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The Road Ahead

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"He knows." Azula hissed in the privacy of the meditating room where no one was allowed to disturb the prince. "And he's not afraid to use it against you."

Zuko started. "But that would ruin you, too."

Her face creased with worry and bitterness. She clutched her elbows, hugging herself as a shudder passed through her. "Father's never been terribly forgiving. Remember how he won the war: He doesn't care about collateral damage."

They sat and stared at each other, drinking in each other's fear and panic, wanting nothing more than to hold on to each other until Ozai's wrath fell upon both their heads. They were scared and they didn't know what to do.

But Uncle did.

"We have to get you out of the Fire Nation," Iroh said tightly to his nephew. "The rumour mills have already begun about some scandalous affair you've been having. I may have a solution, but it will mean you will not see each other for a long, long time. Maybe never again."

Zuko protested violently. He would not leave his sister in his father's clutches. He would face whatever punishment the law—and his father—meted out. But Azula refused to let him stay. Better he was alive and out in the world than dead in the ground beneath her feet.

"I won't leave you," Zuko gripped his sister's hands.

She smiled sadly. "You never will. Not as long as you are alive."

Iroh looked at his niece and nephew sternly, his lined face betraying no emotion. "I have a plan that could save you both."

It didn't occur to Zuko until much later that the plan had been expedited with far too much efficiency and forethought to have been something his uncle had come up with on the spur of the moment.

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Zuko made the proposal to his father alone in the grand throne room, his sire an inky silhouette behind the curtain of fire that separated him from his minions and the common folk. The Firebending prince laid out an ancient scroll, one dating back to Sozin's days, detailing the last days of Avatar Roku. Iroh had given it to him, a part of the plan to save his sister from shame and dishonour while retaining Zuko's own official claim to the throne. The prince began to tell the tale of the last Avatar, but the Fire Lord already knew the contents of the scroll, had studied them for years just as his own father had. He looked upon the young Firebender's bent form, saw the steely determination in the set of his jaws and the square of his shoulders, and sneeringly acquiesced to his noble son's request. Zuko thanked him shortly and backed out of the throne room, composing his features to hide the anger and dismay threatening to burst from him. His father could at least have pretended he didn't want to see him gone from the palace.

When Ursa found out about her son's proposed crusade an hour later, she slapped him, biting out a few choice profanities, slapped him again, and called him a number of unseemly things before she ran out, ranting and fuming to herself.

Stunned, but somehow not surprised, Zuko paced slowly out to speak with his Uncle, his bruised left cheek stinging more than his pride.

The Fire Lord wasted no time in announcing his son's grand plan to the rest of the kingdom. The proclamation was made just before dinner on that same day. It simply read:

To further the glory of the Fire Nation, his exalted highness, the Crown Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai, son of Ursa, brother of Azula, is departing to find the long-lost Avatar and bring honor to his country and his family. Agni bless him on his quest.

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Zuko's ship was stocked and manned under the expectant, malicious and triumphant eye of his father, and the tearful, angry gaze of his mother. Neither of them had said a word about the illicit affair, but he could sense their judgment, their disgust and loathing hanging about him. But none of that mattered to the royal couple: all that did matter was that Zuko was leaving.

A sharp and stoic grey-haired lieutenant named Jee assured the prince that all would be ready for their departure, and suggested Zuko take the night off while the last of the supplies were loaded on. Iroh had picked this man himself, and for that reason, Zuko trusted him. He left without another word, putting the administration and grunt work of running his ship—he grimaced and admitted, his new home—into the Lieutenant's capable hands.

The young Firebender's neck prickled as the day wound down and he faced his final night on the soil of his people. He had been meditating, thinking deeply about what had transpired, wished to the gods Azula would come to him one last time before he left her forever. But when he heard the door creak open, he was thoroughly disappointed.

Soft, heavy footsteps tolled an introductory gong to the thoughts that had been percolating through his tortured mind. His mouth felt dry as the words slipped out, like poisoned ichor.

"He was going to get rid of me all along, wasn't he?" He asked quietly.

Iroh looked away, letting the thick silence speak for him.

"The ship was prepared for me ahead of time. He's been planning this for months."

"Be grateful," Iroh intoned morosely. "Ozai had numerous plans to shame and dishonour you to get you out of the country. But this way, leaving on your own, you will be protecting your sister and your mother, plus, you will still be crown prince officially. Ozai cannot take that title away from you now, unless—"

"You knew he was going to get rid of me!" Zuko turned furiously on his Uncle. "Why didn't you say anything?"

The old man sighed deeply. "I'm sorry Zuko. I knew there were only a few chances for you to escape unscathed and I couldn't risk you letting your father know you'd caught on to his plot."

"So you were just going to let him carry out his plans to banish me? Or worse?"

"Try to understand—"

But the prince had heard enough. He stormed out, the anger boiling over and spilling out in all directions. The old general's answer was not nearly satisfactory, and Zuko felt thoroughly betrayed by the one man he thought he could trust.

Understanding—and forgiveness—would not come for many, many years.

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At night, he lay in his bed, not feeling the silk sheets, not seeing the faint glow of the hallway lights from beneath the door. The full moon, an all-seeing eye drifting high above, watched over him piteously, tears of starlight scattering across the velvet blue heavens.

A silhouette appeared lithely on the balcony, and Zuko thought at first that Tui Herself had come to save him and join him with his sister permanently. Better still, it was Azula. She must have scaled the palace walls and slipped around the ledges to get to his room. Clever girl. Face drawn, eyes red from crying, she clambered quickly into his bedchamber and stole into his embrace with the expediency of a smash and grab highwayman, her lips robbing him of breath and speech.

There was no time for sweetness or soft words. Azula was greedy in their frantic lovemaking that night, stealing every kiss and touch and electric sensation to keep for herself. When she was finally spent, she collapsed atop him, her shuddering pants sounding desiccated and choked with sobs. Zuko absently stroked her hair, but the gesture was automatic rather than comforting, and had lost its soothing effect. The princess whimpered and tried to wrap herself in her brother's skin, burrowing, burying, snuggling and gripping him so tightly that her sharpened nails left bloodied bites in his flesh. But there was little comfort he could extend to his sister. He felt numb: it was as if she really had taken something from him that night, leaving her brother empty and unburdened for the long voyage ahead of him. Zuko suddenly wondered when their affection for each other had turned to ash.

He shook himself. He was waxing poetic again, indulging the tragic romantic side of himself that Azula had often teased him about when they were younger. Of course he still loved her: one night of unfulfilling sex could not sour him to his beloved sister. He pulled her closer, drinking in the sensations of her body with its baby-soft skin, the cascades of silky onyx hair draped over him, the delicate scent of lilac perfume mixed with the steel of her sweat, and pushed out all other thoughts. His lips found hers and they melded together sweetly, hungrily. This was his last night with her, his beautiful, wonderful sister, his passionate, empathetic lover. He would make the most of it.

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When Iroh came to wake his nephew the next morning, he was unsurprised to find the princess still there. It was better this way, he surmised, clearing his throat to explain his presence to the bitter, angry and annoyed-looking young woman sitting up in bed.

People—smart people—knew about Ozai's conspiracy to make Azula the legitimate heir to the throne. Smarter people knew that the sex scandal purported to be the "real" cause of the prince's departure from his homeland was really a cover-up for the Fire Lord's ultimate purpose. But to keep the ones not in the know—to save Azula's honour and prevent a civil war from sweeping over the kingdom—Zuko had to keep up appearances. He had to present some small evidence of an illicit affair to throw the scent off his sister and give people something to chew on as he waved goodbye.

In the next heartbeat, with Zuko still sitting in naked in his bed, an arm draped around Azula's waist, Iroh stepped aside, ushering in a thin, dark-skinned waif of a girl with defiant blue eyes and long braided hair. She was about the same age as Azula, and despite being a spoil of war—a slave in the palace acquired nearly four years ago—she held her chin high, her jaw set with determination and bravery.

Those two blue eyes appraised the incestuous siblings, their shame plain before her. Her gaze held no judgment, and did not break from the prince's returned gape.

"Her name is Katara," Iroh said to him somberly. "She will be your lover."

Azula began to cry.

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The next piece of news surprised Zuko further.

"Coming with me? Why?"

The old man grinned, and casually expressed his wish to see the world and do some shopping. "Besides," he put a hammy hand on the young man's shoulder and gripped his nephew fiercely. "Family sticks together."

Zuko, still feeling the sting of betrayal, pulled out of Iroh's grasp and stalked on ahead. Still, he could not help the waves of relief pulsing through him.

The retired general, being an excellent observer of human behavior, smiled and followed his nephew. What he had failed to mention was that the prince and his "lover" would need a chaperone for the voyage.

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"I will see you again, Azula," Zuko said tersely under the baleful eyes of their parents. Their longing and sorrow was thinly veiled by contempt held not for each other, but for the simpering pair perched on their thrones nearby.

The princess nodded once, afraid her voice would betray her. Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears, making her gold eyes bright, the lashes dark and wet. But Zuko knew what she wanted to say, knew from all those stolen moments of lying inches away from her, face to face in the same bed, what she was really saying: I love you, Zuko.

And then the prince and the retired war hero were walking to the ship to the cheers and well-wishes of the oblivious peasantry, the sneers of the better-knowing nobles, the tears of his would-be wives, and the predatory leer of his despicable father. Flowers and petals were thrown at the royals' feet, but the prince barely registered the fragrant carpet crunch underfoot, his eyes fixed on the gangplank, his mind fixed on his last glimpse of Azula, ruby lips pursed, despair and hope radiating out beneath her royal composure.

Zuko watched as the ship hauled anchor and the engines started, a dull, shuddering roar beneath his feet starting them on the languorous journey away from port. His eyes stayed fixed on Azula the entire time, her pale face framed by twin locks of ebony, standing next to his mother and father on the raised dais, until he could no longer see her. Only when his homeland dipped below the horizon did he begin to cry.

"You did a very brave thing," a voice, liquid, soft and soothing, said, "leaving your home to protect your sister."

Zuko hastily recomposed himself and turned. The slave girl stood to one side, eyes the colour of the sky watching him. She looked ready to offer her support, her advice, whatever he needed to get through this difficult time…as per his uncle's firm directive. She spoke again out of turn. "You must love her very much."

Zuko watched this impertinent wench momentarily, and looked to the horizon again. He imagined her standing on the parapets, watching for her brother's ship, waiting for his return. That image alone filled him with hope.

"Yes. I do. And I will see her again. I swear it."

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END…?

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Well, that's that, folks. Hope you liked it, even if you found it squicky. There may be a sequel, but I'm hard pressed to finish all the other things I'm working on, so stay tuned!

Thanks once again to smillaraaq for beta reading, and to loveroftheflame for providing me this intriguing challenge. This story, and lover's Porcelain, is available at FicHaven dot org. Go read it!

Best wishes and fishes, Vicki So.