Like a lot of Zuko fans I was rather disappointed by the season finale...and as I find the idea of waiting several months to find out what's going to happen rather daunting, I came up with my own ideas based on several theories I've posted around the forums...
Rated T...for future violence...
Avatar: The Last Airbender and all related characters are © of Bryan Konietzko, Michael DiMartino, Nickelodeon and Viacom International Inc
The Road Less Travelled...
It was amazing how much things could change in a day...
Yesterday morning he'd woken up happy, at peace, as if he hadn't had a care in the world, with a healthy appetite and a joyful heart. But now, though he hadn't actually woken up, he hadn't gotten a wink of sleep, he didn't feel at all like that. What he had done was still eating away at him, niggling into his brain, coiling around his heart and squeezing it in a vice like grip.
He looked out over the city as the rising sun turned the various shades of grey to vibrant greens and golds. The people down there had no idea what had happened. They didn't know their city had fallen to the Fire Nation. They didn't even know there was a war on thanks to the machinations of Long Feng and his Dai Li.
But they would know soon enough. Azula wasn't the sort to let her victory go unnoticed. She'd already sent word to the Fire Nation ships that patrolled the lakes around the city and to the troops that were camped just outside the outer wall whose original orders had been to flood into the city after the ill-fated breech attempt of their impressive, but obviously flawed, drill. Soon the city would be completely under Fire Nation control. He'd weep for them if he had any tears left to shed.
He knew what his people were capable of, he knew what they'd do to those who resisted. So why, for Agni's sake, had he decided to join them? Was blood truly thicker than water? Or did he think he could make some kind of difference?
He really needed to talk to someone...get his thoughts out of his head before they overwhelmed him completely. But there was no one he could turn to. Even if he could get anywhere near Uncle he knew he couldn't face him, not now, the wounds were still too fresh.
Azula was not even a consideration, and her friends...well...he just found them both totally disturbing. Ty Lee was just too perky! And Mai...she was just so much the opposite. It was as if the pair were somehow two halves of one strange whole. But what could you expect from anyone who would willingly share his sister's company?
And then there was the way Mai looked at him. She always looked away whenever he turned towards her, but he had caught the flicker of her intense gaze more than once. It was primal, like some sort of predator eyeing its prey. Every time he caught that look he felt like a piece of meat that she wanted to devourer. He felt completely uneasy around her. She may have been Fire Nation, but she always made him feel so cold.
He had spoken to the Water Tribe girl who travelled with the Avatar and she had actually managed to sooth his heart for a short time. She'd actually been willing to help him, he absently touched his scar at the thought of it. He wondered, not for the first time, what would have happened if she'd been able to complete what she had suggested...
But she was gone now, out of reach, both figuratively and physically. Though he doubted she was very far away, the Avatar was in no fit state to travel...and that was another barb in his heart. He had never really wished the boy any specific harm, he'd always seen him as just a means to an end. Of course that look he had thrown him when he'd burst in on him with the Water Tribe girl...it had boiled his blood for some reason...maybe that was why he'd...
No! He shook the thought from his mind. He couldn't blame someone else for his decision...this was something he'd have to come to terms with on his own...he had no one to turn to...no one to talk to...no one to...
There WAS someone he could talk to, someone here in the city...someone who didn't know who he really was...or what he'd done...
"Jin..." He whispered.
Getting out of the palace without being noticed had been a challenge. Though their numbers were fairly small, the Dai Li seemed to be everywhere. Luckily, though he had given up the guise of the Blue Spirit he still retained the skills that went with it.
Of course finding Jin was a far greater challenge. The city was vast, and the lower ring was the most densely populated. No one paid him much attention, he was still dressed in the earthy tones of the Kingdom, and he'd walked these streets often enough to be just another familiar face in the crowd.
He thought about going to the old tea shop, asking around if anyone had seen her, but that would raise too many questions. They'd ask about his uncle and he didn't trust himself to keep it together enough to answer any questions posed about him.
He walked past the restaurant where they'd dined, and to the Firelight Fountain, where the children feeding turtleducks under their watchful mothers' eyes opened up another wound in his heart, but there was no sign of her. He realised he didn't know her all that well, that he didn't have a chance of finding her, as he sat down heavily on the fountain's edge and buried his face in his hands.
"So much for my tracking skills..." He muttered to himself as he fisted his fingers in his hair in frustration. "I can track a bison full of kids halfway around the world, but I can't find one girl in a city a fraction of the size..."
He jerked upright at the sound of the voice and the name that no longer held any real meaning for him. He blinked, stunned, as he looked into the concerned hazel eyes of the very quarry he'd been seeking. It seemed for once the Spirits were smiling on him.
"Are you alright?" She asked with a frown.
"What are you doing here?" She asked. "I heard that you and your unc..."
"Can we talk?" He cut her off, really not wanting to hear mention of the man he'd betrayed. "I really need to talk!"
"Alright." She moved to sit beside him.
"Not here." He said taking her hands and pulling her back to her feet as he rose to his own. "Somewhere private..."
"Private?" She arced a brow. "Sound's serious..."
"More than you can possibly imagine..." He muttered his eyes dropping to the ground.
"Well..." She thought for a moment. "My parents are working...we can go to our apartment..."
"Fine..." Zuko nodded. "Lead the way..."
As they walked the relatively short distance to her home, Zuko went over in his head just what he was going to say. It was hard to put into words his feelings, especially to someone who didn't know his past.
"Alright..." She smiled as she opened the door. "We're here...it's not much, but it's home..."
When he didn't follow her in she turned to find him in the doorway, shaking his head.
"This was a mistake." He said. "I can't do this...I can't talk to you...not without telling you everything...and I can't tell you everything..."
Jin's eyes widened. He was distraught, babbling, not at all like the boy she'd first seen working in a tea shop, or the boy who'd miraculously lit all the lanterns on that magical night.
"What happened?" She asked fearfully, grabbing his arm and pulling him inside before he followed the impulse, which was obviously building up inside of him, to run. She pushed him down onto a cushioned seat.
"I can't..." He whispered, still shaking his head. "I can't do this..."
"Lee...you're really scaring me." She admitted, fear in her voice. "What's wrong?"
"I've done something...something terrible..."
"Just try to calm down..." She soothed. "I'll make you some tea..."
"NO!" His eyes widened. "No...no...tea..."
The guy was falling apart and she didn't know why...or what to do...
"How about some water?" She asked when she could think of nothing else, but that only made him draw his knees up to his chest. She closed her eyes and took a steadying breath.
"Alright..." She said finally. "There's obviously something bothering you...and you came here looking for me so you could talk about it." She looked at him, he hadn't reacted, she wasn't sure if that was good or bad. "So talk to me."
"I'd have to tell you everything..." He said.
"So tell me everything."
"I can't..." He whispered.
"Why not?" She frowned.
"Because you'll hate me..." He said, his gaze turning to the window. "Like everybody hates me..."
"Why would I hate you?" Her frown deepened.
"I don't know..." He admitted. "People just do...no matter what I do...they find out who I am and they hate me..."
"You can tell me, Lee." She put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I won't hate you."
"Alright..." He took a deep breath, as he fought to regain his composure. "May I have that water now?"
"Are you stalling?" She arced her brow at him.
"Maybe a little..." He admitted. "But this'll take some time...I could really use a drink..."
She threw him a slightly suspicious, but still trusting look as she went to fetch his water. She had no idea what he was going to tell her, but if it had him worked up into such a state it had to be something important...or terrifying...maybe both.
She returned with a pottery mug full of water, he thanked her and downed it in a single swallow. She sat down across from him, eyeing him expectantly as he placed the now empty receptacle on a small table beside his seat.
"Alright..." He said, his eyes on the floor. "First things first...my name isn't Lee..." He raised his eyes to meet hers, wanting, needing to gauge her reaction. "It's Zuko..."
Azula was pouring over the files she'd found in Long Feng's office. There was so much information here, all of it valuable, it would take her an age to get through it all. Reports of troop movements...there was a group of Water Tribe heathens camped at Chameleon Bay...interesting...
"Princess Azula...?" Ty Lee's tentative voice broke through her concentration.
"I told you I was not to be disturbed!" She snapped.
"I know...but it's kind of important..." The acrobat said, twisting the end of her long braid nervously in her fingers. "At least...I think it's important..."
Azula sighed and rolled her eyes. "What is it?"
"Well...I went to see if Zuko wanted some lunch...you know he hasn't come out of his rooms at all...I don't think he had any breakfast...and he really needs to eat, because eating is really important..."
"Will you be getting to the point any time soon?" Azula growled.
"Um...well...you see...like I said...I went to invite him for lunch...but he was kinda...not there..."
"He's nowhere in the palace..." Mai, who had been standing silently behind Ty Lee, drolled. "We looked..."
"Weird thing is..." Ty Lee continued. "No one saw him leave...it's like he just...POOF...vanished..."
"Ladies..." Azula rose swiftly to her feet. "I think it's time for us to pay my dear uncle a visit."
"Oh good." Ty Lee beamed. "The chi blocks are about to wear off anyway..."
The Dai Li prisons cells were made entirely of metal. The idea was that earthbenders couldn't bend when they were denied contact to their element. Of course, though firebenders always had access to their element, being locked in a small metal box left them with little means of using it to escape, barring melting their way out, and that would require more heat than a single firebender could comfortably generate.
Even so, Azula wasn't taking any chances when it came to containing the Dragon of the West.
Iroh sat against the wall furthest from the door, his wrists shackled above his head, his chin resting on his chest. By all appearances he seemed to be asleep, but he had actually had so much chi blocked by Ty Lee that it had rendered him unconscious.
"Well...he's still here..." Mai said in her usual bored monotone. "Can we go now?"
"No." Azula snapped. "I want to talk to him." She looked sharply at Ty Lee. "Wake him up!"
Ty Lee crouched down beside the old man and after a rapid series of jabs he opened his amber eyes. His gaze, or rather, glare, immediately found the face of his niece.
"Leave us!" Azula snapped at her companions, who immediately did as she bade. "Good afternoon, Uncle." She mocked. "Sleep well?"
Normally Iroh would have made some humorous retort, but he didn't feel up to it, his heart was too heavy with his grief. The source of that grief, he noticed, was conspicuous in his absence.
"I thought it might interest you to know that Zuzu's made himself scarce..." She said.
Iroh's heart swelled with a tiny spark of hope. He had to wonder if the boy was up to something. And so, it seemed, did Azula...
"You wouldn't have any idea where he might have run off to, do you?"
"What makes you think I would know?" Iroh snorted. "Perhaps he has gone off to plan how he is going to betray you...he seems to have become quite talented at that lately..."
"Awww..." She teased. "Are you all upset that Zuzu's turned out to be a chip off the old block?" She laughed at Iroh's discomfort. "Don't worry, old man, I don't trust him anymore than I trust you. He came to my side too quickly...I thought you two must have had some kind of plan...but listening to you...I guess not. I suppose that means he's just stupid." She studied her nails for a moment while smirking at the look of defeat on her uncle's face.
"You'll be happy to know I'm sending you both home as soon as the arrangements can be made...should be in the next few days. I'm sure Father will have a warm welcome for you both." She crouched down in front of him, igniting a blue-white flame dangerously close to his face.
"Won't that be nice?" She taunted as she sashayed to the door. "Ty Lee!" She snapped, the pink-clad girl appeared within a heartbeat. "All this talking has tired my poor old uncle out...I think it's time for a nap..."
Jin had sat in silence as Zuko unburdened himself. He had told her everything...shared all the pain, all the grief, all the guilt and shame that he'd kept bottled up inside him since he was a child...the loss of his mother...his scarring...his banishment...right up to his betrayal of his beloved uncle. So far she hadn't screamed, run, or tried to inflict grievous bodily harm upon him...that had to be a good thing, right?
He heard the rustle of her robes as she rose from her seat, saw her shadow move as she walked towards him. He braced himself for whatever was coming, the blow or the bellow. But she did neither.
Instead, she sat down beside him and pulled him into her arms. He could feel her body, pressed against him as closely as it was, shaking slightly. It took him a moment to realise she was crying, silently weeping for the broken man-child she held in her comforting embrace. He hadn't expected that. His own arms wrapped around her almost instinctively as he accepted the comfort she was offering.
He wasn't sure how long they sat there, but he slowly began to feel a strange calmness come over him. He shifted slightly and looked up at her. Her eyes were red and shining with unshed tears, but she smiled at him.
"I told you I wouldn't hate you." She whispered. He closed his eyes and lay his head back on her shoulder.
"Now..." She said as she stroked his hair. "What are we going to do about your uncle...?"
Azula's eyes narrowed as the sun began to set with no sign of her brother. Ty Lee, Mai, even the Dai Li had failed to find him. She wasn't sure why she was so annoyed, it wasn't like he had the brains to conspire against her...Iroh had always been the plan-maker of their little partnership...Zuko was...well…she wasn't exactly sure WHAT it was that Zuko brought to the table...
"Something amiss?" A voice enquired from behind.
She spun angrily to face her brother.
"Where exactly have you been?" She demanded.
He arced his brow at the tone of her voice. "I wasn't aware I was supposed to provide you with a written itinerary of my day." She just glared at him. "If you must know..." He sighed. "I was training..."
"Training?" She questioned. "And you felt the need to sneak out for this...training...?"
"It was stealth training." He said evenly.
"Stealth training?" She didn't look convinced.
"I snuck up on you, didn't I?" He pointed out. "Now...if you'll excuse me..."
She watched him through slitted eyes as he walked away.
Zuko somehow managed to keep up his façade of contentment until he reached his rooms. Azula had claimed the King's chambers as her own, and Zuko knew, as the first born, he should be entitled to them, but he just couldn't be bothered fighting her over it.
He closed his door and leaned against it, sliding down its surface until he sat on the floor. He sighed deeply. He had come up with a workable rescue plan for Uncle before he'd left Jin...but he was going to need help...powerful help...the help of a bender or two...possibly three...
"This is not going to be easy..." He muttered.