Word count: 3271
Summary: In which young Zuko disapproves of "Love Amongst the Dragons" (the tale of Princess Soza, Avatar Kuro, and a love that was never meant to be)
Note: Minor spoilers for the clip of "The Ember Island Players" shown at NYCC
Thanks to foxysquid for her help with brainstorming, and to peri_peteia and jlh for their guidance!
Zuko had been to the theater many times before. Grand operas were regularly composed to celebrate his nation's glorious history, and the royal family was expected to attend the first performance of each one. Zuko often had a difficult time following the stories, which were sung in an archaic language that had been spoken in the Fire Nation before it adopted the Earth Kingdom's common tongue. But the costumes were interesting, and the key parts of the plot -- romance, battle, death and glory -- were clear even to him.
But Zuko had often felt that he was missing something; that the subtleties were obscured by his own shortcomings. And so, when he was still very young but old enough to understand how such things worked, he asked his mother if he could read the script for each production before he saw it. Delighted by his interest, she had agreed immediately, and soon a corner of his bedroom was overrun with scroll cases and dictionaries.
At first, he hadn't been able to understand them any better than the performances themselves -- the words were written in familiar characters instead of the ancient script of the Sun Warriors, but those characters were used for their sounds and not their meanings. Azula laughed when she found him tucked away in a corner of the library, muttering to himself as he struggled through scholarly texts. He ignored her, the laughter only galvanizing him.
When he had learned enough to read the simplest operas, his first reaction was disappointment. The stories were all very much the same -- a powerful and merciless Fire Lord sailing across the sea to conquer new lands for his nation, slaying proud Earthbender kings and rescuing the Fire Nation beauties they held hostage. He had hoped there was more to it than that, but again and again, the same tale unfolded.
His mother looked on with interest as he devoured scroll after scroll, sometimes asking what he thought of them. Zuko felt guilty about his growing resentment -- after all, she'd gone through the trouble of having the scripts delivered to him, and he didn't want her to think he was ungrateful. He answered her questions with what he hoped was a convincing amount of enthusiasm, a forced smile on his face.
He was not, perhaps, as opaque as he wished to be. One afternoon he returned from his Firebending lessons to find a new set of scrolls sitting in the middle of his bed. They smelled like his mother, white lotus and jasmine tea. He sat crosslegged on the bed and unrolled the first act curiously. It was titled "Love Amongst the Dragons," and was written in the common tongue.
At first, Zuko wasn't sure why his mother had thought he'd find this play interesting. To begin with, the main character was a girl -- a beautiful princess, sheltered within the palace walls. Zuko had long ago tired of princesses, and would have tossed it aside in disgust if not for a nagging sense of obligation. His mother had given it to him. He should read it. Resigned, he stretched out on his bed with his chin propped up in one hand.
The play was set in a time before the war, a world Zuko found difficult to imagine. He tried to think what it must have been like before the defeat of the Air Nomad armies, before the Water Tribe savages retreated to their icy strongholds, before the Earth Kingdom's coasts swallowed their pride and accepted the Fire Lord's benevolence. He supposed it must have been very quiet, and that uncles and fathers had spent less time away from home.
The princess's name was Soza, and she had only one friend in the world: Kuro, a boy her own age who was the son of a nobleman. They had known each other since they were very small, and for many years they spent their days together, learning Firebending and the courtly arts, and playing with the hatchling dragons they had each been given as soon as they were old enough to care for them. As children, their friendship was pure and unwavering, the sort Zuko himself had often longed for. But as they neared adulthood that friendship began to change.
Zuko didn't understand all of it -- whole scenes were composed of endless talk of fire and flowers blossoming, which he found boring and also pointless. But as he plowed through soliloquies about the flame that burned in her heart, it dawned on Zuko that Soza had fallen in love with her friend.
He sighed. He knew where this was going. Soza would be kidnapped by someone or another -- pirates, rebels, it didn't much matter -- and Kuro would rescue her, crush their enemies and take her as his wife. He unrolled the play's second scroll with a weary reluctance. The girls in these stories were never interesting, or at all like the girls he knew. Not even Ty Lee, the girliest girl he'd ever met, would sit around and wait for some boy to come find her.
The second act began on the eve of Kuro and Soza's sixteenth birthday -- they had been born on the same day, and shared their parties as they shared everything else. Soza spoke at length to her dragon, Qian Xing, of her plans to confess her love to Kuro once they had a moment alone. They were old enough to be married, and she felt she could wait no longer.
But as the young friends stood together beneath the fireworks celebrating their birth, the crowd parted and fell silent. The oldest and wisest of the Fire Sages, so rarely seen outside the walls of their temple, had journeyed to the palace in order to reveal the new Avatar. His name, they said, was Kuro. And he would leave the capital with them the very next day.
Zuko's eyes widened as he reread the passage several times over, certain he must have misunderstood. But the text was very clear. As he read on, Soza pleaded with her friend to ignore the Sages' call, to stay with her in the palace and live as they always had. His refusal was gentle but unwavering -- he belonged to the world, now, and would do what the world expected of him. Soza told him that she understood, but her words were hollow. That night she slept with Qian Xing coiled around her, weeping against the dragon's scales as they waited for the dawn.
Kuro was not permitted to take anything with him, save his own dragon, Long Chi. He promised to write, but did not. He promised to visit, but the years stretched on without his setting foot on Fire Nation soil. Soza ached with loneliness, and as time passed that ache soured into resentment. Who was he to ignore her? Who was he to turn his back on the life they had shared?
The day came that Soza was crowned Fire Lord, and once its armies were under her control her bitter gaze turned outward. The Avatar was meant to bring balance to the world -- that was what she had been told, and what Kuro himself had said to her before he went away. But she did not see it that way. Kuro was a son of the Fire Nation; he belonged to his country, owed his allegiance to the crown, not to faceless strangers in distant lands. She would make him see. She would give him the chance to chose the right path, as he should have on the day the Sages came.
At least, that's what she said to Qian Xing, though Zuko wasn't convinced. It seemed stupid to him that she was sitting in the palace being angry. If she wanted to see Kuro that badly, she should just go and find him. If it had been him, he never would have waited so long in the first place.
In the end, ten years passed before Soza saw the Avatar's face again. She did not go out to the courtyard to greet him. She waited on her throne behind her curtain of flame, its brightness and heat betraying the all the turmoil her blank expression tried to conceal. She counted her own, quick heartbeats and thought of what she would say, and what he might say in return.
The golden doors swung open, and Kuro stepped through them unattended. At first he regarded her silently, his lips pressed tightly together and his hands curled into fists. He was taller, his face bearded and his shoulders broad beneath his cloak. When he spoke, his deep voice -- a man's voice, so different from the one she remembered -- seemed to swell and fill the room, shrinking the vast space, making her feel as if the walls were pressing down around her.
He was not pleased by Soza's triumphs. He had seen the red banners draped on Earth Kingdom walls, the first, tentative colonies pushing in from the coasts, and the sight of it had sickened him. People had died, he said. People had lost their homes. People had fled, and where they went the whispering followed, tales of the Fire Lord's swift cruelty and her hunger for lands she had no right to. His friend would never have done these things. She stared at him through the flames, and his eyes were those of a stranger.
Her pain sharpened into rage, and the rage boiled from her hands toward the man who was Kuro only in name. The Avatar had not been seen in Zuko's lifetime, or in the lifetime of his father, but even he knew that this was a foolish thing to do. He was right -- the throne room crumbled before the whirlwind of Kuro's fury, shattering into a jumble of splintered wood and twisted metal. The battle was short and brutal. In the end, Soza dangled by her robes from a column of stone Kuro had bent out of the wreckage, helpless as she had never been before, tears of humiliation on her cheeks. The man she had loved -- still loved, even now -- told her she was lucky to have been left with her life and her crown. And then he was gone.
It was Qian Xing who found her. She lifted Soza down from column and carried her away, over the capital and the mountains surrounding it, over the ocean, to the barren shore of an island too small to have a name. Zuko forced himself to read every mournful line of her soliloquy, spoken as she knelt on black lava rocks, facing the sea. She spoke of fire that burned the years away; of the walls time built around men's hearts. Her soul had died in that throne room, she said, her hand on Qian Xing's flank; now her body would avenge it. The world would suffer as she had.
Zuko's mother was in the garden when he found her, a small desk balanced on her lap. She put it aside as Zuko approached, then smiled at him. "I was just writing your uncle," she said. "Is there a message you'd like me to give him for you?"
Zuko barely heard her. "The last part is missing," he said, unable to keep the urgency out of his voice.
"The last part of what?"
"The play," he said. "The one about the dragons." He was reluctant to admit an interest in Soza herself, but dragons seemed a safe subject.
Ursa folded her hands in her lap and regarded him seriously. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure!"
"How many scrolls did you read?"
He thought for a moment. "Three."
"Then you've read all of it," she said, her voice gentle.
Zuko gaped at her. "But...Mom, that can't be the ending!"
"Because it's stupid!"
His mother considered this, frowning seriously. "How so?"
Zuko tried to think of a way to explain that wasn't too embarrassing. "Well...Kuro never apologized!"
His mother nodded slowly. "That's right. He didn't."
"And Soza never told him..." Zuko scowled down at the grass, his cheeks hot. "She only ever talked to her stupid dragon!"
"It is called 'Love Amongst the Dragons,' Zuko."
"Well it's a stupid play."
"So you didn't like it?"
She sighed. "I suppose I'll have to take your sister instead, then."
Zuko blinked and looked up at her. "Take her where?"
"To see it. The Ember Island Players are putting on a production. I thought you might want to go, but if you hated the play that much-"
"I didn't hate it," he said cagily. "I just thought the ending was stupid."
"Really?" One corner of her mouth quirked into a smile. "Well, you might prefer this version."
"What do you mean?" He couldn't keep the curiosity out of his voice.
No amount of pressing would convince her to explain herself. By the night of the performance, though Zuko had told himself over and over again that this was a stupid play, that he was only going to see to humor his mother, and that there was absolutely no reason at all to be excited, his heart was pounding with anticipation. As the prelude swelled from the orchestra pit he found himself leaning forward, mouth slightly open, his fingertips digging into his thighs.
Zuko was completely silent as they left the theater. He could feel his mother's eyes on him, but he didn't look up at her. If he did, she would ask what he'd thought of the play, and he would tell her he didn't know, and she would ask why, and then he'd have to try and explain. And he wasn't ready to explain, yet. He knew what he was supposed to be feeling -- happiness, relief, maybe even a little smug -- but he didn't really feel any of those things. Mostly he just felt exhausted.
Once they were seated in their palanquin, his mother leaned forward and rested her chin on the palm of one long, white hand. "You're awfully quiet," she said. He glanced up and confirmed that she was, in fact, smiling at him in that indulgent, grown-up way that made Zuko feel like be was being petulant even when he knew perfectly well he was not.
"I'm fine," he said shortly. "The play was fine." He added this in an attempt to put her off, though he knew it was probably futile. His mother was relentless.
"I thought you might like this version," she said.
"You seemed so disappointed by the ending when you read it."
Zuko scowled down at the floor of the palanquin. "I guess."
"Wasn't this better?"
Zuko crossed his arms and glared out the slatted window, his face burning. "No," he said, before he could stop himself. "No, it wasn't."
The line for tickets at the box office was longer than they'd expected -- apparently "The Boy In The Iceberg" was something of a hit, and it seemed every exhausted parent, overexcited child and bored teenager on the island had turned out to see that evening's performance. Zuko wasn't much for crowds on the best of days, especially not one so likely to recognize him. He pulled his hood down over his face, wishing he didn't have to wear it at all in this heat.
"I'm gonna go get something to drink," said Aang, sweating under the weight of his enormous hat. "Want anything?"
Zuko noticed, then, that two familiar-looking boys were ambling towards him -- the admiral's son and his hair-obsessed friend. "I'll come with you," said Zuko quickly, turning away from the two boys. After what he'd done to their beach house, he wasn't eager to be noticed by either of them.
As they walked together toward the concession stand, Aang eyed the line anxiously. "I hope they don't sell out," he said. "Sokka really wants to see this thing."
"I hope it does sell out," Zuko grumbled. "It's probably terrible."
Aang ordered six bottles of coconut juice and a bag of fire flakes for Sokka. "The poster looked interesting," he said as he dug through his pockets for coins.
Zuko picked up the bottles while Aang paid. "The poster always looks interesting," he said. "And the play is always terrible. They butchered-"
"'Love Amongst the Dragons,' I know," said Aang. He laughed. "What's that even about, anyway?"
Years had passed since the last time Zuko had read that play -- almost a decade -- and he hadn't thought about it at all for most of the time in between. But he had an excellent memory for such things, and the story came back to him easily once he'd started to explain. Neither of them were particularly eager to stand in line again, so they took the long way back to where their friends were waiting, ambling along the shady walkways that hugged the outside of the building. Aang listened raptly, though midway through the story his smile faded into a befuddled little frown.
"So she just sat on the island with her dragon and cried, basically," said Zuko. He sighed and rolled his eyes. "That's what was supposed to happen, anyway. But of course, the cultural minister got his hands on it. Plays can't have endings like that in the Fire Nation. So they wrote another act."
"It was so ridiculous...Kuro comes back to the capital, but instead of telling Soza to stop trying to conquer the Earth Kingdom, he thanks her. He's the Avatar and he gets down on his knees and thanks her for reminding him of the greatness of the homeland. And she forgives him for straying from the true path, and they kiss, and then they spend the next twenty minutes riding their dragons around while they take over the world. And they wrap it all up with a huge wedding in the ruins of Ba Sing Se."
"They literally climb up on top of what's left of the walls and talk about how their love is like the everlasting flame of progress." Zuko shifted the bottles in his arms, wrenched the top off of one of them and took an angry gulp. "Like I said, they butchered it." There was no reply, and when he glanced down he saw that Aang had one hand over his mouth, clearly trying not to laugh. "What's so funny?" he asked, annoyed.
"Zuko, are you sure Soza was a girl?" Aang failed utterly to keep a straight face. "And you know...not a real person? Like a real person you're related to?"
"Of course she was a girl," Zuko snapped. "And it's just a play. Why would you..." His voice trailed off. His footsteps slowed and stopped, and for a few minutes he stood very still, staring down at Aang as two stories shifted into alignment. "Huh," he said. He wasn't sure what else there was to say.
"Roku never mentioned..." Aang gestured vaguely, then let out an embarrassed giggle.
"It's just a play," said Zuko, without any conviction whatsoever.
"If you say so," said Aang, though he was still grinning. They started walking again, Aang jogging a little to keep up with Zuko's rapid strides. "Your mom gave it to you?"
"I hope I get to meet her someday," said Aang. "She must be pretty great." He grinned. "And have a good sense of humor."
Zuko's chest tightened a little, remembering how she'd smiled at him that day. "She does," he said quietly. "Better than I knew, I guess."