko tried to pull away again, and found himself trapped. “Fire is...”
Uncle ran his fingertips through the short bristles on Zuko’s head, rubbing circles onto his scalp. “I know.”
“No you don’t!” Zuko howled. “You never had it just be... gone, just not be there anymore; it feels like your heart’s stopped beating, but you’re not dead, and it won’t let you die...” It was strange how hot the tears were running down his cheeks and the back of his throat. Water was supposed to be cool.
Uncle squeezed harder. He pressed his nephew against his chest harder. His fingertips rubbed harder, soothing and unknotting Zuko, until he could feel his Uncle’s heart beating, and feel his uncle’s blood rushing around his body. His uncle was warm; even through his cloak and robes, and even through Zuko’s stupid parka, he was warm. Zuko sobbed into his shoulder as his uncle spoke, and tried to let the words just wash over him. “It is not the end of the world.”
Zuko wrenched himself away and shot to his unsteady feet. “Shut up! You have no idea-”
“She gave you back to me!” his uncle thundered. “I thought you were dead, but you are here, alive, and, nephew, please!” Zuko backed up until he hit the wall, his mouth hanging open, the cold sweat just starting to bead up under his parka and soak into the fur.
“She gave me back for you!” His voice caught and came out more like a whine than a yell, a wounded little sound that he didn’t quite know how to stop. “She said she wasn’t doing it for me, that she liked you and thought you’d want to have me back-” Zuko rested his weight against the wall. The ice was frozen, still, and at least a little bit safe. He didn’t even how what she meant. Was he supposed to never leave Uncle’s side? Did she mean that his whole purpose now was to follow Uncle around and keep him happy?
When Uncle came over to him, Zuko looked away but let him hold him.
The moon was a thin crescent, just barely starting to wax again after the new moon, and long after the sun had made its brief winter trek over the sky, it hung in the air outside Zuko’s window, shifting the waters in his body around and around, not letting him rest.
He leapt to attention when the animal skin curtain rustled, but when he saw it was just his uncle, he moved back to the window. “Yugoda tells me you didn’t eat your dinner,” the general chided.
Zuko glanced at the unidentifiable boiled meat and seaweed with distaste. “I thought you were asleep.”
“You should be asleep, Prince Zuko.”
Zuko stared out at the moon pointedly. “I can’t.
“Does it feel like the sun?”
Zuko started nodding, then shook his head. “It keeps moving, and it keeps pulling at you...” He swallowed and shook his head again. “Why does everybody know?”
“The waterbending.” Zuko choked out. “Why does anyone have to know? Why couldn’t you just have gotten me out of here without anyone finding out about... He’s never going to let me come home.”
Back when Zuko had first begun hunting the Avatar, when he had still been making the rounds of all of the Air Temples, his uncle had told him what the Fire Nation did to waterbenders. He had handed Zuko a cup of tea, and walked him to his cabin, and told his nephew in explicit detail about warehouses full of wooden cages and dry air, and cups of water held out on sticks to people chained so that they couldn’t even hold it to their own mouths. He had told Zuko that if he were going to condemn someone to that, he had to know exactly what he was condemning them to. At the time, Zuko had thought that if he found the Avatar (when he found the Avatar) it would be a devious old master, and he had sworn that he would be willing to do whatever it took to protect his country. Uncle had left him alone to think about it.
Zuko was thinking about it now, and it was the only reason he was where he was, standing in front of the chief of the Northern Water Tribe and his council. He knew what happened to waterbenders who didn’t have an impenetrable fortress and an army of their own to protect them. “Your own master waterbender vouched for my uncle.”
“But Pakku is no longer here, and it’s not just your uncle, is it, Zuko?” It was all Zuko could do not to demand Chief Arnook give him his title. The moon spirit might have made him a waterbender, but he was still Fire Nation, and he was still the Firelord’s son. But even royal failures knew when they were supposed to shut up and give someone what they wanted to hear. “As Katara tells it, you chased her, her brother, and the Avatar all over the world. She says you abused her grandmother, a member of the Northern Water Tribe, in an effort to extort information.”
The words choked in Zuko’s throat. “You can’t-”
“The spirits might have made you my problem, but they didn’t bother to give me any instructions on how I am supposed to deal with you.” Chief Arnook shook his head with a faint smile. “Your own father threw you out of the country, didn’t he.” Zuko tried to speak, but Arnook cut him off. “Now, Yugoda tells me your uncle confided in her that he was glad she’d been able to heal your broken ankle and other injuries before you awoke and had a chance to fight her. If you can’t even keep your temper when someone’s trying to help you, we can’t trust that you won’t be a danger to the tribe.”
“How’s healing class going with old Yugoda anyway?” Hahn drawled. “My niece says all the other little girls are scared of you.”
Zuko breathed hard through his nose. “Do you have a point?”
“Just thought you’d be relieved to know after everything, you still have it. I mean, a class full of six year old girls?” He sucked air in around his teeth derisively. “Hardened warriors, Zuku.”
Short and pale as Zuko’s hair was, the flush of his scalp was visible all the way around his head. The ice underneath Hahn gave way with a resounding crack and splintered. Ice shards drove themselves like hooks through Hahn’s parka and into his skin. Zuko could feel the pinpricks of blood trickling down them. Hahn shot to his feet. Chief Arnook raised his arm to keep him back, but he shoved it aside and charged Zuko, pulling his arm around to swing his fist at Zuko’s head. In one sharp motion, sharp, like a firebender, not fluid, he jabbed his arms up and forward to block the blow and wrapped his hands around Hahn’s arm. He jerked Hahn around by his arm, forcing him down to his knees and his arm back against itself until he grunted in pain. “Think I’m intimidating now?” He spoke too softly for anyone but Hahn to hear, but his voice shook with anger.
“Nephew!” Uncle called, but he didn’t step forward.
“You needed Yue to save your life.” Hahn hissed. “When your admiral tried to kill me, I got back to shore on my own.”
“That’s enough!” Chief Arnook commanded.
Zuko released his arm, but when Hahn started to rise, he shoved him away. The Water Tribesman lost his footing on the ice and landed on his arms, face down. Zuko stood over him. “My name’s Zuko. And I’m still a Fire Nation prince.”
“Prince Zuko.” The emphasis Chief Arnook put on his title made it sound like an obscenity, but Zuko ignored him.
“I think I intimidated your whole tribe. I think that’s what your chief just said was why I’m being kicked out,” Zuko spat. “I think you’re trying to have it both ways. Either I’m pathetic, or I’m a threat. Your choice.”
Arnook nodded to the woman to the left of him and she waved one hand forward. Icicles ripped themselves out of the floor and lunged for Zuko. She waved her hand back, and another row of icicles jumped up behind Zuko, pinning him against the first. “Despite what happened to my daughter, Hahn is still my choice for heir, Prince Zuko.” the Water Tribe chief hesitated before adding, “Of the Fire Nation. If you remained here, Hahn would one day be your chief. If you can’t even accept that, I have no idea why you even thought you would want to stay here.”
Zuko hung in the icicles, unable to move and refused to hang his head as Hahn took the opportunity to flee back to his seat on the ice bench beside his chief. The skin around Zuko’s lips grew white with rage. Whatever words he should be saying refused to come. When he had still had his fire, the words would have come out as flames. Now they just didn’t come at all.
“We’re in a precarious position without many of our most powerful benders. We can’t afford trouble from within as well as without. My daughter might have made you Tribe, even as you stand there denying it, but I have to consider the whole tribe. There’s a trading ship in the main lock, that was to be heading for the Earth Kingdom today. I asked their captain to delay until you arrived.”
“You’re lucky,” one of the men on the council smirked. Zuko had wondered if any of them could speak at all. “Usually we just drag people like you onto the ice.”
“Yeah,” Zuko scoffed. “You might as well.”
“A word of advice, before you leave, Prince Zuko, the whole world is wondering how vicious you had to be before the Fire Nation saw you as too dangerous even for them.”
“That’s not why-”
“You will never be able to hide who you are with your hair and your scar,” Arnook spoke over him. “If you want to survive, you will learn to control your temper. If you’re lucky, one of the Earth Kingdom generals will take you in to spite your father. They won’t take well to being disagreed with.”
The icicles melted and spilled away, finding the pits in the floor and hardening to fill them. Zuko spat on the floor. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he snarled. “There’s no safety here for me anyway.” He pointed straight at Hahn. “Once he’s chief, the Fire Nation will be able to conquer you with a leaky bath tub! If it takes that long. Sozin’s comet is coming back, and the Avatar’s gone-”
“Enough, nephew.” Iroh laid a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, which flexed beneath it. “Come. We have a ship to catch.”
Zuko let his uncle’s hand guide him, clenching his teeth. “Okay. Get me out of here.”
“You know, the moon and the ocean spirits are supposed to push and pull each other.” Hahn smiled, his eyes narrowed in satisfaction, from his place at the right hand of his chief. “If Yue dies, what do you think the ocean spirit’s going to do to you?”
“That’s enough Hahn!” Zuko could hear Chief Arnook shout, but he didn’t turn around. His Uncle’s hand gripped his parka in warning as they stepped out into the sunlight and marched down to the lock. The pain and devastation he had felt the first time he had embarked a ship to take him into exile was missing as he mounted the gangplank. All that he felt was a cold sort of anger, and a sick sort of fear.
Ao kissed his wife. She thought he was a businessman, but then, she also thought she was Earth Kingdom. No one was supposed to know a Dai Li agent. They had to be spectres, eyes watching from the rooftops, a knock at the door in the middle of the night. Every day he left home, cloaked in middle ring respectability, bought a sticky role at a small bakery, and met up with a few other agents who would open the tunnels for him. Mudan thought she was Earth Kingdom, not a Fire Nation soldier captured at the end of General Iroh’s siege of Ba Sing Se. Ao’s colleagues told him stories about how busy they had been, turning all of the prisoners of war into citizens of Ba Sing Se. They couldn’t kill them, after all. The Dai Li weren’t monsters.
They said Ao had taken down six agents before they had opened the earth up beneath him and managed to drag him to Lake Laogai. That’s why he was Dai Li instead of one of the faceless servants and clerks who staffed the Dai Li headquarters. That’s why he knew he had once been someone else. He didn’t care. He knew that was the mindbending, but that didn’t stop it from working. The Dai Li were allowed to know. He had to know why he could firebend. There was no war in Ba Sing Se, except for the Dai Li.
He would have liked to have known who Mudan had been. When he asked they told him she had said her name was Rinzee. He never asked about his own.
Mudan set his dinner down in front of him and chatted about the price of potato-chokes and how the lady down the street was pregnant again, and it was too soon after the last baby. Ruili snuggled, resting on her mother’s hip until she wriggled down. When his daughter had first made sparks with her fingers, Mudan just laughed. Things like that happened in Ba Sing Se, she reminded him. Why, just last year, remember, Yeng’s boy had started bending air, could you believe it? Since he watched Yeng airbend every day amongst the Dai Li, yes he could. Yeng’s ancestors had been captured in a war so long ago no one remembered it except the Dai Li.
His wife had been a soldier before. He wondered if she would have been a good Dai Li agent, but women in Ba Sing Se didn’t fight, and he would do anything to preserve the traditions of Ba Sing Se.
Ruili toddled over and sat in his lap to steal food off his plate, and he kissed her hair. Out of the corner of Ao’s eye he could have sworn he saw a woman with a huge hat and red paint on her face, but when he looked at her, she was gone.
“Luuu Tennnn, Luuuu Tennnn!” The woman with the painted face had a sweet voice sang the name over and over again in his ear, and he turned away from her, but she just moved with him. “Luuuu Tennnn!”
“I’m not Lu Ten,” he snapped, rolling over again, and yanking his blanket up over his head. He was lying in a river, but that didn’t bother him. The water was warm, and he was so tired...
“Yeah.” She tipped her hat back and had to hold it with her hand to keep it from falling. “That’s what you think.”
He groaned. “Go away.”
“Ha, no, you’re in my river.” She flashed him a grin.
“Your riv...” The words came slow and dazed.
Her face grew serious. “Besides, I have something to show you.” She straightened her hat and held her hand out to him.
He didn’t take it. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I was sleeping, and I’m not who you think I am, so go find this Lu Ten and bother him!” by the time he finished, he was shouting at her.
She frowned and tipped her hat back so he could see her roll her eyes. Her fingers closed around both his wrists, and she dragged him down, under the river. Her hands became stone, pinning him to the wooden arms of one of the chairs beneath Lake Laogai.
“Why did you bring me here!” he yelled at the woman with the red swirls of paint on her cheeks, thrashing against his bonds. “Who are you?”
“Of course you’d have no idea who I am,” she shook her head, “being royal and all. Your people know me, but ever since your great grandfather took my comet and named it after himself, your family has done its best to forget about me. I am the Painted Lady, mistress of the hidden fire.”
“We are the Dai Li,” the faceless agent intoned as he set the fire between them whirling, pushing the lantern surrounding it around the tracks. He could feel it, even when he closed his eyes. It beat inside him the same way it beat against the glass. “Keepers of Ba Sing Se’s culture. You are in the safest city in the world, and it’s safe because of us.”
Ao remembered those words. He remembered saying them, and setting the lanterns spinning. It’s just what firebending Dai Li did.
Nothing in him remembered sitting here. It didn’t. That part of him was supposed to be gone.
“No!” He cried, slamming his head back against the chair.
“Just tell me who you are, Lu Ten, and I’ll take you home,” the spirit woman whispered. “To your wife and daughter.”
“I’m not going to tell you anything!”
The agent snorted. “Don’t worry. It’s impolite not to at least give us your name, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to give you a new one, Ao.”
He knew that voice. That was Ganshu’s voice. Ganshu was his partner. The fear curdled in his stomach.
She cupped his face in her hands and rubbed his cheek with her thumb. “I’m sorry, Lu Ten.”
“Don’t call me that!” he sobbed, twisting his head to bat her away.
“Luuu Tennnn,” she breathed into the dank, still, underground air.
The fire in the lantern beat inside his mind, drawing his whole being with it. He drew breath into his lungs like his father taught him to, and pulled the fire in with it, desperate to stop the movement. Some part of him tried to remind himself that he didn’t have a father to teach him things like breath of fire, that he was Ao of the Dai Li, but that part was buried beneath the panic and uncertainty. “Nooooooooo.”
The agent who must have strapped him to the chair pressed his rock glove to Ao’s mouth as the Painted Lady dissipated. Ao could see his face beneath his face. Duan, another friend. His daughter sometimes babysat Ruili. When he took his hand way, the rocks remained, closed around his face, robbing Ao’s breath and voice. “You’re safe now. Stop fighting. You’re one of us.”
Ao tried to scream as the fire spun around him. The fire wasn’t under his control. He was under the fire’s.
Ao woke up still trying to catch his breath, his dream spilling through the cracks in his mind until he couldn’t remember any of it.
“If they think we’re going anywhere near an Earth Kingdom general, they’re crazy,” Zuko muttered to Uncle. The ship rocked underneath him, lulling him into a false sense of home.
Uncle glanced back at the sailors on the other side of the ship. “Agreed.” He said grimly. The two of them stared at the waves together, remembering the Earth Kingdom captain who had tried to drag Uncle in chains to Ba Sing Se. “It won’t be that hard to hide,” Uncle whispered. “We’ll claim you were sick as a child and the fever turned your hair white.”
“You’ll go back to the Fire Nation,” Zuko snapped. “You’re not going to get arrested because of this!”
Uncle took both of Zuko’s hands in his. “I’m not leaving you, Nephew.” He drew Zuko into his arms, but Zuko stiffened, so he let him go. He winked. “I’m not that easy to get rid of.”
The cabin door was barred on the inside, so Zuko pulled his knife out of his pocket and slid it between the edge of the door and the door frame. He pushed the bar up and out of the way, and pushed the door open, holding his breath until it swung all the way open without creaking. Deftly, he rummaged through the cabinet beside the little writing table, eying the sleeping captain warily, until he found a bottle of ink. After he closed the cabin door, he slid the bar back into place with his knife and decended the ladder into the hold, picking his way around the, the sleeping Water Tribe sailors to his hammock.
The next morning, when everyone left him alone below deck, he froze the moisture on the wood into a clumsy, clouded mirror and pulled out the bottle of ink out of his sleeve. The cold stung his bare skin as he pulled off his parka and his undershirt, shivering and clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering.
He dipped his fingers into the ink bottle and ran them through his hair. For an instant, black streaks remained in the hair behind his fingers, but almost as soon as the ink landed, it beaded up on the tips of the short, fuzzy strands and dripped down, staining his scalp, but leaving the white untouched. The ink dribbled down Zuko’s back, sinking into the waistband of his pants.
He grimaced as a groan dragged itself out of his throat.
“I tried that when I was thirteen.” Zuko jumped at the sound of the former Water Tribe princess’ voice. He whirled around, eyes flicking around the darkness below decks. “It didn’t work for me either.”
He finally caught sight of her, floating near the underside of the deck. She was faint and translucent, the boards of the deck almost as clear behind her as around her, more like a film of silver on the wood than a solid woman. “How are...” he trailed off.
“The moon’s still up.” She smiled at him with the sort of warm smile she must have learned to give before she learned to talk. Zuko... had never been good enough at that sort of thing. “It’ll be up all day. Of course it’s very thin, but it’s there.”
Reaching behind his back to catch the ink on the heel of his hand, Zuko swallowed. Hastily, he dragged his parka back over his head, smearing ink all over the fur. He tried to keep his eyes on her, but she was so insubstantial, she seemed to slip out from under his gaze.
Yue floated down, but stayed back when he stiffened up and glowered. For a moment, she just stood across from him. “I’m sorry,” she murmured at last. “I jumped in before the Fire spirits could save you. If I’d known Agni would have sent you back... I’m sorry.”
There was probably something polite, or respectful he was supposed to say about how she couldn’t have known, and how she saved his life, but he didn’t have the will to find the words. His glower deepened.
“I thought I might teach you waterbending, if you wanted me to.” She glanced at his bubbled and clouded glass mirror. “It’s the least I can do, after I took away your firebending.”
“I don’t want to learn waterbending.” It was, wasn’t it? The least she could do. “Get out.”
He said the last two words softly, dangerously, as if she couldn’t crush as easily as she could stand there, as if she couldn’t pull back the thin, fragile thread of life she had given him. Her expression flickered. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I would have given almost anything to learn to bend.”
“Why?” he croaked.
“They don’t teach girls to bend at the North Pole.” Yue shook her head, all of her transparent, misty hair shaking with it. “Didn’t you notice?”
“But the woman, sitting next to your father, she bent-”
“Tui taught her, before.” She stared off into the distance, and Zuko wondered if she could see through the ship’s wooden walls. “I think- La gives the impression that she enjoyed being subversive.” She closed her eyes and seemed to come back to her self. “After Katara, Pakku had to let in other girls. Things are changing. It’s... good to watch. I wasn’t even allowed to study healing. It was all too base for a princess to be involved in.”
“My sister fights. She’s a bending prodigy.”
“I know.” Yue opened her eyes again and looked back at the wall. “She’s part of the reason you should learn waterbending. She’s sailing to the Earth Kingdom right now, to bring you and your uncle back in chains, as traitors, and unless you’re very lucky, she’ll find you.” She paused, and Zuko had a sinking feeling they were both thinking the same thing. He’d never been lucky. Azula got to be lucky, not him. That was just the way things were. “You need something to surprise her with.”
“Traitors?” he yelped. “We’re not... Father-”
“Your father sent her to apprehend you both.” She put a hand on his shoulder. He couldn’t feel it. “I’m sorry.”
“He would never-” Zuko stuttered. “He loves me. This- this is your fault!”
“This isn’t about that.” Yue closed her eyes again, but didn’t take her hand off his shoulder. He wanted so badly to shrug it off, or push it away, or something, anything. “He doesn’t even know yet.”
The skin around his mouth pinched together. His whole body felt too hot with furious disbelief. Without his firebending, too hot was still not quite hot enough. “Then why?” His voice broke.
Yue seated herself regally on top of a cargo crate, floating a few almost imperceptible inches above it. He could see those inches through her. “He thinks you’re useless. He’s a cruel, evil man who doesn’t love anyone, and he doesn’t think he can use you anymore.”
“He’s not like that!” he yelled.
“I suppose that isn’t the sort of thing you can say to someone and have them believe you.” Yue glanced up at the underside of the deck pointedly. “He’s wrong, you know. You’re not, if it helps.”
His good eye narrowed. “Get out.”
She put her hand on his shoulder again, and when he tried to force it away, his arm went right through. “The first human waterbenders learned from Tui, and still, there’s something about learning it from the moon, for whom it comes naturally. You can’t be a firebender, but you could be a master waterbender.”
“Get out,” he repeated icily.
The ice mirror Zuko had made melted as soon as Yue raised her hand and refroze, perfect, clear, and round. The woman who bent the whole ocean every second barely had to flex her power and the best Zuko could do was nothing. “Aren’t you going to look at yourself?” she asked. “Isn’t that why you made the mirror?”
Zuko’s lips pulled back over his teeth and he spat at her, but the spit didn’t hit her. It didn’t even go through her. It just... fell short.
“You’re going to leave yourself defenseless because you’re too afraid to admit things have changed?” She demanded, not moving. “And when your sister comes, you’re going to let your uncle fight her alone? And if he’s hurt because you don’t fight with him, are you going to just sit there, unable to heal him because you chose not to learn what I have to teach?”
“Go away,” he snarled, crossing his arms. “Go bother someone else.” He slumped against the curved walls of the ship, eyes slits, narrower than even the burn scar left his bad eye. A horrible, cruel idea floated to the surface of his mind. “Isn’t the Avatar supposed to be the bridge to the Spirit World? Aren’t you supposed to be talking to him?”
Yue closed her eyes and opened them again, pressing her finger to the bridge of her nose, as if she could still get a headache. “When I brought you back to life, I put a piece of my own life inside you. If I die, you become the moon. There is no one else I’m supposed to be talking to more right now than you.”
“And that other one?” he challenged, baring his teeth. “You’re just all-” He stopped mid-sentence, some belated sense of piety the last few years with his uncle must have instilled in him creeping out to silence him before he went to far.
Yue shifted uncomfortably. “The Painted Lady?”
“Whatever her name is!”
“You were supposed to be her golden boy; when you became Firelord, you were going to set everything right-”
Zuko recoiled, squeezing his arms around himself and hunching over self-protectively. “But I was never going to be Firelord,” he sneered. “You just said that. Father was never going to take me back, even if I still had- I grew up with Azula, and you are nowhere near as good as her. I’m not stupid! If you’re going to lie to me, at least keep your lies straight!”
“I’m not lying!” Yue’s hands flew up as if she thought he was going to strike her, as if he could. “You were supposed to be the one to teach the Avatar firebending, and if he won-”
“Are you telling me my destiny was to betray my country?” The clear, perfect mirror on the ship’s wall fractured and fell to the floor with a bang like a bomb. “Never.”
“It isn’t betrayal! After what he did to you, I don’t even know how- Your father’s the kind of man who would do something to convince you of exactly what kind of man he is, worse than what he did when he burned your face and banished a little boy for doing the right thing! And if he did it soon enough...” She put her hand back on her shoulder. He really wished she would stop doing that, even if he couldn’t feel it. When she spoke again, her voice was much softer, kind. “You’re the kind of man to do the right thing.”
“He’s not like that!” Tears streamed down the unscarred side of Zuko’s face. “I don’t know why you keep trying to tell me he is! You, maybe, but you say the Painted Lady’s a Fire spirit, and...”
Yue brought her hand up to wipe the tears off his cheek. The water ran under her almost invisible fingers, but when she pulled her hand away, the water followed. “Zhao killed the moon.”
“What does that that have to do with anything?” The air that came out of his mouth with the words left frost on his lips that burned with cold.
“He had an army with him. He told your father, and The Firelord gave his,” Yue swallowed and held up her hand when Zuko tried to interrupt, “Enthusiastic approval. Do you know what would have happened if I hadn’t been there to become the moon? Your uncle knows.”
“Zhao’s-” He closed his eyes and fought down a small, triumphant smile. “Zhao was, an idiot, and Father wouldn’t-”
She grabbed his arm, and her hands solidified around it so that he could feel the tightness of her grip. “He did. He killed Agni’s sister, and almost unbalanced the entire world just to win a victory that would mean nothing to him as soon as it was won! He’s so short-sighted, he doesn’t even realize what things like that would do to him, to the Fire Nation, and your sister is the same way.”
“She’s brilliant,” Zuko said, very quietly.
Yue nodded, and looked away. “Yes, she is, and you can’t be Firelord now, and Agni and the Painted Lady are scrambling to find someone else who won’t ruin things further, and you’re mine now, and I have no idea what to do with you, and I don’t know what to do with any of this, and La barely talks to me, and I have to do something-”
Horrible, loud sobs choked off her words, and she cried like a human woman, head buried in his shoulder. At an utter loss, Zuko forgot himself and tried to rub her back, but his hand went right through. Slowly, her sobs grew quieter, until she shuddered and clenched her eyes closed before opening them again, pushing herself back under control.
She let him keep patting her strangely solid hands with his own free hand, and didn’t speak for a long time. “Listen, you don’t have to do what I want you to do with waterbending,” she said at last, shakily. “You can do whatever you want after you learn.”
Zuko dropped his head, and it turned into a nod as he sank down to sit on the ribs of the ship, and Yue smiled a watery smile. “You really think I’m the kind of man who does the right thing?” he muttered.
She let go of his arm. “Agni and the Painted Lady do. They told me about why you were banished.”
Zuko flushed with something that wasn’t quite anger, and wasn’t quite humiliation. “Oh.”
“You were smart not to listen to my father, you know,” she murmured. “About going to one of the Earth Kingdom generals. Tell your uncle I think you should go to Ba Sing Se.”
Zuko’s expression hardened again, and he shot to his feet. As he marched out of the hold and onto the deck, he didn’t even look back at her, before he dutifully told Uncle her message and became furious all over again.
Ao leaned anxiously around the doorway, his hands behind his back. “You wanted to see me, Sir?”
Captain Wen waved him in. “Ganshu tells me you haven’t been sleeping well,” he said without preamble.
“I hope my job performance hasn’t been suffering,” Ao said stiffly. “I’ve been doing my best.”
“It’s nothing like that.” The captain sat down behind his writing table, smiling reassuringly. “You know we don’t like to keep the same people assigned to the Lake Laogai facilities. Perhaps you’ve been under there too long, the stress taking its toll.”
“I...” Ao began, but he stopped, unable to think of how to continue.
“Now, there’s a position opening up on the northern coast. They need an agent to examine refugees and trade-goods coming into the city. It’s not as many as who come through the Serpent’s Pass, but you won’t have to answer to anyone but Long Feng.”
“I’m not-” Ao begged. “I’ve just been having these dreams. I’m fine, you don’t have to send me away-”
“I’m not exiling you, Agent Ao. It won’t be permanent. You could use some fresh ocean air and time in the country.”
“I won’t be able to firebend,” he murmured.
“No.” Captain Wen pulled a rice paper sheet off the top of a stack on his writing table and bent his stone inkwell towards himself. “No, you won’t. We don’t usually like to send firebenders out of the city, but right now, unless you’d rather we mindbent you again-”
“No!” Ao yelped.
“So you’ll take the post, I take it?” Captain Wen asked, unscrewing the inkwell lid and rummaging around the table for a brush.
Ao nodded, defeated. “What am I supposed to tell Mudan about why we’re moving?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” The captain’s lip quirked. “Don’t look so glum, Agent Ao. It’ll only be a year, and they’ll probably promote you to captain when you come back.” He pushed the rice paper across the table, to Ao. “Now, take this down to one of the clerks, and be ready in three days.”
“Don’t worry about your wife.” Captain Wen smiled. “We keep a house open for the agent stationed up there. “It’s nice. Your Mudan will love it.”
Ao took the piece of paper and stepped out of the office. As soon as the door closed, he covered his face with his palm and puffed out a sigh. His feet hissed against the floor in their soft soled shoes. Light poured through the windows as he wound his way through the corridors to the wide open, central office of the Dai Li headquarters. He had a mailbox there, and a writing table he shared with three other agents. He didn’t go to it. He picked his way through the noise and the bustle, and the other agents until he caught a clerk with his eyes on the floor. Ao grabbed his arm and pressed the piece of rice paper with his new assignment onto it into the man’s hand. “Hey, can you process this for me?”
“Yes agent,” the clerk said without inflection. The clerk didn’t keep going, didn’t walk away. Ao realized he hadn’t let go. The clerk stood there with Ao’s hand around his arm, eyes on the floor, not talking, and something cold filled Ao’s stomach like it was trying to kill his inner fire, drown it, snuff it out. The clerk said nothing; he just stood there.
Ao quickly let go and the the clerk started shuffling away. “Wait!” The clerk turned at the word, his head snapping up. Ao saw his face for the first time. There was no expression on it. Ao wondered if it would look different if there were. Them man’s eyes were an indistinct brown, and Ao couldn’t tell if he had been Earth Kingdom or Fire Nation before he fell into Dai Li hands. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t a bender. If he were, he’d be Dai Li or dead. “Go,” Ao mumbled, waving him away. “It’s nothing.”
At least he wasn’t like that. At least Mudan wasn’t like that, emptied out and blank, and if she didn’t know or didn’t notice why fires grew brighter around her when she exhaled, and her food was never too cold, that was small next to her still being there, wasn’t it?
He didn’t know how he was going to keep her safe outside of Ba Sing Se.
Lu Ten’s borrowed armor pinched under his arms, but the gold on his own was just too visible, flashing in the sunlight. The defenders on the wall aimed their rocks and arrows for him when they saw it. His father said that was one more reason he should stay behind the lines, but where was the honor in that?
The hair at the back of his neck prickled, and he twisted around. When he saw the Fire Nation armor, he let his breath out. “What are you doing back there?”
Ozai’s personal guard, who he had sent with him to keep his favorite nephew safe winced. “It’s nothing, Prince Lu Ten. I’m supposed to be keeping you alive, remember. Turn around, keep your eyes on the battle.”
Lu Ten smiled and spun back around sending a fistful of fire into the gaping hole in the outer wall and the Earth Kingdom soldiers pouring out of it. But the prickling didn’t go away.
He felt a knife, working his way though the gaps in his armor. Lu Ten pivoted back around and grabbed the wrist holding the knife, breaking the man’s elbow on his arm and tossing him to the ground. The man screamed in pain and dropped the knife “Keep me alive huh?” Lu Ten shouted, but there were still Earth Kingdom soldiers rushing out of the breach in their outer wall. They weren’t normal Earth Kingdom soldiers either, but terrifying ones with dark green robes and rocks on their hands. “Who sent you?” he yelled at Ozai’s guard, blasting fire at the strange soldiers, realizing it was stupid as soon as it came out of his mouth. The man just moaned and pulled his broken arm to his chest.
The fire thundered out of his hands and feet at the green robed, faceless fighters who had somehow surrounded him while he was distracted. The fire landed on them, and the robes of one of them lit up like a coal furnace, searing his arms and legs. The man’s helmet fell back as he rolled around on the clay ground. Lu Ten lashed out, the fire in his hand shifting, elongating, into a rope. It whipped around one of the men’s neck and across his face, and Lu Ten knew that was a killing blow. It wasn’t the first. He’d learned how to tell.
The men in green robes fell back as their comrades’ screams filled the air. Lu Ten whirled his whip of flame over his head and struck it down, dodging the grasping stone hands that flew towards him. He breathed out fire in their faces, and attacked and attacked, and attacked, until his breath roared in his chest, and as he leapt for the throat of the one in front of him, the ground opened up below him. A new set of rock fingers caught his wrists and pulled them behind his back as he fell.
As the ground closed up over him, he figured his uncle had what he wanted after all.
The fire spirit with the hat and the painted face fell beside him through the blackness, one arm on her head to keep her hat on, the other pressed to her side, trying to keep her skirt down. His fingernails skittered over the faceless black walls she lit up, trying to find a handhold, anything to stop him from falling. “You did this!” he shouted. “What am I going to do with my wife, and Ruili, how am I going to make her understand that she can’t- Do you want my family to...” He couldn’t say the word.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered as another spirit appeared beside her. The short, plump man with a black beard and a topknot reminded him of someone. Agni the sun spirit took his wife’s hand. “We’ll keep your family safe.”
Ao landed in his bed, trying to remember the name Lu Ten. He knew he had heard it somewhere before.
Chapter 2: Earth
"My father sent a very interesting letter today," Yue's voice told him. Zuko couldn't see her, but she cast a dark shadow on the wooden wall. He folded his arms and ignored her, but she continued anyway. "To your father, telling him what happened to you, and that if the Fire Nation tried to kill the moon again, you'd die."
Zuko turned to where he hoped she was. "You're not dead. Go away."
"You said you would learn waterbending," she reminded him gently.
"Not if you're just going to tell me about how evil my father is!" He hissed. "I don't even know where you are. Just go away."
Yue put a hand on his arm, and it solidified into a black, glimmering form, like a silk glove. "I'm done talking, if you will let me teach you."
Swallowing, Zuko nodded. "I can't even see you."
Her hand slipped off his arm. "Watch my shadow. It's the new moon. That's all I am." She sat down and crossed her legs like a living woman. The salty puddle under her shimmered and froze into the shape of a human being, with shining groves like Yugoda's mannequin. "Sit down," she told him. "I'm going to teach you healing first, until you're off the ship."
Zuko felt the ever-present ocean water pushing in around him and nodded again.
He sat down on the other side of the ice mannequin from her, and she took his hand again. She brought it down to the chest of the mannequin. "Your body has almost as much water in it as this," she began. "And that water is supposed to run in certain ways." She guided his hand over the silvery grooves in the mannequin, and he extended his finger down to touch them. The ice melted under the heat of his body and the grooves deepened.
"Yeah, I know," he said, mouth dry.
She pressed his hand to his chest. "Do you feel it? Running around your body."
He nodded. He kept waiting for it to quiet down, or for him to get used to it, for it to just become the way things were, but it wouldn't. He kept feeling it, pounding and pounding in his veins. Worse when the moon was out, and worse the bigger it was in the sky, but always there, and always telling him things were never going to be the way they used to be.
Yue swallowed audibly in the stillness. "You probably feel it more than most waterbenders, because most have never been without that feeling."
Zuko glanced at Yue's shadow, and then back at the empty space where he knew she had to be. "What's it like not having a body?" he blurted.
She shivered. He could feel it run down to her hand. "I have a body," she said softly. "I have two, actually. The white koi fish in the oasis at the North Pole, and a great big hunk of round rock in the sky, and it feels very strange."
"That's what the moon is?" Zuko asked. "Rock?"
She squeezed his hand. "Yes, that's all it is."
"What-" He stopped, stammering, and cleared his throat. "What would happen if someone, an earthbender, tried to bend it?"
"It's too big and too far away." She smiled, and he swore he could feel it. "Only the spirits of the earth itself can bend me."
"Oh." A horrible thought crossed his mind. "Can w-" the word "we" couldn't quite pass his lips. "Can waterbenders bend people?" He could feel all that water rushing around inside everyone. It wouldn't be that hard just to-
Yue squeezed his hand again, and Zuko shuddered.
"It would just be so much easier to show you if there were someone here for you to practice on." Yue heaved a sigh.
Yue's eyes widened. "That wasn't what I meant!" She exclaimed. "It's just back home, there was always someone with a scrape or a broken bone, or midnight sun madness or winter sickness, who would let the girls work on them. Yugoda would be healing with them when they were dealing with any sort of madness so that the person came out alright, and the first time you're going to heal anyone, you're probably going to be all alone."
"I thought they didn't let you learn healing," he said snidely, trying not to think about what she had just said.
"I used to sneak down to watch." She blushed colorlessly.
"Oh," he mumbled.
She rested her elbow on the mannequin and her head on her hand, glimmering in the gloom, growing brighter as the moon grew fuller again. "You're getting good, but you can't see it without someone to practice on."
"Thanks." The word hung in the air between them then dropped like a stone.
"I'm serious." She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose with the hand she wasn't resting on. "You would probably feel better about things if you talked to someone other than your uncle and me."
Zuko laughed. It came out bleak and heavy like his thanks to her had been. He pictured the sailors, walking around above him, and the way they they hovered between laughing at him and wishing he was dead. "Yeah, that would go over real well."
"They're your people now too."
"No they're not!" Zuko's fists came down on the ice mannequin and it cracked into pieces before melting away under his hands.
"Calm down!" Yue ordered, but she didn't jump aside as a human woman would, one who had to worry about things like wet and cold, who the water wouldn't run right through. "Calm down."
"They're not my people." He said again, quietly, fiercely, daring her to disagree.
Yue closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose again. "You know, you aren't the only one right now having to learn the opposite element to which you were born."
Zuko's head snapped up, good eye wide with surprise.
Zuko pushed himself away from the floor and pivoted on his boot covered heel. They weren't Fire Nation boots, but soft, furry Water Tribe ones. Even that was too much. His storming off became a stagger as the ship lurched underneath him.
"Careful!" the moon spirit called, unfolding her legs and rising into the air. "You could capsize the ship doing that!"
Zuko ignored her, swinging his feet up onto the first rung of the ladder up onto the deck. It was difficult to storm off up a ladder. Her hair brushed his shoulder before she put a restraining hand on it. He turned his head to her, his own hand halfway to the next rung. "I don't want to hear about the Avatar."
"It hurts, doesn't it?" she murmured. "Knowing you can never go home."
He shrugged her hand away sharply. "It's not the same!" His teeth were gritted together in a grimace of pain. "It's not the same. He still has his airbending. He doesn't- I feel cold, all the time. I stand in the sun and I can't feel it..."
"I'm sorry," she soothed. "I didn't mean to do that to you. I know it must be-"
"You don't know anything!" He grasped the next rung and hauled himself up to it, but she didn't have to obey things like gravity. She wasn't confined to floors and ladders.
She floated along side him. "I know what it's like to suddenly not be human anymore!" she reminded him harshly, grabbing onto his arm with both hands. "I know what it's like to be alone, and to think nobody understands! I'm the only spirit who wasn't born a spirit, and you're the only person born bending one element and now bends another instead. I just thought we could talk, but you won't talk to me about it at all!"
His face heated with the sort of shame that only made him angrier. "You're the one who did this to me!"
"I didn't mean-"
"Yes you did! You said-" He stared up at the open trap door and the knot of Water Tribe sailors ringing it, obscuring the pinkish sunset sky from view. They gazed down at Yue in wonder, eyes flicking every few moments to him, as if he were about to hurt their precious moon spirit, as if they couldn't keep their eyes off her to watch him. Zuko could see his uncle's Fire Nation boots at the edge. Closing his eyes with a grimace, Zuko closed the trapdoor. He climbed back down the ladder and jumped past the bottom couple of rungs to the ship's hull. He balanced on its keel, arms out to his sides. "You said."
"I know!" She glided over to where the ice mannequin had been, but she didn't make a new one. "But I didn't know you. I didn't know that you would only see the bad in it, not the good..." She put her face in her hands. Zuko kept trying to yell back at her, but the words kept getting stuck, so they just sat together in silence until Yue spoke again. "Things are a lot better for me in someways. They're a lot worse in others, but some things are better."
"Yeah, well you became the moon spirit. It's different."
"You're alive," she said bluntly. "You still have your uncle. And your father, I was just trying to make you see the truth a little too early, and it'll be easier trying to hide in the Earth Kingdom if you're a waterbender." She put a finger to his lips when he tried to interrupt, to start shouting again. "And you're probably going to be really glad someday that you can heal. Most people who can are."
Zuko wished he could yell, wished he could tell her exactly what he thought of that, wished the words wouldn't keep getting trapped in his own mouth, but they did, and he thought he was going to choke on them.
"I get to bend now, all the time, and I don't have to marry Hahn," she said softly. "But I don't get to see my family, and I still have an arranged marriage. It's give and take."
"Push and Pull," he spat.
The corners of her mouth quirked up. "Exactly."
Zuko thrust his hand to push her away, and realized that if he still had his firebending, he'd have just sent a fireball at her instead of an empty hand. The movements were starting to lose their meaning.
"Were you any happier when you were on your ship?" she asked. "When you had your firebending, but you still couldn't go home?"
"Yes," he hissed.
She raised an eyebrow, and Zuko flushed, all the way down his neck. "You were miserable then, you're miserable now."
"And you?" He bit the words off with a growl.
"Me?" Yue exclaimed, taken aback.
Zuko nodded once, jerkily.
She looked away. "I wasn't miserable."
Zuko snorted viciously. There was no way she was going to spend every day down there in a dank, lonely ship's hold with him every day if she was happy.
"I was doing what I was supposed to do."
"So was I." For the first time in his life, hunting the Avatar, he had been doing what he was supposed to.
She shrugged. It was a strange sort of motion to see from her, very informal, very human, but he had almost as hard a time seeing her shrug even when she had been human as he had seeing his sister make a mistake. "I never thought Hahn would be a good chief. If I had thought he would be, it would have been easier, but marrying him was better than eloping and starting a civil war. But I wasn't supposed to be unhappy, so I wasn't."
"It doesn't work that way." He closed his eyes and leaned back against one of the ship's ribs.
"It wasn't easy sitting next to my father, watching him search for an heir, knowing I was never going to be good enough, no matter how perfect, how kind or clever I was. If I had just gotten to choose who would rule, even if I didn't get to..." Yue smiled sadly. "Hahn's still his heir, you know. If he would listen to me, my father. He's supposed to. I'm the moon spirit."
"I'm sorry," he said. He wondered if she felt just as useless saying it to him as he did, saying it to her.
"When the Avatar came, and Sokka..." She was shaking his head as he opened his eyes. "I just wanted to run away with him. I'm free now. I think I'm supposed to be happy."
"Did you love him?" Zuko looked down.
She shrugged again. "I don't know. I never got to find out."
"There's..." He swallowed. "A girl, back home, in the Fire Nation. I don't know if I love her either, but I'd like to see her again."
The trap door creaked open on its stiff, cracked leather hinges, and Yue sighed before dissipating back into the moonlight. The first sailor's boots pattered tentatively against the ladder rungs, prompting Zuko to lever himself to his feet with an internal groan. The leftover moonlight winked off a shell incense burner in the man's hand. "Oh great lady," the man called into the darkness, laying the burner on the ground and lighting a pair of incense sticks before setting them inside it. "Please accept this offer- oh. It's just you."
"Took you this long to come down?" Zuko's lip curled. "Were you scared?"
The Water Tribe sailor pinched the burning ends of the incense, extinguishing the flame. For a moment, Zuko didn't even notice that he couldn't feel the tiny fires go out, sending smoke curling into the air. The Water Tribesman didn't come any closer to Zuko, until the rest of the crew came rumbling down the ladder and pushed him out of the way. "It's not going to do any good, boys, she's gone."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "You're the captain?"
"Taken you this long to figure that out, did it?" the Water Tribesman sneered.
Zuko clenched his teeth and didn't bother to tell him about how he couldn't see that far in the shadowy hold, or about how he didn't want to know anything about any of them. He did a quick count of the sailors clustered around the ladder. "Isn't anyone paying attention to where the ship's going?"
"We came down here to convince the moon spirit not to kill us all for your stupidity. If managed to convince her, she wouldn't let us sink." The captain crossed his arms. "And if we didn't, there'd be no way to keep us from sinking, now would there?"
Zuko just growled as he swept past and up the ladder onto the deck.
The reddish glare of the sun sinking below the water drove Zuko's eyes closed and made white hot spots erupt behind his eyelids. Slowly, he opened them, squinting as the ship's tiny crew filed up the ladder. Through the film of water, he peered down the length of the ship to the stern, around the ship's cabin, where Uncle sat comfortably wrapped in his cloak, hand resting on the tiller, holding it steady. Zuko's face tried to smile, but he wouldn't let it. Of course there was nothing to worry about. He made his way down to his uncle, swaying with the familiar motion of the deck under his feet, and stopped beside him, slouching against the cabin's back wall. "Hey."
"How are your lessons going?" Uncle asked blandly.
"What did you learn today?"
Zuko glanced around the side of the cabin at the crew. "More healing. Until we're off the ship." Uncle just smiled and waved at him to continue. "She made a model of the heart, and taught me how to heal different parts of it," he mumbled.
"Ooh!" Uncle burbled. Zuko searched his face for some trace of sarcasm, but he couldn't find any. "Sounds very exciting."
"I guess," he said sullenly. He stared out over the ocean behind them. "Do you have any idea how to steer this thing?"
"It's not that different from the yachts back home." Uncle patted the tiller affectionately.
Zuko glanced around at the strange outrigger sailing ship they found themselves in. It was nothing like anything back home. The captain marched toward them, around the side of the cabin, a dark look on his face, interrupting Zuko's reverie.
"Ah, Captain Unalaq!" The skin around Uncle's eyes crinkled. "Have you given any thought to my suggestion about setting up a music night?"
Zuko's good eye grew huge with stunned horror. "You didn't."
Given the captain's puzzled look, Uncle hadn't, but the old man grinned anyway.
"Get your hand off the tiller of my ship!" the captain spat, but Uncle just inclined his head politely and stood up and walked away, and Zuko followed on his heels, like a good nephew.
Glancing back, Zuko took a deep breath and let it out. Every bit of moisture, every bit of sweat and sea spray on the captain's clothes froze all at once.
"You little bastard!" the captain shouted. As he stumbled towards Zuko, the ice crackled and broke. "I don't know why the moon spirit saved your life, or what she has planned for you, but I hope she drowns you when she's finished with you."
Zuko sidestepped him easily. "Don't worry. I won't be on your ship if she does."
The Water Tribesman's hands balled into fists. "You have the worst attitude, boy," he barked. "Your uncle at least knows how to play nice and stay out of our way, but you, you steal my ink and spend all day hiding down in the cargo hold, and only the spirits know what you do all night long while the rest of us are sleeping, but it ends now. You're not a prince anymore, Zuko. You're going to pull your own weight."
Zuko's own hands moved to rest on the top of his sleeves, arms crossed, fingers stained green and dark grayish purple from the washed out ink, like rotting flesh. "I spend my time down there learning to waterbend with the moon spirit, so if you want to tell her how she's supposed to spend her time, fine with me."
The muscles in the captain's jaw jumped, and he lunged for Zuko, but Uncle brought his arm up between them as Zuko's legs shifted on their own into a firebending stance. He shivered, but didn't move. The stance was familiar, safe.
"We are all tired and have a lot on our minds" Uncle pushed the captain back gently. "If we all just sit down, with a nice cup of tea and something to eat, I'm sure we'll all feel a lot bet-"
"Sit down and shut up!" The captain grabbed General Iroh's wrist and pushed back, shoving him up into the air and letting him fall again.
"Don't touch my uncle!" Zuko yelled, baring his teeth and grabbing the captain's shoulder, thrusting his forearm into the man's neck, dropping him to the deck.
"Nephew." Zuko looked down to see his uncle's hand on his arm, and looked up to see himself surrounded by all six of the rest of the crew.
Their captain coughed and wheezed as he staggered to his feet. "It's okay, boys. Nothing to be concerned about. And you," he gasped, eyes boring into Zuko's. "If I could, I would drop you over the side of my ship right now."
Iroh sighed. Flames licked at his tongue and teeth and smoke billowed out of his mouth. "I don't think that would be a good idea, do you?"
The air inside the hold was heavy and still, and hot with the warmth of so many bodies. Zuko shoved the furs off and sat up on his hammock, letting it sway gently with the roll of the ship and his shifting body. With a sigh, he gave up and padded around the other hammocks to the ladder and climbed out of the hold. The moon was high behind the ship in the western sky, a fuzzy half-circle of silvery light piercing the clouds. Zuko's eyes flicked to it. He used to be able to look at the sun like that, but now it burned and brought tears to his eyes. Only firebenders could look out the sun without pain. They said if someone looked at it too long, they'd go blind, but no firebender ever went blind from looking at the sun.
The ocean fell away behind them slowly, and to the south, the Earth Kingdom coast loomed, a craggy black band separating the sky and sea. At the first port, he and Uncle were jumping ship.
He leaned over the side of the ship and stared down at the water between the side of the ship and the outrigger hull at the moon's reflection. The waves' motion made it bob and tremble on the water. As he watched, the water stilled and smoothed until he could see his own face reflected on it. His pale, Fire Nation skin, thin, slanted Fire Nation eyes, and the sharp angles of his face, which stood out in the moonlight as points of shadows and light, his scar, were all still there, safe, same, the way they had always been. The wind ruffled his hair, starting to grow down into his eyes. When he turned his head, his phoenix tail didn't swing behind and weigh his head down. In the water, he could see his hair, looking like her hair had, and his eyes the same clear, cold blue, like glacier ice. The water churned, and churned, and the reflection fractured.
Lu Ten raced across the sand, laughing as his little cousin chased after him, fingers sticky with cherry-rose glaze, reaching out to him. Lu Ten slowed his steps and loped along, slower, slower, until he let Zuko catch him, sticky, red fingers latching onto his tunic, smearing sugary fingerprints all over it as they fell together, down to the sand. The sun shined fierce and bright like a newly minted coin in the hot, blue, cloudless sky, and Zuko found his feet with a smirk. "You're it!" he howled, running backwards, feet splashing in the surf.
The world went cold and dark all at once, the fire inside Lu Ten extinguished, the sun gone, the beach gone, his cousin gone, all at once. "This is what you lost, you know," the Painted Lady whispered into the darkness. "All these memories. Your father, your mother, your cousins, your friends, this is what's missing."
"Go away," he told her. "I'm not yours anymore."
The Painted Lady snorted and shook her head. "It's what Mudan's missing too."
"You don't know anything about it," he said though gritted teeth, searching for somewhere to stand in her Spirit World stream.
"Her name's Rinzee, and she's a soldier. She has two little brothers, and she loved mathematics in school, because she thought the numbers could tell her everything. She grew up on an island, near the ocean, and can't sleep when she's not near it, and she can't remember why she couldn't sleep until you moved into your new house outside the city. She has parents, and friends, and brothers, who all think she's dead, and who comfort themselves with the memory of the way all she wanted to do her whole life was be a soldier and fight for her country." The Painted Lady sat down in her stream, in the middle of the lava flowing under it, and stared up at him, challenging him
"You are never going to make me fight against the Earth Kingdom," he snarled, eyes narrowed into thin, furious slits, gleaming in the Spirit World gloom.
The water poured around his feet, and the molten rock oozed like syrup, filling his bones with its warmth. Steam rolled off the water. It weaved around his body and into his hair, shifting and solidifying into robes, and boots, and a headdress, and in the steaming, boiling water, he could see his face, see the topknot, see the gold fire form in his hair, see the Firelord's robes swinging around him. "If we wanted someone to keep fighting this war, Ozai could keep the throne. We'd let it pass to Azula," she said, her voice hissing like the steam.
"Get it off me!" he screamed, pulling at the collar of the robes, his nails catching in the silk as he tried to rip them off.
"Ooh, skinny dipping, in my river. Sounds like fun." She winked sardonically underneath her hat, her expression dark. "Can I watch?"
"What is wrong with you!" he demanded, leaping out of the water, trying to find some small piece of solid ground.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she snapped. "The last hundred years when it was the peasants who built me shrines, and left me gifts and honored me must have made me forget how to talk like I have a stick up my ass!" She rolled her eyes. "Get used to it. Being Firelord means you're going to have to clean up the mess your family left behind, and that means talking to the people of your country."
"It's not my country! I'm never going to be Firelord! My name's Ao, and agent of the Dai Li, not whoever I used..." He broke off, slowly turning his head from side to side to side.
"Go back to bed, Lu Ten," She sighed. "Go home. Go to sleep."
"Dispatches from your father, Princess," the twins Li and Lo said together as the messenger hawk, free of its burden let one of the crew members carry it away for a rest and something to eat with the other birds.
Azula snatched the scroll out of the hands of one of the twins and broke the seal hungrily. Her eyes scanned it, absorbing the information, and she bent a ball of blue fire into the palm of her hand. The paper curled and smoked as it dissolved into ash. "Captain! Turn this ship north!"
The clouds hung low over the bay as the Water Tribe sailors lashed the ship to the docks and unloaded the piles of fur and leathers, carved bone and shell, weapons for collectors, dye made from the blood, bodies, and shells of deep sea creatures, beads and paints, and bottles of water from the healing hot springs onto the docks. Zuko and his uncle slipped off the ship and down the docks into the fog. They avoided the lantern lights, strung over the winding streets like barred gates, and stuck to the shadows between buildings.
As the sun burned away the fog, women began to string out clothing to dry, and the shadows grew smaller. The early spring sun beat down on them, and the parka, made for winters at the poles, grew too hot and too heavy. In the sunlight, the red of his uncle's cloak showed up, and Zuko started to reach for a soaking wet tunic, but Uncle pulled his hand down. "We're in the middle of the Earth Kingdom, Uncle." Zuko reminded him coldly. "We have to hide."
"If you have to steal," he told his nephew. "Never steal from the people who can't afford it."
Under their feet, the streets widened, and the houses gained gardens, walls and gates. Uncle boosted Zuko onto the top of the walls of one of the houses, and Zuko leaned over to pull his uncle up behind him. "You need to lose weight," he muttered, dragging Uncle up the wall.
Zuko glanced through the house's windows and eyed the clothesline behind the house. Zuko felt like a spider-fly on a wall, completely exposed. There was no darkness, no masks, nothing but Zuko, his uncle, and broad daylight, and he closed his eyes with a grimace as he shimmied along the wall to the clothesline.
"See anything that will fit me?" Uncle whispered. Zuko shook his head and grabbed the clothesline. Uncle lay flat on his stomach on the wall as Zuko climbed hand over hand along the rope.
The last thing he heard before the wok hit him in the back of the head was a woman's scream of rage.
Zuko awoke in a metal lined cell, hands and feet chained behind him, and smelling strangely like fried cabbage-carrots. His head pounded, and he had been stripped of his parka and left with only his ink spotted pants against the damp. Uncle's hand rested on his forehead, and when he opened his eyes, Uncle pulled his eyelids up to examine his pupils. "Think you can sit up?" he asked.
Zuko nodded slowly to keep himself from throwing up as his head spun, and propped himself up against the wall. The floor and walls were slick with moisture and the evening fog was rolling in off the ocean. With his untrained arms, Zuko bent it to himself and held it to his head until the bump on his temple subsided and the pounding ebbed away. "My head," he mumbled.
"That young lady has a very good arm," his uncle agreed ruefully, indicating his own arm in a makeshift sling. "Very fast."
Clumsily, Zuko streamed his gathered water down to the locks on his wrists and ankles. The water filled the locks, and as he wriggled it around inside, the faint click of them popping open reverberated around the metal cell.
Uncle smiled, and held out his arms. "Ow!" he gasped, as his broken elbow extended. The water in Zuko's hands splashed all over the floor. Biting back a curse, Zuko carefully drew the water up off the floor and brought it to his uncle's elbow. As it glowed, they glanced anxiously at the door grille, but no one came. "Good job, nephew."
"Shh!" Zuko hissed. "I've never done this on a person before, I need to concentrate!" It was different than with the mannequin. First with his own head, then with his uncle's arm, there was something pulling with him, something trying to drag the water away from where it had to go.
A key turned in the door. Zuko flung himself away from his uncle as a man in strange dark robes and a tasseled helmet closed the door behind himself. "All morning long, I've been receiving reports about a man in Fire Nation clothes all morning, and here I find you at my own house," the man said conversationally. "You scared my wife very badly today. Of course, my daughter thought it was hilarious."
Uncle's face spread in a wide, genial grin. "My nephew and I are sorry for any-"
"The town as been talking about you." The man's answering smile was much smaller and much more frightening. "Most people think the two of you must be some sort of spirits, because no Fire Nation general would be stupid enough to venture into a town this close to Ba Sing Se in his uniform without an army to back him up. Now." He let his voice drop and he grabbed hold of Uncle's shoulders and pulled him close until their faces almost touch. "You are going to tell me what you you're doing in my town, in my garden."
Uncle looked like the air had been pulled out of his lungs. He gasped and licked his lips to moisten them. His mouth gaped open and he hung in the man's grip like a child's stuffed toy. His chained hands came up to brush the man's face.
"You'll have to excuse my uncle," Zuko began hurriedly. "He's gone senile-"
Zuko had thought he had been lying about Uncle going senile. "Lu Ten's dead, Uncle."
The man in the dark green robe shoved Uncle back. "My name's Ao. I am a Dai Li agent, and you w-"
Iroh threw his chained arms over the man's head and looped them around him, tears running down his face. "I thought you were dead," he murmured.
"Uncle, he's not-" The force of the impact had thrown the man who called himself Ao's helmet off. Zuko's mouth closed. "You're-" he said when it opened again. "You can't be."
"I don't know what your game is, but you will let go of me, and you will tell me what you are doing here." As the man threw Iroh back, the sunlight struck his eyes, and they shown back, gold. Fire Nation gold
"Why don't you remember?" Iroh pleaded. "Don't you know who I am?"
No spark of recognition in Lu Ten's eyes answered his father, none at all.
The silence between Zuko and his uncle stretched on and on, and on and on until it snapped and recoiled with the slamming open of the cell door. Lu Ten stepped into the room, his helmet low over his face, hiding his eyes, hiding everything except his mouth and bearded chin. As soon as the door clicked shut behind him, he gloved his hands in flames. "I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out where I've heard the name 'Lu Ten' before," he said without preamble. "And I've finally remembered. That's the name of one of the Fire Nation prince who died in the siege of Ba Sing Se. The son of the Dragon of the West."
The breath caught audibly in Iroh's throat, and his mouth hung open. Zuko did his best to keep his own breath even and his whole body still so the shackles didn't move.
"See, I'm trying to decide if you're a senile old man who somehow managed to convince yourself you're the Dragon of the West, a senile old man from the Fire Nation who had the bad taste to name your son after the prince, or if I am somehow hosting the Dragon of the West himself." The man who was Lu Ten had the strangest look on his face, like he kept putting everything together and coming up with something he didn't like, something he knew about and they didn't.
Zuko watched him, and waited, and barely listened, gathering water droplets together into a puddle, and Iroh gasped and choked like his throat wouldn't open, or like he couldn't breathe air.
"I like the last option," he said, stepping closer. "Would give me a chance to bring in a living leg-"
Zuko sprang, the shackles falling off his wrists and ankles, and he bore Lu Ten down to the floor, knocking his helmet off his head. Lu Ten's fire wreathed fists extinguished when they hit the floor, but he brought them up blazing again. Straddling his cousin's chest, Zuko batted them away and pinned his arms down to the floor, the heat leaving shining burns on his fingers where he touched the man's wrists. Air hissing through his teeth, Zuko brought his forearms down on the man's arms and tucked his elbows in, pulling his tiny pool of gathered water to his hands and to Lu Ten's head.
"Zuko!" Iroh seemed to come unstuck, crawling towards them on his still chained arms and legs. "What are you doing? Are you crazy?"
But Zuko didn't hear him. His fingers stung and burned, but he was too busy to deal with them either. He hadn't gotten to the brain with Yue yet. He had no idea what he was needed to find, or what he was expecting to see. Maybe, somehow, he had been expecting the mind to be different from the rest of a person, that he would see Lu Ten's memories, or the memories of a man who looked like him, but all he felt were tiny, tiny rivers, just like he hand when he had healed his uncle's arm and the bump on his head. But there were so many more of them, so many that he didn't know, and didn't know how they were supposed to flow, or if they were normal or not, and he just had to hold the water there long enough, and hope it was doing what it was supposed to do, what the body already would want it to do if it were really broken, and hope the man who looked so much like his cousin didn't somehow throw him off and kill him while he did.
The man howled, and bucked, but Zuko tucked in his heels and hung on.
Until he quieted, and lay still, and let the fire in his hands die. He lay there, eyes wide and blank, lips moving, but nothing coming out, and Zuko clambered off and staggered back, panting heavily.
The man picked himself up and sat hunched over himself, eyes on the floor, the sound of his breathing harsh in the little metal cell.
"Lu Ten?" Iroh breathed, trying desperately to hide the hope, and bewilderment, and terror swirling around inside him, but it was obvious. It was so obvious, and Zuko felt sick to his stomach with it, like he was being stabbed seeing it, and-
Lu Ten's face crumpled, and he nodded, tears running down his face. Zuko could feel them. He could feel them falling down his cousin's face.
And all Zuko could hear was his uncle saying, "Ever since I lost my son, I think of you as my own."
I think of you as my own.
I think of you as my own.
Ever since I lost my son.
The cell door opened, and the three men walked out together like they were being summoned to their executions, like the world ended beyond the door. Robe straightened and helmet back in place, Lu Ten led the way up the stairs and out into the sunlit stone lobby. The pudgy, blank faced woman behind the table, didn't look up as they walked past. "How would you like the report to read, Agent Ao?" She asked in that monotonous way the clerks had.
"Ah. Um." Lu Ten swallowed. "Actually, why don't you come with me, and I'll dictate."
"I'm not permitted to leave the facility, Agent Ao."
"That's alright," Lu Ten improvised. "Just come... here. There's someone I want you to meet." He cast Zuko a significant look that his cousin struggled to interpret.
The woman stood up behind the writing table and stepped around it, her movements crisp and efficient, but cold. Gingerly, Lu Ten offered her his hand, and she took it, her own limp within his grasp. In one movement, he threw her at Zuko, and she didn't struggle; she just collapsed against him, and he let her hang in his arms, utterly at a loss. "What-"
"Heal her," Lu Ten insisted, eyes bright. "Like you did me. Fix her, make it-"
Zuko didn't hear the rest. Water wasn't everywhere in the sunny little office the way it had been in the cell, rusting away the metal, leaving streaks of lime and salt behind, like tiny needles of earth. Beads of it welled up between his fingers as he ran them along the wall, and gave up, bending the tepid tea from the cup on the writing table to him instead. It got into her hair and ran off like the ink had off his own. It pooled between his hands and around her head, rolling, cold, and alien, and not fire. She stayed still like his cousin hadn't, and didn't start screaming until the end.
"What is wrong with her?" Zuko demanded, stumbling away from her. "What's wrong with you? What's going on? What's-" There was a sickness in their minds, a profound wrongness that left him weak, and wobbly, and barely able to stand. He clung to the wall for support and longed for his firebending to burn something. There was a cancer in this place. There was something growing, eating, destroying and distorting, and he wanted to go home.
The woman screamed again, face moving and moving and moving, and refusing to settle on an expression, but at least not blank anymore. "Oh spirits!" she shrieked. "Spirits, spirits, spirits, spirits, spiritsspiritsspir-" She caught sight of Lu Ten and cowered back. "Dai Li!"
She slunk backwards along the wall until she reached the door and jerked it open, half falling, half running out into the sunlight, and Lu Ten let her go, his expression just going more and more troubled.
Iroh gave Zuko his shoulder to rest on, and Zuko hung on it, eyes closed. "I think your cousin is right. You need to tell us what's going on."
Lu Ten rounded on them both. "I think you need to tell me what's going on," he retorted shakily. "Because I might still be trying to piece a few things together, but I remember my cousin, and he wasn't a waterbender, so unless you actually have gone senile, I want to know where Zuko is, why this man is with you, and why you're calling him by my cousin's name!"
"You don't know?" Zuko's body went slack with relief. The whole world didn't know yet. At least people weren't laughing at Zuko behind his back about that yet. The world didn't need anything else to laugh at him over.
Unconsciously, Iroh pushed his nephew partway behind himself, protectively. "We had a small run in with the spirits."
"The moon spirit saved my life," Zuko said flatly, still trying to shake off the feel of the minds. "This was her price."
Lu Ten's breathing was still too hard. His eyes were still too wide and too bright, and Zuko was terrified he was going to start crying. He lurched forward, like he was falling, and yanked his father into his arms. Iroh wrapped his arms around his son and let him hang on, and Zuko let himself fall back against the wall, simmering, like a pot of water over a fire.
Zuko couldn't watch, couldn't, didn't, which was why he didn't realize what was about to happen until Lu Ten's arms were pulling him close. He froze.
"Being stuck on this boat is almost as boring as being stuck in Omashu." Azula glanced at her, eyebrow raised, and Mai rolled her eyes. "New Ozai."
"Well, do you want me to turn the barge around and take you back?" Azula kept a reign on her temper. This was Mai. She was held to a different standard, as all truly great people were, and so she, like Ty Lee, had more license.
Mai shrugged, not taking her eyes off cleaning her knives. "I said almost as boring."
Azula examined the woodgrain underneath her fingernails. The clever engineers from the colonies had managed to outfit a captured Earth Kingdom military barge with a Fire Nation steam engine. No one would ever notice above water, when the engine was off and the smokestacks were hidden away, that this wasn't just one more Earth Kingdom barge. Azula would never understand why Mai didn't love things like this barge that were beautiful, and brilliant, and perfect.
But perfection bored Mai, which Azula didn't like to think about. "Go play with Ty Lee then. Keep her out of trouble."
Mai rolled her eyes again and rose from the bench, methodically packed away the knives spread out on the bench next to her.
"We'll be reaching the northern coast soon." Azula remarked thoughtfully. "You'll get your excitement soon enough."
The three of them wound their way through the grasses and thickets of trees between the secret Dai Li station and the town. Iroh gossiped and chattered to fill the silence between the cousins, but neither of them could think of anything to say. The late afternoon sun beat down on them, and for the first time in his life, Zuko felt the beginnings of a sunburn building on his back, and underneath his white hair. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair. It burned, but it didn't warm.
Lu Ten's long braid swung behind him, flicking like an ostrich-horse's tail, but he had changed out of his Dai Li uniform and into a spare set of civilian clothes he kept at the station, and Iroh had unlaced his armor and tucked it on the shelf next to Lu Ten's uniform, the reddish gray tunic underneath almost unsuspicious. His thoughts strayed to that pretty little house on the inland edge of the town, and the mention of a daughter inside. Iroh tried to picture the little girl he had barely glimpsed. A granddaughter. "Aren't you going to tell us what has been happening to you for the past six years?"
Lu Ten flinched and didn't speak, until the lack of words became too oppressive to stand, and then he still didn't speak, because he couldn't.
"Is there something wrong?" his father asked.
Lu Ten stepped back, away from his father. "I kept thinking about what I was going to say to you when you asked, but everything I could say would tell you something about the Dai Li, and Ba Sing Se, and they would be things that you could use, and there are good people there, people who aren't Dai Li. I have friends, and Mudan has friends, and..." He swallowed. "I'm not going to help you burn it down."
Iroh let his hand fall heavily over his heart. He stumbled back and caught himself, moving jerkily towards his son. He caught his arm, and pulled the younger, shorter man to his chest, making Lu Ten's spine bend, hunching over into the embrace. "I lost my taste for conquest a long time ago," he breathed into his son's ear. "I am too old and tired for it now."
Lu Ten slumped against his father's shoulder, unable to articulate what it meant that some part of him was loyal to somewhere other than where he was born, and where he had fought at his father's side to glorify. He had protected Ba Sing Se in the Dai Li's own warped, destructive way for six years. He had to love it to do that. They made him love it so he could do that, but that didn't make the love go away. "You're not the only general in the Fire Nation."
"I will never tell anyone," he murmured, too low for his nephew to hear, "And Zuko doesn't have anyone to tell." The last came out more sorrowful than reassuring, but Zuko couldn't hear that either.
Zuko's eyes traveled over the rocks and valleys, anywhere that wasn't his cousin and his uncle, because every time they landed on the two of them, a flash of something so hungry and cold went though him that he hunched around himself just to keep warm.
With a sigh, Lu Ten broke his father's hold and led the way down the sloping terrain back to town. For a few moments, he just walked, taking in the sun, but then his mouth opened and the strange story of what it meant to have been an agent of the Dai Li for six years came out. At first he tried to speak chronologically, but when he tried to tell how he ended up captured, he glanced at Zuko and couldn't speak. So he tried to talk about mindbending someone, what it meant while it was happening, and what it felt like to have that kind of power. He talked about what it was like looking at them, and knowing he was going to see them again, after it was all over, and he talked about the first person he had mindbent, a Fire Nation soldier, and how he had looked at her wondering if it had really been like that for him, and if he had kicked and cursed and spat the way she had until the stone gag went over her mouth and her face had gone slack, and how it had been when he saw her again, married to his new partner.
He tried to talk about Mudan, and meeting her, and not even knowing if they had met before, before everything, and now he knew they hadn't. She had looked so lost, when he had first seen her, when the other agents had introduced them, and he had felt so relieved, because he had felt that way too.
Sometimes she still looked like that, and sometimes he still felt like that, but he couldn't say that.
He thought about telling the two of them about the Painted Lady, especially telling Zuko, who wore the mark of another spirit, but he couldn't make the words come past his lips.
When the words dried up, the sky was just beginning to turn red, and the quiet felt so good he didn't want to think about why his father and Zuko weren't saying anything.
But the quiet stopped being soothing, and he couldn't stop himself; he opened his mouth again, turning around to meet his father's eyes. "I was really scared when you said my name."
"Really?" Iroh asked. "Why?"
Lu Ten thought about it, his brow wrinkling before speaking. "When you don't know who you were, and you don't remember what you've done, it's easier to pretend you weren't anyone before you were Dai Li. And I kept thinking, Lu Ten died in the siege of Ba Sing Se." He turned to Zuko, and his mouth twisted. "But then I saw you and thought, oh thank the spirits, if he thinks any boy with a scar like that is Zuko, even if they aren't even Fire Nation, he probably can't remember what his son looked like, either."
Zuko put his hand to his face and cupped his scar. "You knew about this?"
"Everybody knows about it," Lu Ten told him, almost cheerful to talk about something other than himself after all of it. "When it happened, people were talking for months about how the Earth Kingdom might actually win the war, if the Firelord's son was stu-" He caught sight of Zuko's glower. "I mean..."
"No really," Zuko advised venomously. "Finish."
"Stupid enough to burn himself." Lu Ten's mouth had gone dry.
Zuko's teeth ground together and he walked stiffly away, down towards town.
Lu Ten moved to go after him, but Iroh grabbed his arm. "But he'll-" Lu Ten started.
"He can find his way without us for a little bit." Iroh shook his head fondly. "You would be amazed at what he can do."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Iroh bowed his head, the familiar flash of pain at how he would have given anything to have his son back while Ozai had thrown his away still came, even with Lu Ten standing next to him. "He did not give himself that burn, and it was not an accident."
Zuko's feet sank into the half rotted leaves from the fall just past. He walked sideways along the hillside, until he found a rocky little stream and sat down on a boulder. The moon hung in the sky, and even though he couldn't see it underneath the trees bordering the river, he knew it was there.
He shifted his weight and pulled a thin ribbon of water out of the stream and held it between his hands. It glowed blue for a second, sending moving bands of light over the tree trunks and leaves overhead, and coolness spread through his throbbing fingertips. Swallowing and blinking tears out of his good eye, he streamed the water from hand to hand and over the head in an arch. Everything felt raw, and he couldn't figure out how much of that was the sunburn, and how much of that was inside him.
"Good evening, Zuko."
Zuko spun around just as the water passed over his head again. It poured down over his head and bare shoulders, soaking his pants. "Wh-what are you d-doing here?" His teeth chattered. Fog was rolling in off the sea, and the wind, when it blew, was cold.
She didn't talk. She just chuckled.
"You knew Lu Ten was here," Zuko accused, shaking himself off, shivering harder. "That's why you wanted me to go to Ba Sing Se."
She nodded. "I thought it would make your uncle happy."
"I th-thought th-that's why you s-sent me b-back," he mumbled.
She sat down next to him on the rock. "You don't have to worry. Nothing is going to change. Your uncle loves you."
He threw himself off the boulder, away from her, and fell backwards into the stream. The snowmelt stream water parted around him, and and got into his bones. The cold ached. "He loved me because he didn't have Lu Ten."
"Agni and the Painted Lady asked me to send you to him. There needs to be a new Firelord, and that cannot be you anymore." Yue stood up and offered him her hand.
He sent her a black look from beneath his hair and didn't take her hand.
"What could I have done to make you happy?" she asked rhetorically. "Would you have me consign your cousin to living as he had, hating who he once had been because that man had been the enemy, not even able to remember his own name?"
A shudder swept over him, whether from cold or revulsion, he didn't know. "N-no."
"And would you like me to have left your uncle mourning a son who was still alive?"
"Are you happy to see him alive?" she asked quietly. "You loved him once."
He nodded. Tears started rolling out of his good eye. Yue gazed down at him and thought about the perfectly good heir Ozai had tossed aside, and her own tribe in desperate need of a good heir.
And how tempting it would be to snatch him up, dust him off and carry him back to her father like a cat with a frog-mouse to show to her human.
"Now," she murmured, holding her hand closer to him. "Are you still angry with me? I promised you I would teach you waterbending as soon as you were on dry land."
Zuko put his hand in hers and let her pull him to his feet.
Under her tutelage, the stream water danced and swirled under his control. It lapped at the banks like the ocean and ran uphill, and all he had to do was keep moving. He hated the way it felt. He hated the way it came so naturally, so quickly to him, the way Firebending never had.
Chapter 3: Fire
His uncle and cousin were waiting for him at the edge of town when he wove through the brush, back to them. He did his best not to bristle as Lu Ten tousled his hair. The grassland fell away at the border, and transformed into broad, tree lined boulevards that wound around and into each other, like wider, prettier versions of the alleyways next to the docks.
Lu Ten let his hand rest on the surface of the ornamented wooden gate that led into his garden. “I don’t know who she’s going to be when you’re done,” he confessed, meeting his cousin’s eyes. The Mudan he knew was going to die.
He pushed the gate open and stepped though, and then waited as his father and Zuko stepped across the threshold before closing it politely behind them, smiling strangely at the lights in the house windows.
“Let’s get this over with,” Zuko muttered, staring at his boots as Lu Ten opened the house door and ushered them inside.
As they stepped into the light, the woman whose real name was Rinzee dropped the porcelain cups she had been holding to the floor. They shattered on the wood into a thousand tiny splinters. “You brought them back here? The guards let them go?”
Ruili wobbled her way across the floor to her father and smiled utterly unconcerned up at him. Picking her up, he gazed at his wife, steadily. “It’s alright, Mudan, please.”
“It’s a very, uh.” Iroh gazed around the room, and his eyes rested on his son, holding his granddaughter, trying to draw the sight in and hold it. “Nice place you have here.”
“You would know,” the woman who was Rinzee snapped. “Having just tried to rob it. You probably scouted out our house already. Ao!”
“It’s fine, I swear, just-” He turned to his cousin. “Zuko, can you just- We talked about this, please!”
Zuko shifted his weight back the way Yue had taught him and the water lifted out of the jar on the hearth and flowed to him. He spun it around itself, between his hands, to keep it moving as he walked forward.
“What are you doing?” she yelped, falling back against the wall and raising her hands. She probably didn’t even know what raising her hands that way was for.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he rasped, trying to sooth her.
Her eyes were huge in her head, pupils so wide the gold irises were almost invisible between their black, and the whites of her eyes. The fire flew from her hand, and Zuko caught it automatically on his arm to break it, but he wasn’t a firebender anymore. That didn’t work. He howled as the flesh bubbled, and the water between his hands splashed to the floor.
Ruili screamed, hiding her face in her father’s chest as her mother sucked in a breath and started to scream too.
Collapsing to the floor, Zuko curled his arm against his chest, high pitched moans leaving his throat with every breath.
“Do you have a well?” Iroh had to shout above the noise.
“And a koi pond, out back,” he gasped, pressing his daughter tight against him with one arm and looping the other around his cousin’s chest. As Iroh followed suit, he tucked Zuko’s burned arm up, trying to get Zuko’s limp fingers to latch onto his own shoulder, to keep the arm from flopping around.
“I didn’t...” The woman who didn’t know she was a firebender slumped against the wall. “I can’t...”
Lu Ten turned his head to look at her. “Just come with us, Mudan, please, this is important, please!”
They carried Zuko between them, out to the garden behind the house and did their best to set him down gently on the stone pathway and the rushes next to the koi pond. Eyes closed, face twisted, Zuko let his arm fall into the green, slimy water, and let the water glow and hum in that strange way it did, until his arm stopped hurting, but his body didn’t feel like his own. He pulled his arm out of the water, shivering and shaking, trying to pull himself together.
The woman who wasn’t Mudan hadn’t followed and Lu Ten stepped back into the house to get her. Zuko’s arm was coated in a film of sludge up to his elbow, and he scraped it off with his other hand with distaste. There was nothing under the muck, not even a scar, just new, pink, unburned skin.
His uncle brought him a bucket of water from the well, and he poured it over his arm, scrubbing until the green slime ran off his arm, down between the stones.
Lu Ten led his wife out into the garden, to sit on the stone path next to the koi pond, the unnatural, trusting, pliant way the mindbent Dai Li wives had with their husbands making her let him. “Are you sure it’s okay?” she asked, trembling.
Zuko took the bucket of water down to the well and filled it up. His arms shook with fatigue. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her croakily, putting the bucket down beside her and raising the water into his hands.
The woman who didn’t even know her own real name put her hand over her her husband’s hand, resting on her shoulder, until the water lit up like candle flame, and she started to fight. Lu Ten held her down as she thrashed, and Zuko kept the water to her head. Zuko’s stomach filled with boiling acid. The water felt sticky and didn’t want to move, but he could feel the ripples in it, that said that his fingers were shaking, twitching with small, faint movements, the kind that said he was still alive.
The water fell to the ground, soaking her, and Zuko staggered back, heaving and gagging. “I can’t,” he coughed.
Drool ran down her face, and her expression was empty. When Lu Ten touched her face, she didn’t react. “You have to,” he pleaded. “You can’t leave her like this.”
Zuko clutched his stomach and his head. “I can’t!” He couldn’t touch that again. He could barely stand.
“Please!” He grabbed onto Zuko’s arm and dragged his cousin back, stumbling to her, taking advantage of his cousin’s exhaustion to do it without any real fight. “Just bring her back, just...”
Zuko couldn’t pick himself off the ground to walk away again as Lu Ten filled the bucket with water again and brought it to him. The water ran through Zuko’s fingers as he tried to lift it out again. He finally gave up and trickled the water down onto her temple. When the water began to glow, it stopped falling. Zuko breathed hard though his nose, fighting off the horror and nausea, until she started to blink. The breath caught in her throat. “What’s-” she gasped. “What’s-”
“Mudan?” Lu Ten asked anxiously.
She launched herself to her feet, wiping the drool off her face and running backwards, back to the house. “No!”
Lu Ten heaved air into his lungs. “Rinzee?”
She stopped in the doorway, the firelight and the candles inside glinting off the lacquer and wire inlays of her Earth Kingdom headdress, and off the silk of her Earth Kingdom clothes. “Who are you?” she demanded. “All of you. Ao? How did you know, how did you know?”
Lu Ten went to her, and tried to hold her, but she shoved him away. “Rinzee.”
“No!” she shouted, shaking her head compulsively. “Don’t... touch me! I’m never going back there.”
“I’m never going to let anyone make you,” he assured her, reaching up to put his hands on her arms, but when she flinched back, he let them fall awkwardly to his sides. “You’re safe here. No one’s going to mindbend you. I’m not going to tell anybody who you are.”
She sank back against the doorway. “I don’t even know why I’m married to you.”
“The Dai Li mindbent everybody they captured.” Lu Ten heaved a shuddering sigh. “The men who were strong firebenders, good fighters, they made Dai Li. They-” he swallowed. “We married the firebending women so that the children would be benders, and the sons would grow up and become Dai Li.”
She smacked him across the face. “You did this to me?” she shouted. “You- And then you married me?” Fire blossomed in her hands.
“No!” He raised his hands to block any blow she might try to land. “They mindbent you before they mindbent me, and I was so scared, that I just went along with it when they introduced us.” He shuddered again.
“I don’t know your name,” she whispered.
He closed her eyes, like he was just waiting for her to set him on fire. “Lu Ten.”
Her brow furrowed. “Like the prince? Are you kidding me?”
He glanced back at his father, and at Zuko, lying against the ground, unmoving. “Yeah, like the prince. I was borrowing a private’s uniform, because when I wore mine, the wall defenders would aim for me, so they didn’t know who I was.”
She slapped him again, sobbing. “Don’t lie to me!”
“I’m not lying! Why would I lie?”
“And who are they?” She jabbed her finger at Zuko and Iroh. “The Earth King? A lost Air Nomad? No, really I want to know.”
“My father and cousin.”
She laughed hysterically.
“Come on, just come inside.” He glanced over the wall at their neighbors, and the possibility of open windows. I’ll tell you everything.”
“I’m not leaving my daughter with those men!” she retorted. “Whoever they are!”
Lu Ten looked back at his father, who had Ruili on his lap, where she was playing with his sideburns. “Please, Rinzee, I know what it’s like. They did it to me too.”
“No!” she yelled, sprinting back into the garden, to her daughter. “You don’t. You had your firebending, didn’t you? And I bet you knew all about having been someone else, being part of the Dai Li, didn’t you. Well I didn’t.” She snatched Ruili out of Iroh’s lap, still turned to her husband. “I couldn’t figure out what hurt so bad all the time, or why I didn’t have a past like everybody else, or a family. I wasn’t stupid, I knew something was missing, I knew it, and I couldn’t say anything!”
“I’m sorry.” Lu Ten mumbled.
“And I didn’t even get to have my firebending! Don’t tell me you know what it’s like!”
She looked down. Zuko had his hand around her ankle, and he used it to haul himself up painstakingly, so that he was sitting on the path instead of lying across it. “I know what that’s like,” he muttered. “I lost my firebending, because the moon spirit screwed up.”
“Are you really his cousin?” she asked, voice high and afraid.
He nodded. “Zuko.”
“And is he really...”
He nodded again.
“H-how did you find us?”
“We didn’t,” he muttered. “We were stealing clothes.”
Rinzee slept curled up around their daughter on the futon as Lu Ten wrapped the spare blanket around himself. The wooden floor was hard, and he envied his father and cousin with the better, thicker blankets, and borrowed clothes. The soft, steady sounds of everyone breathing around him in their sleep filled the house, but he couldn’t sleep.
Fog rolled in off the the ocean, and billowed through the open windows. The Painted Lady rolled in with it and floated down to stand in front of him. “It’s good to see you when you’re awake.” She smiled, her mouth the only thing visible under her hat. “In your own world.”
“I thought you weren’t going to come again,” he told her, almost reproving.
She smirked. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because I remember who I am now.” He stood up, and crossed his arms across his chest. “You got what you wanted.”
“I don’t have what I want until the world is in balance again, and you sit on the dragon throne.” She tipped her had back and shook her head. “Shame. You’ll be a good Firelord. Zuko would have been a great one.”
“Zuko said the moon spirit messed up when she made him a waterbender,” he said. The Painted Lady inclined her head, and a bright, clean rush of rage burned through him. “And if she hadn’t? Would you have just left M- Rinzee and me like that, like you’ve left thousands of people, for hundreds of years?”
She snorted, and put a finger to her lips and pointed around at his family. “You don’t want to wake them.”
“Answer my question,” he growled, deep in his throat.
She exhaled heavily, and vanished.
“Coward,” he sneered softly.
The next day, Zuko slept late, until the moon rose in the afternoon. He kicked away the blanket and pulled the clothes he had borrowed from his cousin straight on his body. After the Water Tribe furs, the Earth Kingdom clothes were almost familiar, almost like Fire Nation clothes. They rasped against his skin as if they were full of sand. He stepped out from the screened off alcove. “Why didn’t anybody wake me up?”
Iroh poured a cup of tea from the pot and pressed it into Zuko’s hand. “I figured you needed the rest.”
“Thank you,” he replied, resentful, and uncertain of what exactly he was resenting.
“Lu Ten is still at work,” his uncle tried.
“Yeah,” Zuko snapped, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “Lu Ten.”
“What is wrong, nephew?” Iroh, put a hand on Zuko’s shoulder and looked up at the face hiding under the conical straw hat. “I thought you loved your cousin.”
Zuko shrugged his uncle’s hand off, a nest of eel-snakes gnawing away at his insides. “Yeah.”
“Aren’t you happy?” He examined his nephew’s shadowed expression, for once, utterly at a loss. “He is alive. We thought he was dead. You should be rejoicing.”
“Yeah,” Zuko choked out. “Sure.”
When he fled into the garden, his uncle didn’t follow. And that was the problem, wasn’t it?
“So you’re the Dragon of the West.” Rinzee came up to stand next to her father-in-law. Her silence for most of the day made her words hang in the air and demand his notice, even though he had heard the same sequence of words so many times they ran together into one.
He nodded, taking her hands. “Believe me when I say I’m very glad to meet you.”
“Here I am surrounded by royalty. Even Ruili-” She shook her head. “My parents are fisherfolk. My brothers probably are too, by now, if they haven’t enlisted.”
“It doesn’t matter to me who your parents are. Besides.” He winked at her. “You have given me a lovely granddaughter.” They watched Ruili make her way outside and curl up in Zuko’s lap. She took the hat off his head, revealing his expression of complete bafflement, and shoved it down onto her own. She pushed it onto her face and wore it like a mask, and her father’s cousin quickly snatched it out of her hands.
“Ten years...” Rinzee fought back tears. “I’m married. I have a daughter, and I didn’t get a say in any of it.”
Iroh was silent for a long moment. “No one would think any less of you if you were to run.”
“Is that what you want me to do?” she asked sharply.
“No, but you are right. You deserve a choice in the way your life will go. And should he find out about the three of you, my brother would happily see to it that Lu Ten is once again safely dead, along with my granddaughter. It would be a great comfort to know you had taken her far away, where he couldn’t find her.”
“He’s supposed to be my lord. I fought in the Fire Nation army!” She took one of her hands out of his and rubbed it against her face. “This isn’t the way things are supposed to go.”
“No,” Iroh agreed. “It isn’t.”
Rinzee didn’t talk for a long time. Together, they watched Ruili steal Zuko’s hat again, and press it to his face. “I need to talk to your nephew about leaving the back door latched. Ruili could fall down the well, or drown in the koi pond, or something.”
“I’ll talk to him tonight, if you want me to,” Iroh assured her with a soft smile.
Outside, Zuko tried to pry it away from her, but her tiny hands were stronger than they looked, and when she finally lost her grip, he fell back against the ground in surprise. Shrieking with laughter, she climbed onto his chest and grabbed the hat back.
“We should rescue him,” Rinzee said.
“Yes, we should.” Neither of them made any such attempt. Ruili sauntered over to the edge of the pond, set the hat upside down in the water, and watched it float away. With a sharp, frustrated cry, Zuko plucked his hat out of the pond, and gazed in despair at the coating of filth on top. Iroh and Rinzee glanced at each other, and then looked down.
“Are you drunk?” Azula demanded as Ty Lee swayed back up the gangway, wearing the tightest Earth Kingdom robe any of them had ever seen. It was part of Ty Lee’s own special genius that she was always able to find that kind of thing.
“The guardsman’s son kept pouring me drinks,” she slurred slightly. “I thought this was what you wanted.”
“Guardsman’s son?” Mai asked.
“Well, his dad was ancient.” Ty Lee sat down more heavily than she meant to on a coil of rope.
Mai raised an incredulous eyebrow. “They just have the one?”
“Did you find anything out?” Azula cut in impatiently, looming over Ty Lee.
Ty Lee gazed up at her, unconcerned. “He said the Water Tribe ships don’t usually come here, because it’s so small. Mostly they go to Tianshui, a couple of days southeast of here.”
Azula waved her away.
“If you wake up tomorrow hung over, I am not cleaning up your vomit,” Mai called as Ty Lee slipped away.
Three evenings later, Iroh left the circle of his son and his son’s family and stepped outside to sit on the back step and watch his nephew. The water passed between Zuko’s hands, the scales of the koi fish inside gleaming in the lantern light like the sparks that danced around Ruili’s fingers when she was bored. He shifted his weight and pulled the water along with it, letting the fish slip gently back into the pond. The ball of water raised back off the water and froze. The ball melted and split in two, only to refreeze. He divided the balls again and again, until each ball was the size of a thumbprint, and then the balls elongated into minuscule, green, needle-like shards. They flew for Iroh’s head, but fell to the ground just before they could hit. “What are you doing out here?” Zuko asked sulkily.
Iroh took a sip from his teacup. “Watching you.”
The ice shards flew back to the air and landed in the pond, melting. “Yeah, well don’t.”
“I don’t understand.” Iroh gazed up wearily. “You barely talk to any of us for days, to me, and now you don’t even let me spend time with you?”
“It’s nothing, Uncle. Go back inside.”
Iroh didn’t leave. “Come in with me.”
Zuko flinched. “No.” He couldn’t. He couldn’t go in there and watch his uncle with his cousin and have his face rubbed in the fact that he had nothing again. “I mean... I think I’ll stay out here for a while.”
Iroh resettled himself back on the step. “Then I will watch.”
Zuko raised water out of the pond again, but it sloshed back down before he could get it between his hands. He let his hand fall to his sides in defeat, fists balling, his concentration shot to pieces with his uncle’s presence. He stood there, feeling like an idiot, in the darkness, not looking at his uncle. The wind whistled through the silence, making it bigger and louder. “Are you just going to stay here?” Zuko bust out at last, cutting it wide open.
“Yes.” Iroh smiled, and patted the step beside him.
“And me?” Zuko hissed, the desperation in his voice so thick it almost choked away his words.
“Where do you want to go?” Iroh asked.
“Anywhere.” Zuko shrugged jerkily. “Somewhere, I don’t know, just... It doesn’t matter.” He paced back and fourth, eyes darting around, as if they could see through the darkness to whatever was driving him.
But he couldn’t see it, because it wasn’t out there. For three years, Zuko had not rested. For three years, he had chased something, and somewhere along the way, without Iroh noticing, it had stopped being about the chase and started being about the running. And even once the quarry was out of his reach, he couldn’t stop, and now that he was no longer the hunter, he was the hunted.
“Then stay here,” Iroh urged, “Train. Rest.”
Zuko flinched, and stared around, trapped. “I’m not going to waterbend for you just because you’re too curious about all the other elements to stay inside with your son.” He opened his mouth like he was about to say more, but nothing more came out of his mouth except the soft sibilance of his breath around his clenched teeth.
Iroh blinked. “Zuko,” he murmured, reaching out to his nephew.
“No!” Zuko thrust out his hands to push him back, but his uncle sat back down, startled, before Zuko could touch him. “I can’t, I can’t-”
A dozen little things clicked together in Iroh’s head. Gathering his determination, Iroh climbed back to his feet again and pulled his nephew close against his chest. Zuko squirmed half-heartedly, but Iroh didn’t let him go. “Are you jealous, nephew?” Iroh asked softly.
“No!” Zuko denied, terrified, trying to pull away. “You- No!”
Iroh refused to let go, keeping his nephew pinned against his chest. “Afraid?” One handed, he ran his fingers through Zuko’s hair soothingly, as if his nephew was a little boy again. “Worried I wouldn’t love you now that I have my son back?”
Before he realized it, Zuko was nodding, tears running down out of his good eye, soaking the front of his uncle’s robe. A sick sort of humiliation left his cheeks hot and flushed at needing his uncle this way. He should’t be crying. It was just going to make everything worse when his uncle could see- He shouldn’t need anyone. He was supposed to be...
He wasn’t supposed to be this weak.
Iroh sank back down onto the step, guiding Zuko down with him. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said gently. “Finding Lu Ten again just means I have two sons.”
“Not your son,” Zuko muttered, voice muffled against his uncle’s chest.
“I am never going to stop loving you, or thinking of you as my son.” Iroh patted his nephew’s head. “Didn’t I tell you, you don’t get rid of me that easily?”
As Zuko lay slumped against his uncle’s side, he tried to stop crying. He should stop crying. But he wasn’t sure he believed his uncle anyway.
A hand brushed across Lu Ten’s shoulder, and he jerked awake. “You!” he snapped lowly at the Painted Lady, kneeling just above the floor next to him.
“I thought you’d want to know your cousin’s in town.”
“I know. He’s sleeping right over there!” He pointed his finger at the wood and paper screen between himself and his father and cousin. “You know this; he gave me back my memories!”
The Painted Lady shook her head and smirked. “Not him. Azula.”
“Here?” Lu Ten sucked in a breath. “What? Why?”
Cocking her head, she stood up and tipped up her hat. “Your father’s been declared a traitor, and your uncle wants Zuko dragged home in chains. Azula’s only too happy to do it for him.”
“But how did she find us? Now?” He searched her face, and a dark thought flashed across his mind. “Did you-”
“There aren’t any spirits whispering in her ear, if that’s what you’re insinuating,” she grumbled.
“You want me to leave this place, you want me to become Firelord, you brought her to me, didn’t you?” He glanced around at his sleeping family, voice rumbling low in his throat.
“I already told you I didn’t.” Her eyes narrowed reprovingly at him. “Now, go wake up your family.”
She vanished, and the darkness of her passing made spots dance across his open eyes. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, and he swallowed, struggling to stop his hands from shaking, but they wouldn’t. Everything was happening so fast.
He gave up and shook Rinzee awake.
Azula kicked down the door, but no panicked chaos erupted within. The house was empty.
“Are you sure this is the right house?” Mai asked, peering around her.
Ty Lee tilted her head as she slipped inside and turned back to her friends, and the disguised soldiers behind them. “This is where they s-”
Azula’s eyes took in the mess and the ransacked chests and wardrobes. Her lips curved up. “Positive.”
The predawn shadows lingered over the town and the docks as Zuko gazed over them, as if he really thought he would be able to see Azula coming towards them.
He hadn’t seen her in three years. He wondered how much she had changed.
Their feet kicked up dust on the trail, and Ruili whimpered in confusion. Rinzee passed her to Iroh and hitched her pack higher up on her shoulders without looking at any of them. “I don’t get it,” she said. “You said she’s only fourteen. She can’t be that scary.”
Zuko and his uncle shared a significant glance, remembering what she had been like at eleven.
Lu Ten turned his eyes to his boots. “She’s probably got an army with her.”
An army, and supplies, and dispatches, and intellegence reports, and all of the things Zuko didn’t have when-
Rinzee dragged in a shuddering breath and started walking a little faster.
The night took a long time to fall. The fog rolled in off the sea and caught up with them, and they stopped in a valley, next to a dry riverbed. Lu Ten kicked the dust and stones at the riverbed bottom. “Damn it, it’s supposed to be full this time of year!”
Ruili whined as she swallowed the last mouthful of water and her grandfather pulled the empty waterskin away. Zuko tasted salt on his lips in the fog and growled. It just made him thirstier. “There’s a stream south of here.”
Rinzee spread a blanket over the ground. “We’ll find it tomorrow morning,” she said waspishly.
“I will take first watch,” Iroh yawned, tucking himself between the roots of a tree.
“Wake up, Zuko.” Yue’s voice floated down through the trees, and her long hair brushed across his face. “Wake up.”
Zuko opened his eyes. They watered at the brightness that was Yue and refused to focus on the darkness around them both. “What-”
“Your sister is almost here.” She pointed at the cloud of dust coming inexorably closer along the path.
Zuko glanced over at his uncle, dozing against the tree trunk, and snarled, throwing the blanket off himself as Yue’s body broke up into little flecks of moonlight. He grabbed his uncle’s shoulder and shook him hard. “What are you doing?”
Iroh woke with a start and blinked up at his nephew. “What time is it?”
Zuko stared up at the moon, high in the sky and almost full. “Almost midnight!” he snapped.
“Well I might as well go back to sleep and let you take the next watch,” Iroh said slowly, closing his eyes again.
Zuko shook his shoulder again and pointed at the dust cloud almost upon them. “No, because now we have to wake up everyone.”
Iroh’s sleep clouded eyes cleared and sharpened. He put a hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezed.
As Zuko leaned over Rinzee and prodded her arm, he tried not to watch his uncle and his cousin. He stared out over the empty grassland beyond the trees overhanging the dry river, feeling sick to his stomach. There was nowhere to go out there, nowhere to hide.
Rinzee yelped and batted his hand away, but Zuko snatched her arm off the blanket and pulled her to her feet. “Come on,” he ordered, forcing himself not to whisper. “Azula.”
At her mother’s cry and the sudden absense of both her parents on the blanket with her, Ruili woke up and started wailing. Azula’s army was close enough that the sound of their feet rumbled all around them. Rinzee lifted her daughter off the blanket and pressed her to her chest. She glanced down at the dry riverbed and then at Zuko. “You!” she said, making a discission and holding Ruili out to him. “Take her.”
Zuko’s eyes followed hers to the empty river, and slid over to the empty waterskins, and he snatched the girl out of her mother’s arms, shaking with fury at himself. He had no water. He didn’t have anything to bend. Firebenders didn’t... didn’t have to keep track of things like that. It was so stupid that all his sister had to do was corner him somewhere dry, and he was... He pulled the knife his uncle had given him out of his boot and held Ruili one handed against his hip. Squirming, she shouted into the fog, her tiny baby voice crying out the only two words she knew. “Nonono, mama!”
Zuko held her tighter as her mother turned back to them both. She saw his knife and bared her teeth. “Don’t you dare! You, you keep her out-”
From where he was climbing up the side of the ravine, in which they had been sleeping, to the road, Iroh turned around to face his nephew. “Hide,” he insisted.
Helpless humiliation rolled over Zuko as his uncle, cousin, and cousin-in-law climbed over the lip of the ravine. There was no water, just a tiny knife, and instead of being an asset, a warrior, he was a useless non-combatant like Ruili.
She kept crying. He shoved his knife back into his boot and covered her mouth to muffle the noise. Under the bright full moon, the blanket on which they had slept stood out on the pale, brownish grass and dust like a smudge of ink on an otherwise clean sheet of paper. Zuko yanked it off the ground, bundling it around Ruili while she sent him foul looks and sniffled into the blanket she suddenly found wrapped around herself.
Fireballs whizzed over his head, fizzling in the fog. They kept drawing Zuko’s eyes across the sky. Ruili’s hands filled with sparks to match them in small, but her hands were bunched up in the blanket. The cloth caught fire, and Ruili screamed. Zuko cried out in surprise and threw the blanket down to stomp the flames away. Smoke curled in the air, rising off the charred blanket as Zuko scooped it back up into his arms and Ruili’s fists beat against his chest. Her knuckles and the backs of her hands were covered in angry red burns and she howled with rage and pain.
A harsh, hot jet of blue fire split the air, speeding down towards them. Zuko yelled in shock and jumped aside, the flames close enough for him to feel their heat in his scarred skin as they passed. They crashed into the ground, and swept down in a line, igniting the grass, crackling and popping and lighting up the darkness around them.
Ruili screamed louder. In desperation, Zuko’s fingers found a corner of the blanket and stuffed it into her mouth. As she tried to push it out with her lips and tongue, she let out little muffled screams Zuko could barely hear above the noise of the battle and the sound of his own ragged breathing as he ran. He sprinted, the stones of the riverbed jarring through the too-supple soles of his boots, and peered through the fog and darkness at the fires ripping through the sky above.
He couldn’t see the people, only the flash of fire, and the only fire that looked different from everyone else’s was Azula’s. She was the only person he knew was still standing.
He launched himself at the closest tall tree, and he pulled himself one handed up onto the lowest branch. Slowly, he dragged himself upward, the bark digging into his palms and catching on the cloth wrapped around his baby cousin. She shot him a dark glower over her blanket gag as he wedged her between a branch above the fighting and the trunk before he swung himself up next to her. There were tears running down her face, which was flushed with defenseless misery. Zuko glared right back at her, slipping her hands out of the fabric trapping them. Immediately she started pounding his arm again, and he pinned her arms down against her sides.
He ground his teeth together. He stared through the leaves and the roiling mist, and he still couldn’t see anything.
“Pffftht!” He heard the sound of the spit-sodden corner of the blanket pop out of her mouth right before the air rushed into her lungs. “Nnnnoaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!”
Zuko slammed his hand down over her mouth, but it was too late. Azula’s hand filled with fire, and through the shadows and fog, he saw it light up her face. She turned to the sound of Ruili’s voice and her lips curled up in a vicious, triumphant smirk. The fire blazed towards him, and his arm throbbed a warning where it had been burned, and he ducked instead of trying to block.
It hit the tree trunk where his head had been. The leaves in its wake exploded into flame, catching the leaves beside them, until the whole tree around him roared with the noise of the fire.
Zuko did the only thing he could do. He tucked Ruili up against his chest and jumped. The blanket unfurled as they fell, and the fog rushed past his face. He could feel it.
He could feel it.
He was an idiot. He knew he was an idiot. This sort of thing shouldn’t keep surprising him.
It felt like the ground and his sister were leaping up to meet him.
He whipped his arms around and sucked the fog out of the air and pressed his forearms to his chest, around Ruili, to cushion her.
His legs hit Azula hard in the back as she tried to dodge, knocking her to the ground. Ruili gulped in shock as she crash landed on the blanket covered armor over the shoulders of her other cousin, Zuko’s arms keeping her safe from the impact.
“What the-?” Azula shoved the blanket down, only to see her brother, pinning Ruili to his chest, a globe of cloud-water shifting between his hands. The water froze into icicle daggers, and Zuko grasped onto them. Azula balled her hand into a fist and fire blazed around it. She rammed it through the air at him, but he leaned to the side. “Who’s the child, Zuko?” she asked, hooking her arm to punch fire at his head.
The icicles melted and refroze into a flat pane of ice.
“Zuko?” A voice came out of the fog and floated through the fog. A woman with knives in both hands, turned away from the battle for just a second as she spoke, and the ice shattered. Azula wrenched her knee up from under him and flipped him over, slamming him down into the dust.
There was a hole in the fog, above and around them, from where Zuko had pulled the water out of the air, and the full moon shown through. He had the full moon, water all around him, surprise, every advantage as he could ask for and he still ended up on his back in the dirt.
“Mamamamamama!” Ruili twisted away from them. Azula’s gaze followed her, amused before she turned back to her brother, but Zuko used the time to wriggle his arm free. He elbowed her hard beneath her ribs and knocked her away from him, gagging and gasping. Staggering to his feet, he stumbled backwards, and tried to catch his feet.
“Ruili!” Rinzee yelled, dashing to her and scooping her up. She shoved her little, burned hands at her mother and bawled into her shoulder. Rinzee shot Zuko a filthy look as she pressed her daughter to her chest and sent a fist full of flame into the face of an oncoming soldier.
As he tried and failed to find his feet, Zuko whirled his arms again, drawing in more fog. In the sudden clarity, Zuko could see the woman with the knives who had spoken before. “Mai?” he whispered, without realizing he had spoken.
He caught himself from falling and stood steady. He flung the water through the air like knives at the soldiers closing in on his cousin-in-law. He breathed in, a little of the panic and self-loathing subsiding as he watched his sister gulp down mouthfuls of air and force her breathing back under control. Then a shadow fell over the ground behind him, and a few sharp jabs brought the water splashing down at his feet and left his body numb and falling into the arms of Azula’s soldiers, and it came rushing back. “Ty Lee?”
She cocked her head as she stepped around him, pulling her lips into her mouth with her teeth, voice very quiet. “Sorry.”
Zuko roared in frustration, and threw his head, the only part of his body he could still move, back into the face of the soldier behind him. She yelled in shock and he could feel her nose crunch, and the blood start running down. His hat fell off his head to hang around his neck, his hair colorless, like an old man’s, like the fog creeping back in around them, under the moonlight. The blood from the soldier’s nose gushed into Zuko’s hair and down onto his face.
Everybody stopped moving. Fires died all around them, leaching the color out of the world.
Mai kept staring at him. He could feel it.
Azula walked to him with measured, ominous slowness and drew in a single, steady breath. “Hello, Zu-zu.”
She raised her hand full of bright blue flame and held it close to Zuko’s scarred cheek. The air pressed in on his ribs. He couldn’t draw in a breath. It hurt so much to breathe.
“I’m going to take you home, Zu-zu,” she told him. “Isn’t that what you wanted?” He still didn’t answer. He couldn’t. The silence hung in the air, and the stares of everyone around them weighed him down. Azula’s lips pulled back, showing her teeth gritted and frustration. Her flame came even closer to his face. “I wonder if Father’s just going to kill you, or if he’s going to lock you away with the other waterbenders. There are still some of them down there, you know.”
Zuko shuddered convulsively and the air rushed into him like a lungful of daggers. His own blood pounded in his ears. He tried to push it all away. His fingers tingled and his arms hung heavily in the soldiers’s grasp. The blood didn’t rush around in them. He couldn’t feel it. The sweat beaded on his forehead as he pictured the blood pouring into his limbs. He could almost feel the blood moving, almost imagine he was slowly bending it down into his fingertips. He exhaled, and the daggers he had breathed in floated out on the air.
Ice crystals. They glittered in the moonlight like bits of broken glass before falling to the dust, and the fog fluttered and dispersed in the wake of his breath, leaving the air around them clear again. The fire in Azula’s hand flared, sharp with her anger. Ice rimmed her hair and gathered on her clothes, where he had breathed. She thrust her hand closer to his face and bent low to mutter in his ear, stroking his scar with the back of her hand. The fire was so close, the heat so intense, his skin reddened under it. “I wonder if he will finish what he started with this,” she murmured, tapping his scar with her knuckles. “and blind you with fire, cook your eyes in your head like he should have done back then. I wonder if they will still be blue after that.” Zuko flinched away, and Azula’s lips curved. “Not that there’s any point. It’s not like you could escape to humiliate the family again. You couldn’t even capture one little boy.”
Zuko’s head snapped up, around her hand, out of the way of the fire, and his eyes narrowed with cold, indignant rage. “I’d love to see you-” he bit off. “I’d love to see you try to capture him.”
She pulled her fist back, and Zuko closed his eyes. “No!” Iroh shouted, the stillness of the standoff broken.
But the fist never landed. Bellowing, Lu Ten, the only person close enough to reach them, threw himself through the air and caught Azula’s arm, dragging her down with him as he fell. Azula rolled and bounced back to her feet, but Lu Ten kept hold of her arm. She pulled in close to him to break away, and, for the first time, caught clear sight of his face. “You!” The whites around her eyes grew so large that her yellow irises seemed to shrink in on themselves. “You’re dead.”
Zuko watched his cousin nod as she tore her arm out of his grasp. He felt the blood sink deep into his limbs and as all eyes were on Lu Ten and Azula, he wrenched himself to his feet and broke the holds of the soldiers on his arms. He twisted away from them. He could feel their blood, rushing around their bodies. He could feel it thrumming through him. He remembered the sensation of Yue squeezing his hand when he had asked her and the way he had shuddered with revulsion at the very idea that such a thing was possible, but he raised that hand in front of him and made himself feel the push of all that blood.
The moonlight ripped though his veins, sapping away his strength for the power to bowl back the knot of soldiers who had held him captive and knock them to the ground like rice shafts under a sickle.
With a faint cry of shock, Ty Lee leapt forward and jabbed her fingers hard into the pressure points of Zuko’s legs, dropping him to the ground. But before she could get her fingers into his arms and cut off his bending again, he grabbed the blood in her hand and pushed. She danced away to the soldiers he had felled, stumbling around and around in tight circles as he pulled her hand high over her head and drove her back.
Zuko lay against the ground, struggling to hold his head up, weak from bending against the strengths and the wills of Ty Lee and his sister’s soldiers. Eyes squinted and teeth gritted to keep his eyes from snapping the rest of the way shut, he gazed out over his sister’s small army. He could never do it. He probably couldn’t bend any more than the six people he was already holding down. It was like bending the whole ocean, or every raindrop in a storm.
But no one else knew that yet.
Azula threw her cousin, clumsy and rusty from six years underneath Lake Laogai, back and advanced on her brother, both hands igniting at her sides. She towered over him, fury radiating off her in thick, seething waves. Hands still wreathed in flame, face taut, Azula reached for her brother.
His chest heaving with strain and cornered fear, Zuko could see in her face what she eagerly awaited for him back home, himself locked up, chained up, disfigured and blinded, unable to move against his bonds, trapped alone with his scornful fellow prisoners, shut away for all time. One of his hands sprang up between them, tensed, ready to throw her back away from him, to bend the blood inside her, ready to fail. He knew he would fail.
Azula’s eyes fell on that hand, face going rigid. Her fires snuffed out and she turned around and ran, beckoning her little army behind her.
Zuko’s arms fell to the ground and he sagged against the dusty road, gulping down heaves of air and fog.
Zuko wasn’t allowed to surprise Azula.
Alone on the ocean, secure in the dim light of her cabin on her brilliant, secret barge, Azula watched her two friends looking everywhere except at her. They had seen her run.
Her soldiers had seen her run.
On her writing table sat a half-written letter to her father with no mention of that. She had filled it with news of her cousin’s sudden continued life, and a plea.
Ty Lee kept her eyes on the hand that had betrayed her under Zuko’s bending. “Nobody could expect him to do that to you, Azula,” she soothed. “You’ll have a plan for him next time.”
Azula turned to her sharply. “Of course.” That wasn’t even the question.
Mai reclined on the cabin window seat, feigning sleep, peering out the cabin window at the Earth Kingdom shoreline disappearing behind them. She turned over, eyes closed, and opened one, gazing sidelong at her princess, but she didn’t speak. Her relentless, emotionless gaze rubbed against Azula’s already frayed and fractured temper and unnerved her.
“Get out!” she raged at them both, and watched through eyes narrowed into slits with distrust as they left her alone with her letter.
Zuko drifted in and out of hazy, nervous sleep, too tired to stay awake, too wary of his sister’s return to stay asleep. When his eyes were open, he blinked blearily at his uncle and his cousins, (Rinzee was his cousin now wasn’t she?) together obscuring the signs of the battle from the soon-to-be waking Earth Kingdom. They extinguished the small grass fires and the burning tree in which Zuko had hidden with Ruili. They swept away the footprints, buried the ashes, and quietly destroying the evidence of the strange sort of battle that took place when one side was bent on capture and the other desperately trying not to kill.
Each time he closed his eyes again, his dreams simmered with his sister and father’s fire.
Iroh bent down and patted his nephew’s shoulder. The same creeping age and fatigue that had lulled him to sleep as he had tried to keep watch, left his wrinkled skin ashen. “Get up,” he said softly, glancing over his shoulder at the moon, hanging low in the western sky. “We have to go.”
Zuko rose to his feet, listing with exhaustion. His hat hung around his neck on its string, weighing so much heavier on him than straw should be able to. He pulled it up over his head and straightened it low over his eyes.
Lu Ten slung his makeshift pack over his shoulder as Rinzee hefted her softly whimpering daughter into her arms. Glowing from the side of the road he swore he could see the Painted Lady smiling at him, giving him a pleased nod as she stood with her hand in her husband’s, next to a pretty woman with white hair and ribbons billowing around her body and a thin, dour man with blue eyes and dark skin. Lu Ten’s hands balled into fists, weariness leaching the force from his voice. “We have to get off the road.”
Zuko swallowed and nodded, shaking himself to stay awake. “I know a stream.”
As he spoke, the white haired woman and the dour man came to stand beside him, but Zuko couldn’t see them. Yue laid a hand on his arm, and even though he didn’t know it was there, he remembered the pathetic way he had lain in the freezing meltwater under her pitying eye. The prickle of his cousins’ eyes on him, wary and calculating, examining this strange new creature who had the power to bend people. He shivered. He felt so cold.
Zuko stepped off the dusty road and onto the grassy, sloping gully-side, between the two fire spirits, and only Lu Ten could watch the four spirits together fracture into wisps of light and blow away. Resigned, he moved to follow, his father and Rinzee with Ruili after him as Zuko led their shambling, weary group through the grass and the predawn, to the stream.