Journeys Back are Always Longer
The first thing Zachary Sun did when he woke in an unfamiliar skin, with his memories rattling around his head like they didn't fit, was try to firebend. The second thing he did was stumble over to the mirror to stare at a face both familiar and forgotten, and swallow down the realization that he wasn't Zachary Sun anymore. He hadn't thought of himself that way for more than half a century of a different life.
Zuko pinched himself until his nails made little crescent dents in his arm, but though the pain came, he didn't wake up, because he wasn't dreaming. The lines of age and experience, earned and fought for, had fallen away with the years, and Zuko felt nothing like a teenage boy and everything like an old man in a young man's skin.
He turned on his cell phone and flipped though his contacts, hands shaking. He stared at his sister's face, and his father's, his uncle's, Mai's Ty Lee's. There were no Aang, no Katara, no Sokka, not Toph, no Suki, the faces of so many friends missing, and he wondered horribly if they were real, or if they had only existed in some dream where his name had been Zuko and he could make fire in his hands.
His fingers brushed Mai's picture, and her contact information popped up, Mae Ukano. Mavis, Zuko remembered, when his sister wanted to get under her skin. In the picture, she wasn't smiling, just arching an eyebrow and looking at the camera as if she were daring it to take her picture, and pin her face down in pixels. He cradled the phone in his shaking hands his thumbs hovering above the screen, indecisive, hot and cold running up and down his back like waves of lightning. And he remembered what real lightning felt like.
Furious with himself, at his stupidity or his cowardice his didn't know which, he slammed his thumb down on the call button and listened to the dial tone.
"Hello?" that voice, incongruously old for how he knew she must look now, but so so young compared to what he remembered, came though the phone's tiny speaker like a body blow.
The air left his lungs on a single word. "Mai?"
"Zack?" but there was the faintest hesitation before she said is name, as if that wasn't the name she wanted to say at all.
"Ummm." He didn't know what else to say. His mind was blank and nothing else would come to him, except the utter wrongness of that name now, and the strange prickle of knowledge that once, a long time ago, he would have given anything to hear that name again.
"Zuko?" she whispered, as if she was terrified to even ask, as if it couldn't be true.
His knees gave out. His youthful, strong and quiet knees gave way sending him toppling back onto his bed, gazing without focus at the leaves swirling to the ground outside his bedroom window.
From the moment Zuko first felt his sister's eyes on his back, he knew she knew. The smugness had spilled out of her, leaving only the naked acknowledgement that he was a threat, that he had, however unfairly, however much by chance, triumphed over her once before, in another lifetime. He couldn't help wondering if she knew he knew, or if she thought she was all alone, or if she thought it was some new wave of madness.
"What day is it?" he asked, feeling as if he were holding out his hand to a shark.
"I don't know," she admitted with a careless sweep of her hand. She tapped her phone screen. "Tuesday. I hope you did your homework."
"I don't rememb-"
"I don't care," she cut in. "I guess you can if you want to."
"That's big of you."
"Shut up," she snapped. "I wonder who else remembers."
"Not our father." If their father remembered, Zuko would already be dead.
"I know, Zuko." She stared down at her nails. "I'm crazy, not stupid."
"No one ever accused you of being stupid, Azula," Zuko shot back, suddenly too tired and too old to be fighting this way with his sister.
Later, at school, he watched the way Mai quietly shut her out, and the way Ty Lee always found somewhere else to be, and the way Azula didn't go after them. Alicia would have. Azula had, once.
He didn't trust the quiet.
"Do you remember dying?" Mai asked after school.
"I remember going to sleep and waking up here," Zuko answered guardedly. "Do you?"
"I remember you next to me, and I remember things going fuzzy and bright, then blackness, then waking up here. Yeah, I remember dying."
Zuko grimaced. The sting of pain still fresh as he looked at the woman he had watched slip away from him.
"We died," she said, bewildered, lost. "I don't think you should have to go to school the day after you died. We should have called in sick."
"I don't think you're supposed to wake up after you die either."
"We're just breaking all the rules today," she sighed. "We rose from the dead, Zuko. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with that. I remember dying."
A flash of gratitude stole over him that he couldn't, that he had died in his sleep with no idea what was coming, and no time to be afraid. "I don't know if there's anything we can do with it. I think we're just supposed to live."
"I remember feeling like I was in a story book at first. But Alicia was still there, and Kyleigh, and you, and so many things were just the same, except with dragons and magic."
Zuko remembered how at first he looked for a wardrobe or a lamppost, or a mirror, to walk through and be home."
"One day, I looked around and everything felt normal. I lived my whole life there, and now that's gone."
It didn't really matter which had happened, if his father had punched fire into his face as he knelt on the ground, or if he had thrown him down on the burner of a gas stove turned up to high. Either way, Zuko remembered to smell of his skin and flesh burning, of it cooking, of his hair burning away. He remembered the pain and the fear, and his tears boiling away, but most of all he remembered that smell.
And he remembered holding Izumi, and that soft milky baby smell, and the way everything had hurt, because it had all been too much, and too good, and underneath it all was that terrible fear that he would lose her, or ruin her, or that she would be hurt and he couldn't stop it. He remembered holding her and knowing he would do anything to keep her from being hurt.
It was such a strange feeling, knowing that only days before, and many decades ago, he was willing to do anything to please his father, and it didn't matter if the man's name was Oscar or Ozai, that was over.
He walked into his uncle's teashop on the way home from school, for the very first time since he was thirteen, and Ira Sun saw the scar for the first time. "I can't live there," he said, and Ira nodded. He drove Zuko to his father's house, and together, they threw everything he owned into black trashbags and drove to Ira's apartment.
That was it. It was done. He didn't live with his father and sister anymore. He lived with his uncle. And if only he remembered three years of exile, and the love his uncle had given him when he needed it most and deserved it least, that was his own problem.
In this lifetime, his father had never thrown him out. He left by his own choice. This time, there was no eclipse, no Avatar to train, no mass murder to avert, just the acknowledgement that he had changed too much to ever go back, or to ever want to.
"I should call him," Zuko said distantly. "So he doesn't call the cops."
"I can do it if you want," his uncle offered, pressing a mug into his hands. Zuko took a sip. It was hot chocolate instead of tea, a kindness for the thirteen year old boy Ira remembered. And like the name his uncle had called him when he first seen him, it was just one more discordant note of wrong, one more reminder.
It wasn't tea. It wasn't Iroh.
He nodded his thanks and walked down the stairs while his uncle called his father, emerging into the wan, washed out evening light, to sit on the concrete steps.
He pulled out his phone and tapped out a text to his... To Mai, "Are you going to keep living at home?"
A single word appeared. "No."
"How are you getting out?"
"Working on it. Can't stay."
She dropped down beside him on the bench. "Suki has fencing practice at Ty Lee's gymnastics studio. Ty Lee ambushed her."
"Of course she did."
"She goes to school with Katara and Sokka." Mai shot him a sly look. "Excuse me. I mean Katarina and Sergey."
"Suki gets to keep her name. I told Ty Lee to tell her we're all very jealous."
"You're name is almost the same," Zuko remarked somewhat sullenly. "Sergey. Wow."
Mai snorted. "Yeah, Zach."
Zuko ignored her. "Did she talk to them?" Do they remember?
"Yeah." Mai shrugged. "Katara told Suki she might know who Aang and Toph are. She thinks they went to the same middle school. They would be in seventh grade. But no one's talked to them yet."
"They probably remember," Zuko offered.
"Most likely," Mai said blandly.
"Who else though?" he glanced down at the table. There was a ketchup smear just in front of his elbow. He pulled his arm back.
"And why us?" Mai asked archly.
"Yeah, that too."
"If this were a storybook, there would be some kind of grand life lesson we were supposed to learn and bring back here," she murmured. "But I can't think of anything I learned there that I wouldn't have learned here, given time."
"I learned how to run a country," he said.
"Yeah that's a really useful skill for a high school student."
He laughed, but it sounded hollow to his own ears. "I know, that's going to come up every day."
"Did you know Ty Lee's all alone?" Mai kept the emotion out of her voice, the way she always did when something was too ugly to clutter up further with feelings. "None of her sisters remember."
"Oh wow. Ouch." He wondered if that was better or worse than Azula remembering.
"Last night she told me part of her was afraid that they did remember, and just were afraid to say for some reason."
"Uhhh…" Zuko trailed off. "This is going to sound really cold, but there's no reason for them to remember. They weren't ever involved in the war like the rest of us."
"Aren't we all high and mighty today."
Zuko felt his cheeks heating.
"Not that I think you're wrong," she said with a sigh. "I didn't want to tell her I thought it was wishful thinking, a way of keeping the hope alive."
"Disguised as paranoia."
"Mmm," she nodded. "We're a messed up bunch."
"We always were." He turned to her, catching her eyes. "You ever wonder why none of us tried to find out back there if anybody else was… It was the first thing we all did when we got back here. Why didn't we then?"
Mai shook her head. "I mean at first I thought it wasn't real, and then I was convinced I was all alone, because surely I would be able to tell."
"Sometimes I thought Azula knew, but I figured it was just…"
"Wishful thinking disguised as paranoia."
At lunchtime, the gym was locked up and empty, but the lock on one of the windows had been busted for years, and no one had bothered to fix it. Zuko could just about squeeze through it. He padded out of the athletic director's office and out onto the basketball court, every sound reverberating off the walls, unnaturally loud. With every echo, Zuko flinched, waiting for someone outside to hear and get suspicious. But of course no one outside was going to hear the sound of his feet meeting the wood, no matter how loud it sounded to him.
He breathed out and ran through his stretches, fighting back the feeling of wrongness that came from using a body alike, and yet not at all like the one he had done this with before. It was nothing like the body he had warn as an old man, but neither was it like the one he had worn as a teenage boy, when he had trained day in and day out to face the Avatar, and when he had been a child expected to hone himself for war.
It had seemed right at the time.
Zachary Sun was soft. He hadn't even played sports since a B in seventh grade English had convinced his father to pull him out of all extracurricular activities so he would have more time to study. Stretches he had done without thought were suddenly difficult, and stretches that had once been a challenge were impossible.
When he pulled himself into his stance and began his form it was as if his mind knew the forms, perfectly, but his body didn't. He knew how every move was supposed to feel, and how it was supposed to lead into the next, but his arms and legs, his stomach, hips, shoulders and chest, his neck, his hands, his feet, couldn't quite follow the pattern his memory set for them, and his earliest firebending form felt alien.
The gym echoes with the sound of someone else's footfalls.
Zuko stopped breathing, frozen in the middle of the court, too exposed to run for cover, waiting to be caught, trying to think up an explanation for…
She had a roll of paper and a pencil box tucked under her arm, and she glanced away when he called her name. Zuko heaved in air, too fast and too hard with sudden relief, and it took him a minute to realize she was walking back the way she had come.
"Where are you going?" he called out to her.
She stalked over, rolling her eyes the way she always did when she was discomforted and embarrassed, and wanted to hide it. Letting the paper, one of the targets they pinned to hay bails for archery, unroll, Mai shrugged, trying for nonchalance. "Did you know a new pencil is just about the same length as my shuriken?"
"Go pin it up," he said, shaking with exhaustion from a children's form. "Promise I won't laugh."
"Do you ever think it wasn't real?" she asked.
Mai shrugged. "Toph doesn't think any of it was real. She thinks it was a mass hallucination. I ran into her yesterday. We talked."
"Well it wasn't a mass hallucination." Zuko looked away. "I looked them up."
"Oh so you did wonder." Mai's snort was soft, faint and halfhearted a failed attempt to mark mirth that only really marked fatigue. "You're much more diligent about this than I am apparently. All I looked up was knife throwing and a bunch of martial arts."
"Does it match what you know?" But he already knew the answer, because he had done the same.
"Yeah." Mai shrugged again. "Not everything, obviously, but I have a whole bunch of new words for all those things I remember doing."
Zuko nodded. It was surreal, watching videos online of people moving in exactly the way his memory told him should produce fire, or move stone, water and air. It was surreal looking at those videos and remembering exactly how it had felt to move that way himself. It felt like…
"A hallucination can't do that," Mai said, voice soft but harsh.
Zuko didn't reply. They sat together in the gloom and silence of the bleachers high above the empty, echoing basketball court. Their hands stayed in their laps, their bodies carefully not touching.
"It has to be real," Mai rasped at last, as Zuko knew she would eventually, if he gave her space. If nothing else, their years together had given him that. "Even if it doesn't make sense."
"You know, at first I thought maybe it's like a storybook, and we were supposed to learn a great moral lesson," he muttered, holding up his fingers in quotations. "But then I thought, what if it was the other way round. What if we were there because that world needed us?"
"A bunch of clueless teenagers?"
"We didn't do to bad." They'd ended a war between them, and run most of the world. They had founded nations and destroyed empires.
Mai's lips turned up in spite of herself. "No."
"Yeah, that doesn't make sense either." He closed his eyes with a rueful smile. "There had to be someone who could have done it so much better than we managed."
"Of course." Mai gave him a private eye roll.
Zuko plowed on, forcing down a sudden rush of self consciousness. "That's kind of why I figured it had to be some kind of magical accident."
"Or a joke." Mai swallowed. "I think Toph doesn't want it to be real. I think she's twelve years old and afraid. I think she remembers being all grown up, and she isn't ready to face it."
Zuko winced. "That's uh…"
"Not very nice of me?" Mai smirked wryly, eyes distant. "I'm afraid too. She's afraid Lin and Suyin exist. I'm afraid my family doesn't, and when we have children, they won't be the same ones, and I will never see them again."
There was a bite in the air. Zuko hunched down in his coat trying to avoid thinking about whether it was just the weather, or if this place, this whole universe really was this gray, all the brightness fogged over and muffled.
It was probably just the weather. It had to be just the weather.
The grey haze was why she stood out so much, all crisp blacks and dark, vibrant reds. He waved to her, wishing suddenly he could be that bright for her.
But she walked over to him and fell into step beside him. "You heading h-" she stopped. "You heading to your uncle's?
He nodded. "You doing anything this weekend?"
She rolled her eyes wordlessly.
He hesitated, knowing it was stupid, feeling as rusty as the old ship he had sailed when he really had been sixteen. "You want to come over?"
She closed her eyes and stopped walking. "What are you trying to ask, Zuko?"
You know what I'm trying to ask," he tried to retort.
"Of course I do." She stayed, standing still, her shiny patent leather shoes sinking into the mud. "But I want you to ask me. We were married, Zuko, I know you can manage it."
Time had unwound itself around them, he knew. Memories from when they had looked as they looked now came so much sharper than the ones that had only just happened, when it had all been settled, certain, and comfortable. Old grudges, old fears came back fresh, and even the knowledge that they had long since been resolved did nothing to lessen their sting. This was what had been ripped away from them, Zuko knew with a pang. They had the memories, but they were only hollow. "I love you."
"I know that," she told him.
"Do you love me?"
She closed her eyes again and threw herself back into place beside him, her feet moving in time with his. "You are so stupid."
Which was unfair, given that she had demanded he ask it. "Do you?"
Mai walked so close by his side that her hand bumped into his as they walked.. When his fingers opened, she rubbed circles into his palm with the pad of her thumb. "We were married," she murmured, barely audible. "I don't know what to do with that."
"I don't either," he confessed.
"We grew old together, raised a family together. Here, we've never even dated."
"We could start," he whispered, aware he was pleading.
"We could." Mai didn't smile.
Her hand holding his the only spot of heat, of solid reality, tying him to the world around him. "I love you."
"I don't hate you too," she managed. "I love you. Are you going to ask, or do I have to?"
Zuko shook his head helplessly.
At last she took pity on him. "Are we going to try to do it all over again?"
"Do you want to?"
Her breath burned warm against his face in the cold. "Yes."