Around the hundredth time I watched "The Ember Island Players," this happened.
It's Only a Play
It was surreal.
Aang had described to her once what it was like being in the Spirit World and stumbling across his own body on the physical plane; she imagined this was the closest she would ever come to knowing the feeling. Seeing someone run around on a stage that was made up in poor imitation of the South Pole, dressing like she had dressed, saying things that she had said…well, very nearly anyway. Deep flaws aside, the play was like some sort of out-of-body experience.
Katara watched in disgust as the actress portraying her sobbed compulsively until the only coherent word she could choke out was hope. How they had managed to warp her only means of consolation into such a big joke was disturbing to her. The only thing that had given her just enough peace to drift off to sleep some nights and kept the occasionally overpowering homesickness at bay was laughable?
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. This couldn't be how the others saw her, could it? As a defenseless, weepy mess who clung to a word like a literal lifeline? Katara had to admit, she was involuntarily drawing similarities between a few choice recollections and what was happening on stage, no matter how overdramatized a version it was. She shook her head to clear it, coming to the conclusion that she was far more likely to be angry at what she was watching than self-conscious. That thought was only cemented as actress-her starting weeping again for some inexplicable reason.
Still, reliving the past like this was a little embarrassing. Events she had thought were long behind her with few or no witnesses were somehow being drudged up again. Not to mention being entirely misconstrued. Katara edged slightly away from Zuko, positive that he was blushing as hard as she was without even looking at him.
It was also around that time, close to the end of the second act, when Aang stood and took off up the aisle, going straight out the exit without looking back.
Apparently she wasn't the only one who thought this play was getting one too many things wrong.
At first, the whole thing was just kind of insulting, but Sokka was more than willing to let it slide because it was also pretty darn hilarious. After all, coming to see this play had been his idea. He could take a few pathetic jabs to his ego and the sorry sense of humor the writer had given his character. Besides, the guy playing Zuko was nailing the role, and that alone was more than making up for the rough spots.
But he had forgotten what this was leading up to. Forgotten, or maybe he just hadn't expected to see so many…details.
Before he knew what was happening, Yue's last moments of life were playing out. It was like he had been punched in the stomach. Sure, it was in the wrong place and the woman who was supposed to be Yue was at best a caricature of the real person, but that didn't do much to soften the blow. Sokka couldn't stop it when the sting of tears came, but he didn't dare draw attention to it by wiping them away. He couldn't have even if he wanted to anyway because he didn't seem to be able to look away from the stage.
There it was for everyone to see, him losing the first girl he ever loved—and they were mocking it. Actor-him hadn't seen fit to quit cracking terrible puns even then, and Yue's sacrifice was reduced to a ten-second satire complete with a shower of glitter and a cardboard cutout of the moon. The final private exchange which still brought Sokka unimaginable pain was being put on display for entertainment.
"You never told me you made out with the Moon Spirit," he heard Suki whisper with a giggle from beside him.
He couldn't blame her for laughing. For someone who hadn't been there, the play was making the whole incident look far too ridiculous to feel sad at all. But he couldn't turn to face her. Even so grossly distorted, the scene was bringing up excruciating memories that he couldn't just ignore. So Sokka did what he did best.
"Shhh!" he hissed in an exaggerated way, as if he found it funny too and was only pretending to be moved. "I'm trying to watch!" Sokka pressed his finger up against her lips to seal the impression that he was only teasing.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Suki turn from him and fold her arms crossly, but he was too busy trying to get a grip on himself to do anything about it. The curtain was falling for a change of setting, and after a minute it rose again to reveal what looked like a striped blue fish head. Try as he might to focus on what he eventually realized was Aang's fight as what he and the others had come to dub the Koi-monster, it was useless. When he thought everyone's attention was completely absorbed on the play, Sokka lifted his hand to his face and quickly scrubbed away the wetness in his eyes.
Barely a second after he was confident his face wouldn't give him away, he felt his hand being drawn out of his lap and enveloped by slim, warm fingers. Suki wrapped her hand around his and applied a steady pressure that left no question of her seeing right past his front.
Zuko had thought there could be nothing worse than seeing Uncle Iroh wasting away in the Fire Nation's prison like a common thief and to know that it was his own doing, but it was like this play was setting out to prove him wrong.
Every time actor-him insulted or lashed out with something disrespectful to actor-Uncle, he cringed. Unlike the many other things that had been so very inaccurate in this reproduction, Zuko's behavior towards him hit so close to the truth, it was hard to watch. Maybe he hadn't actually ever said those exact words, but the meaning was there.
And it was painful to see from this point of view.
How could he have ever been so blind as to treat the last bit of real family left to him and who truly loved him so horribly?
It only got worse as the play went on. When it finally came to that fateful decision of choosing his sister or Uncle, he tensed his shoulders. He felt like a child hoping for a different, better ending to a bad bedtime story he'd heard before, and somehow, maybe just by wishing hard enough, it would change this time around.
Of course, it didn't, and Zuko looked on as he betrayed his uncle for a second time.
He gripped the railing in front of him until his knuckles turned white. He had turned his back on Iroh, on all the patient guidance he had given him, all the advice, all the years he had willingly spent in exile alongside him looking after Zuko as a father would a son.
How could he?
Maybe he was more like his father and Azula than he thought.
Toph told him during intermission that all Iroh had ever wanted was for him to break free of the hold his father had over his life and to make his own destiny. For him to be happy. She had meant it to be comforting, and it was, but at the same time, it made him feel an even deeper sense of shame. Uncle had always trusted him and wanted what was best for him. He didn't deserve any of it.
The play had caught up to the present, but Zuko heard Suki tell Sokka there was more. He stayed in his seat, waiting to see what exactly was going to happen next according to the Ember Island Players.
They jumped ahead to the day of Sozin's Comet, and he saw their ragtag group as rendered by the actors raid the palace. Actor-him cornered actress-Azula and they began an Agni Kai. That was not too far from what he believed could very well come to pass. In fact, he counted on personally dealing with Azula while Aang took on his father.
Suddenly, he saw a trail of paper flames approaching actor-him and engulf him completely until he was out of sight. The echoes of his faked screams bounced off the walls.
Zuko's eyes widened in shock. He died.
The audience burst into enthusiastic clapping as "he" breathed his last. Zuko felt more than saw the others whip around to look at him the moment it happened.
Why this outcome of the duel shook him so much he didn't know. The playwright was from the Fire Nation—it was not as if there was ever going to be an ending where he, the traitorous crown prince, beat their loyal princess. Seeing himself killed in a war that was scarcely days from coming to a head in a way that was entirely all too possible was also horrifying, but that wasn't what made it so bad either. It took him a second more to place it.
All the members of the audience—citizens of the Fire Nation every one—were on their feet, cheering, whistling, and laughing at his death.
He sat frozen, his breathing fast and shallow. Their reaction said more about what they thought of him than words ever could. This was what Zuko had become to his own people. Nothing more than a loose end to be tied up, an example of poetic justice for forsaking the throne in favor of the Avatar.
It was exactly like Mai had told him at the Boiling Rock.
"Save it? You're betraying your country."
Of course that was how the Fire Nation saw it.
That night as Zuko and the others walked along the beach back to the summer house, their applause was still roaring in his ears.
Aang hated this stupid play.
What did the Ember Island Players know about his friends or what they had all been through in the past nine months? What did they know about any of it for that matter? What did they know about him?
Forget about the fact that the playwright had cast a girl for his role. He could deal with that compared to the rest. No, it was definitely having to sit there quietly and watch some actress turn him into a useless idiot, discrediting what little good he had managed to offer the world, that was driving him out of his mind. He knew that the Fire Nation had been taught to hate him and see him as the enemy—they had been hunting him for a hundred years and killed all his people because of that hatred—but being forced to hear them taunt and jeer as actress-him mocked his struggles to master the four elements in time was crushing.
When it came to the scene where Katara's actress and Zuko's actor were in each other's arms in the crystal catacombs, he couldn't take it. It was far too much like those occasional fears he had to send scattering from his overactive imagination.
"The Avatar? Why, he's like a little brother to me!"
It was like taking a lightning bolt to the chest.
He walked out.
The night air was crisp as he took in deep gulps of it to steady himself. He didn't know how long he had been out on the balcony when Katara came looking for him. Their conversation was only a blur to him when he sank into the seat next to Sokka back inside the theatre. All he really remembered was his heart pounding in his ears as he leaned in to kiss her.
And then her pulling away.
Something in his chest clenched painfully as Aang glanced at the back of Katara's head. What was wrong with him? He shouldn't have done it, not after she stood there and deliberately told him she was unsure about what she wanted, but he couldn't help himself.
This whole day had been a disaster. He wanted to go back to the beach house and just sleep so he could forget any of it ever happened.
No such luck.
The play continued right up to the present…and then beyond. The very last minutes captivated Aang in an almost trancelike way. There "they" were, going after Fire Lord Ozai on the day of Sozin's Comet, just like they had planned, but it was all wrong, unbearably wrong.
After the group made it inside the palace, everything went spiraling out of control, and things that up until this moment Aang had only seen in his nightmares were being played out on stage. He was vaguely conscious of the fact that actress-Azula had killed actor-Zuko, the panic mounting inside of him his only real gauge of awareness.
The actress that was supposed to be him was all alone with actor-Ozai now, and in an awkwardly stilted exchange, it came out that actress-Aang was able to bend all the elements. But Sozin's Comet was at its zenith, and it infused actor-Ozai with an energy that intensified his Firebending tenfold.
The two started fighting.
Actress-Aang never stood a chance, that much was clear; mastering all four elements hadn't been enough. Less than a minute into their battle, the Fire Lord actor, in a great show of power enhanced by the comet, loosed a huge wall of fire which descended on the actress-Avatar. "Aang's" lifeless body lay sprawled on the ground, broken and defeated after everything. As Ozai started crowing over the victory in some grand finale monologue, the crowd exploded into triumphant applause.
In the theatre, the only members of the audience not on their feet clapping were six young friends who were huddled together in the shadows of the gallery, every one of them too stunned to move just yet.
Fear burned inside Aang as he hugged his knees closer against his chest.
Maybe the Ember Island Players knew something after all.
End Author's Notes
I love this episode. It left me dazed how quickly Mike and Bryan could take us from stitch-in-your-side laughter to completely sobered by the crashing realization that everyone might not escape totally unscathed in the fight ahead. Zuko's perspective came to me first as I was actually watching the episode and then the others gradually came to life.