He says a lot of things as the fever works through him. He curses every time he moves, when he feels the pain surge through his body. He thinks he talks to Mai. He calls for his mother at one point. He imagines his father, but never lets a plea for him leave his lips.
Through all the murmurs of a fevered man, the first thing he says consciously when he realizes he is not alone is: “My uncle?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know your uncle.” Then two cool hands massage his temples, and he falls back to sleep.
He hears a lot too. “I can’t leave. They’ll kill him.”
A man says, “The guards will make sure no one does.”
“The guards want to kill him.”
“They can’t. He’s worth more alive.”
“Not anymore,” the woman’s voice replies, the one the cool hands belong to. “He asked for an uncle.”
“That would be General Iroh.”
He wants to speak up, say “yes, did you find him”, but the air around him is so hot, and he feels like he can’t breathe.
“Ozai’s brother,” the man adds.
The air feels hotter and hotter. He moans in pain. The hands find him.
“That’s Ozai’s son you’re helping, Katara. And the whole tribe knows it.”
“And they know this is the man who killed Zhao.”
“Yeah, too late,” the man sneers abhorrently.
“He’s part of the reason I have my bending back.”
“Yue’s the reason you have your bending back!” he shouts.
“Look, I couldn’t just let him die out there. Especially not by Zhao’s hand.”
“So you’ll save his life, nurse him back to health, and then what?”
The woman, Katara, gives no answer. She prods at his neck, his shoulders, his chest. He wants to shout at her to stop touching him; it all hurts so much. But then she pulls her hands away, and he realizes he does not hurt as much as he did before.
“Good, your fever’s going down. Now how are those ribs?” Her hands trail down from his forehead to the center of his body. “Hmm, not as good as I want them to be. This might hurt a little.”
His chest seizes in pain immediately as she attempts to mend the shattered bones. He wishes he could stop her. He wishes he could burn her hands from his body. He wishes she would let him die.
“There. That’s better,” she says softly, and opens his mouth to bend water down his throat.
His fever breaks that night.
She’s not expecting to see his hazy eyes staring back at her when she enters the healing hut. It’s easier to heal Prince Zuko when his eyes are closed and he’s lying still. Now that he’s awake, now that his fever’s broken, now that his bones are on the mend, she wonders what to do with him.
“You,” he says in a deep, raspy voice, deeper from his illness. “You were at the oasis.”
“Yes.” She stood with Sokka and Yue, trying to protect the moon spirit from Zhao and his men.
She wonders why he feels the need to call her by name. She’s surprised he even knows it.
“I should be dead.”
“The force of Zhao’s attack-”
“I was able to heal most of the burned skin with minimal scarring. The force of the blow shattered your ribs. I had to work quickly to stop the internal bleeding. You’ll have to stay in bed longer, though. You still have a lot of healing left.”
“My uncle?” he asks again.
“I don’t know.”
As far as she knows, every Fire Nation soldier drowned in La’s revenge…every single one except Zuko. Sokka tells her La spared him because he would have died from his injuries. Katara thinks La spared him out of gratitude, for delivering the fatal blow to the one who harmed Tui.
“Who would know?”
“I’ll ask around. Let me check on your ribs.”
Her hands are less steady now that golden eyes watch her every move.
As soon as he can sit, he starts making demands - for a ship, for parchment, for an audience with the Chief.
“Eat the food I brought you,” she says, rolling her eyes. She’s starting to prefer him unconscious. “The broth is delicious.”
“I need to let my father know I survived.”
“He knows,” she tells him. Chief Arnook sent word to the Fire Nation, hoping to settle on a ransom. “He knows you killed Admiral Zhao. You’ve been labeled a traitor to the Fire Nation.”
He hurls the bowl of soup at her. She bends it right back at him.
Sokka urges her not to heal him again, and she’s inclined to agree. She holds out for three days before she wonders how his ribs are faring.
He’s the only patient in this healing hut. He thinks he knows why. He’s a traitor to the land he’s from and a prisoner to the land he’s in.
“What will your people do with me?” he asks, while she soothes the bruises beneath his scarred skin, evidence that his bones are moving back where they belong.
“They’re not my people,” she reveals.
There’s nothing more absurd to him, that this young woman with hands cloaked in healing water, would not consider these people of the Northern Water Tribe hers.
“I’m from the South. I came here with my brother a few years ago to learn waterbending.”
“I didn’t realize the South had any waterbenders left.”
Her hands still.
“That’s thanks to your people.”
He doesn’t see her again for five days. His ribs ache.
“He’s a liability,” Chief Arnook says.
“Yeah, especially now that you told the Fire Lord we have him,” mentions Sokka critically. The relationship between the two of them suffers irreparably now that Yue can no longer keep the peace between her father and her husband.
Katara wonders if this means Sokka will consider leaving the North Pole now. Maybe she can convince him to come home, the way she had to convince him to leave all those years ago. But Sokka will never leave, not when he’s Arnook’s heir by marriage, not when he has a son he has to raise alone.
This may be her time to leave, however. “I can take him back to the South Pole,” she offers. “That way the threat’s away from here. The Fire Nation won’t attack the South Pole. There’s no need when they’ve already taken everything. The North, on the other hand, has too much to lose.”
“Katara-“ her brother begins. He doesn’t want them to be separated. He still stands by some promise he made to their dad that he would always look after her. But she’s grown up now. She’s a master waterbender. And it’s time to go home and wait for new waterbenders to be born. It’s time for her to teach them.
“My mind’s made up,” she says.
Prince Zuko will return to the South Pole with her, as a prisoner of the Southern Water Tribe.
He’ll trade one icy pole for another, it seems. When he hears the news, he wishes she had let him die.
“When do we leave?”
“As soon as I think you’re able,” she replies. “It will be a long journey. You’ll need your strength. How do you feel today?”
His body feels better, but nothing else. His mind is raging at the thought of spending the rest of his life in that plundered village of ice and snow. He’s seen it before, briefly when he was under Zhao’s command, as they searched for the Avatar. He never wants to see it again.
She helps support his weight when he begins walking again. His arm hangs around her shoulders, and though he’s working hard to keep the indignance plastered on his face, she can tell by the stride of his steps that he is eager to walk again.
They take laps around the hut until his breaths grow heavy, and then she helps him back into his bed. He eats his soup without protest.
A question persists on the tip of her tongue. It’s bothered her for weeks, and now she feels like he’s in a stable enough mood to answer it. “Why did you kill him?”
Zuko had attacked first, as soon as Zhao struck Tui, not the other way around. Zhao’s final blow, while intended fatally, had been in response to Zuko’s wave of fire. Even on the ground, with shattered bones and melted skin, Zuko rained fire down on Zhao until the admiral’s death.
She would have done it, had her bending not been taken from her. Sokka would have, if he could have gotten close enough without being burned. Zhao expected this from them, the enemy. He clearly didn’t expect it from Zuko. So she wants to know why he did it.
Why did it matter so much to you?
“The sky’s not supposed to be red,” he replies, reminding her of how it felt to have the moon plucked from the sky, how it felt to be without her bending. “He could have destroyed the whole world. Mortals have no business with the spirits. We can’t understand them.”
“Yeah, but La would have handled him, like he handled the rest. You didn’t have to.”
“I didn’t know what La was going to do. I just knew what I had to do.”
“What did you think the mission was here?”
“I was told that we were here in case the Northern Water Tribe was harboring the Avatar. I didn’t know Zhao had other plans until we got to the oasis. No one knew. All those soldiers died fighting blindly.”
“They’re all fighting blindly if they think this war is justified,” she returns.
He’s standing in the healing hut when she comes to check on him. He knows not to leave; there are four guards right outside in case the idea ever strikes him. His back is straight, and if he’s in pain, he hides it well.
Wordlessly, she sheathes her palms in water and presses them to his chest, searching for lingering damage to the bones. There’s barely any left.
“I hope you don’t get seasick.”
“We leave in a week,” she decides. A week is enough time to work out the details with Sokka, like where to avoid Fire Nation fleets and how much money she’ll be allowed to take with her, and which vessel she’ll be given. Sokka wants her to take a couple guards too, but she’s hesitant to add more stakes to the clandestine transport of the Fire Lord’s son.
He smirks. “You shouldn’t have healed me before we left.”
She’s seen what his hands can do. She won’t let that intimidate her. “You shouldn’t try anything. Not when I know exactly where you’re vulnerable.” Her hands can shatter as well as they can mend. He’ll learn that if he wants to survive the journey.
He could melt the shackles, but he doesn’t desire to have molten metal coating his wrists. This will be his last morning in the healing hut, and his first morning outside in weeks. Two guards grab him by each arm and force him forward, not that they need to. He has no qualms walking out on his own. He wants to leave this land as much as they want him to.
For a quick second, he pauses right outside the entrance of the hut, as soon as he feels the sun on his face.
He looks up to the sky. It isn’t red. It’s blue. He’s a traitor and a prisoner. But the sky is blue.