Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Chapter Summary: "Banished" turns out to be a euphemism for a rather painful death. Zuko takes this surprisingly well.
Two Weeks after the Agni Kai- Day One
They cut off his hair.
They cut off his hair, and they smashed up the burn salve Uncle had slipped into his pack, and they left him in the middle of nowhere to die. He tried to fight, this time. (He should have fought before, he should have.)
It didn't work.
The place he was stranded on was smaller than the size of the ship, and it looked more like a pile of stones than an actual island. There were a few stubby strands of green peeking out from among the rocks, and no other living things that he could see.
Zuko wondered when he'd be hungry enough to eat them. Probably in a couple of days.
He spent the first few hours sitting numbly and watching the tide come in, wondering how long it would take to die of starvation. Or dehydration. Or overexposure.
Agni, that would be an ironic way for him to go.
Would he have a funeral, he wondered? Maybe if Uncle tracked down the island, he'd come in time to burn some of Zuko's bones on a pyre before the sea-vultures got them.
Not likely, though.
The past two weeks were hazy with pain and delirium, but he was pretty sure Uncle had tried to come with him. Had stayed by his bedside with soft words and drinks that dulled the pain. (More because he was sure no one else would have bothered than because he recognized the voice.)
Yes, Uncle had tried to come with him. There was a hazy memory of yelling. Father had said-
Zuko stood up, angry at this stupid place and these stupid rocks and the way half his face still screamed in pain. He didn't want to think. He wanted to do something.
And he wasn't going to die here like some pathetic mewling child, just calmly accepting his death. He was heir to-
He was a Prince of-
He was a firebender of the House of S-
He was the son of Lady Ursa, and a true child of fire, and that could never be taken from him.
Zuko gathered the shards of the broken jars together, saving what he could. He emptied one entirely, and set it out amongst the rocks. It wouldn't collect much water, probably. But maybe it would collect enough.
He spent the afternoon walking in knee-deep water with the knife his Uncle had given him, searching for fish and wishing he'd bothered to learn how peasants caught their food. He was pretty sure they didn't try to catch fish with knives, but he couldn't think of anything better.
Of course he didn't catch anything, no matter how many hours he spent trying.
It was idiotic to think he might.
And it hadn't rained yet, and it didn't look like it was going to, and the salt water he'd been splashed with was making the skin under his bandages sting.
When Zuko fell asleep that night, he didn't cry.
Two Weeks after the Agni Kai- Day Two
Zuko didn't cry the next morning, either. He did think about what he had to do if he wanted to live. And… maybe it was more honorable to accept his fate, but he did want to live. He didn't want to die here. So what did he need?
Water. He'd only get some if it rained.
A way to get off this rock. Well, that would be pure luck; he certainly wouldn't be able to do it himself.
What would Uncle tell him to do? Uncle would quote proverbs and talk about spirits and destiny. Not much help.
What would Azula do? He didn't know. Probably scream at someone, or at the ocean or something. And with his luck, he'd piss of a spirit just enough for them to throw a storm his way-
Zuko froze, testing the edges of an impossible idea.
I've never been lucky. But maybe if I'm polite…
Well, it wasn't as if he didn't have enough rocks to make a spirit-shrine. He knew enough for that.
The rocks on this island were strange. It was a good think he'd decided to pay his respects to the spirits, because some of these boulders were too weird-looking to be anything else.
Zuko ended up making the shrine out of pebbles and wet sand from the shore, knowing it probably looked like the most pathetic thing ever created. He put a scrap of cloth from his sleeve atop the altar and lit it on fire, saying a quick prayer to Agni and any other unnamed kami in the area and asking for guidance. A chance to get off this island, and to find his destiny.
(And he didn't want to be alone anymore, but he knew better than to ask for that out loud.)
…Hopefully it counted as an offering. He really didn't have anything else to give. He sat quietly and tried to clear his mind, letting the flame rise and fall with his breath.
After a few minutes, one of the smooth, egg-shaped boulders wobbled, and Zuko called more heat without thinking.
"What-"he yelped as he saw the cracks forming.
In the half-light of the rising sun, he saw a ghostly, fierce dragon step forward.
Oh, Agni, no.
He really was going to die.
There was a dragon-spirit, and rock-spirits, and he had no luck, of course they hated him, everyone in the entire Fire Nation hated him now, an exile should have known better than to draw the spirits' attention-
The dragon stared at him, and seemed to smirk. It looked beyond him, off into the water, and opened its jaws with a roar that sounded like a cat-wolf howl, calling others to battle.
Then it turned, and breathed fire on the boulders.
There were more cracking sounds, and the dragon-spirit faded away.
Everything went black.
Something was licking his face when he woke up. Zuko could feel a dry, raspy tongue edging over onto his bandages.
He tried to bring his hand up, to call on flame and ward off the creature, but his head was so heavy and tired and slow moving, and he couldn't manage even a wisp of flame.
Fingers brushed scales.
Zuko woke up really quickly after that.
"What?" he yelped. Croaked, really. The dragon- there was a dragon! - was a little smaller than him, but not by much. And it wasn't budging from its spot on his chest.
[Mama? Concern/warmth/belonging.] It leaned in for a nuzzle, then padded off his chest to stare at him with wide gold eyes.
Zuko was- he couldn't think. The world didn't make sense anymore. This didn't happen.
The dragons were dead.
But not this one, apparently. It was white with glints of silvery-blue, and was probably quite little, for a dragon.
And it thought Zuko was its mother. This made no sense.
[Come-see! Nestmates-hatching! Mama come-see!]
…And there were more of them. Not out of their eggs yet, but they would be soon.
"I'm not your mother," he managed, backing away a step.
The dragon turned soulful- and suddenly wary- gold eyes on him.
[This-one… unwanted? Not in-pack with this-one?]
He wasn't quite sure what the dragon was getting at, but it didn't sound happy. It occurred to Zuko that he might have just moved himself from the category of "family member" to "possible meal."
"Maybe… an older brother?" he suggested. "I might be able to help take care of you, but I'm not really fully grown yet. And I'm not your mama," he added emphatically.
He might get eaten, but he wanted to be firm on this last point.
Oh, spirits. Had he just agreed to take care of them? All of them? He was so doomed.
No wonder the royal family let Fire Sages deal with the spirits, if this was what happened when you asked for help.
The little dragon was quiet. Thinking, maybe.
(Hopefully, not about what Zuko tasted like.)
[Older nestmate!] The little dragon yelped gleefully, pouncing on Zuko.
Ouch. The rocks dug into his back again, but he had to admit the dragon was lighter than it looked.
[Little nestmates!] It exclaimed, looking toward the hatching eggs. Us-older, them-little! It puffed up with pride.
[We protect nestmates! We older nestmates!]
…It was a pretty enthusiastic little guy; he had to give it that. And if it was pretty strong, if the bruises on his back were any indication.
He grunted as he got up, preparing to give it a piece of his mind- then sighed as it soundlessly nuzzled his hand, giving off waves of [comfort/sorry/nestmates-us?]
They'd probably make better siblings than Azula, anyway. And he had asked not to get stuck on this rock alone.
Two hours later, the other two dragons- one gold with a little red, the other a mottled dark green- had hatched and been enthusiastically greeted by their older sibling.
…Their actual older sibling, not Zuko. He was busy currently wondering how to feed them all, whether they might have a chance to fly off this island at some point, and where to go if they did.
Zuko had learned about the Earth Kingdom from his tutors, but they'd never exactly covered safe places for dragons to live. Dragons were supposed to live in the Fire Nation.
…Except that the Fire Lord had ordered the dragons to die, and he couldn't bring them there. They'd be killed on sight. Their only advantage was that the Fire Lord thought the dragons were dead. He wouldn't be looking for them- no one in the Fire Nation would. But if they went somewhere with people, and word traveled… they'd be toast.
Zuko realized that he wasn't quite sure if he was just talking about dragons, anymore. He wasn't under any illusions about his 'banishment.' Those soldiers had had orders. Maybe secret orders, orders Uncle Iroh and the other nobles hadn't known about. But only the Fire Lord would have had the authority to issue them.
Father had wanted him to die, and not come back.
Zuko swallowed. If Zuko did come back, or showed up somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, if Father even found out he was still alive…
He shuddered, touching the edge of his bandages, and tried to think about something else.
Uncle wouldn't want him to get hurt. Uncle cared about him, he was pretty sure. Like Mom had cared.
In a way, that made it worse.
If Zuko got caught inside the Fire Nation- if Zuko was recognized and reported alive, anywhere in the world- Uncle might try to protect him. Like Mom had protected him.
He wouldn't let that happen. Not to Uncle, too. Zuko wasn't going to pull someone else into his own mess.
He still had that much honor left.
…He just felt like such a failure. Uncle had been so lonely, after Lu Ten died, and now Zuko wouldn't even be around to help. If he had just listened…
Well, there was nothing he could do about it now. Besides maybe pray. And he wasn't sure if that was such a good idea anymore.
The Fire Sages had said the royal family had a special connection with Agni, but Zuko hadn't thought it meant… well, anything particularly interesting, except that some of them were better firebenders.
Apparently, he'd been wrong. Again.
Although if that was the case… maybe Agni wanted the dragons back. Maybe that was Zuko's destiny now.
Maybe, even if he had failed his father, even if he couldn't be a good heir for his people… he did still have a purpose. A second chance, from Agni himself.
He couldn't afford to screw it up.
"Ahh!" The oldest and most enthusiastic dragon pounced on Zuko again.
[Older-nestmate?Nesting-ground other-place. Where other? "Older brother," yes? Where nest?]
Zuko stared at the little white dragon, utterly confused. It seemed to be… asking about him?
"Well, yes. I'm um, sort of your older brother now? If you want me to be, I mean. And I'm… well, I'm Pr- I'm Zuko. Son of Lady Ursa and- and I'm from a place that's very far away."
Hopefully he hadn't messed up too badly. He had no clue what the little dragon was trying to get at.
["Lady Ursa?" Show. Tell.] Its voice was curious. Excited.
The other two dragons nudged themselves forward, bringing their snouts under his hands.
Zuko blinked, his throat tight as he remembered a soft voice. Kind words and long, pretty hair. She'd tried to protect him. She'd tried to protect him, and it was his fault she was gone and he wanted her back, and why hadn't she come back, if she'd been there this never would have happened-
The green dragon's voice was mournful.[ Mama. Brave. Nest-defender. Fought-for-fledgling]
Zuko wiped away tears, and the little red and gold dragon whimpered when he took his hand away from its snout.
Gold whiskers reached for the side of his face, and he was too tired to flinch.
[Nestmates-together,] it chirped in his mind.[Nest together. Hide together. Fly together. If fight, fight together. Older nestmate not fight predators alone.] There was a picture of- of Father, at the Agni Kai. He did flinch, this time. Gold whiskers reached for him again, and the ends of his bandages.[ If hurt, other nestmates protect.]
Azula wouldn't have protected him-
There was a sense of searching, and of dissatisfaction. Anger, but not at him.
[Bad younger-nestmate. Not loyal to nest-mother! Hurt nestmate in not-play. Bad. Older-nestmate here now. Here-stay.]The gold dragon was emphatic, possessively sending its whiskers all over Zuko. [Old-nest place-of-sickness. Not-safe! No go back!]
Uncle had tried-
[No-fight,] the green dragon grumbled.
"No," Zuko said. "I accepted the challenge! I said I was ready, was old enough to act as an adult! It wasn't Uncle's fault I didn't listen." His shoulders slumped.
"And no one could have fought the Fire Lord," Zuko continued. The green dragon gave him a look, and he remembered what Mom had done. "Not in front of everybody. Not like that," he whispered.
The little white dragon prodded him. [Older-nestmate no-listen/watch elder? Foolishness/troublefinding/mistakes? Lost-now?]
"Pretty much," Zuko agreed.
[Elder no-here,] the green dragon observed, somewhat morosely. [Alone/no-elders.]
The gold dragon snorted.[ Nestmates-together!] It cried indignantly, hissing.
"Hey. Hey, calm down, you two," Zuko said, glancing at the white dragon for support. He didn't really want to end up in the middle of a fight. (Literally, both of the dragons were draped all over him.)
And would they be doing this often? If the dragons would be constantly getting into arguments, maybe he should at least decide to call them something. If only so he could have something convenient to yell when he tried to separate them.
Wait. Wait, was he crazy? All this "older nestmate" stuff must be getting to his head, if he was seriously considering how to separate dragons while they fought. No way Zuko was in shape for that.
[Playfight careful,] the white dragon reminded them. [Older-nestmate hurt.] It nuzzled Zuko, who fell over. Again.
"Okay that wasn't quite what I- hey, wait? How did you understand what I was talking about before? I mean, what I wasn't talking about."
The white dragon cocked its head. [Mouth-sounds important?] it asked innocently. A little too innocently.
"I'm not falling for that one," Zuko snorted. He realized he was smiling, a little bit.
It felt weird.
Arguably less weird than having dragons listening inside his head- though if that was the case, why did they still want to be… uh, nestmates? He was a human, and not even a very good firebender. How could he help them get food, or learn how to hunt, or find out what was safe for them to eat, or- or anything?
The white dragon sighed again, with the air of one dealing with a particularly stubborn bit of idiocy.
(Between Mom and Uncle, Zuko recognized the expression well.)
[Older-nestmate wants belonging. Younger-nestmates want belonging. Belonging-together. Strength-together. Older-nestmate warm. Warm-mind. Hurt-now. Still, warm-mind. Safe-feel. Good nestmate, will-be.]
"So, you felt my mind and it was… nice?" Zuko asked, swallowing a lump. They wanted him. Not just any random human coming along. Him, specifically. That was…
[Nestmates-together!]The green dragon chirped, sounding cheerful and brash and not at all like itself. Then it put its whiskers all over the un-bandaged side of Zuko's face.
The gold dragon sulked and glared at it, not at all pleased with the imitation.
Two Weeks After the Agni Kai- Days Three and Four
The dragons couldn't fly yet, which Zuko supposed made sense. Oddly enough, they could swim. And splash him all over with water. And catch fish.
…Not that many fish, admittedly. But they'd saved one for him.
This was why he was currently attempting cooks cubes of a mostly-cleaned fish with a handful of fire and the knife Uncle had given him. Agni, he didn't even have a stick.
It was… well, it wasn't going well. He scowled at the flames in his open palm, bending the fire closer to his would-be meal. Zuko looked up to see the dragons staring at him.
[Tiny-fire] the green dragon remarked, slightly dubiously.
Zuko flushed. "I'm trying to cook it, not burn it to cinders," he snapped. "Why don't you try it then, if you're so great."
The green dragon drew back, hurt, and Zuko felt immediately guilty. They were just… their voices felt so young and they liked him and he always messed everything up, he'd never be as good as Azula-
[Bad nestmate!] the gold dragon chirped, and Zuko felt something break.
"Sorry, I wasn't trying- I didn't mean," his throat was too tight to get out the words properly, but was interrupted by another nuzzle from the gold dragon.
It seemed confused. [Bad nestmate,] it tried again, with a picture of Azula, this time.[You-ours. Ours-better.]
"Oh," Zuko said, flushing. "I'm still sorry," he managed to get out, speaking to the green dragon again. "I'm not very good at firebending yet," he said, and it was that last word that felt like a lie.
When would he have the chance to get better?
[Silly-glum nestmate] the white dragon told him, giving him a firm poke with a tendril. [Little dragon, little fire. Grow later.]
Zuko blinked. "How do you guys know so much? You were born- what, a few hours ago?"
A snort. [Spirits. Dragons. Not foolish-humans]
He flushed again, but was cut off with another nuzzle before he could protest.[ Nestmate-learns with. Nestmate-grows.]
That last message had the definite feeling of placing Zuko in another category. One not currently occupied by "foolish humans."
It... felt kind of nice, actually. Although these guys were way too affectionate.
Zuko woke to find that he and the dragons had somehow acquired another island, peacefully settled not yards from their own.
It was green and lush, a respectable distance above water, and hosted vast trees and what seemed to be glimpses of wildlife. And it made the island Zuko was standing on- a desolate-looking rock already- look like a bleak deathtrap in comparison.
Zuko regarded the apparition warily, scowling. It was the most obvious trap he'd ever seen in his life and he still wanted to swim over there.
Agni, this was creepy.
Well. Whatever spirit-monster was planning to eat him would just have to go without its meal for today, because-
"What the hell are you doing?" Zuko screamed, sprinting into the surf, and starting to swim across the distance. Stupid, naïve, idiotic… they'd barely been hatched, of course they didn't know anything about the real world yet. And it was going to get them killed.
He could see them merrily swimming around the island and climbing up to rest on the lush grass- oh, he'd been much too lenient yesterday, letting them go around fishing and… and frolicking about on their own in the water.
They had no clue. None.
They might talk about fighting predators, but what was the first thing they did when they saw another intelligent creature? Invite it to be part of their family.
Islands that appeared out of nowhere, suspiciously full of plant life and possible food? Oh, of course it must be a good thing. Let's go ahead without asking the human if it's a good idea and just assume he'll catch up.
Water steamed off him at the thought, and he swam harder.
Zuko finally, finally landed on the ground with a gasp, angry and terrified all at once. (Angry because he was terrified.)
But he couldn't let it slow him down, he thought, letting branches whip past him as he ran into the woods. He had to find them.
He stormed into the woods, angry sparks shooting from his fingertips and steam shooting from his nose. It took him almost five minutes to find the dragons, as they'd gone even deeper into the island during his swim over. Agni, they probably hadn't even heard his warning.
"What were you three thinking?" he yelled, spotting them at last.
The white dragon at least had the sense to look appropriately guilty, but the gold one was happily ignoring the crazy human as it pulled up berries, and the green one even seemed mildly indignant.
"Islands don't just appear! Not like this! It could be trap, just getting us all in the right position to- to- to do who knows what!" he finished, exasperated.
Zuko tried to take a deep breath and calm down, then remembered that he was gasping for air. "You can't just go off on your own like that, it's not safe," he told them, attempting to sound less frantic. "And we're getting off this island right now," he said sternly.
"At least until we figure out a little more about it," he muttered under his breath. Those berries did look good. But he wasn't about to eat any right now, who only knew what the berries on a mysteriously moving island could do. They were probably cursed, or something.
"Come on," he said, dragging the gold dragon toward shore and ignoring its lackluster protests as the other two followed.
Then he stopped, right at the water's edge. The water which was behaving… very strangely. He dragged his eyes up, looking for the rock of an island that should only be yards away.
It wasn't there.
It wasn't there.
They (well, mostly Zuko) managed a small campfire that night, as Zuko waited morosely for something to try and eat them.
Thank Agni he'd brought his knife. It might have needed a cleaning after that impromptu dip in salt water, but if he'd had the foresight to leave it when he'd gone chasing after the dragons, he'd have lost it for good.
But other than the need on constantly be on guard for some kind of lethal attack, finding the island (or the island finding them) had been a great stroke of luck.
Zuko might not have found a fresh source of water yet, but the berries he'd scavenged seemed to stave off the worst of the thirst. The dragons seemed to be managing fairly well on that count, too- although they'd had live game rather than berries, and a nice long soak in the sunlight. Zuko wasn't about to let them go off looking for fish, though, not when there was no guarantee of finding the damn island again.
This time they'd listened.
He suspected they were feeling guilty over the realization that, if Zuko hadn't followed them quite so quickly, he wouldn't have made it onto the island with everyone else.
Truth be told, he was mostly over it.
He might have been angry, even furious, before, but... well, the dragons were barely hatched. And while they might have some fancy dragon spirit-knowledge he could only guess at, the idea that sudden landscape changes were not a good thing didn't seem to be among it.
…The fact that they'd taken the possibility of another predator in the area as an excuse to cuddle up next to him again didn't exactly hurt, either. Not that they seemed to need excuses.
Now they were being rather ridiculously overprotective, actually. It had been all Zuko could do to convince them that yes, it was a perfectly good idea to split into teams of two to hunt, and that he would really rather have everyone paired with a partner than facing the risk of one dragon hunting alone, or being surrounded by three hungry dragons because no one wanted him out of their sight long enough to get food.
Zuko scowled at the fire.
But this development- the constant cuddles and nuzzles and warm messages of [belonging]- was only mildly annoying. Perhaps somewhat understandable, and the most practical option under the circumstances.
He did not think it was sweet.