He wanted to save him. Aang really did. Even after throwing off that mask and revealing that his savior had been none other than Prince Zuko, Aang would have done it.
If it had all gone a little bit slower, if the arrows hadn't been hitting the dirt around them like raindrops; then he could have done it. But an arrow split through the air and pinned Zuko down like the archers had done to Aang in the swamp, but instead of through clothes it pierced the flesh of Zuko's leg. Even unconscious, he winced as he inhaled.
Aang had to make a decision, and as much as he hated leaving Zuko undefended, he can't imagine himself pulling that arrow out of his calf and carrying him into the treeline. Not without being riddled by those archers, at least. Aang made a decision, and as he ran off into the woods, alone, he also made a promise:
"I'll come back for you."
When Zuko came to, he wished he could be knocked unconscious again. His head felt like it were full of sand, heavy and rough with little space for actual thoughts. He couldn't move his hands from behind his back and any sound that reached his ears seemed to have to pass through a layer of cotton to get there. Worst of all was the pain in his left leg, which pierced through his calf and shot all the way up through his spine. Trying to put more weight onto the leg made him hiss out of his teeth.
"Looks like you're finally awake," a voice jeered from above him, "Prince Zuko."
Disgust coiled in his stomach. Zuko really just wanted to spit in the direction of Zhao's voice but he wasn't sure he should waste the energy.
He blinked vision back into his eyes so he could at least face the brute. The room he was in was small, darkly lit, and Zhao stood in the middle of it.
Why is he here? Where am I? He asked, but his head was still too hazy to give any answers.
Even with trouble focusing, he knew that Zhao was greatly satisfied with the situation, if his pompous grin was anything to go by.
"I'd like to be kind and say I never expected this from you," he said in mock civility, shaking his head, "Betraying your country, helping the enemy. Sadly, you turning traitor was hardly surprising."
"I am not a traitor." Zuko managed to rasp.
"Oh, then breaking into a military stronghold, freeing the Avatar and ripping ultimate victory from your country's hands is something any loyal Fire Nation citizen would do, isn't it? Really, Zuko, I didn't think you were quite so desperate."
Zhao matched his stare and the rage in his chest flared.
"You and I both know that this was nothing but a selfish attempt by a disgrace of a prince to try and regain his 'honor'. Like you had any in the first place." He scoffed and looked away as if Zuko were beneath his notice. "Although it doesn't really matter what we think. We just have to wait for what the Firelord has to say about this."
Zuko froze. The anger in his chest started to drown in half thought-out fear because memories of last night had started to appear from the haze and No, this wasn't supposed to happen, how could he let this happen, what would he think -
"A hawk is already on its way and I'm sure the Firelord will be quite, ah... eager, to write back. Though I think I can already imagine his answer."
Zhao laughed, setting Zuko's blood boiling, but jolts of fear still coursed through his heart. His father would understand. He had to. He had to.
In the meantime, Zuko could see that the admiral was getting too much enjoyment out of his misery. He faced Zhao, cruel smile still intact, and blew a plume of fire straight into his face. He dodged, but Zuko managed to enjoy the look of surprise on Zhao's face for a moment, before he stepped forward and sent a kick straight into his stomach. The force shot stars into his eyes.
"What ever happened to being honorable in defeat?" Zhao said, voice growing farther away. "Pathetic."
The dots wouldn't disappear from his eyes, no matter how many times he blinked. They started to grow larger and larger instead, until they swallowed his vision entirely, and Zuko was unconscious again.
He's alone the next time he woke up, and a degree more clear-headed, but that wasn''t much of a consolation. Being able to take stock of his situation wasn't great for his nerves.
The room he was in was, in fact, a cell; a square concrete box with an iron door, completely devoid of everything except the hook and chain that kept his hands at his back. The only light source came from the candlelight outside which crawled in between the grates on the door. The chain not only kept his hands behind him, but was also too short to let him stand.
Searing pain still poured from his leg. He realized he was still wearing the black suit he'd worn to free the Avatar, and the reminder of that night made him bang his head against the wall.
This was all the Avatar's fault. If he just hadn't gotten himself caught then he wouldn't have had to free him and he wouldn't have ended up in a jail cell.
The suit had been ripped off at the left knee, the calf now wrapped in stained bandage. From how the injury stung, it had been a rush job with little care put into it other than to stop the bleeding.
The more he saw, the more he seethed. He tried to focus on that anger because it at least kept him from worrying about what he'd gotten himself into or thinking up desperate plans of escape.
He could… melt the chain? And then what, hope the door was unlocked? Not to mention that he'd probably just faint again if he tried to walk.
Maybe he could try and burn Zhao's face again. He felt some sick satisfaction at the thought, but it quickly turned to plain sick in his stomach. No, he couldn't, and it probably wouldn't have helped anyway, not if there were guards outside ready to take Zhao's place.
A deep breath coaxed warmth into him. Zuko decided to try his luck with the chain, so at the very least he'd have his hands in use. He was stopped short when the door groaned open.
"Before you start thinking of escape, perhaps you'd like to see what flew in on the latest hawk."
The voice grated his ears. "Zhao, release me this instant! You have no right to keep me here."
"Oh, I think I have all the right in the world." Zhao held a scroll up to his face and the dizziness from before started to come back. "I'd hope you'd recognize your own father's seal. This is his response to what I told him about your little stunt with the Avatar. Perhaps you'd like to hear the highlights?"
The answer was no, he doesn't want to hear it because even though he'd long for word from his father for years, he'd really rather it be about anything other than this.
Zhao cleared his throat and began anyway. "'Admiral Zhao, my congratulations on your capture of an enemy of the Fire Nation.'"
Zuko stiffened. That was all he needed to hear. It felt like his grave was being dug.
He continued. "'His crimes violate both the terms of his banishment and the laws of our nation, and will be treated as high treason. Be it understood that he is no longer considered a son of the royal family and that the traitor's birthright is unconditionally revoked, with no possibility of reversal.' Ah, and here's my favourite line: 'The only place in our nation for that traitor is in a cell, awaiting sentencing. Send him and wash your hands of this filth, so you may continue your hunt for the Avatar.'"
Zhao glowered down on him, enjoying how every word seemed to feel like a stab in Zuko's gut.
His father had called him a traitor. He might have been a disgrace or a weakling or a banished prince but he'd never been a traitor. He'd had to do it, he'd had to free the Avatar, he'd did it for him, didn't he want him back -
He searched for his voice, and for something to say, but all that came out was a quiet, horribly frail, "No."
"No?" Zhao questioned, before he burst into roaring laughter. "Did you really think there was ever a chance for you? Did you really think your father actually wanted you back? You're more of a naive fool than I ever imagined." His voice turned into sharp-edged disgust with the last sentence. "It was clear from that day three years ago that you were nothing but a disgrace, and the hunt for the Avatar was a wild goose chase to keep you away from the nation. I think your father regretted not just ending it all that day. You were never meant to go home."
"No. My father had to banish me because I disgraced myself, but he gave me a chance to come back home."
"Whatever helps you sleep at night, Prince Zuko." Zhao jeered. "But none of that matters now. Now that you're a traitor, you've managed to destroy whatever chance you had before. Look on the bright side though; you finally get to go home. And if you can't recall," There was nothing but cruelty shining in his eyes. "The sentence for treason, is death."
Zuko was shaking, whether from anger, fear or despair, he didn't know, but Zhao must have found all three amusing because he broke into laughter again.
Choosing anger, Zuko took in a breath, ready to burn that damned smile off his face. Zhao must have noticed, because he stepped forward, laid an iron-clad boot over his bandaged leg and pressed, down, hard. Zuko's mouth hung open, unable to breathe, knowing that if he took in a breath, he would regurgitate it as a scream.
He could barely hear over the ringing in his ears. "Oh dear, I hope that leg of yours doesn't get infected. It would be a shame if you expired before you finally got to see home."
When the pressure finally ceased after what felt like an eternity, Zuko felt angrier than he'd ever been before. He also felt like crying, but he chose to ignore that. It all came in between bouts of pain, and he put up little fight when darkness seeped into his eyes and began to drag him into unconsciousness once more.
AN: I'm making it a tradition to post something every September 9th while I'm here. Why? Because it's my birthday! Here's your present everyone! (Wait, that's not how this works…)
Anyway, thoughts? Forgive me for the beat-up-Zuko chapter and the less-than-original premise but I'm pretty excited about this story. A plot hasn't flown out of me this easily since Revenant. Thank you to Myno for betaing this chapter! I'll be able to give an update every Saturday; that itself is a gift.
Here's to my 17 years of life everyone, hope you all enjoy.
Next up: The Rescue
In which Zuko tries to faint a little bit less, decides to give up, and the world doesn't let him.