Date Completed: 10 Dec 2008

Pairing: None (so far… will be sokka/zuko later on down the road)

Disclaimer: Not mine. Hell, even the idea of Zuzu sick isn't mine… darn sick episode…

Summary: When Zuko asked to join the Gaang and teach the avatar firebending, he mentioned that there was "not very much time left," and they assumed he meant until Sozin's Comet. But what if there was another restriction on his time –one he hasn't told anyone about? (Much angst, drama llama, and romancy-smut. Oh yeah, and a good dosage of omg NOOO! )

AN: No, the whole story will not take place in Ba Sing Sei, thanks for asking. In fact, only this chapter (the prologue) will take place here, then one at the Fire Nation Royal Palace when Zuzu was accepted back… from then on it will take place with accordance to the events at the end of season 3, i.e. the Western Air Temple and Ember Island. I'm not sure where the epilogue will take me… but that's for the end of the story. And yes, the summary is epic failure.

The weather outside was sultry – nearly 95 degrees and rising – and the temperature of the small apartment room was nothing if even higher. All the windows were thrown open wide to let the hot air out, but that did little good when the air outside was just as hot as the stifling indoor heat, and so fat droplets of condensation stuck to the walls, giving the appearance of the wood melting (which, considering the poor quality of nearly everything within the stuffy apartment, could very well be true). The scent of the Cat's Tail Lilies that had been placed, potted, on a small table before the window wafted in with the afternoon heat, giving off the overwhelming odor of cinnamon. Everything was hot and sticky, much the same as every other summer day in the great city of Ba Sing Sei.

In the far corner of the light green room lay a low bed; it's occupant half-devoured by its dark green coverlets, with the stray arm or leg escaping from the blankets that were tangled around the pale body. Tufts of matted black hair stuck up through the covers near one end of the bed. With a low groan, part of the thick beaver-cotton blanket was pushed back, and eyes of firelight looked towards the window to find that yes, it was true, the day would not stop and wait for one banished prince to get ready to face it.

Grumbling again for the injustice that was the suns daily cycle, the ocher eyed teenager pushed the covers the rest of the way back and sat up on the edge of the bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the heels of both hands. Usually he woke with the sun. Usually he didn't feel like an elephant-pig had trampled over him as he slept. Usually he was as healthy as an ostrich-horse though, so he chalked all his discomfort up to the annoying cold that had been plaguing him for a week, and thought little else of it. Besides, he was sure to hear enough of it as it was from his meddlesome uncle who would most likely not let him leave his sight without asking a million questions as to why he didn't leave his room (and subsequently, his bed) until nearly mid-afternoon. Thinking of his Uncle, it occurred to him in the same heart-pounding way one would get from forgetting to lock their door or a student forgetting an assignment - he was supposed to be working with him today.

In a mad dash to get his uniform on and be out the door towards the tea shop, the boy took only two steps before his knees went boneless beneath him and he was sent sprawling to the floor. It was as if someone had grabbed his head with a large hook and pulled up sharply, and he lifted a hand weakly to his throbbing temples, chastising himself inwardly for standing so abruptly. To be safe, he stood much slower after that, and only after he was sure he wouldn't collapse again did he hurry to dress and meet his uncle. And if the room was still spinning slightly, he was in too much of a hurry to worry about it.

Ten minutes later the dark-haired teen arrived at the tea shop, sweating slightly due to the heat and out of breath, but ready for work, regardless of his very late arrival. Choking out a slightly exasperated "excuse me" as he slipped past a few workers lounging around the back door, the boy wasted no time in getting to work. In a corner of the kitchen lay a dirty pile of dishes. Seeing a way to keep busy and yet still out of the tea-makers' way, the teen grabbed a plate and lathered a nearby sponge with soap, scrubbing each dish in a circular motion like his Uncle showed him to clean it the quickest way possible. One particular plate had a large blue stain on it that was quite insistent. Pushing back limp bangs with the back of his soapy hand, he gave one last vicious scrub before calling it in vain and setting the dish apart from the rest. He'd deal with that one later.

Moving onto the next dish in line –one of the house tea cups –the boy thought back to the last hour and the feeling of complete vulnerability as his body shut down on him. How, for a moment, it had felt as though he was aboard one of those carousels he had seen as a child as his whole world began spinning. The shock his body had gone into momentarily where he could only think of screaming for help, how much pain he was in, and that he must be dying… He was so wrapped up in his own little world that he didn't notice how his sponge was starting to wear down the side of the cup he had been cleaning for nearly five minutes or how the water he had left running was dangerously close to overflowing the small metal sink. He didn't even notice the deep, concern-filled voice of his uncle until he put his large hand on the boy's bony shoulder.

"My dear nephew, why are you not at home resting like you should be?" General Iroh asked, worriedly taking in the way his nephew had flinched back away from the unexpected hand and the dark circles that stood out sharply against the boy's pale-white skin.

Zuko, or Li as he was known here, merely shook off his guardian's hand, missing the look entirely. "Today's a work day. I've slept enough as it is," he grumbled, accentuating it with a particularly fierce swipe of the sponge on a rather fragile plate. "Why didn't you wake me when you left this morning?"

His kind uncle just frowned slightly. "But I did wake you. You were feverish and delusional, so I thought it best for you to sleep and get better." Large hands again found the teen's shoulders, but this time they wouldn't be pushed off by frustrated hands. Iroh gently pulled Zuko away from the dishes and began walking/pushing him towards the door. "And work is not place for a sick boy."

A patron who just happened to overhear them leaned back as far away from the "sick boy" as he could, but Zuko could do little more than glare at him, because despite his embarrassment at being told off and walked out like a little kid, he didn't really want to be here either. Honestly, he just wanted to get back under his covers and sleep some more. But Zuko had never done well with idle time growing up, and didn't want to get into the habit of it now that they were on the run from the Fire Nation and trying to make a better life for themselves. If anything, now was the time to work harder than ever! They were little better than peasants right now, living off meager rations and having to work hard for every meal; the least he could do was uphold whatever honor he still had and help his uncle out by working for his own food. Mind set, Zuko spun around in his uncle's hold and pushed the hands harshly from his shoulders. The exiled prince opened his mouth to argue, only to leave it hanging open when he realized they were already several blocks from the tea shop. His uncle only laughed and told him that he was afraid the teen would collapse if he didn't keep a good grip on the boy (reminding Zuko sharply of when he first awoke), and that as it was already nearly 4 o'clock, Iroh had taken the rest of the day off to look after his "poor sick nephew." Zuko has always been stubborn, but he wasn't stupid, and knew when he was beaten. With a small sigh that perhaps said more about how tired he really was than even his shuffling walk or even his fluttering eyelashes, he resigned himself to another day spent on nothing but sleep and laziness.

And when his uncle pulled him closer for Zuko to lean on more and more as they walked, he could do nothing more than smile sleepily and lean into the warmth that was Uncle Iroh.

AN: Prologue is very short. Please forgive. HOWEVER, I am a running start student, and will get a month off for winter break, so expect several chapters within that allotted time frame. And I'm looking for a Beta-reader (no, this is NOT my first story; I made a new account because it kept sending out e-mails to friends who no longer check FFN, and I'd rather not make a spectacle of myself with my ideas on proper pairings… message me if you're interested, or even if you're not. I always love to hear people's ideas and their thoughts on what they think is going to happen next! =] Next we see Zuzu with Azula at the Palace… see you there!