A/N: As of January 2013, I'm gradually going through and editing the first few chapters. This is happening strictly on a "when I feel like it" basis, much like chapter updates (bad writer, no cookie). Also, I'm a notoriously slow updater, so feel free to poke me and ask where the next chapter is. It gets me motivated.
"Ozai! How dare you do this!" Had anyone else barged into the Firelord's chambers in such a state, the guards would have apprehended him immediately. But only a fool laid a hand on the Dragon of the West when he was in this rare mood. Iroh nearly ripped the door off its hinges in his anger, but there were unshed tears in his eyes as he confronted the man that looked out the window at the fire lilies in the courtyard.
"I do not answer to you."
"He is just a boy! Your own son!"
Iroh frowned and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "So, you are just going to throw him out into the world with nothing. No friends, no family, no hope. You have already hurt and humiliated him in front of the entire court. You have banished him only to satisfy your sick, twisted pride. How much lower will you stoop?"
Ozai whirled around to face his brother, his usually handsome features distorted with hatred. "How dare you address your Firelord—"
"Do you think I have forgotten what you did to gain that title?" Iroh reminded him quietly. Ozai's expression shifted from rage to a look of uncomfortable surprise. The older man shrugged. "You and I both know that I never wanted the throne for myself. But I'm sure the Fire Sages, your nobles, your generals, everyone in the Fire Nation, and your allies in the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes… I'm sure they would be very interested to know how that happened." He smiled slightly. Ozai's frown deepened. Instinctively, his hands clenched, the first two fingers extended as energy crackled around the room. "And before you think of using any lightning, know that the secret will not die with me. In fact… it will come alive."
There was a long silence between them. Finally, Ozai stood up straight and clasped his hands behind his back.
"I will not renounce his banishment. It was witnessed by the Fire Sages and the entire court," said the Firelord at length, a small sneer crinkling the side of his nose.
"I was not asking you to. The best thing for Zuko is for him to be away from this poisonous place," Iroh muttered. "But he will need resources. A ship and crew."
"I'm sure there's an old battleship down at the docks that won't be missed," Ozai said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "He may have one ship. If something happens to it, there will not be another. He will have to find his own crew."
"Very well. He will need money, too. And a decent retinue of soldiers and firebenders."
Ozai beckoned to a nearby servant, who immediately acquired writing materials. "I will set a yearly budget. If he exceeds it, it will be up to him to make up the difference. And as for soldiers… you were the Dragon of the West. I'm sure there are some who are still foolish enough to follow you to the ends of the earth." The servant wrote down Ozai's orders and handed the scroll to Iroh with a bow once the ink dried. The Firelord turned back to the window and Iroh departed, neither of them saying another word.
Iroh unrolled the paper on his way out. One ship and a surprisingly generous yearly allowance. In spite of him self, the old general smiled a little. Did his brother have one last vestige of humanity in him after all? One ounce of conscience that pricked his mummified heart enough to make him show this last small bit of kindness to his son? Perhaps.
The guards would soon be coming to enforce Zuko's banishment. Iroh calculated that he had two hours at most to at least get the ship and maybe a skeleton crew of sailors to pilot it. The rest would have to be taken care of at a port in the colonies. That was all they would be seeing of the Fire Nation for a very long time. Ill-gotten territory and backwoods outposts. Iroh sighed, shook his head, and started to make his way out of the palace.
Ozai had been serious when he said that he would allow Zuko to have a ship that wouldn't be missed. The only such ship on the island was a small, elderly warship, scarred from battle and warped from long years at sea in all kinds of weather. It wasn't the most efficient ship ever engineered—a significant portion of the yearly allowance would have to go towards coal, maintenance, and a mechanic who was up to the task of taking care of the outmoded engines. The cabins, as they were now, were bare and uncomfortable, but that would be fixed soon. A good cook could perhaps coax tasty meals out of that excuse for a galley, and a pai sho table in the bridge would make a nice, homey touch. Anywhere could be homey, as long as there was tea and pai sho.
Even so, Iroh knew these vessels. This was a good model, sturdy and reliable and reasonably fast. The ship's age would be its only problem. He laughed to himself—he certainly knew about the problems that came with age. And there even turned out to be a few perks that came with the ship: one decent catapult and a smaller steam-driven boat. Excellent. And Iroh had the good fortune to run into a couple of old acquaintances outside a tavern just off the docks, passably decent men who would get the ship to wherever Zuko planned to go. His nephew, Iroh knew, would have taken the task seriously. To him, finding the Avatar was not a way to get him out of the Fire Nation for good, as most everyone who had witnessed the Firelord's verdict soon realized. It was a goal to be achieved.
Although Iroh had his doubts, he would help Zuko in any way he could. He owed that to the boy, at least.
I never should have let him go into that meeting, he thought for the hundredth time that day, looking out across the prow of the ship as it motored slowly out of its mooring and headed in the direction of the capital.
They made it back just in time for Iroh to slip past the armed guards who were marching up to Zuko's room. He would collect the prince himself. No need for the guards to get involved.
The door was slightly ajar when he arrived. He pushed it open to see Zuko sitting at the foot of his bed, head bowed, arms clasped tightly around himself. He was already dressed in armor and had a small traveling bag slung across one shoulder. He looked up when Iroh entered. His right eye shone with a feverish light. If he had been crying, he didn't show it. The left side of his face was covered in a thick white bandage—Iroh's hands curled into fists at the thought of what lay underneath it. The thought of what Ozai had done to his own son.
"Uncle." His voice—hollow.
"Come with me, Prince Zuko. There is a ship waiting for us at the harbor. Your ship," he added. Zuko stood uncertainly, swaying on his feet. Iroh gripped his shoulder before he fell. The sound of the approaching guards reached their ears before long. "Let's go. The guards need not see you out." Zuko nodded.
"But… you're not banished. Why are you doing this?"
"No nephew of mine is leaving the Fire Nation without some backup. And besides, you haven't mastered firebending yet. It would be irresponsible to send you out into the world without a teacher." He neglected to mention that it was because of his own irresponsibility that any of this had happened at all.
"Thank you, Uncle."
He was grimly silent all the way to the harbor. His jaw was set both out of determination and physical pain, and by the time they were on the ship, beads of sweat stood out on his freshly-shaved head. His already pale skin was even whiter than usual, and his breath came in short gasps. He needed to rest.
The gangplank retracted. The ship was off as soon as it was completely closed.
Zuko watched the retreating shore from the deck for hours, until it faded from sight entirely. They passed the Gates of Azulon and the blockade, and with that, they left the Fire Nation entirely, never to return.
Never to return without the Avatar, that is.
"Prince Zuko. You have been out here for hours. You should come and have some food and get some sleep."
"I'm not hungry. And I'm not tired." Zuko continued to stare out in the direction of the Fire Nation, even though they had passed the blockade hours ago and night had fallen. It was a beautiful night—cool, with clear skies, glittering stars and a full moon, but Zuko did not notice any of that. All he saw was what he had lost.
"You need to keep up your strength. You have had a very long day, and we can't have you getting sick." Iroh came up beside him, hands tucked into his sleeves. Zuko didn't answer. Iroh sighed—he knew this would happen. His nephew was as stubborn as he was hot-headed. He would have to cave eventually, though. Even if he spent his whole life searching for the Avatar, he couldn't go that long without food or sleep.
"It is a beautiful night," Iroh said after a prolonged silence.
"I guess so," Zuko replied at length.
"How are you feeling?"
"…Fine." The prince carefully touched the bandage over his face and winced. Even the lightest touch caused sparks of pain to lance across the burn. He hadn't seen the burn before it was treated and dressed and he couldn't tell how bad it was. But the pain seemed to extend from the inner corner of his eye to beyond his ear, up past his hairline (or where his hairline would have been had his head not been shaved in disgrace) and down past his cheekbone. Some parts of it were strangely numb, but others felt like they were still on fire. It didn't go away when he removed his hand, nor could he forget about it by focusing on something else.
"Come. At least have some tea. You can't stay out here all night."
"I will if I want to." Zuko's fingers curled around the railing, tightening his grip until his knuckles turned white.
"As your firebending master, I instruct you to take some time for your well-being. But as your uncle, I ask you to. Please." A heavy hand rested on Zuko's shoulder. Slowly, he released his death grip on the railing and nodded once. He allowed himself to be led inside, but the cold pit that had formed in his stomach didn't go away, even though the ship was warm, heated by the huge coal-burning engines below decks.
"I had your room set up earlier," Iroh said as they ascended some stairs to the third floor. He opened a door and motioned for Zuko to go inside.
Zuko's eye widened in surprise. Everything was there—his desk, his clothes chest, even his little altar with its four half-melted candles and the dragon mask that hung over it. The wall hangings with the fire motif weren't his, but Uncle had probably put them up so the steel walls wouldn't seem so bare. The low table in the middle of the room was also new, as was the fluffy futon in the corner.
"I hope you will like it," Iroh said, taking Zuko's stunned silence as adequate thanks. "Now take off that armor and sit down before you fall over. You look pale."
Not long later, the smell of fresh jasmine tea filled the small cabin. Iroh placed a steaming cup in Zuko's hand and made sure he drank the whole thing before pouring his own cup.
"I'm a failure, Uncle." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Iroh looked sharply up at him.
"Why would you say that?"
"I got banished." He looked down at his empty cup. The cold pit in his stomach was growing.
"That does not make you a failure. No, quite the contrary, in fact." He offered the prince a bowl of fruit, which was ignored. "What you did that led to your banishment proved you are a hero twice over. It is too bad your father does not appreciate human decency."
"I'm not a hero, I'm an idiot," Zuko said bitterly.
"You can be both. Intelligence is nothing without courage, and sometimes courage requires momentary stupidity."
"You're wrong! I'm an idiot and a coward, and everyone knows it! I'm a disgrace to the Fire Nation!"
If only the Fire Nation had more "disgraces" like you, Iroh thought. You are already twice the man your father was when he was at his best. But he said nothing.
"There's only one thing I can do." Zuko closed his eye, frowning. "I'm going to capture the Avatar. I need my honor back, and that's the only way to do it. Uncle, where do you think is a good place to start looking?"
"In my opinion? I think the Avatar is long gone. But if you want to look, I'll go with you."
"We'll start at the Western Air Temple. We know that the Avatar is an airbender, so we should start there. How long will it take to get there?"
"Only a few days, but we need to make port and supply the ship beforehand. We will need a proper crew and enough soldiers to keep the ship defended. All of this will be expensive at first, so you will need to budget your allowance month to month."
"How long is this going to take? The Avatar—"
"The Avatar has been missing for a hundred years. I'm sure he can wait to be captured for a few more weeks," Iroh said with a smile. "It is late. You need rest. We can continue to talk about this in the morning."
Sleep eluded Zuko that night. His thoughts were consumed with the Avatar, and when they weren't, they were consumed with how much pain he was in. His preferred sleeping position—lying on his left side—was no longer an option, and his face ached with grating, burning agony even when it wasn't in contact with the pillow. The dull roar of the engines was inescapable as well. It was so different from the silence and safety of the palace, a rickety old warship going out into the wide world.
The Western Air Temple. Maybe they would find something there, even though everyone knew that nobody lived there anymore. After all, what better place to hide than somewhere that had been deserted for a century?
Zuko gave up trying to sleep. He threw his blanket aside, went out into the red-lit hallways, and started up to the next floor where he knew the bridge was. He could hear Uncle snoring in the room next to his. Sounds were muffled in his left ear, whether by the injury or the bandage he couldn't tell. He hoped it was the latter.
The bridge was deserted, for now. Zuko looked around in cabinets and cubby holes until he found what he was looking for: maps and charts. He even found a log from the former captain of the ship. It, and the charts, were about thirty years old. The Fire Nation had acquired some new colonies since then, but everything else was in its proper place.
He took all the papers back to his room and spread them out on the table. The helmsman would probably need them eventually, but he would just have to wait.
There was a physical map of the land and ocean, a political map (some borders would have to be penciled in), a map of the stars, and individual maps of all the four nations. There was even a map of Ba Sing Se as it looked thirty years ago. The city was big enough to be a nation all on its own, and Zuko sincerely hoped that the Avatar had not taken refuge there. Even Uncle had not been able to penetrate those walls, not with all of Fire Lord Azulon's strongest armies at his disposal.
He squinted in the dim room. Reading was hard enough in this light, and now he had to do it with one eye (his stronger eye, no less) masked with bandages.
"If I want to find the Avatar, I have to learn to navigate the world," he said to himself. "The sea, the stars, the land, everything. This ship is my home now, but the world is my country." He pulled out the map of the Fire Nation and stared at it for a long time. The places on the map he knew so well seemed so far away. The beautiful, powerful capital where he was born and raised. Within the capital, the palace. He knew all the secret passageways, all the hiding places. He and Mai found them all during a typhoon when they were kids, when they were stuck inside until the winds died down. And off the coast, Ember Island, home of his fondest childhood memories. His family hadn't been there in years, but the memories were still as strong as ever.
His old country. His former country. But it would be his country again. It was his destiny. He would hunt the Avatar, he would find the Avatar, and his father would welcome him back home.
His good eye stung a little. He pushed the map of the Fire Nation to one side and got to work studying the map of the stars.