"We will leave now," Shouto announces, and he puts his mask on. Behind him, Momo, Denki and Mashirao follow suit, putting their own.
It is near midnight. They leave, four shadows along the castle walls. Shouto found the secret pathway out of the castle when he was seven.
"Prince," Denki says, "I'll bring the bag, you don't need to —"
Shouto sighs. Even after years of doing this, Denki still does this, everytime. "I can carry my weight just fine. You know what to call me out here, Denki."
"Right. Sorry, Pri — uh, Shouta."
Mashirao hits the back of Denki's head. Denki yelps. "Really, Denki? If I had a copper coin every time you did this, I'd be richer than the Prince."
"Please do not mention the Prince's name so carelessly," Momo says irritably. Her eyes, sharp as hawk's, survey their surroundings. "Don't you remember the last time we almost got caught? I nearly had a heart attack."
"Well, it was obviously Denki's fault that time, too —"
"What! Why me?!"
"You insolent, you were the one who electrocuted that thug —"
"Dude, he was about to stab me —"
"Silence," Shouto hushes, and they obey. "Goddammit, you three."
"Sorry," they whisper in perfect unison. "Shouta."
Shouto leads the way. They have five tracks they go over to go to the city's slums, and randomize it everytime. Shouto can't do this too often, for it would raise suspicion.
Luckily, the Fire Nation does not really give a shit of what happens outside the royal city. The good part of it, anyway. Fire Nation is build on greed, and gold. The rest is forgotten.
They skirt quickly, along the city's edge, traveling in quick shadows. Less than fifteen minutes, they arrive at the city's slums.
"We will split, the usual. Momo, you go north. Denki, west. Mashirao, east. No bending."
"But what if someone tries to stab — "
The moon is high in the sky. It will be full moon in two days.
Shouto checks his surrounding. It is empty, but not exactly quiet. Shouto can hear noises, yelling, children and women crying. It's cold out here, and it smells filthy; this is where the city dumps its waste. Tents are build from ragged cloth, no doubt will do no good when the rainy season comes. Heaps of trash are used as walls. This place is home for the homeless.
Shouto goes south and begins his rounds.
His bag is filled with leftover food from the castle — the castle always has tons of leftovers — bread, fruits. Some thrown out fabric. It is not much. Shouto has never been able to do much.
He comes, door to door (not exactly doors, just flaps of tents, clothing hastily thrown to become a makeshift entrance), giving away something at each house. It does not take a lot of time; he will finish in half an hour.
Shouto turns. A knife is pointed at him.
It is a girl. Young, perhaps twelve. Maybe younger. Her clothing is made out of a rice bag. Her hair a messy heap, and her face is bruised. Scarred everywhere, scratches left untreated. She is looking at Shouto with fear and ferocity. The knife trembles in her grip.
This happened more often before. The people here, holding Shouto and his aides at knife point, trying for more food. Soon, they learned that Shouto is not to be triffled with, and the attempts of robbery stopped. The last time it happened, Denki electrocuted someone and nearly gave their identity away with his bending. Luckily, there were not many people. Like now. It's always empty, like a dead man land.
Shouto does not move. He waits, silent.
"Give me — give me everything you have. Or I'll kill you."
"No," Shouto answers immediately.
She hesitates — a short, fleeting moment, but Shouto sees it — and then she howls, pushing her weight to her knife, to Shouto. Shouto takes the knife from her easily, and she falls to the ground due to her own momentum. Shouto contemplates to throw the knife away, but he decides against it. She is still at the ground when he gives it to her, handle first.
The girl swallows.
"You need it more than I do," Shouto tells her.
She takes it. She does not try to stab Shouto after that.
"Where do you sleep?"
She looks at him, hard, but then she points to the south. Shouto hums. He says nothing, finishing his round. She follows him as he moves, door to door. Giving what he has. The girl is shivering in the night air. Her bones are prominent, and her belly is potruding. Malnourished. Shouto takes off his coat and offers it to her without words. She takes it in a heartbeat. Shouto does not think her shameless; he thinks her smart. Here, pride will not help you survive. It will not keep you alive, nor feed your stomach.
When they get to the corner of the street, she points to a tent. Shouto follows her.
Underneath it, there is a woman, covered in leaves, paper, rags. Shouto smells rot. Her arms are visible, and they are swollen with rashes.
"Mother," the girl says. "Mother, I've brought food."
The woman does not move. Shouto does not think she is breathing.
"She is ill," the girl explains, as she ruffles through Shouto's bag. She brings out a loaf of bread, a handful of grapes. She shifts forward to the tent, brushing her mother's hair to see her face. Just like her arms, her face too, are covered in blue green rashes, swollen like a watermelon.
The mother's eyes are open, but they are unseeing.
"Mother?" the girl asks, her voice brittle and small. The girl is smart. She knows her mother is dead.
She crumples in to herself and cries; it's ugly, it's shaking shoulders, trashing body. She does not have many tears — dehydrated, perhaps. Her screams compensate for her lack of tears.
Shouto does not speak. He puts down some fruits, some clothing. He gives what he has. And then he leaves.
The girl's sobs follow him to the night.
Foolish, a voice tells him — it sounds like his father's. It sounds like his own. You think you can save them. You think you can be anything other than a weapon.
Remember what you are.
They are silent when they return. Shouto does not say anything. His aides know enough not to ask. When they arrive inside the castle's walls, Shouto turns to them. He regards them, each of them — they are his most trusted, his best warriors. They devote their lives to his.
"We will leave at dawn for the Avatar," he tells them. Always curt, the way he speaks to them. He tells them what is needed, and he tells them coldly, and they obey. "Rest for now."
They kneel. "Yes, Prince Shouto," they say, hard and fond.
Shouto is close. Shouto is very close.
The Avatar's bending has improved. It is not perfect, it does not rival Shouto's, but it is strong. In only a couple of months, the Avatar's improvement is commendable. Astounding, even.
Shouto remembers the solstice. The fight in the Avatar's temple. He is no match for you, a voice tells him. You were made for this.
Shouto is close. He can win. The Avatar is intelligent, but so is Shouto, and Shouto has learned not to underestimate the boy. I was made for this. And yet — and yet —
The ground quakes, and the Avatar slips from the impact of his own bending. He falls, and Shouto brings his arm forward. Ice slithers with it, holding the Avatar to the ground. The Avatar grits his teeth, and combusts to fire, freeing himself. The Avatar yells in pain.
His hands are burnt from his own fire. Amateur mistake, Shouto thinks, eyeing the Avatar. Despite his improvement in other bendings, the Avatar's firebending is quite shit.
"Why?" the Avatar snarls, and he sends wind to Shouto's way. Shouto dodges, but barely — a stray debris grazes his cheek sharply. Shouto does not bother to check for blood. "Why are you doing this?"
Why do you want to kill me so badly?
Shouto glares. He will not let the Avatar distract him, not again. "I will not speak to a dead man," Shouto combusts into flames.
The Avatar counters with ice. Smoke rises to the sky.
"You will answer me," the Avatar insists, and he roars as he brings the earth to life.
They are not equal. Not in strength. Shouto is stronger, they both know this, and yet still — the Avatar does not fall back. Won't fall back.
"You are stronger than me," the Avatar says. "You can end this fight!"
The Avatar keeps talking. Goading him, he knows. Trying to trigger Shouto, watching his responses. Waiting until Shouto loses composure, for him to slip, and make a mistake. Shouto clenches his jaw.
"Are you holding back?"
Deep in the pit of his chest, anger swells. Do not fall for it, Shouto grits his teeth. Do not speak to him.
The truth is: Shouto is not ice cold. He knows that it is what the Fire Nation calls him; the cold prince. The name is fueled by fear, but as the prince of the Fire Nation, it is also a whispered insult. A cruel joke.
It means: Shouto does not have a heart. It means: Shouto does not belong there.
But they are wrong. Shouto's anger flares quickly, if one knows where to prod. What to say. Shouto's temper is not unlike an oil slicked wick.
(Not unlike his father's.)
Shouto exhales; steam vapors to the air. He feels his skin sizzling, he feels his skin going numb from the cold. Do not speak to him. Do not.
"Is that it?" the Avatar snaps, And he is angry, Shouto sees it for the first time, how fury looks on the Avatar's face. His cheeks are red with wrath, his freckles stark against his blush. His eyes bright, as always. "Look at you. You could've finished this fight a long time ago. You could've even killed me the first time we — the first time we met," the Avatar finishes with a seethe. "I'm tired of you showing up —"
"—trying to kill me all the time, and doing a half-assed job at it. Do you even want to kill me?"
Shouto's eyes scrunches from glaring so hard, his teeth bared in a snarl. The Avatar is spewing fucking nonsense. What does he know? Why won't he just — die?
Kill him. Do it, Shouto.
"You don't know anything," Shouto growls, and he claws into the ground. The ground turns to ice with his beckoning, towering to the sky in sharp, jagged chrystals. Silence.
He's dead, a small voice in Shouto's head says, small and empty. And then —
"I was right, wasn't I?"
There is ringing in Shouto's head. It sounds like a whistling kettle. Like a bomb, whirring, waiting to detonate.
The Avatar rises, his right arm bloody and wrecked in his hold, but he stands tall, eyes fixed on Shouto. Burning. "You aren't even trying hard enough to kill me."
Shouto's left side is in flames. "My Father —"
"I know the Fire Lord wants me dead!" the Avatar's eyes are brighter than fire. Radiant. His chest rises and falls rapidly. "I know that. But do you?"
Shouto thinks of the rabbit. Thinks of whistling kettle. Thinks of moonlight. Thinks of, I will burn your other eye. Thinks, I was made for this.
The Avatar says, "you are not your father, are you?"
Shouto — Shouto's flames died.
Shouto can't move. His chest feels like it's closing in itself, his heartbeat is loud, pulsating in his ears. He feels unbearably hot. He feels unbearably cold. He is — Shouto is — I am —
What is he?
The Avatar's flying bison hovers above them. The Avatar's aides have increased in number, it seems.
"What the fuck, Deku, come the fuck up here!"
"Is that — is that the fire prince?"
He's running away, a voice tells him. Stop him, you fucking mongrel. I raised you myself, you useless, ungrateful thing. Did you forget, already? Did you forget what you are —
Shouto can't. He watches, teeth biting into his lips, his breathing labored as they come in steams, as the Avatar climbed onto his bison and fled. Shouto can't, as he falls into himself, his chest roaring, skin breaking. He is losing control, he is burning, he is freezing. It takes him everything not to scream. It takes him everything not to burn, burn, burn. He can't. Shouto is an open wound.
When Shouto opens his eyes, the world is a blur. A collection of sensations. Shouto is burning. Shouto is freezing. His vision is null, and he feels blind all over again. He hears whistling kettle. He can't breathe. His body feels — broken. Shaking, shuddering. He feels like a broken glass. And the world is just … colors. Dull voices. Hazy, and wet, and hot.
A face comes to view — Momo? Mashirao?
"— nce Shouto —"
"— avatar — deavor —"
"— high fever —"
Someone is speaking. A lot of people are speaking. He can't hear them; their voices are loud, and yet so far away, as if he is underwater. And it's there, at the back of his mind — the whistling kettle.
Gods, he can't breathe.
What's happening to me, he wants to say, but he barely manages a groan.
Something touches his forehead. It feels cold. Soothing. It feels wonderful. It feels like something he had known, once — a long, long time ago. Something he had forgotten. Something Shouto had lost.
Shouto thinks, mother.
"Shouto," Endeavor says. "My son."
"Father," sweat pools on his brows. His hands, Shouto finds, are trembling, barely holding his body in his prostrate. "Forgive me."
"You were lucky to be born."
"Forgive me," Shouto repeats. His voice but a croak. A pitiful whisper, a beg.
"You are my masterpiece. My son," his father says. "Are you not?"
Shouto barely holds his sobs. He will not cry. He will not cry, not in front of his aides. Not in front of his father.
His father blazes. His father is firelight.
"Yes," Shouto's voice cracks. "Yes, Father."
Endeavor rises from his throne. Each step he takes towards him reverberates in Shouto's head. Shouto feels nauseous. His throat feels like acid. Every nerves in his body tells him: run. Please, run, oh god —
But he can't. He never could.
Do not speak. Do not fight back. This is how you survive.
His father is inescapable.
"Raise your head, Shouto."
Shouto obeys. He will not cry.
The hit comes. Shouto knew it was coming, but when the slap lashes and the hot white pain sears across his cheek, it still hurts. Everytime.
The sick thing is, it's grounding. It doesn't feel good, it's everything that Shouto fears — but there is a nasty part in Shouto, a part that he is ashamed of. A part that feels relieved. The pain grounds him, the pain reminds him of — of what he is. Every hit he takes from his father, every burnt marks he bear, they remind him, over and over again. Of his life. His home.
This is home. This is all Shouto has ever known.
Shouto's head is buzzing. A whimper comes loose from his lips. His head has turned sideway from the force of the slap, so he tilts them back to face his father. His father hates it when Shouto averts his eyes like a coward. When he hits Shouto, he wants to make sure Shouto is looking at him in the eye. Face your fear, his father told him. Look at it in the eye.
Endeavor's eyes are like glacier. Hollow. Ice.
"I love you, Shouto," his father says, his voice completely and utterly empty. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," Shouto answers.
His father raises his hand. Flame blazes over it, blue, like his eyes. Like Shouto's left eye.
"I do this," his father tells him. "Because I love you. Do you understand?"
He will not cry — and yet, the tears come.
"Yes, Father," Shouto says.
"I will burn your other eye," Endeavor says.
Tears trickle down his cheek, to his chin. "Yes, Father."
Shouto feels the heat. Shouto hears the screaming.
But the fire never touches him.
"Momo?" Shouto calls, breathless.
Momo is in front of him, burning. Crying. She stood in his father's fire, Shouto realizes with a start. She stood in the way of his father's fire, she —
She protected me, Shouto thinks.
"Momo," Shouto says, again, before the shock wears off, the fear takes in and he puts out the fire with his ice, with trembling hands. "Momo — Momo."
She is crying, shaking in Shouto's embrace, gasping for breath. The fire has gotten her back; her armors are completely burnt off, revealing the ugly, red gash on her skin. Shouto's hands are shaking so hard, his tremor is visible, his hold on Momo slipping off as he calls to his waterbending. His ice comes, glazing over the red, red, red skin as Momo howls in pain.
Shouto raises his head, meets his father's eyes fearfully. They seem — amused. "At least you finally know how to use your subordinates properly," Endeavor sneers. "You were always too soft on them."
"Don't punish her," Shouto chokes. "Please. I'll do anything. I'll do anything — please —"
"You are mine," his father says. "Of course you will."
You think you can save them?
His father's eyes are blinding. Shouto is an open wound, at his father's feet. A prince who cannot protect his own aides. Shouto is —
You think you can be anything other than a weapon?
"Remember what you are," his father says.
Shouto waits until Momo has fallen asleep. And then he waits some more.
"It will leave a scar," the healer had murmured. But Momo could not hear her; she was out of it, driven out of her mind by the pain. Momo is a strong fighter, stubborn too, but Endeavor's fire is terror. Shouto should know.
His father expects him to marry her. Momo is highborn, and she is a skilled warrior — the whole nation, perhaps, expects them to marry; they take Momo's loyalty of him as something of a romantic nature. But Shouto knows it is not the case. Momo loves him, that much is true. Momo, just like Denki and Mashirao, loves him in a hard way. Like a soldier. Momo does not desire him as a lover — like the rest of Shouto's men, she desires him as a ruler. Their adoration to him is noble.
(They see something in Shouto, something no one sees in the Fire Lord. But Shouto does not know this yet. Shouto cannot see it, for he has never seen it in anyone.)
Shouto wants to break then and there, because he — he does not deserve this. He does not deserve these brave soldiers under him. He does not deserve these people to fight for his life. He does not deserve to kill the Avatar, who looks at death in the eye, fearless. He does not deserve it; not him, not Shouto, who has been a coward his whole life.
Mashirao. "Rise," Shouto says, and he sounds pathetic, even to himself. "You need not kneel, Mashirao. Not now."
"I will, still, my Lord," Mashirao says. It might sound insubordinate to any other royalties, but Shouto has made it very clear that his soldiers will tell him honesty, and only honestly. "You are the only one I kneel for."
Shouto closes his eyes, and wills himself not to break. "What is it?"
"You should rest, my Lord," Mashirao says, something near soft, as softly a soldier can afford. "You've been here for hours. I will take the watch for Lady Yaoyorozu."
Shouto does not move. He knows he is being irrational. Weak, he thinks to himself in disgust. You are showing weakness. Frail. Emotional.
Not here. He can't break, yet. Not in front of his soldiers. Never in front of his soldiers.
Shouto stands up.
"There is no need," Shouto makes a leave to the door. "She is safe, here."
Within the walls of the Fire Lord, Momo had said. I am afraid I might be unable to do my job properly.
How ironic — how pitiful, that the soldier is braver than her lord. Braver than he had ever been.
"Yes, my Lord."
The room is devoid of anything but the Avatar, feet and arms chained to poles. He is looking at Shouto, wary.
"Who are you?"
What are you, Shouto?
Shouto does not answer. He brandishes his swords, raising them overhead. The Avatar flinches, shaking —
Shouto cuts the chains with a swing of his sword.
Shouto jerks his shoulder, his mask staring at the Avatar in its frozen, blue painted glare. Come.
The Avatar hesitates — and then, he walks behind Shouto, obedient. Shouto walks silently between the fallen guards. The Avatar follows him. At least the Avatar has the mind not to speak, waiting for Shouto's instructions in silence.
Chattering and taps echo in the hallway. Soldiers. Shouto freezes. Four people. No, six.
"Six people," the Avatar whispers to warn him, needlessly. Shouto appreciates it, though. Shouto nods, kicks open an airway on the ceiling near them and crawls in. The Avatar follows.
They hear chaos as the soldiers find their fallen comrades, Shouto's handiworks.
They captured the Avatar, Mashirao had told him.
Where is he?
What will you do, my Lord? Denki had asked.
Pohuai Stronghold is one of the four Fire Nation's fortress in the west of the Earth Kingdom. Shouto memorized their rooms and sewer pathways when he was eleven, including the map of the fortress' ventilation pathways. Shouto keeps his path in the airway with ease. The Avatar is following behind.
I will do what I must, Shouto had answered.
Soon, they are out in a balcony. The castle is in panic, horns blown and soldiers running. The Avatar has escaped.
It is not easy work to smuggle the Avatar. Shouto finds him too eyecatching, what with his green curls (Shouto knows he doesn't really have the right to say that, though, considering his own appearance), and brown skin. Shouto had a plan of having the Avatar wears a soldier uniform, but they simply have no time. There is no choice but to make their escape with violence.
The Avatar seems to understand, brows pinching, eyes calculating as he looks out the balcony to the crowd below. "We have to fight our way out," the Avatar says.
Shouto gestures to the Avatar to run. The Avatar, again, understands. For once, Shouto is glad for the Avatar's sharp wit.
"Are you saying you will distract them?"
"No offense," the Avatar says weakly, "but I think I would be a better distra — wait!"
Without hesitation, Shouto jumps off the balcony.
He does not use bending — it will give his identity away. Rolling onto the ground, Shouto wields his swords. He sees the Avatar running to the gate, by the rooftops, agile and light. He seems to be floating in the air.
"Blue spirit!" someone says, and all eyes are on him. "Intruder!" another says, and Shouto fights.
"Close the gates!"
Shouto is awfully skilled with swords (his father made sure of that), but without his bending, fighting against dozens prove to be tricky.
You have to get away, Shouto tells himself. Someone manages to get a hit on his shoulder — it burns with pain, but Shouto does not scream; he has had practice with that. If he finds out what you've done —
I will burn your other eye. Then you will be truly useless.
Shouto takes a hit to the torso. He rolls away, on the defense. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck — the soldiers are closing in. He sees men, dozens of them, coming. Reinforcements. Shouto glances at the wall. Can he scale them?
Shouto ducks. A strong gust of wind flies overhead, sending the soldiers hurling. The Avatar stands in front of Shouto, arms raised, as if protecting him. Shouto is dumbfounded by the scene. He had come back, to save Shouto.
He takes it back. The Avatar is stupid. Through his mask, Shouto glares at the Avatar's back.
"Take my hand," the Avatar tells him, holding his hand out.
Shouto takes it. The Avatar yanks, and then — and then he is on the Avatar's back, as the Avatar scales the wall and flies. Shouto is flying.
The world is a blur, night sky, lights, wind. Stars. Shouto hair flies around him, and he hears the shoutings, the horns, as they grew further and further away. Shouto can only focus on his hands, holding onto the Avatar's back. The Avatar underneath him, warm and sturdy.
By some goddamn miracle, they are out. They've escaped.
Shouto thinks: this is impossible. Shouto thinks: well, he is the Avatar.
Something hit Shouto's head, and Shouto, he — he can't think. The world disappears. Someone has shut off the lights.
Shouto dreams of whistling kettle. He dreams of his mother. Shouto tells her, I'm sorry.
(Shouto can't, for the life of him, remember his mother's face without wanting to vomit. In his dreams, though, she looks beautiful. Her hair is moonlight. Her voice, summer rain.)
She tells him, I'm sorry, too. The kettle whistles.
Shouto's world turns into hot, blistering darkness, and it hurts. It burns. It burns, and it hurts, and he can't breathe, and why can't he see? Why can't he see anything?
Mom, Shouto says, why can't I see — ? He can't see her mother's face. What does she look like? He can't remember.
Shouto, his mother sobs, Shouto —
"Shouto! Prince Shouto!"
Shouto's eyes open, and he gasps for air.
The sky is dark, littered with stars. He can breathe. Shouto's lungs burn, as if he had run miles. Above him, the Avatar stares at him, face pale and anxious. When he sees Shouto is conscious, his face significantly releases, giving away tension. He looks relieved.
"Get away," Shouto says, his voice hoarse, and it lacks bite. He sounds pathetic, defenseless.
The Avatar moves away. Shouto watches as the Avatar walks hurriedly behind and sits on the trunk of a tree, right across of him. A good three meters apart. Shouto curses, and tries to calm his breathing.
The air is cold. How long has he been out?
Shouto touches his head. Something had hit him. His hand comes away clean, no blood.
"You were hit by an arrow," the Avatar informs him, ever the helpful. "It hit your mask, though, so I think you are only mildly concussed."
Shouto is not wearing his mask.
The Avatar squirms, his eyes shifting to the ground. Shouto follows his gaze. There, the mask lays, broken. It's blue paint glint under the stars. The Avatar had called him by his name.
"Fuck," Shouto says, and lays back to the ground. It's uncomfortable, and the pebbles are sharp pinpricks under him, but fuck it. He is fucked.
"No one saw you. They don't — they don't know who you are," the Avatar says, his voice assuring, yet unsure of itself.
No one except me.
The words are unsaid, but they both hear it. Shouto takes a deep breath.
"How long was I out?"
"Not long. We just — um. We just got here. I was about to, you know," the Avatar gestures at his shoulder.
So that's why Shouto has been feeling fucked. He inspects his shoulder carefully. It's dislocated. An arrow jut out of his thigh — when did that happen? — and Shouto curses again. It's frozen by the punctured skin ("I froze it to stop the bleeding," the Avatar says in a small voice, as if afraid Shouto will lash at him for stopping his bleeding), but it's not deep, and it missed any vital spots. Pure luck. Shouto sighs.
Well, he did know this was a stupid, batshit idea.
(And he did it. He really fucking did it. Shouto shoves the electric excitement, the absolute fear down into his guts.)
"Why did you … why did you do it?"
Shouto looks at him. The Avatar looks back. He looks older, somehow. Jaw stronger, eyes vivid.
Shouto's stare hardens. "I will be the one to kill the Avatar," Shouto tells him. "I will be the one to bring the Avatar's head to my father. Not them."
It is true. It is why he does it. It is true, and yet, Shouto can't shake the lead weighing down his chest, the ringing in his ears.
The Avatar does not stop looking. Shouto cannot bear it — cannot bear being looked like — like someone rather than something. Shouto looks away.
"Is that why you save me? So you can kill me yourself?"
Shouto sighs again, this time irritably, holding a wince as he checks his shoulder. "I am the Avatar's downfall," he simply says, and he flinches at how sick he sounds. Sick of the words, sick of himself.
"I have a name, you know," the Avatar says, after several seconds of silence. Shouto sees the line of his mouth quirking into a tiny, wobbly smile.
(Shouto refuses to look at him. Shouto pretends his dislocated shoulder is the most interesting thing he has ever seen.)
"It gets kind of tiring getting called the Avatar all the time," the Avatar continues, unabashed by Shouto's unresponsive nature. "I'm not just the Avatar, I mean. I'm me, too."
And something about that — something about that tugs at Shouto's chest.
Shouto thinks he can understand.
Shouto pretends he does not hear him. Shouto lifts his left arm and rotates his hand behind his head slowly.
"Wait," the Avatar makes a movement as if he is going to stand. "What are you — ?"
Shouto reaches for his right shoulder, and his dislocated shoulder pops back into place. Shouto grunts. The Avatar flinches.
Shouto sighs (again), and he hates how tired it is. How worn out (do not show weakness, his father told him, and Shouto tries to ignore that fucking voice). He touches his left shoulder with his right hand, and a thin layer of ice frosts over it in swirling patterns, giving his pain reprieve. Shouto closes his eyes, allowing himself a moment of cold relief.
The Avatar's gaze is heavy on him, but he refuses to spare him a glance. He is determined to pretend that the Avatar is not there. He is determined to pretend that he did not just save the Avatar's life, that killing the Avatar — at least for this moment — is something he doesn't want to do.
The Avatar keeps staring though, and he is opening his mouth and closing it several times, worrying his lips. After a while, it gets annoying (Shouto might be glancing at him discreetly).
"Say it," Shouto grunts. So much for pretending. "Whatever it is you want to say. Stop staring at me."
"Oh. I'm sorry," the Avatar mumbles, sounding embarrassed, dropping his gaze. But then, he says, "it's pretty," and his voice reminds Shouto of Momo. Clear, sincere.
"What?" the question is out before he can help it. Shouto glares at the ground.
The Avatar seems surprised that he is responding at all, like a normal person, probably. It takes him a while to reciprocate. "Your, um. Your bending. It's pretty."
Shouto glares harder at the ground. And then he laughs.
It's short, it's hoarse, and it might not be as bitter as Shouto might think, but it's there.
(He can't help it. He's got an odd sense of humor.)
"If my father hears the Avatar call my bending pretty," Shouto says, "he will strangle me."
And then Shouto relapses back to brooding silence, goes to fix his wounds. To his surprise, though, the Avatar is watching him like — like what, Shouto does not want to think about. Shouto does not like to treat himself in front of others — does not enjoy looking bare and wounded. But he is too tired to find another place to seek privacy. He is going to kill the Avatar after this, anyway.
(Shouto pretends that he is.)
Shouto looks at the arrow dug into his thigh. It's not deep — which is, again, luck — so he figures it will do fine. He sighs for the umpteenth time, and bites down to his fabric of his right sleeve. Shouto melts the ice away and takes the arrow out in one swift moment. "Fuck," Shouto curses again.
"Let me help you."
Shouto tenses — and he feels cold, suddenly,and not from his ice. "Don't be ridiculous," he snaps to the Avatar, his voice ice, eyes fire. You dare to pity me? You dare to think me weak? I'll kill you right here and now.
But the Avatar does not budge. He looks to Shouto's eyes. They are ablaze. Determine.
For the first time since he freed him, Shouto truly looks at the Avatar. He looks — well, exhausted, but none the worse for wear, only light grazes here and there.
You protected him, a voice tells him in his head, accusing, acid. But another voice, another voice, tells him this: you protected him. And it sounds awed. It sounds — content, astonished. Astonished that he can protect, for once, and not hurt. Astonished that Shouto is something other than a thing that inflicts pain.
Shouto glares harder. The Avatar, still, does not budge.
"Let me help you," the Avatar repeats, stubborn. "I can — I can help. If you let me," he adds, "please. You've helped me. Let's make it even."
No, Shouto says in his head. No, fuck off. The words are on the tip of his tongue, yet he does not give voice to them.
"Let me do it, and we'll pretend none of this ever happenned," the Avatar tells him again, and Shouto hates how smart that persuasion is. The Avatar seems to know this, as he looks near content at whatever change is apparent on Shouto's face.
"Do anything funny and I'll kill you," Shouto says as a permission, and the Avatar beams.
"Thank you," he says, as if helping Shouto is something to be thankful of.
The Avatar is stupid.
The Avatar moves forward, slow, as if encountering a scared animal. Shouto scowls. He kneels in front of Shouto, and Shouto blanches at their close proximity. Shouto blanches at how — how his freckles are scattered accross his nose, seemingly in millions. Stars made.
Unnecessary details. Kill him.
Shouto glares to the ground again.
"May — May I?" the Avatar hands hover above his wound. Shouto shivers, unprepared by the inevitability of touch.
"Just do it," grits Shouto.
"Okay," the Avatar says, softly, and touches the ground. The Avatar closes his eyes, and Shouto can't help but wonder at how calm he looks, how transient. How open. As if Shouto is not going to slit his neck at any given moment.
"Let me borrow from you," the Avatar whispers, and Shouto feels the earth shuddering under him, feels the earth letting out a sigh. Water appears from the ground, and trickles to his hands, defying gravity. The Avatar smiles, honest and grateful. "Thank you."
He lifts his hands in a cup, water glowing inside them. Shouto watches he bring them over to his wound, watches how the water shimmers on his skin. It feels soothing, and Shouto closes his eyes, relishing in the sensation.
Then it's gone — and so is the pain.
Shouto looks at the Avatar. Stars made, a miracle brought to life. "You can heal," he says, wonder in his voice, more a statement than a question.
"Ah — yeah, I, uh," the Avatar ducks his head, embarrassed, his curls bouncing lightly as he does so.
Of course, Shouto thinks. It makes sense. Someone so bright — so good. Of course he heals. Of course he has this gift of — of tenderness.
This is what I'm supposed to kill, Shouto realizes. I am his downfall. And suddenly the words no longer feel so empty, anymore, no longer feel as hollow. Suddenly they are heavy, and cold, like everything in Shouto's life. Suddenly they are choking his lungs.
"Your face," the Avatar says, worry in his voice, snapping Shouto out of his thoughts. The Avatar reaches for Shouto's face — with a start, Shouto realizes he is referring to the nasty, blooming bruise on his left cheek. His father's handimade. "it's —"
"Don't touch me," Shouto growls, and the Avatar pulls his hand back. He looks surprised, afraid. Shouto hates it. Shouto hates how he looks.
Shouto stands. Startled, the Avatar yelps and falls to his butt.
Shouto takes his broken mask and sword. He permits himself a last glance at the Avatar. The Avatar is confused, lost — as if disappointed that Shouto is leaving.
"This never happened," Shouto says coldly. And then Shouto leaves, disappears into the night, and he runs, runs, runs, runs.
His father will strangle him. Shouto laughs in death's face.
"The Avatar escaped," Endeavor repeats. The room's temperature is rising rapidly, and yet Shouto feels very, very cold.
The soldier is shaking, cowering. "Yes, my Lord."
"Aided by a single intruder."
The floor made a pitiful sound when the soldier grovels even deeper, scraping his head against it. "Yes, my Lord."
The room flashes red. The soldier screams, clawing at himself, on fire. The guards come without cue, dragging the lit soldier out of the throne room. The door closes, and all is but still.
Endeavor does not usually lash out childishly — he is cruel, but prideful. He does not lash out his fire, his power, on lowly foot soldiers. But Endeavor is not a patient man. The council know this — if they don't, they would not be in one piece for so long — and so they wait in silence, complying to their emperor's current nasty mood.
"I was so close," Endeavor breathes fire. "So close to annihilate the fucking Avatar."
The heat is unbearable. Shouto stares ahead, face carefully blank. He does not allow himself to move a muscle.
"It is you, isn't it, Shouto?"
Shouto's heart stops.
"It really is you, after all. You will be the one to kill him, in the end," his father says, and Shouto nearly throws up right there. "It is your fate. Not anyone else's. "
"Yes, Father," he says blankly.
"What will we do?" one of the generals speak up.
"Will we change plans?"
"Now that the Avatar is free —"
"He will surely aide the Northern Tribe — "
"I will not change plans," Endeavor says. The table turns silent once more.
"And we have the upper hand, don't we?" another general chimes. "Our plan is massacre."
"Yes," Endeavor smiles, feral. "We will kill the moon spirit."
This time, the table errupts in words.
"With the moon spirit gone, the waterbenders will lose their bending."
"They will hold no chance against us."
"They will be destroyed."
"Forgive my impudence, my Lord," a general speaks, a brave soul. "But I do not think it is wise to go against the Avatar and to triffle with the spirits."
Shouto closes his eyes.
"Do you fear the Avatar, so, Takahito?" his father says.
"My Lord," the general answers weakly, "I — "
"Do you fear the spirits," his father sneers, "or do you fear me?"
This is a cruel question. Admitting that one fears Endeavor, that one fears another man, is the same as dishonoring one's self. However, to say that one does not fear Endeavor is to insult the Fire Lord. Takahito knows this. Poor man's jaw clenches, eyes wild.
"Forgive me, my Lord," Takahito finally says, "I serve you only. Not the Avatar, not the spirits. Not anyone."
Good answer. Shouto lets out a slow breath.
"The Avatar is a boy," Endeavor continues, as if Takahito never spoke. "Any man fearing a mere child, and such things as spirits, does not deserve to call himself a firebender, much less a fucking general."
The table bristles. Some aroused by the arrogance, empowered. But some insulted, some ashamed — yet they dare not show it.
Endeavor rules from fear.
"The spirits are killable. They are not immortal. We are no less from them, no, not us. Not the Fire Nation," Endeavor's eyes gleam in the firelight, like a mad man, like a king. "We are gods. Even the spirits have no chance against gods. We will rule. We will burn the moon."
Endeavor rules from mortal pride, from the lust of violence.
The men, drunk from pride, whispers agreement. Eyes blinded. They are gods, they think. They can do anything. They can burn anything. They can burn the moon, if they wish to.
Fire is consumption. Fire is rebirth, fire is gold and fire is power.
Here, Endeavor is god.
"Shouto," Endeavor says. "You will go to the Spirit Oasis, and you will kill the moon spirit. Do you understand?"
Shouto thinks of his mother.
She has moonlight hair. She shines, in his dreams, like the moon.
(Shouto can't remember her face. He can't. Not without breaking.)
The Fire Lord married the princess of the Northern Tribe.
She is blessed, he heard the servants gossip, the soldiers whisper. Talks behind closed doors. The Queen is blessed by the moon.
After all, it is why the Fire Lord married her. A royal marriage.
He wanted the moon's power. He wanted the moon spirit's blood in his children.
She is beautiful. Shame that she went mad.
Will she ever return?
Shouto does not miss a beat. "Yes, Father."
Endeavor smiles. It is teeth. Charcoal. "You will be the prince who made the moon bleed."
"The fleet will leave tomorrow, and you will not come with me."
His aides bristle. They stare at him, hard, but none make a sound.
"And if — if my name is tarnished," Shouto says. "You will leave. You will not make yourself in danger. You will not defend my name."
They gaze harden, jaws clench. But still, they keep silent.
"Speak your mind," Shouto commands.
Denki speaks with no hesitation, his voice crystal clear, "we will wait for you, my Lord," he kneels. And together, they all kneel before him, proud, unmoving. Warriors. Something tugs in Shouto's chest, something burns.
"Rise," Shouto commands. They obey.
"I will return to you as the Fire Lord," Shouto says. "This is an oath I have taken. Will you wait for me?"
"Yes, my Lord," they answer. Their voices hard, and fond.
The Spirit Oasis is beautiful.
The lone waterbender defending it has put up a commendable fight, courageous even surrounded by Fire Nation's soldiers. Even in face of the Fire Lord himself. But against Shouto, her bravery is nothing.
Shouto breathes. The Spirit Oasis is spring, truly an oasis amidst the cold walls of the Northern Tribe. In the pond, two fishes circle in an enthralling, rhythmic dance. The spirits. Shouto walks.
The grass is soft lush underneath his feet. The water is warm.
"Do it, Shouto."
The moon spirit quivers in his hands.
"Kill it," Endeavor says, cold as ever.
I am the Avatar's downfall. I am your weapon. I am your creation.
"I can't," Shouto whispers. "I can't."
Shouto's world is still, as if it's holding its breath.
"Todoroki Shouto," his father sounds like boiling water. Like whistling kettle. Like a promise of years and years of burnt marks, of open wound. "Will you go against me?"
("No," the waterbender whimpers, weak, unable to do anything but watch as she is held by his father's soldiers. "Please.")
Just like how he was taught, Shouto obeys.
The moon spirit writhes in the fire — Shouto's fire — and dies. The moon becomes red. Shouto's world becomes red.
There is that ringing again in his ears — Shouto feels —
Shouto feels a rough, large hand on his shoulder. It is his father's. He has memorized his father's hands long, long ago. The curves of it, the harshness of it. The heat of it. His father tells him, "well done. You will be celebrated, my son. Moonslayer."
The waterbender sobs.
Moments pass. The clouds shift, the moon is hanging, a corpse in the sky. His father has left, long gone — off to lead his army, off to destroy the northern water tribe, off to celebrate their victory — and yet, Shouto cannot move. He has done something very, very terrible. Shouto knows this. He has just killed something holy. Touched something no human must. He has propelled a massacre, defile nature.
Look at you. You weapon. You open wound. You dared to think you can save them —
I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry.
— you dared to think you are not your father.
"Tsuyu!" the Avatar. He stumbles into the garden, his voice full of horror. "What happened?"
Shouto does not bother to look, to move. His fingers are limp around the moon spirit's form.
"The moon spirit is gone," the waterbender answers. "It's — it's over."
It's over. It truly is over. His father has won. Shouto has won.
"No, it is not," the Avatar says, and his voice is desperate, shaking. Shouto hates it. "It is not. There must be a way."
"Prince Shouto." the waterbender says, and Shouto nearly does not notice as she kneels in front of him. Her hand is touching the moon spirit, dead in Shouto's palms. Her face is solemn, devastated, but not unkind. "You carry the blessing of the moon spirit, from your mother's blood. You carry the moon's life force in you."
The moon spirit whom he just killed. Burnt to death. You weapon.
"Yes," Shouto says, and even to himself he sounds void, like he isn't a person. He sounds hollow, lost. "I do."
I was a stillborn, Shouto, his mother had said. A long, long time ago. I was given life, by the moon.
The moon lives within you, too.
The waterbender looks at him, and she looks — sad, very sad, and yet she looks as if she still has hope. Shouto wonders how it would feel like, to have hope. "You only have half of it, but it might just do. It might — it might give us a chance."
Shouto stares at her, and then he understands.
"You regret it, don't you?" she insists, but not forcefully. "You did not wish to kill it."
She is right, immensely, but Shouto does not reply. Shouto looks to the creature in his hands, and it seems to shift into something else. A rabbit. A moon spirit. The Avatar.
Shouto is a murderer.
"It is your choice, Prince Shouto," the waterbender lowers herself to the ground, and bow. Shouto watches her tears fall into the grass, glimmering red under the bloodied moon. Shouto's chest wrenches. "However. I beg of you. Please."
Shouto puts the dead moon spirit into the water. It floats to the surface, lifeless. He stands, and takes a trembling step towards the pond —
Something yanks him back. Too out of it to react, Shouto can only look at whoever it is in surprise.
It is the Avatar. His hold is tight on Shouto's wrist, and the look on his eyes is of horror and — something. Something hard, and pained. "Wait," the Avatar says, out of gritted teeth. His eyes blown wide, conflicted. "If you do this, you will die."
If he does this, he will die. Shouto knows that.
Shouto has fear. Shouto fears his father, but death? And a death so contrite, a death of sacrifice? It almost seems too good, for someone — something like him, to die in such a sacred way. To die for a good cause.
Giving his life to the moon, becoming martyred.
"There must be another way," the Avatar says, and Shouto thought he couldn't sound more desperate. "There has to be."
But the Avatar does not understand. For something like Shouto, it seems unfit. Shouto does not deserve a death so kind. Shouto does not deserve to save lives.
For someone like Shouto, this kind of death is a privilege.
Shouto thinks to himself: are you a fucking idiot? And then he thinks, I deserve this. And then he thinks, please. Let me have this. Let me finish this.
Before Shouto can give voice to his thoughts, though, someone calls his name: "Shouto!"
Shouto turns, and then his world holds its breath once more. Shouto wonders if he is dreaming.
(Her hair is moonlight, her voice, summer rain.)
The Avatar releases his hold, but Shouto does not notice. Behind him, the waterbender and the Avatar grovels to the ground. "Princess," the Waterbender says, but Shouto cannot hear it. To Shouto, at this moment, nothing matters. His world shuts down, and he only has eyes for his mother.
His mother, who is standing in the middle of the Spirit Oasis.
Shouto does not know when, but his knees gave. He has fallen to the ground, clawing at the ground. Distantly, he feels himself shaking. "I'm sorry," he hears himself whisper. He sounds like he was seven again, trembling before his mother. "I'm so sorry."
Will she ever return?
I don't think so. She is banished, after what she did to the Prince. The Lord had her sent back to her tribe.
His mother comes to him, slowly. Her hair looks like comet in the moonlight, shining red. She looks like she is dreaming — looking at Shouto like he isn't real, like he is a dream thing. She is close, now, and she looks older than he remembers. Paler. But she is real. She is very, very real.
"Shouto," she whispers back. "Shouto."
She reaches a hand to his face and Shouto flinches, hard, as if in pain, as if to hide half his face — half of his father, from her sight. Unsightly, Shouto thinks to himself. Unsightly. You are unsightly.
"I'm sorry," Shouto chokes, and when he dares to look, his mother face is inches from his — she is kneeling to meet him. She is crying, tears in rivulets, gleaming red like blood.
"It's going to be okay, Shouto," she says, and she kisses him, on his left cheek. And then on his forehead. And then on his hair. Her tears are warm on Shouto's brows. "Everything is going to be okay."
She kisses him for the last time, right on his scar. And then she smiles, and it is wonderful. She whispers, and she sounds as if she is saying the truest thing in the world. "You are so, so beautiful," she tells him, mouth pressing to his forehead. "My son. My Shouto. I love you."
Shouto wants to speak, he wants to hug her, kiss her, apologize, cry — he wants to say everything he never dared to give voice to, all the regrets, all the anger, all the love and all the forgiveness. He wants to tell her, I love you too, always. Even after you left. Even after all these years. Even after everything.
But Shouto's tongue is lead in his mouth, and his arms limp in his mother's embrace. His lungs never felt so full.
And then she lets him go. She stands, and Shouto watches as she steps into the pond, and then the pond becomes a pool of moonburst. She shines. Blinding white. Shouto wonders why everyone he loves blind him so.
The light dissipates. Shouto retrieves his mother's body. His mother's hair, black as night against her pale, pale skin. Underneath her, the moon spirit glimmers to life. In the sky, the moon returns, silver and lovely.
Shouto brushes his fingers across her cheek. She is real, she is real. Her face is serene. She is warm still, but she is not breathing. She is dead. The moon spirit laps at Shouto's feet, forgiving.
Shouto buries his face into his mother's hair and screams.
The Fire Nation retreats. Endeavor is a volatile, cackling fury made man. The ship seems to cower underneath him, as it drifts away from the Northern Tribe. The soldiers are silent with fear.
"Shouto," Endeavor roars. "You will be punished."
Shouto has been a coward his whole life, but not now. Not now.
"I do not obey you," Shouto says. "I do not take orders from you."
Shouto is afraid. But Shouto is always afraid. The fear has never seemed to leave him. It's constant, permanent, burnt to his skin like a scar. But not now.
"What did you say?"
"I do not obey you," Shouto repeats, and he is trembling. He wills himself to look at Endeavor in the eye, for once in his life, and Shouto sees nothing. Nothing but fire, nothing but bottomless greed. There is no father in those eyes. Only a smoldering violence.
Shouto says it again. "I do not take orders from you."
Endeavor stands, and his body is a pillar of flames. Sweltering starlight. Around him, the ship catches fire. "You seem to forget, Shouto. I have been too soft on you," Endeavor says, and his voice reverberates with power. Like a god, it's cold, empty. "I have been far too lenient. You disrespect my kindness."
There is it again, that nasty part in Shouto. The one waiting for the hit, for the burn. The one singing the whistling kettle. The one begging to just give in. Take the pain. Do not speak. Do not fight back. This is how you survive.
This is your home.
This is all you've ever known.
"Remember that I made you. You are my son."
I love you, his mother said. My son. My Shouto.
I love you, his father said. I do this because I love you.
And Shouto remembers. Barely, but he remembers.
This — this is not love.
"I am not your son," Shouto says. "I am not you."
Endeavor laughs. It's cruel, it's furious. It's void of anything. Endeavor tells him, "I will burn you to nothing."
Endeavor is blinding, now, flames licking his skin, wrapping around him like a suit, he is a star fire. He will burn Shouto to nothing, Shouto believes it, but at least — at least —
"I am not yours," Shouto says. His voice is true, loud, and clear. Brave, in its cowardiness. Shouto looks at death in the eye. "Not anymore."
Endeavor's eyes are pure fury, as he burns.
Shouto's vision is alight, and then —
Seawater floods the ship in a miniscule tsunami, washing everything away. The iron of the ship's floors cracks and towers to the sky, a barrier between Endeavor and Shouto. A flying bison growls in the sky, and Shouto is suddenly looking at the Avatar.
The Avatar looks back. He is holding out his hand.
"Take my hand," he tells Shouto. There is that look again — that brave, blinding look. That devastating determination. For the first time in Shouto's life, something outshines his father.
Shouto takes his hand.
And once more, he is flying.
"This is a shit fucking idea, Deku!"
"Shh — he can hear you!"
"Katsuki, you are being quite crude at the moment —"
"Kacchan, please — "
"I don't fucking care if he hears me!"
"Katsuki, he just lost his," the waterbender's voice lowers into a sad whisper. "He's just lost his mother."
The boy with blond hair scowls. "It's his fault, anyway," he says, and receives five glares from his companions. "Tch. Whatever."
Somehow, Shouto has thought that riding on a flying bison would be much faster. But it's a slow, lazy shift through the clouds. And it's much more crowded. The Avatar's little band has grown considerably.
The Avatar and the girls glance at him in a scared, apologetic kind of way, as if expecting Shouto to start a fire at any moment. But Shouto stays dormant. He does not — does not care. It's not like the blond boy is wrong. It's not like words can hurt him more than the truth.
The blond boy does not say anything else, and the bickering gradually stops, reverting into an awkward silence.
Shouto does not mind. He does not want to speak. He isn't sure if he wants to do anything at all.
"U-um, do you want some water?"
The Avatar. Shouto barely gives him a glance. He shakes his head.
"Oh. Okay. Well, if you change your mind, uh — it's. You can ask. I mean," the Avatar clears his throat nervously. "Prince Shouto."
You are my son.
"Don't call me that," Shouto says, immediately. He holds the Avatar's gaze for a second before looking away. "I'm not — I'm not a prince. Not anymore."
Not anymore. Shouto is now a traitor to his father's nation, Shouto realizess with faint wonder. For the first time in his life, he is not the crown prince. He is not his father's weapon. He is not … whatever he was before.
He is just Shouto.
The Avatar's voice softens. Less nervous. He says, "Okay, Shouto."
"Your name," Shouto mutters.
"Your name," Shouto repeats, louder this time. He turns to look at him. "You told me you had a name."
The Avatar smiles. "Izuku," he says. "My name is Izuku. Nice to meet you, Shouto."
The sky surrounds him, and Shouto closes his eyes.
Shouto dreams of spring. He dreams of the sun. And Shouto dares to wish, for the first time in forever. He dares to hope.
He dreams of golden green leaves, and he wishes he does not wake.