The small four by four cell didn’t do much to entertain him, but it wasn’t comfortable enough to sleep in either. The stone walls and iron bars were cool at least, and if he really had gotten a fever like he thought so, then the temperature would be soothing to his body.
It was like this that the former crowned prince spent his days. Not given the decency of a cot, forced to lean against the bumpy surface of the cell in order to ease some of the stress of his body. His mind was muddled in a fever induced haze, and he had honestly lost track of the days he’d been imprisoned. The changing of the guards was barely heard or missed, even, and he could only tell the time through his faint connection to the sun.
Because his mind was so lost in it’s weariness, he couldn’t connect the footsteps pounding down the hall to reality. It wasn’t until he saw his sister’s face looming over him and her lips making sharp movements that Zuko’s focus kicked in.
He should be paying attention.
At least these fever dreams would give him something to attach to.
“-ou wasn’t it. She’s been conspiring with you against me.” The words were spoken in the same manner as always. They were accusatory and conniving and biting. And yet, he thought he heard an underlying amount of hurt.
He hadn’t heard that in his sister’s voice since before he was banished the first time. Not since before mother left. The Azula he knew now would never show vulnerability like this.
Something in her face twisted, and she probably said some derogatory thing, but his mind was too muddled to hear.
Slowly, he made the connection that his image of Azula was off as well. His sister had always had an immaculate appearance - not a single hair or thread out of place. The girl standing in front of him was wearing wrinkled robes, not even tied properly. Her hair wasn’t just out of place but also falling out of it’s topknot, uneven and loose. Her makeup was smeared across her face. Most importantly, her face that was pinched in an ugly expression of desperation that she would NEVER reveal.
...Not even when they were little.
His observations were cut off by a sharp pain on his forehead, followed by a loud clattering on the floor. He looked down at the source of the sound to find a half empty rice bowl, its contents splattered out over the ground.
“You don’t get to ignore me!” his sister called, the hurt in her voice not fading
Zuko stiffened up, realizing that maybe this wasn’t a hallucination after all. “‘Zula?” he croaked. There was a harsh coughing that followed. His voice was dry from lack of use.
The attempt at her name must have reached her, though, because she hardened her mouth into a scowl before yelling, “You tell me what you did!”
He tried to open his mouth to question her. To ask her what she meant because he did a lot of things, and judging by her reaction, it was probably something he did that was really wrong. Like on the day of the black sun
and yet he couldn’t regret it
His sister beat him to it though.
Just like she always did.
“Tell me what you two were plotting!” He didn’t know what she was talking about. “How long have you been trying to steal the throne from me!” He didn’t understand.
“I,” he began, “I don’t know-”
Azula cut him off with a dark chuckle, the sound bitter and cold. “I get it mother… I understand now. You always did like Zuzu better than me. You thought he deserved more. You always thought he deserved more. I don’t deserve anything. Because I’m a monster, right? You think I’m a monster and monsters don’t deserve anything. So you told him to turn everyone against me, didn’t you? First Mai and Ty Lee and now the palace staff too.”
Silence overcame him, his vocal chords stunned by the ridiculousness he was seeing. It looked as if Azula was talking to nothing. Her eyes remained focused on a spot in his cell, away from him, as she spoke her absurdities.
Blinding blue flames suddenly rushed past the iron bars, making him jump as the wall next to him burned black. “You shut up!” She screamed. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
“I didn’t say anything!” Zuko realized his mistake too late, as she fixed her gaze on him. A spirits-crazed smile began to make its way across her face.
“You can’t win mother. You won’t be able to turn anyone against me anymore. I’ll banish brother’s guards and stop them from their insurrection before it takes place. He won’t have anyone to turn against me anymore.”
Zuko felt his brows furrow, not quite understanding what she meant. Did that mean that she was leaving him unguarded? Did she want him to escape? Or was that just his fever muddled brain mixing up her words?
Azula leaned in closer, her nose almost touching the bars. “Did you hear that dumb dumb? You won’t earn any pitiful favors anymore. No one will question the rightful heir to the dragon throne. I am where I belong as the ruler of this nation and you’ll remain here, where you’ve always been meant to be.”
She stood up regally, more confident than she had been when she had entered, and she left her brother more confused than ever.
Eventually, Zuko gave up his pride and ate the rice spread across the floor, though not without difficulty. His throat was still parched and he hadn’t been given water. With his stomach slightly filled, he leaned back against his regular spot in the cell, soaking in the cool feel of the stone.
There hadn’t been much sound except a bit of shuffling outside his line of sight. There was slight muttering, but his brain was too muddled at the time to make out what they were saying. Right now though, all was quiet.
It gave him some peace of mind to think over what had happened. A part of him was convinced it never did.
Azula had always seemed unreal. Her prowess in katas were unmatched. Her blue fire unheard of. Even if she had been born a non-bender, her mind would have made her one of her father’s most lethal weapons.
Zuko wasn’t like that. He wasn’t a prodigy bender. He didn’t have some unheard of skill. And, Agni forgive him, he’d actually been dumb enough to think a pacifist monk was plotting the destruction of the entire Fire Nation.
Despite his slowness, he was still observant enough to notice how his sister was falling apart. She was talking to someone that wasn’t even there. Her state of mind was reflected on her appearance, once clean and sharp but now in ruins.
The change in her was almost unreal, and Zuko was half convinced that it’d been years since his imprisonment, not weeks.
More revealing of her mental trouble was the fact that she demanded Zuko have complete isolation. Though the ex-prince couldn’t say he was ever as tactically brilliant as his sister, he couldn’t imagine that leaving him unguarded was a smart choice. Even if her goal was to harm him via seclusion, it wouldn’t be all that different.
The guards never talked to him anyway.
Was she actually telling him he would be left alone or was this just another one of her mind games? Or was it his own mind playing tricks on him?
Another thing that Zuko didn’t understand was what she hoped to accomplish in her conversation with him. It almost seemed like she wasn’t talking to him at all, instead trying to sound crazy by calling out to their missing mother. Maybe she was trying to confuse him?
Needless to say, it worked.
There was also the depressing thought that maybe she only acted that way because she wanted to tear him down for trying to comfort her.
It certainly wasn’t a new practice.
Zuko looked down at his hands, feeling the urge to just break out and leave for the thousandth time. Out there was also confusing and terrifying and painful, but it was nothing compared to his dealings with his sister.
He belatedly realized that this was the first time he’d seen her since his imprisonment. Father must have finally given her permission to visit me then. Surprising that he waited that long, because he usually denies Azula nothing.
He wondered if he’d be seeing more of her. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to presume she’d come down here to gloat. After all, it was what she did best.
That and lie, of course.
There was also a small part of him that really did want her to come down and visit him. He had actually felt grounded when she did. Though the image was unsettling and the fear never fading, her fire had been so much more vivid than he’d ever remembered. It was bright and colorful and warm in a way that he hadn’t felt since he’d last seen real daylight. The mundane colors of his cell just left him in a numb, bored state in between consciousness and unconsciousness. Today, he finally felt like he was awake.
Why was it that his sister invoked such a reaction from him? His father certainly came down to visit enough, but he didn’t feel a difference from the usual near-catatonic state. It couldn’t be fear. For all of her viciousness and cunning, Zuko could never be more afraid of her than their father, even back when he was desperate for his affection.
Was it the sight of a new face?
No, it couldn’t be that either.
His fever dreams often conjured up images of the people he knew. His mother and uncle were the most frequent, but Azula was not an uncommon face.
The unnatural heat in his body wasn’t so prominent and his thinking was noticeably clearer than the previous day. Spirits, this morning even. He didn’t remember how long ago it was that his thoughts made this much sense (how long ago since the last time he was able to string together more than three sentences within his head).
Come to think of it, Zuko’s whole body was thrumming with an energy that was clean and wonderful. Regenerative and restoring. Powerful .
Maybe his fever was broken at last?
Or… or something else. Because despite being a relatively quick recoverer, he didn’t think he’d feel this different in a day. A few hours even.
Something must be wrong with him.
If it wasn’t a recovery, then maybe his fever had evolved? Could fevers do that?
He hadn’t heard of anything like that before, but he guessed it would be just his luck to experience it now, when he had no one to assist him or offer him medication.
When he didn’t have Uncle by his side.
It was fine. He’d tough it out like he always had. Worse case situation, Zuko wouldn’t recover properly and would just be taken to a doctor in secrecy. Father couldn’t have his prime entertainment dying before his execution date after all.
Still, the energy was practically vibrating inside him, begging to be let loose. He gave it an experimental pull, feeling warmth flooding his stomach. He let loose a sigh at the feeling, fire wisping out with his breath.
He was firebending!
Gingerly standing up, he positioned himself in a familiar stance, taking deep breaths before letting loose a flurry of punches and kicks, each spilling out hot curtains of flame.
For the last couple of days, he couldn’t even concentrate his warmth, but now he was able to perform advanced katas without breaking a sweat. Come to think of it, the achy feeling hadn’t resurfaced either.
firelord had been talking about Sozin’s Comet for weeks. Boasting about how strong it was and how it would be the key to their victory in world domination. He said that it could increase a firebender’s power tenfold.
The power that Zuko was experiencing just then… could it be…?
If this was true, then the time he’d spent in here was greatly miscalculated. He needed to escape and warn the Earth Kingdom right away. If there was anything left by this time.
He threw blast after blast at the stone wall, forgoing the iron bars all together, not sparing a thought for any guards on the outside. The little guilt he had at ruining his nation’s victory was trampled by the crippling fear for those in the Earth Kingdom. If his father actually managed to burn all their fields, then its people would starve to death by winter.
Victory meant nothing if there was nothing but ashes. That’s what Zuko told himself as he faced his father on the day of the black sun. That’s what he told himself as he reminded himself why he was locked up in some rotten old prison cell instead of laying in the comfort of his silken sheets back at the palace. That’s what he told himself now as the oxygen his cage became stale and thin.
Even if he hadn’t turned traitor on that day, Zuko didn’t think he could sit by and watch as the livelihood of thousands of people went up in smoke, literally. Dreams of becoming a good leader aside, it was just wrong on a moral standpoint. That’s why, when the smoke in his cell became so thick it was choking him, he didn’t stop. That’s why, when he messed up a kata and his fire burned his wrists he only spared time for a small cry before he was back at it again.
There was an almighty roar and the stone was crumbling away. The insufferable heat was broken by a wave of fresh air and outside light, but Zuko didn’t allow himself to feel any relief. Wheezing lungs and charred wrists could wait; he had an entire people to rescue… or at least die trying.