Two hours after the passing of sundown, the Fire Nation capital was full of life and a sense of prominence. The highest of political figures had gather inside of the palace walls for one of the most vital, significant events that could take place during their lifetime: The Twilight Ball that followed the annual Fire Festival, celebrating the most remarkable people of the Fire Nation's past and present. Of course, to all who received an invitation, the ball was seen as only a rare chance to gain the higher government's recognitions, a career advancement of sorts. Agni bless those who were even given an opportunity to mingle with the royal family, least of all the Firelord.
Men dressed in their newly fitted and rather uncomfortable robes, embroidered in gold and lined in the finest woven silk. They stood in clusters along the red marble walls, discussing their own incredible accomplishments, boosting their ego all the more, while trying to catch the eye of the higher ranking officials. Military advancements were often discussed and promoted through the latest of technology or the large payments offered by 'charitable' individuals for the sake of soon prevailing through the time of warfare. Women were dismissed to the side, wearing their rigid dresses and waist-firming sashes. They sat at the elegantly dressed dining tables, whispering to each other behind their fans, observing the alien behavior of the men and commenting on their husbands' habits and faults.
There were not many children present, as children could be an easy embarrassment. The youngest present were around the ages of thirteen or twelve, already trained in excruciating detail the ways of the supreme class of citizens. While of course all from the Fire Nation were considered superior to any other society, the more money in your pockets, the farther you could worm your way into the best of the best. Young ladies would smile and cast flirtatious gazes at the young men, who would catch their eyes, then turn away quickly in caution. To be reeled in so easily was a sign of weakness, as taught by their fathers.
The Firelord himself sat at the elaborated head of the cleared dining table, speaking exclusively to the families of his trusted council, retaining a stern face that was appallingly frightening to those who were not used to his calculating gaze. The beloved brother of the Firelord, retired General Iroh, sat in the opposing corner of the room, making light jokes to the lesser of officials. Iroh's eighteen year old son, Lu Ten, was walking around the room, talking amiably with women, flashy his dazzling smile wherever he gazed. There was certainly much to be said about that young man, whether it concern his dashing good looks (inherited from his father of course), his overwhelming intelligence (also inherited from his father), his professional fighting skills (definitely inherited from his father), or his charming way with the ladies (...).
Indeed everyone about the palace had found something mildly interesting to do, or some form of a goal to accomplish. Even young twelve year old Azula, the Firelord's favored child, had been forced to abandon her scrolls and join in the celebration. No doubt she was off manipulating one soul or another in her scheming ways. Yet, there was one person whose presence remained silent and whose aura seemed to be far less than joyful. Fourteen year old Prince Zuko stood on the second-level balcony, extending over the elegant rose gardens below that twinkled in sight of the merriment.
Hearing the sound of music echo in the plaza beneath him, the teen sighed, fiddling with the waistline sash of his robes. Pulling his dark hair from his eyes, he knew that soon the speeches would start, which he must be present for. Retaining an active image was relevant to his reputation... or so he was told. Preparing to enter the halls once again, he was halted by a sight that brought a small smile to his lips. His older cousin had somehow managed to woo a young maiden into a walk along the gardens with him. Zuko leaned against the balcony column and raised an eyebrow at the couple. It wouldn't last long... As if on cue, Lu Ten leaned in to whisper in the girl's ear, before receiving a resounding slap on the cheek and a rambling of forceful cries.
"Why, I never!" The girl stalked off, leaving Lu Ten to stammer apologies at the dust settling underneath his feet. Sure Lu Ten was great at catching the fish in the net, but when it came to reeling them in... That was another thing he had inherited from his father. Zuko allowed a laugh to escape his throat, not going unheard by the flustered man below.
"Zuko, you'd better shut up if you value your life!" A whisper was hissed at him, as Lu Ten began to climb the ivy branches against the wall. Zuko rolled his eyes and looked around. What an idiot. Anyone could see him, and in his best robes too...
"Didn't feel like taking the stairs today?" he asked politely as the older teen swung his legs over the balcony.
"And swim through a sea of stuck-up, upper-class folks? I think not." He smiled a toothy grin before seating himself at the edge of the railing, eying the sky skeptically. There wasn't a star in sight due to the pollution of the city. Even the full moon was looking a bit hazy.
Zuko smiled warmly back at him, wrapping his arms around his chest as the cool night's breeze swept through the air. Through all of his time spent with Lu Ten, he had never quite understood why his older cousin had never turned into one of those stuck-up, power-hungry jerks. Perhaps it was all the time he spent with Iroh, who was the farthest man from a conceited attitude that one could ever meet.
"Besides, it's far more fun climbing up walls like some sort of ninja. You know how much I like to have fun," he continued still focusing on the night sky. Turning to study his younger cousin he stated, "You don't look like you're having the best of times, Prince Zuko. Why don't you go ask some girl to dance or something? You're a handsome guy, I could show you a few moves!"
Zuko simply shrugged and took a step forward, leaning up against the railing. He laid his head on his crossed arms and sighed deeply with boredom. "You know I hate things like this, cousin. I know its part of being a royal-" He shook his head in loss of thought.
Lu Ten frowned slightly before saying, "You need to get out more... Get a girlfriend or something."
"What's the point?" he rejected, turning to face the older teen in sheer bewilderment. "Father is just going to arrange a marriage for me."
Accompanied by a roll of the eyes, the other replied, "It's not about finding a lifelong partner, it's about getting a little attention. You're a prince, anyone would want a chance to date you. Perhaps you'll even get a little... extra loving?" He winked causing Zuko to genuinely blush and turn away.
"I guess I just haven't found anyone who seems remotely compatible enough."
Lu Ten couldn't argue with that, for the young ladies with whom they were acquainted with were all the same. Flirty, talkative, and interested in the gold. He smiled at the younger boy, feeling an extreme sense of pride. Zuko would grow up to have a noble heart, far greater than his own.
Zuko cursed suddenly before leaping up from his position swiftly, practically knocking Lu Ten over the ledge. "What is it?" He grunted pulling himself to a standing position.
"The music stopped," he replied, fashioning his sash firmly around his waist.
"Shit! Uncle Ozai is gonna kill us!" He stammered, brushing his hair through with his fingers. "If we're late for the speeches again-"
"He can't kill you, you're not his son!" Zuko yelled, already clambering down the steps. "Hurry up!"
"Coming, coming," Lu Ten muttered to himself, brushing stray leaves from his vestments. It was going to be a long, dreary night.
Fortunately, the Firelord did not see the two entering the dining chambers tardy and out of breath. However, Iroh did happen to notice, as he grabbed the two by the collars as they attempted to slip by him. After two hours of torturous speech-giving and a long, threatening lecture provided by Iroh about what Ozai would have done had he noted the two of them waltzing in, Zuko was ready to jump of the nearest cliff if it saved him from another sermon.
The speeches and admiration had finally settled to a close and the music had begun again, this time with a softer tone. Men finally greeted their wives, inviting them to dance in the traditional ballroom style that had been taught for generations upon generations. The couples swayed about the room elegantly, but lacking a certain sparkle that tended to be imagined by young people growing up. Losing interest immediately, Zuko slithered up the stairs and up to his room, greeted by the sight of his sister kneeling in the middle of the deserted passage. Azula was giggling alongside one of her friends, Ty Lee perhaps? Or Mai... He never cared to keep their names straight. As he approaching the two, Azula shushed the other, whose sullen indifference immediately shifted and a slight flush appeared on her face. Hm. They must be planning something again. As long as it doesn't affect me.
Zuko suspiciously eyed them before passing by the two preteen girls without a second glance. He trotted into his room and locked the door automatically. Groaning, he stripped off his robes carefully and hung them up neatly in his closet. He ran his hands through his long ponytail, before allowing himself the luxury of untying it. Sighing deeply in appreciation, he moved his head from side to side, no longer feeling as though it was being pulled back by a torture device. His dark hair spilt neatly into a side part, hanging lazily over one eye. Zuko shook his head at his reflection. I need a haircut... I look like an idiot with my hair drooping over half my face. Convinced that no one would miss his absence at the ball, he pulled on a plain red tunic and grabbed his cloak. Judging by the moon's position, it was around eleven o' clock and the ceremony ended at twelve. He smiled to himself, knowing it was the perfect time to take a stroll around the city.
Pulling a "Lu Ten", Zuko shimmied down the column outside of his bedroom window with ease, no doubt from countless practice runs. Running in the shadows of the deserted gardens, he slunk towards the main gate where the guards were unmercifully stationed, a least one every thirty yards, dimly illuminating a trivial radius. The abandoned ambassadorial center was just a ways past the high-standing gate... He would be safe past the silhouette of the large building. Making an angle for the shadows of the desolate structure, he took a deep breath, mimicking tricks his older cousin had graciously taught him. Zuko leapt and climbed over the spiral iron fence soundlessly and with only a moment's hesitation, sprinted to the safety of the darkness. By the fourth tread, his efforts were proved valiant, but hopeless. Crash! His body convulsed and tensed with adrenaline when he heard the sound of shattering glass beneath his feet, accompanied by a sharp pang shooting straight up his lower leg. He froze, staring down at an empty, dissected whiskey bottle caught between him and a rock in the pavement. D-Damn guards, drinking on the job.
"Whozere?" A disgruntled voice shouted, wheezing and straining to reach clarity.
"You! Stop right there!" Another voice shouted farther down the line, this one more sober and far more intimidating.
Pulling his hood over his head, Zuko recovered from his shock and forced himself to keep moving. Hearing the staggering footsteps behind him falter, he cut a left and made for the narrow alleyway that had 'saved his life' on two other occasions. Half of him was relieved that the soldiers had not caught up with him, whilst the other half was purely disgusted at the little protection the royal family was trusted into. Calming his hammering heart, Zuko melted back into the streets, where the peasantry was still cleaning up from the festival activities. It certainly was interesting to see what the lower class thought of as enjoyment versus the noble bloods. He would never tell, but he had always had much more fun throwing knives at water balloons than he did learning how to ballroom dance.
Streamers and banners hung from the house rooftops, complimenting the confetti littering streets. Drunken men swayed around the streets, no doubt most of them hardly remembering what it was the country was celebrating. "Ling! Ling!" A chubby mother coaxed her son into the house. "It's time for bed darling!"
"Awww, mom, can't I stay up just for a little while?" A small boy pouted, trudging past Zuko and to the house already in defeat.
"You know you have school in the morning," the mother sighed, ushering the boy into the house softly. Gazing in Zuko's direction, the mother smiled warmly at him. Not realizing he had been staring at the scene, he blushed and smiled back shyly. Smiling... People are always smiling here.
Flipping his hood back with a lazy flick of the wrist, he continued down the street, taking in the vibrant post festival colors and the air heavy with expensive incense. Zuko walked quickly and quietly for a good twenty minuets, completely ignoring the cuts in his foot the glass had made. The wound would no doubt be infected by dawn, but he liked to consider it punishment for his reckless behavior. He kept his head down, avoiding any eye contact with those whose status was less than sober. Reaching the edge of the questionable area of town, a young prostitute or two winked flirtatiously at him. He declined with a polite incline of the head, walking swiftly to his destination.
Reaching his target he sighed with relief. Just in time too... Before him stood the Itsuki Bridge, the tallest of bridges dwelling in the Fire Nation capital, crossing over the merchant's tributary. Stalking over to the pinnacle of the overpass, he bypassed a young teen couple laughing and holding hands, delirious to all but each other. Zuko sighed inwardly, eying the pair as they shared a chaste kiss under the moonlight, while the environment around them was all but virtuous... It was remarkable. He leapt onto the ledge of the bridge and seated himself, lazily leaning against the sturdy, slightly rusted pillar. He clutched his cloak tighter to him, suppressing his mild inner exhilaration. After only half a minute, cheers could be heard half a mile away, followed by a deafening bang from above: The midnight fireworks had begun.
Zuko sat contently, watching the sky illuminate into bright colors of red and gold sweeping through the dark heavens. The sparks erupted into spiraling designs, crossing and fading into intricate patterns and dazzling shapes. Surely the display had been engineered in favor of appearance for hours on end, only to have it combust into the air within a mere matter of moments. They had even managed to pull off a realistic firework version of Roku's dragon this year. That was impressive. He forgot for a while that he was breaking his code of honor, watching the finale elucidate the night sky. A smell similar to that of singed rubber tainted the air heavily as the last firework was lit and the cheers of the city finally died down.
The teen stood from his spot and nodded approvingly. Beats ballroom dancing anytime. Ironically, it was impossible to get a view like that from the palace. With a sigh, he knew that his time in the city had come to a close. Preparing to step down from the bridge railing, a gruff voice froze his blood. "Hey you! On the bridge!"
How did they find me? Spinning around, he saw the guards from the palace staring him down in anger. Don't run Zuko. It'll only make you look guilty. One of the guards unsheathed his sword and charged at him menacingly. Run you idiot! You already look guilty! Zuko sprinted down the opposite side of the bridge, keeping tabs on the echoing footsteps behind him. He cursed silently as he heard the footsteps gaining on him. The wounds in his foot weren't helping either. Please don't let them recognize me! Please, Avatar Roku help me.
He made it safely to the other side of the bridge, weaving in and out through the remaining crowds in the streets. There wasn't much of a chance of keeping this up when... No! He felt a grip tighten around his wrist and jerk him backwards. So much for that. His heart jumped to his throat and a hand connected with his mouth, silencing him firmly. He shuddered mutely in pain as the grip tightened and he was thrown back into a rigid stone wall. I'm done for. Please let my sins be forgiven! I'm sorry for ditching the palace, I'm sorry for indirectly disobeying my father, I'm sorry for punching Lu Ten last month, I'm sorry for convincing Azula there was a bug in her soup for my amusement, I'm sorry for not following through with my studies, and I'm really really really sorry for making up excuses to Uncle so I wouldn't have to drink tea with him!
Zuko felt a semi-muscular body press up against him, pinning him to the wall thoroughly. "Just stay quiet," A soft, warm voice brushed the inside of his ear. "They can't find us here." Trying desperately to calm his hammering heart, Zuko fluttered open his eyes, pondering when he had closed them in the first place. Focusing his eyes in the darkness, he found himself staring into two chocolate brown eyes, gleaming against the dim streetlights. Calming down slowly, Zuko realized that while the figure against him was powerfully built, it was also thin and not yet that of a full grown man's. The grip around him slowly softened and the pressure around him was released. The other teen stepped back, allowing Zuko to recover.
Still panting deeply, he stared down his savior with great interest, observing him as deeply as he could within the shadows. Before him stood a young man, perhaps three or four inches taller than him, with black hair tousled messily and a drawn face that was slightly drained of his youth. However, his eyes sparkled with amusement, adding to his gentle, kind aura. The stranger was tall, but with a perfectly proportioned body that seemed to have escaped the awkwardness of late teen years. There was no doubt in Zuko's mind that this guy already had it made with the ladies.
"You... Thank you," Zuko finally breathed out softly, as though afraid to break the silence. Not knowing what else to say, he eyed his surroundings, realizing they were in some sort of cramped, enclosed passageway.
The new arrival smiled at the younger man before turning to the side and carefully creeping towards the opening of the enclosed corridor. He eyed the outside streets and sighed with relief. "They passed us up," he said with reprieve, turning back to face Zuko. The young man had a beautiful voice, as though doused in honey. "They might come back. It would be safer for us to wait here for a while until the excitement dies down." As he said this, he slid down and sat cross-legged against the wall, Zuko following the other's example in silent agreement.
"I'm Takumi by the way," the older teen added after a brief silence, extending his hand out towards him. "But you can call me Taki."
"Kazuki," Zuko replied automatically, using his prepared alias. He shook hands with Taki, trying to tilt his head so his hair would flip more over his face.
"Kazuki." He closed his eyes as though trying to remember something. "'Kazu' meaning harmony and 'ki' meaning..." His voice faltered, inviting the boy to finish his remark.
"Radiance," Zuko supplied, brushing over his knowledge of the ancient language. "Or hope, whichever way you look at it." He laughed suddenly, causing the stranger to smile freely at him. "Your name seems far more fitting. It means skilled, correct?"
Taki nodded proudly, resting his forearms against his legs comfortably. "My parents named me that in hopes I might bring them honor with my multiple skills. As a matter of fact, they were pretty disappointed."
Zuko laughed once more in return, watching the other's eyes light up cheerfully. "The way you helped me escape those guards was pretty skillful. Why didn't they see us when they passed by?"
The older teen leaned in closer, as though ready to tell an important secret. "The way the light reflects in the streets, this passageway can only be seen from a ninety degree angle. To them, it looked like you disappeared into thin air." His tone of voice was of utmost amusement, easily contagious to any within his presence. Zuko knew almost immediately that he could be friends with this agreeable young man.
"How convenient... Thank you for your help." Zuko's eyes couldn't help but travel the figure of the other's body, noting that he was rather pale and thin for his age and couldn't possibly have been trained in the fighting arts.
Taki shrugged and ginned, a mischievous glint sparkling in his eyes. "You're not the only one who's ever been on the run from the government's soldiers. So what did you do?"
Zuko hesitated before responding indifferently, "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." There was certainly no reason to elaborate when he didn't have an appropriate lie in place. It seemed almost sad that he based what he said to those outside of the palace on preconceived stories.
"That bad, huh?" The other responded with a sly smirk, fraying Zuko's nerves. He should have been more worried about getting home, but he was too intrigued by this mysterious stranger. "Ah well, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
"What about you?" Zuko challenged, clutching his cloak closer to him defensively. "You sure know your way around."
Taki's eyes darkened, but his smile remained true. "It's nothing excessively interesting... Trust me."
Zuko nodded, silently respecting the man's privacy. After a moment he struck at conversation again. "Do you live around here?"
"I live about a block away, but I simply had to come down here and watch the fireworks. I do it almost every year. In fact..." Taki eyed the other boy suspiciously. "Have you been down here before? I seem to remember you from somewhere."
Zuko forced away the lump in his throat, trying to compose his voice. "Ye-Yeah I come down to the bridge every year to watch the display. I live a good twenty or thirty minutes away though." Certainly this young man wouldn't treat him with such normalcy if he knew Zuko's genuine heritage.
"Wow," Taki said in awe, shaking his head. "You must really like fireworks. But you really shouldn't be out here by yourself, you know. Especially this late at night and in this part of town."
Although Zuko understood that the man hadn't meant to sound motherly, the young teen groaned in reply. "Come on, I've had about three lectures already tonight. I'm probably going to get another one, so save me some trouble, hmm?"
"Sorry. You seem like a nice, innocent guy that's all. It'd be a shame if a pretty boy like you were killed, arrested, or say, raped."
"Speak for yourself, pretty boy," Zuko snapped back with a smirk, sensing the humor in the other's voice.
Taki's eyes widened before replying, "No, no that's not what I meant at all. I don't mean you're a good-looking snob! I mean you're pretty."
Zuko raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?" This guy is bizarre. Never before had Zuko been told he was 'pretty', although it slightly warmed his heart in a strange sort of way.
"Especially around the eyes," Taki continued on, ignoring him. "Your eyes are really nice. And your stature is really thin, perhaps a bit feminine. Are you sure you're a boy?" He leaned in closer, studying Zuko's figure closely.
Shocked at Taki's words, for no one had ever really spoken to him like that, Zuko replied numbly, "Yes... yes I'm sure." Subconsciously, he pulled the edges of his cloak even tighter to him, as though trying to hide his apparent femininity. I'm a boy, he reassured himself. I'm fairly sure. At least, I was this morning.
"I'm sorry," he laughed at Zuko's reaction. "I can be a little forward sometimes. It's a compliment, really it is."
"Well... Thanks. You're... not so bad looking either," he replied awkwardly. 'You're not so bad looking either?' Way to dish out the compliments, you idiot! After scolding himself, his eyes widened for a moment before he swore under his breath. "Do you know what time it is?" he asked Taki quickly, trying to calm the knots in his stomach.
He looked surprised at the question, but didn't object. "It's probably between one and two in the morning."
The entirety of his actions finally hit Zuko and he jumped up with a gasp. "I should have been home already. If anyone finds out I'm gone..." He left the sentence hanging, practically unaware that he had said it. "I'm sorry, I have to go."
Taki nodded understandingly. "Do you want an escort home?" he asked almost hopefully, tilting his head in a cute sort of questioning manner.
"No, no. I'll be fine thank you," he replied politely, preparing to leave. Checking the street for guards, he turned back to Taki, whose eyes were downcast and seemingly disappointed. He must not get to hang out with anyone his age... Like me. Zuko's memory flashed to all of the times when Lu Ten was training or studying, leaving him alone and lonely. "I'll be back around this part of town tomorrow night," he finally offered hesitantly. "Would you like to hang out, maybe grab something to eat? I'd like to pay you back for your kindness."
Taki frowned at the younger boy, who in turn had a tight knot in his stomach. Great. He just pitied me. He doesn't want to hang out with me. Agni, he must think I'm a loser now. Zuko went on this inner rampage for a few seconds before he noticed Taki's frown had shifted into a delighted smile.
"Of course! I'd love that!" He looked overly excited, surprising Zuko with his enthusiasm. "There's a great ramen place down the street, Asahi it's called. I work there actually."
"I've seen it," Zuko said with a nod. His heart skipped a beat, knowing that he'd perhaps made a real friend. "Can I meet you there in the evening?"
"Perfect," Taki proclaimed with a smile, his eyes shining with a friendly aura. "Now, don't you have to go?"
"Damn!" he swore out loud, racing down the street in haste. "Thanks for everything Takumi!" he called over his shoulder, trying not to trip as he darted down the street.
Taki smiled, watching the younger man race down the street. Interesting.
Zuko laughed to himself as he ran quickly back home. Nice guy.
Little did either teenager know, that their meeting had changed the course of their lives forever.