A/N: I'm alive. No really, I am. Been occupied. Job hunt going very badly thanks to the stupid unemployment rate. But I'm alive. Hi there.
I hear the live-action movie is due out July 2nd.
Bits of angst, ahoy.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender. Nor do I own the small chunk of dialogue lifted directly from one episode.
Flight of the Phoenix
Chapter Four: Air Flow
It was morning. Zuko could sense the sun rising as keenly as he could hear his stomach growling. Firebenders rose with the sun. He could feel the heat of the sun welling up within him, begging to be released. But it never would be. Not while he was locked up in here like an animal.
Trust my spirit-cursed father to discover a way to prevent a person from Bending. He thought with an ugly sneer.
Before he had been placed in a cell, Zhao gleefully snapped a pair of heavy, unwieldy metal bracers over his wrists, ankles and around his neck and explained about the strange black crystals that were embedded deep in the metal. Supposedly, they were fragments of Sozin's Comet that had fallen over the Fire Nation one hundred years ago. The black crystals could not be Bent by any Earthbender nor could they be destroyed in any known way.
And, Zhao had added with the biggest shit-eating grin Zuko had ever seen on any one person, the black crystals could actually stop a person from Bending. Naturally, Zuko had tested this and to his alarm, nothing had happened. Not even a wisp of smoke had escaped his fingertips. Zhao had laughed, slapped him hard enough on the back to knock the air out of him and had shoved him into the cell.
And the bracers themselves could only be removed by a very special key. That key was currently in Ozai's hands. Meaning that these bracers weren't coming off any time soon.
The Fire Nation couldn't afford to have their disgraced prince or the Avatar Bending their way to escape.
Sighing, Zuko ran his hands over his head, faltering when his fingers did not encounter the familiar phoenix tail. His hair was already starting to re-grow; he could feel the slightest fuzz on his scalp, like a moonpeach. He wondered if his hair would grow long enough to hide the worst of the burn scar. He had gotten used to people staring at it a long time ago, but he hated looking at it. It only served to remind him of the day his life had spiraled downhill.
Three years ago. It felt like it had been so much longer since his father had banished him, setting him with the near-impossible task of finding the Avatar. He had been determined to do so, because it had been the only way to regain his honor. There had been times, in the small hours of the night after days of fruitless searching, where Zuko thought that he had sent on little more than a wild goose chase. The Avatar had eluded even the most skilled search party for decades and he had even run across a few fakes; people pretending to be Airbenders when they couldn't even blow out a candle without losing their breath. It had been so pathetic to see and just needless effort wasted.
So when he had found the real Avatar...
There had been no feeling of triumph; just renewed determination. He had finally had a real person to chase rather than a nameless specter. But he hadn't counted on other people moving in to steal his quarry after he had done all the work. He had thought Zhao would have more integrity than that.
Oh boy, had he been wrong on that account.
Zuko sighed again, contemplating the stone floor. Being locked up wasn't doing much good for him. He was starting to think too much; dwelling on the past and whatnot. Maybe if he counted the cobblestones, he could get his mind off it...
He had reached thirty-seven stones when the door to his cell swung open and in walked the last person he wanted to see.
"Zu-zu!" Azula cried in mock affection, striding forward with her arms open as if ready for a hug.
"Don't call me that!" Zuko snapped, more out of habit. He got to his feet. "What do you want?"
"I can't greet my big brother now? What a shame; I thought you would want some company after your long, cold night in here all by yourself." Azula said, sighing dramatically.
"I don't want your company." Zuko growled. "What do you want Azula?"
"You could at least say 'hello'." Azula sniffed, crossing her arms. "I came all the way down here to see you. Father doesn't want you having visitors. I had to sneak past the guards." she added, idly twirling a key ring around her index finger, the master key glinting in the torchlight quite prominently.
"I wanted to congratulate you on your spectacular failure, dear brother." she went on lazily, pocketing the key before her brother could get any ideas about grabbing it. "Really, I've never seen someone fall from grace before the way you have. But look at it this way." She grinned. It was as cold as her eyes. "Now everyone knows who you are. The dishonored and disinherited prince of the Fire Nation."
"Raah!" Zuko nearly dislocated his shoulder jamming it through the bars, trying to reach Azula so he could hurt her badly. But Azula had seen that coming and had halted just outside of arm's reach. Zuko's fingertips were less than an inch from her armor; so tantalizingly close and yet so far away at the same time. If only he could make his fingers grow another inch...
"You're going to hurt yourself doing that." the princess said, unruffled. "Forget it Zu-zu. The only way you're leaving here is if you're transferred. Even then, you would only be going to the Boiling Rock and it's not like that's a better place than here."
Zuko's arm dropped back to his side, limp.
"In fact, you should be grateful that you're still here." Azula said with that vicious smile of hers. "At least you're still close to home."
"I don't consider that a good thing." Zuko muttered, glaring.
"Think what you will." Azula heaved a sigh, examining her sharp, perfectly manicured nails. "Enjoy your time in here, however short it might be. Once the war has been won, Father is considering executing both you and the Avatar."
Before Zuko could so much as utter a sound, Azula left with her head held high, her steps light. The door slammed with a sort of finality and he slumped against the bars of his cage, and then he slid to the cool stone floor. Father was by no means the cuddly type, but he wouldn't seriously consider slaying his own flesh and blood, would he? No father would do something so atrocious.
"Azula always lies." Zuko whispered, willing himself to believe it. "Azula always lies."
Yes, she always lies. A smarmy little voice said. It sounded very much like Zhao's. Azula always lies to you.
He must have sat there for a long time, his legs crumpled underneath him, his shoulder bent uncomfortably against the bars and a cramp developing in his neck, before the cell door opened, someone entered, and then it closed. He didn't look up at his visitor. It was going to be some nobleman or official; come to remind him that he had failed to uphold the honor of the Fire Nation; to ask him just where he had gone wrong; to spit in his face; to point and laugh at him; to ridicule him. That was all he was good for now. Not a prince, not a Firebender, not even worthy to be called a citizen of the Fire Nation.
He was nothing.
"Just get it over with." he whispered.
"No friendly 'hello' for your uncle?"
Equal parts horror and hope surged through Zuko at unimaginable speeds and his neck cracked loudly as he looked up. Uncle Iroh was standing there outside the bars, his hands in his sleeves, his eyes wide and almost puppy-like--
"Stop staring at me like that!" Zuko half-screamed and bolted to the other side of the cell, putting his head in the corner and shutting his eyes.
Iroh merely stepped up to the cage and kneeled down, looking sadly at his nephew. As if the poor boy hadn't suffered enough already, he had been forced into ragged prison clothes and the Bendless bracers that Ozai so rarely unearthed had been slapped on his wrists.
"Prince Zuko--" Iroh started.
"Don't call me that!" Zuko interrupted. "I'm not a prince! I'm not even a Firebender anymore!"
"Yes, you are." Iroh said, trying not to sigh. What kind of emotional damage had been inflicted upon his nephew in the recent hours? "You will always be a Firebender. Not even your father can take that away from you."
"But he did." Zuko argued, his forehead resting on the wall.
"No Prince Zuko--"
"I told you not to call me that."
Silence hung thick over the cell for a very long moment. Somewhere outside, a bird cheeped cheerfully as it winged its way through the mid-afternoon sunshine. For a fleeting instant, Zuko wished he could be that bird. He wished he could fly away from here and never have to look back.
"At what?" Iroh asked.
"I failed to capture the Avatar." Zuko replied. "I've lost everything."
"No, my nephew." Iroh shook his head. "You have not lost everything."
"Then what do I have left?!" Zuko cried in despair, facing his uncle. "My father took it all away from me! I have nothing left!"
"And whoever told you that is a liar." Iroh said, a knowing smile creeping across his face. "All you must do is open your eyes and you will see what has been right in front of you this whole time."
As usual, his uncle's semi-cryptic remarks failed to be fully understood right away and Zuko was left scowling. Hadn't the old man been listening?! Everything had hinged on delivering the Avatar to his father! Since he had failed to do so, he had lost it all! There was nothing left in front of him except-- except...
"Uncle?..." Zuko questioned uncertainly, starting to feel a bit faint. Iroh nodded, that smile of his still there. The teenager thought he felt something inside him crack and the deep-rooted human need for tactile contact was enough to wipe away any shame Zuko might felt from thinking he was being too needy. Uncle and nephew embraced through the bars; the only thing Zuko feeling shame for was the fact he was starting to cry again and he tried to hide it. He had never cried this much before.
"Tears are nothing to be ashamed of, Zuko." Iroh said, gently rubbing his back in a circular motion. "They are the body's way of removing the poison that plagues your mind. Let them out and I promise you will feel much better."
A dam seemed to be breaking. The tears were coming so fast that the torchlight above him had been reduced to a red-orange blur.
"But I made so many mistakes..." Zuko whispered, his voice muffled against his uncle's shoulder.
"All I saw were mistakes that anyone could have made." the old general said. "You are not immune to push and pull of the world. No one is. Our mistakes shape who we will become, so long as we learn from them. Now," He gently pushed Zuko back, hands still gripping his nephew's shoulders reassuringly. "Whenever I'm feeling lost and confused, I find that loosening a single rock will help the air to flow much more smoothly."
Confusion overtook every other emotion in one decisive blow.
"I thought you drank tea." Zuko deadpanned.
Iroh shrugged. "Tea helps."
He stood up, pulling his hands back into his sleeves.
"Where are you going?!" Zuko asked, not wanting to be left alone so soon.
"I'm afraid I can't spend too much time here." Iroh said apologetically. "Otherwise, my brother might think that I'm helping you."
"Is there any chance I could get out of here?" Zuko asked before his uncle reached the door. Iroh turned with a smile.
"That is up to you, my nephew." he said. "Loosening a rock will help the air to flow."
And with those as his final words, he exited the cell, leaving Zuko with a swell of affection for the old man, but also rather confused. He seriously hated how cryptic his uncle could be at times. It made him feel like an absolute idiot.
Nevertheless, Iroh would not have said that if it didn't have another meaning. So Zuko mulled over the words for a little bit.
Loosening a rock... will help the air to flow... He thought, back to sitting in the corner. Loosening a rock... a rock...
It was almost an accident that he saw it. A single brick, half the size of its neighbors, jutted out of the wall, enough to be noticed, but not enough to be obtrusive. It was about level with his chin and half a foot away.
Loosening a rock will help the air to flow. Zuko repeated in his head, taking a hold of the brick and working it loose, wiggling it this way and that. It grinded free after a fashion and a stream of air blew through. He lowered his head to peer through the new hole and saw another cell that looked identical to his own, right down to the dusty floor. But this cell was not silent. There were rhythmic, slightly ragged breaths and Zuko face-palmed. This is what his uncle had meant by helping the air to flow? Seriously?! Was the old man daft?!
Well... Zuko was struck by a sudden onset of second thoughts. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to at least try...
"Um--" He cleared his throat. "Avatar?"
No response. But he hadn't expected to get one.
He tried again.
No response again. Zuko took a deep breath, trying to quell his suddenly jangling nerves. It didn't work and he pulled away from the new gap. Maybe the Avatar didn't want to talk to him. Yeah, that was probably it... Who'd want to talk to him anyways?
Other than his uncle, that is.
But seriously, the Avatar wouldn't want to talk to him.
By the Spirits, was this really him? When did he start doubting himself? Being uncertain and having second thoughts? This wasn't him! He was supposed to be the strong, confident prince of the Spirit-cursed Fire Nation!
He was supposed to be.
He wasn't anymore, thank you very much, Admiral Zhao.
Zuko glanced at the hole in the wall.
Well, they always said that the third time was the charm, right?"
There was a sudden scuffling noise, as if the Airbender had had no intention of replying until Zuko used his name.
"Zuko? Is that you?" The Avatar's voice came back muffled through the wall and a small hole. "Whoa, there's a brick missing! How long has that been there?"
The disgraced prince didn't know how to reply.
"I didn't think you would start talking to me." the Avatar admitted quietly. "What are you doing?"
"I have no idea." Zuko admitted, his voice low.
"How did you know I was in this cell? And how did you know about the brick?"
"My uncle knew." Zuko shrugged.
"Oh... Why are you talking to me?" The voice wasn't accusing; just curious. To Zuko, it was refreshing to hear someone not accusing him of being himself.
"I figured that talking to you would be better than talking to myself."
The Avatar was silent for a moment and for that moment, Zuko was afraid that the Airbender wouldn't respond.
"Your uncle's a nice guy." came the last response Zuko had expected. "He came to visit me earlier. Said he was sorry for everything that had happened so far." There was a heavy sigh. "I can't believe I let myself get captured like that."
"No, I'm the one who should be saying 'sorry'." Zuko corrected, shutting his eyes. "I'm the one who started this. I'm the reason you've barely had a moment's peace in the last few months. It's my fault that we're in this situation now. If I hadn't been so foolish..."
"But your uncle said that you were only doing what you thought was the right thing."
Zuko started, feeling shame flood him again.
"I mean, if I had to hunt down some legend because it was the only way to regain my honor and go home, I guess I'd be pretty desperate too." the Avatar went on. "I really shouldn't hold a grudge. You weren't there when the Fire Nation killed all my people."
"Go ahead and hate me for it." Zuko offered. "I carry that legacy. It was my great-grandfather who killed your people."
"But it wasn't you." the Avatar reminded him. "I really don't have much of a reason to hate you."
"Why?!" Zuko demanded. "I kept chasing you around--"
"And that's all you did." the Avatar pointed out. "You didn't actually hurt me or my friends."
Zuko opened his mouth to argue the point, but he realized that there was nothing to argue. He may have chased the Avatar around, scared his friends and shot fire at them, but he couldn't recall having actually hurt them. It wasn't until Zhao had stepped into the picture that--
He shook his head sharply. No matter what the Avatar said, he didn't deserve to be forgiven. Hunting someone down like an animal was no way to treat a person and that's exactly what he had done. The Avatar could say it, but that didn't mean Zuko would believe it.
Another chilly night had settled over the Fire Nation. Zuko shivered and pulled his prison clothes tighter around him. There was one thing he missed about having a full head of hair. It had provided wonderful insulation against the cold. He wondered how fast his hair was going to grow; if he would have a decent covering for the rest of the winter. The solstice hadn't been that long ago. There was still a lot of winter left and he didn't want to freeze his ears off.
He did not feel tired at all and the cold air was stripping him of any desire to sleep anyways. He had negated the worst of his boredom by meditating and practicing his katas all day. Yes, he was locked up, but that was no excuse. The day might-- No, the day would come where he was able to escape and he was not going to compromise his chances just because he had lost his focus and his muscle tone. Zuko had hissed that to the Avatar as well, hoping to light a (metaphorical) fire under the boy's butt and he had made sure the Airbender was deep in meditation before he fell into the familiar routine of his morning warm-up, despite it being mid-afternoon.
But Zuko's body was accustomed to a higher level of activity than what he had been able to put it through today and he didn't feel sore at all. He didn't even feel a slight pull on his muscles. He might as well have sat down and done nothing all day. But keeping his forms would pay off in the long run. He wasn't going to spend forever in here if he could help it.
The night was filled with the musical chirping of cricket-hoppers and sharper chirps of the nocturnal shrew-bats hunting for fire beetles. Zuko's breath streamed from his mouth in a light mist. Just because the prison tower was tucked up against a volcano, it didn't mean that any of the heat got transferred. It was like being back in the South Pole again. He was breathing on his hands, trying to chase away the approaching numbness, when he heard a light tapping on the other side of the wall.
"Zuko?" the Avatar's voice whispered through the hole in the wall.
The Firebender debated not responding. He doubted any conversation the Avatar tried to strike up would be successful. Honestly, what had his uncle been thinking; basically telling him to talk to the Avatar?
"Zuko, are you awake?" the Avatar asked, his voice low and-- scared? Zuko sat up, giving up any pretense of sleeping. The fact that the Avatar sounded scared had quickly sparked his curiosity.
He was supposed to say something else here. He knew he was supposed to.
"Is there something wrong?" he asked after thinking for a couple of seconds.
Silence persisted for long enough that Zuko wasn't sure if he would get a reply.
"I'm scared." the Avatar whispered; the confession surprised Zuko to no end. "It's cold and I'm scared and I miss my friends. I think that they've gotta be alright, but when I saw them last, they were both sick and I keep thinking that something might have happened to them and I wasn't there to protect them."
Zuko leaned his head against the cold bricks. On the other side of the wall, Aang wrapped his arms around his drawn-up legs.
"I've never really been alone before. Even when I wasn't with the other monks, I still had Appa and then I met Katara and Sokka and they're the best friends I've ever had. But I'm here and they're not. I'm alone."
Zuko stared at the floor, not really seeing it. He knew the feeling. For the first ten years of his life, he'd had his mother. After she had disappeared or died or whatever the heck had happened to her, his uncle been right there and he still was even now. There had only been a few fleeting hours where Zuko had felt completely and totally alone. That same feeling of despair and hopelessness was exactly what the Avatar was feeling right now. Zuko hadn't liked that feeling and he didn't wish it on anyone else. So he curled his hand up, pressing his fingers together as much as he could, and fitted it through the gap. He felt the Avatar jump and tense up when he grabbed the boy's shoulder, but he did not move his hand.
"No. You won't be alone if I can help it." he said. "I think that's what my father wants. He wants us to feel isolated and alone. He wants us to give up and beg for death. But I don't want to give him what he wants. And you shouldn't either."
His hand was awkwardly patted and the tension between them started to fade away.
The throne room and the war room were one in the same. The only change to make was bringing in a world map and thick cushions so that all in attendance could sit comfortably, protected from the hard marble floor. All planning sessions were conducted in the presence of the Fire Lord, as per the late Fire Lord Azulon's decree. There was a war meeting in session now with various decorated generals -- some retired, some not -- and other important officers in attendance. The fires burned at a dull roar, still casting plenty of light to see by, but the noise and heat was not overwhelming.
"Our next offensive should be against the Northern Water Tribe." General Jiang was saying, pushing the stone markers with the Fire Nation symbol mounted on them upwards to the North Pole. "They are the last stronghold of Waterbenders. Once we wipe them out, only the Earth Kingdom will remain."
There was a murmuring agreement from each general and officer gathered around the map.
General Jiang thumped his fist into the open palm of his other hand. "I believe if we strike a single decisive blow--"
"It will take more than one blow, General Jiang." Zhao interrupted. "This isn't some little Earth village we can just march into. The Water Tribe is a great nation. There's a reason they've survived a hundred years of war."
"You seem to be very well informed regarding the Northern Water Tribe." General Jiang said, crossing his arms. "What do you recommend, Admiral Zhao?"
Was that a note of contempt Zhao heard there? Contempt for the man who had brought great glory to the Fire Nation? That would not stand. He would have to teach this impudent man a lesson later. A lesson he would not soon forget.
"Their Waterbenders are a formidable force. The frozen tundra is treacherous. The landscape itself is an icy fortress. That is their territory and they know it well. The Water Tribe is entirely capable of burrowing themselves into their glacier and sitting out any siege we lay upon them." Zhao jabbed a finger in a vague northerly direction. "We would need a massive invasion force to dig them out."
There was a great deal of muttering from all over the war room. On his throne, Ozai stroked his beard thoughtfully. Only two great nations now stood in the way of conquest, but Zhao was right. The Northern Water Tribe was indeed a formidable force. It was going to take a great deal of power to uproot them.
"Admiral Zhao." the Fire Lord spoke up for the first time since the proceedings had begun. "What do you have in mind for dealing with the Water Tribe?"
"Fire Lord Ozai, with your permission, I would like to take an expedition up to the North Pole; as many battleships that can be spared." Zhao replied, standing respectfully before the Fire Lord. "I would also like permission to recruit General Iroh as my military consultant. His tactical knowledge will be invaluable in the coming weeks and months."
"Permission granted, though you will have to take the offer to him directly." Ozai nodded. "And your plan?"
Zhao smiled, a mirthless one. "I believe I have found a way to destroy the Waterbenders once and for all."
Iroh was staring down the path to the prison tower. He hadn't dared set one foot on it since his visit almost a week ago. He didn't want Ozai catching wind of the second thoughts that had been churning through his head. He did not like the direction this war was taking. Granted, he hadn't liked the war since his son's death, but its current direction made him hate it even more. The entire Fire Nation was looking forward to a shining future, but Iroh could only see something bleak and colorless. The world was not supposed to take this path, was his feeling.
He prayed that Zuko had taken his advice -- or had at least understood it. Maybe between his nephew and the Avatar, they would find a way of escaping and putting the world to rights again.
"General Iroh!" The familiar voice of Admiral Zhao hailed him and the crunch of footsteps was heard. "I thought I would find you up here."
"May I help you, Admiral Zhao?" Iroh inquired politely as his teeth began to grind. That was man was the reason Zuko was currently locked up; the reason the world felt like it was swaying off balance.
"The fleet will be traveling northwards in a few days' time and I will be leading it." Zhao informed him. "I've been promoted to Fleet Admiral."
"Congratulations." Iroh grunted.
"I would like you to join me as my military consultant." Zhao offered. "Fire Lord Ozai has already approved of the appointment. All I need is your acceptance."
Iroh stared at the path ahead without actually seeing it. In the last week, he had not found any excuse to leave the Fire Nation. This could very well be the opportunity he had been looking for. Maybe he could accidentally become "lost" during the battle at the North Pole. And then maybe he could be "forced" to borrow a Water Tribe ship in order to make his way south again. And then maybe he could get "lost" again once in the Earth Kingdom and end up in Ba Sing Se. Maybe he could open a tea shop. He had always wanted to open a tea shop.
He didn't want to fight anymore.
"I accept your offer, Admiral Zhao." Iroh said at last, turning around with a pleasant smile. "I would be honored to join you."
There was a bitter tang to those words that made his tongue curl.
"The honor is all mine, General Iroh." Zhao said. "I look forward to working alongside you."
He bowed and then turned and walked away. Iroh waited until he was out of sight before turning back to stare down the path to the prison tower. He couldn't help but worry about his nephew. Ever since his own son had died, he had taken it upon himself to teach Zuko what he needed to learn to survive in the world. A world that may or may not have been controlled by Ozai. But he needed to know how to survive nonetheless.
It must have begun a month -- perhaps more than that -- after Azulon's funeral, Ozai's coronation and Ursa's disappearance. Long enough for the gravity of the new circumstances to sink in. With the mitigating influence of his mother gone, Zuko had been caught between a father who would not have him and a sister who wanted nothing more than to watch him suffer and fail in every possible aspect. Lost, grieving for his mother and whole-heartedly confused about the twist his world had taken, the then-ten-year old prince had sought out the only other person who had always treated him kindly. Uncle Iroh.
So Iroh had stepped in to fill a role that Ozai had abandoned long ago and had taken Zuko under his wing; teaching him and training him. If Ozai had cared about this at all, then he had kept his thoughts to himself. The Fire Lord had been much more interested in Azula anyways. Azula was the strong one, the prodigy. She wasn't weak like her brother. She didn't struggle with every kata nor spend spare time between lessons making sure that her footwork was correct. She didn't spend an extra half-hour on breathing exercises to be sure that she was doing them properly. Ozai favored her above his first-born; finding the time to spend with her while barely sparing a disdainful glance for Zuko.
Iroh had been the father Zuko hadn't had, while Zuko had unconsciously helped to heal the wound that the death of Lu Ten had left on Iroh's heart. He had done everything a father was supposed to do; guiding the boy to the right path, giving him the support where he needed it...
It was what he was supposed to do.