Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is a work of love, not profit.

The Alternative

- An Avatar: The Last Airbender Fanfic by Lunatique

One day when he was eleven, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation looked into a grave of charred cat bones and discovered a burning desire to be the next Firelord.

It had started innocently enough, with firebending training with his Uncle Iroh. Passing the outer courtyard on his way back from training, he noticed a group of young serving girls clustered around something or someone. One of them saw him glance over and bowed hurriedly, and the others followed suit. Through the gaps all the bowing created, Zuko glimpsed a serving girl crouched in their midst, head slumped and shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.

Uncle Iroh paused in his steps; so did Zuko, as it would be rude to walk ahead of his uncle. Besides, Zuko had to admit he was a little curious. He thought he recognized the girl now, having seen her around the palace serving meals. He had no idea what her name was, of course, and he felt a small stab of guilt at the fact. He knew it wasn't rational; it was beneath the dignity of princes to notice the affairs of servants.

"Is something the matter?" Uncle Iroh took a step toward the girls, gentle concern in his voice. "Why are you crying so, Lan?"

"It... It is nothing, General Iroh," one of the older girls with long hair braided and wound about her head stammered out, bowing quickly. Zuko wondered why she sounded so afraid. "She's- she's just lost something. A little thing."

"It's not nothing!" The crying girl raised her head from her knees, her tear-streaked face blotched with red spots. "She was little, yes, but to me-"

The girl, presumably Lan - where did Uncle find the time to learn a serving girl's name? - hurriedly covered her mouth, while those around her quickly hushed her. Now the air was thick with tension, a single pronoun turning the matter much more serious than just a serving girl's distress.

"She?" Uncle Iroh's expression grew flat, his voice low and hard. Zuko only saw his normally laid-back uncle like this for matters of war and firebending training. He was serious when he remembered Lu Ten, of course, but that was a different kind of serious. "What happned?" Iroh's voice was firm, though not menacing. The girls still shrank away, and again Zuko wondered at their fear.

"A wingcat, your Highness," the girl with the braid clarified quickly. "A matter beneath your notice."

"Her name was Miao Miao," Lan said hotly, her eyes overflowing again. She seemed about to say more, but the other girls, including the girl with braided hair, gave her warning glances that quickly silenced her. The crying girl buried her face in her knees again, a picture of misery, while another girl tried to help her up and guide her away, eyeing Iroh and Zuko nervously all the while.

"Girls." Uncle's voice was gentle now as he stepped forward, holding his palms skyward as if to show them he was unarmed. "If there is something you would like to tell me, I would be happy to listen."

And they did want to tell him, Zuko realized suddenly. They were biting their lips as if to keep the words out even while they kept their eyes properly lowered and their heads bowed. The longing to speak and the fear of it - by now Zuko was sure that was what they were afraid of - created tension in the air, like a string pulled to breaking point.

"We were- forbidden to speak," the girl with the braid said finally, choosing her words with care. Zuko had been a prince in the Fire Palace for eleven years, long enough to recognize the delicate inflection on 'forbidden' and recognize it as 'threatened.' He went through a quick mental checklist of palace functionaries, nobles, or noble children who might have threatened these girls. There was only one way to be sure, though.

"Who was it?" He asked, taking a step forward and startling the girls. He saw brief hope flicker in their eyes, and then fade to resignation. Now he was honestly puzzled. Why would they be so afraid to talk even to members of the royal family? If anyone could take care of this matter, it was them. A functionary or noble, or their child, would have to listen to them and make amends. Unless...

"If you cannot speak to us about it," Iroh spoke, his voice breaking the nervous silence, "perhaps you can show us. You need not say a word."

The girls looked at each other, and Zuko watched silent agreement forming as they nodded to one another. The older girl with the braided hair took the lead, bowing deeply to both Uncle and Zuko before she said in a very low voice, "Follow at a distance." She signaled to the other girls, and they in turn bowed and went their separate paths, though a few stayed behind. Then the girl turned and walked away, around a corner and out of sight. Lan and two others followed her.

"We should have a talk about your breathing technique, Prince Zuko," his Uncle said nonchalantly, scanning the area with his eyes.

"My- my breathing?" Zuko stammered, surprised at the sudden shift. Uncle Iroh put a finger to his lips as he looked around - to check if anyone was watching, Zuko realized. "Oh yes, my breathing. What do you suggest?"

"Why don't I give you a demonstration," said Uncle, walking to the corner of the wall where the serving girls had gone, "in a more secluded location?"

Zuko nodded and followed. They turned the corner and saw the girls waiting ahead at a small entrance in the wall, looking back at the two of them. Iroh and Zuko watched them enter the little wooden door without a word, and followed.

The girls were waiting for them when they entered a small kitchen garden, three of them standing while Lan, the girl who had lost the cat, had taken a trowel and was digging at an unused corner plot. She tried to hold in her tears at first, but started sobbing out loud as she overturned more earth. The girl with the braid put a hand to Lan's shoulder as if to take over the digging, but Lan shook her hand off and dug even harder, the strokes angry as though the soil were an enemy.

As Uncle and Zuko drew closer Lan, evidently done now, let out a long, teary sigh as though her heart would burst. There was sad tenderness in her face, now, as she gazed down at the dug-up patch of earth. Still kneeling, she turned and prostrated herself to the two princes, heedless of the dirt she got on her orange-and-brown uniform. She stood, and supported by the other girls, stepped aside so the princes could see.

Zuko swallowed, knowing and dreading what he would find. He saw a lot of longish white things scattered in a shallow hole in the ground, many blackened as though burnt. It looked like the remains of someone's barbecue, except the bones were too slender for most meat. He swallowed again, feeling the bile rise.

Uncle Iroh knelt to examine the bones, at one point picking up a charred bone for a closer inspection. Not wanting to be cowardly, Zuko forced himself to step forward and squatted down next to him.

"This... is a firebender's work," Uncle said at last, "The wingcat was in movement when it was first put on fire. It- she was completely incinerated after she was no longer able to move." He sighed, then said in a low voice: "I wish I had come here alone, Prince Zuko."

"I would have come anyway." Zuko poked at the cat's blackened skull, smaller than the size of his fist, then drew his hand back quickly even though the bones were long cold by now. Miao Miao had been little more than a kitten. He wondered if she had been one of the litter borne by a cook's cat, a sleek striped grey with dark blue eyes and white-feathered wings. He might have seen the kitten once, when he'd snuck off to see the new litter with the tiny, squirming kittens fluttering their little wings and maybe managing a decent leap before falling all over each other and themselves. His stomach felt like it was twisting around itself, and a heavy coldness settled in his chest. He drew back a little and prepared to run a few paces from the grave in case he threw up.

"Why would anyone do this?" He whispered to Uncle. "Who would..." he struggled with his words.

"It's not uncommon for pets to get singed or burned when children are first learning the Art, Prince Zuko." His uncle avoided his eyes. "Give me the trowel, Lan. I will cover Miao Miao back up."

"Yes, sometimes animals get hurt," Zuko said slowly, working through his uncle's words, "when kids bend without grownups around. Sanno got in so much trouble for that curtain."

Meanwhile, Iroh gently took the soil-encrusted trowel from the serving girl, who was still stammering how she couldn't possibly put him through the trouble. Zuko watched his uncle pick up dirt with the trowel and tip it onto the bones, a charred thigh bone, the skull that looked as though it was silently screaming, fragile-looking wing bones that were broken in several places.

Accidents happened, but chasing a cat on purpose and killing it with fire was no accident. It just didn't make sense; it took too much skill for a child to do this kind of thing. Even domestic animals were incredibly fast when they were threatened. And a winged cat? Forget about it. An adult might be able to do it, but they had much better things to do than chase wingcats. Besides, that was just sick. Who would...

A prodigy, they always said, a natural. So advanced for her age. No one since the Avatar Roku had mastered the Forms of Flame so quickly. He remembered the rock smashing into the pond, turtle ducks scattering in all directions while she laughed.

"Azula." He had stood up at some point, and the name burst out like a challenge.

The effect on the serving girls was electric; they shrank away, clinging to each other, while Lan gasped and covered her mouth with both hands. Uncle Iroh looked deeply sad as he patted down the dark earth over Miao Miao's grave.

Zuko looked down at the little grave, feeling a little dizzy. He had always known something was deeply wrong with his little sister, but she wasn't some drooling, giggling crazy who hurt and broke things for fun. If she were, more people would have found her out. She must have seen some advantage in the killing; the fun was just a bonus. Was it for training? To prove she could do it? Maybe the wingcat had gotten underfoot and tripped her once? He had no idea.

"Thank you, Lan." Uncle Iroh went up the serving girl and gave her a warm pat on the shoulder. "Go relax with a warm cup of tea. I will see to it that Miao Miao gets a proper burial." He held up a hand when Lan and her friends started to protest. "No, no, I won't mention what happened here, don't worry." He looked back at the grave, eyes twinkling even though he looked terribly tired. "I think this part of the plot is a wonderful place to plant mint for my tea. If the gardener unearths some cat bones in the process, we will have to give the cat a proper ritual so the she will not become a malicious spirit. She may even become a friendly helping spirit if we appease her well enough. You will come to the ceremony, I trust?"

Lan, looking overwhelmed, bent down as if to prostrate herself on the ground again, but Iroh held her by the shoulders to stop her. "Go rest," he said firmly, but kindly.

The girls shuffled out with many bows, Lan wiping away silent tears. Zuko and his uncle were silent for a few moments as their footsteps faded away.

"Will she stop this kind of thing when the bones are found?" Zuko asked quietly, unable to look away from Miao Miao's unmarked grave.

"I hope so," said his uncle, the answer very gentle. "Or she will become better at hiding it. Either way, I must at least try."

"Uncle..." The freshly-dug patch of earth blurred a little as Zuko watched, and he blinked rapidly. "If I don't become the Firelord after Father, who does?"

"Your little sister would," said Iroh. "But you already know that."

"I know that," Zuko agreed, then forced himself to turn away, though he kept feeling that a blue-eyed kitten, white wings draped across its back, was standing behind him, looking up. "Let's go."

Iroh nodded, and led the way past the wooden door they had come through. Zuko followed him quietly.

On their way back he finally lost the contents of his stomach, propping himself up with a hand against a wall as he threw up. He wiped cold sweat from his forehead and accepted his uncle's proffered handkerchief with a whispered thank-you.

"I won't lose to her," Zuko said, without looking up. "I can't."

Uncle Iroh gave a heavy sigh and patted him on the back, and somehow that was enough. They walked on as a servant moved in to clean up, and a snatch of wind in the courtyard cooled the perspiration on Zuko's face.

They said it was his birthright, but he knew from his own uncle's case just how much birthright was worth. He knew Azula was making her moves, looking ahead, planning and plotting like she always did. He watched as she shot ahead of him in firebending, in their studies, and cultivated key friendships and alliances while subtly, very subtly alienating the friends he made. All the time with a little smirk on her face, like this was too easy and he wasn't even a challenge.

In the face of all this, the one thing he had was an accident of birth by two years. Azula took too much after their father, who had himself taken Uncle Iroh's place as heir. Everything I've done, I've done to protect you, she'd said that night. He clenched his teeth against the ache in his chest.

It wasn't going to be easy. Yes, it was his birthright, but birth only went so far. And his desire to be Firelord had a new urgency now, the knotted fear of what would happen if he didn't, the cold horror and rising bile in that kitchen garden with its sad little grave.

He knew he couldn't match his sister in foresight and strategy, but he could make up for it with visibility. He would remind everyone that there was an heir to the Firelord's throne, and it was not Azula. If she tried to eclipse him he would eclipse her right back, making up with inspiration what he lacked in subtlety.

He would become indispensible to his father, prove himself to the nobles and generals until the thought of another heir was impossible. He would keep fighting, no matter what the hardship, and that was what counted. Those had been his mother's words. He wondered if she would be proud of him for how hard he tried, then relaxed because he knew she already was, always had been.

"Let me in," Prince Zuko, thirteen years old, demanded to the guards at the entrance to the war chamber. He knew he would probably be rebuffed, but he badly wanted this opportunity to involve himself by participating in the war meeting.

He couldn't stop trying.

Because the alternative was so much worse.

Note: Come to think of it, the first sentence pretty much is the story. The parts about doing everything to protect Zuko and fighting even though it's hard are Ursa's lines from the Book 2 episode Zuko Alone. Wingcats are lifted pretty directly from Catwings (even the name!) by Ursula K. Le Guin, though I didn't make the connection at the time. I really should be getting around to reading the books, I always thought the covers looked adorable.

This was my first ATLA fanfic, and I have been encouraged by kind reviewers and my love of the series to write more since. The much longer story Shadow of the Dragon King is, in many ways, an expansion of the themes and motifs from this story and is set in the same timeline.