I. The Boy in the Iceberg
Prince Zuko has never stopped fighting. He fought to live when he was a baby, too early and too small; fought to stand beside his sister instead of behind her; fought to maintain the proper decorum when his mother disappeared, and to bear the weight of whispers; fought to enter the war room and to be heard by the Fire Lord and his generals. Now he fights for the honor of returning home triumphant, for the right to meet his father's gaze and to wear his nation's crown.
Prince Zuko has never stopped fighting. But he stopped hoping long ago.
II. The Avatar Returns
He wishes they hadn't gone out in the canoe that day. Katara dreams of Waterbending masters and saving the world, but Sokka doesn't allow himself such luxuries. Their tribe has no other warriors, and their father told him to protect what the Fire Nation had spared.
Now everything has changed, his obligations no longer straightforward. Katara is going with Aang, and their father said to take care of her, too. For a few hours he'll never let himself forget, Sokka wants to let her go on her own; to stay where he knows who he is and what to do.
III. The Southern Air Temple
Surprisingly few people know how Zuko was scarred. Within the Fire Nation, his name is taboo, his banishment an embarrassment best left unmentioned. Those who saw it happen — who heard him scream and smelled his flesh burning — keep the knowledge to themselves, too horrified or too selfish to share the story with others.
Only Zhao dares to speak of it so openly. To him the secret is a weapon: a concealed knife, seen only in flashes before it rips through Zuko's pride.
Their Agni Kai ends; Zuko wishes he was heartless enough to give Zhao a secret of his own.
IV. The Warriors of Kyoshi
"He seems like an idiot."
"He's not," says Suki. She smiles as she watches him walk away. "He's kind of sweet."
"There're plenty of nice guys here. Guys who respect you."
"They're scared of me."
"They should be." The girl laughs. "He would be, if you weren't so easy on him."
He wouldn't, she knows, and the thought widens her smile. "He learns fast. Threw me once today."
"He got lucky."
"Maybe." Suki shrugs and snaps her fan closed. "I like his ass."
"And his arms." She chuckles, imagining. "Bet he'd look good without sleeves."
V. The King of Omashu
"He'll come back." Bumi folds his arms and looks out over his city. So many years gone. "He's just laying low until Sozin tires himself out."
"You know he's not like that."
"The sages would know if he'd died."
"So where is he?"
Bumi scowls across their Pai Sho game but doesn't answer.
"It's been too long. Even if he does come back, he can't fix things on his own. He'll need resources. Support."
"We'll keep it together, Kuzon, stop worrying."
Kuzon picks up the lotus tile and rolls it between his fingers. "He'll need something to come back to."
"Okay. When's the last time you remember having it on?"
"I don't know!" she screams, hysterical now. "It took us a day to get to that prison, guards pushing me around-"
"You had it when we first got to the rig," says Aang, certain though blushing faintly.
"Then we'll go back! We have to-"
"Katara, if they got a messenger hawk out that place is swarming with Fire Navy by now."
"Mom wouldn't want you to get yourself killed for a stupid necklace!"
Aang looks back at the rig, a speck on the horizon, and is very dearly tempted.
VII. The Spirit World
Iroh is too old for pride. He lets them think whatever they want, lets them believe their walls and his laziness kept their city safe. It's more comforting than the truth: that an enemy's grief decided their fate.
A Fire Nation colonel, cut off from his men and blinded by smoke; a young Earthbender private who got lucky with his timing and his aim. Iroh remembers the man's face clearly, if not his name; how it looked as he died. The hero of Ba Sing Se, unknown and unsung.
It's easier just to let them laugh, and think themselves invincible.
VIII. Avatar Roku
Shyu was raised on his grandfather's stories. Every corridor and corner of the temple has a history, one he spent his childhood learning, the walls as familiar as his own body.
He's an old man, now; the temple no longer a place for children. He has none, himself, and never will. The world has grown cruel since Roku's time, and he couldn't bear to bring a new life into it.
When Roku's stone eyes flare to life, Shyu is torn. Between his reckless, desperate hope that things will change, and fear that his traitorous body won't live to see it.
IX. The Waterbending Scroll
It's strange, having a trail to follow, to be chasing a boy instead of a myth. He spends those first weeks figuring out how to do it.
Like many lonely children, Zuko was an avid reader. He understands how stories work, the way they're put together. "I'll save you from the pirates," he says, and even then he knows that in her story he's the villain. He tries to fill that role, to taunt and cajole and intimidate her into cooperating. But she isn't afraid of him, and in the end he just feels foolish.
The role doesn't suit him.
Sokka is more his type, really. Jet likes them hard and lean and a little difficult, wants to feel like he's won something when they're moaning underneath him. The ambush is a test, a chance to get the boy alone. In the end, Jet's disappointed — difficult he can handle, but self-righteousness is just tiresome.
"You got a guy back home?" he asks, his hand on her waist.
She blushes. "There aren't any."
"That's too bad." Both hands are holding her, now, and she doesn't move away. "Pretty girl like you."
She's young. But then, so is he.
XI. The Great Divide
"You could call it luck," he says. "Or you could call it lying."
She'd thought it all sounded a little too tidy, but still she's surprised. He's lied to her before, about being the Avatar, but she hadn't thought it a habit. She laughs, admires his cleverness, but as he turns she feels the weight of the lie in her chest.
His job is hard and there's no one there to teach him; to advise him when there's trouble. She knows he's just trying to get by.
But it weighs on her, and she hopes this is the last time.
XII. The Storm
Once his son had been removed from his sight and the echo of his screams had faded, Ozai described the terms of his banishment. Iroh knew well his brother's ruthlessness, but the immediacy of it all — and the forethought it implied — chilled his old bones.
When Zuko woke, his uncle was the one to tell him; to stay with him through the shock, and through the tears that followed.
Zuko has not cried since, though Iroh sometimes wishes he would. The years have hardened him; stolen away the boy Iroh knew. He hopes he'll live to see that boy again.
XIII. The Blue Spirit
It isn't that they fought well together, although they did. Their now-familiar dance turned in on itself, reflexes and instinct keeping their movements in sync, as if they'd trained like this for years.
It isn't the Avatar's easy trust, although that was surprising. It wasn't desperation that made him follow; kept him close. He was fearless, even as the swords crossed at his throat.
It isn't even that the Avatar saved him, dragged him into the forest instead of leaving him for Zhao.
It's his laugh that haunts Zuko that night, lying awake while the engines hum beneath him.
XIV. The Fortuneteller
Aunt Wu doesn't see the future. She sees the present with startling clarity, and it tells her all she needs to know. A passing smile that hints at unspoken love; a shift in the wind that promises rain. When the Airbender steps over her threshold, she can see his youth is deceptive. There's only one explanation, and she accepts it as she accepts every truth the world offers.
If asked, she'd say she tells people what they need to hear. She doesn't believe in fate. She helps people find their own path; to follow the destiny they choose for themselves.
XV. Bato Of The Water Tribe
Hakoda spends that first night pressed close to his friend, arms around him still as they lie in the small, bare room. The Mother Superior sees nothing unusual in this. The men of that nation pass long winters out on the ice, kept alive by each other's warmth and sane by each other's company. They're always close.
In the morning, Hakoda is unashamed as he thanks the sisters for their kindness. He bends to press his lips to Bato's forehead, whispers in his ear, and then is gone.
"His wife is dead," Bato tells her later. She nods and understands.
XVI. The Deserter
The village burns around them, but the wind is calm that day; this house will last another hour at least.
"Just a little fun," Hung says. "We earned it, right?"
Chey watches the others go inside. Moments later, he hears a woman scream.
"No," he says. He turns and walks away.
Days pass before anyone misses him. By then it's too late to follow, but they wouldn't have bothered besides; no one thinks Chey will make it on his own.
When Jeong Jeong disappears, Chey isn't surprised. He's used to being forgotten. Someday, he'll give them a reason to remember.
XVII. The Northern Air Temple
Aang believes in life. He believes in the now, in the importance of happiness, in the primacy of real, breathing people. He was raised to respect his ancestors and their traditions, but the dead are dead. They don't need him anymore.
He watches the Mechanist tear down his history, and it's hard to accept this is good. He wants to blow them all off the mountain, protect the tattered remains of this place he loved.
But that's what they are: remains. Empty rooms and forgotten paintings, of no help to anyone.
He grits his teeth and tries to look forward.
XVIII. The Waterbending Master
He would say that he hates that ship. It's ancient, decommissioned before he was born, and the first months of his voyage were spent buried under repairs. The corridor near the latrine always stinks, the stove in the kitchen belches smoke, the uneven deck plates catch their toes, the ceiling in his room leaks in bad weather, and the smell of saltwater and mildew is inescapable. He tells himself he's possessive of it only because it's his.
But as he lies on the ruined pier, bleeding and half-drowned with Uncle beside him, the tightness in his chest is grief.
XIX. The Siege Of The North, Part One
"Uncle, you don't have to say it."
But he does. He's lived long enough, seen too many young men die, to have any illusions left. Even if Zuko survives the cold, even if he stays out of sight, even if he finds the Avatar, a thousand other things might go wrong. A stray shot, a hole in the ice, a hungry molebear — it takes so little.
There are things he needs Zuko to hear; to carry with him into the dark.
"I think of you as my own," he says, his throat tight.
He prays he won't outlive another son.
XX. The Siege Of The North, Part Two
Hours pass, and he knows he's going to die.
By morning, he'll be too exhausted to Firebend, and there's nothing left to burn but their own clothes. He watches the snow fly past and thinks of warm sun and soft sand; of lush, green valleys; of afternoons in his mother's garden and catching firemoths at twilight. He remembers the rare, shy smiles of a girl he once knew. He wishes he'd seen his home again, just once.
The Avatar glows silently beside him. Sixteen years, and he's finally done something to be proud of. He hopes they tell his father.