Zuko knew today was going to be a good day.
It started with Father asking them if they would play a game with him. Father never spent time with them, never showed any desire to see them unless necessary. Azula saw him more than he did since Father was currently supervising her firebending training while they looked for another teacher. She’d run off the last one and the one before that. Zuko thinks she’s doing it on purpose, because she enjoys hurting people, because it makes their father proud, maybe both. Since Zuko wasn’t firebending yet, Father never wants to see him. It seems every time he does, Father spends all his time glaring at him, as if that would make him any less worthless. Seven was a little late for someone to start bending but it wasn’t impossible because he had to be a bender, Father and Grandfather said so.
“What sort of game, Dad?” Azula asked cheerily, wide awake and ready for the day as usual. Zuko was still a bit sleepy, it was pretty early in the morning, but Father has dragged him out of bed before the sun had even risen. There was no one else around the small courtyard, save for a few turtleducks quaking quietly in the pond.
“Hide and seek, my dear. It’s the only game to play in a palace this size. There are so many wonderful spots for one to burrow in.” Father replied genially, giving Zuko an appraising look. Despite the attention, Zuko felt uncomfortable. Father was anger and cunning and a raging fire barely controlled, this calm and patient man before him was unfamiliar and a bit intimidating. He found himself missing his mother, who was away at Ember Island for a few days with come other noble women or even Uncle Iroh who was set to arrive sometime tomorrow afternoon.
“Your mother tells me you’ve mastered your numbers Azula, why don’t you begin counting while your brother and I hide?” Father’s hand, warm and strong, rested gently between his shoulder blades and Zuko felt a rush of happiness go through him. Father wanted to be with him! He grinned up at his parent and saw that Father was smiling down at him, but it wasn’t warm like Mom’s smiles. It was sharp and cold, like how Azula smiled when she was planning on burning small animals or firebending teachers.
With a small huff, Azula covered her eyes and began counting. Father grabbed his wrist and strode back into the palace, his large steps forcing Zuko to practically run to keep up.
“Are we hiding together?” Zuko asked but Father kept marching forward, acting as if Zuko had never spoken. He bit his lip and tried again. “Azula is very good at this game but I know a few places she’d never think to look.”
“No, I have a very special spot in mind for you.” Father said simply, continuing to half drag Zuko along. He noticed that they were walking into the older section of the palace, the remnants that hadn’t been destroyed when Avatar Roku had attacked Fire Lord Sozin over a hundred years ago. Zuko swallowed nervously; he never liked being in this section, it always felt like he was being watched. “Did you know the ancient Fire Sages built a network of tunnels throughout the Palace and Capital City, Prince Zuko?”
“Yes, of course,” Zuko added, still hurrying to keep up and avoid getting dragged. “We learned about it from the tutors, I heard that most of the tunnels have been closed off to prevent anyone from getting through after an attempted assassination on Grand- um Fire Lord Azulon.”
“Correct,” Father answered, “there are still a few open tunnels in case the royal family needs to escape but while the tunnels have been sealed, that does not mean their doors don’t open.” As if making his point, Father stopped abruptly and pointed at a stretch of wall just like every other. “Most of these tunnels have been forgotten, lost to history, but I discovered this one when I was about your age.” Father said, moving aside a small candle holder on the wall and forced flame through a tiny opening. Zuko was amazed when a small section of the wall opened with a creak revealing a secret door. “These doors are opened by firebending, nothing else short of a battering ram can get through. Even sound can hardly travel through the thick stone.”
Zuko peeked inside the cold, dark tunnel. It was very small, he noted. He and Azula would be shoulder to shoulder if they both were in it. It clearly used to be larger at some point but he could see where more recent stone blocked what led to the rest of the tunnel. His brow furrowed.
“Father, I don’t think the both of us will fit in here.” Father’s genial smile turned menacing and Zuko froze in fear as his father’s larger hands clamped down on his shoulders.
“No my son, but you will. You see, the best games are the ones in which we learn lessons and your lesson today is to learn firebending.” Father began to push him forward into the dark tunnel but Zuko planted his feet and tried to resist. “Your mother has been far too delicate with you; it’s why you’re such a pathetic excuse of a son. Unfortunately for both of us, you are royalty and the Fire Nation cannot tolerate princes that can’t bend.” Despite his best efforts to struggle, Father was much stronger and Zuko was almost inside.
“Father, wait, I don’t want to go in there.” Zuko whimpered, grasping his hand on the wall but Father gave a final push and Zuko stumbled into the dark tunnel. The light streaming in cast his father’s entire face in shadow so Zuko couldn’t see the expression on his face.
“Listen carefully, this door will only open with a flame; if you are unable to conjure any fire then you will die in here a useless failure. If you scream and escape with the help of someone else, I promise you I will strike you and your rescuer down where you stand.” Zuko froze at the brusque statement and almost missed his father slowly closing the door on him. “You will learn to firebend Prince Zuko, your life depends on it.” Father said with a cruel smile, almost looking pleased at his son’s horrified face. “And for what it’s worth son, I hope you succeed. Your mother would be simply awful to deal with if you went missing.” And with that said, the door clicked shut leaving Zuko trapped in the most terrifying darkness of his life.
Panic hit him like an ocean wave; he threw himself against the door and pounded.
“Father!” He pleaded, not caring how pitiful he sounded. He was scared and alone and he wanted his mother. “Father please! I can learn! I’ll practice all day and all night if I have to! Just let me out, I promise I will redeem myself! Father!” He shouted, wondering if Father could even hear him on the other side. Or if he was even there anymore. Zuko could feel himself trembling, he looked down at approximately where his hands should be and found he couldn’t see anything beyond the black. Terror lodged in the back of his throat, choking him and making it hard to breathe. In his desperation, he started clawing at the walls as if that might get him a glimpse of light. He could barely tell which way was up or down in here, it was so dark he couldn’t get any sense of depth or direction.
“Father please let me out!” His eyes were wide and he can feel tears pouring freely out of his eyes. He continues to claw and scratch and pound away at the tough stone door, not noticing or caring that his hands were become ripped and bloodied. His nails had been worn down instantly and he could feel his skin grinding on the ancient stone leaving bloody trails. He continued to scream. “Mother! Mom please! I’m scared where are you?” On Ember Island of course, Father had insisted she take a break. She’d initially wanted to take him with her but… Uncle Iroh’s letter said he would be in town and he’d begged Mother to stay so he could see Uncle. That trip has been planned for weeks, how long has Father been… The thought of this being planned that far in advance took his strength; he fell against the back wall and slipped down until he awkwardly hunched on the floor. It was uncomfortable and his knees were knocking together but he could sit at least.
It was then that he heard a noise down the hall and Zuko was about to scream some more when his Father’s parting words came back him. ‘If you scream and escape with the help of someone else, I promise I will strike you and your rescuer down where you stand’, Zuko gulped at the implications. It was scary enough that Father would do that to him but Zuko couldn’t drag someone else into his punishment. He heard footsteps drawing closer and, despite every instinct within him that told him to scream and beg for help, Zuko bit down on his bottom lip to keep quiet.
“Junko? Stop wandering off, we still have the whole Eastern corridor to clean.” An older lady, probably one of the servants, was dimly heard through the thick walls. Zuko wanted to scream instead he closed his eyes and covered his mouth with his bloodied hands, trying desperately to keep quiet. He wanted to be free more than anything but he wouldn’t risk other people’s lives to do so. After all, Father always kept his promises.
“Sorry Kame, I thought I heard something. It almost sounded like a child was screaming.” Another younger voice added, Zuko thought she maybe sounded a little bit like Mom. He let out another low level whine at the thought but forced himself to be quiet.
“Don’t go chasing after voices foolish girl. I tell you these old walls have seen many despicable evils and this place has more ghosts than a battlefield. Let’s move along now, leave the restless dead to their own devices.” Zuko couldn’t tell if the women had anything else to say for they’d walked too far away from the secret entrance. He still kept his fingers tightly sealed over his mouth because if he lets go, he’s sure he’ll start screaming and then he’ll be in the same mess all over again.
He’s less scared by the idea that these halls are possibly haunted and more terrified of the fact that he soon might become one of those unhappy ghosts. He started shivering again and gently released his hands from his mouth to dig into the fabric of his clothing. What would happen, if he died here? Father said he would tell Mother he went missing, so did that mean they would just leave his body in here? No final rites or funeral pyre to lay his spirit to rest, just his bones gathering dust in the dark while Mom and the others had no idea what became of him? No, he can’t think like that, he’s going to get out of here. More tears drip down his face and splatter soundlessly onto the cold floor. He doesn’t get up for a long while.
After what feels like hours of terror beating through his heart, Zuko finally feels rational again. He thinks he might have dozed off for a bit after he stopped crying but now that some of the fear has left him, he’s finally able to acknowledge the pain. Father… just threw him in here, without care or concern and told him it was for his own good. Zuko knows his father is a hard man but to sentence him to death feels like such a betrayal. But he’s not dead yet; he still has a shot of getting out of here and maybe getting some of his father’s respect. Firebend or die, those are his options and he knows what he’s going to pick.
“No, I’m not going to die in here,” he whispers quietly under his breath and picks himself up from his huddle and wipes the tears from his face. Zuko folds himself awkwardly into the lotus position like his teachers taught him. His hands are still shaking slightly and his breath is coming in ragged bursts but firebending is his only way out of here, even if all his previous efforts amounted to nothing.
He was only in here because he was a failure of a Fire Nation prince. Grandfather said there hasn’t been a non-bender royal in recorded history. In a way, he should be grateful that Father has spared him this long. Father once told him that he was lucky to be born which he understood; things have never been easy for him. Azula has been bending for almost 2 years already. His baby sister had conjured her first flames at 4 years old while at 7, Zuko couldn’t even make smoke.
The Fire Sages said when he was born; his eyes didn’t have the ‘spark’ that most firebenders have. Father had told him he’d nearly killed Zuko right then and only Mom’s interference had saved him. He clenched his fists; no, things have never been easy for him, not like Azula who was born with luck and talent. But Mom told him that his struggles made him stronger, that the Fire Sages weren’t always right and there was still a chance he could summon fire. He had to hope there was some inside of him or else he’d really end up dying in here.
“Find the sun’s power within your soul,” he quoted quietly from memory. The sun was just rising when they began their little game. He vaguely wondered how much time has passed and if Azula was still looking for him... He shook his head; thinking of Azula certainly wouldn’t get him out of here. It was hard to visualize the sun in this dark, threatening room but he tried anyway, picturing the magnificent fiery orb in the sky and trying to match it with the fire inside of him.
“Come on,” he muttered impatiently after countless minutes, maybe more, of grasping for things that weren’t there. He kept trying, over and over again just like he did every day but, as always, he never felt that rush of heat and power that people tried to explain to him. “Why won’t you work!” He raged to himself, kicking out his foot in frustration only for it to hit painfully on stone wall. He hissed and dragged his leg closer to him. His ankle hurt, he gingerly tested it and found the foot painful and aching but not impossible to move. He grimly wondered if he’d ever be walking again for it to matter.
Zuko’s stomach growled painfully, he grasped at the unhappy organ and wondered again what time it was. He and Azula hadn’t even had breakfast when Father approached them about his game. There was an unfair bitterness in his chest at the thought of Azula eating her meal worry free while he was trapped in here, hungry and alone. But of course that wasn’t fair, it’s not her fault she was a better bender or that her older brother couldn’t seem to do anything but disappoint.
He sighed and rested his forehead on his knees, wiping away some of the sweat gathering on his forehead. Despite the fact that the stone was bitterly cold, the small tunnel was getting uncomfortably warm. He thinks it might be from his breathing heating up the small space. If only he could turn some of that heat into flames.
A crazy idea formed in his mind and he figured he might as well give it a go. It’s not like he didn’t have the rest of his life to try things out. He slowly stood up, awkwardly bumping into the walls in the endless darkness and stretched out his bad ankle. It still hurt and he could feel that it had swollen a little bit but at least he could stand on it. He knows it’s been at least a few hours so it’s probably healed a little bit but this probably isn’t going to help it much.
He blindly reaches out, feeling along the walls for the notch he’d found and ignored earlier in his panic. His fingers land on the small circular hole, almost too tall for him reach if he isn’t on his tiptoes. He visualizes how Father had effortlessly lit up the secret chamber and opened the door. Zuko would need to do that too if he wants to get out of here alive.
He settled into one of the many firebending stances he’d learned and tried to focus on the heat in the air, the heat his body was letting out. He punched out his fist forcefully, careful to avoid hitting the wall this time. Nothing. Again, he let out another series of punches; mimicking the moves he watched Azula practice all the time.
He was panting after a few minutes of punching, feeling the heat in the air increasing even more as his strength started to fade. He stopped, leaning forward on his knees for a few moments and feeling anger well up inside of him. “Come on Zuko,” he chastised bitterly, “your body is making all this heat, firebending comes from the flow of chi inside your body. You should be able to make that heat work for you.” He thought of his uncle who was probably still on his way to the palace from whatever Earth Kingdom town he’d last conquered. Uncle was the Dragon of the West, one of the most powerful firebenders around, maybe even better than Father. His nickname came from his signature fire-breathing move which Uncle repeatedly refused to demonstrate because he said it was too destructive. His eyebrow quirked, that would certainly open the door.
He readied his stance again, closing his eyes and concentrating on his breathing. Fire comes from the breath and, after a few tries, he settled into a strong, calm rhythm. He focused on the heat in the air, the sweat clinging to his brows and his clothes, hanging limpidly in the air. He breathed in deeply, drawing that heat into his lungs, into his core trying to stoke his inner fire. He held his breath and concentrated as intensely as he could on the air within him.
If Uncle was here, he would quote proverbs and make a weird, confusing joke but mostly he would tell Zuko to channel his strength and use it to beat down the enemy. While it first appeared that the enemy was the door, really it was his own failure that he had to overcome. Just when he felt his lungs would burst with the effort of holding in such a big breath, he breathed out harshly, trying to imagine heat and fire and freedom. Instead, all he got was a lot of hot air and a good amount of spit decorating the stone door. He shouldn’t have been surprised that he failed such a delicate and high level firebending move but the disappointment only fueled his anger.
“Why can’t I get this?” He raged, not caring at the volume of his voice. “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I do anything right?” He shouted, striking his fists out furiously in mock punches as if that would force the flame between his fingers. But his form was sloppy and there wasn’t enough room for error. He overbalanced in one of his strikes and ended up slamming one shoulder into the wall which upset his bad ankle even more. The pain jolted him out of his temper tantrum. He groaned in frustration and was rewarded with another painful cramp from his stomach. Great, now he’s used up even more energy and was going to starve to death even quicker.
Zuko was sitting again, leaning up against the stone door with his legs pushed up against the opposite wall. His bottom was getting sore from sitting on this cold uncomfortable floor, he kept changing positions but it never seemed to do him much good. At least his ankle felt a little bit better, he couldn’t really say the same for the rest of them.
His fingers aching from the scratching he’d done earlier and the dried blood on his hands made him feel sticky and uncomfortable. There were dozens of other little bruises and scratches all over his body from his various bumps and difficulties maneuvering in the tight space. His whole body was generally sore from his ill-fated firebending and positioning no matter how much he tried to loosen himself up. His stomach had stopped growling hours ago, or it seemed like hours ago anyway, it was hard to tell when the whole world was black. The hunger was still there, constant and present but it had to have realized food wasn’t coming anytime soon and quieted down. His lips were sore and chapped without water, his tongue feeling dry and heavy as it moved around his mouth. Mostly he felt tired, both in body and spirit.
It was hard to tell time in here but he had a feeling the sun had set already. That means it’s been countless hours since he’s been missing. He wonders if anyone has even really noticed. Father, obviously, knew since he’s the one who put him here. Uncle Iroh would be arriving tomorrow or possibly later today. Azula had been counting in the courtyard last he saw but she was probably at dinner or getting a bath or maybe already in bed. Zuko never disappeared like this but he imagined if it was Father telling her it was alright she wouldn’t worry, if she had been worried at all. Mom was still at Ember Island and wouldn’t be back for another 3 days. Zuko wasn’t experienced in such things but he imagined that if he didn’t get out before then, he wouldn’t be alive by the time Mom returned.
That was such a scary thought, one he couldn’t even touch a few hours ago but now that he’d been trapped in here for so long; tired, hungry and afraid, it was much easier. He tried to think of what Mom would say if, when, she came home to find him gone. She might not even know he was dead, just that he wasn’t around anymore. Would she look for him? Would Father be able to look her in the eye and tell her he didn’t know where Zuko was even though he’d thrown him in here? How would Azula react to being an only child? Would anyone even care at the loss of a non-bending royal?
Shame rushed through him and seemed to burn him from the inside out. Father and Grandfather used to pester him all the time over his firebending, asking question and rigorously testing him. Since Azula developed her skills, the questions have dropped off somewhat and it seemed they’d stopped acknowledging him anymore. He squeezes his eyes shut as he remembers that there hasn’t been a Fire Nation royal that hasn’t been a bender. He wonders if that was because everyone else had simply been more talented than him or maybe, just maybe, some of the ghosts in these hallways were non-benders like him who’d been locked away to die in shame. His heart aches and he wants to cry some more but he’s too exhausted and instead curls up into an uncomfortable sleep.
Zuko wakes up suddenly without quite knowing why. He’s struck immediately by how stiff and sore his body is and how, even with his eyes wide open, all he can see is never-ending darkness. Hide and seek, comes unbidden to his mind and the events of yesterday flood back. He’s trapped in a sealed off tunnel, stuck in a space barely big enough to hold him, until he is able to firebend open the door. Or he dies. He leans forward carefully, wincing as the bones in his back pop and jerk after so many hours of clustered up against the cold stone.
He yawns and rubs at his eye with the palm of his hand as he staggers to his feet and continues to stretch as best he can in the cramped space. He’s pleased to note his ankle feels better; at least something is going his way. The tunnel is still as dark and miserable as it was yesterday so he wonders what pulled from sleep so abruptly.
He’s still wondering some amount of time later when he hears voices coming down the hall. Instinctively, he squats down, almost as if he’s hiding, forgetting the fact that he’s literally trapped behind a wall. He’d heard many people walking by yesterday, servants mostly, talking amongst themselves. The walls were thick with no exits that he’d been able to find so he could only hear small bits of conversation. But his ears carefully picked up the voice he knew almost as well as his own as he huddled closer to the door to get a better listen.
“I look forward to training with you Masaki,” a deceptively sweet little girl’s voice said cheerfully. “I trust you’ll be able to teach me more than my last firebending teacher.” Zuko could have rolled his eyes. If the voice wasn’t enough; Azula’s blatant disrespect for her new master was a dead giveaway.
“I hope to live up to your expectations, Princess. Your father tells me that you are quite the skilled firebender, early morning training sessions are the only way to develop one’s connection to our element.” The teacher, he sounded old and boring and would most likely be burned and banished within a fortnight, intoned.
His fists curled up against the stone with sudden longing. He and Azula had always had a troubled relationship, even before she started outshining him with her bending abilities. But he used to walk her around the palace and she’d call him Zuzu before she could fully pronounce his name. She would always be his little sister and he cared for her even if she was mean to him most times and not interested in being a nice person in general. Or maybe he was just lonely after a day locked up by himself and would take anyone’s company right now.
“Azula,” he breathed out not sure if he wanted her to hear him or not. He wasn’t sure if his sister would free him if she knew about his situation but the potential consequences still loomed over his head. Mom had told it was his job as her big brother to protect her; he would never put her in a situation that could potentially get her hurt. “Please be safe,” he added almost as an afterthought. He didn’t hear their footsteps anymore and imagined they were already gone.
“Princess?” the teacher asked suddenly from right in front of the door, Zuko’s head lifted from the stone. They were still here? He heard the sound of fingernails running along the stone near his hidden door.
“I thought I heard something, Masaki.” The girl remarked casually but Zuko could hear her feather light footsteps gently circling the area. “It sounded like someone was calling my name.” Zuko held his breath, his mind stuttering to a halt as a thousand different scenarios played out in his mind. Did she really hear him? Was she lying to mess with her teacher? Did she think it was a spirit? Another awful idea made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Did Father tell her about his plan? Did she know he was trapped behind this wall and was tormenting him? No, Father wouldn’t risk it by telling her and Azula wasn’t that cruel, was she?
“This palace is hundreds of years old, it’s more than likely there are spirits within these walls but that’s not something for a young lady such as yourself to worry about. Come along, the sun is just starting to appear over the Capital City and firebenders always greet Lord Agni.” Heavy footsteps began walking away but Zuko found himself listening for his sister’s softer footfalls.
“Hmph,” Azula huffed, “just so you know, I don’t believe in spirits.” She chirped before Zuko heard her sister striding off, sounding no different than normal. Zuko stayed frozen like that until he could no longer hear her footsteps, or anything, outside of his little tunnel. It wasn’t proof, not really, but there was enough doubt to leave him chilled to the bone. He knelt down and curled in on himself as if to ward off the ache in his heart. Azula wouldn’t want him dead, wouldn’t mock his position and then skip off like nothing was wrong. At least, Zuko wouldn’t have thought so before now but underestimating his family is what put him in this position in the first place. He settles back on the ground and tries to get more rest even if he knows sleep is going to be impossible.
Unbelievably, Zuko has almost become used to the constant darkness. It no longer terrifies him to see nothing every time he opens his eyes or turns his head. He still finds he gets vertigo every now and again when he loses track of direction but overall he’s learned to adjust. His eyes may be fine but the rest of him feels like he’s slowly suffocating, like a plant wilting and withering away when taken out of the sun. He thinks it’s going to be even more difficult to bend the longer he’s disconnected from the source of all firebending.
Little Dragon, a soft, gentle voice says coming out of nowhere, what is a child of the sun doing here in the dark?
Zuko’s breath catches in his throat and he pushes himself up against the door, feeling panic rise in him again. He’d been wondering if the spirits would be visiting him, alone and vulnerable with no chance of escape, but he’d been strongly hoping against it. He couldn’t even firebend his way out of this miserable situation, how could he possibly hope to best a spirit? But he has to try at least.
“I’m not afraid of you,” he stumbles out awkwardly, shaking so badly he can hardly keep his balance but he staggers into a fighting stance. He’s probably going to die where he stands for even pretending to oppose a spirit but he refuses to accept his fate sniveling like a child. He may not be a very good one, but he’s still a Fire Prince. “Show yourself spirit,” he says this time with a bit more force.
There’s a soft presence on the top of his head, almost like how Mom will gently run her hand through his hair. Against his better judgement, he finds himself relaxing slightly at the touch. He winces when an ethereal light dimly illuminates the small tunnel. It’s a pale light, barely visible, like the small bits of sunlight that trickled past closed curtains. A shape takes form in the hazy light and he sees a pretty looking lady clad in flowing robes. She has a beautiful face, soothing like a warm fire, with her ghostly hand still resting gently on his head.
Why are you here, the voice asks again and he notices the spirit’s lips don’t move in time with her words.
“My name is Prince Zuko, son of Prince Ozai and Lady Ursa, grandson to Fire Lord Azulon.” Zuko introduces from long practice, “My father says I need to learn to firebend, he put me in here and told me I could only leave if I could use fire to open the door.” He responds calmly, feeling his earlier fear fading in the spirit’s gentle presence. He couldn’t explain how, but he was certain that she would not harm him. “Who are you?”
I am a spirit of the eternal flame, her unmoving image says through her soft smile. I have walked these lands since the children of fire became united under one Lord. That was… a very long time ago, so long it was hurting his head just to think about it. Agni’s chosen ones draw strength from the sun and the sun cannot be found in such darkness.
“I know, I’m trying to make a flame but I’ve never done it before and I’m so scared and tired and I don’t know if I can even do this. Everyone says I’m supposed to be a bender but I can’t even make a spark.” He looks down shamefully at his hands, vaguely able to determine the damage he’d done to them yesterday. He could see the dark stains of old blood and torn skin in the spirit’s pale light.
Fate has destined you to suffer Little Dragon; she said is a soft, sympathetic voice. But in suffering you will be tempered and burn with the brightest of stars.
“Huh?” Zuko blinked, the spirit sounded like Uncle; he shook his head in confusion. “What does that mean? Am I a bender or not?” He asked but before his eyes the spirit began to disperse and darkness began to creep in once more.
I will keep the more malevolent spirits at bay, the spirit said, once again seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. Find your fire, Little Dragon. And with that, she was gone. He wasn’t sure what she meant or why she had even appeared but she had clearly tried to help in her own way and hadn’t hurt him even though he’d probably deserved it. Besides, all great spirits deserve humanity’s respect. He as bowed low and reverently as he could manage in the small space and whispered a prayer of thanks. He thinks she appreciated it.
Zuko was leaning up against the wall, panting softly in the darkness from his latest failure to firebend. His encounter with the spirit had reinvigorated his hope but even that wouldn’t be able to keep him alive much longer. His hunger continued to pull at him, painful and all-consuming and his muscles ached from the practice and cramped spaces. His thirst was beyond compare, his mouth as dry as a desert which made every breath a struggle. He knew that things were beginning to look bad but he had to keep trying. A part of him just wanted to be done with it all, catch the attention of one of the many servants bustling around and accept whatever punishment Father had in store for him. But at this point he wasn’t even sure if he had the strength in him to scream.
His ears, newly sensitized since his sight had been removed, picked up the sound of approaching footsteps and automatically quieted himself and waited for them to leave.
“Two days! Your son has been missing for two days and you don’t even bother to look concerned! I can’t believe this! What a welcome to come home to!” Zuko’s eyes widened a fraction as he recognized his Uncle Iroh’s voice booming from somewhere nearby. He leaned forward and listened in rapt attention as his uncle continued to rage. “Why haven’t you contacted the Royal Guard or Ursa for Agni’s sake! Zuko could be hurt, dead for all you know, and you’re just lounging about as if nothing is wrong!”
“I’m sure Prince Zuko is around somewhere,” Father’s smooth voice says not too far from Zuko’s prison. He unconsciously bristles at the tone, lingering fear from his last encounter with his father now two days ago. Agni, it’s been two days already? “Azula tells me she and her brother were playing in the courtyard yesterday morning; he ran off to go hide somewhere and hasn’t been seen since. He’s likely still playing around.” There is an ominous double meaning in Father’s tone that leaves Zuko feeling smaller than he already felt. Clearly he was just ‘playing around’ with firebending or else he’d be out already. He suspects Father paused right here to remind Zuko of that.
“Ozai,” Uncle hisses in a frightening tone Zuko has never before heard from him. “It is difficult but far from impossible for an assassin or kidnapper to get into the palace. You don’t seem the least bit troubled that Zuko, your heir, hasn’t been seen in days. What kind of father are you? If Lu Ten-”
“Yes Iroh we all know about your precious boy who will soon be off helping you with your endless conquests and making our nation proud,” Father spat out bitterly. “But you see brother, Zuko isn’t your son. He’s mine and what I feel for him or do to him is none of your concern. I’m sure the boy will show up sooner or later, if not, then clearly he wasn’t strong enough and doesn’t deserve this life.” Zuko felt like his heart was going to break, right then and there. Father couldn’t really think that, this was all just a test, a way to push Zuko towards the greatness he was destined for. This… situation, it was all for Zuko’s sake, because his Father did care about him and wanted him to succeed.
“Spirits Ozai,” Uncle whispered in a hushed tone. “Do you feel anything at all?” Father doesn’t answer and instead Zuko hears the swishing of robes indicating that someone has moved again.
“You’re the one who insisted we search for the boy; we’d better continue if we hope to make it back in time for our meeting with the Fire Lord. After that, if my son still hasn’t shown up, you’re welcome to keep searching on your own.”
“Yes, of course, I’m sure our Father would be very interested to hear that one of his grandchildren has gone missing while he was in your care,” Uncle says in a low voice. “When we find Zuko, and believe me I will find him, I’m going to have some questions for the young man about where he’s been. And let me tell you brother, if I find that boy dead, then we are going to have a long, unpleasant talk.” The halls became silent as Zuko listened to his Father and Uncle walk away, leaving him trapped in his prison. Even once they had been long gone, Zuko found it hard to breathe. How could he when his Father didn’t seem to care whether he lived or died? Too exhausted to even think of firebending right now, Zuko flopped painfully to the floor and treasonously wondered in the very back of his mind why Uncle couldn’t have been his father instead.
Zuko has no sense of time in here but he feels like it’s night already. He doesn’t think of a hot meal, he doesn’t think of a comfortable bed and he doesn’t think about the aches and pains in his body. He doesn’t think of the disappointment in Father’s voice or the anger in Uncle Iroh’s. He doesn’t think much of anything. Instead, he tries to sleep and is only vaguely interested if he wakes up again.
Again Zuko wakes up suddenly, as if something inside him suddenly was lit. He’s not bothered by the blackness anymore; it’s almost comforting in a way. Pretty soon he’s going to be heading for that eternal darkness and he won’t have to worry about his firebending or the fact that he’s never been good enough for his father. He’s curled up in a tiny ball on the floor, feeling empty and hollowed out as he never has before. Failure has been a constant companion in his life but he’s always fought against it; worked hard and struggled to be better. And it’s all led him here; lying in dark with barely enough strength to move, preparing for his inevitable death. He can feel his own life flickering precariously, there’s no way he’ll be able to make fire now, if it was ever even possible.
“Mom,” he croaks through cracked and unfeeling lips. He would give everything he had, every remaining breath in his body just to see his mother’s face one last time. “I’m sorry,” he says soundlessly as he imagines her face in his mind; warm and safe and always kind no matter how much he messed up. She’d come home in a few days and find him gone, vanished from one moment to the next. She will be… sad.
He frowns at the thought but it’s true, Mom would be really upset if he was dead. She would cry for days, stay in bed all day and refuse anything to eat or drink. Father would tell her he didn’t know what happened but he thinks Mom would know; she’s always been so protective of him because Father has made threats against his life before. They would fight; Father would probably hit her like he sometimes does and maybe even put her in the same situation that currently killing him.
The thought of his mother feeling like this: cold, hungry and alone, stirred something in Zuko that he couldn’t really describe. His wonderful mother didn’t deserve this torture and she especially didn’t deserve to return to a home with a dead son and a lying husband. And truthfully, neither did he. He’s done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this level of punishment. Uncle Iroh cared about him and so did Mom; even Azula probably liked him a little bit, if only to make fun of him. If he died now, they’d never see him again and they’d all be sad. He’d die in here, the failure his father always claimed he was.
The indignation of it all, the thought of his loved ones suffering because of his stupidity sparked something. It made him want to get up and knock down that wall that dared to try and keep him from his family, from his destiny. There’s a flood of warmth in him, like a blanket being draped securely around his shoulders giving him comfort and strength. He needs to get up right now, he needs to get that door open however possible because he’s not going to spend another minute in this-
His fists, curled up by his head let out a bright spark, temporarily driving away the darkness of the tunnel. The light fades quickly but the warmth stays with him as does the feeling of complete astonishment.
Zuko is scrambling to his feet as quickly as he can. His muscles are weak and he hurts all over and every breath tears at the dryness in his throat but that’s all forgotten in his amazement. He can firebend! He can get out! He can see Mother again, Azula, Uncle Iroh, even Father. Surely he’ll accept him now that his son is a bender. For the first time in who knows how long, Zuko’s spirit buoys with pride. He is a Prince of the Fire Nation and he is a firebender. The warm weight settling in his chest is a comfort, a reminder of all that he is capable of now. He scrambles over to where the latch is, standing as tall as he can just to reach the keyhole.
“Come on fire, I know you’re there.” He mutters, trying to recapture that feeling that had ignited the flames earlier. He’d been sad and angry and feeling sorry for himself and just wanted to see his mother again, just one more time. “Please bend, I need you to work this time.” He brought his hands down to his face and furiously snapped a few times trying to produce something. He was pleased to see small sparks forming on his fingertips but nothing substantial enough to open the door. “I’m not going to die in here just because I can’t make a stupid little fire.” He growled, pouring out his frustration until there was a small fire, about the size of a small candle flame, in the palm of his hand. He takes a moment to just stare at the delicate glow; it was so pretty, nothing like the harsh blazes he sees from Father and Azula. He held it up to the keyhole even knowing the flame was too tiny to open the door.
“Please,” he muttered, once more trying to find the feeling that had produced the flame. “I won’t die in here; I don’t want to make everyone sad.” He thinks of his mother, of the grief she would feel and suddenly the power is there. With a grunt of effort, he feels the flame burst forth from his hand into the lock. He thinks for a second that it hasn’t worked, until his vision is overcome by intense brightness as the door slides open. He doesn’t walk out so much as fall out. Zuko hits the marble floor of the palace hallway with a dull thud but that doesn’t matter, nor does the persistent ache in his body or sound of his one-time prison closing behind him. All that matters is he is alive and he’s going to see his mom again.
He lets out a strangled little sob but there are no more tears to be had. He’s too dry, his body has no water left to spare. Zuko ought to be getting up right now, using what little strength he has left to make his way to the kitchen and get something to eat after all this time. He needs to find Uncle, let him know that he’s alive; maybe even thank him for caring when it seemed everyone else had given up. He had to show Father his fire, show him that he wasn’t a complete failure. And he will, but right now, he is lying there on the floor, letting out quiet little sniffles because all he can muster is a bone-deep feeling of gratitude for his own life.
They are breakfasting when Iroh first hears the shuffling. Ozai takes no notice to the sound but Iroh sees little Azula looks up from up from her plate in curiosity. He’d been disappointed, but not terribly surprised, to see that his niece hadn’t acted overly concerned about her older brother’s whereabouts. But then again, Azula had always taken after Ozai a little more than Iroh preferred. His brother is sitting across from him, completely at ease as if his firstborn’s disappearance was not something to concern himself with.
Iroh had never troubled himself with Ozai and his family before; he’d had bigger things to worry about like managing his army or keeping his son out of trouble. But this experience has been enlightening in the most terrible way; he had never imagined his impish little brother, anyone really, could be so heartless. He couldn’t imagine not caring about Lu Ten, especially when he could be hurt or worse. It makes him wonder just what happens in Ozai’s happy little family when people aren’t watching and how Zuko may be paying the ultimate price for his uncle’s ignorance. The shuffling comes closer until even Ozai is looking up in aggravation, especially when the specter finally appears.
“Zuko!” Iroh shouts in horror as the young boy comes into view looking every bit like a living corpse. Only the boy’s strangled breaths tell him that this was Zuko and not his vengeful ghost before them. Iroh runs forward and is immediately on his knees taking in the young child’s ghastly appearance. Zuko has always been fair skinned but his face now is completely bleached of all color, save for the streaks of dried blood decorating his cheeks. Iroh finds the source of the blood on the boys mutilated hands, his fingernails almost completely torn away from what looked like clawing. There’s a fine layer of dust covering him from head to toe making him look even more like a ghost in addition to his ripped and ruined clothes. His cheeks are sunken in starvation and his eyes dull from suffering.
“Uncle,” Zuko gasps out hoarsely, his voice barely audible from his cracked lips. Spirits, where has this boy been? Has he not had any food or water since he’s been gone? Iroh is shaking with the knowledge that Zuko is standing before him on the edge of death. He gingerly lifts the boy into his arms like he did when Zuko was younger.
“Azula!” He barks, “Go fetch the healers at once, as many as you can get. Tell them to bring back warm water, bandages, purifying medicine and some blankets too.” Azula is still sitting there, staring wide-eyed at Zuko though he can’t tell if it’s due to Zuko’s horrifying appearance or his presence altogether. “Now girl!” At this, she scrambles out of chair and races out the room, turning around to look at her brother one last time before darting off. Iroh sits back in his chair with Zuko held securely against his chest. He rubs the boy’s back and whispers some soothing words into the boy’s dusty, disheveled hair.
For the first time, Iroh looks up to see Ozai’s reaction to his son’s miraculous reappearance. Iroh wasn’t sure what he had expected but he certainly didn’t expect his younger brother to look so unimpressed. Ozai didn’t show the slightest worry for the boy shaking in Iroh’s arms; he merely raised an eyebrow when Zuko looked up at him, like he was asking a silent question. Zuko seemed to understand regardless and weakly held out a bruised and bloody hand from which a weak flame sprang to life. There was something disturbing about the scene. Ozai had complained for years about Zuko’s inability to firebend and now, of all times, Zuko learns? Ozai’s face changed suddenly, his mask of indifference melting into an almost kindly smile.
“That’s very good Zuko, I’m proud of you my son. It would seem you’ve been through quite an ordeal but I’m pleased to see you were strong enough to overcome it. You may rest now.” And the look of adoration in the boy’s eyes is a terrible thing to behold. Because Iroh knows now that he’s never going to learn the truth of what happened. Zuko would smile and lie and do absolutely anything for more of his father’s empty praise. Because even a fool could see that something unspeakable has just occurred but neither father or son will ever admit to it. Instead, Iroh does the only thing he possibly can do. He holds his nephew close and pretends, for a moment, that he is safe.