Zuko didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let’s be honest. If he had a choice, he would drown— or at least try to smother the riot inside his head in freshly laundered Fire Lord bed linen— than be subject to this. Everyone was being tediously gentle with him, a hand on his back here, a soothing voice there like he was something fragile or breakable. When there was no resolution, Uncle went into deep discussion with the warden to mine more information. Aang had turned away toward the window in deep thought. Katara, Sokka, Suki and Toph began talking in low, strangled hisses.
Zuko didn’t feel fragile or breakable. If anything, comical suicidal scenarios aside, he was impressed with his own extraordinary foresight. Last night he’d gone to bed as a Fire Lord who ended the 100 year war, brought peace to the world, forged an everlasting alliance and friendship with the Avatar. He had been surrounded by his friends and allies, his uncle by his side, and his girl sent him off before the coronation. He’d gone from a boy stripped of everything except pride to a boy-lord who now had everything. Power. Friendship. Love. Identity.
“Too good to be true,” he muttered under his breath, as he had last night in a sudden flash of anxiety.
The fact of the matter was Mai and Azula had apparently waltzed from the imperial prison during coronation day, and now everything was coming undone. Zuko stood up, feeling more than a little boneless. “I need to find them. Uncle, I know you wanted to go to Ba Sing Se but…”
Iroh shook his head and looked at him in the eye. “As long as you need, nephew.”
“It won’t be long,” Zuko bit into his words, and was about dismiss everyone to bang his head against the wall when Ty Lee burst into the room, her hair in a lose ponytail instead of the usual braid.
“It can’t be true!” she darted straight to Zuko and spoke directly. “I was there at Boiling Rock when she saved you Zuko. You don’t understand. Mai would never betray you! She loves you!”
Zuko’s immediate reaction on seeing Ty Lee was to clench his fists, but the words "Boiling Rock," “Mai," and “Love" made his stomach churn in a brew of guilt, hope, and anger, that he had to physical look away. Then blind anger seized him.
“And what do you know about loyalty? You probably helped them!” he yelled, feeling the heat of his scar again. He had been briefed vaguely with what happened at Boiling Rock and hadn’t had time to process it. Mai had saved them, and Ty Lee in turned saved Mai. Their loyalties to Azula shattered. Zuko knew it was a cheap shot, but he took it anyway. He had no idea why he’d always been so capable of picking on Ty Lee like some school yard bully. Maybe because beneath her swirl of pink, he knew she was tough at nails. Maybe because he could never think of any comebacks to Azula.
To his surprise, Suki shot up next to Ty Lee, which meant Sokka was immediately by Suki’s side, which meant Katara, and Toph and everyone now hovered over him.
“Listen Zuko,” Suki began. "I know this is… a difficult time for you, but Ty Lee has been with the Kyoshi since Boiling Rock, uh, saving Mai saving you, and we were all together yesterday for the coronation. I vouch for her!”
“I’m glad you can trust her so easily after just a few days, but maybe you just haven’t experienced enough betrayals in your life,” replied Zuko cooly. Another cheap shot, Zuko groaned inside. It was like he was outside of himself.
“NOT cool, Zuko,” Sokka said in a flat voice.
“Whipping back to your emo-ness at the first sign of trouble huh? Good for you Sparky!” Toph rolled her eyes.
“Toph...” Katara scrutinized him with what Zuko feared was a look of pity, shaking her head gently. “Don’t.”
“What? We all expect more from him!” Toph shouted back at Katara, then pointed her finger back at him. "If you want to shrivel up in a corner and brood about how the world has wronged you again, by all means, but it’s not going to solve anything!”
A flash of heat broke from the pit of his stomach, fire crackled in his palm, and he felt the all consuming urge to lung forward. He must have gotten up too, because in that moment Toph, Katara, Sokka and Suki all stepped into defensive stances. Their eyes wide and worried, as if they had suddenly travelled back into time and he’d morphed into Zuko they’d always known. The angry, arrogant villain prince hot on their tails. Was that it it? What that what he was still?
Maybe that was what broke him, that no matter what happened, the shadow of the past will always be apart of him, and at any moment, snatch the present away. But suddenly Aang appeared by his side, his hand like running water on his shoulder, his eyes wise beyond his years boring into him. When Aang shook his head gently, Zuko had to clench his teeth to force his palm to close. The fire in his hand extinguished but radiated throughout his body, heating his veins until he slumped back with eyes squeezed shut and let out a loud, painful howl.
Katara was the first to drop her stance, running next to Aang to try to hold him up. “What are you doing to yourself Zuko?!”
Uncle Iroh was the only one smiling as he strolled in front of the scene. “Learning to control his rage, very good Zuko, but slowly you will see that the answer lies somewhere between destroying others or self-destruction.”
“Uncle...” Zuko, now white in the face and breathing heavily, looked up at Iroh, still heaving, then nodded at Katara, who was about to move into a healing for him. “It’s okay Katara. I’m all right.”
Zuko nodded at Aang too, who still simply looked at him. He didn’t pick up on this yesterday, maybe because of the flurry of motions that went on announcing world peace, but his one true enemy turned friend, truly looked like he had aged years in one day. There was so much weight, loss, but also empathy, clarity, and strength in his eyes that made Zuko feel very small. Zuko wished he could ask Aang exactly what had gone on in his battle with his father, but that will have to wait. “I got it, Aang.”
“It is by opening your heart that our precious peace was won, but you will find that keeping peace is harder work than war. You will face many obstacles from now on, and it is not the time to close yourself,” said Iroh firmly.
Zuko took a deep breath, and let the breathing cool his body in a meditative stance before finally turning to Suki, “I know I should know better. I’m sorry Suki.”
“Don’t! Don't worry about it,” Suki squawked in surprise, then squeezed Sokka’s so hard while a grin shot up Sokka’s face.
Then Zuko slowly to Ty Lee, studying the girl he had known for so very long.
“She’s telling the truth Zuko,” huffed Toph.
Zuko sighed. “and you too, Ty Lee. I’m sorry. My uncle is right, and Toph is right too.”
Now it was Toph’s turn to gape. “Uhhhhh…..”
“Look, I know you’re ALL right. It’s just hard, you know, I’m just so…” Zuko began sheepishly.
“Used to being angry?” offered Sokka.
“Exhausted from the life and death battle with your sister, lack of sleep, and the fate of the world? Unresolved feelings on imprisoning your own father and sister turned to being scared to the shits what the re-unleashing of your psychotic sister means for the free world?” said Sokka.
“Yes! I mean no! But yes!”
“Angry at Mai?” Ty Lee offered in a small voice.
Zuko looked at her warily. “—Worried for her. I wished, she would have just talked to me about it,” he sighed.
“Kind of like that time when you left her that note?” Sokka shot a finger up in the air.
“SOKKA!!!” Suki yelled and dug her knuckles into his ribs. “You’re NOT helping!”
“What? It’s the truth! Gloomy boy and girl SUCK at communicating!”
“Matter of the heart contains many facets. If you hold it up to the sun, depending on the angle and time of day, you may find a very different hue. Yes, the heart is a confusing rare gem and you must not rush into judgement,” uncle beamed and twirled his finger.
Zuko decided to let that one go and was glad when Ty Lee steered them back on course. “I still won’t believe it Zuko. Something must have happened.”
“Yeah let’s think about this. Is there something we’ve missed?” asked Sokka.
"Did anyone actually see Mai yesterday?” asked Toph.
“Maybe, Azula threatened Mai somehow, and, forced her to break out of prison? Azula kidnapped Mai?” Katara shot up a finger.
“I saw Mai yesterday, and I think she meant to leave,” Zuko almost whispered.
“What do you mean?” Suki gasped.
“Before the coronation, she didn’t say much. She just helped me get into my robes, and I thought she forgave me for... well everything,” Zuko’s face flushed at the memory of his goodbye note and scenes from Boiling Rock. “But, something was off. I was going to ask but. She meant to leave. I feel it now.”
Ty Lee shook her head desperately. “Please, let’s talk to the guards again. Azula—”
“It’s not Azula, and the guards said Mai leveraged her relationship with me to get Azula out for medical help.”
“Leveraged what now?” Sokka asked.
Zuko went red in the face. “Look, everyone in this damned palace has seen us… together.”
“Which means what Sparky?” a wide grin spread across Toph’s face when she felt him go red.
For a very brief moment, Zuko locked eyes Ty Lee, the only person in the room who might be able to conjure images of their teenage excess, and was grateful, albeit almost surprised that she maintained her serious face, only to groan because it alerted him to the gravity of the situation, that giddy, happy, optimistic Ty Lee was still looking so glum. “Look, obviously I have to reevaluate prison security right away. ”
“What do you mean by medical help?” Ty Lee frowned.
“Azula was unconscious,” replied Zuko,.
“Unconscious?!” Everyone cried.
Aang, who had been silent all this time, suddenly spoke while Zuko listened with a near shudder. “I took Azula’s bending away too, after Ozai. She may be unstable,” Aang said.
There were gasps and one yelp from Toph, but Ty Lee nearly fell to the ground if it weren’t for Suki, who by reflex, steadied her.
“Wow, when did you have time to do that?” Sokka marveled after a long silence.
“Aang didn't want to do it. It was me. I asked him to take her bending away,” said Zuko.
“We made the decision together before imprisoning her,” corrected Aang pointedly.
“I’m not proud of it,” said Zuko, “but Azula was sprouting fire from her nostrils. It was escaping from her body. I almost think, if Aang hadn’t done it, she would have imploded from within.”
“So that must be why,” said Ty Lee slowly. “Maybe Azula really did need medical help?”
“The healing wards across the city have all been checked. No sign of her. If Mai meant to leave and take Azula with her and that was yesterday, they might be long gone now.”
“So what’s the plan? You want us to help find them?” Toph asked.
“No, I think it’s gotta be me,” Zuko rose. "I have to be the one to bring them back. Uncle will act as regent while I’m gone. I want to thank all of you, but this is a family matter,” he bowed his head.
“Then at least let me help, let me go with you,” Ty Lee stepped toward him and smiled sadly. “The four of us are probably due for another bonfire chat.”
“And the rest of us will wait until you’re back. We can oversee security, and Aang can help with diplomatic matters with Iroh,” Katara said.
Zuko looked back at Ty Lee, met the gaze of Aang and Katara who nodded back at him, and breathed a deep “thanks.”
“Don’t mention it Sparky! If you want I can start on that prison security project for you. You know, I’ll just leverage our relationship and knock some dunderheads together,” Toph cracked her knuckles.
Everyone else groaned.