Notes: Completed for round 1 of the Avatar Big Bang. Please check my profile for a link to that comm for other great fanwork and a piece of art Eilonnwy drew for the fic. :)

I called for an army of betas to help me whip this into shape and that's exactly what I received! Thank you to Alexb49, Attackfish, Dungeonwriter, Emptybackpack and Gatekeeperdra . You guys made this readable. :D And special thanks to Dungeonwriter and Schwarztkd for brainstorming with me!

Full summary: AU: Lu Ten never died at Ba Sing Se, and Fire Lord Iroh rules the nation with an iron fist. Zuko is merely the son of the second prince, overlooked by his more talented younger sister and can only dream of the day when he will be finally allowed to prove himself in battle. When Lu Ten returns, triumphant, with the Avatar and his Water Tribe companions in chains, Zuko is put in charge of their imprisonment. But he soon learns that things are not what they seem with both the child Avatar and within his own family. And soon, Zuko will have a decision to make. How much good can one overlooked nephew to the throne do?


The sun was setting, Zuko realized dully.

He stood at the single window, high at the peak of the tall tower that was the Capital Prison. From there, he could see the entire city.

Most buildings traditionally faced east to welcome the rising sun, and the evening drew long shadows through every dip and hollow – a sharp contrast of darkening land and orange-streaked sky.

Zuko had never seen it from this vantage before. He'd never noticed how beautiful it could be until now, quite possibly the last sunset he would ever see.

They'd asked him to go. Toph had even punched him again, harder, in the shoulder when he refused.

He couldn't join them. He wasn't a traitor.

He had told the Avat—Aang that he could give him ten minutes. No longer. Yet as the sun continued to set – first touching the ocean waters out beyond, and then sinking below – and the minutes whittled down to seconds, he still stood unmoving at the large window.

He didn't move until he spotted a line of tiny figures, no bigger than ants, creep into the royal stables.

Shortly after, a large object – its shape mostly taken up in the evening shadows – rose into the sky.

Only then did Zuko turn away.

He felt an odd sense of disconnection, as if it was another person controlling his body and he was only an observing passenger. He passed by the now empty cell, the shackles open and discarded, and felt nothing.

No regret. But no pride, either.

He had betrayed everyone he knew and loved, assisted an enemy country he'd only seen on maps, and thrown his life away all at the same time.

And he felt nothing.

It must have been some other person's fingers reaching up to ring the warning bell, set just aside to the stairs – his had never been so white.

Nevertheless, Zuko rang it hard and the brassy sound echoed down the stairs; alerting every level and floor.

He heard answering shouts arise at once. Footsteps echoed to him from up the stairwell.

There was only one more thing to do. And as Zuko withdrew his ceremonial blade from its scabbard, he felt only a sense of calm.

And the guards found Prince Zuko, nephew to the Fire Lord himself, in the middle of the deserted prison cell, his topknot shorn and tossed aside on the floor, kneeling in surrender.

10 Weeks Ago

Zuko hit the ground hard and rolled with the fall. The wash of heat overhead told him that the fireball had missed him by mere inches. He crouched, waiting a space of four heartbeats for the air to clear. Then, springing to his feet, he fired back at his three opponents with a series of wild, unaimed blasts. He wasn't trying to hit them – not yet – but he needed his space, so he could –

A sudden movement caught from the corner of his left eye made Zuko whip around on instinct, surprise and indignation making him hesitate. There wasn't supposed to be a fourth man!

And that slight pause cost him the match.

The fourth firebender's blast was already on him before he could recover and all he could do was channel it away, let it roll over his shoulders into nothingness.

He smelled the scent of burned hair, but there was no pain: if the flame had been any hotter, not a practice-level blast, he would have surely been burned.

Zuko drew himself up, waving the air away from his face and trying not to cough from a mix of too-hot air and remains of smoke. His opponents didn't wait for him to strike back, and a moment later a well aimed kick to the side had him on the ground. Still gasping, he threw up his hands to protect his head and –

"HOLD!" a voice bellowed.

The four firebenders surrounding him stepped back at once. Zuko sat up, wincing.

His father had stripped down to just his pants an hour ago under the afternoon heat, but he cut no less of an impressive figure as he strode into the arena. Furious, powerful, and in complete control: everything Zuko wasn't.

Ozai drew to a stop in front of his son. "Exactly how many times have you gone through this set? And how many times have you failed?"

Zuko grit his teeth and stood to his feet. His father did not help him stand. "You said to spar with three opponents. I wasn't expecting a forth."

"He entered the arena on my orders," was Ozai's answer. "Somehow, it will get through your thick skull that you must be aware of your surroundings at all times."

"But he came from behind me! I couldn't even see—"

"Nonsense." Ozai snapped, and then paused deliberately before continuing, "I find it interesting, Zuko, that your sister can face and defeat twice as many opponents. She makes it worth my time to train her."

Zuko had expected his father to say something like this, but it still hurt. He looked away, from the blatantly staring firebenders and his father's own accusing gaze. "I understand," he said, quietly, to the arena floor. "I won't fail you this time, Father."

Ozai eyed him for a long, silent moment. "See that you don't." And he signaled to the firebending instructors to gather around him again, perhaps to give them more instructions on their next mock-attack.

Zuko sighed and turned away, dusting off his dirty pants before reaching up to make doubly sure that his hair still wasn't on fire. It wasn't, although the very end of his long hair, tied into high phoenix-tail, felt dry and choppy from being scalded.

His father gave a curt command, and the four instructors broke to form an arrow shaped rank in front of him – one man in front and three backing the leader up; a tough defense, but not unbeatable. Zuko squared his shoulders, took in a deep breath and waited for the signal to start.

Ozai opened his mouth, but his order was drowned out by the long, low blare of one of the announcement trumpets.

Zuko turned, curious, to look towards the main palace: the great flame of Agni burned brightly the very top of the high eastern tower, as always, but now just under it and slightly to the right, a second flame had been lit. It could only mean one thing.

"Lu Ten has returned? Already?" Zuko glanced over in Ozai's direction for confirmation, but the man was scowling at the double flames and not paying him any mind.

"Impossible," Zuko thought he heard him say, although it might have been a trick of the wind. Then, without a glance for his son, walked away.

Zuko hastened to catch up with him.

It took some time for the servants to fill the wash basin with fresh water, and for Zuko to be dressed in his formal clothing. Zuko was just having his hair put back up in his flame-point crown when Azula strode in, snapping her fingers in dismissal at Zuko's own servants. They bowed at once and hurried out.

Zuko glared at his sister. "What are you doing? Those are my servants. Hey, come back!" But not one of the servants spared him a glance on their way out.

As usual, Azula was perfectly dressed as if she as been planning all day for this occasion and was not taken by surprise like everyone else. She ignored him and sat on his bed, one elegantly booted leg crossed over the other.

"What do you want, Azula?"

"That's not a nice way to greet your sister, Zuzu. And here I had gone out of my way to do you a favor."

"I don't need any favors," Zuko growled, and turned to the mirror to put up his hair himself. He could, without the servants' help, but his phoenix-tail always seemed a little crooked when he did it.

He could see her blinking innocently at him through the reflection in the mirror. "But don't you want to hear the news?"

"No," he said shortly.

She fell quiet, then, leaving Zuko to seethe in silence until his curiosity got the better of him. As much of a pain as Azula was, she nearly always had the best court-gossip. He sighed, tightening the tie on his hair and ran his hand over the front of his tunic to smooth out the wrinkles. "Fine. What is it?"

"You're going to love this," she said, smiling in that way that automatically made Zuko's stomach tighten. He'd learned a long time ago to be wary of her smile. "Our honored cousin, Lu Ten, has indeed come is home, and you'll never guess what he's brought as a gift for our dear old royal kookiness." She ended the last few words in a singsong voice, drawing the moment out until Zuko turned to glare.

Her smile widened. "Lu Ten found and captured him."

Zuko stared at her. "You're lying."

"That's riiiight," she said, still sing-song voice. "The Avatar himself. Poor Zuzu," Azula sighed dramatically. "Uncle has already taken Ba Sing Se and now Lu Ten has the Avatar. By the time you're finally ready to make a name for yourself, there won't be anything for you to do.

"Shut up!" Zuko snapped, "That's not true!"

Azula grinned again, sharply manicured nails tapping her chin. "I know, maybe if you beg, Uncle will allow you to govern one of the lesser islands—"

"SHUT UP!" Enraged, Zuko grabbed and threw the nearest thing at hand at her. A hairbrush.

Azula simply reached up and snatched it out of the air well before it hit her. Smirking, she placed it carefully on his side table. "Better hurry up, Zuzu. Uncle has called for an announcement, and you don't want to be late."

She made her unhurried way out of the room, leaving as he seethed behind her.

The entire palace was in such a state of uproar with what seemed like many more servants than usual running back and forth and harried-looking noblemen demanding answers in loud, nasal voices, that Zuko was very nearly late.

He caught his mother's worried eye as he arrived at the royal balcony at last, but she said nothing as he took his place between his father and Azula.

The sound of the horns and the sight of the double-lit fire had attracted more than just the royal family: civilians were streaming in from all quarters of Capital City, some still with babies strapped to their backs or riding alongside them in carts.

By the time the horn blared once again, the crowed had swelled to a veritable sea of people stretching back and back, well past the main palace gates.

Looking at them all – row upon row of upturned faces – Zuko couldn't help but wonder when his turn would come. He was a prince, yes, but he had never done something important enough to be recognized as anything but the spare heir by his people. When would a crowd gather like this for him?

The double doors leading to the balcony swung forward and Li and Lo, ancient twins and Zuko and Azula's great aunts, walked out. They were slight-boned and frail with age, but as they stopped at the balcony rail their voices rang out strong and clear.

"One year ago Prince Lu Ten went searching for the Avatar!" one called out.

The other twin picked up the same sentence, as if on the same breath. "Scourge of the Fire Nation!"

"Corrupter of Sozin's great vision!"

"Lu Ten found the Avatar hiding in the South Pole!"

"The Avatar had built an army!"

"And Lu Ten struck them down!"

"He faced the Avatar in single combat and Lu Ten captured the Avatar!"

"Prince Lu Ten has captured the Avatar!" the twins repeated together.

"The Avatar is in chains! And now Prince Lu Ten has returned, victorious, to the glory of the Fire Nation!"

A ripple seemed to pass through the crowd as they spoke, and at the end a thousand throats roared back their approval – a sound so large that was almost felt rather than heard. Zuko craned his neck to look down and saw that some of the men had stripped their shirts and were waving the fabric around their heads: it made for a spectacle of bright mass of red, orange and yellow dancing through crowd like living fire.

The double doors swung open again and everyone on the balcony, the guards, high nobles and royal family alike, bowed to the ground.

Fire Lord Iroh, the Dragon of the West, stepped out with Prince Lu Ten at his side. Zuko risked a glance up as they walked past: Lu Ten was older than he remembered, with a fuller beard outlining his square jaw and his arms thicker with muscle than before he left.

Together, father and son stepped to the front of the balcony and waved grandly to the crowd.

"My people!" Iroh called, over the sheer roar, "Your prince has returned!"

The crowd cheered again, and this time Zuko could feel the noise of it beat against this breastbone.

But at that none of it seemed to matter. From his place, still on his knees in a low bow, Zuko watched his uncle and cousin facing their subjects, and saw the way Iroh's hand fell to his son's shoulder. Proud.

It was all Zuko could see.


Zuko turned to see his cousin striding towards him. Lu Ten's voice – booming even at the best of times – still echoed extremely loud in the marble hallways.

Quickly, remembering his manners, Zuko tried to make a proper bow but Lu Ten would have none of it and yanked him back up for a hug instead.
"Hey, who said you were allowed to grow so much?" Lu Ten said, pulling back to give him a good look-over. "You've gotten big."

"I did?" Zuko blinked, and then realized that he waslooking down into his cousin's eyes. Lu Ten clearly favored Iroh while Zuko took after the taller Ozai. Zuko grinned, then asked the question that had been eating at him all day. "You really fought the Avatar?"

His cousin returned the grin. "I sure did. I'll tell it again after dinner, but it was like Li and Lo said. He was hiding all this time in the South Pole, raising an army against the Fire Nation."

"But what was it like? Did he use all the elements? What about the Avatar State?"

"Whoa there, Cuz." Lu Ten laughed and squeezed his shoulders. "I said I'll be retelling it at dinner, but I will say that he took out one of my ships by the time it was over." He gave an exaggerated sigh then stilled, eyes narrowing. "Are you okay? You seem… thinner than last year. Is Azula still giving you a hard time?"

Zuko blushed. "No! It's… Father's increased my training. Again."

"Hmm. And he has you up from sun up to sun down, no doubt. What a waste of your time."

Zuko didn't answer, not liking the accusing tone in Lu Ten's voice. He only shrugged. "Father wants me as strong as I can be for when I'm sent out to lead troops on the battlefield." Lu Ten still looked doubtful, so he added, "I'm not a kid. You were only a little older than me when you helped Uncle take down Ba Sing Se."

That did it. "You're right. I guess you'll always be just a pipsqueak to me." Then he rubbed Zuko roughly on the top of his head, messing up his phoenix tail terribly. "I'll tell you what," Lu Ten added, once Zuko was finally able to push him away. They were both grinning, all awkward protocol forgotten. Like old times. "I learned a few new firebending moves from the men on the ships – crazy old soldiers, I'll tell you about them later. How about I show you a few sometime?"

Zuko brightened. "Really?"

"Sure." His cousin nodded down the hall. "But if we don't hurry up, I'm going to be late for my own feast."

9 Weeks Ago

Zuko sighed to himself and tried not to shift around his shoulders as he stood. Formal robes always felt stiff and unpleasant against his skin – the widened shoulders too broad and the starched fabric very scratchy. It was made worse by the fact he'd only put on full military regalia three or four times since Fire Lord Iroh took the throne, after Azulon passed.

He sighed again, resisting the urge to scratch. Still, he felt better focusing on the irritating fabric… it made the throbbing swollen pain around his eye decrease.

Zuko felt the weight of the curiosity from the guards at the door, but when he stopped to return the glare they all had miraculously returned to staring out in the middle distance. He scowled, but if he couldn't catch them being rude, he couldn't reprimand them.

Lu Ten had no such reservations, and the shocked look on his face made Zuko's heart plummet right to the pit of his stomach.

"By Agni! Who gave you a black eye?"

Zuko looked away, resisting the urge to rub at it. As if it would go away. The bruise had only darkened during the night, and swelled his left eye to a slit. "It doesn't matter."


"I talked back to father," he grit out, still looking away, embarrassment burning hot fire through his veins. "I was disrespectful during training last night. I… it was my fault."

There was a moment of blank silence. Then he heard Lu Ten let out a long sigh. "I wish he wouldn't do that. Do you want me to talk to him?" he asked softly. Zuko shook his head quickly, knowing how badly that would go. His cousin gripped him hard on the shoulder and when Zuko looked back, Lu Ten was gesturing towards the large steel door which led to the Fire Lord's official receiving chambers. "Well, no matter. It's time. Are you ready?"

Now Zuko's heart was beating fast – and for a totally different reason. "Maybe I would be, if you'd tell me what this was about," he grumbled.

But Lu Ten only winked at him and with a nod to the two guards, pushed back the door.

The royal chambers were ringed in flames – the silhouette of the Fire Lord himself sitting high up on the throne. With that amount of fire, it should have been stiflingly hot inside the room, but a combination of special heat-absorbing stones and the Fire Lord's own power ensured the room was only comfortably warm.

Both Lu Ten and Zuko bowed low, forehead to the cool marble flooring. Lu Ten was the first to rise to his knees, and in his most officious voice called, "Fire Lord Iroh, I have brought and presented Prince Zuko, son of Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa."

A bead of sweat trickled down Zuko's spine: his Uncle only insisted on such formalities for something important.

"Thank you, Prince Lu Ten." Iroh said. "You may now rise, my nephew."

Zuko did, but stayed seated on his knees as Lu Ten did. It was grossly impolite to keep his head stationed above that of the heir and Fire Lord in these most official of functions.

"I am here as ordered," he said, and wished that his voice did not sound so weak in the face of the crackling fires and the silhouette of his powerful uncle. "How may I serve the Fire Lord?"

The fires around the room flared briefly – a literal show of Iroh's power – before settling back down, lower than before. Zuko could see his uncle's face. Iroh was frowning.

"Nephew… is all well?" he asked, staring quite openly at Zuko's left eye.

"It was a training accident, Father," Lu Ten cut in, before Zuko could say anything.

Iroh gave a pause. Then, "I see. Pain can be a cruel teacher, nephew. Please be more careful." And he smiled in a soft sort of way that told him his uncle understood all too well what had probably gone on.
Zuko bowed his head in acknowledgment, his face burning and his left eye hurting more than ever.

The Fire Lord continued, "I have been receiving reports from your former teachers, and your private instructors. They all say you possess an adaptable mind, with the courage to forge ahead even if you struggle. They credit your persistence with why you graduated near the top of your class."

More like fifth from the top, Zuko knew. Fifth from the top out of twenty other noble-born boys. His father had railed about it for days – Azula had always gotten top grades at the Fire Academy for girls, in every course.

"Zuko," Iroh said, and Zuko looked up to meet his uncle's dark amber gaze. The soft smile was gone. The Fire Lord was again all business. "I am not a young man," he said, "and on your sixteenth birthday you no longer were a child in the eyes of our nation. It is time to put aside childish things, and to take on new adult responsibilities."

Iroh gestured to his son. "Lu Ten will one day rule in my place, and it will be up to you to stand by his side and help advise him. It is time you learned the ways of diplomacy and management." He paused. "As such, I would like you to take over administration at the Capital Prison."

If Zuko's heart felt it had plummeted to his stomach before, it was hovering down near his shoes now. Serve in Lu Ten's royal court? As a mealy-mouthed courtier? An adviser? He would never get out, never be able to prove himself in battle. What honor was there to be a minister?

"Uncle, I—" he started, dismayed, then his brain finally caught up. "Wait, the Capital Prison? Isn't that where they're keeping the Avatar?" The moment the words escaped his mouth, he realized how impolite and informal he sounded. Zuko bent his head again, face flaming.

Luckily, his uncle only chuckled. And to his side, Lu Ten's eyes sparkled in unconcealed amusement. To Zuko's embarrassment, he realized they both expected this exact reaction.

"Yes it is," Lu Ten confirmed. "Zuko, there have been some…. irregularities reported there. I know it's not exactly what you wanted, but my father and I need someone we can trust. Especially now with the Avatar. You have the most loyal heart I know. Will you do this for us? For me?"

Zuko looked at him, looked at them both, and slowly some tension he wasn't quite aware of seemed to unwind from around his heart. The only time his father spoke to him was to tell him how much of a disappointment he was, but Iroh and Lu Ten didn't see him that way. They trusted him.

"You can count on me," he said, and only remembered to bow low again at the last second.

For the first time all day, his blackened eye didn't hurt.

Lu Ten took him for a tour of the Capital Prison himself. The tall spiral tower stood just on the edge of the city, infamous in the Fire Nation for its tight security – second only to the Boiling Rock itself.

The most dangerous criminals were kept at the Boiling Rock, Zuko knew. The most politically dangerous were housed here.

"The Avatar is kept sedated at all times," Lu Ten remarked, as they ascended the tall spiral staircase. It went all the way to the top, where the prisoners of highest value were kept. "If he gets too excited he can activate the Avatar State and it will take another full platoon of men to bring him down." He smirked. "Once was enough for me."

"What about the others?" Zuko asked, a little breathless from the climb. They had come straight from the formal meeting and he felt as if he were drowning under the stiff, heavy robes. "You said you also captured two of his highest commanders? Why are they being kept here? If they were to escape they could easily free the Avatar."

"Well, think about it, Cuz. We can't send the waterbender to a place like the Boiling Rock, can we?"

"… Of course not," he murmured, feeling foolish. He didn't say any more until they reached the apex of the stairs.

The hallway before the Avatar's cell was lined with imperial firebenders – six stood shoulder to shoulder against the wall to each side. And they all bent to one knee as the two princes passed. Lu Ten swept by them all without a word or a glance. Zuko did his best to emulate him.

The warden himself met them by the thick metal double-doors, and saluted them with upright hand over fist.

"Zuko, this is Warden Shen," Lu Ten said. "I've charged him with personally overseeing the confinement of the Avatar and other high profile prisoners. You are to come to him with any questions."

Shen bowed. "I am most pleased to serve, my Princes."

Zuko nodded to him, and then there was an awkward beat between them all. Shen's eyes darted to Lu Ten and then hurriedly back again, giving Zuko a sickly sort of smile. And Zuko got the impression the warden was waiting for something, but he wasn't sure what. Not until Lu Ten cleared his throat into his hand and said, "You'll need the keys, Zuko."

"What? Um, Yes! I mean, uh, I'll take the keys, now." Zuko hurriedly held out his hand, trying to cover the slip. He thought he caught a hint of a smirk on Shen's lips, but the man was bowing again, shielding his face from view.

"Of course."

The gesture to receive the thick ring of keys was mostly symbolic. Shen and possibly several of his most trusted guards had copies of their own. But it meant Zuko was in charge – that he needed no one's permission to enter and exit.

Lu Ten flashed him a reassuring grin. "It's all yours, now, Cuz. So, ready to see the Avatar?"

He didn't wait for Zuko's reply before he pushed open the door.

And at first, all Zuko could do was stare.

The Avatar stood in the middle of a bare room, hands and feet bound by chain restraints pulled taunt to each side. He clearly couldn't move, even if he wanted too… Not even to sleep: his bald head hung down and rested against his chest.

"He's…" Zuko began, but cut himself off before he could say the rest. He's just a kid.

Lu Ten stood beside Zuko, hands clasped behind his back. "The Avatar," he confirmed, with an air of great satisfaction. "Master of all the elements. I tell you, he took out one of my warships before I managed to bring him down."


Lu Ten cut a glance at him. "Many people underestimate Azula too, just because she has a pretty smile," he replied, an edge to his voice. "You of all people should know that dangerous things come in small packages."

Zuko couldn't tear his eyes away. The Avatar was… so small. He had been missing for almost one hundred years… how in the world could he be so young?

"What was he even doing in the South Pole, anyway?"

Lu Ten shrugged. "Hiding like a coward. Staying downwind of the Fire Nation's notice until his time to strike. I've no doubt—"

He stopped as the boy stirred in his restraints. Muttering, "… Don't hurt them…"

"Guard!" Lu Ten snapped, stepping back.

In an instant the room was filled with bristling firebenders, fists cocked and ready to unleash their flame.

The Avatar's head rolled to the side, then slowly up. His grey eyes were unfocused and vacant. Then, he smiled.

"What happened to your eye, Kuzon?"

Zuko jerked in surprise, realizing belatedly he had not stepped back and away with Lu Ten. He had stood there, gaping, like some idiot. Immediately, he shut his mouth. "I'm not—" he began, but the Avatar cut him off.

"… should put some white monardella-jade on it," he murmured. His eyes were half lidded, head dropping again as if too heavy to hold up. "Monk Gyatso said…" But whatever he said was lost with him. The Avatar trailed off with a snore.

The whole room seemed to let out a relieved sigh. And Lu Ten actually laughed into the sudden silence. "It's just the sedatives," he said, coming forward and clapping Zuko on the shoulder. All high spirits again now that the boy was unconscious. "No need to be afraid of him, Zuko."

"I'm not the one who called for the guards," Zuko grumbled, but Lu Ten either didn't hear him, or pretended not to, and turned away to speak with the warden again.

Zuko cast another glance, uneasily, at the Avatar. But the boy slept on, oblivious.

… Who was Kuzon, anyway?

That night found Zuko secluded at his desk, surrounded by thick stacks of accounting books: the internal records from the Capital Prison. The oil lamps had guttered low, the flames burning under natural power now that Zuko was too engrossed in facts and figures to take notice of them.

Eventually, Zuko leaned back at last in his seat, tossing his quill down in disgust. He was only skimming each month's reports, but already he was certain there was something off in the accounting – money was somehow being lost between several different departments within the prison itself. And whoever was doing it wasn't bothering to be subtle.

Or it could just be the result of innocent errors. There was always the chance he didn't know enough about the finances of the prison to tell the difference. Yet.

Still, Zuko knew what his father or Azula would do: if it was indeed embezzlement of crown resources, then it meant treason. Either one of them would haul Warden Shen in by morning and have him interrogated. It was what, perhaps, Zuko should do as well. Yet…

If the warden was innocent…

Zuko sighed and reached up to rub delicately around the skin of his still swollen eye. The bruise hadn't gotten darker (probably couldn't get any worse at this point), but it still throbbed. And that throbbing had slowly worn into a full blown headache after squinting under the power of half-dim lights for hours.

And tomorrow was his date night with Mai. Oh Agni…

Maybe they'll be so impressed I've been put in charge of the prison and the Avatar, Mai and her mother won't even notice the eye, he thought, half hopefully. Then he scowled.

Yeah, and maybe his father would take up fire-rose horticulture and they'd all take trips to Ember Island like one big happy family again. Fat chance.

Sighing, Zuko picked up the quill one more time and looked down at the figures on his scratch paper. And suddenly, unbidden, the memory of the boy Avatar came back to him.

"You should put some white monardella-jade on it…"

Zuko rang for his man-servant, and when he appeared, still ruffled from sleep, Zuko ordered, "Go to the kitchen and bring me some white monardella-jade – I think it may be an herb."

The man stared at him. "Now? At this hour, sir?"

Zuko bristled. Azula's servants never questioned her. "Yes, now," he snapped. "And hot towels while you're at it."

The servant bowed out, leaving Zuko to seethe quietly. The servants must have been gossiping again. They always became lazy and questioned him when they sensed his father's disfavor. The black eye hadn't helped.

The man-servant was a long time in returning, which gave Zuko time to put the books away and bathe. He was nodding off in the warm, soothing bathwater when there was a knock at the door.

"The cook didn't know about monardella-jade," the servant said, bustling in with the requested towels and a small bowl of what looked like ground yellow powder. "He had to look it up: it's an old word for Phoenix Flower Spice. He uses it to bring more flavor out in fish. But for what my prince needs it for, I wouldn't know—"

Zuko, feeling the headache return at the man's prattling, cut him off. "Thank you. You may leave now," he said, pointedly.

Once the servant had left, Zuko was left alone with the cooking spice, feeling stupid.

Well, he had come this far on the advice of a drugged monk. He wasn't going to back down now.

Wetting the warm towel with water, he dabbed it into the powder, then gingerly smeared the paste around his eye. It didn't burn, although the musty smell wasn't exactly pleasant, either. But after a few minutes, the throbbing felt… soothed.

It was late and Zuko fell asleep in his bed before washing it off again.

By morning, the bruise and swelling had faded away completely as if never there at all.

"And of course they will have to stay at our family home on Bonfire Island after the wedding," Mai's mother said. "It's been in my family for generations. I spent my honeymoon there with your father, you know." She patted her daughter's knee.

For her part, Mai didn't move, didn't react at all aside from a small dip of her head in acknowledgment – or perhaps she was starting to fall asleep from sheer boredom. After all, everyone present had heard the same story no less than a dozen times before.

Zuko wouldn't blame her one bit.

It was the same inane conversation, the same vague plans for after the wedding; a date which had yet to be announced. All exchanges of property had been hashed out years ago; dowry for Mai, seals of authenticity of blood for Zuko.

Future plans for a wedding that would surely, someday happen.

"Bonfire Island. Of course," Ursa muttered, to his side. She took a small sip from her delicate tea cup. Lowered it. "Perhaps you've heard? Zuko has been given responsibility of the Capital Prison. It has just been announced."

Mai's mother looked up sharply at this. Her eyes, suddenly hawk-like and flicking to Zuko then back again. All dreary politeness evaporated in an instant. "Then you believe Fire Lord Iroh will move to bless the union soon?"

Ursa said nothing for a long moment, looking as if she were considering her next words very carefully. "Zuko is Iroh's beloved nephew. It is natural he would wish to wait for the right time."

The other woman set her own teacup down with a sharp click upon the fine marble table. "And when exactly will that be? Let me be frank, Ursa. My daughter has been eligible to marry for two years." A significant pause. "We have had other, very generous offers."

"Didn't you just hear her?" Zuko snapped. "Uncle has given me a very important duty. He—"

"Zuko, that is quite enough," Ursa said, low in warning.

It took a force of will to snap his teeth shut over the next few words. He settled for glowering at the woman instead. He and Mai were allowed at wedding negotiations as a matter of courtesy only, but were not allowed to speak or touch until after the final ceremonies were concluded.

He hadn't even had a conversation with his own wife-to-be in over two years.

Mai's mother went on, as if he hadn't spoken at all. Her complaints had become more vocal over the last few months as pressure to wed her only daughter grew before Mai became too old. Recently, it was everything Zuko could do to remind himself that all contracts had been signed, everything pending Iroh's blessing.

The noblewoman could act the flamingo-shrew all she wanted, but she couldn't withdraw her daughter from the union. Not without paying very costly financial penalties.

Mai herself was too well trained to comment, although Zuko didn't know how she did it. She sat on the couch across from him, in an embroidered richly colored gown with her hair up in a hundred darkly glittering pins, hands folded neatly in her lap. Still and unmoving as a fine china-doll statue.

Three feet and yet a hundred miles away.

Then, her dark eyes caught his own. A muscle twitched her lips for just a moment; her equivalent of a sympathetic smile.

Soon, Zuko promised himself, gazing back at her. As he did, the idle talk of negotiations and complaints of their mothers seemed to once again wash over his head. He would find a way to prove himself to uncle and win his blessing. Somehow.

8 Weeks Ago

It was late into the night. The lamps had all long ago died down and all the near constant activity in the palace corridors ceased hours ago.

A single point of light still glowed brightly in the eastern wing: Zuko found had himself, once again, up late and neck-deep in musty records; half of them pushed off to one side and leaning off the edge of his writing table alarmingly. But Zuko paid no mind: he was certain now. He'd uncovered his proof: little by little, the funds from the prison were being misrouted.

It had started as a trickle of unmissed money six months after the new warden was installed, shortly before Iroh had taken the throne after Fire Lord Azulon passed in his sleep. As time went on, however, that trickle increased. Greed perhaps, or maybe whoever was embezzling had needed to pay off more and more people to keep quiet.

In any case, Zuko had the evidence of the theft, but still no water-tight evidence on who had done it. And he needed solid proof if—

A sharp rap at his door startled Zuko out of his thoughts. He jumped, his shoulder knocking against one of the tall stacks of books. The files slid to the side even as he reached too late to catch it, the paper-tower toppling over as if in slow motion to scatter over the floor.

Zuko turned at the sound, jaw clenched. "I said I wasn't going out to the city tonight, Lu Ten!" he snapped at the door, thinking his cousin had come yet again to tempt him with offers to join him and his friends for wine and women. "I have work to do!"

The door creaked open, but only a timid looking servant peeked in. "My Prince, I—I'm sorry for disturbing you, but there's been an urgent message from the Capital Prison. There has been an incident."

The blood drained from Zuko's face. "The Avatar?"

"N-no, my Prince. It's the waterbender. She tried to escape—"

"She?" Zuko barked, then shook his head and stood, straightening his robes. He was dressed casually, although not yet for bed.

The servant tried to speak again, but Zuko cut him off with a quick gesture. He would get the story from the warden himself, personally.

"Prince Zuko, I assure you we have the situation fully in hand," Warden Shen simpered as Zuko hurried up the long spiral staircase. The man looked hastily dressed himself with his single-point hairpiece of office partially askew. Zuko didn't miss how the warden also seemed to be one half-step in front of him, arm held out as if to stop or force the prince to deviate from his path.

Zuko brushed him aside and took the stairs at a quicker pace, leaving the warden to pant after him.

"The waterbender was able to gain control of a very small amount of water – my head guard tells me it was only a bit of condensation. Two men were injured, but they are being treated—"

"And what if she were able to get free and rouse the Avatar?" Zuko snapped, not liking it when the warden failed to correct him on the gender. So, the waterbender was indeed female. Why hadn't Lu Ten mentioned that? Why hadn't the official inmate records? There was only mention of the waterbender and the Water Tribe warrior – but no special notes on the gender. None at all.

"My Prince, there was truly no risk…"

"There is always a risk, Warden. I want the guard around the high-risk prisoners doubled until we can get our engineers up here to assess how she got hold of any water."

"Of course, but…"

A feminine shriek echoed down the right-hand corridor, just as Zuko was about to pass it. It was followed by a scattered outburst of rough laughter.

The warden's face pinched inward and that was all the confirmation Zuko needed, pushing rudely past the man when he made a half-hearted gesture to slow him down.

There was only one cell on this high level – specially made with connecting pipes leading to a pump which fed in only the driest air. The cell was blocked by a thick steel slab of a door and Zuko grunted with effort as he reached to open it himself.

There were four guards within the room – all lounging about in loose order, talking idly. Several gaped in surprise at seeing him there and immediately snapped to attention – but not quick enough to hide the long pole one had in his hands. It looked as if they had been using it to poke at the prisoner behind the bars.

As for the prisoner herself…

She stood, half shadowed in the furthest corner away from the guards as possible. She wore the loose rust-red shirt and pants assigned to all prisoners, her thick brown hair unbound and falling easily to her waist.

And she was Azula's age at the very most. Probably younger.

"What is going on here?" the warden barked, quick on Zuko's heels. And Zuko realized he had been staring.

"We was guardin' the waterbender, sir," one of the guards mumbled. "As ordered."

"Who are you?" the prisoner demanded, intent on the newcomers. Now that the stick had been put down, she took a half-step forward, her face coming into the light. Her blue eyes were fixed on Zuko. "I haven't seen you before."

"Silence, prisoner!" the warden snapped.

"No, I won't!" The girl snapped back. "I want to see Aang and Sokka. Where are they?" She took another step forward and one of the guards – a block of a man with a fresh red welt across his face, as if he'd been whipped – backed away quickly. "I just want to know how they are. Just tell me if they're okay!"

Face flaming, the Warden Shen bent and snatched the long pole up as if he meant to use it. But Zuko seemed to find his voice at last.

"That is enough!" With a quick twist Zuko snatched the pole from Shen's hands, resisting the childish urge to hit him with it himself. "There will be no abuse of the prisoners while I am in charge here. Do you understand?"

The warden visibly grit his teeth, his face still an ugly red. But he bowed – shortly. "As my Prince commands."

The waterbender barked out something like a tired, rusty laugh. "You're one of those princes, too?"

Her brilliant eyes were on him again. Zuko was the first to look away, back to the warden.

"Cut her water rations," he ordered, striding out. It was about time he completed prisoner inspections.

The Water Tribe Warrior was his age, if perhaps a year younger. Unlike the waterbender, he was quiet as Zuko conducted his brief inspection – his bright blue eyes intelligent and watchful.

The Avatar was asleep and Zuko couldn't be help but be glad.

6 Weeks Ago

Zuko poked his chopsticks morosely at the delicacy set before him; chirashi sushi under poached quail-snail egg, that he was smashing more about his plate than actually eating it.

Tonight was supposed to be yet another date night with Mai, but that had been unexpectedly canceled, in favor of a formal dinner invitation by his Uncle.

It seemed as if a rare shipment of spiced tea had come in from one of the recently conquered outlying cities in the Earth Kingdom and Fire Lord Iroh had thrown a dinner to celebrate. All were to attend, including Zuko's parents and sister at the main table with a scattering of favored ministers and dignitaries sitting at the lower tables.

Zuko sighed very quietly, and, sensing his mother's expectant gaze, pretended to eat. His date nights with Mai were spent in dreary silence, but he'd take them over the misery of a formal dinner any day.

Almost as if to underline his thoughts, there was a clatter at the other end of the high table – Lu Ten's bark of laughter and a hurried apology from a servant.

Lu Ten, it seemed, had nearly forgone the tea completely in favor of cup after cup of cheap plum wine. His personal favorite. Now Zuko's cousin's cheeks were spotted red from merriment and his voice – much too loud for the sedate dinner – echoed clearly throughout the room.

"—Four warships, it took to take him down! Four! And we met the Southern Water Tribe army right there. Sailed right into the teeth of 'em! The Avatar leading them all…"

The servant he was speaking to nodded, but wisely said nothing – save to ask the prince to lift his arm so that he may dab the rest of the spilled wine off the table.

"Fire, Air, Water and Earth," Lu ten continued, louder now. "The Avatar used all the elements – did you know that? But in the end skill always wins out over power. We took him, even with an army of barbarians at his back. Cost me one of my ships, though… and the men. But the end always justifies the means, doesn't it?" He paused to drain the last of his cup and then waggled it at the servant for more.

Azula, at Zuko's side, gave a soft sigh of her own, and muttered, "We'll be hearing this story for the next ten years, and by then his Southern Water Tribe army will have grown to thousands of men."

Zuko's lips twitched, but loyalty to his cousin kept him from laughing outright. "He's just drunk," he whispered back.

"Oh Zuzu," Azula sighed again – an almost pitying sound. Her chopstick speared a single candied grape. And, bringing it to her lips, she bit it. "Don't be so naive."

He looked sharply at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

But his sister merely smiled at him.

Zuko rolled his eyes, and opened his mouth to ask again, but was waylaid by a sudden murmur sweeping the room. Ozai had pushed his chair back and was standing from his seat: he was a tall man and easily towered over the rest, his head coming even to where Fire Lord Iroh sat, alone at the high table.

"Honored Fire Lord," Ozai began, and those nobles had not noticed him before immediately quieted their conversations and turned to look over him. A hush fell over the room. "I have carefully read over the reports of Prince Lu Ten's capture of the Avatar and the…" Ozai hesitated a bare moment, as if searching for the right word, "extraordinary resistance of the Southern Water Tribe."

Ozai paused again and Iroh carefully set down his own utensils and wiped his mouth with his napkin. He nodded. "Go on, Prince Ozai." But even Zuko could tell there was an edge to his Uncle's words.

"Clearly," Ozai said, "even weakened by the Fire Nation's efforts over the past hundred years, the barbarians still pose a threat."

The food had suddenly turned into little sharp stones in Zuko's stomach. He stared at his father, hardly believing what he was hearing. Was this… This couldn't be it, could it? Was Ozai going to ask to send him to battle?

Iroh's face was an expressionless mask as he regarded his younger brother solemnly. "What is your suggestion?"

Ozai smiled, spreading his hands. "Prince Lu Ten has done his duty by putting down the rebellion and capturing the Avatar. Now is the time to send a message to the rest of the world by showing the Fire Nation's absolute superiority."

Here it is, Zuko thought. His heart was beating a wild cadence in his chest, but he squared his shoulders, composing himself the best he could. In this moment, all would see him as a true Prince of the Fire Nation.

"My daughter, Azula, is more than capable—"


Zuko was on his feet almost before he realized what he was doing. And suddenly, all eyes were on him. "Father, I am your first-born son. If anyone should be sent to put down the Water Tribe, it should be me!"

Ozai flicked a glance at him, then away again in dismissal. "Sit down, Zuko."

But Zuko remained standing, clenching his fists. "No, this isn't right! I've been training for this!" He looked to his uncle, pleadingly, but Iroh's closed expression gave him no hint to what he was thinking. "I'm ready, Uncle. Please, let me go and bring victory in your name."

Azula's chair scraped the floor as she pushed away from the table and stood – lithe and dangerous and almost effortlessly graceful. "You don't get it, brother. Our father wishes to send the child who has what it takes to get the job done."

"That's why he's sending me," Zuko growled.

She smiled. "Why Zuzu, is that a challenge?"

"Yes!" he said, right on the heels of Ursa's shouted protest, "No!"

"No!" Their mother repeated, again. She had remained seated throughout the entire exchange, but stood now, glaring at each of them in turn. "I will not have my two children in a fire duel. You will have to settle this another way. Ozai, do something!"

"It will be nothing more than a spar, my dear," Ozai said, smoothly. "Azula has the right to accept any challenge, if Zuko will not withdraw."

Zuko raised his chin. "I will not withdraw."

"Well I think it's a great idea!" Lu Ten announced, raising his wine goblet in an awkward toast. "Show them all what you're made of, Cuz!" And before anyone had time to react he had leapt up from his seat and come around the table to pound Zuko enthusiastically on the shoulder. He then turned to the watching ministers and nobles, directing them as if they were servants. "You there, pull those tables back. There's enough room in this room, right? We'll make a square here…"

Still smirking, Azula moved back to allow the tables to be resorted.

And as Zuko watched, glaring, she leaned up to whisper something in Ozai's ear – with yet another smirk.

Realization made his blood run cold; momentarily washing away the anger.

Azula knew… she'd known ahead of time what their father's announcement was going to be. Just as she knew Zuko himself would probably challenge her.

His mother came to his side. "Zuko," she said, anxious. It looked as if she had figured it out as well. "I can speak to your uncle. You don't have to do this – no one will think the less of you."

That was a lie. He was the challenger, and if he bowed out now then everyone would know him as a coward. "No, this is something I have to do. I have to face her."

Lu Ten swaggered up to them again before Ursa could respond, grinning. "I've got ten gold pieces on you, Cuz… You're sure you're going to do this, right?" At Zuko's nod Lu Ten again clasped him on the shoulder. This close, Zuko could smell the wash of alcohol on his breath. "Azula favors her left side," Lu Ten said, in what was probably meant to be a conspiratorial whisper. It still carried.

Azula glanced over, hearing it, and rolled her eyes.

Zuko winced. "Thanks."

It didn't take long for the tables to be cleared away and for a space in the shape of a rough square cleared out in the large room. This wasn't anything like a formal Agni Kai – more like the equivalent of a rough barroom brawl set among the richness of Fire Palace decor. But as he got in position and saw Azula's intent face, Zuko knew this match was as deadly-serious as anything he had been involved in his life.

There was no clear signal to begin, but both moved at the same time.

Zuko opened up with a strong fire blast which Azula parried easily – a contemptuous flick of blue flame to dispel his orange jet. Then he was ducking, nearly having to fall flat on his stomach to avoid several hot electric blue darts sprung from her fingers.

He rolled and was on his feet at once, only to duck again to avoid a high kick that would have easily hit his jaw.

She had come at him running and committed fully into the kick, leaving her open as she missed.

Zuko took the opportunity; igniting a fire-dagger in his clenched fist and slashing with a quick upper-cut. She blocked with the side of her arm, and hit him – a quick series of two strikes to his chest and diaphragm. The air whooshed from his lungs.

Azula pivoted neatly out of his reach, dancing back two steps to give them space. Then, with a wicked smile, she struck with a simple yet powerful blast.

And Zuko didn't have any time but to do anything but block –

The fire hit hard. He dispelled the heat – barely enough time to keep from getting burned – but he was thrown back, arms pin-wheeling, and crashed down onto one of the tables.

His ribs seemed to take most of the impact – bright hot needles of pain making it impossible to take in a deep breath. Zuko wheezed as he picked himself up, trying to stand, one arm wrapped around his ribs…

And Azula was walking towards him with measured, almost contemptuously slow steps; a bright blue ball of fire circling in her clawed hand. He could only watch as she drew it back and let it go – aimed straight at his chest.


A burst of yellow flame exploded out from nowhere, splitting Azula's strike in half – the remnants of blue flame rolled past Zuko, singeing the hair on his arms.

Ursa strode between them. "That is enough," she commanded, leveling a glare first at Azula, then, at her son. "This duel is over."

"Indeed," Ozai drawled into the stunned silence. "Azula is the clear winner."

Ursa turned and over their mother's shoulder, Azula mouthed 'Momma's boy,' at him.

"Zuko," his mother said. "Are you hurt?"

"No," he gritted. Although it was obvious that he was. He could barely rise, yet when his mother reached down to help him, Zuko pushed her hand away. Angry and hurt and embarrassed beyond belief.

He barely heard Iroh commenting – Lu Ten groaning at the loss of his bet.

"Brother," Ozai said, turning to the Fire Lord who still sat, alone and drinking tea unhurriedly at the high table. "Azula has proven herself worthy. Will you not allow her to go in my place?"

Under normal circumstances, Zuko would have been interested to hear Iroh decline politely and answer, "Perhaps later, Prince Ozai. Right now, with everyone up in excited blood, it was not right to decide."

But he saw nothing, heard nothing but the sound of blood rushing through his ears.

He had lost.

The upward spiral of long twisty stairs was doing horrible, painful things to Zuko's aching ribs. Setting his teeth, he pressed the flat of his hand, hard, against his side and continued onward. His anger carried him upward – he would not slow for himself, nor for the annoying man trailing at his heels like a particularly annoying terrier.

"My Prince," the Warden Shen pleaded, yet again. "It is early and the Avatar has not been given his morning dose of sedatives—"

"I'll take my chances."

"There is no telling how dangerous—"

"I don't care," Zuko snapped.

"But, but… My prince, this is a most unusual request!"

Zuko took a step a little roughly and had to stop for a moment, wincing as his ribs twinged a complaint. "Shut. Up," he gritted out when the warden opened his mouth to protest further. The tired, dangerous edge to his voice must have finally gotten through because to his surprise, Shen snapped his mouth shut.

After a few moments spent breathing past the pain and collecting himself, Zuko continued his way up the staircase – his hesitant steps turning into a full-on pained limp by the time he reached the upper levels.

It didn't matter.

He had hardly slept at all last night, could only make a paltry attempt breakfast today. Aside from being embarrassed in front of his own family and the Fire Lord, most of the influential men and women in the nation had been in attendance to that dinner. By the time dawn had broken everyone who was anyone had surely heard the news: Prince Zuko had lost a duel against his younger sister.

And he knew he had not been imagining the amusement behind his servants' eyes this morning.

The trip up the last flight of stairs was a special kind of agony and Zuko could not keep in an explosive breath of relief when they finally reached the top. The door to the Avatar's cell was well-sealed and guarded by no less than four beefy armed guards. They didn't move at Zuko's approach – only reluctantly stepped aside when Warden Shen nodded his assent.

Zuko pretended not to notice. "I will to speak to the Avatar," he said, adding, "alone."

It clearly wasn't a request, but the warden's jaw still worked soundlessly for a moment before he nodded and gestured for the guards to open the door.

It closed with an ominous creak behind him as he stepped inside.

Zuko had not visited for a few weeks, but nothing of significance had changed. The cell was still bare. The Avatar himself was dozing, slumped against his chains. A stubble of hair had sprouted up on his head, mostly masking the arrow and somehow making him seem… younger than before.

Zuko marched forward as best he could without showing his limp. "Avatar," he said, putting as much authority as he could muster into his words. "I wish to speak with you."

There was no answer. Not a twitch.

His ribs twinged again and Zuko pressed his hand against them – a reminder of last night. "Wake up!" he barked.

The boy jerked at his shout. Slowly, he opened his eyes and blinked several times, staring at the ground. "Wha…"

"Avatar," Zuko said again, and when the boy didn't respond he steeled himself and reached out, tipping his head up. The Avatar's gray eyes were roomy and confused. "Do you remember me? My name is Prince Zuko … I want you to teach me firebending. That's an order," he added, after a moment.

But the Avatar only shook his head, or tried to; his head rolling loosely one way and then another in Zuko's grasp, "I don't…"

"You're the master of all the elements." he snapped. "And I demand that you tell me your secrets!"

The boy's eyes rolled back. "Only know airbending…" he mumbled. "I'mma airbender…"

"What?" Zuko drew back in surprise, accidently letting the Avatar's chin fall. "What did you say?"

But it was no use. The Avatar's eyelids had slid shut and he was asleep again.

Zuko stormed out of the cell a few minutes later to find the warden alone, waiting for him with a mix of amusement and expectation in his eyes.

"Did my Prince find the answers he wanted?"

Zuko clenched his fists and ignored the man, limping to the far window to look out over the city. Something bitter and dark was swimming around in his chest – an ugly thing tinged with desperation.

The Avatar was no good to him like this. If he hoped to learn his secrets and beat Azula in firebending and show his father – show them all – he had to have the boy lucid enough to follow a simple conversation.

"I want to you reduce the amount of sedatives the Avatar is receiving," Zuko said, at long last.

The warden paled noticeably. "Reduce the…? No. I'm afraid I cannot do that, my Prince. Perhaps if you took it up with Lu Ten and received his permission I could arrange for—"

And that, it seemed, was Zuko's final breaking point. He spun around, sudden adrenaline giving him speed. Grabbing Shen by the front of his shirt, he slammed him, hard, against the wall.

"This is my order, and I am the one in charge here!" he shouted, and behind him the torch on the wall flared up to nearly three times its normal height. "If you have a problem with it, then you bring it up to Lu Ten," Zuko leaned closer, ignoring the screaming pain in his bruised ribs to press his full weight on the man. "Then maybe you can also explain to him where all the extra money is going for the refurnishing projects. I'm sure he and my Uncle would be very interested to know."

"N-no! I—I mean, no, My prince." Shen's eyes had gone wide and round and when Zuko released him at last he sank to his knees in a formal bow. "There's no need for that, Prince Zuko. You— I will do as ordered."

Zuko nodded, a bit jerkily, and the warden hurriedly scurried out of sight.

Zuko stayed up in the high tower for nearly an hour, hand pressed against his side and willing himself to stop shaking. It was a long, painful trip back down and halfway there he realized, suddenly, with a bark of laughter, that threatening the warden had gotten him the only respect he'd received in months.

He didn't like it.

5 Weeks Ago

The next week seemed to pass with unnatural slowness. Not because it took days for Zuko's ribs to stop throbbing every time he moved – he felt like he'd re-torn something slamming that sniveling warden up against the wall, and it took long time before he could do anything without wincing.

But now it seemed, after his defeat, everything in the palace had changed.

Conversations stopped when he entered the room, only to be resumed at a lower level – ministers and nobles glancing sideways at him before turning to speak to others behind their hands. His servants were more ornery as well; they were slow to work and gave him sideways looks when they thought he wouldn't notice.

His personal firebending instructors were dismissed from their duty and placed back into the Imperial ranks. Zuko only found this out after fruitlessly searching the courtyard for an hour past his usual training time. A breathless courier from his father arrived late, advising him of the situation.

"It's just court politics, Cuz," Lu Ten assured him, once when Zuko sought him out to complain bitterly. "Sure, right now you're the center of all of the gossip, but just give it a few months. It will die down."

"Months?" Zuko repeated bleakly.

His cousin gave him a sympathetic smile and threw an arm about his shoulder, leading him to the gardens so they could talk in private.

"It's just the way things are, Zuko. Up until now you've been mostly shielded from this kind of thing, due to Aunt Ursa's influence. But you're not—"

"I'm not a kid anymore. I know." Zuko finished, resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration.

Lu Ten went silent, seemingly intent on leading him to the royal vineyards – a small patch of land outside the garden walls. Grape-cherries usually didn't thrive this close to the equator, but Zuko's grandfather's grandfather had developed a vine that grew like a weed during the humid winter months. As a result, the vineyard was now row upon row of leafy walls, each standing at least six feet high. It made for one of the quietest, most secluded places in the palace.

Lu Ten stopped midway between rows and sighing, leaned against a particularly old and thick vine, arms crossed over his chest. "You do realize that you were being set up that night, right?" he asked, softly.

A fresh stab of misery went through Zuko even as he nodded. He had guessed as much from the very night, and now in hindsight… it was all just a little too perfect. Ozai's request – Azula's challenge. "Yeah, I figured."

"Uncle Ozai asked for a favor he knew my father could never grant," Lu Ten continued, as if Zuko hadn't replied at all. Possibly, he wanted to make sure his younger cousin fully understood. "Ozai doesn't pay much attention to you, Zuko, but he knows you. He knew how you would react and he made certain Azula was trained up enough to take you down in front of everyone – but especially the Fire Lord."

Why, Zuko wanted to ask. Why does he hate me so much? What did I do wrong? But the words were stuck in his throat, and besides that, he didn't think he really wanted to hear the answer.

Instead, he focused on something else.

"But why wouldn't Uncle Iroh grant him permission to go?" he asked, instead. "My father was right about the Southern Water Tribe. An army of that size and strength can't be allowed to grow and rebel."

Lu Ten blinked. He seemed surprised, as if not expecting Zuko to pick up on that. Then he grinned. "Even the Fire Lord can't afford to waste resources. The Water Tribe is dying, Zuko. That little show with me was probably their last great stand." He shrugged. "My father will probably want to put Azula somewhere else where she would do more good, in a few years."

"But not me, though." Zuko muttered, a sick feeling in his stomach.

Lu Ten's eyes softened. "Zuko… Look, no one ever doubts your bravery." And even though his voice was gentle, sympathetic, his words still flayed him open like a sharp knife. "You've got to learn to think before you act one of these days or else you will just be manipulated your whole life." He paused. "The Fire Lord can't have that kind of liability on the battlefield with scheming admirals and generals looking to get ahead. You understand that, don't you?"

Zuko didn't respond. Couldn't. He only turned away – every muscle in his body clenched so tight that heat was pouring off him in waves. The grape-cherry leaves closest to him shriveled and died.

Lu Ten gave him a few minutes to compose himself before suggesting, half-heartedly, "You know what? You need to get out of this place for awhile. A young man your age shouldn't be cooped up in your room all day. Come out with me and my friends tonight… I know a pretty little lady who will make you forget all about the other night. Agni, she'll make you forget your name if you let her."

"No," Zuko muttered. But he still made himself turn around, face his cousin – the man who was everything he would never be: survivor of the Siege of Ba Sing Se, victor over the Water Tribe… captor of the Avatar. "I don't think I'm in the mood for… that."

"Every male your age is in the mood," Lu Ten countered. Then his grin flickered. "Is it because you're betrothed to… what's her name again?"

"Mai. You met her before you left."

Lu Ten 'hmmmed' under his breath then shrugged. "Well, take it from me: it's a bad idea to get attached to only one woman." He paused. "Just promise me you won't spend all night brooding in your room. You need to get out more – get some friends of your own, Zuko." He gave him a significant look. "I'm serious. Someone you can confide in, and trust."

Zuko was definitely not brooding in his room, later that night. He was thinking. Hard.

Lu Ten clearly expected him to give up and just leave it there at that. Become an adviser and never go out into the field. Well… his cousin had been gone a long time and grown out of touch. Zuko was far from giving up.

There had to be a way to restore himself in the Fire Lord's eyes. If Iroh or his father could finally see he was worthy to send out into battle, he would finally have a chance to prove himself. He had to find a way to restore his damaged honor. It was as simple as that.

Zuko hadn't returned to the jail in nearly a week, knowing it would take at least that long for the powerful sedatives to clear out of the Avatar's system. But tomorrow, he would. He had to find some way to learn from the master of the four elements. Maybe, if his fire became blue like Azula's then Lu Ten could be convinced to speak to Iroh on his behalf…

A soft knock sounded at the door, jerking him out of his thoughts. "What?" Zuko barked. Who would want him at this hour?

The door opened and his mother peeked in. That was surprise enough, but almost at once he could see that something was horribly wrong. His mother, like himself, had a very expressive face. It was hard for her to hide her emotions.

Zuko rose from his seat. "Mom? What's wrong? What's happened?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you so late," she said as she slipped in, closing his door softly behind her. "Sit down, Zuko. I'm afraid… I have some bad news."

"What's happened?" Zuko asked as he sat down on the edge of his bed. To his surprise she sat next to him and gripped his hand. Just as if he were a little boy again and about to be told that Ozai was too busy to take him on a promised trip. It sent a chill down his spine.

"Fire Lord Iroh…" Ursa began and paused, biting her lower lip. "The betrothal contract between you and Mai has been dissolved."

Zuko stared at her for a long minute, not understanding. "No… That's impossible."


"He can't!" His squawk came out nearly two octaves higher than usual. "The contract was signed – everything was signed!"

"The Fire Lord chose to break the contract and pay the penalty fees in favor to Mai's parents." Ursa continued doggedly, even though her face was pinched had swallowed a lemon. "You've been bound to someone else."

"What? Who?" Oh Agni. Not Ty Lee…

"I wasn't told the name. She's from one of the more prominent Earth Kingdom families—"

"He wants me to marry into the Earth Kingdom?" Zuko stood up. "No, we have to stop this… We – I've got to talk to Uncle. This isn't right! I refuse!"

But Ursa was quicker – grabbing Zuko's hands into her own and pulled him back down. "Zuko, look at me," she commanded. "It is already done."

Zuko opened his mouth, but she squeezed his hands sharply. Fear making her eyes bright and alive. Fear for him. "Why is this happening?" he demanded, "Why now? Is this because of the Agni Kai?"

His mother shook her head, but he wasn't sure if he completely believed her. "No, communication between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom takes longer than that, dear. This must have been in negotiations for… some time." She reached up, wiping a stray tear away. "I'm sorry, Zuko. I knew you had your heart set on Mai."

This couldn't be happening… "Mom, you have to do something. I love her. I can't just marry someone else."

But she only shook her head again. "This other girl will make you a good wife. I've been assured she's well bred. In a few years you won't even remember Mai, I'm sure—"


"I'm sorry, dear." Ursa said. "And I know this is a shock, but you know how rare it is for children of a noble house to marry their childhood loves. I didn't know your father before I married him."

"You two are miserable together!" Zuko exclaimed, and the second the words were out of his mouth he wished he could take them back.

Ursa drew back, stricken, as if she had been slapped. But as soon as Zuko saw the expression it was gone again – pushed down someplace else, just like all those times where he saw Ozai insult her. His mother was the master of grinning and bearing it.

"This is exactly the same as a direct command from your Fire Lord," she said and her voice was stern and remote. "I'm sorry… I know that you're disappointed."

"Mom, please…" he begged. "You have to do something!"

She only shook her head and rose, delicately wiping another tear away with a flick of her fingers. "I've been told that the girl and her family are en-route from the Earth Kingdom. I'm sure… I'll try to find out as much as I can about her family before they arrive."

And she swept out, taking the remains of his dreams with Mai out with her.

Zuko hardly slept that night. The first light of dawn found him already dressed and pulling on a hooded robe to best disguise his features. He paused only to scribble a note to be given to the Fire Lord – a plea to be allowed to speak to him at once.

The palace was quiet this time of day, with most ministers and people of note preferring sleep in another hour or two. For the first time in weeks, no one was looking at him with sidelong, speculative glances. No hints of whispers following him down the halls.

The Capital Prison was an easy walking distance away and Zuko used his own set of keys to enter the highly secured areas – the key ring was ceremonial no longer: he didn't dare ask for Warden Shen's help, lest it get back to Lu Ten or Iroh.

The Avatar was much more alert, picking up his head as the door to his cell opened and gazing at Zuko with still half-lidded, sleepy eyes. The amount of sedative had been cut, but not completely. Zuko was willing to flirt with danger, but only until a point.

"I know you," the Avatar said cautiously, half-unsure. "I've seen you before."

Zuko squared his shoulders, remembering, belatedly, a flash of Lu Ten's naked fear the last time the Avatar had spoken to him on his own. How powerful had he been back there in the battle at the South Pole?

"My name is Zuko and I'm in charge of overseeing your imprisonment."

The Avatar didn't seem to hear him at all. "But… you're not like him – the other prince. He promised…" and he trailed off, his grey eyes going vague and unfocused.

Zuko steeled himself and stepped forward, before the boy could drift off to sleep again. "Avatar, I order you to teach me the secrets of firebending."

The boy's eyes snapped immediately into focus again. He blinked several times. "Oh, um… okay… I guess? But maybe we should start with the basics for me, first?"

"Don't patronize me!" Zuko snapped. "You used firebending against Prince Lu Ten at the battle of the South Pole."

Now the boy stared at him. "No I didn't."

Zuko grit his teeth. Part of him wanted to shake the boy, but he was much too wary of his power to risk it. "There's no point in lying," he ground out. "There were witnesses."

"But, I don't even know how to firebend!" the boy insisted.

"If you didn't, then who did?"

"No one!"

These last words rang out between them, leaving Zuko seething. He turned away, trying to gather the last shreds of his temper – forcefully counting backwards from ten as he had been told time and time again by his mother. It helped. Slightly.

Finally, he turned back. The Avatar was watching him quietly – wearily.

"Tell me the secrets of firebending," Zuko repeated. "And I'll… see what I can do about letting your subordinates go. Shorten their time in prison." Once he found favor again with his father and Iroh he was certain he could negotiate something. Perhaps dump them off on one of the far-flung deserted island where they could do no more harm. They wouldn't be jailed, at least.

"Who?" the Avatar asked.

"Uh…" What had their names been? The official files were sparse, but the girl had mentioned a name in that first meeting… "Sooka?" Zuko guessed. "And the waterbending girl."

"Katara?" the Avatar breathed, eyes wide. And for the first time he seemed fully awake – almost frantic, now. Tugging feebly on the heavy chains.

"Hey, stop that!" Zuko said. Alarmed, he put an arm out, but didn't dare touch him.

The Avatar whipped his head back and forth, staring at his cell, almost as if seeing it for the first time. "But… but…they can't be here!" he said, his voice going up nearly an octave. "He said he'd leave them alone if I went along with him!"

"Lu Ten?"

"That's what he said!" The Avatar stopped tugging at his chains and stared at Zuko. All of the fuzziness was gone. His eyes were clear, sane, and… scared.

Fear could raise the Avatar State, Zuko remembered, from his readings. Legends had it that Avatar Roku had single-handedly destroyed the old Fire Palace in a fit of temper.

"Stop!" he barked, and stepped forward to grip the Avatar's shoulders, snap him out of his near panic. They were thin – bonier than they had seemed under his red prison clothes. "Stop." Zuko repeated, more quietly, forcefully.

The boy stared up at him. "They shouldn't be here. It's my fault… I didn't even tell them I was the Avatar."

"They're being treated well," Zuko said. "I promise."

"But… but…" The Avatar looked away, then took a deep, shuddering breath before continuing in a smaller voice. "Then… Maybe we could learn firebending together, I mean," he stood up slightly, and chains again rattled above him. "Maybe if we did that, you could let Sokka and Katara go?"

Zuko stared at him, at the earnest, utterly innocent face and with a sinking feeling that sent his heart down to his boots… he realized he hadn't been lying. "You don't know how to firebend," he said, flatly.

"I only learned I was the Avatar when the monks told me. Um, it was 100 years ago for you, but only a few weeks ago for me. I was frozen in a block of ice for a long time."

Now it was Zuko's turn to blink. "You were frozen," he repeated.

The Avatar nodded vigorously. He seemed to be calmer now, so Zuko stepped away. He had too, just to gain a moment to think.

No wonder Lu Ten had been so secretive in his dealings with this boy. No wonder his cousin had been afraid.

Perhaps it had been the stress of the battle, or the long period of sedation…. Either way, the Avatar had completely lost his mind.

"So what do you say?" the boy asked.

"I'll… think about it," Zuko hedged. He turned to leave.


Despite knowing better, Zuko paused in his step and glanced back at him.

"If you see them," the Avatar said. "Tell Sokka and Katara… I'm okay. Could you? Please?"

Zuko gave a single grudging nod before turning again to walk out.

He hadn't intended to honor the Avatar's request at all.

Disheartened, Zuko had instead made the trek back to the palace grounds; a thin, silken hood over pulled low to conceal his features. It was only a quarter mile from the Fire Palace itself, and at this time of the day the road was choked with merchants and riders returning back to their homes from the city. Zuko was jostled twice on accident, but hardly seemed to notice.

Was this all that was going to be in his life? Put in charge of an insane Avatar and stuck here while Lu Ten and Azula went out to make names for themselves? Standing aside while Mai got married to someone she didn't love, and he did the same with some Earth Kingdom girl?

No. That was no life at all. There had to be a way to get stronger, convince Iroh or Ozai of his true worth. There had to be.

Although he had no idea how.

All Zuko wanted at this moment was to order his servants to draw up a hot bath, wash the filth of the prison off of him and sleep. Maybe when he woke up again he would find this all to be a nightmare.

But some sixth sense made him pause before opening the door to his rooms. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and Zuko hesitated, pulling his hand back from the door handle and instead pressed his ear to the wood.

There was silence for a short moment, and then the sound of a low, throaty voice – Mai?

Zuko's stomach did a flip and he would have pushed open the door at once but for the other voice – the door was too thick for him to be able to hear the words, but he could recognize the mocking cadence anywhere.


Zuko had taken a step back before he caught himself at it. There was no doubt why she was there. Azula prided herself for having a finger on the pulse of palace gossip at all times. Of course she would have heard the news. And, typically, she had taken the first opportunity to ambush him in his own rooms with Mai in tow… probably to see the fall-out herself.

And maybe, if this were a month ago, he wouldn't have cared. Wouldn't have thought this far ahead already and just gone bursting into the room at the sound of Mai's voice. Now, Zuko was in disfavor… his confidence shaken.

He longed to speak with Mai. But right now was not the time.

Besides, he was tired of falling prey to Azula's little games.

Zuko forced himself to turn away and walk, as quickly and quietly as he could manage, back down the hall. It was only then that he realized he had nowhere else to go. It wouldn't be long before Azula grew bored of waiting for him and instead went to search him out. She knew all of his favorite haunts and no one – even Lu Ten – could completely hide him from her.

Well… he supposed there was one place he could still hide.

"What do you want?" the waterbender asked rudely, upon his entering.

Zuko closed the door behind him and drew himself up to his full height. As before, the girl's odd blue gaze was fixed on him with a strange sort of intensity. As if she had judged him, and found him lacking. It made him want to set fire to something: the only ones who had ever looked at him like that were his father and Azula.

Zuko let the silence draw out between them for a long minute. In truth, he had no real reason to be present, except that Azula couldn't follow him this far into the secure, upper levels.

"Your friend, the Avatar, doesn't seem to think that you are supposed to be here." Zuko said, seizing upon the first thing that came to mind.

She drew in a quick breath. "Aang?" And at once she was at the bars. "How is he? Is he okay?"

Zuko hesitated, but he didn't really see any need not to answer her. "We have him mostly sedated to keep from going into the Avatar state, but he's… not in any pain."

He meant to reassure her, honestly, but it had the opposite effect. She snarled and hit the bars with the flat of her hand. "You monsters! He didn't do anything to you!"

"Don't make me laugh. He's the Avatar – he'd sink this whole nation if he could."

"No, he's Aang. He's my friend, and he's all alone… Oh spirits…" her voice cracked on the last words and Zuko looked away, not really wanting to see her cry. He hated to see girls cry. Even enemies.

"Don't expect to get anymore water if you waste it all by weeping," he muttered, still not looking at her.

He could imagine he felt the chill of her glare from the other side of the room. But when he glanced back she had once again regained control of herself. Her cheeks were dry, although a bit splotchy.

"What do you want?" she asked, sounding tired.

To be loved by his father, to marry Mai, to not be forced to hide away like a coward until his sister found someone else to torment… "Why did the Avatar say that you and the warrior weren't supposed to be here?"

The waterbender's face went blank. "Excuse me?"

"That's what he said. He seemed… surprised that you had been captured along with him. Why?"

"Oh." The girl drew away from the bars, scrubbing her face with her hands. She gave a hiccupping laugh. "I guess he wouldn't… Well, it's my fault. When Aang went with the other Prince to keep our people safe, I tried to take Appa and go after him. Sokka – he's my brother— wouldn't let me go alone. But there were too many firebenders…" she trailed off, looking down.

Zuko didn't know who this "Appa" was, but guessed it was the giant sky-bison currently being housed in the royal stables. By all reports the thing was a menace to keep chained and fed, and he was only too glad he wasn't in charge of it as well.

"So you broke your word," he said, coldly, with a mental, It figures. "After a truce was made with your army, you and your brother decided to break it—"

"Army? We don't have an army."

"Navy, then," Zuko continued, with a roll of his eyes. "The point is—"

"No, that's wrong, too." The waterbender took a step towards him, incensed. "We don't have a navy, either. All of our men went to war two years ago."

Zuko stared at her. "What?"

"We don't have an army or a navy or an… an anything!" she repeated. "My father took the rest of our men two years ago and left the women and the children. And me… I'm the last waterbender."

"No." Zuko glared at her. "You're lying."

The girl laughed. Out loud. At him. "Is that what that other prince told you? How many princes do you guys even have, anyway?"

"Shut your mouth about him, filthy peasant!" Zuko snapped, but she went on, anyway. And there was nothing he could to stop her, short of a fireball.

"Your 'prince' sailed right into our village with three of his ships and he threatened to kill us all unless we told him where the Avatar was. And Aang… we didn't even know he was the Avatar at the time. Sokka and I only found him two days before, frozen in a block of ice—"

"Shut up!" And now Zuko did unleash a fireball, straight at her feet. She yelped and jumped backwards, crashing ungracefully into her cot.

They glared at each other before Zuko broke first and ground out, "You're a liar. Lu Ten had four ships with him – one sank with his battle with the Avatar. He used the four elements against our troops."

"Aang doesn't know the first thing about firebending. He can't even waterbend! We were going to go to the North Pole, to learn." The waterbender's eyes narrowed. "It sounds to me like someone wasn't telling you the whole truth."

The Water Tribe warrior barely looked up as Zuko slammed the door into his private cell. The other teen sat, cross-legged on his cot – a single lit candle by his side-table and fiddling with something half-hidden in the shadows.

"How many men are in your army?" Zuko demanded.

The boy's lips twitched upwards in a smile, but he didn't look up. Didn't stop fiddling with something made from fabric and string by his side. "So you finally figured it out, huh?"

Zuko grit his teeth. "Your sister already told me, but I need to verify. I… I could make your life very comfortable, if you tell me what I want to know."

The warrior shrugged. "We don't have an army… but I'm gonna take a wild guess and say you already knew that."

"How many?"

"Me and about eight toddlers, give or take when someone needed a potty-break."

"Fine," Zuko growled, and mentally swore that if he ever got the chance to travel outside the Fire Nation, his first order of business was to wipe the Southern Water Tribe – and their entire army – off the map. "You can rot in here for all I care." He turned to leave, but just as his hand reached for the door, the warrior called out.

"So you don't care what happened to the fourth ship? Prince Lu Ten left your port with four and came back with three. That's pretty strange, if you ask me…"

That stopped Zuko cold. He turned around, giving him a narrow look. "What do you know?"

Again, the warrior shrugged. But now he had put aside his little contraption and was looking right at Zuko. His eyes, like his sister's, seemed to glitter in the half-light. "I'm not a bender, so my walls aren't exactly steel-enforced. I hear things, like people talking – you're a really loud guy yourself when you want to be, too."

"What. Do. You. Know?" Zuko growled, his temper barely in check.

"I want to see my sister, first," the warrior said. "I need to make sure she's okay."

"No, I am the one who makes deals around here. Not you."

"Your loss." The warrior returned to his project and as Zuko watched, a little mystified, he held up a square of some sort of light fabric over the candle. It ballooned upwards, tied at the ends by a thin thread – floated two or three inches before getting too far away from the candle heat, before sinking again.

"My own invention," the warrior said, and Zuko belatedly realized he had stepped closer to watch. "Pretty cool, huh?"

"You're an idiot," Zuko snapped.

"Yeah, maybe. But I got all the answers. Let me know when you want some."

Zuko wondered, briefly, how one would file a report on accidental prisoner dismemberment.

There was a length of chain attached to shackles on the adjacent wall, used mainly for transporting non-bending prisoners. With a growl, Zuko snatched them up. "You get five minutes," he said, coming to the bars. "No more. Then you tell me everything you know."

The warrior's wide-eyed expression – and stunned silence – almost made the whole thing worth it.

"If you try to escape, I'll stick you in the deepest, darkest hole I can find and leave you there," Zuko added for good measure, once the other boy's hands were bound behind his back and Zuko was leading him, haltingly, down the corridor and to the stairs.

He could see the warrior's tanned fingers give a twitch, but he said nothing.

Zuko smirked – a smirk that was wiped away the moment he opened the door leading to the waterbender's cell and pushed his prisoner in, first. There was a sudden cry of effort and then a yelp of pain – the warrior leapt back in surprise, crashing into Zuko and knocking them both down together.

Zuko struggled frantically under the other boy's weight, cursing himself. He should have known he'd try something. He had been a fool to—

"Sokka… is that you?"


The weight was lifted suddenly as the warrior rolled off him and by the time Zuko got to his feet and collected himself, both brother and sister were at the bars; foreheads pressed together through the gap and speaking softly to one another. There was a reddening welt on the warrior's cheek.

Now dried tear-tracks on the girl's face told the rest of the story: the girl had been crying again after Zuko left and had used that little amount of moisture to whip it out at the next unlucky person to open the door. No wonder the guards hated her so much.

Later, after this horrible day was through, Zuko would think again on this moment and realize that the warrior had the perfect opportunity to attempt escape while he was down – and he had honored their agreement and chosen not to.

But now all Zuko could do was gnash his teeth and arrange his robes back in place, brushing off grime and dirt he'd picked up when he'd fallen; trying to regain his dignity all the while counting down the seconds in his head.

"Your time's up," he said at last, and stepped over to haul the warrior away if he had too.

The waterbender was faster. She reached through the bars, hand clamping over his wrist.

"Thank you," she said, meeting Zuko's eyes. She released him before he could jerk away.

Zuko didn't answer. He didn't need her thanks. Didn't want a prisoner's gratitude.

The warrior, too, was complacent until he had been led back to his own cell. After a quick double-check to make sure there were no guards around to hear, Zuko turned to him.


The warrior sat on his cot, crossing his legs under him. "As I said, these walls around here aren't exactly as thick as you people like to think they are."

"You've already said that, peasant! Get to the point."

The warrior shrugged. "I'm only repeating it because all of this is supposed to be hush-hush. No one is supposed to talk about it officially, which is why the guards gossip like a flock of pig-hens when they think there's no one in charge around." He paused. "I guess it's become a tradition to let the royals prove themselves by sending them looking for the Avatar. Weeeell, from what I've heard Lu Ten's trip wasn't turning out so great. He likes the wine and the women, am I right?"

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing, but the silent admission was clear to both of them.

"He'd stay too long at port against the advice of his captains, playing the arctic yak-stallion. Kept spending money until dear ol' dad wouldn't send any more."

"Wait," Zuko said, holding up his hand. "You're saying Fire Lord Iroh knew about this?"

"From what your soldiers think, he let it happen. Sent him out on his own to get it out of his system, but Iroh underestimated him. Soon the men were out of food and supplies and were forced to go fishing for their supper." The warrior's eyes met with his. "And raiding your own Fire Nation colonies for the rest."

"That—Lu Ten wouldn't do that. You honestly expect me to believe any of this?" Zuko demanded.

But again, the infuriating boy just shrugged. "I'm just repeating back what I heard."

Zuko glared at him and the warrior stared guilelessly back. Finally Zuko broke and let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine. What happened to the ship?" In for a spark, in for the whole fire…

He grinned. "I was just getting to that. So, winter comes around and things are getting a little more desperate. His captains are advising him to turn back, and Prince Lu Ten decides to become friendly with some pirates."

Zuko was thoroughly annoyed by now and so cut in, "Relatives of yours?"

All of the humor left the Water Tribe boy's eyes. "My dad and his men aren't pirates. They're warriors to the bone. My dad left everything – me and my sister to fight you."

There were a number of things Zuko could have said in reply – a number of things he wanted to say. But he remembered the waterbender's words to him earlier. There had been no Water Tribe army. The men had left two years ago.

Yet another thing had matched up.

"The pirates did what pirates do best," the warrior continued, after a moment. "Some of them sneaked onto one of Lu Ten's ships. Ah, The Bonfire, I think it was called." He waited until Zuko nodded before going on. "They spiked the food with some sort of sleeping draught, threw the men overboard and took the ship – right out from under Lu Ten's nose."

Zuko stared at him. "They… threw the men overboard. While they were drugged, … sleeping?"

"Yeah, well. Pirates."

That was too much. "This is ridiculous! I would have heard something. No way Lu Ten would have just let them—" He broke off, frustrated, hands clenched. "You're lying!"

The warrior's eyes were distinctly sympathetic now, which almost made it worse. "I'm sorry," he said. "Did you know any of them? The crew, I mean?"

"No, I – Look, that's not the point! If I find out you're making this up—"

"Then ask Lu Ten," the other boy advised, and reached over to pick up his strange little floating object once more, fiddling with a length of string. "Just don't tell me I didn't warn you…"

Zuko was never quite sure how he managed to find his way back to the palace gardens again, while eluding Azula who surely was looking for him by then. Somehow, he had found himself sitting at the bank of the turtle-duck pond – a place he always found some measure of peace, even as a child.

Now… the normally clear waters looked foggy to his mind's eye. The normally cooling breeze now felt oddly cold and sharp against his skin.

The Water Tribe siblings and the Avatar had every reason to lie, and as their jailor he had every reason not to believe them.

His cousin, who had done everything right his entire life, lost a ship and the entire crew under his watch… and then attempted to cover it up? Absurd. Impossible.

Unbidden, Azula's words to him that horrible night of the duel came back to him. Oh Zuzu. Don't be so naïve…

And then there was Iroh's reluctance to send additional forces to put down the threat at the Southern Water Tribe. Could Ozai been playing a deeper game than he'd thought? Maybe he suspected the truth as well… How could a lie like that go undiscovered for very long, with hundreds of men in the ranks as witnesses? Surely, the colonies would be upset after being raided…

Zuko sat down, hard, staring out into the middle distance. Too stunned to be angry, too shocked to feel any betrayal.

Slowly, his face fell in his hands.

"What am I going to do?" And there was no answer, save for the soft quack of a turtle-duck.

There was a sudden crashing along the garden path. Zuko tensed and braced himself. Oh Agni, he thought, Don't let it be Azula… Not right now…

But it wasn't. A young messenger boy, barely seven years old, burst into the small clearing and gave a hasty bow. "Prince Zuko," he said, in a high voice. "Fire Lord Iroh has received your message and sends word he is able to meet with you now, over tea."

He stared in incomprehension for a moment until his brain finally caught up. The message. Right. So much had happened today that he had completely forgotten…

"Now?" he repeated, looking down at his slightly dusty robes. By sheer luck, he had dressed nicely for what he thought was going to be a productive interrogation of the Avatar's secrets, and so was just passable to see the Fire Lord. Just.

And maybe this way, he could get the answers he needed…

The boy nodded and Zuko stood, brushing off what he could before following.

The Fire Lord has his own set of private gardens which to stroll in, unbothered by those seeking his attention, and take tea at his leisure.

The page led Zuko unerringly into these now and gestured to an airy canopied tent, set up in the middle of the lawn. Gossamer waves of fabric hung off of each side, both protecting the Fire Lord and his guests from insects, and providing the illusion of privacy. Iroh himself could be seen as a silhouette, already sat at the small table and waiting.

"Nephew," Iroh greeted, as the page bowed him in. "Come in. Have a seat." He gestured to the Pai Sho table in front of him – empty of game pieces, Zuko noted. Iroh must have known he wasn't here to pass the time with idle game play.

Zuko knelt at the low table and made himself keep silent as was proper while Iroh poured for them both. It was rather easy: so much had happened in the last twenty-four hours he hardly knew where to start.

"I knew you would want to see me," Iroh said. One quirk of the Fire Lord's was that he always insisted on pouring for his guests. Zuko took a cup and drank politely.

"It was not a decision I came to lightly," Iroh continued, breaking the silence. "Before you ask, this was not done as a punishment."

So they were to talk about his betrothal first. So be it. "Then why, Uncle?" he asked. "I love Mai and she… I think she loves me, too. This was a good match."

Iroh sighed, his heavy grey brows drawn down in thought. "There has been recent trouble in the Earth Kingdom, nephew. Rebellions are forming. Right now what they need is a strong show of unity between our two peoples. The Earth Kingdom must receive the message that we are their benefactors, able to take care of their needs and show them the way."

"I don't want to be a message!"

His uncle simply sipped his tea, regarding him obliquely over his teacup. "Mai was a lovely young lady. In time, you may come to be affectionate to this one as well. Or some other… private arrangement can be made between yourself and the young woman."

Zuko winced and tried not to think about that. "Uncle…"

"If it helps, you can consider it an order."

Iroh said it calmly, almost blandly, but there was steel behind his amber eyes. Zuko swallowed, hard.

"There's one other thing," he said, deciding to come back that point. He paused, steeling himself. "I've… heard some recent gossip, in regards to Lu Ten's fourth ship, The Bonfire."

"Careful, Nephew."

Zuko glanced up, sharply. "Uncle?"

Iroh set down his teacup. "You have been doing well in your new position. I'm pleased, Nephew. However, as you are taking on adult responsibilities, you are closely watched. And you must learn that, even favored, there are certain limits to what you can say in public."

"But…" he looked around them; the gossamer hangings, the peaceful, empty gardens. This was hardly public. "I don't understand. Why didn't you send Azula to the Southern Water Tribe unless…" A cold finger of fear slid down his spine. "There's no army at all down there, isn't there?"

The Fire Lord regarded him for a long, long moment and it was all Zuko could do not to fidget in his seat. He had always been able to speak his mind with Iroh. This calculating distance was new and unexpected.

"Like many young men before him, my son has made errors in his past," Iroh said at last. "He has more than redeemed himself with the capture of the Avatar. That is my official word as his father and Fire Lord. Do not push me on this, Prince Zuko."

Then it was true… Oh Agni, it was all true…

Lu Ten had lied.

Zuko swallowed hard. "Yes, Uncle."

The rest of their visit went by with small talk and Zuko felt sick inside.

4 Weeks Ago

Zuko's fingers felt stiff as he fastened the last buttons on his ornamental tunic – red with a chasing of golden thread sewn in fine patterns. He turned to the mirror and gave himself one last half-hearted inspection, frowning as he tried and failed to smooth out a wrinkle where the fabric tucked into his belt.

He had dismissed his servants from his room two hours ago. He hadn't been imagining their smirks behind his back. He hadn't. That he had fallen so low to be the butt of servants' displeasure set his teeth on edge. It had been a relief at the time to send them away.

If only he knew at the time how difficult it was to dress oneself alone in traditional garb…

A soft knock came at the door.

"Zuko," his mother's voice called. "It's time."

He didn't answer.

There was a pause from outside, but then Ursa opened the door and let herself in his room without asking.

"Oh Zuko," she sighed, seeing his room empty of help. Stepping to him, she immediately went about correcting the position of the buttons on his tunic. "Why do you always insist on making things harder for yourself?"

"They were talking about me," he grumbled. Then, "Mom, I don't want to do this. I don't even know her."

It seemed he didn't know anyone anymore. Not even his own family members…

Ursa's fingers stilled on the last button. Her eyes, when she looked at him, were soft. "You're not a boy anymore," she said, softly. "And the time has come for you to realize that being an adult sometimes means you have to do things you need to do… not necessarily what you want to do."

"Father would never let this happen to Azula," he muttered. "He would never make her marry someone she didn't want."

An emotion passed over his mother's face – too quick to read, but she only said, "I expect you to be on your best behavior tonight. You're not only representing your father and me, but the Fire Lord himself." She paused, flicked her eyes about the room to ensure they were alone and continued in a lower tone, "Think of the girl. She is a newcomer in a strange land and I heard she was horribly seasick on the voyage over. She must be terrified. Please try to be kind, for her sake."

Zuko winced. In truth, he hadn't spared one thought for the girl – possibly, she was being forced into this as much as he.

"I'll… try," he said, at last.

Zuko stared at the girl: the child-sized living doll dressed in delicate white who stood before him. Her dark hair was up in an elegant bun, and she stood clutching her mother's arm as her parents exchanged greetings with Ursa. Her eyes were of a delicate, unnatural shade of green and stared out into nothingness. Blind.

He was being betrothed to a blind girl.

For the first time in his life, Zuko was glad of the edict which prevented the betrothed to talk during wedding negotiations. He would have been far too shocked to speak.

Ursa, luckily, was held by no such rules.

"Welcome, house of Bei Fong to the estate of Fire Lord Iroh," she said, warm and inviting. "I am Ursa, wife to Ozai, the Fire Lord's esteemed brother. I bring Zuko, our first born son."

The girl's father spoke – repeating back her greeting and adding his own lineage. The fact that both Bei Fong parents were there and Zuko's father was not must not have gone unnoticed, but no one made any comment.

His daughter's name was Toph. An odd, Earth Kingdom name.

"Bei Fong," Ursa said. Her voice, now free of the formal niceties, grew chill. "I was not made aware of your daughter's condition."

"It was a childhood illness," Lady Bei Fong cut in. "Toph was born healthy, but a plague struck when she was three months old and blinded her. Otherwise, she is perfectly fit and still heir to our house."

But is it enough to break the contract? Zuko hoped, and his mother must have been of the same mind because she turned to the arbitrator who was responsible for the official contracts.

The little balding man shrugged at her direct look.

"If it is not a birth defect, it does not violate any of the clauses, Princess. The Fire Lord was aware…"

Of course he was, Zuko realized, too numb to feel that particular stab through his heart. He would let himself feel it later. After the wedding, perhaps.

He glanced at the girl again, instinctively expecting the bland indifferent mask Mai always wore.

Instead, Toph's free hand was clenched into a fist as she glared in the general direction of the speaker. She obviously did not like being spoken about in this manner.

Then, abruptly, her head tilted back in his direction. Her face relaxed, fist unclenching. Almost as if she had somehow known Zuko was staring at her.

It sent a chill up his spine.

The negotiations went on and Zuko made himself pay strict attention as the arbitrator spouted off the details which would more or less govern the rest of his life.

By uniting their daughter with the royal blood of Iroh, the Bei Fong's were in effect purchasing safety for their business ventures and surrounding city. Gaoling would become allies with the Fire Nation, not subjugated by it.

Zuko had heard of such deals before – mostly betrothals were done between prominent Earth Kingdom families and lesser Fire Nation nobles. Third or forth sons and daughters. He never expected this would happen to him – it shouldn't have happened to him.

Toph was not quite of marriageable age yet. Not even by Earth Kingdom standards. There would be a wait of two years: by then she would be fourteen and he nineteen. A standard gap between ages, the arbitrator assured them.

Zuko glared down at the floor, hands trembling with the effort not to say anything.

At long last the candle wax was melted and both parties had made their seals and Zuko was once again bound into a marriage contract.

He wanted to burn something.

"Perhaps," the arbitrator suggested, rolling up the scrolls. "Prince Zuko and young Lady Bei Fong should take a stroll in the gardens. Get to know one another, hmmm?"

Zuko stared, all of his anger momentarily washed away in shock. He had not been allowed near Mai – not even to exchange letters. And now this man wanted them to stroll in the gardens? Alone and unsupervised?

Ursa, too, seemed taken aback, but she recovered swiftly in typical grace. "Earth Kingdom customs are different from our own," she murmured for his ear alone. Then louder, "That seems to be a fine idea. Lord and Lady Bei Fong?"

They agreed and the adults sat chatting while Toph rose and the arbitrator guided her outstretched hand to Zuko's elbow.

Night had fallen while negotiations went on. A soft ocean breeze stirred the branches and leaves and some of the rare evening lilies had opened to release their scent throughout the garden.

Zuko led the girl forward, painfully awkward and at a complete loss of what to say. Nice night? She couldn't even see it.

Her grip was hard on his elbow and she half stumbled on a half-buried root.

"Sorry," Zuko mumbled, trying not to imagine a lifetime of this – of him guiding her. "I didn't—"

"Don't worry about it," she snapped, and to his surprise she sounded just as frustrated as he was. "Just hold still for a minute." Then she bent, quickly unbinding her small sandals.

Zuko blinked. "Are they… uncomfortable? I could—"

"I said don't worry about it." Then Toph let out an unconcealed sigh as her sandals came free and she dug her free toes in the dirt. "Ahhh, that's the stuff."

Zuko offered his elbow again, but she didn't take it, choosing instead to walk along side him.

This time, she didn't stumble.

They walked for a few minutes in silence, eventually coming to the turtle-duck pond. It was quiet and peaceful there at night, the breeze cooler coming off the water.

Toph abruptly pulled away from him, going over to lean, arms crossed, against the trunk of the tree.

"So, how are we going to do this?"

"Um," Zuko said, taken aback. "This?"

She blew out her cheeks. "You and me. Look," she said. "I know what my parents are doing. They want someone to take care of me and, hey, why not the Fire Nation? They're winning the war anyway." Her blind eyes fixed a glare somewhere in his mid-chest. "I hate being taken care of and I'm not helpless."

Abruptly, Zuko remembered Lu Ten's words to him. "The Fire Lord can't have that kind of liability on the battlefield with scheming admirals and generals looking to get ahead. You understand that, don't you?"

"Yeah," he said, and could hear the bitterness in his own voice. "I know what you mean and… I don't think you're completely helpless."

She shrugged, artlessly. "You're just saying that to be nice."

"No, really," he said, stepping closer, then stopping. Suddenly awkward again. "I just don't know you yet. I… ugh… I'm in love with someone else."

She said nothing and he could have kicked himself. There it was, out in the open. Good going, Zuko.

But it seemed she was just considering. "Then you have your life, and I have mine. Seems fair to me."

"… Okay," he said, cautiously.

Toph smiled – the first one he'd seen all day. "Deal?" she asked, and stuck out her hand.

In bemusement, Zuko shook.

"Soooo," she drawled. "What do you royal types like to do for fun around here? Fancy tea parties?"

"Uh, I train a lot in firebending and I… I run the prison." There was no reaction to this, so he quickly added. "The one with the Avatar in it?"

Her eyes went wide. "Really?"

"Yeah," Zuko said, then on impulse added. "You want to meet him?"

Toph declined to put her shoes back on, but stuck close to Zuko all the same – one hand on his elbow as he guided her up tall spiral staircase.

He had reason to second guess himself all the way over. What if the Avatar, more fully awake by now, tried something? What if the Lord and Lady Bei Fong called upon their daughter only to find she was missing? (Although, came a snide little thought way in the back of his mind, maybe they'd be so enraged at having put their daughter in danger that they'd put off the engagement all together.)

Yeah right. He'd never been that lucky in his entire life.

"Here it is," Zuko said, once they reached the highest point. He nodded once to the single sleepy guard who stood night watch outside the cell door, and used the key to let him and Toph in.

The Avatar raised his head at the squeak of the opening door. "Who's there?" he called, sleepily.

And for the first time since she moved her shoes, Toph stumbled. Zuko only caught her arm in time.

"That's the Avatar?" Toph asked. She sounded shocked. "He doesn't seem very old."

"Well, neither do you," the Avatar said.

Zuko cleared his throat, trying to regain control of the room again. Though it was nice to see that Toph was just as surprised as he had been when Lu Ten had shown him here. "That's him," he confirmed.

Toph didn't seem to hear him. She only stared straight ahead, at a point just above the boy's head, brows furrowed. "Are you really the Avatar?"

"Yeah. What's your name?"

"I'm Toph Bei Fong." She then pointed to Zuko. "I'm supposed to be his wife, later."

And despite the fact that he was chained, prisoner and being put on display, the Avatar smiled. "Nice to meet you, Toph."

Later, after they'd left the cell, Toph was quiet and they negotiated their way down the stairs.

"He's a nice guy."

"Yeah," replied Zuko. "I guess."

Zuko's heart leapt as he saw a flash of a dark profile, far down the palace corridors. "Mai!" he called, hardly daring to hope. But the figure stopped, just before Azula's rooms, and he clearly heard a long, familiar sigh.

Grinning, he hurried to catch up with her. Mai was wearing her elegant red robes, her hair put up in a double-set of buns on each side of her head – the rest flowing down. Elegant, graceful… and deadly. As always, her outer wear reflected her inner personality and Zuko hadn't realized until just now how much he missed seeing her like this – free of the stuffy formal wear that came from their "dates".

"Mai… I—I'm glad to see you here," he said, coming to a stop. "I'm sorry."

She raised a dark eyebrow. "Why? You didn't convince your Uncle to annul the contract."

"No, it's not that. It's just…" Zuko blew out his cheeks, carding a hand through his hair. He had waited more than two years to talk to her freely, and now that he chance, he didn't seem to know what to say. "Uncle might not have gone through with it if I hadn't challenged Azula that night – if I hadn't lost."

She seemed to hesitate in for a moment, and in that hesitation he sensed silent agreement. But she only said, ""Is that all you wanted to say?"

"No." He reached out and she didn't object, didn't pull away when he gripped her hand. Didn't react at all. "I'm just really glad to see you."

"Azula invited me to stay."

Of course. Mai had not been allowed free access to the palace while she was betrothed to Zuko, but now she was again unbound it seemed Azula hadn't wasted any time in requesting her friend (and sometimes minion) back again on a more permanent basis.

"So we'll be able to see each other more often?" Zuko asked, hopefully.

"If Azula wants me too." She glanced over her shoulder, towards the empty hall in the direction of Azula's rooms.

"Meet me afterwards," he said, quickly, before she could pull away. "Alone… by the turtle-duck pond?"

For the first time a flicker of emotion crossed Mai's face: surprise.

"Aren't you going to be married?" she asked.

"Not soon," he said. "And we've worked out… um, sort of an agreement? It's complicated, but I think… I want to see you again."

Mai snatched her hand back. "I'm not going to be the other woman, Zuko."

"That's not what I'm saying!" he snapped, although secretly, he wouldn't have objected very much to it, either. "I just, I—I miss you, Mai."

She stared at him for a long, long moment. Her dark eyes unreadable. Then, "I have to go."

"No, wait… Mai!" He reached for her hand again, but she was much too quick for him. He overbalanced, only catching himself from tripping at the last second. Cheeks flaming he yelled, "You don't even seem to care we're not going to be married anymore!"

Mai was already walking down the hall, but she whipped back around at his words. And just for the barest of moment's her face was alive with anger. Then it was gone and he was looking again at the same blank china-doll face he had seen every single night during contract negotiations.

"The only thing I feel right now is embarrassment," she said. "You're making a scene."

Then she turned and walked down the hall to Azula's rooms. It would have been easier if she had slammed the door behind her, but there was nothing. No give to any emotion at all.

Two Weeks Ago

And suddenly… almost without Zuko realizing at first, things had started to change.

He was still in disfavor. Still the preferred subject of gossip from idle, wagging noble tongues; poor, pitiful Prince Zuko. Shunted off to the side in favor of his clearly talented younger sister, betrothed to a girl who some said was blind or disfigured… Hanger on and extra heir. Useless.

Zuko found he could hardly walk the corridors of his own home without snickering courtiers and sly looks. And it was nearly impossible for him to keep his tongue. So he didn't bother – getting up at first light every morning and leaving before most had left their bed.

His firebending instructors were dismissed, so he practiced – always alone. The same katas again and again, from morning until noon.

From there, he usually took lunch with his mother, and sat through her boring recounts of needlework and idle gossip about who was marrying who. He didn't know how Azula had managed to slip away from these engagements years ago, and Ozai had never taken lunch with his mother so far as he could remember.

But it was better than nothing. Better than being the cause of whispers and laughter, or worse: fending off Lu Ten's friendly offers to go drinking and whoring in the city. He loved his cousin, but after finding out the truth… he could hardly look him in the eye any longer.

Afternoons were devoted to record-keeping for the prison. Warden Shen had been conspicuously absent since Zuko had threatened him – most of his communications were by proxy, sent through messenger. Zuko suspected the man was doing some hasty backtracking to make sure he would have some sort of alibi if Zuko ever brought evidence of his embezzlement to Iroh… but he couldn't bring himself to care.

Supper was with Toph's parents – always a looser, more informal affair than any of the drawn out 'dates' with Mai and her mother. And evenings… evenings were usually spent strolling the grounds with Toph.

Zuko wasn't a fool. He knew this type of liberty with one's betrothed wasn't usual (and his mother certainly frowned on it, although she said nothing in his hearing). It was just… she was so young. And tiny. It was almost embarrassing to think of her as his future wife. Perhaps the next few years would see her grow into womanhood, but every time they stood to part for the night and she placed her tiny hand in his… he thanked Agni deep in his heart that it would be a few years until they were officially to be wed.

Toph, for her part, was… interesting company. As calm and complacent as she was by her parents' side, she became a whole different creature the moment she left their sight.

"Operas are so boring," she complained, when he suggested it one night. "Do you have any fighting? In Gaoling, they had the best Earthbending matches. There was this one fighter, The Blind Bandit, and she whipped everyone's butt…"

And so on.

His weekly inspections of the jail had already become bi-weekly events after the waterbender had first caused trouble. Then (just to be sure the Avatar was firmly secured and was trying not to break free under the lowered sedation), it became every other day.

Sometimes Toph tagged along as well.

There was one notable occasion when (and Zuko wasn't completely sure how) Aang mentioned wanting nothing more than to see Katara again. Toph immediately seized on the idea and Zuko couldn't bring himself to say no…

"This is a really stupid idea," he complained, watching from the other side of the room as the waterbender rushed forward to embrace the chained Avatar. "These are criminals against the Fire Nation."

"Yeah, they seem reeeaaally scary," Toph snorted, at his side. "Don't worry. If either one of them try anything, I'll protect you."

He rolled his eyes. "Thanks."

The visit was brief – it had to be structured between the changing of the guards. The last thing Zuko wanted to do was to hear from Lu Ten about how he had gotten soft. And as the waterbender drew away from the Avatar he heard him mutter to her, "I'll be fine, Katara. He's not a bad guy like that other one…"


And so the weeks passed. Weeks that should have been filled with frustration and anger – but weren't.

Lying in bed in the nights he wasn't able to sleep, Zuko laced his fingers behind his head to stare up at the ceiling and think. His world was crumbling around him. He was in disfavor. His cousin was a liar. His father officially shunned him at every opportunity.

So why wasn't he so upset?


Word had been floating around the palace for days that several high ranked generals had been recalled from their posts in the Earth Kingdom to receive further orders back home.

The war had been all but won seven years prior with the fall of Ba Sing Se, and now with the Avatar captured and the last threat to the Fire Nation extinguished, Fire Lord Iroh's unofficial policy was to let his favored generals run things from now on – mopping up the last areas of resistance as they saw fit.

So when Fire Lord Iroh gave official proclamation for the war-meeting there was, predictably, much surprise and talk.

But no one was more surprised than Prince Zuko, who was also given a summons.

"What are you doing here?" Azula hissed, as Zuko took his place by her and their father – Sitting at the front row on the left-hand side of the Fire Lord himself. A place of honor.

Zuko grinned openly at her. This was the best indication yet that Azula's win over him, now six weeks back, was officially being forgotten about. "I was invited the same as you," he said, and watched in pleasure as his sister's eyes narrowed and her sharp fingernails disappeared in a clenched fist.

His father only spared him a cold glance and then looked away, but Zuko was far used to that by now. This was merely the first step. Eventually, he knew, if he could show Iroh he was worthy – he'd show his father as well.

The meeting was called to order and Prince Lu Ten stood up at Iroh's nod: a clear signal that he was the one conducting this meeting under the Fire Lord's authorized approval.

Striding to the middle of the room and facing the crowd, Lu Ten sought out Zuko's eye and flashed him a quick smile.

"As all of you know," he said, to the assembled, "Sozin's comet is due by the end of the summer. Its appearance will grant each firebender the power of one-hundred." He paused. "Ministers and nobles, generals and admirals… time is running short. We now only have most of a year to prepare."

A minister signaled to be heard and at Lu Ten's acknowledgment, he rose. "Prince Lu Ten, no offense meant, but what exactly should be we be preparing ourselves for? The Avatar is under our control, as are most of the civilized lands. By all reports, the Water Tribes are no threat. What do we have to fear?"

"Your reports are not as up to date as mine," Lu Ten said, his expressive face turning grim. He gestured to the large raised map currently dominating the middle of the room on the floor. "Word of the Avatar's return to the world and subsequent capture seems to have incited the general population to anger. There are pockets of heavy resistance forming here, here and here." He moved several red tokens to different points on the large Earth Kingdom continent, and after a moment's thought, a final one over the Northern Water Tribe.

But not the Southern, Zuko noted.

"We are sending additional troops to put down what we can, but I believe that the Fire Nation cannot afford to fall into a war with guerrilla forces. Those can last for decades and eat away at morale. No, we must put down the last of the resistance in a final show of force." Lu Ten's stick snapped down on the map in effect. "We will use Sozin's comet to blast away the last of their resistance – their hope."

The silence in the room was deafening.

"The Fire Nation has control of a mechanist, and under… persuasion he has crafted us a ship of sorts. It floats through the air and is propelled forward, high enough to be safe above enemy earthbenders," Lu Ten said, and Zuko was reminded forcefully of Sokka's little floating rig and the candle. Lu Ten wasn't speaking of him, surely, but another like mind.

Lu Ten's voice gained in strength, taking up the entire room. "Using the power of Sozin's Comet we will burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground and out of the ashes the Fire Nation will rise, victorious!"


Zuko hardly realized he had spoken until all eyes were on him. Lu Ten's, especially shocked and… disappointed.

"What about the colonies we have in the Earth Kingdom?" Zuko asked, belatedly standing to his feet as was proper when acknowledged. "Or all of the troops stationed through the whole continent? The cities who already surrendered to us?" Gaoling… Toph's family…

Lu Ten voice was chill. "The colonies will be, of course, evacuated ahead of time." An almost imperceptible hesitation. "Most of the platoons will be warned in time to leave."

"But…" Zuko looked around the room, seeking support and finding only angry glares and averted gazes. "You're talking about thousands of people… tens of thousands just in our colonies alone. Where will they go? How will they even return with their lands burned?"

"I cannot pretend this won't be a bloodless victory, cousin. There will be some sacrifices. This is war."

"No—!" Zuko began, but Lu Ten had turned his back in dismissal and as Zuko stood, still gaping, Ozai clamped a strong hand on around his arm and yanked him back down.

"Silence yourself," Ozai hissed. "Do not disgrace me further. If you cannot stand the realities of war, son, then leave."

"Don't worry Zuzu," Azula added, in a whisper meant to be overheard, flicking an invisible piece of lint off her perfect armor. "I'm sure Fire Lord Iroh won't let your fiancées family burn to a crisp. They'll just have to resettle here."

Lu Ten never glanced back at him, and he spent the rest of the meeting going over the finer details with enthusiastic supporters.

And Zuko sat, numb with shock.


"What's wrong?" Toph asked, the moment they were out of ear-shot as they took their customary afternoon walk around the gardens.

Zuko shook his head, forgetting for a moment that Toph could not see him do it. So he was quite surprised when she suddenly grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him to the side, off into a shaded glade.

"Your breathing is all messed up." Her fingers tightened to nearly a chokehold on his wrist. "And your heart-rate is going double-time. Something's happened, hasn't it? Spill."

He hesitated. What was discussed in an official war-meeting was kept top secret – the details known only to those present in the room. But… what did it really matter, now? He had seen the disappointment on Lu Ten's face… Iroh's anger at his outburst. He was officially (perhaps permanently now) in disgrace. Besides that, Toph was eventually going to be his wife, and in extension her family would one day be part of his.

So he told her. Haltingly at first, but slowly filling in more of the details as he went.

He expected—he wasn't sure how he expected Toph to react. Tears maybe? But he should have known better. She wasn't the type to cry.

"Come on," she said, grimly, when he had reached the end, and tugged him, forcefully out of the glade and down yet another small garden path. This one led to the palace itself. "Do you have something to wear? A large robe? A disguise or something?"

"Why?" he asked, almost wearily.

"So no one will recognize you. Why do you think?"

"No, wait." He stopped mid-step, and even though Toph was strong and determined, she still couldn't pull him along if he didn't want to go. "Toph, listen: your parents will be told in time to get out."

"Oh Sure, they'll be fine, but what about everyone else in Gaoling?"

"I don't know."

She stamped her foot hard enough to actually move a few pebbles along the path. "And what about the other cities who have nothing to do with this stupid war? The ones who are so far in the backwoods they've never even seen a Fire Nation solider. Will they be fine, too?"

"I… I don't know, okay?" he exclaimed and he could hear his own frustration in his voice. There was something to letting his frustration out that had burned away his malaise and he yanked his hand back. "I don't know, but we can't do anything about it. You weren't there. The plan is already set and everyone is behind it."

Toph looked at him. Or rather, her blank sea-green eyes focused just left of his face. But her mouth was set in a hard, stubborn line. "Then we have to stop it."

"Oh yeah?" Zuko barked out a loud, slightly hysterical laugh. "How?"

"Aang can stop it," she said, simply.

He stared at her.

And to his surprise, Toph shifted uncomfortably, almost as if she could feel the weight of gaze. "What? So I've been sneaking up at night and talking to him, okay? He's a little flighty, but deep down inside he's really a nice guy."

"What—how did you—what?" Zuko sputtered. "You've been going up to the prison? Alone? How didn't you get caught?"

Toph stamped her foot again and this time there was no doubt about it – pebbles flew in all directions. "I told you the first day, I'm not some helpless little girl!" And she poked him, hard, in the chest. "Now I'm going up there to tell Aang about this whether you want me to or not. The afternoon shift at the prison is changing soon. Are you coming?"

He didn't have much of a choice.

Zuko stayed quiet as Toph spoke to the Avatar – repeating what he had said at the meeting almost verbatim. He stayed out of their away, standing to the side, gazing out the window with his arms crossed. The word 'treason' marched uneasily around and around his mind. But as he listened to his own words, from Toph's lips… somehow, Lu Ten's plan seemed even worse. Monstrous.

"The whole continent?" the Avatar gasped, and then wavered a little. He had been looking sickly recently – hollows shading his cheekbones even though Zuko had been making sure the guards had been feeding him. "They can't! That's just… evil!"

Zuko closed his eyes, pained. "Lu Ten isn't evil," he corrected. "He's just scared. He's had to lie again and again about what's happened at the South Pole, and he thinks the only way he can take on a rebellion is by overkill."

"Well if the big baby isn't evil, his plan sure is." Toph sneered.

The Avatar wavered again, his eyes misty and slightly unfocused. "I've flown over so much of the Earth Kingdom with Monk Gyatso. It's so large – we could travel for weeks and not reach the other side. I can't believe anyone is trying to burn it down."

Zuko threw his hands up in frustration. "I know! Is that what you want to hear? This whole plan is…" but he couldn't make himself say it. The words wouldn't come. He had learned of genocide before – had written a report about how his great-grandfather had wiped out the Air Nomads in a single day. A word like that had never felt real, until now.

"It's wrong," Zuko said, swallowing past a sudden lump in his throat. "I know it is. So what am I supposed to do? How do I talk them out of this? You're the Avatar. Tell me."

"Zuko," the Avatar said, and Zuko jerked in surprise. It was the first time the Avatar had used his name. "When I was asleep – really asleep for a long time before you had them wake me up – I went to another place and I talked to Avatar Roku. The Avatar before me."

"… I know who he is."

The Avatar looked at him earnestly. "He said that I have to learn all four elements before the comet comes or the whole world will suffer, including the Fire Nation. That's the only way to stop this. And he said… He said that I had to put my trust in you, too."

Zuko couldn't answer. He felt like he was on the edge of a cliff, about to take the last step which would throw him down into turbulent waters.

"What are you saying?" he whispered.

Aang's grey eyes met his own. "I think Roku was talking about this moment, right now. He knew that you would do the right thing."

Zuko couldn't stand the weight of that gaze – the Avatar's hope. And as he closed his eyes against it… he thought of his mother – how disappointed and sad she would be. His father – he had come to accept the bitter fact that Ozai thought very little of him, but he would be so angry and disappointed. Worse still, Lu Ten and Uncle. They trusted him.

And he thought of the tokens on the great map. The Earth Kingdom, burned and blackened. His own people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, killed just to take the short way out of war.

"I'm not a traitor," he said, mostly to himself. Then opened his eyes, met Aang's. "Give me your word you won't stop this plan by killing Fire Nation soldiers."

Aang nodded, solemnly. "I promise," he said. "But I can't do this without Katara and Sokka."

Then he grinned, and tentatively, Zuko smiled back.

Toph let out a whoop. "Now that's what I'm talking about! You get his friends, Princess." She rubbed her hands together, "And I'll create a distraction."

"Are you crazy?" Zuko asked, startled. "This is my decision. I'm not going to let you be caught up in this."

She punched him in his arm. Hard.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"You're being noble and sweet and it's creeping me out," she replied, but she was grinning under her fringe of dark hair. "And I won't be caught. Now, wait thirty seconds and take the staircase down that hall, there." She pointed behind her. "There's no one in that direction."

Then, giving one last wide grin, she slipped down the hall in the other direction.

Aang and Zuko exchanged glances.

"Great," Zuko muttered.

"A little early in the day for a visit isn't it, Princy?" Sokka asked, upon seeing him.

Zuko grit his teeth. "Shut up." And he stepped forward to unlock the door. "Shut up," he said again, seeing Sokka open his mouth. "The Avatar can explain it to you, afterwards. We need to get the waterbender." And with that he grabbed Sokka, twisted him so that he was marching in front with his hands clasped behind his back as if bound. Hopefully, if they met anyone on the way, they wouldn't look too closely.

Although judging by the sudden booming noises outside, he suspected that the guards were going to be too busy to deal with whatever Toph cooked up for them.


The sun was setting, Zuko realized dully.

He stood at the single window, high at the peak of the tall tower that was the Capital Prison. From there, he could see the entire city.

Most buildings traditionally faced east to welcome the rising sun, and the evening drew long shadows through every dip and hollow – a sharp contrast of darkening land and orange-streaked sky.

Zuko had never seen it from this vantage before. He'd never noticed how beautiful it could be until now, quite possibly the last sunset he would ever see.

They'd asked him to go. Toph had even punched him again, harder, in the shoulder when he refused.

He couldn't join them. He wasn't a traitor.

He had told the Avat—Aang that he could give him ten minutes. No longer. Yet as the sun continued to set – first touching the ocean waters out beyond, and then sinking below – and the minutes whittled down to seconds, he still stood unmoving at the large window.

He didn't move until he spotted a line of tiny figures, no bigger than ants, creep into the royal stables.

Shortly after, a large object – its shape mostly taken up in the evening shadows – rose into the sky.

Only then did Zuko turn away.

He felt an odd sense of disconnection, as if it was another person controlling his body and he was only an observing passenger. He passed by the now empty cell, the shackles open and discarded, and felt nothing.

No regret. But no pride, either.

He had betrayed everyone he knew and loved, assisted an enemy country he'd only seen on maps, and thrown his life away all at the same time.

And he felt nothing.

It must have been some other person's fingers reaching up to ring the warning bell, set just aside to the stairs – his had never been so white.

Nevertheless, Zuko rang it hard and the brassy sound echoed down the stairs; alerting every level and floor.

He heard answering shouts arise at once. Footsteps echoed to him from up the stairwell.

There was only one more thing to do. And as Zuko withdrew his ceremonial blade from its scabbard, he felt only a sense of calm.

And the guards found Prince Zuko, nephew to the Fire Lord himself, in the middle of the deserted prison cell, his topknot shorn and tossed aside on the floor, kneeling in surrender.

They brought him, chained, to the Fire Lord's throne room.

Zuko held his head up high. The unfamiliar lightness of his short hair felt an odd contrast to the heavy chains about his wrists and ankles – but if this was to be his last walk, he would not have his head bowed, ashamed.

News of the Avatar's escape had spread with lightening quickness, and it seemed Iroh's entire court was in attendance. Someone was weeping softly among the crowd. Zuko kept his gaze straight ahead and did not look, knowing with a terrible certainty that it was his mother.

He was shoved forward to the one still unoccupied spot in the room. Before him, upon the dais and standing shoulder to shoulder were Iroh and Lu Ten.

Zuko nearly did a double-take at his uncle's face; shadows deepened every wrinkle and the effect highlighted his ash-grey hair. He had never seen the man seem so… old.

Lu Ten's, in contrast, looked simply stricken; his was face pinched, and he shook his head even as he said, "What do you have to say for yourself, cousin? Tell me you didn't do this! You did not allow the Avatar to escape!"

"No," Zuko said, his voice a rasp. He swallowed, a dry clicking sound coming from the back of his throat. "I didn't allow him to escape. He asked, and I gave him the means—"

The rest of his words were swallowed in a sea of shocked mutters from the crowd behind him. Lu Ten put up his hand for quiet, but it was Iroh's craggy, "Enough!" that silenced them all.

"Prince Ozai," Iroh called. "Step forward. What do you have to say in your son's defense?"

Despite himself, Zuko twisted to look over his shoulder. His father stood ten paces behind him – one hand curled about Ursa's waist. She stood, head pressed into his shoulder as if she did not bear to look. Azula was off to his side, grinning as if she had just received her Winter Solstice present early.

Ozai met his gaze – there was no love in his eyes.

"That boy is not my son."

And you haven't been a father to me for a long time, Zuko thought. His eyes lingered for one last moment on his mother, heart contracting, but she was still turned away and after a long moment he had to as well.

"Father," Lu Ten said, looking to Iroh. "This has to be the Avatar's doing. He must have somehow convinced Zuko to turn traitor."

Zuko visibly jerked at that word, sparking something hot and primal in his veins. "I AM NOT A TRAITOR!" he roared. "A traitor is someone who steals from his own people, who would put them in harms way just to make victory easier. The Fire Nation should be able to stand on its own and win in honor. You—"

"Silence yourself, Zuko," Iroh snapped.

But Zuko's eyes were locked with Lu Ten's now – his cousin's were wide and full of fear.

"I will not be a part of murder! I will not stand by and allow you to burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground. Our people love and defend our nation and you'd sacrifice them like they're nothing, just like you let those pirates get away with your ship and crew! You took the easy way out with the Avatar – covered up your mistakes by claiming the Southern Water Tribe had an army. They have no fighters left!"

He would have said more – wanted to say more. But at Iroh's signal, a guard came forward and struck Zuko with the hilt of his sword, hard, right between his shoulder blades. Zuko fell to his knees, gasping. This time he was hit again, alongside his right temple.

"That's the problem with Zuko," he heard Lu Ten say, as if from far off. His cousin's voice was a shade too lighthearted to be anything but false. "He has a noble heart, but everything he sees is in black and white."

The world seemed to dim and then brighten around Zuko all at the same time. He wasn't at first sure he was thinking or speaking or some strange combination of them both, but he heard someone's voice – it sounded like his own – with that same sort of distance. "So yes," the voice slurred. "I let the Avatar go. I had to stop this madness somehow…. Someone had to be a prince of the Fire Nation…"

And with that, he felt… freed.

The rest of his life might be measured in minutes or hours, but he, Zuko, had saved lives. Saved the lives of his own people. It was more than Lu Ten ever would do, even if his reign lasted for eighty years… assuming Aang didn't stop him, first.

No wonder, he thought, blearily and dazed as conversation drifted over his head. No wonder he'd always struggled so hard to come up only second-best. His destiny had never been for this life at all…

And Zuko let out a laugh – loud and carefree – when Fire Lord Iroh himself sentenced him to be executed, the sentence given at first light the next day.

A sudden, sharp-edged vibration shook the palace. Zuko felt it rumbling up through his legs where he knelt on the floor. A woman screamed – high and terrified – and others called out warnings: the ancient volcano on this island wasn't supposed to be active, and it had been years since the last earthquake…

Before anyone could react, the floor suddenly fell away around Zuko. He yelped, plunged in darkness, and landed hard, on his hind end. All light was snatched away as the ceiling seemed to snap shut over him.

"There you are!" came a relieved voice. "I wasn't sure if I could get to you in time."


He knew that voice, but still dizzy from the blow to his head… he wasn't sure he believed it. His hands had been bound in front of him, so it was easy to light a fire in the palm of his hand.

It was Toph, but like he had never seen her before. Dressed in some outfit of tan and green with a wide brimmed hat – reminiscent of Earth Kingdom troops, but… smaller. Somehow more jaunty.

Sensing his shock, she grinned. "I told you there was a lot you didn't know about me. Back home, they call me the Blind Bandit."

He stared, round eyed and shocked. "But… but…" Then he looked from her down the tunnels – noting the smoothness of the walls. She had sunken him and only him out of an entire roomful of people. "You're a master earthbender?"

"I'm the best earthbender," she corrected, and with a quick gesture a double-set of earthen spikes shot down, piercing Zuko's bindings and slicing neatly through metal as if it were butter. Then, she grabbed his arm and with strength borne of years of shoving rocks around, hauled him to his feet.

"I almost couldn't find you, but then… were you laughing?"

"Well," said Zuko, dazed. "They were going to kill me."

Toph grinned. "You're so weird." And she punched him in the shoulder yet again. "C'mon, there's a connecting set of old lava-tubes just down the way. We're only about twelve feet under. Your guys will be able to blast down here before long, and I'm not going to bet that we're the only ones who know about these tubes."

Zuko nodded, but took only one step before a wave of weakness took him. He faltered, hands slipping off his grip from the wall. Then, abruptly, Toph was there, taking his weight on her shoulders.

"Ooph. Keep moving, Princess. I don't lose at anything and I'm not losing you."

Gritting his teeth, Zuko forced himself upright… although Toph still had to stay under one arm, helping out when he faltered.

Gradually, as he walked and stumbled along, the dim light in the tunnel grew brighter until they turned the last corner and came to the mouth of the ancient lava tube – the sudden image of blue sky so bright to his senses it looked white. And standing before them, in two dark silhouettes, were the Water Tribe siblings.

Sokka appeared uneasy, leaning against the wall with an old – surely stolen – sword hanging by his belt. Katara was armed with what looked like a waterskin strapped on her back. She greeted them an honest, open smile when they appeared.

"Thank goodness. We were getting worried," she said, then looked to Zuko. "You're bleeding!"

Instinctively, he reached up and touched the side of his head where he had been hit. His fingertips came back red; the blood matted in his shortened hair. Scalp-wounds bled a lot. Besides, that didn't matter to him right now.

"Why?" Zuko asked, and his voice broke on the word. "Why are you even here?"

Her brows drew together. "We couldn't leave you there."

"But…but you guys should be miles away by now. I'm not your friend!"

"No," Sokka agreed. "But you are the only one of us who knows firebending. And Katara's right – we couldn't just leave you behind after you stuck your neck out for us. It's not how things are done in the Water Tribe."

"Or the Earth Kingdom," Toph added. "And Aang didn't feel right leaving you. So just deal with it.

"Come on." Katara took his hand. "It's time to go."

And half reluctant, half amazed, Zuko followed.

The palace was in a state of minor chaos. Toph had fortified her tunnel well – it took too long to blast downwards even with the might of the angry Dragon of the West. By the time they reached it, the traitor prince Zuko was gone.

And miles away, a sky bison lowed as he took off – a full set of passengers from each of the four nations upon his back.