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Fading Embers

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Zuko glared down at the ground, irritation a constant thrum in his veins. Every moment they spent in this Agni-forsaken place only reminded him of what he'd lost.

The Avatar. My home. My honour. It's all gone.

He knew they should be moving - they'd been drifting for three weeks, all his leads on the Avatar were gone - but for some reason, his uncle didn't want to. No, the old man seemed to be doing anything and everything but search for the Avatar again.

Tea and massages were one thing. But now shells?

It was ridiculous.

Uncle Iroh prattled on about the shells being magnificent or something that Zuko didn't catch, the fire in his veins now pounding in his ears.

"We don't need any more useless things!" he snapped, "You forget, we have to carry everything ourselves now!"

His uncle looked hurt for a moment, but any response was choked by a sudden awareness of the third person in the room.

"Hello, brother. Uncle," came the sickly sweet greeting from one person Zuko didn't want to see again. Confusion and fear bounced in his heart, bursting forth as an expression of anger.

"What are you doing here?" he yelled.

She smirked, looking at one of Uncle's new shells. "In my country, we exchange a pleasant hello before asking questions." She stood and headed towards him, the darkness in her words not so easily hidden. "Have you become so uncivilised so soon, Zuzu?"

"Don't call me that!" was what he shouted, but it could've been I'm not uncivilised! or it's my country too! or what are you doing so far from home Azula?

"To what do we owe this honour?" his uncle managed, and Zuko suppressed a snort of amusement. Honour. His sister didn't know what honour meant. She certainly didn't deserve it.

But she's not scarred and banished, is she?

Azula spoke again, pulling Zuko from his thoughts. "Must be a family trait, both of you so quick to get to the point." She broke the shell, smirking at Uncle's clear discomfort. "I've come with a message from home: Father's changed his mind."

Zuko froze, the rest of her words dying before they could reach his ears, his whole self reeling from that one sentence.

Father's changed his mind.

Father's changed his mind.

Father's changed his mind.

Azula was still talking, but he didn't really catch it, couldn't hear over the rush in his chi. His father wanted him home, he'd changed his mind, it all seemed to good to be true but oh, Zuko wanted so badly for it to be real.

"Did you hear me?" Azula huffed, and no, he didn't, but he heard enough. "You should be happy. Excited. Grateful. I just gave you good news."

He turned away from her, staring into nothing as his mind struggled to process what she was saying.

"I'm sure your brother simply needs a moment," Uncle said, and it was true.

Zuko needed more than just a moment, but of course, his sister wouldn't give him that.

"I still haven't heard my thank you," she snapped, "I'm not a messenger. I didn't have to come all this way."

So why did you? Zuko wondered, blinking as he realised she was expecting a response.

"Father regrets? He...wants me back?" His voice broke on the words, sounding even more true yet more impossible as they hung in the air.

Azula said something else before leaving, but he didn't catch it, sinking down to his knees as soon as he felt she was gone.

"Zuko?" Uncle's hand reached towards him, then hesitated. Zuko stared at the ground.

"He...he really wants me back?" he whispered.

Uncle was silent for far too long. "Zuko...be careful of Azula."

Azula always lies, a memory of his younger self reminded him.

He stood up, pushing past Uncle and ignoring the whispers in his head. He could go home, things could go back to the way they were-

But was that really so pleasant?

"Shut up," Zuko hissed, looking around the room for anything worthwhile that he could bring. His belongings were practically nonexistent, thanks to Zhao and the Avatar and everyone else who was against him, but he still had a few things.

The Blue Spirit mask, for one.

His duel dao swords had been lost, but the mask was easy to replace, picked up - stolen - from a market stand in the last town they'd passed. He could've just left it, put his temporary days as the Blue Spirit behind him, but something about the mask drew him in. It was just a theatre mask, for Agni's sake, a side character from his favourite play.

But the Blue Spirit was more than that. He was a fighter on no-one's side, mysterious and illusive, silent and skilled.

He was also wanted by the Fire Nation, so it would be stupid for Zuko to put that mask in his bag, along with the dark clothing that the Blue Spirit wore.

It was stupid, but he did it anyway.

Uncle left him alone until nightfall, coming in to see as he finished up packing.

"We're going home," Zuko said as a greeting, "After three long years, it's unbelievable!" He was unable to keep the joy from his tone.

"It is unbelievable. I have never known my brother to regret anything."

Zuko's heart sank, knowing that Uncle made a valid point, but he couldn't let this go. He couldn't.

"Did you listen to Azula?" he exclaimed, "Father's realised how important family is to him! He cares about me!"

He has to care about me, I'm his son, he must care, he's got to...

His uncle turned to him, expression borderline desperate. "I care about you!" he cried, and those words struck Zuko's heart, but were bounced back after hitting the rising wall of anger. "And if Ozai wants you back, well, I think it might not be for the reasons you imagine," Uncle continued.

Zuko clenched his fists and turned away. "You don't know how my father feels about me. You don't know anything!" He has to care, you're wrong, Azula wasn't lying, she can't have been lying. Not this time.

"Zuko, I only meant that in our family, things are not always what they seem."

You're wrong!

Heat seered through his veins, and he turned to his uncle with fire on his lips and anger on his tongue. "I think you're exactly what you seem! A lazy, mistrustful, shallow old man who's always been jealous of his brother!"

Zuko stormed out of the room, the fire chilling awfully quickly and filling him with a strong sense of guilt. Agni, he'd just hurt the one person who'd stuck by him all this time...

But is he really with me? He thinks Oz- my father doesn't want me back, but he has to... Maybe I've done enough... Maybe he's satisfied with my efforts and will restore my honour even though I didn't complete my quest...

His mind whirring, Zuko waited until Uncle had left the room before re-entering it, and settling down on the small bed. He had an important day tomorrow; he needed his sleep.

But of course, he couldn't, instead staring up at the cracks in the ceiling, the voices in his head unwilling to let him rest.

Azula always lies-

Not this time. Father wants me back-

Father burnt and banished me-

But it was my fault, I deserved it-

He's cruel, he's always been cruel, he never loved me-

He cares now! He does care, he has to care-

He's never cared, why would he care now-

"Shut up," Zuko hissed, clenching his fists. Fire sparked from his fingertips, singeing the bedsheets, and he cursed, stamping out the flames before sitting upright, pushing all thoughts of sleep from his mind. It was impossible; he couldn't rest with his thoughts a raging, fiery hurricane.

Dawn came, and with it the sun, greeting him with the familiar warmth inside that immediately helped some of the exhaustion. Zuko seized his bags and slung them over his shoulder, wasting no time in descending the stone staircase.

If he paused to think any more, he wouldn't do anything, and he couldn't afford that.

"Wait!" came a welcome voice, "Don't leave without me!"

Zuko couldn't help the smile spreading across his face. "Uncle! You've changed your mind!"

"Family sticks together, right?" Uncle commented, his hand resting on Zuko's shoulder. He was suddenly reminded of a time long ago, much happier days - his father's hand on his shoulder, gentle rather than hard and bruising - then blinked, centering himself in the present again.

"We're finally going home," he said, still hardly daring to believe it. They descended the last of the stairs together, then headed down to the harbour, where his sister's ship awaited. Zuko was undeniably happy to see that flag waving, elation swelling as each step took him closer to the land from which he was banished. Three years since he'd seen his home.

It was far too long.

Azula stood at the end of a line of Fire Nation soldiers, proud and firm, the very picture of royalty that he should've been, but could never achieve.

But none of that mattered now. He was going home.

Zuko bowed when they reached the ship, his uncle mimicking the motion.

"Brother! Uncle! Welcome," Azula greeted, "I'm so glad you decided to come."

"Are we ready to depart, Your Highness?" the captain asked.

Azula grinned. "Set our course for home, captain."

"Home," Zuko breathed, following the captain up the ramp. This is it, I'm finally returning, this is really happening-

"-taking the prisoners home!"

What?

Zuko froze, and everything went quiet, the captain's eyes widening in horror.

"Your Highness, I-" he stammered, but was cut off as Uncle immediately attacked the guards nearest to him. Zuko stood frozen, his heart racing, hurt and disbelief churning in his mind.

She... Azula... She lied?

...Of course she did.

Horrified, he turned to his sister, but was knocked back by something slamming into him. Zuko grunted in pain as he fell off the ramp, hitting the harbour decking with such force, he felt something in him give way. Gasping, he tried to get up, but his head was ringing, blood pounding in his ears, and he couldn't tell if it was fractured ribs or emotional hurt that was restricting his breathing.

Rough hands grasped his arms and hauled him to his feet, pulling his hands back and clamping something cold around his wrists. He gasped as the fires within him froze, the temperature in his hands immediately dropping as his chi thrashed uselessly against the metal.

"Zuko!" his uncle cried, shooting fire at advancing soldiers in a desperate attempt to reach him. Zuko's body was unresponsive as the soldiers dragged him back towards the ship, but he managed to meet his uncle's eyes and shake his head.

Go.

Chapter Text

Zuko groaned, coming back to consciousness slowly, blinking to try and clear the blurriness from his vision. His arms hurt, for some reason, and so did his head, but why exactly, he wasn't sure.

In fact, where was he? Hadn't he and Iroh been drifting at sea?

"Ah, Zuzu. So glad to see you're finally awake."

He stiffened, eyes widening as his sister came into view, a large smirk on her face.

"Don't look so confused, Dum-Dum," she continued, "Or have you forgotten what happened?"

Zuko wracked his brain, but that only made his head hurt worse. The last thing he remembered was coming up onto shore after drifting endlessly at sea. He didn't remember passing out, or seeing Azula, or anything like that.

"Hmm, let me remind you." Blue flames danced in the palm of her hand as she advanced, illuminating her clearly. "We're going home, Zuzu. Father's orders."

"What?" he gasped, then winced. Agni, his throat was sore.

Azula's eyes widened. "You seriously don't remember?" she exclaimed.

Zuko shook his head.

His sister frowned, then her usual smirk quickly returned. "Don't worry, you didn't miss much. Just me rescuing you, and you being a Dum-Dum, as usual."

He suddenly became aware of exactly why his arms were hurting; they were secured up above his head. No, not secured - chained. Horror shot through him, and he immediately stumbled back, but he hit the wall far too soon.

Azula kept advancing. "You really kicked off after I dragged you off that beach, so I had to restrain you, for your own good."

Zuko swallowed. "Where...where's Uncle?" he managed.

Azula stopped. "You forgot that, too?"

"Forget what?" he rasped, "Azula, what-?"

"He's gone. Uncle didn't make it."

Zuko gasped, the words a knife to his heart, and he turned away as his eyes began to well up. "No," he breathed, "He, he can't be, he was fine, he was o-okay before-" His fists clenched, ignoring the pain shooting through his arms, and he felt the fires heating up inside of him, but they were trapped, and his hands and feet were cold, the fires blocked from being released.

He settled for a scream instead of a fireblast.

Azula just stood there, scowling, until his scream turned into violent coughs that sent sharp pains through his chest.

"You're being so pathetic," she spat, and he knew she wasn't lying this time, because he really was pathetic. He was tired and in pain and confused and full of grief and he wanted to just be angry, he could deal with that emotion, but the furnace inside of him was uncomfortably empty.

Azula spun on her heel to leave, and Zuko had to swallow back the plea for her to release his arms from where they were chained up to the wall; though he was incredibly uncomfortable, wanting nothing more than to lie down, he couldn't show any more weakness to her. So she left, not even bothering to close the door to what he realised was a cell, as he couldn't exactly move far, anyway.

He was alone, and trapped, and he didn't want to be scared or hurting but those feelings surged forward as a torrent, threatening to overwhelm him. Zuko lowered his head, ragged breaths sending spikes through his chest, and dimly he realised some of his ribs were likely bruised, if not fractured.

What happened that I can't remember? He tried to think back to when Azula supposedly found him, but the only response was an increased pounding in his head, so he stopped. Instead he thought back to his conversation with her, still confused over some things she said.

We're going home, Zuzu. Father's orders.

Zuko's heartrate accelerated, and he looked down at the thick cuffs wrapped around his ankles. Father's orders? So why am I-
"Zhao," he breathed. Agni, he'd let the admiral die, and because he hadn't been successful in his capture of the Avatar the rest of the navy had suffered and they were all dead.... 

And now his uncle was gone, too.

It's all my fault. If I hadn't been such a failure, they would all still be alive. Father must be so ashamed-

But I'm going home! That's good-

I'm in chains, it's clear I'm not welcome-

It's just a precaution, maybe to stop moving so I can heal-

They're blocking my firebending, it's more than that-

He felt like he'd had this argument with himself before.

Azula always lies. Something she's saying isn't true.

That, at least, was something all the voices in his mind could agree on. But how to tell the truth from the lies? Zuko had no idea.

All he knew was that he was trapped, somewhere, and it was Azula who had put him here. He also knew that his hands and feet were freezing over, his chi unable to flow through to them, cutting off his firebending and leaving him cold inside.

No. Not completely, he reminded himself, thinking back to how he'd survived at the North Pole, how he kept on surviving.

Zuko took a deep breath, willing the flames inside to fan into life, then breathed out again. In, out. In, out. Again and again and again until finally the warmth rose in his chest, and steam slipped past his lips. Zuko grinned; he was never completely helpless.

I'm not going to give up, Uncle. I promise you that.

Chapter Text

Zuko tried to hold on to the warmth of consciousness, he really did, but after a while he started to drift, only jolting awake as his weight fell to his now-raw wrists. His legs ached from standing for so long, and he just wanted to sleep now, but Azula hasn't returned and he couldn't move without aggravating his wrists further. Every hour she didn't return pressed the truth that he really was a prisoner deeper and deeper into him, like the cuffs that rubbed his skin until he bled.

So when his sister finally showed up, the little voice that hope of returning home was too cold and hungry and exhausted to speak.

"Hello, Zuzu. How are you feeling?"

"Tired," he confessed, "Can you...let me down?" He let all his exhaustion seep into his tone, deliberately.

Azula frowned. "It's for your own good, Dum-Dum. You attacked me, remember? And you hurt yourself in the process."

"I'm fine now. I just... I want to sleep," he let his voice break slightly, which wasn't hard, with his throat being completely dry.

"I'm sure you can sleep standing. Sorry, Zuzu, can't let you down until you're given the all-clear," Azula said sweetly, "Take care, brother." She turned and sashayed out, leaving Zuko to glare at her back.

That had been a test, and she'd failed.

He was stupid enough to feel hurt that his own sister was keeping him a captive, but then again, this was Azula. She was the kid who threw rocks at turtleducks and burnt her dolls to ashes.

And he was, technically, a traitor. Especially after he fought Zhao.

I've got to try and leave. Now, before I lose any more strength.

Clenching his cold fists, Zuko brought up the fire within himself again, then titled his head and breathed heat onto the chains. The metal sizzled against his wrists, but he ignored it, breathing again onto the chains connecting his wrists to the wall. Another exhale, with a smaller, hotter flame, making the chains heat up, he just needed them hot enough to break-

"Oh, Dum-Dum. Should've waited until I was long gone," Azula commented, sauntering back in. Zuko turned his breath of fire onto her, but she pushed his flames aside and advanced towards him again.

"Now, you see, this is why I can't let you go free. You're hurting yourself." One hand reached to grasp his left wrist, and dimly he realised it was burnt, the skin blistered and so very sore now he'd noticed it.

"Let go of me," he hissed, but he was too weak to pull away.

Azula's grin told him that she'd noted that, and her grip on the unburnt part of his arm only tightened.

"I'm just trying to help-"

"No, you're not," Zuko rasped, "You're keeping me prisoner."

"Did you really take this long to figure that out?" Azula laughed, "You really are stupid. Ah well. I didn't want to force this on you, but I'm afraid you've given me no choice. Guards!"

Zuko attempted to struggle again, but Azula's nails dug into the new burn on his arm, sending daggers of pain through the skin. He gasped, choking back the scream, as his sister just grinned.

"You're not going anywhere," she hissed, stepping back just as two Fire Nation guards entered the room.

"Wait!" Zuko managed, "We... we're going home, right?"

Azula rolled her eyes, "Yes, eventually, but I have another person to collect first."

The Avatar, was his instant thought. He was going to be taken home in chains, with his supposed-to-be-prize as well?

No.

He took a deep breath in, preparing for another fire blast, but Azula's free hand clamped over his mouth, forcing the fire back down his throat.

"Give that to me!" she snapped to the guards, pulling her nails out of Zuko's burn. One of the guards came closer, and Azula snatched something from him, then suddenly the fire clawing up Zuko's throat died. She released her hold on his mouth, and he gasped, struggling for breath as he just felt so cold cold cold-

"You're helpless now, Zuzu," she grinned, "I suppose I could be persuaded to let you down, hmm?"

He could barely think, where was his fire it was gone it was gone it was gone what did she do-

The pressure around his wrists released and he tumbled forward, his body hitting the ground as Azula failed to catch him. Something cracked in his chest, and he finally succumbed to the black.

Chapter Text

Iroh ran, and shame flooded him, mixing with the guilt at having to leave his nephew behind. But between him and Zuko had been a sea of firebenders, not to mention Azula herself, and his arm was aching from where he'd barely avoided her fire blasts.

He was still weakened from their time out at sea; he could not save his nephew. Not yet.

He needed help.

Once he'd reached the next village, Iroh borrowed a knife to sever his top knot, then set to figuring out a plan whilst he sipped a freshly brewed cup of tea. Who could he turn to? There was the Order of the White Lotus, of course, but they couldn't risk revealing themselves to Azula. Who else could help him, though?

The Avatar.

Iroh stiffened at that thought. The Avatar did have the ability to face up to Azula... but to seek help, for Zuko, from the person he'd been chasing all around the globe...

Iroh looked down at the white lotus tile, once concealed in his sleeve, now turning in his hands. As much as he didn't want to admit it - mostly for Zuko's sake - the Avatar was the one person who could stand up against Azula, and succeed. Especially with his waterbending companion.

After all, it was only Zuko who'd made the Avatar his nemesis. Iroh was...neutral on the matter.

But where is the Avatar?

That used to be a relatively easy task, when they had a ship and a crew and telescopes that could spot the Avatar's bison from a mile off. Now, he was just one man, with no money, no leads, and no transport save his own two feet.

But with his nephew's life on the line, he could not give up.

Of course, there was the option to just return to the Fire Nation, but he doubted Ozai would listen to his pleas. He didn't want anything more to do with his country, anyway. He needed to stop Azula - rescue Zuko - before she could take him back.

Iroh finished his tea and gave his thanks to the server, before setting out again, thinking deeply as he walked. Strangely, Zuko had been the one to get more creative with tracking methods, and Iroh was struggling to think of anything. If only he had a shirshu like that woman-

Ah! Iroh stopped in his tracks, thinking about where she was likely to be. Some seedy bar, he reckoned, unless she was on a job. Feeling in his pockets, Iroh tried to find something of Zuko's, then froze as his hand settled on something else.

It was a scrap of fabric from the Avatar's robes.

When or how it had ended up in his possession, Iroh had no idea, but he hoped it had enough of the boy's scent to be of use. His mind set, Iroh began searching for the woman and her shirshu, determined to find them as soon as possible.

 

Two days later, Iroh found himself drinking something other than tea, and laughing with a group of men when the woman - June, he remembered her name now - turned up at the bar, much to his delight. Smoothing down his beard, Iroh approached her, a smile on his face.

"Greetings!" he beamed.

June just frowned. "Oh, you're fire-boy's old uncle, right?"

Not how he wanted to be remembered, but he'd take it.

"Yes," he said, "And I need you to track someone for me."

Her lips quirked. "What's the price?"

Iroh's face fell as he realised that actually, he barely had a few coppers - no, wait, those had gone on a round of drinks.

June must've seen that, as she scoffed, "No price no tracking, old man."

"Wait!" Iroh exclaimed desperately as she turned to go, "It... It's my nephew. He's in grave danger and I... I will pay you afterwards, whatever you want, but I really need your help. Please."

June sighed and slowly turned back to look at him. "Well, I suppose you helped me out," she said begrudgingly, "But I expect a large payment at the end, got it?"

"Of course. Thank you," Iroh breathed.

June sighed, "We leave at dawn." But she couldn't hide the slight smile curling up her lips as she and Iroh parted ways, the older heading to a room upstairs for a restless night's sleep.

I'm coming for you, Zuko. I promise.

Chapter Text

Zuko was lying somewhere, and it was cold, but that was all he could register beside the pain pulsing through his body. Every ragged breath sent daggers into his chest, but it was nothing compared to the burning around his wrists and ankles and neck.

He was burning, even though he was so cold. It was overwhelming; he slipped under again.

 

The next time he started to come back, Zuko was aware of voices around him.

"Whoa! That's really Zuko? He's changed so much!"

"Is all of that necessary?"

"Yes, it's Zuko, and yes again, the restraints are necessary. He tried to kill me."

The three voices were all familiar, but he could only put a name to the latter: Azula.

"He's hurt, though. Shouldn't you just take him back to the Fire Nation?"

"I'm not returning until I have the Avatar as well," Azula snapped, "I won't fail like my stupid brother did. He'll survive."

A long pause.

"Probably," she added.

Footsteps sounded, and Zuko began to slip again, until a smooth hand pressed against his unscarred cheek.

"Please be okay, Zuko," the owner of the second voice whispered.

He tried to respond, but the pain flared up and darkness overtook him once more.

 

There were more voices, two the same as before, risen in anger over him as he started to wake once more.

"- remove them!" someone yelled.

"No! He's too dangerous," Azula retorted.

"He's hurt, can't you see?"

"Be quiet! I'm letting you tend to him, isn't that enough?"

"No... No, it's not. He might not survive."

"So? If he's dead, that's less of an issue for me. Don't let your stupid crush get to your head, Mai. Zuko's a traitor. He deserves this."

The other girl - Mai - mumbled a response, but it was lost to Zuko's ears, all sounds fading to white noise then silence.

 

He couldn't remember how many times he almost regained consciousness, only to fade again, nor what happened in every instant. But, as he came back to himself this time, Zuko was aware of soft fingers carding through his hair, the motion almost tender. The daggers in his chest remained, as did the various cold burning, but with each breath he took, the pain grew more tolerable, until the darkness receded from the edges of his mind. He forced his eyes open, blinking rapidly at the harshness of the light.

The fingers in his hair froze. "Zuko?"

"... Mai?" he rasped, then grimaced as the speech aggravated the burning around his neck. As he drew back into focus, he realised his head was resting on something soft and warm - Mai's lap. His cheeks heated up, but the colour soon faded as confusion took over. Why exactly was he in an intimate position with Mai, who he hadn't seen since before his banishment?

What had happened since -?

Zuko's gaze drifted down to his left arm, acknowledging the metal around his wrist, but also the burn mark beside it.

The burn mark that was more of a scar, and one that had been healing for weeks.

He felt even colder then.

"How...how long...?" he tried, his voice cracking horribly.

Mai seemed to understand, though. "You've been unconscious for three weeks."

Agni. Three weeks? He - he'd missed so much - he'd been so vulnerable for that time - he - she - they -

"Zuko! Breathe!"

He gasped, curling up on the ground, realising now that Mai was gone and he was just on a cold floor again, struggling to ground himself.

Agni, I'm so pathetic.

After a few painful moments, Zuko managed to breathe properly again, and painstakingly forced himself into an upright sitting position. Mai sat opposite him, taller and more elegant than he remembered.

"What...what's happening?" he forced the words out.

Mai grimaced. "You were badly hurt. Azula didn't bother to help, but Ty Lee and I...well, despite you being an idiot and a traitor, we don't want you dead. I managed to...pull some strings...and then just tried to help you and waited for you to wake up," she explained.

Zuko's mind was whirring overtime. "Pull...strings?"

Mai had the decency to look uncomfortable.

"Look," she huffed, "It doesn't matter what I did, it saved your life, okay?"

Zuko frowned. That doesn't explain why you wanted to help me in the first place.... he wanted to ask, but even opening his mouth sent sparks of pain through his neck.

Azula did something, and the fires in his mouth died, and then it was cold-

Zuko stared down at his hands, keenly aware of the lack of fire. Then to his feet, where similar cuffs circled his ankles.

The sources of the burning. Then that means-

His hands were trembling as he lifted them, fingers reaching for his neck, hoping, praying, dear Agni no, only to have his hope die as his fingers met metal.

He was wearing a damned chi-blocking collar.

He couldn't firebend.

He couldn't firebend, at all.

Still he tried, the shock of this realisation pushing past the rest of his dizziness, as he called on his inner chi, willing the furnace to ignite-

There was nothing.

At some point his tremors had increased, until his entire body was shaking, arms lowering to wrap around his chest, tight enough to elicit sharp pains that somehow grounded him.

"Zuko, stop that! You're hurting yourself!"

What does it matter? he thought, tightening his hold, Uncle's dead, my firebending is gone, my sister has put me in chains, and she's not even taking me home yet... There's no point.

"Zuko!"

"What's he doing?"

"I don't know, go get Azula!"

The pain increased with every wheezy breath, so he just stopped. Darkness slithered towards him, and his lungs burned, but it wasn't anything to the other pains in his body.

"He's not breathing!"

"Zuko, stop being stupid!"

"What do we do? He's going to die-"

"No! I will not have my stupid brother die after overcoming that fever! I won't!"

...Azula?

Hands grabbed at him, pulling his arms away from his chest and holding them down. He still refused to breathe, but a sharp hit to his chest kicked his lungs into action, and he gasped in air, tears pricking his eyes from the pain that simple motion caused.

"Look at me."

Wearily he raised his head, blinking, his good eye widening as he saw Azula crouched over him. But there was something... wrong in her expression.

She almost looked frightened.

"Everyone out!" she yelled, and her eyes were still wild as they fixed on him. Then she reached out and touched his cheek, something almost tender in her motion.

"You're not allowed to die, Zuzu," she whispered.

Zuko blinked in disbelief. "But-" he started, then broke off coughing, which soon turned into gasps of pain. Azula pressed her finger to his lips and shook her head.

"No talking, Dum-Dum. You just need to stay with me. Or Mai, or even Ty Lee. Now come on." She stood, and held her hand out to him.

He just stared.

Azula huffed, "I'm not waiting here all day!"

Zuko tentatively took her offered hand, grimacing as he stood, his legs incredibly wobbly. Azula's grip shifted to the cuff on his wrist, but she didn't let go as she led him out of the room, not pausing until they reached the end of a corridor.

"Don't try to run. You won't get far," she said, then pushed the door open.

Sunlight.

Zuko gasped as Agni's rays brushed against his skin, and for a moment he could almost feel the fire. But that soon passed, as he realised exactly where they were.

The tall, intimidating structure of a Fire Nation military base stood before them, with many, many soldiers around.

Soldiers who all had their weapons trained on him.

Chapter Text

Zuko's heart hammered in his chest, and he instinctively glanced around for an escape route, but he was painfully aware of how weak he was, his body frail and exhausted after the weeks of illness. Not to mention that the soldiers were numerous, and all well-trained - he could tell from the way they held their weapons.

"Come on," his sister commanded, almost dragging him towards the base, and Zuko immediately froze as recognition dawned on him.

Oh Agni...

It was the Pohuai Stronghold.

The minimal destruction that he - the Blue Spirit - and the Avatar had caused was now repaired, and the impassive buildings were stronger than ever. His stiffening did nothing to stop his sister as she forced him forwards, each step bringing more and more dread. Did she know about his mask? Was that why she was bringing him here? Or was it just a convenience, until she had the Avatar as well, and could haul them both back to the Fire Nation?

"Impressive, isn't it, Zuzu?" Azula commented, looking up as they paused by the gates of the stronghold. Zuko glared and gave a half-hearted tug, but the soldiers around took a step closer, their weapons too close for comfort.

"I said, don't try to run," she whispered, before the gates opened, and he was led through. Zuko's heart sank further as they traced the paths towards where he'd rescued the Avatar, and the closer they came, the more he was convinced that someone knew and this was a payback for his part in the Avatar's escape.

No just someone, but Azula.

"Recognise this?" she asked, as the guards opened a thick set of doors to a familiar sight. Zuko stared at the pillars where the Avatar had been chained, nausea rising within him. She knows she knows she knows-

"I've got paintings like these in my room back home," Azula continued, gesturing to the walls. When Zuko didn't respond, she glanced back at him, taking note of his paler-than-usual skin.

"Oh, I'm not leaving you here. Well, in this room, anyway. It'll be used for the Avatar, like before. It's just been improved," she grinned, "And besides, I'm not that cruel. Yours is this way."

She turned and strolled out the room, leaving Zuko standing there until two guards stepped forward and clamped their thick hands around his now-trembling arms, pulling him away from there and towards whatever horror awaited him. The burning need to fight back was rising up faster inside, and Zuko was conscious that he didn't have much time left. Azula was leading him to his cell, as far as he was aware.

He had to do something.

So when the guards dragged him around the next corner, Zuko dug his heels in and pulled back against them, his feet finding enough purchase on the stone floor to ground him in place. One arm fell from a guard's grip, and he immediately threw a punch at the other, hitting him in the nose with enough force to push him back, but nothing broke beneath Zuko's fist. Darting backwards, he wasted no time in breaking into a run, knowing that his speed and agility were all that could save him.

Or his stealth, he remembered, ducking into shadows just as a trio of Fire Nation guards ran by.

Agni, he was starting to separate himself from his own people...

Zuko brought his focus back to the current situation, keeping to stealth as he ducked from one shadowed corner to another, his feet tracing the path back up to the wall at the top. It was surprisingly unguarded, and Zuko didn't think to wonder why until he reached the top and found himself face to face with a dark-haired girl.

But it wasn't Azula - it was Mai.

"You won't get far," Mai said, almost softly, her expression concealed by her thick fringe.

Zuko took in a deep breath, cherishing Agni's rays on his skin. "Are you going to stop me?"

"It depends," Mai answered.

Zuko sighed. "Why did you help me? After Azula...?"

Something akin to anger flashed in Mai's eyes. "Because it was wrong. You were really ill, and I... I couldn't let you die." She stepped forwards, both hands empty, palms facing towards him. "I'm not letting you leave if you're just going to die out there."

Zuko let her approach, confused at her care for him. "What if I do?"

Mai's eyes narrowed, "If I think you'll die, I'm keeping you here. With me. And I'll make sure you're fed so you can recover-"

"You make me sound like a pet," Zuko snapped harshly, before he could think it through.

Mai almost looked ashamed, as she took another step towards him. "Then promise me. Promise me you'll live. That you'll do whatever it takes." As she talked, she came closer and closer, until her hands were suddenly on Zuko's hips and he felt dizzy because no no no he can't do this-

"Please, Zuko. Promise me," Mai breathed, right by his lips.

"I... I promise," he managed. Her lips connected with his, then her hands were on his chest and she shoved, pushing him over the wall. Zuko gasped and scrabbled for foothold but then he was falling, falling, falling -

Something tugged around his waist and he jolted to a stop just before the ground, gasping in confusion until he noticed the rope tied around his waist. With trembling hands he undid the knot and bolted away from the wall, not stopping until he reached the safety of trees. Bending down as he struggled for breath, Zuko caught sight of a familiar bag, tied against a tree trunk with the same type of rope that had been around his waist. He retrieved the bag cautiously, half expecting it to be a trap, then noticed the small scrap of paper tucked into the top folds of the bag.

Keep your promise. ~ M

"Mai," he whispered, finally connecting the dots as he slung his bag over his shoulder, not wanting to stay too close to Pohuai.

He had to move, yes, but where to go? And now a traitor to his nation, alone without Uncle, what was he living for? Was there any point?

Keep your promise.

He had to try, at least for a little while.

Chapter Text

Zuko trudged through another Earth Kingdom village, a stolen hat pulled down low to try and cover his distinctive scar. The shirt he wore - also stolen - was loose and flowing, with a high enough collar and long enough sleeves to cover the accursed chi-blocking cuffs. Agni's rays were a small comfort, but he still couldn't bend, and it was killing him.

Literally.

As the days passed with constant travel, little sustenance, and no hope of bending, Zuko felt his already-weak body shedding weight he so desperately needed and couldn't afford to lose. The very life felt like it was seeping out of him, leaking out with each strained breath he took.

Promise me you'll live, and he had, but it was getting harder and harder to keep that promise. He was an outcast; unwanted in his home country, and even more so in the Earth Kingdom. 

He couldn't let anyone discover his identity, but at the same time.... He didn't think he could survive on his own for much longer.

Part of him wondered if he'd be better off as Azula's captive. 

I wish Uncle was still alive, he thought, and as he glanced over at a large sign in the village, he seemed to envision Uncle's face staring back at him. 

Wait.

Zuko doubled back, cautiously approaching the sign and staring at the multiple posters tacked below it. He was there twice: once as the Blue Spirit, and then as himself, the Prince of the Fire Nation who was now branded a traitor. 

His heart went even colder as he read the note declaring that he was wanted, dead or alive.

But beside that horrid poster was one of his Uncle, along a similar line - traitor to the Fire Nation - but he was wanted alive, at least. And the date was recent. 

Uncle... Is he alive? But Azula said-

Azula always lies, he reminded himself. 

If there was a hope that Uncle was still alive, he needed to pursue it. But where to start? The Earth Kingdom was vast, and Zuko didn't even know where he was. His only focus, initially, had been on getting as far away from Pohuai as possible.

And now, he was, hopefully, very far from there, but also seemed to be far from any real civilisation. The village was very agricultural, and the streets were as empty as when he'd first arrived. 

It wasn't a place even worth stealing from. Not that he had the energy to, anyway.

Zuko walked away from the sign, not wanting to attract any attention, and decided to pass through the village anyway, in case he found any food or water. It was pathetic; he was pathetic, for being reduced to a sickly, desperate thief, constantly watching for a chance to steal his next meal. He had nothing except the (stolen) clothes and his (stolen) mask and his (not stolen) dagger. Mai had been helpful in giving him the bag, but she hadn't bothered to include food in there, or money, which was only serving to break the promise he half-heartedly made, not keep it.

Especially when there was just no food. 

He didn't pass a single market stand selling anything, or any discarded meals in the gutter. It was so quiet and desolate, Zuko found himself sitting in the shelter of an abandoned property, the hat pulled even lower, as he stared at the wooden slats beneath him and wished he still had the ability to burn them.

Somehow, he eventually dozed off, and was started awake by a hand on his shoulder and a soft, feminine voice enquiring, "Are you okay?" 

He yelped, his fingers twitching and wanting to shoot flames, but nothing came except a cramp in his stomach, which was strong enough to make him double over.

"I'm fine," he grit out, after the cramp subsided, and looked up at the intruder.
She was young, probably in her mid-teens, with dark hair pulled back into a neat bun, and wearing a slightly dirty yet elegant hanbok.

"You don't look well," she noted, "Come, I can take you to the hospital."

"I'm fine-" Zuko protested, but the girl's hand on his wrist silenced him, and he flinched from the touch, her fingers barely missing the cuffs. 

"Please, come with me," she insisted, "My mum's cooking some roast duck, there's always leftovers."

Zuko was tempted, but, "I don't eat turtleducks," he snapped, part of him sickening at the thought.

Kneeling by the pool, turtleducks nipping at his fingers, his mother's laugh-

"Oh, not turtleducks, we can't afford that meat. They're just mouseducks," the girl explained, thankfully interrupting his memory.

Zuko hesitated, and she caught on. 

"Please? I won't force you to get any medical attention, only if you want it."

"...Fine," he relented, stiffly getting to his feet, though he could privately admit that even the thought of a cooked meal was bettering his mood.

The girl beamed at him. "Great! I'm Song, by the way."

"I'm Zu - Li," he quickly lied. 

Song frowned. "Zuli?" 

His cheeks heated up. "No, just Li."

And as he followed Song, he knew, then, that he was slipping further and further from the Prince of the Fire Nation that he was, once.

But now his rank was gone, his fire was gone, and even his name was now gone. 

Zuko was dying, but maybe Li could live.