"I think we'll be safe here."
How did his uncle have the strength to talk after all that running? The prince panted as he slowly took in what had just happened. Over the past year, he had battled pirates, dodged a fire bombing navy, infiltrated an alleged impenetrable fortress, dueled a famous Fire Bending master, and survived an assassination, but could he have, he would have chosen to go through all those dangers again before this. He wasn't playing a masked vigilante this time; he was a prince running for his life from his own people, his own soldiers, the same men who had guarded him with their lives when he was a child, whom he obviously cared more about than his father ever could.
Now here he was on his hands and knees beside some nameless river in the wilderness, right back where he'd started three weeks ago, except with less. His sister's words had caused the last threads of denial he'd been holding onto for three years to snap. His father fully intended to bring him home in shackles like a criminal. He had no more hope.
He was a wanted fugitive now, an enemy of his own people and disowned by his family. He had no one.
But he was an enemy of the rest of the world, too – the son of the man whose armies destroyed their homes, killed their families, and filled their days with fear. He had nowhere to go.
No hope. No one. Nowhere. And nothing – not a possession to his name but the clothes on his back. And one more thing...
He reached for the place in the fold of his belt where he'd hidden a thin, silver knife. Reality scolded him as he finally opened his eyes. Had he really ever thought there was any truth to his sister's story? Some part of him must have expected what was coming; why else would he have taken such a carefully hidden weapon with him aboard her ship?
He held the blade in front of his face. The metal was as smooth as glass and shone in the sunlight like diamond. The kanji carefully etched into the surface confirmed the expert craftsmanship; it was a treasure fit only for royalty. He could see his reflection in the edge as clear as a mirror: the lock of onyx black hair that once gave him so much pride, assurance that even far away from home, he was still the Prince of the Fire Nation; the golden eyes just like his father's that once gave him so much comfort, a constant reminder that he was indeed his father's son; the scratches from the battle when his own little sister had tried to kill him; and the scar – the pound in flesh he paid defending the Fire Lord's own people to him, the repulsive mark that made the whole world a prison with nowhere to hide, the proof and reassurance of his own weakness, the souvenir of the day he let his father down.
There was no more pretense left in his face. This was who he really was.
Prince Zuko let the knife lower slightly as his mind turned inward. The world seemed to pause with him. The question on his mind was simply, Now what? He had no plans, nothing to plan for, no reason to plan anything. No hope. No one. No home. Nothing. Nothing to do. Nothing to look forward to. Nothing to work for anymore. Nothing to live for anymore.
Nothing to live for.
He was backed into a corner with no way out this time. The only thing he had left to lose was the breath in his body. Why delay it? To prolong struggling to survive under the radar? To watch his father and sister take over the world? To continue to be a burden to his uncle? There was no point to doing or trying anything now. Even if he did, he would fail, like always. The only solution was to let it all go.
It was time to just give up.
He could do it right now. He could let it all go at last. If he didn't, someone else was sure to eventually do it for him – a question only of when, not if.
What good had his life ever done anyone anyway? Everyone he knew certainly would have been better off. His father would have no failure of a son to embarrass him. His sister would have everything she wanted. His uncle would still be a revered general, living in the luxury of the Royal Court of the Fire Nation. Even the Avatar and his companions... their journey would have been so much easier without him stalking them. A village somewhere off the skirts of the South Pole could have continued to ride out the war in peace. A refugee would not have been discovered on his ship by a bounty hunter. Zhao would never have found the Avatar at Roku's Fire Temple, and there would be five less prisoners in jail right now. The Avatar would have been at the Oasis at the North Pole to save the Moon Spirit in time, and a princess would still be alive and a young boy's heart unbroken.
Everywhere he'd ever gone, everything he'd ever done, he'd only caused pain and misery. Hadn't he caused enough trouble for the world? He could consider it performing a service. To both sides. He would rid the Fire Nation of one more criminal to worry about, rid the Avatar of one more obstacle, rid the world of one more Firebender.
Why not? It would make no difference whether he lived or died anyway. What harm would it do? No one would mourn him, surely. What would he miss? Nothing there was any chance of regaining. What had he to fear? No more than what he had to fear in this world. This world had nothing to offer him. If he'd already lost the game, why not just quit?
He didn't want to fight anymore. He finally just wanted to give up.
Everything was in place for him to make the move. To finish the job Zhao failed, that his father started. A part of him was already dead since the day the Fire Lord scarred him. He was tired of holding back the images from that day. Tired of lying to himself. Tired of working against the entire world. Tired of being a prisoner of his race, rank, and own weakness. He just wanted to finally be free of it all.
He just wanted to set himself free. Of this war torn planet. Of Ozai's blood in his veins. Of the fire in his heart. Of his past, of his present, and of his future. He wanted it all to stop.
This was the only way he would ever be free.
For three long years, the thought of Home had occupied his every moment, ruled his every thought, controlled every fiber of his being. His Honor was worth his own life, self, and conscience. But neither the thought of Home nor Honor had ever been so welcome as the thought of Freedom was now. He would never be free in this world. He could only be free in death.
He had to give up to set himself free.
Only the animal instincts of self-preservation held him back now. He charged himself with the deed like he had been taught Firebending and the martial arts: Practice enough, and your body could remember how to move without thinking about it; thinking was just distracting.
Without thinking was the only way to do it.
But it wasn't his thoughts that distracted him. It was a slight movement he felt to his left. His uncle must have turned towards him. Had he been sitting there staring at the knife only for an instant? Did his uncle know what he was thinking? He always knew what he was thinking.
Neither of them said a word. Nothing happened. Did he want something to happen? What could possibly change anything? No matter what happened, he could never be free if he continued to live. He could never change that reflection he saw. He could never change what he was: the son of a father who would never love him, the brother of a prodigy he would never best, the prince of a nation that despised him, the heir of a war, of more bloodshed, of pure evil. How else could he be free of himself? He could never change what he was.
But what was he? Part of him was a traitor who cared more for a division of expendable soldiers than etiquette. Part of him was a warrior who had learned to master the fire that ran in his veins. Part of him was a loyal nephew who at least once cared more about his uncle than about his goal. Part of him was just another hotheaded, stubborn, restless teenaged boy.
Part of him was the Prince of the nation that terrorized the world: the Prince bound by his duties, his heritage, his facade, and his destiny. It was the Prince that held him prisoner.
His hand finally moved. He paused again and took a deep breath. No turning back. He didn't hesitate as he made the cut. In one smooth, even motion, in one quick, fluid slice, he severed his strongest tie with his old life, and set himself free of Prince Zuko.
Cutting his hair hurt far worse than cutting his neck. He didn't kill himself, but he did kill a part of himself.
He did not regret it.
When he had the perfect chance, he refused to give up.