Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender or any of the associated comics. A few quotes from The Search are used to bookend the story and place it in the comic continuity frame. Please enjoy!
by Becky Tailweaver
"Aang is the Avatar. Helping people is what he does." Zuko was calm, levelheaded. He would hold himself back. Hold her back. He would make this work. "And we're his friends...his team. So helping people is what we do, too."
"No wonder you don't want to be Fire Lord any more, Zuzu!" Azula laughed breezily over her shoulder at him, probably more than aware of how her words cut to the bone. "You'd rather gallivant around the world with your little friends, saving poor people!"
—yes, oh spirits yes, please, there's nothing I want more—
The question he could not answer before caught at his breath.
Why didn't he burn the letter?
The surety of following the Avatar, of joining the team and finally doing something right with his life. The relief he'd felt, when they finally said Okay and let him come near, start the campfire for them, make tea like Uncle taught him.
The slow-growing trust, feeling everyone out, figuring out how to be just a person and not a prince. The companionship, warm evenings spent in camp learning about each other. Better sleep than he'd had in his whole life, on a thin bedroll instead of a silk mattress, because for the first time, he felt safe.
Meals and squabbles and laughter and games. Pranks committed far too early in the morning. Sharing favorite foods and memories. Sword practice and bending practice and watching others bend and learning so much. Actually fitting in; no one seemed to mind his heritage, his temper, or his awkwardness, responding with neither fear nor anger, and it actually helped him to cool down because no one there cared about royal decorum and didn't think less of him for being himself.
Far from the Fire Palace with its intrigues and backstabbing, free of the heavy yoke he'd worn since the Agni Kai with Ozai, allied with the Avatar and helping to bring balance back to the world—those sweet days spent with his dearest friends had been the best in his life, and ended far too quickly.
Ever since he'd read the letter, realizing what it might mean, he'd allowed himself the hope he might go back to that. It was one of the first things that entered his mind once the shock of the letter's contents had lessened. Being the Fire Lord...he was glad to serve his people, to help return peace to the world.
But often it was hard to be happy.
Some nights he still dreamed of the wind in his hair and soft voices around a campfire, and woke on silk sheets choking with homesickness.
If he truly was nothing but a commoner, he could be free of the golden chains. The Palace would throw him out, shame him and all but exile him again, but he'd dealt with that before and survived. Thrived, twice over. Being outcast held no fear.
He could go with the Avatar, riding free on the wind again, with nothing to prove and no one to impress.
He could help keep Aang out of trouble and head off some of the good-hearted Airbender's more harebrained ideas, and there could be Firebending practice every morning and tea every evening and he could visit Uncle as often as he wanted.
He could travel all over the world and help people with his own two hands, instead of decreeing they be helped and watching uselessly from a balcony high above.
He could stay with his friends forever, sleeping under the stars with just one backpack to his name and feeling safer than anywhere else in the world.
All the years he spent trying to get home...and yet he never felt like he was home until he was only himself, just Zuko the Firebender, rambling with his best friends, chasing the warm winds of the West. If he lost the title of Fire Lord—if he was not Ozai's true son—then he would be just Zuko again, son of Ursa and Ikem, and home would be where his heart led him.
...please, please, let it be true...
But if it was true, it might destroy everything he and his friends had worked for the last two years. He might ask Uncle's help now and then, but he couldn't drag the man he loved as a father away from the Jasmine Dragon and the life he'd made there, happily retired—from the military, from the War, and from shepherding wayward, blockheaded princes down their right paths. To force Iroh to become Fire Lord after all he'd been through would be a cruel, ungrateful twist.
And he couldn't let Azula have the throne. Not with her malice and her madness turned against everything in the world. She did herself as much harm as she did everyone around her. She was still his sister. It would destroy her, destroy the crown, destroy the Fire Nation itself. He hated the job sometimes, but he had always loved his people.
—spirits, Agni, what do I do?
He had to answer her. He had to cut off her ideas before they took root—in her mind or in his. He could not allow himself to want it, to dwell on it, for longer than a moment. He had to refuse his own heart, no matter what he wished.
He opened his mouth to deny it. "I never said—"
But then Azula broke again, and for another eternity was lost to him, chasing the shadow of their mother.