The only sounds on the boat were the rhythmic splash of the oars slipping in and out of the water and the quiet huffs of the soldier rowing. The current taking them away from the island of the Sun Warriors was strong, and there wasn’t as much need to row hard as there had been when they arrived earlier that day.
Which was good, because Zuko couldn’t have helped this time around. His hands were heavily bandaged, the burns still hurting even after the ointment provided by the Sun Warrior healer. He kept his gaze fixed on his hands. He couldn’t bear to look up at the pity and compassion in his Uncle’s gaze.
The Eternal Flame had burned him. He’d tried to take it, reverent and hopeful, and it had burned him . The chief and the healers had examined him and conferred in quiet voices. Their faces were grave and sad as they talked to Uncle. But Zuko didn’t need to see their faces or hear what they said. He already knew .
He’d lost his fire.
Even after more than two years traveling around the world, searching for the Avatar in vain; even after hours uselessly meditating in front of unresponsive candles; even after going through the motions of firebending drills at dawn, at high noon, at dusk; even though he hadn’t been able to produce a single lick of flame since the Agni Kai—somehow, he’d still had hope. Against all evidence and logic, he’d still told himself that it was just a temporary block, as Uncle Iroh kept saying. He’d get his bending back one day. He’d find the Avatar, capture him and bring him back in chains. Father would welcome him back home, restore his honor, give him his rightful place on the throne.
All lies. Even if he somehow succeeded where all others had failed and found the Avatar, how would he defeat a Master of all four elements without even one? And even if he did, would Father ever accept a non-bender as Crown Prince of the Fire Nation?
His fire, his honor, and his home had been lost to him the moment he spoke out at the War Council. The moment he didn’t fight at the Agni Kai, like a cowardly child.
Uncle Iroh wisely kept quiet as they returned to the ship, anchored at a secluded bay near the Western Air Temple. Zuko shut himself away in his room and went to bed. He didn’t sleep.
“Prince Zuko, you need to eat something,” Uncle called out from the other side of the door.
The room was dark. Zuko hadn’t even bothered to light a candle. He didn’t answer, hoping Uncle would walk away as he had before. What time was it? How many days had passed? He couldn’t say.
Iroh opened the door and entered with a tray of steaming rice porridge and tea.
“Please eat something,” he pleaded.
Zuko got up stiffly and forced himself to eat. He avoided Uncle’s worried gaze. Uncle hesitated, then sighed.
“My nephew… I know this is a hard and desperate time for you. But from my own experience, I can say that it is at our lowest point when we’re open to the greatest changes. You can choose your own destiny. You can leave the path others determined for you and take your own. Please know that whatever you choose, I will be here to support you.”
Zuko looked up at his uncle’s face for just a moment. He couldn’t stand to be looked at with such love, it was — he didn’t deserve it. He was a failure. The worst of dishonors on his family. If Father had ever wanted him back, he would never accept him now. Never look at him the way Uncle did.
Uncle said, very carefully: “Fire is the element of power. It can be ignited by anger, yes, but also passion, will, drive… it is so much harder to produce when one is feeling powerless and hopeless. It is… only natural.”
It still felt like a punch to the gut. Zuko wanted to get angry, smash the bowl against the wall, scream at his uncle. But he only felt more tired than ever. Silently, he went back to bed.
“Why don’t you go outside? Get some air. Go for a walk,” Uncle said, his voice gentle.
Zuko turned his back to him. “Later,” he said.
He couldn’t sleep that night either, and he decided to take up his uncle’s advice. He took his swords — he never went anywhere without them now — and some rope, and made the long trek uphill, to the edge of the cliff. He lowered himself to the empty cavernous spaces of the Western Air Temple.
The full moon shone bright on the upside down spires. The wind blowing through the chambers sounded like a melancholic song — a hundred voices recalling a home long gone.
The tears slipped as he fell to his knees. The first time he was here, back when he’d first been banished, he vowed to search the whole world for the Avatar. But even in that moment, as he’d said the words, they sounded hollow to him. Like he’d always known he was meant to fail.
He cried until he felt numb and hollow, and the tears stopped coming. He approached a fountain, still working after all these years, and washed his face. He got up mechanically, picked a direction at random, and walked.
Wandering through dusty, empty hallways, Zuko wondered what it had been like, back when the nuns had lived here. What their daily lives had looked like. Their games, their festivals, their music. In all his time searching for any clues of the Avatar’s whereabouts, he’d never seen any information on the culture of the Air Nomads.
His sources either didn’t know or didn’t care. His tutors at the palace hadn’t taught them either, too focused on making them memorize dates of battles and names of strategies.
He walked the cracked and dusty halls until dawn lightened up the sky. Then he climbed back to the edge of the cliff and looked at the ship waiting for him in the distance.
He didn’t want to go back. On the ship, he was a banished prince with a doomed mission. A coward who lost his bending and wouldn’t get it back. A prince without honor, without hope, undeserving of his title. He might as well be imprisoned in the Boiling Rock for the rest of his life, never to be free.
He looked at the knife his uncle had gifted him, at the sheer drop before him. His poor uncle deserved the chance to go back home, to not be dragged down by Zuko and his stain on the family name.
He was taken over by a self-destructive impulse — to plunge the knife into his own chest, or jump off the cliff — but instead he cut off his phoenix tail and let it fall to the ground.
Uncle had told him to choose his own path. So he did. Sheathing the knife, he took a last look at the ship, his title, his home, his life — and he ran away.