After Azula struck Zuko with lightning, the last Prince of the Fire Nation never woke up. In a way, it was a mercy. While the gaping wound in his chest was healed by Katara’s glowing hands, the Earth Kingdom burned.
When the Avatar died, people all across the world watched one last brilliant ray of orange light shoot up into the sky. Without exchanging words, Toph, Sokka, and Suki stayed standing on one of the falling airships. Their hands were linked together, the wind whipping away the tears from their faces as they fell to their deaths. Aang had failed to restore balance to the world.
Katara saw the heavens light up with orange all the way in the Fire Nation Palace and she knew what had occurred. The world’s last hope, her closest friend, had lost. She felt her heart shatter, and she gripped Zuko’s hands in hers as she grieved. Perhaps had the last waterbender from the South had been given time to collect herself, none of this would have happened. If the chains holding Azula had just been a little stronger, Katara and Zuko might have escaped to form a resistance movement and taken on Aang’s mission.
But that is not what happened.
Though Azula’s mind no longer functioned rationally, she still had enough wits to realize what the orange light meant. Orange the color of hot flames, the symbol of her people, had blazed so high into the sky that she could see them despite their source being in the Earth Kingdom. Paying no regard to the damage done to her wrists, Azula blasted fire from her feet and ripped herself off the grate that Katara had chained her to.
In a single bound, Azula landed on the two and set off the hottest blaze of blue fire that she’d ever released. Despite having lost the Agni Kai, the Fire Princess ensured that they all burned together in one giant blue ball of fire.
With a sharp inhale Zuko snapped open his eyes only to be met with the darkness of his room in the Palace. He looked around uneasily, a hand drifting to his chest expecting to be met with bandages from the wound Azula had given him, only to touch the soft silk of his pajamas.
There wasn’t any pain, his chest felt smooth in the dark, almost as if he’d never been hit with lightning. When he’d moved, Zuko felt his hair brush his shoulders. It was much longer than it’d been the last time he was awake.
Though he wasn’t on the Avatar’s side when Aang had woken up after the fall of Ba Sing Se, Zuko had heard the story. Aang had slept in a coma-like state for weeks after Katara had healed him, and had woken up when they were already infiltrating the Fire Nation. Since it had been Azula to bring down the Avatar, it made sense to Zuko that he had slept long enough for his hair to grow out and for the wound to heal. Both Aang and he had been hurt by the same lightning after all.
Interrupting his thoughts, Zuko’s stomach growled loudly in the night. He rolled out of bed on unsteady legs, for some reason his limbs felt weird like he wasn’t used to moving them. The blankets pooled to the floor behind him as he opened his door into the empty corridor outside of his bedroom. Red draperies and carpets reminding Zuko of his youth looked as if they hadn’t changed since he’d been a child.
The first time that Zuko had been in the palace since his banishment, the whole place had felt alien to him. Three years around the world had changed the prince completely, whereas his home stayed the same.
Letting his eyes adjust to the lack of light, Zuko softly slinked his way to the palace kitchens in the shadows. Remaining hidden while sneaking around at night had been a habit ingrained in him due to fear of being caught by the palace servants, or even worse: Azula.
Once he arrived, Zuko wasted no time preparing himself a simple meal of jok. He let his hands follow the routine motions of filling the pot with water and rinsing the rice, his mind drifting to other things. Uncle had taken the time to teach him the recipe during their time at Ba Sing Se, before they’d been tricked into coming to the Earth King’s Palace by Azula. Zuko chopped his vegetables and skinned his ginger, trying to remember anything before he’d woken up. The last thing he remembered was taking the bolt meant for Katara, and the soothing feeling of being healed with water.
While he waited for his jok to cook, Zuko’s eyes fell closed. He breathed in and out, letting his heartbeat slow and making every flame in the kitchen rise and fall in time with his breath. Zuko was sure that his friends had won, even if he hadn’t been awake to see it. Otherwise, why else would he still be allowed to wander in the palace by himself.
Even though Zuko was confident in his friendship with the others, he couldn’t help but feel a little abandoned. Why had he woken up all alone? Surely one of them could have sat vigil by his bedside while he recovered.
He let one hand run through his longer hair absentmindedly; no, Zuko thought, I must have been asleep for far too long. They had ended the Hundred Years War, his friends were busy with creating peace treaties and subduing Fire Nation forces. He shouldn’t be selfishly expecting them to have waited for him to wake up, even if he was the only one who truly knew how the Fire Nation worked. At least they had Uncle with them, Zuko trusted the Dragon of the West to be more than capable of handling the Fire Nation while he was asleep.
So wrapped up in his thoughts, Zuko didn’t even notice the servant enter the kitchen until they nervously spoke up. Jumping slightly in surprise, Zuko didn’t notice as the flames in the lights and stove flared up as well.
“Your Highness, do you need something?” The man asked, his servants’ clothes obviously mussed from sleep. “I can cook you anything you desire, sir.”
“No, it’s okay.” Zuko said with a tired tone, “I was just hungry.”
It was odd, his voice sounded higher than he remembered it being. Maybe a change in pitch was due to him not speaking for weeks while he slept. He looked up at the servant’s face, wondering how tall the man must be to be able to look down on him without trying.
“Are you unable to sleep, sir?” The man looked at Zuko warmly, with a hint of worry in his eyes, “I can brew you a calming pot of tea. You need your rest for your Agni Kai tomorrow.”
Zuko looked sharply at the man, his breathing speeding up in shock. His eyes narrowed as he tried to think of the implications of what the man just said, Zuko unintentionally glared at the servant as the open flames climbed higher and higher in his agitation. He would never know that to this servant, he’d never resembled a Fire Lord more than in that moment.
“E-excuse me sir, please I meant no offense.” The servant hastily bowed, feeling his knees shake at the potential fury of the Crown Prince. He should have known better than to tell a royal what to do.
Zuko stared at the man in horror, feeling his panic grow the longer he was in the kitchen. He fled into the shadows, leaving behind his food, and running the rest of the way back to his room.
A sinking feeling in his stomach, Zuko approached the mirror and lit up a small flame in his palm. His reflection stared back, his cheeks soft with baby fat and most conspicuously, his face absent of any scar.
Somehow, Zuko was 13 again and it was the night before his first Agni Kai. Not a single servant came to his room when his screams of anguish ripped through the night air, flames burst from his hands as he destroyed the mirror in front of him. This can’t be right, he thought, how did this even happen?