A/N: This takes place when Zuko decides to leave the palace and join Aang.
Zuko wandered through the endless halls of the royal palace, concentrating on the small, elegant noise that his shoes were making against the polished tiles. If he focused hard enough, he could almost delude himself that he was a child again, walking down the same vast halls with a sense of wonder and complete obliviousness to what was happening behind the massive, sealed doors.
But now he knew.
After his return home, the initial glow of relief that he'd falsely perceived as a sense of belonging faded away in favour of a feeling that he knew very well from his travels with uncle Iroh or alone.
Zuko didn't feel like home.
As a child, he used to think that it was impossible to feel uncomfortable in a place so vast, yet so warm in its alluring velvet shadows and red, burning red flames that emptied the walls of their aloofness. He would feel safe in the cradle of a life that missed nothing, letting fire sing him lullabies of promised security and warmth when the truth was anything but those.
But now, the place that had been his sanctuary was no longer a sanctuary, and no longer his.
The meeting was over and he should've felt accomplished that his father trusted him again, that he wasn't a failure anymore, not banished, not needed to roam the earth in an absurd search to regain his honour, not poor, not helpless, not alone. But it all felt like a fragile balance that could be shattered in any moment, and he became more and more aware of it everytime images of his father burning him or Azula almost capturing him and Iroh came to his mind, making him wonder what exactly did honour mean if its lack was strong enough to break a family apart.
He briefly touched his scar and he asked himself just how stupid could he be to believe that things could ever go back to normal again.
Even the palace, in all its greatness, could shatter to pieces in any second- it wasn't home anymore.
He made as little noise as possible in his preparations, but as he exited the arms room, Azula was waiting in her nightgown, leaning on the wall and with her arms crossed. She wasn't smiling, but her eyes had the same devious look as always.
'Well, well,' she deadpanned. 'Traitors will be traitors, right, Zuzu?'
'What are you doing here?' he hissed, even though, reminding himself to never underestimate her, he had expected such an appearance that night.
'Saying goodbye, of course,' Azula smiled a perfect twisted smile. 'It would be impolite of me to do otherwise, don't you think?'
Zuko narrowed his eyes.
'What do you want?' he spat out, knowing that Azula meant nothing good and that he should get rid of her as fast as possible- even though he'd never really knew how to go about doing such a thing.
'I already told you,' she continued, feigning indifference. 'What makes you think that I would have other intentions?' However, her eyes told an entirely different story than her words.
'You always lie.'
'I'll take that as a compliment,' she smiled and her smiles were never fake, contrarily to what people might believe- each and every one of them was genuine, because Azula took pleasure in every little act of pretense that she displayed. Zuko knew this and it used to scare him, but not anymore. Not ever again. 'You're a fool, you know. You're finally back home again, Dad restores your honor and what do you do? You sulk like a lost child and you run away like the coward that you always were. You're pathetic.' She paused, examining her nails. ' I have to confess, I believed that you actually changed, Zuzu,' she continued on a mock sentimental tone. 'You really broke my heart this time.'
'I have changed,' he replied bitterly, 'just not in the way you expected me to.'
'Oh, don't be silly. You've always been so self-absorbed that you could be nothing but weak.' She eyed him maliciously. 'You're so easy to influence, I bet Iroh made what ever he wanted to make of you. You're wrong, Zuko, and you know that. What ever this battle is, you've lost it before even bothering to strike.'
Zuko felt the rage boiling into his veins and he almost hit, fire burning on the tips of his fingers- but he didn't. Azula was only provoking him and reacting would've equaled with losing. She wanted to lead him astray, make him break down so she would have proof for his treachery. He took a deep breath, refocusing his anger.
'No, you're wrong. You never knew what fighting for something meant, falling and getting up again every time you were struck down, not giving up however bad destiny treated you,' he said, his voice rapidly turning into a shout. 'You never had to struggle for anything in your entire life! Of course you're perfect if you never even had the chance to fail!'
Azula laughed loudly, throwing her head back. 'Can't you see that you're going against yourself, brother? All that you suffered, you brought upon yourself. If you'd been determined to serve the nation properly despite your regrettable inclination towards compassion and weakness,' she rolled her eyes in annoyance,' you wouldn't have been banished and none of this had happened. We would've been a happy family… just you, me and Dad,' she concluded on a bitter tone concealing meanings that Zuko caught, but decided to ignore despite the painful memories that the image of his mother brought.
Azula wouldn't win this game.
'You can't get to me anymore, Azula. I know what I have to do. I've travelled and seen things that you have no idea about, and I know that I'm the one who has to restore the honor of the Fire Nation. What ever mistakes I've made, they'll be redeemed.'
'Fine,' she sighed dramatically. 'But don't tell me I haven't warned you.'
They stood in silence for a few moments, looking at each other- Azula cold and calculated, Zuko as neutral as he could be.
'Aren't you going to attack me?' he said, breaking the silence and she laughed again.
'Well, I'm aware that being caught before you could even get out of the palace to begin your world-saving adventure would be a wonderful coronation to your failures, Zuzu, but I'm feeling particularly kind tonight, so I think I'll let you go.'
Zuko frowned. 'What's the catch?'
'You're insulting me again, dear brother. Is it that difficult to believe that I am doing a kind gesture for you? A… farewell gift, perhaps? Fine. I'll retreat to my room to assure you of my good intentions.' She walked towards her chamber and Zuko followed, heading towards the stairs. There had to be a hidden catch. Azula never did anything without a purpose. He remained tensed, ready for a possible attack.
'By the way, there's a surprise waiting for you outside,' she said on a sweet voice before closing the massive door to her room, her cunning smile being the last thing to vanish in the darkness.
Zuko sneaked outside, looking for anyone else around. He didn't think that Azula had spoken to the guards- after all, there was nothing too suspicious to the prince taking a walk at night. She had nothing to incriminate him with, but he still had to be careful.
The night was in full bloom and seeing the stars reminded him of all the nights that he'd spent travelling, having a freedom that he'd wrongly perceived as limitation and shame.
He missed his uncle.
At the end of the front stairs there were no guards or threats, but a tall, familiar silhouette.
'Mai,' he said simply as she turned to face him.
'So Azula was right. You really are leaving,' she said and her sharp tone did nothing to reassure him that he could turn Azula's 'surprise' in his favour, even if she really did know nothing about people, about him, if she imagined that turning two lovers against each other could hurt them how three years of separation hadn't managed to.
'I have to,' he replied on a low voice, not looking her in the eye.
'And what about me? Am I nothing in this story? No, wait- I really am important to you. Important enough to be dumped through a letter,' she remarked bitterly, but not without pain beneath the anger in her voice.
'Mai, you have to understand. The Fire Nation is your home. How would've you reacted if I suddenly told you that I'm leaving to join the Avatar, betraying everything that we both believed in for so much time?' he pleaded.
'How would've I reacted?' she shouted. 'Maybe I would've understood! Maybe I would've joined you!'
Zuko remained speechless at her last remark because, in all honesty, he didn't even consider that possibility. Mai had grown up having everything she could wish for- except for affection and fun. But giving up her lifestyle in exchange for those seemed too drastic of a change. He thought that she was more likely to wait until she had it all.
'If you believe that my attachment to my country or to Azula, which is only a bit over nothing, is stronger than my love for you, then you really don't know me at all, Zuko.' She turned around and ascended the stairs, disappearing behind the door and leaving Zuko at a loss for words, his gaze following her into the palace. He tried to move, follow her and tell her something sense-making and reassuring, but what? What was there to say? Nothing.
She's right, he thought. I really didn't know.
Before being tempted to curse himself for being so stupid, he remembered that that's how things go for him. He was constantly falling, but one day he would make up for all of it and by no means would he ever stop fighting.
He knew now that the universe, the same one that he'd cursed endless times during his years of banishment, the one that he'd challenged in the middle of the storm, was on his side.
He moved forward to the prison where his uncle was being kept. At finding that he had escaped the prison without his help, he couln't help but smile and be a strange kind of proud. For a moment, he felt more alone than ever.
He would get back to them, he would prove the world that he could do all the things that it had deemed him incapable of, he would end the war and bring peace to a world that had been bleeding for too long.
And after all this would be over, he still had to get back his honour- but this time, it would be in front of those that he loved.
This is my first attempt at an Avatar story and I'm not too sure of it. But I like writing Zuko.