I own absolutely nothing.

"Fiction is a piece of truth that turns lies to meaning."

-Dorothy Allison

The summer was ridiculous.

Becoming Fire Lord was one thing; but a massive party for his eighteenth birthday was unprecedented.

When he stepped into the ballroom, there were Lords and Ladies, men and women he had never met in his entire life.

The food was amazing and the wine was even better, but after a long night of dancing and talking, he found himself being led down a dim hallway in his own palace by a manservant.

The room was dark, and he could see nothing but a few shadows. Looking closer, he saw the figures were his friends, tired looking and wary, but there nonetheless.

"Happy birthday, Zuko!"

It was a chorus of happy voices, all singing his name simultaneously. The sound was like nothing he had heard before, and it had been far too long since these people had been around him. Paperwork and other political demands covered most his schedule now, and he barely had time for social visits.

Then Katara stepped out to give him a feather-light kiss on the side of his cheek.

He felt himself flush and was grateful for the little light so no one would see it. She stepped back and directed him towards a table that had a cake and a poorly wrapped present—probably Sokka's doing—with an odd shape.

"Wow, I don't know what to say," he said, scratching the back of his neck in embarrassment. It was a wonderful surprise.

"Here, buddy," Aang said, handing him the small parcel.

Zuko thanked him and quickly opened it, eager for the first time to receive something that wasn't an ancient heirloom or a dusty, old scroll.

"Dear Sages, what the hell is this?"

He didn't mean for it to come out so rude, but everyone else seemed to think it was funny. Uncovered now, there was an odd contraption that had two black covered circles and a small rectangular area that someone could put something in.

"It's called a radio-cassette player," Toph said, smacking his arm. "Show a little appreciation, Sparky. That will play all your soothing Sungi-horn music while you do all that horrible paper work in your office all day."

Sokka handed him something that obviously went inside the radio-cassette player. "I even recorded one for you to listen to first!"

Suki grabbed it out of his hand. "No, Sokka, that's our tape, remember?"

Ignoring both of them, Katara got to her feet and set the birthday cake right in front of Zuko.

"Would you care to light them?"

Her voice sent something crawling up his spine, but he didn't dwell on it as he lit each of the eighteen candles one by one.

Zuko looked around at the gaang proudly as they all sang happy birthday to him. It was so great for them to all be together, but there was something—something he couldn't quite place.

Aang's arm around Katara's shoulder made him angry, and he couldn't define the exact reason why, and he felt his cheek burn with the ghost of a kiss she had given him just a few minutes ago.

"Happy birthday to you!"

One last glance at everyone, and he looked down at the little sticks of flames and watched as the dripping wax started down a few of them, almost reaching the cake.

"Make a wish already!"

There were a million things he could have wished for, less stress, more alone time with his friends, a trip back in time to make his father love him. But as he watched the flickering glow, he thought of simply one thing:


Sucked in a big breath, blew them all out at once.