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Chapter 38 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
Chapter information

The Spirit Within



Written by


Last chapter

Chapter 37 (The Spirit Within) [1]

Next chapter

Chapter 39 (The Spirit Within) [2]

The participants in an agni kai were traditionally requested for an hour prior to the duel in order to meditate and prepare, and were kept separate until the moment that the duel started. Iroh walked his nephew to the dressing room and left him there with a hug and words of encouragement. He then walked to the grandstands of the agni kai arena, which were already mostly filled with people. He made his way to the front box; as a member of the royal family, his place was reserved.

"General Iroh! We meet again!" Captain Zhao came up beside him, a smile on his face.

Iroh groaned silently. He really did not want to make small talk. "Good afternoon, Captain Zhao. How are you?"

"I am very well, thank you. An exciting week to be in the capital, to be sure."

"Yes, yes. Indeed. Where will you be watching the agni kai from?"

Zhao shook his head. "I have not found a spot yet. There is some space left at the top, I see." He frowned as he looked up at the growing crowd.

"Oh, well, I am certain that there will be room in the front row with me."

He bowed. "Thank you, Sir."

They jostled their way to the front of the arena and found standing room there.

The palace's agni kai arena was unique in the world; erected when the four nations were at peace, it was planned and built by earthbenders and featured a fighting platform raised fifty feet above the surrounding area. The design reflected an earlier, more savage era when the bodies of those defeated in duels were left to rot at the bottom of the chasm.

Luckily for contemporary agni kai combatants, the practice had since fallen out of practice, but the chasm around the agni kai field remained, with the platform accessible by a removable walkway that could be extended from either end and was hidden, during the agni kai, by a large Fire Nation flag that could be drawn up and lowered by means of a pulley.

Iroh saw the crowd part, and Azula came through the gap, flanked by the Royal Guard. She sauntered up to her uncle and Captain Zhao with a smile. "Hello, Uncle. I knew you'd be here, pressed up against the railings, as anxious as a mother turtleduck."

Iroh wanted to smack the smile off her face, but reflected that the thought was neither benevolent nor prudent, so he contented himself with introducing her to Zhao.

Captain Zhao puffed up under Azula's gaze. "You are a career military man, Captain Zhao?" She asked, surveying his coolly.

He bowed in acknowledgment of her interest. "Yes, your highness. Nearly twenty years, now."

"And why are you not fighting, even now?"

If Zhao was taken aback by her inquisitiveness, he did not show it. "My admiral, Shan, came for the war meeting."

"Well, Captain Zhao, you are a lucky man – to be in town for such momentous events as a war meeting and an agni kai."

"I am indeed, your highness."

They were prevented from continuing by the appearance, at one end of the retractable gangplank, of Zuko, his agni kai drape over his shoulders. He was accompanied by the official who would adjudicate the duel, and Zuko nodded at what the judge said to him. Then, stern and resolute, with a visible squaring of his shoulders, he crossed onto the platform to thunderous applause, which brought the merest ghost of a smile to his face. Iroh and Zhao joined in the applause, although Iroh noted that Azula did not clap, at all.

Zuko walked to the opposite end of the field of honor and took his position. He went into a crouch, his head bowed, one fist to his side on the ground and the other on his thigh, his back to where his opponent would stand.

As the victim of the transgression, General Shu was entitled to take his place after Prince Zuko, and Iroh waited with anxiety for the old man to appear.

The adjudicator stepped aside as a tall, powerful shadow came up from the bowels of the arena. He paused at the lip of the bridgeway, and a gasp, that seemed almost choreographed, arose from the crowd when the newcomer's identity became apparent.

Iroh's own voice, however, failed him, and he uttered not a sound. He turned to Azula, whose face was marked by a small, smug smirk. She caught his expression, and the smile grew. "Oh, yes. Didn't you know? Zuko not only showed grave disrespect to General Shu, but also to Father by speaking out in the Fire Lord's war room. Father simply could not let such an act of sedition go unpunished. He's fighting Zuko himself."

Iroh surged forward, as if to fly over the very gap that separated him from his brother, but a firm hand on his forearm stopped him. He made to pull away, but a familiar voice from behind effectively halted him. "You will not help your nephew by interfering. Let him resolve this himself."

Iroh turned in confusion to see General Shu's hand on his arm. The two men stared at each other for a long moment, then Shu released Iroh slowly.

Shu was right. What good could Iroh do by putting himself between Ozai and his son? Humiliate the three of them, for which neither Ozai nor Zuko would thank him. As much as Iroh hated to admit it, he realized that there was nothing that he could do for his nephew. Zuko would, unfortunately, have to confront his destiny on his own.

Ozai walked onto the platform and the walkway was removed, the Fire Nation flag extended to cover the passage. He wore no drape, and he did not drop into the customary meditative crouch that Zuko had taken – after all, the Fire Lord bowed to no one. The gasps from the audience had turned into confused mutterings and whispers – all speculating whether the Fire Lord would actually duel his own son.

"Combatants, are you ready?" The judge's voice was loud enough to dull the sound of the audience. Zuko gave the barest nod, still unaware that his father stood behind him. Ozai was motionless.

"Then, may the best man win, and may the spirits have mercy on the vanquished."

With a deep breath, Zuko stood and turned, allowing his agni kai drape to fall to the ground, fluttering like an autumn leaf. He took a wide-legged stance with his arms in a double knife hand position, the expression on his face fierce.

A look of surprise and horror came over him when he realized who stood before him, and his hands dropped uncertainly. He seemed to fold in upon himself, his bearing shrinking until the heroic warrior disappeared, to be replaced by a small, scared boy.


Ozai stood stationary for a moment, and Zuko extended his arms towards him, palms up, yielding, in an attempt to appease him. "Please, Father! I only had the Fire Nation's best interest at heart! I'm sorry I spoke out of turn!" He lowered his eyes to the ground.

Ozai advanced on him, his figure cast into a dark silhouette by the fires burning around the arena. "You will fight for your honor."

Zuko fell to his knees and lowered his forearms to the floor. "I meant you no disrespect. I am your loyal son." His voice shaking, he looked up to his father.

"Rise and fight, Prince Zuko!" Ozai's voice was now angry. It was apparent that Zuko's display was angering him.

"I won't fight you." Zuko's arms slid forward until his torso was bent so far that his forehead nearly touched the floor, abasing himself to his father.

Ozai stopped a mere two feet from his son's prostrate form. "You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher!"

His arms quivering, and tears in his eyes, Zuko straightened somewhat, and lifted his face to his father in one last appeal.

Ozai drew his right arm back and a fireball formed at his fist. With a slow, deliberate movement, his hand shot forward, and he released the fire directly into his son's face.

The scream torn from Zuko's throat was almost inhuman in its intensity and anguish. The Fire Lord sneered down at his only son in disgust as the boy writhed on the floor in front of him. He turned away from the broken and bleeding figure before him.

As he walked across the platform, the Fire Nation banner was hastily lifted and the gangplank rolled into position. Without breaking his rhythm, the most powerful man in the world walked from the field, disapproval and loathing for his son written in his long, straight spine.

Iroh had already begun pushing through the crowd, trying to reach his tattered nephew. He noted Azula staring with unholy glee at her injured brother, as if she took joy in seeing him brought low. A shudder of revulsion passed through the old man. What is wrong with that child? He asked himself.

As Iroh rushed towards the walkway to the agni kai area, he was relieved that there were already two doctors crouched around the young prince. They tried to lift the injured boy to his feet, but he had balled himself into a fetal position, his hands cupping his burned face. The smell of burnt flesh and hair was thick in the air, and Zuko whimpered in pain. Iroh hurried over to him, and with a nod to the doctors, the three of them lifted him from the floor in a prone position.

"Father?" Zuko asked hoarsely.

"It is your Uncle Iroh."

Zuko fell limp, as if all remaining strength had been drained from him. The three men carried him awkwardly over the bridge and towards the doors that led to the fighters' waiting areas. A sea of faces looked upon them with horror and morbid fascination as they passed, the injured boy a dead weight in their arms.

They pushed into the waiting area and laid Zuko gently down on a low, backless sofa. One of the doctors fetched a basin of cool water, and squeezed out a cottony cloth.

"Put your hands down, please, Prince Zuko," he instructed softly.

Zuko did not move, his hands still covering his injuries. Tears were streaming from his uninjured eye, and he shook his head. "Leave me alone." His voice was choked with sobs.

"Zuko!" Iroh whispered firmly. "Let us see it. The doctors cannot help you if you do not allow them to see it."

"I don't care."

"Zuko, they must check your eye! Put your hands down, Nephew!"

The boy allowed his uncle to slowly lower his arms to his chest.

The skin around his left eye from the curve of his nose outward, over his ear and into his hairline, was seared to a bloody, blistered mess. His eyebrow was completely obliterated, and the hair above his ear was either burned away or shortened and deformed by the flames. Iroh, who had seen hundred, if not thousands, of war injuries, and had even cradled the still figure of his own son in death, was sick to his stomach.

The doctors looked at each other briefly in grim acknowledgment of the severity of the wound.

"Prince Zuko," one said, "we need to clean the wound with cool water. I'm sorry – it may hurt."

"Don't touch me." The injured boy turned away.

"Zuko, please, listen to the doctors." Iroh pleaded. "They are here to help you. Let them."

"Yes, Prince Zuko. We must clean and examine the wound. We can mitigate the damage and possibly the pain if we take care of it quickly."

At the thought that the pain might be alleviated, Zuko allowed them to gently press the cloth against his skin. Ragged breaths were torn from him at the contact, and he tried to pull away.

"Please, Prince Zuko. I know this hurts, but we must treat it." The doctor turned to Iroh. "We have to clean the area thoroughly. If his hair sticks to the wound, it could become infected. I fear that we must shave his head."

"No!" Zuko tried to sit up, but Iroh restrained him.

"Zuko, it is only hair. It will grow back."

Zuko lay back down. "Leave the queue. Please." The queue, so integral to the Fire Nation culture, was sacred to the prince.

"Yes, Zuko. We will leave it."

The doctors worked for two long hours on the Prince's injured face, carefully clearing away the remnants of burnt flesh and hair and cleaning the wound as best they could. They took a razor and, under Iroh's supervision, shaved away all of the prince's fine, black hair, save for a diamond at the crown of his head, and they were able to salvage much of his queue.

"There," Iroh whispered into his nephew's good ear when they were done. "It is in the style of the Sun Warriors, Prince Zuko. The fiercest warriors to ever walk the Earth."

Mindful of Zuko's cries of pain, the doctors then covered the affected area with a thick layer of salve. After they were done, one of the doctors drew Iroh away. "We do not know the state of his sight in that eye. The eyelid is too damaged right now to even open. I think it best that we allow it to heal covered by a bandage, to minimize his attempts to open it. It should heal faster, as well."

Iroh nodded. "Yes. I understand." He walked back and squatted down by his nephew. His heart broke at the sight of the Prince's handsome face, now destroyed by his own father's ire. "Zuko," he said softly. "The doctors want to bandage the side of your face to allow it to heal more quickly. They believe, if it is covered, and if you do not try to open your eye, that it will be better in the end."

Zuko nodded.

Iroh patted his shoulder. "Good boy."

The doctors wound a loose bandage around the damaged area and secured it behind the boy's queue. "Come, Prince Zuko, we will carry you to your chamber now."

He shook his head and stood up shakily. "No. I will not be carried anywhere. I can walk." He drew himself erect, and marched slowly, although unsteadily, through the doors to the arena. There were still a few people milling about, and, at the sight of the Crown Prince, all eyes turned to him. He let his good eye drift around the crowd, as if daring them to continue to stare. One by one, their eyes dropped away, and, with steel in his spine, Zuko made his way from the arena and towards his room.

It was a long, excruciating walk, but Iroh was at his back, his quiet support giving Zuko strength. It was not until the door had closed behind Zuko in his own bedroom that he crumpled to the floor, his legs unable to hold him any longer.

Iroh and the doctors carried him to his bed, and laid him gingerly on the covers. "Your highness, we have a draught that will help to ease the pain, and will allow you to sleep."

"I don't want it." Zuko wanted to think about what happened. He wanted to try to understand why his father had done this to him. He wanted to try to figure what he, Zuko, had done wrong. He had followed his heart, his best instincts. He had refused to fight his father, as he thought a good son should, but his father had not seen it as filial respect, but as cowardice.

"Zuko." It was his uncle again. "Take the medicine. I do not think that you will sleep tonight if you do not. A man needs his rest, Zuko. You need your rest. You will have much to confront tomorrow, and you will need your strength."

Zuko turned one weary eye to Iroh. "Why, Uncle?"

The old man shook his head. He knew what his nephew had asked. "I don't know, Zuko. I don't know."

In the end, Zuko swallowed the bitter medicine, and fell into a fitful sleep. Iroh left the doctors to monitor the prince to ensure that he did not injure himself, and went in search of his brother.

He was angry at his brother – angrier than he had ever been in his entire life. Had Ozai known the contents of Iroh's mind at that moment, he would have been fearful for his life; fortunately, however, Iroh met with an obstruction in his quest for his brother – the Royal Guard.

They stood at the entrance to Ozai's private quarters.

"Let me pass." Both Iroh's voice and his determination were firm.

"We cannot, Sir." The words that came from the guard's mouth were muffled thanks to his face shield.

"I will see my brother."

"No, Sir, you shall not. He is not accepting visitors."

"You will let me pass, or you will be the worse for it."

The man's voice sounded weary. "We are obliged to guard the Fire Lord with our lives. Please do not force us to sacrifice ourselves."

Iroh blinked at the man, his rage suddenly gone. Would he bring innocent men into this? Men who sought only to serve their country?

He nodded, and stepped back.

The guard bowed. "Thank you, Sire."

Iroh went back to Zuko's room to find the boy sleeping, the doctors keeping watch over him diligently. Iroh stood over his nephew and watched him, and saw this his breathing was shallow, but regular. He looked so fragile lying there – wan and thin, with dark circles beneath his visible eye.

"He should sleep through the night." The doctors answered Iroh's unasked question. "The medicine that we gave him was quite strong."

Iroh nodded wearily. "Good. I have to leave – for a short while. But I will be back by sunrise or shortly thereafter. Should he wake –"

"We will give him another dose. At this point, sleep is best for him – for his healing."

"I am grateful to you – we are grateful to you."

"We serve the royal family, your highness. The entire royal family."

Iroh patted the man on his shoulder and left the room. He had an errand to complete that he had no stomach for: informing Lan Chi.

He went straight to the stables and ordered Xuan saddled. He intended to make record time to the coast, and he needed the speed that the stallion could offer him. He looked at the moon – it was full, and, he could tell, by its position in the sky, that it was not nearly midnight. If he pushed the horse to its fullest, he could probably make it to Ember Island and back by daybreak.

On Xuan, Iroh made it to the sea in a little under two hours, and he left the exhausted horse in the hands of a capable boy at the local stables, with an entreaty to give the horse ample feed and cool water.

He found a waiting ferry, and paid the man handsomely to leave early. Once on the boat, he found time to simply sit. He put his hands over his face, and felt a heavy weight swing against his jaw. Zuko's letter to Lan Chi!

He removed it from his sleeve and regarded it for a long moment. He had no idea what it said, of course, but Zuko had said that he had written it for Lan to read prior to the agni kai. With a deep sigh, he pulled the parchment from its cylinder and unrolled it.

Dearest Lan,

I am sorry that I am unable to see you tonight, as we had originally planned. I said something rash in Father's War Room, and have been ordered to fight an Agni Kai to redress the insult. I deserve such punishment; Uncle had warned me to exercise self-restraint, and I did not. However, I am not sorry about what I said – I spoke only the truth, and I am at peace with myself about that.

I am not scared of fighting the Agni Kai – I have been training very hard, and the old general I insulted is past his prime. Do not fear; I will not injure him, and I am sure he will be unable to injure me.

I have not seen Father since he told me that I would have to fight the Agni Kai, and I have not seen him alone at all. I know that he is VERY angry with me. There will be a steep price to pay when this is over.

I hope to come see you the day after the Agni Kai – I do not want you to come to the arena. Seeing you will distract me. You are a great distraction – your hair, your eyes, your lips. If you are there, I am certain I will not be able to take my eyes off you long enough to fight! Ha! Ha!

I wanted to write you and tell you what is in my heart – it has helped my focus, because I know that you will be waiting for me, and that we have a wonderful life ahead of us. The next two years cannot pass quickly enough for me – I yearn to make you mine, and to tell the world how much I love you. You are my destiny. I know it.

I do love you – I hope that you know that.

All of my love always,


Iroh rolled the letter again, returned it to the cylinder, and slid it back into his sleeve. Although he detested deception, he could not share the letter with Lan. It would do no good to show it to her – it would only sadden her. He knew that he should burn it, but he could not bear to destroy this evidence of Zuko's innocence and optimism. He was certain that he would not see it again.

He lay back against the cushions of the seat and slept, so weary that he felt in his bones. Before he knew it, the captain of the ferry was shaking him awake, and he found himself on Ember Island after only four and a half hours rather than the average six.

He stood below the Summer Palace for a long minute and looked at it. There were so many good memories here – his honeymoon with Su Hsing, teaching Lu Ten to swim, walking with Lu Ten and Lan Chi on the beach. And now, he would be forced to make a horrible memory – the night he was forced to tell his daughter that the boy she loved was scarred almost beyond recognition.

The doors were surprisingly unlocked, and he slipped inside silently. He went first to the housekeeper's room and woke Hua. He told her quickly what had happened, and found out from her that Lan Chi was sleeping in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

On leaden feet he walked through the house, demons and ghosts of the past dogging him until he reached her room. He opened the door and walked in, lighting a small flame in his hand. He saw a torch on the wall, and threw the flame at it, extinguishing his own.

She lay asleep, one hand thrown up next to her face, one resting on her stomach. His heart broke for her; ever since he had taken her in, he had worked for her happiness, but, for the most part, her life had been marked by struggles and pain.

He had to smile, however, at her habits: her bow and arrows were at her bedside, ready in case she needed them, and the family portraits were clustered together on the table next to her head. He sat down beside her, and gently shook her awake.

"Lan. Wake up. It's Uncle Iroh. Come, Little Duck. Wake now."

She finally stirred, rubbing her eyes. "Uncle?" She was awake instantly, sitting up. "What is it? Why are you here? Is something wrong? Was the capital attacked?"

He gave her a small smile and shook his head. "No. No. Nothing like that."

She put a hand on his arm. "Is it Zuko?"

He marveled at her perspicacity. "Yes." He nodded sadly.

A look of fear came over her features, and she grabbed his robe. "He's not dead, is he? Please tell me that he is alive."

Iroh shook his head. "Yes. He's alive, but – something terrible has happened."

"What?" Her voice was small. "Is he all right?"

"He was forced to fight an agni kai tonight."

"What? An agni kai? That – that can't be! He would tell me – something as important as that. Is he all right?" She repeated, and her grip on him tightened. "Was he hurt?"

He nodded.

She threw back the covers. "I – I have to go to him. Oh, Uncle! I must go to him. How bad is it? How soon can we get there?"

He grabbed her arms to still her. "No. You cannot go."

"What?" She was perplexed. "No!" She began to struggle. "I have to go to him! I can help!"

Iroh shook his head. "No."

"But, Uncle, I can –" She continued to try to wiggle out of his hands.

His grasp on her was like iron. "No. I cannot allow you to do that."

"But I can help him!"

"I know that you can, my dear. But doing so would endanger you! And I won't allow that."

She shook her head. "But he needs me, Uncle. I can do it – I can face whatever anyone says about me – whatever happens, I don't care, Uncle, he –"

He cut her off again. "The agni kai was against his father, Lan Chi."

She stilled. "He fought Ozai?"

Iroh shook his head. "No. Zuko refused to fight, and it – enraged my brother. He – allowed his anger to overcome him. That's why I cannot let you help Zuko. No matter how it breaks my heart, this cannot be undone. Should the Fire Lord discover that you helped Zuko, I cannot even guess his reaction. I would fear for your safety."

"But, Uncle, how can I let it be? If he's hurt, and I can help him, I must!" Tears came to her eyes. "I can't let him be hurt. He needs me, Uncle! I can't. I can't. I just can't –" She shook her head repeatedly. "I can't let him be in pain. I can't stay away from him, Uncle. I can't! Don't you understand?"

"I understand. Of course, I understand. But Zuko will survive." He patted her hand awkwardly. "I am going back to the palace now to speak to my brother about further punishment."

"Further punishment? Wasn't the agni kai his punishment? Wasn't that enough?"

"No. Not if I know my brother."

"How badly is he hurt? Tell me. Don't try to spare me. I want the truth." She shook him.

"The fire hit him – directly in the face."

She lost her breath, and it took her a moment to regain. "What?" She thought she had misheard. "His face?"

He nodded. "His eye. His left eye and ear. They were burned very severely."

She looked away, as if trying to digest his words. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Tears began falling down her cheeks in earnest, and she turned back to Iroh. "Please let me go to him, Uncle. I don't care what happened. I don't care what he looks like. I don't care. Please just let me see him."

"I cannot let you go back to the capital until I see which way the wind blows, Lan. Ozai – there is something wrong with him, and, after this, I do not trust him. You must stay here."

"I must see him, Uncle. Please let me see him." She pleaded again, desperate. "Don't leave me here. I couldn't bear it."

"You must bear it. You must be strong – for Zuko. If he can bear the physical pain, then you can bear staying here."

She began sobbing into her hands, and he stroked her head. He was silent for many long moments, listening to her cry. "Tell you what," he began, pulling her hands from her face, much as he had done, hours before, for Zuko. "I will bring him here to recuperate. In a few days. And we three will stay here until his birthday. Would you like that?"

The tears did not abate. "How can you do that? Ozai will not allow it. Especially if he knows that I am here."

"It's simple. I will not take "no" for an answer. And who will gainsay me? I am the Dragon of the West, after all."

She smiled, and wiped her eyes. "None will dare."

"No." He hugged her. "No one will."

Gathered in his arms, she was reminded of being a little girl, of having all her ills soothed by him. She closed her eyes, more at peace. But one thing nagged at her, and she gave it voice. "Uncle," she asked quietly, "why did he do it?"

Iroh knew who "he" was – and he knew what she was asking. She asked the same question of him that Zuko had asked.

"I do not know, Duck. I do not know."

Lan Chi walked Iroh to the ferry. The night was still young – it was, perhaps only a few hours past midnight. Although Iroh would not make it back to the capital by sunrise, he was sure to get there long before noon, which had to be soon enough. After all, it was not as if he could fly there.

He kissed her on the cheek. "Go back to sleep, Little Duck. You have a lot of hard work over the next few days – getting the house ready for your men to come stay."

She gave a small smile. "My men. I like that." She sobered. "But I don't think that I will get much sleep. I don't really – feel like it."

"But you must. We all must steal what rest we can."

She shook her head. "I think I'll sit on the beach for a while. You know that water – soothes me."

"Yes." He put his hand on her cheek fondly. "Your element. But just be cautious."

"It's a full moon, Uncle. I'll be fine."

He nodded silently, and she covered his hand with hers.

Tears came to her eyes again, but she wiped them away impatiently. "Tell – Zuko that I love him. That I love him more than life. That I am praying for him. That I don't care what has happened. Tell him that I am waiting for him here. That I will always wait for him." She nodded. "Can you remember all of that?"

He chuckled. "I think so. You love him more than life. You're praying for him. You don't care what has happened, and you are waiting for him."

"And I will always wait for him. Don't forget that. It's important."

"Yes. I will remember."

"You promise?"

"Yes. I promise."

"Okay." She stepped back, and their hands dropped. "Be safe. Oh. I forgot." She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "That kiss is for you. And this," she kissed him on the other cheek," this is for Zuko." She blushed. "Al – although I usually kiss him a bit – differently."

"I understand. I will convey your kiss – appropriately."

"Thank you." She stepped back again. "I love you, Uncle."

"And I love you, my little duck."

"I will see you in a few days."


She began to cry again. "Take care of him, please."

"I will." He stepped onto the boat, and, as it drew away from the dock, she raised a hand in farewell.

He lifted his hand, as well, until the boat turned, and he disappeared from her sight.

She turned to find Hua at the end of the dock, waiting for her.

"I'm going to sit on the beach for a little while, Hua. You go back to bed. I won't be long."

"Are you sure that's safe, my lady?"

She gave a bitter smile. "Who would be bold enough to trespass on what is the Fire Lord's?"

She walked a distance down the beach and settled facing the bay. She fancied that she could see the lights of the ferry going back to the mainland – the ferry carrying Iroh back to the capital – and back to Zuko. How she wished that she was on the ferry with him. How she wished that she could take Zuko into her arms, and kiss him. Kiss away his pain, kiss away the horror that he must have faced. Kiss away this entire day. Kiss him, and take everything bad that had happened into herself – she was strong; she could bear it.

She lay back on the ground, heedless of the sand, and stared up at the stars. She tried to picture, in her mind, Zuko's smiling face. She pictured instead the last time she had seen him, when she had refused to touch him because Guniang was watching. She wished, now, that she had throw caution aside and had kissed him and touched his face, and had told him that she loved him.

She began crying again, huge racking sobs that filled her throat and her lungs and threatened to choke her. She brought her hands up and covered her face and cried into her palms until they were wet, until the tears ran down either side of her face and into her hair and into the wet sand. She turned onto her side and curled into a ball and continued to cry, and she thought that she would never, ever stop.

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