Winter Where You Are
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Zuko's dark red parka stood out like a bloodstain on the snowfields. Chief Arnook had told him that being allowed to wear a color other than blue was a sign of royalty, in the days after the healers bent his pain away, but Zuko knew differently. Red was the mark of his dishonor in their eyes. It was a condemnation and a warning.
Necessity taught Zuko how to make his way through the citadel without attracting undue attention. That had been the beginning of his apprenticeship in the art of living invisibly.
Most of the time he was pretty good at it.
"What are you doing here?" Princess Yue asked him, surprise written all over her delicate features. Zuko understood her alarm. Breaking into Yue's room strained the aristocratic propriety that bound up their friendship.
They were lonely and royal together.
"You weren't supposed to be around." Zuko sunk into the dark trim of his coat, embarrassed. "I was leaving you a note. If I gave it to your guards, they'd read it."
"That's true," Yue admitted, apologetically, fiddling with the engagement pendant at her neck. She didn't question him any further. The Princess was an impeccable hostess to her royal guest.
Never mind that Zuko was little more than a glorified hostage. After their Angi Kai, the Fire Lord had traded his former heir away for a non-aggression treaty with Chief Arnook and the promise that the Water Tribe would not interfere in operations against Bumi of Omashu.
"I'm sorry, Princess," Zuko said, gravely, with the courtly half-bow that he only practiced in her company. It was a relic of the time when he'd known more about chivalry than pain.
Sometimes Zuko wondered if his uncle was still alive.
"No, it's fine," Yue assured him. She turned to her mirror and began fussing with the complex whorls of her hair. "I know it's hard to talk with them around all the time. And we're friends, aren't we?"
"We are," Zuko allowed himself a tiny smile, because he knew that Yue wasn't looking.
"Is your eye bothering you? I can order the healers to-"
"No. Thank you." Zuko's eye rarely pained him. The healers were able to erase the scar his Father gave him, but a flaw in their chi manipulation had all but destroyed half his vision. The skin on that quarter of his face was perfect and white and motionless and so numb that Zuko could drive a needle straight through to the bone without feeling it.
"You're going to eat with the Avatar and his companions tonight, aren't you?"
"Yes, it's a state dinner. You're welcome to come." Yue practically glowed with excitement at the thought of another meeting with the gangly southern boy that the Avatar had brought with him. Her fiancée Hahn was not going to like that.
Zuko himself felt that both boys were infinitely beneath a girl of Yue's caliber, but there was nothing to be done about that.
"No, I'm not," Zuko said stiffly.
"No, you're not," Yue tittered at the thought of a crowd of the citadel's finest trying to make nice with Zuko in front of the Avatar. The Princess padded over to envelope him in a sisterly hug. "But I'll save you the best caviar."
"I'm honored," Zuko rasped, in a feeble attempt to cover his awkwardness. He was not a good hugger. He never knew what to do with his hands, or his face, or the angle of his body.
"Stop worrying for once." Yue smoothed out the wrinkle in his brow with pad of her thumb. "Daddy won't kill you if we break the treaty to back the Avatar. Sokka told me that Avatar Aang is a really good person and I just know he won't hold your blood against you. If you offer to teach the Avatar Firebending, I think you could be friends! Everyone would reconsider your position then. Hahn might even pull some strings to betroth you to his younger sister. Wouldn't that be marvelous?"
"Princess." Zuko gently detached her from his person. Before he left, he had to be certain. "Is that boy good to you?"
"You know I don't mean Hahn."
Yue looked at the floor.
"He makes me laugh."
That was good. Yue was pretty when she laughed. She covered her mouth with one slim, long-fingered hand, as though she were embarassed about being seen acting in an unladylike manner.
The Princess needn't have worried. Yue was always a lady.
"Good. That's good. I only came to say… take care of yourself, with them."
Zuko knew that he couldn't be the one to give her that kind of happiness. Few people in the citadel cared about his opinions, and many were willing to harm him for expressing them. He'd learned the hard way to keep his emotions to himself.
"My hero." Yue pecked him on the cheek. "I know my duty, Zuko. Just you watch. Everything will be fine. I have to hurry if I don't want to be late, but tomorrow you are telling me how you got into this room, okay?"
The Princess understood duty better than anyone else he'd ever known. That was the reason why Zuko knew she'd understand what he had to do.
Zuko had spent the previous evening spying on Chief Arnook's war council. He knew that the Chief had ordered the construction of a great fleet – that six months from now he was going to break the treaty and escort the Avatar to a showdown with the Fire Lord. No one in the Fire Nation knew that the Avatar was alive. Their navy was concentrated in the south, blockading King Bumi's supply lines. There would be a bloodbath if the Waterbenders struck at the capital without warning.
It didn't matter that Zuko had very little in this world aside from Yue's kindness. Zuko was a Prince, and for the first time in a long time, he felt like one.
"Goodnight, Prince Zuko."
"Goodnight, Princess Yue."
Yue left in a flurry of fine skirts and barely-suppressed glee. When he was sure she was gone, Zuko heated his broadswords and carved his apology into the ridge of ice above her bed. It seemed like the kind of thing that a Prince would do for a Princess, in the scrolls and plays Zuko could remember reading before his life turned to ice and ashes.
The banquet was interrupted five hours later by a group of sailors, who claimed that that they had been assaulted by something resembling a wraith or a spirit. An unseen attacker had dispatched the crew of a small barge, one by one.
The so-called Rebel Prince surfaced in the Earth Kingdom two months later. He wrought havoc upon Arnook's hastily-assembled northern offensive and preached sedition to Ozai's troops in the south.
Zuko of the Fire Nation was never seen in Water Tribe territory again.
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Author's Note: Written for loveroftheflamelj, who requested Zuko/Yue and "what could have been."