Description: Zuko is banished from the Fire Nation after his fateful Agni Kai, but his Uncle is prevented from joining him. Zuko must face the world alone except for the sarcastic Lt. Jee, together they fight pirates, brave storms and scour the world for any sign of the Avatar, who has not been seen for a hundred years.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar and I'm really not making money off of this.
Thanks to my Beta Methe for pointing out my terrible phrasing!
The last rays of a brilliant Fire Nation sunset glanced off a calm, temperate ocean and pinked the foam that churned in the wake of the modest ferry as it made its way methodically past the Black Cliffs. As the sun at last slipped beneath dark waters the Gates of Azulon, the last visible monument of the Fire Nation capital, finally faded from view.
The boy who leaned on the railing at the stern of the vessel had no appreciation for the sunset, or the imposing and majestic cliffs that rose to either side. He was cloaked in dark red silk with the hood pulled forward to ward off curious stares and his hands gripped the metal rail white-knuckled and tense. The left half of the boy's face was wrapped tightly in clean, white bandages which obscured the eye. His right eye, however, was narrowed, trained on the horizon where the Gates had faded from view. He did not blink, he barely breathed, and it would be some hours yet before he moved from this place, the place where he caught his last glimpse of home.
The crossing from the main island of the Fire Nation to the nearest of the Earth Kingdom colonies was easily three weeks. For those three weeks the boy with the bandaged face did not speak, nor did he leave his tiny cabin, save for meals. In the dark quiet of his berth he lay not asleep but not fully aware. Curled up on his bunk he tried to pretend that it was just a bad dream, that he was safe.
The agony of his face and the gentle rocking of the boat made such self-deception impossible however. Flinging himself onto his back, spread-eagled, Zuko wondered for what felt like the millionth time where his uncle was. The last time he had seen his Uncle Iroh was in the Royal Hospital after the... after he was... after.
Waking up was a monumental effort, his head throbbed and his eyes wouldn't open right, Zuko made an incoherent noise and tried to move, but his arms weren't responding properly either.
"Shh my nephew, do not try to get up, you need to rest now. How is the pain?"
Uncle Iroh's voice was unmistakable and Zuko felt a strange surge of relief and disappointment. He was relieved to have his Uncle there with him, because he truly felt awful, but he was deeply disappointed that his father was not the one sitting by his bed, waiting for him to wake. The thought struck him as odd, but Zuko's head was fuzzy and it was too hard to think about why that may be.
Zuko tried to blink, but only managed half of the movement, the left side of his face strangely unresponsive. He thought about his Uncle's presence and remembered that he had been asked a question.
"The... pain?" he queried in a rough, broken voice.
Iroh looked at him with concern and started to speak again but Zuko had lost his tenuous hold on consciousness, slipping back into a drugged sleep.
The next time he woke he was alone. Zuko lay unmoving for several minutes, trying to remember where he was and what had happened. His head was fuzzy and it was difficult to concentrate on any one thought.
As Zuko struggled to emerge fully into consciousness, the door to the ward opened, admitting his Uncle Iroh. "Ah, Prince Zuko! It is good to see that you are awake. Are you feeling any better?"
"...a little." Zuko muttered thickly, "Uncle... what happened?"
Iroh frowned thoughtfully at Zuko. He circled the bed with a measured step, coming to stand next to his nephew and tucked his hands into his wide sleeves. "It is perhaps a blessing that you do not yet remember, and I am certain that you will soon, but it does me no honour to recount the past few days' events to you Prince Zuko. Allow me, please, a moment. Perhaps a cup of soothing Jasmine tea would not go amiss?"
"Uncle," Zuko tried for a warning tone, but his anxiety and drug-addled senses caused it to come out more pleading, "what is it? What's going to happen to me?"
His Uncle hummed; a low thrum of disapproval, "You remember, then, the Agni Kai?" Zuko winced and Iroh sighed, he looked as though he were about to say something more, but he simply reached forward and plucked a scroll from the table next to Zuko's head. He handed it to Zuko, "The terms, nephew."
Zuko's hands shook slightly as he cracked the official seal on the scroll. He swallowed nervously and unrolled it. The missive was terse; the language plain to the point of rudeness and Zuko only had to read it once, despite his fuzzy head, to fully grasp what it said.
"B..Banished?" he gasped, turning a pleading gaze on his Uncle, "Until I... capture the Avatar? But... but... the Avatar hasn't been seen for a hundred years... this is..."
"The Firelord's will." Iroh cut in swiftly. There was something strange about his expression and the way he was looking at the healer by the door and not at Zuko.
"Uncle? Please, you have to do something, I can't leave... I can't..." Zuko tried valiantly to imagine a life outside the palace, hunting some elusive figure of myth, he couldn't.
"Hush my nephew, it will be ok, you will not be alone on your journey, I promise you. I will accompany you; I must go now and make preparations. We will need a ship and crew, I think. Perhaps Ho-Yan's daughter has learned something of her father's trade... He made the most wonderful roast duck..." Iroh clapped his hands together and smiled, but it was wavering and did not reach his eyes. He sighed, "I am truly sorry Zuko." And with that he stood and, with a last look at his stricken nephew, left.
Zuko sat in shock for several minutes after Iroh's departure; he was more relieved than he would ever admit to anyone that his Uncle would be accompanying him. He thought about a ship, and a crew, and his Uncle along to guide and help him, maybe capturing the Avatar could be done... With this hopeful thought tugging at the corners of a small smile, Zuko drifted back into sleep.
He woke some time later with a gasping groan, the left side of his face searing with agony. Blinking spots from his vision, his head swimming with the nauseating pain, Zuko tried to prop himself up, though his body felt oddly disconnected. He sat very still for several moments, trying to master the pain and swallow his nausea. Eventually his gasps drew the attention of the healer in the adjoining room.
The man entered swiftly, brusquely handed Zuko a steaming mug and instructed, "Drink the whole dose at once Prince Zuko, it will dull the pain."
Zuko swallowed the thick, bitter liquid without hesitation and nearly dropped the cup as he tried to hand it back. He lay back waiting for the medicine to take effect and happened to glance out the window, it was still mostly dark and Zuko concentrated for a moment to determine the position of the sun, a few hours until dawn; it seems a full day had not yet passed since his conversation with Uncle Iroh. In order to distract himself, Zuko wondered if his Uncle had made any progress in finding a ship and crew.
His attempt was aborted when the door to the ward opened, and torchlight cut across his face. Shielding his eyes, Zuko sat up, squinting into the light. When he spotted the lithe figure of his sister as she slipped into the room, Zuko rolled his eyes and flopped back down. Azula would be crowing, she was always there to criticize and pick at him, and this was a mistake of truly epic proportions. Somehow though, in the wake of his banishment, he found it hard to care about Azula and whatever barbs she may have prepared for him.
Azula made her way silently to the side of Zuko's bed, unknowingly occupying the same space that Iroh had stood in, hours earlier. She spent a few long moments just staring, eyes raking over the bandaged left side of his face, and his shaven head. Zuko glared at her, but instead of the mocking he expected, her eyes were lit with a kind of wary curiosity, it was unnerving to him and Zuko turned away.
"Have you seen under the bandages?"
The question startled him, he hadn't thought she would speak, but even more startling was the tone. She sounded... scared? Azula never sounded scared. Sitting up again, Zuko scooted to one side and faced his sister.
"No, I haven't seen anything, why?"
Azula sat herself next to him, legs kicking, "Just curious... Can I see it?"
"What? NO!" Zuko shuffled backwards, away from Azula's reach, one arm raised protectively in anticipation.
Azula just rolled her eyes, lacing her fingers together on her lap, "Relax Dum dum, I'll be careful," she grimaced, "I won't touch it or anything, I just wanna look."
Lowering his arm cautiously, Zuko stared at his sister, he couldn't think of any other reason she would have for wanting to look at whatever it was that had happened to his face, and he had to admit to himself that now that the pain had faded a bit, he was curious too.
Zuko sighed, "Fine, but wash your hands and try not to breathe on it."
Azula gave him a slightly wicked grin and hopped off the bed, there was a fountain for hand-washing by the door along with some astringent soap. When her hands were clean, Azula returned, taking a cloth from the table next to Zuko's bed and tying it around her face as a mask, she faced him, "Come closer, sit on the edge. I don't want to firebend in here."
Obligingly, Zuko slid over and perched on the edge of the bed, as she reached forward for the edge of his bandage he sucked in a breath. Azula just raised an eyebrow and peeled back the edge of the white gauze. It stung, a lot, and Zuko fought to keep still.
"Tilt your head a little... no, the other way... oh that's revolting!"
"Hey!" Zuko jerked his head away, offended, and Azula was forced to let go of the bandage. Holding her fingers out and grimacing under the mask, she went back to the fountain to wash her hands again.
"What? It's not pretty Zuko, and it's going to scar. I don't know how you'll be able to show your face in court once it's healed."
Azula actually sounded concerned, and Zuko was left wondering why their father hadn't told her. "I'm not going to have to. Didn't dad say? ...Azula... I'm banished." Turning his head in shame, Zuko heard, rather than saw Azula's outburst.
Steam hissed from the fountain, but her voice was cold as ice, "What."
He looked back at her, but he couldn't decipher the strange expression on her face. They stared at one another for a moment, then Azula's eyes narrowed and she turned and left, as silently as she had come.
Turning away from the door, Zuko lay down and tried to get back to sleep. He had almost drifted off when the door opened once more. Zuko didn't bother to turn, it wouldn't be Azula. When she stormed off from an argument, she never came back.
There was a quiet shuffling and then a loud thump. Startled, Zuko turned to find one of the palace servants standing by his bedside.
"Prince Zuko, we have your belongings, will you allow us to escort you to the docks?"
Zuko looked around, confused, along with the servant by his bed; he could see two guards with full face helmets standing by the door. There was a bag at the servant's feet, it wasn't very big. "What? Now? But the sun isn't even up yet." His throat was dry, hardly able to form the words, this wasn't right.
"Yes Prince Zuko, it is still two hours before dawn, the ferry leaves in one hour, we must leave now if you are to catch it." The servant was demure, eyes lowered, voice calm, but the words came with a finality that spoke of authority. They had been ordered to escort him, this was not a choice.
Still... ferry? What about his Uncle, and the ship? He stood shakily and one of the guards stepped forward, but Zuko brushed him off. He took the clothes offered, changing from his sleep pants without shame. The last item was a heavy silk cloak in a dark red, shrugging it on; Zuko pulled the hood forward, hiding his bandage.
Reluctantly, unsteady on his feet, he allowed himself to be led from the palace. The walk down to the port was long and exhausting. There was no palanquin to ride in and Zuko felt that at any moment he would collapse. He would not lean on the guard, however. He still had his dignity, if not his honour and he would walk to the ship under his own power.
Upon reaching the docks, Zuko had fully expected to find his Uncle already waiting, this nonsense about a ferry just a misunderstanding. His disappointment was so great that he nearly fell. There were no ships here, only junks and ferries, and it was to one of the latter that Zuko was led. The guard walked him to the causeway, paid the ferryman and then unceremoniously shoved Zuko's bag into his arms and left. They stopped halfway up the dock, presumably in case Zuko tried to make a run for it, but he was too shocked to do anything of the sort.
Standing on the gangplank of a ferry, paralyzed with fear, disappointment and betrayal, Zuko had only one thought, where is Uncle?
A ferry pulled into the port of Hesan just after noon on a bright and humid summer's day. Disgorging its occupants onto an already bustling pier-side market, the little boat was dwarfed by a rather battered looking Fire Navy ship berthed nearby. The air in the port town was redolent with the smell of rotting fish and smoked eel, a sea breeze the only, temporary, relief.
Sitting on the end of a battered pier, Xiang cast his line and pulled his straw hat further down to shade his eyes. He had been fishing in this same spot for the better part of two days, waiting for the ferry that would bring the banished Prince and so far he hadn't caught a thing. Absently patting the letter tucked into his tunic, Xiang kept a casual eye on the passengers disembarking from the latest ferry, the sooner he spotted the prince, the sooner he could go back to playing pai sho all day instead of this tedious fishing.
The boy in the red silk cloak that stepped uncertainly onto the pier was so easily recognized as nobility that Xiang cringed, though he looked lost and uncertain nothing could disguise the arrogance in his bearing, the upright posture and careful steps. Even from the back, Xiang was certain that this was the right boy. Quickly reeling in his fishing line Xiang stood and stretched, glancing around easily and, apparently unobserved, slipped casually into the crowd. The Prince was easy to tail; he was walking slowly and didn't glance around at all. On his guard anyway, it never hurt to be careful, Xiang followed at a safe distance, eagerly awaiting the completion of this mission.
Zuko struggled not to retch as the stench of this place invaded his senses. It wasn't so much a smell as it was a living thing, pressing down and in, choking him. His head swimming with pain, he stumbled forward into a seething press of humanity. The crowd surged with strange, unfathomable tides and eddies, pressing in on him and pushing him this way and that. Zuko fought to keep heading in the same direction, for no other reason than a fear of being lost forever in this faceless sea of people. Hands brushed across his back and shoulders, nimble fingers scraped his waist and Zuko choked, suffocating with so many people around him, breathing on him, touching him. He fought the press, moving as quickly as he could to escape, his breath coming quick and shallow, heart racing and a terrifying numbness stealing its way in from his extremities. He felt cold, but sticky with sweat and all of a sudden was gripped with the irrational fear that he would die here, trapped in this mess of bodies.
Just as he felt himself really starting to lose it, he spotted a gap in the crowd, wriggling forward he pushed himself clear, finding a space in the lee of an archway. Free of the grasping, shoving hands, Zuko gasped in ragged breaths. He stood there, shaking and trembling for several moments before he finally regained some presence of mind. Glancing upwards and around he noted that he was standing at the gate of a quadrangle complex that advertised itself as an inn. Gratefully, Zuko stepped into the cool, dim archway. The noise from the pier dropped off as he entered the quadrangle and took a seat at a low, rickety table. He was feeling much saner now that he was out of the crowd, but the pain in the left half of his face had not dimmed. Breathing deeply in a calming pattern, he held himself still and tried to retreat from the ragged edged panic that was threatening to overwhelm him again. He was alone in a strange town with nothing but a small bag and a mission he had no idea how to begin. Zuko fought hard against the urge to hyperventilate.
"Uhm... excuse me... can I get you something?"
Zuko's head jerked up startled. A girl in a serving outfit had approached him while he was struggling to breathe and was now gazing at him quizzically, holding a small pad and ink stick. Zuko looked around kind of desperately, at a loss as to what kind of refreshments peasants served to one another, "Uh, like what?"
"We have tea, rice cakes, the day's soup with noodles or smoked eel on rice." The girl recited mechanically, her eyes were fixed on Zuko's bandaged face, causing him to fidget nervously.
"Oh, uhm... tea? I guess...?" The thought of eating anything remotely related to seafood turned his stomach. The stench from the pier had not entirely dissipated. He dug in his bag, hoping that the servants had included some kind of currency. Finding a small bag of clinking metal he pulled out a handful of coins. They glinted golden in the sunlight and Zuko turned to the girl, frowning. "Do you have rooms here? I thought I noticed the character for 'inn' on the archway..?"
The glittering gold coins in Zuko's hand were enough to tear the girls attention away from his face, her eyes widened as she took in the wealth, sitting so easily in his hand, "Yes, we have rooms, my mother does the guest roster, I'll tell her to come see you after I bring your tea." She backed away, quickly, ink stick scratching, and then turned and ran into the nearest building. Zuko could faintly hear her shouting for her mother, but he stopped paying attention. Shoving the coins back into his bag he let his head fall into his arms; then yelped as pain flared under his bandage. Gingerly laying the right half of his face down, Zuko waited.
Xiang watched the Prince finish his tea, sipping a cup of his own. He was certain that he hadn't been noticed and as the Prince finished talking to the owner of the inn and they departed for the main building he simply stood casually and followed them as though he had every right to be there. When the woman and the boy stopped at a particular door Xiang merely noted its location and kept walking, he rounded the corner and then paused, waiting until the woman left.
When he heard her footsteps retreat, Xiang retraced his steps. Carefully, quietly, he removed the folded letter from inside his tunic and slipped it under the Prince's door. Making his way from the inn, back to his favourite pai sho parlour, Xiang smiled.
A/N: Thanks to everyone who read this far, hopefully the next chapter will be up soon. I have this thing plotted out all the way to a sequel. If you like it please review (even if you just give me your internet thumbs up!), if you have any constructive criticism I'd love to hear it!
Next Time: Zuko gets a letter and worries about money. Jee makes his entrance!
A/N the second: I've made a minor change to this chapter because I sensed that I was going to have major timeline issues unless I fixed things now: Instead of being four days from the Fire Nation capital, Hesan is now three weeks from the capital.