Prompt: #21 Zuko In Chains by LJ user jin_fenghuang
Title: The Chains of Honor, Chapter 1 (minibang version)
Word Count: 4795
Warnings/Pairings: Some disturbing imagery. No pairings.
Summary: If the Yu Yan had not stopped firing, if Aang had been a little slower in deciding to take Zuko with him, and if Zhao's garrison had been a little quicker on their feet, then Zuko's rescue of Aang in "The Blue Spirit" might not have gone quite as well.
Author's Notes: This was also written for the LJ community avatarbigbang 2011 mini-bang challenge! Check out the other stories over there-they are all brilliant!
Also, this was not supposed to be a long story. It was supposed to be short. And then, after the first section was done, I realized that it had grown into a monster that could not be contained within 5000 words. So this is the first chapter of a much larger work. Also, this is missing scenes that I really would have liked to put in but didn't have the room for, so it's plot-holey at the moment. I will be rewriting this with those extra scenes put in, and that will be the full version of chapter 1 of what is bound to be a ridiculously long epic.
The Chains of Honor
Even after the first one had found its target, the arrows kept coming. Aang airbended three of them off course in the span of time it took for his masked rescuer to fall. It wasn't easy to see them coming; it wasn't easy to see anything that small in the dark. But the forest behind them was silent and the Fire Nation fortress they'd fled from was still, at least for the moment, so he could hear them coming, like blades of grass sighing in the wind.
Aang sidestepped another arrow, turned his head towards the sound of a body hitting the ground, and narrowly avoided getting pincushioned by the fifth and sixth arrows. The Yu Yan weren't aiming for his clothing this time, he realized. They were aiming for flesh, for tendons in his arms and legs, for clusters of nerves that would leave him crumpled on the ground and twitching helplessly in pain.
This is not good.
Aang lashed his arms out in an arc through the air, the riptide current whipping up clouds of concealing dirt around himself and the unconscious swordsman. If the archers couldn't see, then they couldn't aim, and that would give the young airbender the few seconds he needed to—
His plans broke apart and fell like sand from his mind the moment he turned to look at the man on the ground. His mask had been knocked slightly askew, leaving a small portion of the left side of his face bare.
The scarred left side of his face.
It couldn't be him, Aang told himself, even as he moved forward and down and stretched his fingers out to clasp the edge of the mask. Surely there were lots of people with burn scars in the world, even ones near their left eye…
The mask fell away, and Aang couldn't breathe.
Prince Zuko's face greeted him like the visage of a sleeping monster.
In two seconds, Aang was already five feet away, facing the forest with muscles tensed to sprint for freedom and away from the enemies that haunted his every footstep. His heart tightened in his throat. Every defensive instinct urged him to run.
He wasn't sure what made him look back. Maybe it was the gentleness of Aang's soul that made him pause and look at the other boy's still form. Maybe it was the monks' teachings of selflessness, forgiveness, and compassion. Or maybe it was the memory that cut through his vision like the steel of a knife—the memory of Zuko desperately fending off a small army of spears and swords, buying time for Aang to escape through the swiftly closing front gates. Zuko would not have survived if Aang hadn't turned back and helped him.
So how could Aang leave him now?
He couldn't. So after a moment of hesitation, he turned back, intending to gather Zuko up and escape with him into the dense forest.
Aang took one step forward before he realized that the dust cloud—the cover that had protected them both from the Yu Yan—was gone. Aang froze, and in that instant he took in all of the sounds that panic had numbed his ears to: the trample of approaching boots on the road, a man's distant shout, and then sharp, hollow whistles like razors in the air.
Aang dodged to the side. Four wooden shafts buried—*THOK*—in the road a foot behind where he'd been standing. Cover. They needed more cover! Aang raised his arms to whip up another miniature dust storm, but the brief pause nearly cost him; before he could follow the motion through, arrows sprouted in the forefront of his vision, too fast and too close and too many. He flung himself sideways, and the jerk at his shawl along with the sound of an arrow tearing through fabric told him that he had just barely been fast enough.
Aang dodged another flurry of arrows, then spun and ducked to avoid a pair aimed at pinioning his arms. Now that Aang was no longer disadvantaged by an armful of frozen frogs, the Yu Yan had little hope of pinning him down. He could deflect or evade their combined attacks as long as that was all he did, but…
…But he would not be able to lower his defenses for enough time to save Zuko.
This is bad. This is really, really bad!
He could hear voices now above the trample of approaching feet, loud and triumphant and near. The Fire Nation soldiers had almost reached them. More whistles cut through the air, and Aang instinctively dodged, only to find that the arrows hadn't been aimed for him. He watched, horrified, as a thicket of crimson flowers blossomed around Zuko's body, their straight wooden stems anchoring the boy's clothing to the ground.
There was nothing Aang could do. He had to leave Zuko behind. But, Aang told himself firmly, he wasn't abandoning him.
"I'll be back for you," he whispered. Then air ballooned beneath his feet and launched him high out of sight.
When Zuko had been seven, Blood-bone Fever had nearly stolen his life. He couldn't remember much from those two weeks: only vague impressions of his mother hovering, of doctors drifting in and out like a cool wind that sometimes brought relief from the inferno that ravaged his muscles, head, and throat. He remembered wondering why he couldn't bend the fire away, and then thinking that Azula probably would have been able to if it had been her in his place. Maybe that was why Azula never got sick.
Most of all, Zuko remembered how it had felt to wake up.
There was a very brief thread of time between dreams and wakefulness when he was not quite conscious enough to feel the pain but was aware enough to appreciate its absence. Whenever he tried to hover at that thread, reality always pushed inward like a razor and severed him from the cocoon of his up during a sickness was like being born; his thoughts had felt wrapped within soiled cotton, and his nose and mouth had been clogged with the afterbirth of sleep. It had been hot and sticky and miserable, and it was exactly how Zuko felt when he came to in a Fire Nation prison cell.
At first, he thought he must be on his ship. The hard surface pressing against his legs and back felt like metal: smooth and cold against his bare, firebender-warm skin. But as his awareness spread, he realized that couldn't be right. His body was sore and twisted and he couldn't move his arms. Why couldn't he move his arms?
A twist of his hands drew the faint clink of irons to his ears, and tiny needles of pain flared in his blood-starved fingers. Something sharp cut into his wrists.
The creak of leather and the sandpaper skiff of cloth caught his ear. "Ah, Prince Zuko…"
He knew that voice. Command—no, Admiral Zhao. Why was he here? What was—
He remembered. Clarity flooded, sharp and icy, though his veins, and horror pooled like cold stones in his gut. He remembered freeing the Avatar, remembered the clang of the alarm as their escape was discovered, remembered the liquid silver blur of his broadswords and the whistle of the Avatar's makeshift staff, remembered backing out the front gates with his swords crossed over the Avatar's throat, remembered being almost into the tree line…
And then nothing.
He didn't want to open his eyes. He still felt disoriented enough that he could pretend this away as a dream so long as he didn't look. The moment that his eyes opened he would make it all real.
But then Zhao spoke again, and his voice was more than real enough.
"Everyone knows what a failure you are, but I confess…" Zhao trailed off for just a moment, and Zuko could imagine his smirk, could hear the bitter wine of triumph flavoring his words, "…I had never imagined you to be a traitor."
Zuko's eyes flew open and he snarled, the denial already searing past his lips. "I am not a traitor!"
The cell was dark. A sputtering torch on the wall beyond the bars reluctantly coughed light down upon Zhao, who stood just beyond the bars with his arms crossed, facing Zuko. His smirk was even more infuriating on his face than it had been in his voice.
"Really?" Zhao purred, and he leaned inward. "Then why did you free the Avatar?"
Zuko took it back; Zhao's smirking voice was maddening.
"I had no choice!" Zuko hissed.
"Yes, yes, we all know; your 'honor'depends upon your capture of the Avatar." Zhao shifted his stance and began pacing slowly back and forth before the cell, but his eyes remained fixed on Zuko. "Did it not occur to you that in aiding the Avatar—in stealing him from a Fire Nation Admiral—you would lose all of the honor you had left, without even the right to earn it back?"
Zuko was silent.
After a short pause, Zhao continued. "Not that you had a chance to begin with. Your father doesn't want you back. He's wanted you gone for years—"
"That's not true!"
But the words kept coming, and even though Zuko's heartbeat boiled in his ears and rage stained his vision and distorted his thoughts, he still couldn't drown out what the Admiral said next.
"—and now he has a reason to have you executed. And he will, Prince Zuko. The Fire Lord does not tolerate failure. And for his own son to have committed treason? Do you really believe he will show you mercy after you have shamed yourself, your father, and your nation again, this timebydirectly aiding the enemy?"
Zuko stared at the Admiral. The thunder was ebbing from his ears. He tried to find the words to deny Zhao's accusations, but every thread he pulled led back to his father. He had disrespected the Fire Lord, and for that alone he had lost his honor. He had been given a chance to redeem himself, and he had failed.
But I had no choice! Zuko thought desperately, furiously.
But then he imagined kneeling before his father with that excuse, and the idea crumbled like ash in his mind. He knew what the Fire Lord would think. Zhao was right. Spirits, Zhao was right.
Zhao stopped pacing and faced the cell door again, leaning in close to the bars. He watched the horror sink into Zuko's eyes for a moment, and then dealt one last blow in the form of a soft whisper: "For three years you've wanted nothing more than to return home. How ironic that, disgraced and dishonored, you will get your wish after all…just before you die."
Zuko didn't respond. His vision boiled and the shadows of his cell curled and churned like smoke until the sharpness of the now blurred and bloomed into faded watercolor memories. He saw turtle-ducks dive to catch the crumbs he tossed into their pond. He saw the Fire Lord's throne and the seat at its right-hand side—empty and waiting for him. He saw the harbor at the base of the capitol, the sun melting like butter on the sand and the water glittering so bright that it looked like a thousand white fires all pulsing with the ocean's heartbeat.
He had dreamed every day and every night for three years of returning to those warm shores. He had dreamed of presenting the Avatar—chained and defeated—to his father, of standing before his father's proud gaze and feeling the forgiveness and acceptance in his voice wash through him. And now that the Avatar had a body, a face, and a voice, his dreams felt so much more real, so much more tangible than they had ever been before.
He would not let Zhao take his dreams away from him.
When the images faded and his eyes focused again, what he noticed first was how close the Admiral was to the bars.
Zuko filled his lungs, deep and slow.
And then he breathed.
An inferno cascaded past his lips and flooded up to the prison bars. Zhao's eyes flashed wide in shock. Instinctively he jerked backwards, fast enough to avoid getting burned but not quite fast enough to prevent the tips of his sideburns from catching fire. The Admiral was quick to snuff the tiny flames, but his dignity and composure had already been destroyed.
Now it was Zuko's turn to smile grimly while the other man snarled and reddened with rage. Zhao jabbed a finger at his captive, carefully keeping a safe distance away. "Your uncle's flashy tricks won't get you out of this cell," he spat. "Not with your hands chained to the wall. And I will personally see you delivered to the Fire Lord in those chains." Then Zhao spun on his heel and stalked out of the room.
Zuko would have to thank Uncle Iroh for teaching him the Breath of Fire.
Hours later and miles away, Aang sat cross-legged on the floor next to Appa, and fidgeted.
He'd had no trouble finding enough frozen frogs for Katara and Sokka to suck on. The herbalist might be crazy as a tortoise-loon, but she knew what she was doing; after only the first frog, Sokka's hallucinations had faded, leaving him lucid again, and Katara, whose sickness hadn't been as advanced as her brother's, had been cured completely. After Aang had hastily explained why he'd given them both frogs to suck on, Katara had helped him convince Sokka to try another. Sokka had only relented once they'd pointed out empirical evidence of the frogs' healing powers, but he had drawn the line at two frogs. Fortunately, two had proven to be enough.
But the fever had drained much of their strength, so neither of Aang's friends were able to travel just yet. And while they slept, there was nothing for Aang to do except think and worry.
He wanted to rescue Zuko. He knew that Admiral Zhao wouldn't have killed the prince. Zuko was royalty, no matter that he was banished or that he appeared to have committed treason. The Fire Lord would want to handle the matter personally, especially since it was his son involved. Aang didn't think any harm would come to Zuko from his own father, but he didn't know when Zhao was planning on sending the prince home…nor did he know what Zhao was doing to him in the meantime. Aang knew that 'alive' was not the same as 'unharmed'.
He wanted to rescue Zuko. But he couldn't break into the fortress by himself. He needed help. He needed Sokka and Katara.
And that was another problem; how was he going to explain all of this to them?
Aang had no idea. So he fidgeted and quietly practiced speeches.
"So uh…" Aang's voice cracked and faltered. Oh yeah, that's a great start. He cleared his throat and tried again. "So remember when I went out looking for medicine? Well, there were these archers and they were really good. I mean, really good. And they kind of shot me when I was collecting frogs—well not shot me shot me, I mean, haha, they just got my clothes!" Aang's voice trailed from a nervous laugh into a sigh. "Okay, no good. Let's try this again."
Aang took a deep, calming breath. He closed his eyes, centered his mind, and lowered his heartbeat. Focus. He tried again. "The important thing is that I'm okay. Everything's fine. Except, well, not everything, but I'll get to that. Commander Zhao—you know, the guy with the sideburns—kind of captured me while I was out collecting frogs. But I'm okay! Because um, this ninja with a blue mask came and rescued me, and it was amazing, but he got knocked out by an arrow and now he's been captured, and I've gotta go rescue him but I need your help." Pause. "Oh, and he's also Prince Zuko."
Aang was still for a moment before he groaned and dropped his head into his hands. "This is not gonna go over well," he mumbled, and then peeked between his fingers up at Sokka and Katara. They were still sleeping soundly.
Well, at least he had a while to practice.
Firebenders rise with the sun. The moment that Agni's liquid bright fingers reach up from the horizon to warm the sky, Agni's children feel their own blood thrum with the energy of life.
So even in the cold darkness of his stone cell, Zuko knew when the day had arrived.
And he still didn't have a plan.
Zuko hadn't slept. Even neglecting the fact that his arms were stretched uncomfortably with his wrists chained to the wall high above his head, his mind had been too alert, too electric with fears and certainties; he knew that Zhao had likely already sent a messenger hawk to the capitol, detailing the prince's apparent betrayal. Zhao was an admiral now, which meant that he was high in the Fire Lord's favor. And Zhao had an entire garrison of witnesses to back his claims.
But if Zuko could escape and make his way back to his ship, he might still have a chance. Uncle Iroh would vouch for his alibi, he knew. And he was fairly certain that the crew would follow his uncle's example; ever since Zuko had saved the helmsman from falling to his death during the storm, his men as a whole seemed to respect him more. It would, at the very least, cast enough doubt on Zhao's claims that Zuko would have some time to figure out a better plan from there.
As he had done countless times during the night, Zuko again tested the chains that bound him, trying to wrench or at least loosen them from the wall. He felt something give this time, but not in the metal. His wrists had chafed and swelled and scabbed from his earlier struggles, and now something cracked and slid beneath the manacles, like rotten flesh dripping from bone. He'd sheared the skin away. Pain throbbed from the opened wound, and something hot and slick began trickling down his right arm.
Not good, he thought. A chill sank into his stomach when he thought of infection. Stupid, stupid stupid! Zhao wanted him alive, but there wouldn't be much he could do if festering poison spread through Zuko's veins.
He had to get out of here soon.
Ignoring the pain, Zuko relaxed as much as his bonds allowed and closed his eyes. He focused on his breathing, deep and slow, in and out, and felt the ebb and swell of his chi. He needed to calm down and think with a clear head.
Okay, what are my advantages? Zhao hasn't posted a guard at my cell. Arrogant idiot. If I can break these chains, they won't know I'm free until it's too late. How do I break the chains without cutting my hands off?
Zuko called to mind everything he knew about prisons and restraints and Fire Nation steel. He knew that the manacles weren't coming out of the wall—the bloody ruins of his right wrist testified to that—so he had to find some way of breaking them instead.
But what did he have that could possibly break steel? Or even bend it? Steel was only malleable when it was…hot.
Zuko's eyes snapped open and his breathing stilled.
If he couldn't pull the restraints off the wall, he would melt them off.
Zuko pushed himself to his feet. His legs stung, half numb and half needled with lack of blood flow, but he barely noticed the pain. His attention was fixed solely on the steel chain to his left. Zuko considered its length. Metal conducted heat, and if the chain was too short he might end up destroying his own hand.
It should be fine, he decided. Focus on the link connecting to the wall anchor.
Zuko raised his left hand, aimed carefully, and breathed.
Gradually, the steel began to glow.
Aang cringed and tried desperately not to look guilty. He hadn't gotten past the first sentence of his explanation before two voices had shrieked in unison. Katara looked horrified. Sokka looked horrified and mad.
"You were captured? By Commander Sideburns? HERE?" Sokka's voice had reached a decidedly unmanly pitch.
"Aang!" Katara wasn't quite mad yet; she was still more worried that her friend had been hurt. "You said you'd be careful!"
"Well, yeah, I know, but I was trying to get the frogs and those archers were really good—"
"ARCHERS?" Sokka's arms flailed.
"—But I'm okay now! And I wasn't hurt! Someone rescued me!" Aang added hastily. That seemed to give the siblings pause. Two pairs of blue eyes blinked at him with confusion.
"…who rescued you?" Katara asked. "Where are they now?"
Aang fidgeted. "He um, kind of got captured as we were backing out of the gates."
Sokka's mouth snapped shut and his nose scrunched. "Gates. You were in a Fire Nation fortress." It wasn't a question, and Sokka didn't look pleased.
"Yeah…" Aang tapped his thumbs together and smiled nervously. Katara's eyes narrowed and Sokka crossed his arms over his chest. They glared at him and waited for an explanation.
Aang sighed. This was not going well. "Okay, you guys have to promise not to say anything until I'm done. Okay?"
Sokka raised one eyebrow and squinted his other eye almost shut. "Ooooh-kaaay…"
Aang shifted his gaze to Katara. "Please?"
Katara glared at him, motionless, for another second. "Fine," she relented, although she didn't look happy about it. Her eyes promised that they would be having words when this was over.
Aang sighed with relief. Breathe. He was in a world of trouble for having gotten himself into so much danger, he knew. But he'd deal with that later. Right now, he needed to think about Zuko.
Start from the beginning, ease your way forward.
"It happened right after I'd left the herbalist's," he began. "I was going to find a river to look for frozen frogs…"
Zuko had decided that the spirits hated him.
He had almost burned the first chain through when he'd heard heavy footsteps rapidly approaching from down the hall. Desperately, he'd tried to snuff the heat out of the steel, but he hadn't been fast enough. Seconds later, the admiral had marched into the room and stopped completely still.
Zhao had taken one look at the scene—Zuko standing with a poorly-concealed expression of panic while the base of one of the chains glowed orange—and had immediately sent for more guards. Then he'd stalked closer and threatened to have Zuko drugged to the point where he couldn't even move. Zuko had, somehow, managed to just fume silently in response.
So now two guards were posted at the far end of the room, watching him. He was never alone for even a second.
He spent the rest of the day thinking and trying not to move his damaged wrist. If it re-scabbed and wasn't disturbed, he might escape infection. While his abused body seemed to benefit from the meditative stillness, his mind was becoming increasingly panicked and frustrated.
Zuko had no idea what to do. He'd blown his only chance for escape. Why didn't I think of burning through the chains earlier, while everyone was still asleep? he thought, furious with himself. I could have been free by now!
His only hope, it seemed, was to wait for Zhao to have him transferred onto a ship for the journey back to the Fire Nation. An opportunity might present itself…but until then, he had to wait.
Zuko was patient. He'd spent three years at sea, searching with iron determination for a ghost that few people believed existed anymore. And his patience had finally been rewarded. If he kept still and observant and waited, he would find a way.
So he forced his frustration down and channeled his anger into the pool of warmth in his stomach, felt the inner fire flare, and concentrated on breathing.
Three days later, Zuko did not wake with the dawn. When he did finally wake, he wasn't even sure what time it was; he couldn't seem to focus on the sun. His mind felt like rotting cotton, cloudy and tangled and with every thought crumbling at the slightest pressure of concentration. He felt hot—too hot—but not sticky; he had a fever, but he wasn't sweating, and some part of his mind registered that as a bad sign.
Food had been nonexistent, and Zhao was allowing him only the bare minimum amount of water to keep him alive. Zuko was hungry, but the thirst was far worse. His mouth felt like baked sand and his tongue was thick and foreign, too dry to form any moisture.
Zuko couldn't feel his arms. He couldn't feel much of anything outside the haze of heat and the ache that tangled his thoughts and throbbed everywhere in his head. His eyes—he couldn't open his eyes. He felt sure that if he did, they would explode from the pressure behind them.
Zuko drifted, sometimes floating close to dim awareness, other times drowning deep in nightmarish fever dreams. At some point, he surfaced to the sound of voices, very near yet muffled. Whispering? No, he just couldn't hear them. And it was too much effort to focus. He imagined he heard the words "infection" and "doctor" and an aggravated noise in what sounded like Zhao's voice before consciousness slipped away again.
The next time he heard voices, they sounded sharper and more urgent somehow. He struggled to focus. Something about those voices cut through the cotton wrapping his thoughts and demanded attention.
"Oh man, that's not right." A man's voice—no, a boy's, and irritating, though Zuko had no idea why.
"How do we get him out of those irons?" A younger voice, much younger. He knew that voice.
"I'll handle that." A girl's voice this time. Then the sound of shifting cloth and the clear, bubbling sound of moving water and oh spirits he was so thirsty! Zuko tried to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut. His lips parted and he tried to speak, but instead of "water", all he managed was a broken whisper, like wind over cracked desert.
They didn't seem to have heard him. "I dunno…Aang…he looks pretty bad. He might not…" The older, annoying boy trailed off.
"This is my fault," Aang said, but this time his voice didn't sound so young; even dazed, Zuko recognized the same unyielding determination that was within himself. "He wouldn't be here if I'd been more careful. He's not going to die. I won't let him."
Zuko's mind was a muddled sea of confusion, and all he could think was: why would the Avatar be here?
A liquid whistle accompanied a sharp metallic whine, and something heavy crashed to the ground before him. The sound of flowing water came closer, and Zuko's mouth burned with longing. But before he could try to ask for some again, his arms jolted and crumpled at his sides, feeling like loose blubber, as the cold steel holding them snapped away. "Okay, got him," the girl—the waterbender—said.
What? Were they…rescuing him?
"C'mon, they're not going to be distracted for long. We've got to go, now."
"I've got him." Aang again, but much closer this time. And then there was an arm around his shoulders—cold, much too cold—and then the whoosh of air, and then an alarming sense of vertigo as he was suddenly not quite on the ground anymore.
And then they were off and running with him half-held, half-suspended by the Avatar.
This had to be a dream. But the cold air on his skin felt real enough, and his head throbbed with every quick dodge and jolt Aang made, and he could sense fire being bent nearby, though not at them, and were those frogs he heard croaking?
Had the Avatar really come back to save him? They were enemies! What in Agni's name was he supposed to do now?
It was too much all at once, and none of it made any sense. And Zuko hurt too much to think anymore. So he let his awareness slip away, promising himself that he would make sense of it all and come up with a plan.
Just not yet.