Zuko was gone.
It still didn't feel real. Maybe it was just the fact that it had barely even been a month since it all happened. She kept expecting to turn a corner and see him, but it was like there was no trace left of him within the royal palace, nor even anywhere in the Caldera. No one brought him up either- even Azula no longer talked about him, not even to gloat.
It was almost as if he had never existed.
Mai didn't like it.
She didn't like it, and yet she couldn't say a thing against it. Part of her wanted to. Part of her knew this was wrong- all of it. Zuko's banishment, the Agni Kai, the way everyone was working so hard to pretend he'd never existed, as if his very existence was a stain on the royal family.
Maybe it was. He'd never been like the rest of them. That was part of the reason why he'd caught her interest in the first place, much as she would never admit it. He was different. Kind, in a place where true kindness was scarce.
He'd never been afraid to speak his mind either. If their situations were reversed, and she was the one who had been banished, not Zuko, she didn't doubt that he would be raising a ruckus for her sake. The fact that she wouldn't have asked him to wouldn't change a thing.
But it was also speaking his mind that had gotten him into this mess in the first place. And she couldn't allow herself to forget that.
"I thought I'd find you up here."
"What do you want, Ty Lee?"
Mai barely so much as spared a glance behind her. Ty Lee's voice was less chipper than usual, but there was no mistaking it. She could pick it out, even when it was mixed in with those of her siblings'. They had known each other for a long time, after all. Maybe not as long as she had known Azula- but long enough.
"I just thought I would come see how you were doing." Ty Lee said, coming to stand next to her uninvited. The younger girl was always doing stuff like that. She couldn't decide if she hated it or not- not that it would matter even if she did.
She'd learned from a young age that sometimes it was easier to just go along with things. That the trouble resisting got her just wasn't worth it.
"I'm fine." Mai lied. "You don't have to worry about me."
"You say that, but your aura's been all dingy ever since Zuko left." Ty Lee said.
Left. The edge of Mai's lips twitched downwards, the only ripple on her otherwise impassive face. She made it sound so simple, like this was something Zuko had wanted. Like he'd had some kind of say in this, rather than being shipped off by force, when he hadn't even healed yet.
Then again, she wasn't sure if he ever would.
She hadn't been there, at the Agni Kai. Her mother had told her it wasn't a place for young ladies. She was almost grateful that she hadn't been. She wasn't sure if she could have kept her silence if she had.
Just seeing him had been bad enough.
She knew she wasn't supposed to. But for once, wasn't supposed to hadn't been enough to stop her. She had to see- she had to know what had been done to him. Sneaking a peek at Zuko hadn't been as difficult as she'd thought- there was almost no one watching the healer's rooms that Zuko had been placed in after the Agni Kai. He hadn't even known she was there, unconscious the entire time. Whether it was from the pain or from the healer's remedies, she couldn't say.
All she knew was that he'd looked terrible.
Then he was gone.
Just like that, no more Zuko.
"You know I don't believe in that stuff, right?" Mai asked, keeping her tone perfectly dry.
"It doesn't change what I see." Ty Lee shrugged, once again making it sound so simple. "You miss him, don't you?"
Mai said nothing. She didn't have to. There was no hiding it, not from Ty Lee. Not when she had come here, to the highest point in Caldera City just to gaze out at the sea like some melancholy, lovelorn schoolgirl.
(She would not admit how spot on that description probably was.)
"You know there's nothing wrong with that, right?" Ty Lee asked. "I mean, I know it seems like everyone around here is trying to forget about Zuko, but-"
"Stop." Mai cut her friend off. "Just drop it, Ty Lee."
Ty Lee frowned, but at least she didn't say anything more. Mai was grateful, though she wouldn't say that either. Instead she just turned her gaze back out towards the sea, knowing that somewhere across the vast expanse of it was Zuko. She wondered if he'd stayed by the sea, or if he had ventured inland, trying to get away from anyone who might recognize him.
If he was even still alive.
"I can go, you know." Ty Lee said after a moment. "I mean, if you want to be alone."
Mai considered it for a long moment, then finally shook her head. She might not be able to bring herself to talk about it, but she still didn't want the other girl to go. She knew it was only a matter of time before Azula found them. Then she would have to go back to pretending. At least when it was just her and Ty Lee, she didn't have to.
Ty Lee gave her a faint smile, before she pulled herself up on the railing, sitting there as if she feared nothing- not the height, nor the wind- a single strong gust of which would be all it would take to smash her tiny body to death on the ground below. Why would she? They both knew someone who was even scarier than all the forces of nature combined.
(She hadn't always been that way, Mai ruefully thought.)
(Where had it all gone so wrong?)
"I miss him too, you know." Ty Lee said, staring towards the sea.
Mai said nothing, instead fixing her gaze on a Fire Navy ship making it's way from port. She watched it until it faded into the horizon, remembering how Zuko had been taken away on such a ship. She wished she could have watched it go, but Azula had refused to let them.
Her last memory of Zuko remained one of him prone, motionless, and swathed in bandages. She didn't think she would forget it for so long as she lived.
"Do you think Azula misses him?" Mai finally asked, once the ship was nothing more than a distant speck on the horizon.
"Of course she does." Ty Lee assured her. "He's family. Why wouldn't she?"
Ty Lee, she noted, was still looking at the sea, not at her. Mai huffed, resting her arms on the railing, followed shortly by her chin.
He knew from the moment he set foot on Fire Nation soil that something was wrong.
That was actually a lie. He knew before, back when the rumors first reached him. But some part of him had clung to the desperate hope that the rumors had been wrong. That his brother couldn't possibly have been that cruel.
He should have known better.
Iroh did not often lose his temper. Even when he had been a young man, filled with patriotism towards his country, he had never been one to lash out in anger. But now, standing before his own younger brother, he barely managed to keep it in check.
Despite the massive breach of decorum he'd just performed by barging into the throne room unannounced and uninvited, Ozai barely even batted an eye. But then, his brother had likely already seen this coming for a long time now.
Four months. If the rumors were true, Zuko had been gone from the Fire Nation for four months now, banished at the hands of a father who'd challenged a thirteen year old child to an Agni Kai. His child. The rumors had said that Prince Zuko had been on his knees, begging, pleading with his father, telling him he didn't want to fight... and that Ozai had thought this was a disgrace.
He'd burned him.
If what the rumors said were true, that was. And looking at the face of his brother, cool and impassive, somehow Iroh couldn't find it in himself to doubt it.
"General Iroh," he said cooly, betraying nothing yet everything at the same time, "-I assume you have good reason for this breech of protocol."
Iroh took a deep breath, years of experience and wisdom all that stood in the way of allowing himself to say something he knew he would be unable to take back. Even then, it was a struggle. He had to wonder how things ended up this way between them- how Ozai had ended up this way. Looking back on their lives, it seemed to have happened in the blink of an eye, but he was sure there must have been warning signs that he'd missed, or even outright ignored.
But it was too late to change the past now. All he could do was focus on the present.
The present, and Zuko.
"Is it true?" He more demanded than asked. "Is it true what I have heard about Zuko?"
He nearly expected Ozai to open his mouth and deny ever having a son, but instead the man merely glanced over towards the few guards lingering in the throne room, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. His expression didn't once shift from that of cool impassivity, no emotion surfacing in those pale yellow eyes, so alike and yet unlike those of his son's.
His eye. The rumors said he'd burned out Zuko's eye.
"That depends," Ozai said cooly, "-on what you have heard."
"Do not play games with me, brother." Iroh said firmly. "The rumors of your Agni Kai with your own son have already reached the colonies."
There was more venom in his tone than Iroh meant, but not because he didn't feel it. He didn't understand how Ozai could have done such a thing. He should have known better than to underestimate his brother's cruelty, but he, who had already lost his own son simply could not wrap his mind around how someone could want to do harm to their own. Zuko might not be the firebending prodigy that Ozai wished for as his heir, but he was still his own flesh and blood, his child.
Children were to be protected, not mutilated by their own fathers. Not cast out, banished, set adrift in enemy territory with no one to guide them.
"I merely taught the boy a lesson on respect." Ozai said, making it all sound so simple. "We can't all be as soft as you, Iroh."
He spat out the word soft, as if it were supposed to be an insult. He supposed in Ozai's eyes, it was.
Iroh's gut churned. Those words were all he needed to confirm that everything he had heard was likely true. That Ozai had truly challenged Zuko to an Agni Kai, had burned his face, had disowned and banished him, then dumped him on Earth Kingdom shores. For a Fire Nation royal, that was as good as a death sentence, especially if Zuko were recognized. And even if he weren't, left on his own, his burn largely untreated...
...his odds of survival were anything but good.
At least when he had died, Lu Ten had been an adult. He'd known that when he'd joined the siege on Ba Sing Se, that there was a chance he might lose his life. But Zuko? Zuko was only a boy, a child who from the sound of it, likely hadn't even known who he was meant to fight in that Agni Kai. He'd heard that he'd spoken out against a general's plans, so he must have thought...
He could only imagine the terror he'd felt when he'd turned around and realized the truth. That his opponent was not the general, but instead his own father.
He cursed himself, not for the first time, for not being there. Maybe he could have prevented this. Prevented Zuko from being in that war room in the first place. It was no place for a child, not even the Crown Prince. He was unsure as to how he had even gotten there in the first place, other than the fact that someone must have let him in.
(Ozai always had been looking for an excuse to get rid of him.)
"So you burned him." Iroh said flatly, not allowing any of his inner turmoil to show. "And then banished him."
"If he is strong, he will survive." Ozai said.
His tone suggested that he expected no such thing.
"In any case, it is no longer any concern of mine." Ozai said. "He is no longer my son, no longer a part of this family. Azula is my heir now."
Iroh's eyes narrowed. He had been aware for some time now just how much Ozai favored his second born over his first. She was everything that Zuko wasn't- everything that his brother wished for in an heir. It was merely a cruel twist of fate that she was not the first born, otherwise he was certain that the fates would have been somewhat kinder to Zuko.
He would have still been ignored, neglected by his father, but at least he would still be here. Still be whole.
"If that is all, brother," he did not miss the undercurrent of menace to Ozai's tone, "-then kindly depart my presence before I decided your breech of protocol is a mistake too grave to overlook."
It was not a bluff, Iroh recognized. He'd already turned on one member of his family. He was more than willing to do it again.
(Perhaps, he thought, reflecting once more on their father's unexpected death, it was not the first time.)
Iroh didn't say a word. He merely bowed, before turning on his heel to leave. There was much work to be done. Ozai might think his son dead, but Iroh knew otherwise. If there was one thing he knew about the young prince, it was that he was a fighter. He had to be, growing up in this den of viper-bats where even a single sign of weakness was one too many.
Zuko was alive. He knew it in his bones.
It was just a matter of finding him.
"Who knocks at the garden gate?"
"One who has eaten its fruit and tasted its mysteries."
The small slit window carved into the door slid shut, and a second later, the door itself opened. It was a formality, he knew- he was well known at this particular safe house. Nearly every member who had ties to this place could identify him on sight- not as Prince Iroh, once heir to the throne, but as the Grand Lotus, he who stood at the forefront of the Order of the White Lotus.
"Grand Lotus," his contact bowed to him as soon as he entered, "-it is good to see you well."
Iroh spared the man a smile, even though he hardly felt like smiling at the moment. He had put out the call for any information regarding Zuko a week ago, a week which felt as if it had dragged on forever. He'd kept to himself in the palace, knowing that his mood was too off to truly deal with any politicking. Thankfully, his reputation as something of a recluse had finally come in handy- no one had disturbed him. He doubted anyone would.
"Has there been any news?" Iroh asked.
"There has." His contact straightened, but the expression on his face was grim. "A boy matching Prince Zuko's description was indeed dropped off at the Earth Kingdom port of Sei Wan four months prior, but there have been no further reports of him since then."
Iroh frowned. Even if he assumed that Zuko had the wisdom to disguise himself somewhat, a boy of his description still should have stood out. The scar his father had surely left him with would have seen to that. And yet, from the sound of it, he'd truly gone to the earth, disappearing almost as soon as he'd set foot in the Earth Kingdom.
He was uncertain if that was a good thing or not.
On one hand, surely someone would have heard if the Fire Nation prince had been captured by Earth Kingdom forces. On the other... it was not only soldiers that Zuko would have to worry about. It had still been early spring when he'd been deposited on Earth Kingdom shores, and the port of Sei Wan was far enough north that winter would have still been clinging to it. Even if he survived the elements, there were also wild animals, bandits... countless things that could have ended the life of an innocent, near defenseless child.
But no. He couldn't allow himself to think that. Zuko would not die so easily. There was a reason he had sent him that knife.
He would never give up without a fight.
"Please keep me informed if anything changes." Iroh instructed.
The man bowed again, before making himself scarce, leaving him to his own thoughts. He still hadn't quite decided what he would even do if he found Zuko. His first instinct was to go to him, to help him- but he also knew that with circumstances as they were, he could not leave the Fire Nation so easily. Not with his brother on the throne, and Azula as his new heir.
He'd not yet seen the girl, not since his return to the royal palace. He'd heard... rumors, unpleasant ones- namely that she had been present at her brother's fateful Agni Kai, and rather than be horrified at her brother's fate, she'd instead smiled.
He wished he could deny them, but he knew the daughter that Ozai had raised. She may have been born lucky, but it was that very luck that had garnered the attention of a monster. Some part of him was still loathe to think of his own brother that way, but he could not deny the reality that he was before him. His brother was every inch the monster Earth Kingdom widows whispered fearfully about in the dark.
He was now attempting to mold his daughter to be much the same. And based upon what Iroh had seen after he'd returned from his siege of Ba Sing Se... he'd succeeded.
It was with a pang of guilt that he realized he'd written her off almost as soon as he had realized it. It had seemed easier somehow, to concentrate solely on Zuko- not to mention somewhat necessary. Without his mother or Lu Ten, there was no one within the palace left to protect him. He had assumed that role, but his attentions had always been divided between the young prince and his duties at the Grand Lotus.
In the end, it was the latter that had prevented him from protecting the former.
It pained him to acknowledge it, but there was nothing more he could do for Zuko until the boy was found. He could search for him himself, but he knew that he would only put him in more danger by doing so. There were still plenty within the Earth Kingdom who still remembered what the Dragon of the West looked like- the fact that he had put on several pounds since his failed siege would only disguise him so much. Zuko, on the other hand, was a relative unknown- his eyes might mark him as Fire Nation, but they did not brand him as a prince. Lost and on his own, people would be far more likely to assume he was an unwanted child of mixed blood than a Fire Nation royal.
No. Better to let those of Earth Kingdom blood ask after his nephew. If they found him, only then would he go.
What he could still do, however, was look to the one who had been left behind- to his niece. He was unsure if he could save her from Ozai's grasp, not after he'd sunk his claws so deeply into her- but it was better than not trying at all.
But first, he had to see her.
"Princess Azula, General Iroh is here to see you."
Azula barely even spared so much as a glance at the servant who'd called to her. She had half a mind to tell her to refuse Uncle- she had no real interest in seeing that failure, especially not after it had taken him so long to come and greet her. It had been a week since he'd returned to the Fire Nation, and yet he'd not called on her once during that entire time. If she cared more, she might have actually been insulted.
Still, she supposed it would be rude of her not to receive him. She was the Crown Princess now, after all.
"Very well," Azula finally said, "-let him in."
The servant bowed, hastily leaving her chambers. She didn't have to wait long before she returned with her Uncle. He was just as fat and old as she remembered, though perhaps a bit more worn.
No real surprise there. From what she had heard, he'd taken the news of Zuko's banishment hard. He always had liked him more than her.
(Just like mother.)
"Uncle," Azula greeted him, her tone one of clipped politeness, "-I'm surprised. I didn't think you'd planned on coming to see me."
"You will have to forgive me, Princess Azula." Iroh apologized, though she doubted he actually meant it. "It has been a rather difficult week for me."
Azula hummed, considering the man. "I take it you heard about Zuko's banishment."
"Yes." Iroh's face darkened somewhat. "It was not the kind of news that I expected to greet me upon my return home."
"Well, I can't say that he didn't have it coming," Azula said simply, staring disinterestedly down at her nails. She had been working on growing them out into fine points, dangerous and deadly, "-seeing as he was foolish enough to do the one thing he was explicitly told not to do."
Honestly. She always knew her brother was a fool, but clearly he was even more foolish than she'd first assumed. Her father had done him a service, allowing him into that war meeting in the first place- on the condition that he was to remain silent. How difficult was it to follow one simple instruction?
Very, if you were Zuzu.
Oh well. At least he was gone now. It was better this way, really. He never would have made a good Firelord, not like her father. He was always too weak, too pathetic. It was for the best that he was removed from the picture entirely.
It certainly didn't help that this meant that she was now her father's only heir.
Really, it was as it should be. Maybe if Zuko were lucky, he would find that nice Earth Kingdom family to take him in after all.
(But then, her brother was never lucky.)
Her uncle frowned, the corners of his eyes crinkling in what she was certain was disapproval. "Surely you cannot agree with your father's methods."
"Why shouldn't I?" Azula asked, locking eyes with him, daring the man to challenge her. "He was weak, and foolish enough to do the one thing father told him not to. It's only right that he was punished for it."
His expression didn't even falter, which she supposed was to his credit. He had been considered to be one of the Fire Nation's top generals at one point. Clearly, not everything he'd learned during that time had completely fled him after his failure at Ba Sing Se. Still, there was no denying that he was a shell of his former self- and if she was being perfectly honest, his former self wasn't much to speak of to begin with.
Really, sometimes she had no idea how this could possibly be the Dragon of the West, slayer of the last two dragons. Perhaps they had simply been too old and weak to defend themselves.
Or perhaps like her Uncle, the dragons were simply never that great to begin with.
"He is still your brother." Iroh finally said, almost cautiously. "Your family."
"Not any longer." Azula said. "He's been written out of the family register. He might as well not exist."
This time Iroh did react, if only by the slightest of margins. Still, she didn't miss the crinkle of his brow, nor the way his fingers tensed at his sides. Her tutors had taught her to pick up on such things, so that she might use them to her advantage.
Not that there was any advantage to be gained here. Her Uncle was nothing more than a weak old man, a disinherited prince who simply sat by and let his throne be stolen from him. She supposed it was fitting, in a way, that he would so favor her brother, only for him to go on and suffer the same fate.
Two of a kind, really.
"That may be so," Iroh continued, "-but that does not change the bond that you share."
Azula narrowed her eyes. She was starting to grow tired of this. She wasn't sure what he expected from her- did he think she would start to weep and admit that she wanted Zuko back? Why would she, when his banishment had gotten her everything she had always wanted? Everything that always should have been hers in the first place, and would have been, if she hadn't had the ill luck to be born second.
(Not that she was ever unlucky. No, that was more of Zuko's thing.)
"Is there a point to this?" Azula asked, deciding to just cut to the chase. "Because if there's not, then I suggest you leave. I'm not interested in hearing about how sad you are now that Zuko is gone, old man."
Iroh just smiled sadly at her. She wished he wouldn't. There always seemed to be something so pitying about it.
"I merely wished to speak with you." Iroh said. "But if you wish me gone..."
"Yes." Azula said quickly- perhaps a bit too quickly. "I do."
"Very well then," Iroh said, "-if that is what you truly wish, then I will leave."
Azula said nothing, simply waiting for the old man to finally leave. When he did, she fought the urge to let out a breath of relief. Whatever it was that the old fool had expected from her, she wanted no part in it.
And why should she care about Zuko anyways? He'd gotten what was coming to him, just as she said. He should have known better to display such shameful weakness in front of their father, and yet he'd done it anyways- begging and pleading on his knees like the disgrace he was. Why should she miss a weakling like that, when there was so much to be gained from his banishment?
She was the Crown Princess now, father's heir. It was all as it should be.
And yet even she could not deny how empty the palace's halls had felt these past few months. She tried to convince herself that she just wasn't used to his absence yet, but some part of her knew that was a lie. That there was some shameful, weak part of her that actually missed her brother, that wanted him back.
She felt it now. Damn her Uncle, for making her think of him. She'd been doing so well, and yet just one look at the man's eyes had brought it all back. Biting her lip, she glared at the wall, wondering what it would take to finally suppress this weak part of her. She was not some weak child who needed to cling to her older brother, especially not when she was more powerful than he could ever hope to be.
Oh well. She supposed it didn't matter much in the long run what feelings her Uncle brought with him. It wasn't as if he'd stick around. He never did. The man had become a recluse after Lu Ten's death, and she saw no reason why that would change now.
Perhaps he'd disappear into the Earth Kingdom too, gone after Zuko. She wouldn't miss him, she thought to herself. Just one weakling going after another.
Just another member of her family, gone. Leaving her behind.
But it was no matter, she hastily thought, before the ugly feeling in the pit of her stomach could rear its head. She had father. Father was the only one who ever truly understood her. Why would she ever need anyone else?
She didn't. She wouldn't. She wasn't weak, after all. Not like poor Zuzu, still chasing after their mother's shadow, even after all this time. If only he had strove to be more like their father, this would have never happened. Who even cared about a bunch of new recruits getting killed if it meant ensuring their nation's victory? Those soldiers should be glad to die for the glory of their country.
But apparently, her brother didn't see it that way.
"Stupid Zuzu," Azula muttered underneath her breath, her gaze not leaving the one patch of wall, "-I hope it was worth it."
Iroh could only heave a sigh as he left his niece's chambers. He had not been hoping for much, but it would seem that Ozai's influence on the child ran even deeper than he feared. He was going to have his work cut out for him.
Still, he thought to himself, making his way through the halls of the royal palace, it was no longer something he could turn a blind eye to, as he had for so long. Something had to be done.
Something should have been done a long time ago, if he were being honest. He never should have allowed Ozai to take his throne, but he had been too overcome by grief at the loss of his only son to do anything to stop him. Now the world was paying the price for his inaction- and not only it, but Ozai's own children as well. His eldest had been scarred and banished, and his youngest...
...if no one stopped it, Azula really would become just like her father.
Iroh paused, looking up. His feet had brought him to the Hall of Portraits, his brother's image looming large above him. Narrowing his eyes, he felt his stomach clench at the sight of it. It was a fine artist indeed that his brother had commissioned- they had captured everything perfectly, right down to the cruelty in his eyes.
A cruelty he saw mirrored back in Azula's.
Yes, something had to be done, Iroh thought. He had been away from the Fire Nation for far too long. It was time he stayed. He would not give up on his search for his nephew, but he could not abandon his niece either.
Not to Ozai.