Note: Italics are thoughts and memories. In one portion it crosses with real time. I hope that makes sense.
Her nails, sharpened to fine points, cut into the skin on his face with the force of the slap.
He turned his head away, and felt small rivets of blood seep past the boundaries of the scar. He grit his teeth. His hate for her felt like it was rolling off his shoulders like waves. "They'll come for me."
A laugh, harsh and wicked bounced off the walls of the small cell.
He could close his eyes to her face, but he could never close his ears to her voice. She knew it. It was her special way of torturing him.
"I didn't know that you had a sense of humor. Did you get it while living a peasant in the Earth Kingdom?" A smirk there, but could not be seen. Not in the shadows. "They were happy to escape with their pathetic little lives. You're wrong. They will never come for you."
Another smirk, and she turned, closing the steel door behind her and plunging him once again into darkness.
"Uncle, two more green teas, and one spice!" Zuko called, deftly sticking the small piece of parchment with the written order on the board.
"I'm brewing as fast as I can!" There was a hint of a laugh in Uncle's voice, and Zuko glanced over to see the aged man smiling to himself as he handled no less than five pots of brewing tea by the fire at the same time.
Despite the undertone of mild chaos, the grand opening of the Jasmine Dragon was going better than planned. Uncle had the back kitchen under control, and Zuko knew he could handle the customers at the front of the house. If people had to wait a couple extra minutes for their cup, they were almost glad to do it… everyone who was anyone in the Upper Ring wanted a taste of 'Moshi's House Blend'."
"The green tea is about to boil over," Zuko said, seeing the amount of steam pouring from the neck of the kettle.
"Oop!" Uncle grabbed the kettle bare handed — a feat that would have been more than suspicious for anyone looking close, and moved it from the fire. A wave from his Uncle in Zuko's direction assured him he had it all under control. "Green tea, coming right up!"
The next blow made his head ring. He slumped against the chains holding him up, pinning him to the wall, and had no chance to take another breath before he was kicked in the stomach, in the groin.
He gasped and shuttered; choking on a mix of blood and his own saliva, curling up against the walls as best he could.
"They've forgotten all about you, Zuzu."
Sokka was nearly dancing, shifting from foot to foot in excited anticipation, his right blue eyes sparkling in glee. "Ohhh… let me see! Let me see!"
Zuko hesitated, partially to drive the tribesmen crazy, and partly because he was worried he would somehow cut himself. "Okay, but these are not toys." He handed over the Dao swords, handle first, and stepped back, watching with crossed arms.
Sokka took them in both hands, his wide mouth grinning. He swished the right and left swords back and forth, testing the balance. "Hmmm… Well, they're no boomerang," he said, in a voice that completely betrayed the doubt he was trying to achieve. "But I guess they're okay… if you like that sort of thing."
"What sort of thing?"
"You know," he struck a ridiculous pose, swinging the blades back and forth so fast that they nearly sung through the air, "if you want to be all flashy. Me? I'm more of a single point kind of man." He ended this with a thrust out with both arms, as if spearing an invisible opponent. "I like to keep it simple."
Zuko rolled his eyes and glanced meaningfully towards the black meteor sword off in the corner. "Yeah. Real simple."
"Hey! I can beat you any time, any day." The Water Tribe boy finally stopped his ridiculous flailing and turned to face him.
Zuko glanced once more towards the black sword, and weighed his options. It was true that he could use the practice— Sokka especially. But if they were accidentally hurt, Katara would murder him in his sleep.
As if the other boy was reading his mind, Sokka grinned. "It's okay. I promise I'll go easy on you."
That did it. Zuko stepped forward, gesturing back for his Dao. "You're on."
"You should be glad. He fought bravely." She leaned in, her breath playing over his face, smelling of some kind of spicy food. His stomach ached with hunger. "But now, his head is decorating the Wall of Triumph. Now everyone can see their failure."
"Why do you say that?"
"We just dueled." He let out a strangled, slightly embarrassed laugh, "Turns out, he was better than I thought."
A pause. "You're losing your mind, dear brother. What a pity." Another cloying breath washed over his face bringing with it images of desserts and sweet meats. Then she was gone again.
There was only darkness.
"Do it again! Stop holding back!"
Grey eyes turned to him. "I'm doing the best I can!"
"No you're not." Zuko strode forward to his student and punched the air, but withheld the flame. "Each move has to be made with purpose. This isn't water! It won't flow to you. You're dealing with fire." He punched again to emphasize the point and shot out a long jet of flame that scorched the far temple wall. "Do it again."
He stepped back to a safe point out of range. The Avatar watched him with half narrowed eyes, and Zuko could clearly read the frustration on his face. Aang thought that he was being too tough on him, and maybe he was. But he had less than a month to master what Zuko had spent his whole life doing. He didn't have time to be nice.
Aang put his hands together and took a deep breath — a proper one, Zuko noted, without any gasping or undo movement — and started to move through the kata. There were a few missteps, but the mistakes were minor and when Aang finished his last punch he let out a torrent of flame that withered the leaves on vines hanging some thirty feet away.
"Wow." The Avatar stared at his own fist and then broke his stance, looking towards Zuko. "I did it."
Zuko allowed himself a small smile. "Better… a lot better." He allowed, and then glanced towards the setting sun. There was no point in drilling his pupil past sunset where the lack of Agni's flame would make it only harder on him. Besides, he wanted to end on a high point. "I think Katara's going to be done with dinner soon."
Aang's face lit up as he, too, smelled the cooking food. "Yeah! C'mon, Sifu Hotman. Race you!"
"Don't call me—" but the Avatar had already taken off, and Zuko had to hurry to catch up.
"They'll come for me."
"They're dead!" She shrieked, and this time she reached out and tweaked his middle finger, causing a snapping sound that was almost worse than the sheering pain. "They're dead, you fool! I killed them myself!
Agni was setting, and the rush of customers finally trickled to a halt. Zuko was sore all over — more tired than he had been even after a long day of training. But there was a strange sense of accomplishment that he had never felt before… a sense of a job well done.
Smiling to himself, he swept the Jasmine Dragon's front entrance, hearing Uncle clean and wash dishes in the back. "This was a good day, Uncle." He nearly surprised himself with his own words.
"Indeed it was, Nephew." Uncle came around out back, joining him at the entrance, hands resting on the wide expanse of his own belly. "Having my own tea shop is a dream come true. Thank you for sharing this day with me."
In the darkness, cracked lips formed into a smile. "It was a good day, Uncle."
The rough hand of the guard forced the bland rice into his mouth, slapping him when he took too long to chew and swallow. With his hands chained against the wall, he could not feed himself.
A harsh metal cup pressed against his lips. He had time to take three long swallow before the guard laughed and let the rest fall to the ground.
Then the door closed and he was alone again.
The turtleducks arrowed in on his direction, quacking excitedly. Zuko laughed and held out bits of bread to them. It was spring and the ducklings were just bits of yellow fluff with bright green shells pipping after their mother. He tossed some bread to them first.
Another blow to his head. The world tilted and spun. She was still screaming. "Pay attention! I came all this way, and you had better pay attention to me!" Fingers raked through his matted hair, jerking his face up so that he was looking into cruel yellow eyes. "Say it. I dare you to say it."
He happened upon the nest one day by surprise, as he was trumping along the palace gardens, pretending he was a brave General fighting the fierce Air Nomads.
The turtleduck eggs were an off white color, looking bigger than any other egg he had seen. The mother turtleduck put up a fight, squawking and biting, but he was able to scare it off with a quick burst of flame and secure one of the eggs himself.
With his prize firmly in hand, he set off to his rooms. He would keep it warm, just like its mother would, and when it hatched, he would have his own pet.
"What are you doing with that, dum-dum?"
Zuko froze midstep, and with a sense of dread, covered the eggs in both his hands and turned around. Azula was there, flanked by Mai and Ty Lee. "Nothing…"
"They'll come for me." He whispered, and was rewarded by an insane scream of rage. He shut his eyes.
"Give it back!" Zuko yelled, flinging himself toward his sister.
She only laughed, gently tossing and catching the egg again in one hand. "Oh, does Zuzu want his little egg back?" with another chuckle she lobbed it to Ty Lee, who caught it in midair.
Zuko turned towards the pink clothed girl, fists clenched so hard that smoke was rising from his fingers. "Stop it! You'll hurt it!"
He saw Ty Lee hesitate and bite her lip, but at Azula's nod she tossed it back to her. His sister caught it in mid air, a cruel smile forming over her mouth. "Hurt what? It's just an egg, Zuko. Oops." Her fingers went wide and the egg slipped down. Unthinking, Zuko made a dive to save it, but came up short.
The egg hit the palace floor, smashing into a hundred pieces, a half formed baby turtleduck lay curled up inside.
Drip… drip… drip….
All was silent in his cell after she had left. All but for the droplets of his blood hitting the stone floor.
"You're stupid! You're never better than me! A disgrace!" Each word was punctuated by a blow that set his body swaying against the chains.
"Poor little Zuzu, still hoping for rescue though all this time." Her voice mocked, and this time this hit was punctuated by a burst of blue flame. It seared and burned.
He blinked at the floor, unresisting.
Somewhere outside of him, he could feel pain. He could hear a voice yelling. He shut his eyes against the blows, retreating inward on himself. He let the pain come. After awhile, it would stop and then there would be silence.
It didn't matter anymore.
A voice echoed from outside. An excited child.
"This is it! This is the door he showed me!"
"How do you know?" asked another voice. Male. "They all look the same to me."
A stomp of a foot. "I just know, okay?"
"We don't have much time." A third voice said. Female. "Stand back. I'm opening it up."
A crescent of light spiked through his room. He blinked, hung there.
"ZUKO!" The male yelled, and abruptly a body crashed into his own, strong hands wrapping around his back. He could smell the scent of wind, sweat, and water. A sob from the other person. "We thought…. Oh Gods…"
The child again. "Who's that?"
The arms released him. "Take Lyrna and guard the hall. We're getting him out of here."
Snick. The whistle of a blade cut the air and suddenly the support of the chains was gone. His body sagged, bad foot unable to hold his weight. The arms caught him again, and hauled him upright. A grim voice spoke in his ear. "C'mon buddy, we're getting you out of here."
Sokka grinned at him. Of course he would be grinning, the clever idiot. "What do you think?"
Zuko opened his mouth, but found he really didn't have any words… at least, he didn't have words that wouldn't hurt his friend. "It's…er…" he struggled, raising his hand to scratch the back of his head, "nice."
The contraption was a hideous mess. Wheels seemed to stick out at random points around the body, and the body was a jumble of strange pulleys and wires. On top of the whole thing sat a balloon, part of Zuko's old war balloon.
"What does it do?" Zuko asked.
"What does it do?!" Sokka's voice cracked as he repeated the phrase with incredulity. "Are you kidding me? What doesn't it do!"
"…You have no idea what it does, do you?"
The man panted; his breathing harsh as he half dragged, half carried him along. "We're almost there, Zuko… stay with me."
Light surrounded him, burning into his eyes. He shut them, unable to stand it. Not after the darkness.
He could only put one foot down to help him, the other one was broken and twisted from one of his sister's tantrums a long time ago — no use at all.
An alarm pierced the air. The man cursed.
"We're almost there," Zuko said, grimly. He glanced over, "Are you sure you want to come with me?"
Aang nodded, his mouth set in a thin line.
They were crouched on top of the palace's inner wall. Beyond, they could both see the crowd milling around. Jubilant music from Tangi flutes and horns floated upward along with the wind. Of course Azula would make a public execution practically a festival. Zuko gripped his Dao swords, tightly. They would only get one shot at this — it would be close. They would have to wait until the guards brought Uncle out. Only then could he and the Avatar strike.
It was a trap, and they both knew it. But Zuko was not going to allow his uncle to be burned alive at the pyre, and Aang was not going to allow his friend to go alone.
Below them, the crowd suddenly swelled with excited movement by the prison steps. They were bringing out the condemned. It was time go.
In his tight grip, he could feel the man's heartbeat — fast and erratic. The man's voice broke. "We're surrounded."
The child gave a small whimper. A voice boomed out. "Drop the prisoner and put your hands up!"
"What do we do now?" The woman asked.
The man flexed his fingers, nearly cutting into his flesh. "We can't let them take us alive… look what they've done to Zuko."
"NO." The voice… was no longer like a child's voice. A hundred tones spoke that single word, stretching eons back and beyond. It was a voice of power, not of this world
A cry went up. "It's the Avatar!"
There was a gurgle of water, a rush of wind. The man cursed again and suddenly they were running, stumbling...
"NO!" Zuko threw himself against the grip of the guards, but Azula's Dai Li soldiers held him fast. He screamed over and over again, the word raking his throat bloody and raw. "UNCLE! UNCLE!" But the smoke and flames were quickly rising under Iroh's feet. The General's eyes locked once against those of his Nephew's — his face full of love, of despair.
He didn't scream. Not as Aang had screamed when Azula's lightening bolt ripped through his body.
The man gave a final heave and his body dropped, falling heavily to the ground.
Eyes still closed against the painful light, he curled in on himself.
Gentle hands touched his face, washing away the blood and grime.
The man spoke, his voice coming from somewhere above. "Katara… do you think he'll…"
There wasn't an answer for some moments and he felt the soft caress of water flow to his right hand, soothing the ache of old wounds. "Zuko doesn't ever give up. Give him time, Sokka. He's strong."
"But look at him… my gods. Eight years. If I thought—"
"Don't do this to yourself." Her voice compassionate, "We both thought he was dead."
A pause. "He might as well be."
He felt warmth against his skin. His eyes opened. The light hurt, but he could see shapes; colors.
It was calling to him — something he hadn't felt for a long time. He forced his limbs to move. The leg didn't move well, the foot twisted inward on his step, and he fell hard to the ground.
Arms worked. Arms made strong from holding a body against chains when his leg no longer could. They pulled him along, outside the doorway and to the outside.
There it was. He put his back to the wall, watching it; the sunrise.
Light from the new day hit his skin. He gasped, back arching, a tear escaping his unburned eye.
A shadow crossed his vision and suddenly the child stood in front of him. She had the soft brown hair and skin, and deep blue eyes of the Water Tribe. She stood, looking at him with a frown across her features, a simple rag doll clutched in the crook of one arm.
"He showed me were you were." She said, out of nowhere. A finger traced the doll's button eyes and along the rough stitches of its mouth. "In a dream. He took me on his bison and he flew to the prison. He said since I knew water and earth that I had to learn fire next. Then he said that fire can heal."
She paused, her mouth setting into a sudden scowl. "I think he was lying. One time, I was helping Katara cook and I touched the stove before it cooled and I got burned. See?" she held up one finger sporting a small raw pink scar, "It hurt. A lot. I don't want to get burned, like…" she trailed off, and he could feel her looking at the left side of his face.
The girl reminded him strongly of another Avatar, and his fear of fire. This is real, came the thought. The first one in years.
A flick of fire lit up from somewhere inside of him and he blinked, moving his head back and forth in a slow shake of his head. "It's not like that." Zuko's voice was nearly gone from no use and the child Avatar had to sit by him to hear his whisper.
Slowly he held out a cupped hand, and she did the same, brows furrowed.
"What you have to understand," he said, and a burst of flame lit just above his palm. He took a deep breath, feeling clarity come to his mind, "is that fire is life."
Sokka stepped out of the small bedroom, stretching his arms towards the sky. He stopped, mid-yawn at the sight that greeted him.
Lyrna, little Lyrna who fidgeted and sat never still for anything, and liked to throw temper tantrums as she saw fit, was sitting with rapt attention next to the broken ex-Prince. He was speaking softly to her, the words too low for Sokka to hear.
As Sokka watched, Zuko reached his skeletal arms out, holding Lyrna's cupped hands into his own. A small fire lit up between them, and Lyrna's face broke out into a grin.
Hehe. Well that was fun. I might do a part two sometime after I finish In His Shoes. Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think!