Zuko's memories of the Ember Island Players had done a disservice to their talent. Until tonight he had thought that it was impossible, but they were actually worse than he remembered. In the back of his mind, he questioned whether part of it might have to do with the fact he was being portrayed as an honor obsessed twit. '...No, they are just worse than I remembered.' He thought, trying to convince himself that was true as his actor stormed off the stage screaming 'honor' repeatedly. Shortly after that, the scene changed to something that vaguely resembled the catacombs under Lake Laogai with the actors of the Aang and Jet fighting the Dai Li. Zuko didn't pay much attention until Jet's actor disappeared beneath a boulder. 'Wait, did that mean...'
"Did Jet just...die?" Zuko asked surprised.
"You know, that was really unclear." Sokka answered before turning his attention back to the stage as his character delivered a cheesy one liner that had the audience laughing. "I wrote that!" Sokka exclaimed, nearly hitting Suki as he pumped his fists in the air.
"Yes, I know." She said, clearly annoyed "I was there when you gave him those lines, remember?" Sensing her annoyance, he quickly planted a kiss on her cheek.
"If it wasn't for you I wouldn't have been able to sneak back stage to give them to him. You are the best girlfriend a guy could ask for!" A small smile crept upon her lips.
"Oh Sokka, you're such a goof."
"But I'm your goof!" Sokka said happily while throwing his arms around her.
Zuko quickly turned away, before they got to the mushy couple talk. 'Surely, Mai and I weren't like that when we were together... Right?' The thought of her brought a knot to his stomach remembering how she had saved them at the Boiling Rock, becoming a traitor to the Fire Nation in the process. 'Mai, I hope you're alright.' He shook his head, worrying about her now wouldn't help her. He knew the best thing he could do for her now was to help Aang defeat the Firelord. However, his mind wandered back to what happened at Lake Laogai and Jet. His actor had not appeared again like any of the other characters who had disappeared before. In a play where the writer seemed to try and bring back a lot of the characters, it didn't look very good for Jet. He looked over towards Katara in hopes of asking her but quickly decided against it upon seeing her venomously glowering at Toph, who was laughing at Katara's actress.
"Hope is the most important thing in the we have! Without hope, we would hopelessly wander this cruel world..." the actress declared melodramatically in between sobs.
"I don't sound like that!" Katara said angrily towards Toph.
"And I am not a woman!" Aang interjected as his actress leap upon stage, giggling girlishly. Sensing that an arguement was about to occur, Zuko hurriedly looked forward and pretended to be interested in the play, knowing that asking about anything that might remind them of the play would probably be disastrous. 'I'll just wait until we get back to the house,' Zuko thought 'By then, everyone should have calmed down."
* * *
As it turned out, no one had been in the mood to talk once they had left the play. After watching their stage counterparts killed on stage as the Firelord claimed victory, everyone had quietly slunk off to their rooms, including Zuko. When he had managed to fall asleep, he had dreamt he had been crushed by falling rocks while his sister watched happily. After that, Zuko, unable to fall back asleep, had gone to sit on the wooden steps that lead to the courtyard. With everyone else sleeping, Zuko was left alone, wondering about everyone's reaction to Jet's death in the play. 'If he had died, why didn't they say anything?' He was wrapped up in these thoughts when he heard the floorboards creak behind him. He instinctively spun around, prepared to blast away the intruder, only to see a groggy Sokka standing behind him.
"What are you doing up so late?" Sokka trying to rub the sleep from his eyes as he joined Zuko on the steps.
"I couldn't sleep. Then, I got to thinking about the play and-" Zuko stopped, unsure of how to phrase the next part "- how Jet died." To Zuko's shock, Sokka snickered.
"That part of the play was pretty corny. Not to mention his actor couldn't act his way out of-"
"I'm talking about someone you knew!" interrupted Zuko angrily "How could you guys just sit there and watch that on stage! He was your friend and you guys don't say anything when you saw him die!" Sokka looked at Zuko with a mixture of guilt and sadness.
"You were talking about the real Jet, then?" Sokka asked, his voice practically a whisper. They sat awkwardly for awhile before Zuko spoke.
"I knew him." Zuko's revelation caused Sokka to nearly fall off the steps.
"You- him- how is that even possible? He hated the Fire Nation!"
"We met on a ship headed for Ba-Sing-Se while Uncle and I were pretending to be refugees from the war."
"You guys weren't pretending if I remember correctly." Sokka interjected. To his surprise Zuko smirked.
"Alright then, we were pretending to be Earth Nation refugees. Is that better?"
"Just wanted to make sure you were getting your facts straight, buddy."
"As I was saying," Zuko continued "when the ship's captain was refusing to give the passengers decent food, the two of us snuck into the ship's pantry and stole enough to feed the other passengers. We talked during the trip and he told me the Freedom Fighters. He even offered for me to join his group but I refused." Zuko paused and frowned " After that, it got weird."
"What do you mean by weird, exactly?" Sokka asked, confused.
"I think he saw Uncle fire bend at the station because the next time I saw him he attacked me. Jet accused me of being a fire bender and tried to get me to fire bend to prove it. However, I was able to fight him off with my two broadswords before the Dai Li arrested him." Sokka let out a low whistle.
"Jet and you duking it out with swords. I would have paid good money to see that fight." Sokka looked towards Zuko but saw the guilt on his face. "Zuko, you can't blame yourself for what happened to him. First off, Jet would have never let you help him. He was too proud to accept help from anyone who was Fire nation. Second, lets say, somehow, he had enough cactus juice not to care what nation you were from, when we went up against the Dai Li with Jet and his friends, we had a hard time and almost didn't make it out. How do you think the two of you would have fared up against them?" Sokka paused, frustratedly running his hand through his hair. "Besides you weren't there. We should have seen that Long Feng was leading Aang and Jet into a trap. I shouldn't have let the group get separated."
"You aren't anymore to blame than I am according to your earlier logic." Zuko said, surprised at the remorse in Sokka's voice
"I know but I guess its just hard to believe he is gone. We never really had time to think about it. Right after we escaped from Lake Laogai, we went straight to the Earth King to convince him of Long Feng's cover up. Then we were wrapped up in invasion plans with the generals when Azula captured Ba-Sing-Se. After that we were just trying to keep Aang alive." Sokka's voice faded and the two of them sat in silence for several minutes, neither one sure of how to continue the conversation. After a few fail attempts to start up the conversation again, Sokka stood up suddenly and walked over to one of the lanterns. "Zuko, do you have a toy boat that could carry this lantern." Zuko stared at Sokka, flabbergasted.
"What on earth does that have to do with anything?" Zuko exclaimed. However, Sokka appeared unperturbed as he took the lantern off the hook.
"Do you have one?" Sokka asked again.
"Yeah, I should have one lying around here but-"
"Just trust me on this! Bring the toy boat to the beach and I'll meet you there." Sokka said excitedly as he left, leaving a confused Zuko behind him. Despite his confusion, Zuko quietly snuck back to the room where the beach toys and gear from those long ago summers were stored. After a few minutes of digging he found one that he figured would work. It was more of a toy raft but it was large enough to support the lantern. Satisfied with his find, Zuko headed for the beach where he found Sokka spreading some sort of paste to the bottom of the lantern.
"What are you doing?" Sokka looked up at Zuko question.
"I'm using a sap mixture from the trees to make sure this lantern will stick to the boat." Sokka looked up and grabbed the toy boat "This should do nicely." He then promptly placed the lantern on top of it.
"No, I mean what are you doing this for?"
"My dad told me that there was a Earth Nation village he went to that remembered their dead by sending out floating lanterns to sea so their spirits will be lead back to the spirit world. I don't know what customs Jet's village had but I think it would be a good way to remember him."
"Do you think we should wait for the others to do this?" Zuko asked. Sokka looked away, ashamed at his answer.
"I thought about that but I don't think it would be the best thing for Aang right now. He's going to have to face the Firelord soon. It is not a good idea to remind him of the people we've lost already." Zuko knew it was true and Aang was already having problems with the idea of having to kill the Firelord. Reminding him of how Jet was killed by Long Feng wouldn't help him in the slightest.
"When we defeat my father, there will be time when we can properly remember those we've lost. Until then, this will have to do." Zuko paused, as the thought occurred to him that if things did not go according to plan, anyone of them could join those already lost. To shake off the thought, he decided to change the subject "Alright, so how does this work exactly?"
"I figured we could say a few words before lighting the candle and sending it adrift." Zuko nodded and they silently walked to the edge of the beach and knelt besides the water, "I'll go first, I guess." Sokka said, after small pause, he began "Jet, I know that we didn't exactly get along when we met the first time but when it really came down to it, you were there to back us up in Ba-Sing-Se. Even back in the forest, you were just trying to protect your Freedom Fighters and do the right thing. Blowing up a dam to flood a village is wrong, of course, but I think you understood that eventually. In the end, you were a honorable warrior and our friend." Satisfied with this, Sokka looked towards Zuko to let him know he could start.
Zuko tried to figure out what to say, thinking about what he knew about Jet. He had been so consumed with his hatred on the fire nation that nothing else mattered. In a way, Jet reminded Zuko of himself before he had joined Aang and his group. "I think I understand you, Jet. I also was hurt by the fire nation and kept searching for the Avatar, even when I began to realize that I had taken it too far. On that journey, I met others whose lives had been devastated by my nation's actions and understood that the war was not the noble cause they had told me. I promise that, when I become Firelord, I will do everything in my power to make sure that what happened to you and countless others during the war will never be done by my soldiers during my reign. Hopefully this will bring you some peace." Zuko lit the candle and placed the boat on the water. With a bit of prodding in the right direction, it finally began a lazy drift towards the horizon. Looking out as it made its journey, Zuko could not help but feel as though the burden he had felt earlier had gone with the lantern. A sense of peace washed over him as he looked out upon the small light and he knew they had done the right thing. They both sat there watching the flickering light as it headed towards open water. How long they sat there, he did not know but, when they finally lost sight of the lantern, there was a subtle change in the sky that suggested morning was coming soon.
"We had better head back." Zuko said, standing up. He helped Sokka up and they began the trek back to the beach house. After a few steps though, Sokka stopped. "What's wrong?" Zuko asked.
"I forgot something!" Sokka turned towards the ocean and shouted, "Jet, if you meet Yue you'd better be respectful! If I get over there and hear otherwise, Agni help you!" Zuko put a hand on Sokka's shoulder.
"Relax, I'm sure the moon can take care of herself." Zuko said with a hint of a laugh.
"I suppose your right." Sokka replied, looking a bit encouraged. Sokka moved forward but Zuko didn't follow. "Zuko, are you alright?"
"I'm fine. I just wanted to thank you for doing that with me." Zuko said. Sokka smiled tiredly as he responded.
"Don't mention it. I think I needed that just as much as you did. It felt good to let some of that guilt go. I mean, it doesn't change what happened but Jet can rest knowing that he will be remembered." After that statement, Sokka failed to stifle a yawn, betraying his lack of sleep. "Come on, if we head back now we maybe able to get a hour or two of sleep before everyone gets up." It was then that Zuko became aware of how tired he was, fighting back a yawn of his own.
"Sleep sounds great." Zuko agreed. When they had made it back, Zuko went to his room and collapsed on his bed, quickly falling asleep.
The nightmare he had earlier didn't come back.