Note: This has absolutely nothing to do with The First Cut - it's a personal project that came about through some chatting and plotting with lj user"amurderofcrows" . To be perfectly honest, I'm doing it because I have an hour before my next class and nothing to do. But there will be several sets, promise!
lj-cut text"Zuko's Story"
Though it was often offered, Zuko rarely drank - there was something about the way the world twisted and tilted that he abhorred - and even though it was Mid-Autumn festival and nearly the entire city of Ba Sing Sei was well on its way to a happy hangover in the morning, the moon was high in the sky before Iroh was able to introduce his nephew to the enticing sweetness of Earth Kingdom wine.
He looks up and watches the stars dance lazily in the sky; he looks down and watches fireflies alight from their perches on blades of grass and go spinning in front of his eyes; he stumbles into a pavilion and there are soft hands to catch him, even if the body before him wobbles tellingly back to her seat in much the way he does.
He doesn't think about it much - she is willing and, near as he can tell in the light and the haze in his head, very lovely - and he doubts she does either: they don't even exchange names before robes are being tugged and Zuko is introduced to a world he should have known at fourteen, in a golden seraglio instead of a wooden pavilion.
He thinks he apologized, but she was laughing too hard for either of them to tell - he is young and inexperienced, neither of them are particularly sober, but he traps her now-sticky hands to the floor and silences her giggles with lips and tongue, determined to get a little sticky himself before the night is over.
He was drunker than he thought: in the morning light it is obvious that her skin is not the dusky tan of the Earth people, her hair too light to even be some sort of mix - and when she rolls over and blinks at him, covered only by the green robes he was wearing last night, her eyes dart to the blue leather that lies across his lap and Zuko discovers how dark a blush can make a Water Tribe girl's face.
They are far too awkward and young for this - she keeps trying to speak and coming up with nothing, he doesn't want to speak at all, but when his uncle walks by shouting his name, Zuko presses her down to the floor of the pavilion to hide and stares into startled blue eyes when her whispering lips brush his.
He doesn't know why she does it and is hesitant to think on it-- still, when dark fingers curl around his arms and her mouth is wet and body soft beneath his, a nagging voice notes that the Avatar and his team rarely have the chance for i true /i companionship, outside each other.
Many thoughts race through his head - i his uncle is calling, the Avatar will be looking for her, he slept more soundly curled around her than he has since the Fire Empress disappeared /i - but Zuko ignores them all, repaying her in a sudden kiss, feeling her body relax against his, drinking in the taste of a Waterbender, before pushing her away from him and fleeing comfort and uncle both.
"You were out late last night," his uncle notes, and Zuko grunts in reply; "Blue looks good on you," his uncle adds and Zuko startles at the leather thong still tied to his wrist, blushing fiercely as Iroh laughs.
He's been serving tea long enough now that Zuko doesn't need to spend too much time thinking on it - boil the water, steep the leaves, serve the cups on saucers, and his mind has plenty of time to wander back to vague memories of brown and blue.
It happens entirely too fast: a terrible roar that vibrates all the way from the upper level to their tiny tea shop; a great, flying beast up high in the air; a whip of a braid, dark against the clouds, and when on-lookers blame the tea pot Zuko drops on astonishment, they are only half right.
Iroh knows him far too well - two days after a broken tea pot is replaced, his nephew unfolds a story of wine, Fire, and Water.
They serve tea and business only improves; more refugees pour in and they are the only ones to notice the shift from Earth Kingdom peasants to Fire Nation soldiers.
The first day a refugee drops his tea cup to salute Iroh is their last day in Ba Sing Sei.
They travel; news of the Avatar becomes more frequent; they hear of marching troops on both sides and Zuko fingers blue leather in his pocket, thinking of the last night he slept well and comforted.
Zuko agrees - Yes, she i is /i a nice girl, Uncle - but does nothing; he met a nice girl in Ba Sing Sei who gave him his first kiss, but he misses the drunken satisfaction of the girl who gave him his first-- other things.
In this new town they've taken residence in, bonfires light up the river every night (some month-long festival that worships some peasant god or another) - Zuko watches from the roof occasionally, but the flames he sees shine gold, alight before a lord's knot.
In some matters, Zuko was incredibly observant - he could not don the mask of the Blue Spirit otherwise - but he is not omniscient; still, weeks before news reaches them, he wakes in the middle of the night, sweat-soaked and breathless, sure he's felt the final breath of his nation's hundred year reign.
A little part of both Firebenders dies when they receive the message: Iroh lost his desire to rule with the death of his son, Zuko lost the desire to go home when gaining his father's respect became impossible.
A Water Tribe scholar meets them as soon as they step off the boat, and Zuko is surprised to be the only one scowling - Sokka leads them through the city with Kyoshi warriors and Fire Nation guards, talking avidly with Iroh while Zuko looks on a home he barely remembers.
The question immediately puts the peasant, the scholar, on the defensive, and Zuko looks away even before Sokka answers, a scowl and a growl of, "She isn't i here /i ."
"It was stupid - of course she wouldn't stay with her precious i Avatar /i gone."
Sokka is startled but Zuko isn't when Iroh's first action as Fire Lord is to hold a joint funeral for both Ozai and the Avatar - one in honor of his younger brother, the other in honor of a boy who died too young, too soon.
Iroh stands in the Fire Lord's chambers, chambers Zuko never saw lest his father was away - he gets his first taste of pity from the giver's perspective, watching Iroh's face as he looks over Ozai's sparse belongings.
It is days before Zuko puts on the crown offered to him - it has been years since he was a crown prince of the Fire Nation, and never again will he be anything but the 'honorary' heir of the Fire Lord.
The Kyoshi warriors leave first; Sokka lingers for a few days, making plans to meet Fire scholars at a later date; Zuko overhears a conversation between peasant and Fire Lord, Iroh questioning the conditions of the South; Sokka closes the conversation with a single, quiet comment; "Better than ever - we're being left alone."
Zuko stands on the balcony that connects to his bedroom, tilting his face to the sun - after a meeting that took up the entire morning on increasing the output of lotus tiles to the surrounding nations, it is still a blessing to be able to stand in full view of his people, not oceans away behind an apron and a wall.
They never say it outloud, but neither uncle nor brother shed a tear at the funeral of Princess Azula - both are too concerned with the method she was delivered, her body covered head to toe in ice.
Not everyone is pleased - some say the Dragon of the West has lost his spark by pulling troops back, by abandoning a hundred-year-war to unite the world beneath the Fire Nation's flag - Zuko watches his uncle stand before the window that faces the city - fearless, or just beyond fear?
Lu Ten's birthday comes and goes: Iroh disappears for the day while Zuko stays in the palace, fingering a crown he was never meant to wear.
Iroh leaves mounds of papers on his writing desk - Zuko flips through the first one before throwing them all away; neither the current, nor the last Fire Lord ever had a queen and he refuses to read over i applications /i for his heart.
His vision is fading; healers do all they can for it, but Zuko is not optimistic - he continues his training as he always did, only now he does it blindfolded.
Sokka returns on and off for various reasons - he and the crown prince speak civilly, even enjoy the other's presence - but while Sokka stays in the palace during his visits, Zuko is not invited to the South and does not ever ask to be.
"Uncle, we are not on the ship anymore and music nights--" "--will be just as much good for the servants as they were for the sailors, Prince Zuko."
Walking the halls of the palace, Zuko is surprised to see two small children (sons of noblemen, no doubt) racing toward him - but it is Iroh who is stunned later, when the Commissioner's boys are seen tearing through the garden with the crown prince laughing close behind.
"Just look at the girl, Zuko, what could it h--" "Uncle, i please /i ."
Sokka is back - "Jeez, you need a haircut" - and Zuko is surprised - "And you're in dire need of a shave - is that a porcugopher on your chin?" - they grin and smirk and sometimes even laugh, but there is a wall there that the Tribesman has constructed, and no amount of years in their companionship will allow Zuko past it.
They are in the library: Sokka is looking through scrolls on mechanics, Zuko is researching political movements - he mentions, 'offhand,' that Sokka's family is as welcome as he is in the Fire Nation and tries to hide his confusion when the Tribesman's reaction is sad eyes and a quiet response of, "Maybe."
"Zuko, it was four years ago - either write to the Waterbender yourself or please start paying attention to the ladies here!"
He has never answered well to challenges - the slightest insult could result in Agni Kai - so when his uncle gives him the ultimatum, Zuko puts his pride over his heart: sure, Iroh is stunned by his nephew's sudden decision, but now he has a long boat ride to look forward to and weeks of worrying before they reach the Southern Tribe.
"Knock it off, Jee," Zuko says and shares the lieutenant's smirk - at fourteen he could never get the man to salute him, and at twenty he can't get him to stop.
The men confer - most of them were on the prince's first ship and they regale the new sailors with their stories; Music Night is organized without Zuko's permission and is done down in the boiler room to avoid detection.
They are caught - "I do have a vent in my room, just like the rest of you" - and the sailors look up at the prince where he stands at the top of the stairs, unsure; he is power and sternness, still in his armor with his hands on his hips and scowling at them all - but when he cracks a smirk and informs them the acoustics are far more favorable on deck, some follow him upstairs with laughter - the others with prayers of thanks for mercy granted.
Zuko is questioned once about the true purpose of the mission - it is Jee who asks, of course, as the man has become a close companion on the voyage, but he is not yet close enough that the prince feels comfortable baring his heart and his foolishness.
He feels awkward on the ship sometimes, though it is only slightly bigger than the one he traveled in for years - standing on the bridge and overlooking the water, Zuko catches the reflection of the empty Pai Sho board behind him and knows exactly what is missing.
"I think we've gone too far - it didn't take nearly this long last time-- in fact, I'm certain we should have started heading East an hour ago and we're still going South, are you su--" "My prince, with all due respect, please, let me do this."
Years ago, he drove his ship through the wall of their village - today, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation leaves his transportation a mile from their settlement, approaching a new wall of stone (not snow) with only himself and two guards.
There must be water in the stone, he realizes, as a door opens seamlessly from the stone to reveal young Waterbenders; Sokka is not here, but he recognizes the old woman that approaches him, putting his hands together and bowing to her - the real shock is when he straightens to find her bowing back.
The village is so much larger now, but still small by the standards of his people, and children are underfoot everywhere (the future of a people nearly lost) - Kana offers him jerky and he politely declines - he didn't come all this way for the seal.
She is as lovely as she ever was with only small differences to mark the passage of time - more curves beneath her parka, less naivete in her eyes, that complex braid traded for a simple style, hair pulled back at the temples with leather; he smiles and assumes that's why she looks so shocked, ignoring the children jumping at her feet, or the one in her arms that tugs on her hair.
(Bonus!) 51. Surprise
There is something all-together satisfying about thoroughly shocking someone else - Zuko is practically grinning as he looks at her, opening his mouth to tell her one of the many lines rehearsed in the past weeks-- but Katara wins when the child in her arms turns to look at him with wide gold eyes, pointing at him with a mittened hand and proclaiming, "Daddy!"