"Get up, get up!" they taunted him, as he lay pressed against the ground, tasting dirt in his mouth. He shakily obeyed their command, putting up his fists to the semicircle of children in front of him. Their leader stood in the middle, smirking, with his arms crossed.
"Aren't you gonna fight back?" he sneered. "Or are you too honorable to strike until you've been beaten to a bloody pulp?"
"Back off—" he grunted, trying to back away, but one of the gang members swept behind him and knocked him to his knees. "I don't—"
"It's just a harmless little game of Agni Kai," the bully said. "Come on. Your sister plays it all the time. Put 'em up." He uncrossed his arms and struck the first pose.
The boy stared, mesmerized, at the twin fists of flame coming towards his head. At the last minute he pulled away, ducking; the heat whispered by his face, and the breeze brought hints of burned hair. Thus distracted, he wasn't ready for the foot in his stomach, pushing him to the ground. He threw out his hands to stop his breathless fall, but a flameless fist in the kidneys left him sprawling, pale cheeks burning in humiliation. The world spun around him; he pressed his forehead to the ground, squeezing his eyes shut, saying it was sweat and not tears turning the dust to mud beneath him.
"Uncle!" a lookout called, and he could hear the thump of the gang's feet as they scattered out of the courtyard, leaving only a cloud of dust and their victim as signs of their presence. Dust would settle, and the victim—
He forced himself to his hands and knees, breath sharp and painful, heart pounding in his ears but not so loud that he couldn't hear the echo of footsteps on a marble walkway. Unwilling to face his uncle in such a shape, he clambered to his feet and ducked behind the nearby tree, hiding among its roots as the footsteps grew louder.
"…just don't know," someone was saying. His uncle.
"He's—There's nothing I can do." The boy froze, eyes wide. His father. If his father and his uncle were talking—
"He's around here somewhere—you can tell him then," his uncle continued. The footsteps stopped, but he didn't dare look around to see where they were. He instead pressed himself against the tree trunk, practicing lesson number one: control comes from the breath. Closing his eyes, he willed himself to be calm, though his small limbs shook with the effort.
"Tell him what?" his father demanded. "He couldn't handle it."
"He's not here. Let's try his rooms. Perhaps if you put it forth as a mission of honor, he wouldn't realize…"
The voices faded, and a door slammed shut, but the boy couldn't stop shaking. He knew what they were talking about—he knew he was an embarrassment, he knew they knew but—Azula always lies—but his uncle—?
He ran, in the opposite direction of his relatives, away from his lessons, ran to the one place he knew he wasn't—all the things everyone said. It wasn't fair. He couldn't help being different. He tried to run fast enough to leave the shame behind, then quietly enough to hide from it, sneaking through the palace halls, then across another courtyard, ducking behind tapestries and dodging the servants and freezing against the wall whenever a noble walked by. He couldn't stand any of them, couldn't stand being inside, he hated it, and there was no one…
No one but the one. He couldn't talk to anyone. He had no friends, or at least no one he could trust, because (lesson number two) everyone wanted something from him. His sister was a firebending prodigy; they'd never been able to talk, really talk like some siblings did, like his uncle talked about talking, because she knew everyone looked down on him partially because of her, though what she thought only Agni knew. And his uncle talked, but his uncle was just a sad shell of the man he had once been, weighed down by grief and prone to rambling about things that were maybe supposed to make you feel better but just made the boy impatient. And his father—his father didn't talk to anyone. About anything. Well, anything beyond taxes and armies and other nations and feeding people during droughts. But he only talked about that stuff because he had to.
He dimly thought maybe it had been different once, maybe his father had even smiled—but then he left the palace once more and found himself at the arched entrance to the garden. The arches were red in the places the vines didn't cover; it was summer, so everything was in bloom. He could even hear a bird twittering somewhere.
Few people ever came here. His father had built it for his mother, just for her, and filled it with her favorite things. He supposed this showed that he loved her, though he couldn't remember any other sign of affection. Public displays of fondness and such were common and unseemly. He thought maybe he remembered once his mother talking to his uncle—
"I know it's formal, I know it's political, I know it's for show, but I can't help it, I love him, I love him I love him and when I know he loves me back—"
A sad laugh. "But I got my garden."
—but that's the only time he could remember hearing the "love" word passing anyone's lips. Except for here, where his mother was always waiting to hug him and tell him he wasn't worthless and it wasn't his fault his sister was better and that he was already great and needed no deeds to make him greater, even though his father and uncle were famous for war victories and his sister could easily follow in their footsteps, and he was—
It was so serene, and there was no one waiting to push his face in the dirt. The turtle ducks were there, swimming in the pond, quacking happily to see him. A boulder sat across the pond from a weeping willow that hung over the pool, shading him as he sat among its sagging branches.
"I love you," her voice whispers, kissing his latest bruise. "Heal, little one. Come here and heal."
He slowly pushed his scrapped and bleeding hands under the water's surface; the turtle ducks paddled over to investigate. Control comes from the breath. He inhaled, closing his eyes, then exhaled, repeating over and over until he opened his eyes and saw the blue water's familiar glow covering his hands.
On the rock at the other end of the pool were words:
Here lies Katara, wife of Fire Lord Zuko
Healer of the Scars of War
"I miss you," he whispered.