Zuko wakes up crying.
His partners don’t move and normally he would be grateful for being able to not disturb them but…but what if…
No, he can feel them breathing, it’s okay. They’re okay. It was just a nightmare.
It was just a nightmare.
But he hasn’t had a dream so vivid in a long time, it had felt so fucking real and he has to bite the insides of his cheeks to keep quiet.
Ozai was there. (It was just a nightmare.) Ozai was there, in this room, standing over where Zuko lies right now. (But it wasn’t real, they’re safe.) Ozai was there, hovering over the bed, he was going to take Zuko, he was going to hurt him, torture him, spirits only know what but he was going to punish Zuko simply for being, and Sokka and Suki were dead beside him, Ozai had killed them, had taken that first step to destroy Zuko by taking away those he loved most. (They’re alive, they’re okay, no one else is in this room.) Ozai may not have his bending but that doesn’t mean he has no strength or power—Iroh had single handedly broken himself out of prison using muscle alone on the Day of Black Sun, Iroh who had also been killed in this nightmare, so why shouldn’t Ozai be capable of the same? (But he didn’t. He didn’t. Remember, it’s alright, none of that really happened.)
But fuck, it could happen. It could happen, because Ozai is alive and that man has always been determined and refused to stop at anything to get what he wants and why should that be any different now, it must only be a matter of time…
Zuko’s bottom lip is bleeding and his whole body is shaking and his hands are balled into fists and steaming.
Zuko isn’t sure he has ever felt more loved than he did when he found out about how his partners and friends made a habit of visiting Ozai to torture him.
But it still hurts that Aang was so against it.
And it still hurts that Ozai is even alive to do so.
Zuko remembers exactly how he felt when he found out.
He remembers feeling sad that he’d thought they were friends. That he had actually been so dumb as to let himself believe they had really become friends.
But while he was recovering from his lightning wound, from the electrocution and the damage to his heart which should have killed him (how many life threatening injuries can one person survive?), he learned that Ozai lives.
He knew Aang had been deeply struggling with his sense of morality in taking Ozai’s life, and he knows now it’s irrational to see Aang’s inability to kill him as a personal slight but…
How could he do that?
He had bolted upright when Katara told him during a healing session, causing her to splash water all over the room.
He had honestly just assumed his father was dead. He doesn’t remember how it came up but he spoke about it as though it was obviously fact, and Katara had to take a deep breath before she corrected him. She knew he’d find out eventually. No use delaying it, he heard her explain later, and better he hear it from a friend.
Katara had to bend all the water she could back into her hands to work on his chest some more, but the internal physical injury there was no longer what was most painful.
Tears were streaming down his face.
And then Zuko broke.
Ozai was supposed to be dead.
Zuko was supposed to finally be safe.
That is the only way Zuko could ever possibly feel completely safe.
“No, no, no, no, no… Katara, no, please tell me you’re joking, Aang couldn’t have…fuck, he can’t have, he can’t, it was supposed to be over…”
“Zuko…Zuko, you need to breathe, you’re still hurt…”
His heart was nowhere near strong enough to be pounding the way it was, but he couldn’t stop it, shaking and sobbing, completely overwhelmed by the news he’d just received and didn’t understand how he could ever have been expected to take well.
He was screaming and pushing Katara away, he couldn’t control himself. He only had so much strength—Katara was right, and she was only trying to help—so he couldn’t get her off of him, but he suddenly couldn’t bear to be touched. Even the softest motion stung, his mind unable to differentiate between friend and threat.
“Zuko!” His name sounded like a plea coming out of her mouth, her eyes wide in sympathy, but he couldn’t calm down. “Zuko, please.”
Her voice cracked, he must have really been scaring her, but there was nothing he could do.
He could survive the lightning or he could not, whatever. Because what is even the point of trying to move forward in a world where he was supposed to be free from Ozai but he isn’t.
He remembers that Katara kept shouting but his fragile heart just kept on beating harder and faster until it was the only thing he was aware of, and then until he wasn’t.
When he opened his eyes again after, crawling back out of the black haze he’d fallen through, he couldn’t even move, that outburst had taken everything out of him, but he could feel a hand over his. It was Katara, he could hear her sniffling.
“I’m sorry, Zuko,” she whispered, like maybe she agreed with him. “I am so sorry.”
“What if he doesn’t have the guts to take out my father?” he had asked Katara when they were on their way to stop Azula. She had assured him Aang wouldn’t lose, but apparently he took that as more encouraging than he should have. She said he wouldn’t lose, and in that she was right. But she never said Aang would do it.
Zuko had shut down after that. He didn’t cry again for months, even when he’d needed it. His nightmares had been so much worse, as well. He begged Aang to at least have the decency to kill him if he saw him start to become the man whose shadow yet loomed over him. His friends and his guards were always on the lookout for potential assassins but for a significant span of time, Zuko was also always looking over his shoulder but only for Ozai. Sometimes he saw him in crowds; it was never real, he would blink and Ozai would disappear and he would never speak of it to anyone, but knowing he’s still out there wreaked such havoc on his mind and his already delicate mental health. He’s blamed himself for Aang’s actions, certain Ozai was only kept alive because Zuko doesn’t deserve peace. The resentment has subsided some over the years. That fear, however, hasn’t gone away. It probably won’t until Ozai is gone for real.
And now here he is, years later, Ozai’s life haunting him, the ghost he should have been made that much stronger and more terrifying by his actually remaining one with the mortal world.
It seemed so real.
It was so real.
Zuko opens up his hands and breathes deep. He has to calm his bending. He needs to touch his partners. He needs to feel them here, living. But he needs to be careful, he could never risk hurting them.
If he can’t calm his bending, he could burn them. They trust him but he could burn them, and then Ozai might as well have shown up in reality because that makes Zuko no better.
Before he knows it, he’s running.
Before he knows it, he’s made it to the palace grounds. Wandering outside, barefoot in pajamas, in the middle of the night.
And sitting in a fountain.
Highly dignified, impeccably royal.
He can hear Ozai’s laughter.
He hopes Sokka and Suki are still sleeping. He hopes his abrupt exit didn’t alert them.
The cold water soaks him through, it chills him to the bone but he doesn’t bend. He does not summon heat or fire to take off the edge. He begins to shiver and doesn’t move. He stays perfectly still.
A Fire Lord coming down with hypothermia would have to be a first, he would guess. But hey, even if he can’t stop disappointing Ozai, perhaps he could yet surprise him.
He’s alone out here, Sokka and Suki are fine, it wasn’t real.
It doesn’t matter how real it felt (it doesn’t matter how much it hurts).
He touches his scar. His face is freezing in his hand. That doesn’t help.
He has dreamed many times since the end of the war of having the other side of his face burned. Maybe Ozai can’t do it himself now but he has plenty of loyalists, many of which are firebenders, so it wouldn’t be hard for him to find someone else to do it on his behalf. He could do that from prison. And for as ableist as it would be, Zuko has no doubt he’d be deposed if he lost his sight and hearing on his right side, too. And given how easily people can sneak up on his left, and how much it scares the shit out of him, how simple would taking him out be after that? Just let him suffer a little more for a little while first.
Toph would probably try to teach him some tricks. He’s pretty sure she’s lowkey been doing that without saying anything about it the whole time he’s known her. But he’s not an earthbender and her way of seeing is entirely reliant on being one, so there’s only so much she can do.
Zuko can see light and vague shadows out of his left eye and he has maybe ten percent hearing remaining in his left ear. He’s pretty much used to it, it’s been so long, but he remembers everything he had to relearn, and he remembers (sort of) how awful recovering from the burn itself was. He doesn’t know if he can go through that again.
He worries every day that eventually he’s going to have to go through that again.
Because Ozai wouldn’t kill him right away. He wouldn’t have him killed, either. Injured and maimed, sure, but not killed. He’d want to do that himself. But he’d want Zuko to suffer first.
Sokka and Suki in his dream had died screaming for him, tears flowing, both of them choking on the blood in their mouths, run through with far too many swords and daggers for one man to possibly have been able to carry on his own. The image was brutal and Zuko can’t get it out of his head now.
He imagines this often in his waking life, too, what Ozai would do to him. Because this is something he still has to worry about. Because he doesn’t know when it will happen but he is not unconvinced it will. And on the bad days…
Zuko wonders on these days if he’d even put up a fight. If he went willingly, would Ozai find it in him to show mercy to the ones Zuko loves? Of course, he knows that answer, too. Sokka and Suki would, in his eyes, deserve to suffer for their stupidity. They would be punished for their misplaced loyalty, and more than anyone else due to how deep theirs goes. Whatever was done to Zuko, he bets they’d be forced to watch. And then it would be their turn, and Zuko would have to watch them be slowly broken until it was time for them to die. Zuko would probably have to keep his sight for that. He bets they’d take it after, so it would be the last thing he ever saw.
Iroh’s would probably be a quick death, simply because Ozai wouldn’t bother imprisoning him again after last time. It would not be a gesture of mercy, but at least it would be over swiftly. He would have Toph’s feet crushed. Maybe Katara’s hands.
And Aang wouldn’t be killed. Ozai would do what Zhao had intended to. Or if he was, he would be forced into the Avatar State first. Zuko wonders if then, at the end, Aang would regret his decision.
Zuko thinks about all of this.
Zuko thinks about this a lot.
He wasn’t supposed to still have to worry about this.
Sokka, Suki, and Mai have all had to stop him from going to visit Ozai on his worst days. The days where nothing can pull him out of his self-loathing, the days where the flashbacks and panic attacks completely incapacitate him, and it only makes sense to him to seek out what he knows in his heart he deserves, especially since that option has been left available to him.
And it’s Mai who finds him now. Along with Ty Lee.
“Zuko! What the fuck are you doing out here?” Mai looks equally confused and concerned. That’s fair.
He’s so cold at this point, this must be what it feels like in the cooler at Boiling Rock when one hasn’t learned how to maintain their breath of fire from Iroh.
He tries to open his mouth to answer them but he can’t. No sound comes out, so instead he shakes his head. He’s still crying but being drenched in fountain water can hide that much for him.
“Zuko, you shouldn’t be alone like this,” Ty Lee says softly. “You could get hurt.”
At that, he nods. He isn’t sure what exactly he’s trying to convey, but it’s all he’s got.
Maybe sometimes he just gets tired of waiting. Maybe sometimes he just wants to rush what he’s certain is the inevitability of Ozai’s revenge.
Zuko doesn’t need to ask what Mai and Ty Lee are doing out, even if he could. Mai always liked to take walks under the stars in the dead of night, the comfort she finds in the beauty of the sky at its darkest, and it’s no surprise she’d share this with her girlfriend. And technically no one can scold her for going out at night without protection, as though she needs it, since said girlfriend happens to be a Kyoshi Warrior and would therefore be considered said protection.
Just like Zuko’s, so he’d be forgiven for doing the same. But he isn’t. He’s alone. As he should be. Better that than to have either of his most beloved warriors go down with him.
Mai gets down on her knees, and for a moment she smiles at him. “It’s our fountain.”
He only nods, and she sighs not out of frustration but genuine worry.
She’s his best friend and he’s hers, and they’ve known each other since they were children. They’ve always understood each other, and each can read the other like a scroll.
“Nightmares?” she asks, and he nods.
“And your doting boyfriend and girlfriend just let you leave?” she asks, and he shakes his head.
“They’re going to wake up and notice you’re gone, you know,” Ty Lee notes. “You can’t pull anything over on Suki.”
Or Sokka, Zuko does know. They’ve both been trained through too much experience to wake up if something is obviously wrong. He doesn’t know how long he’s been out here or how long it would take them to realize in their sleep that he’s missing, but they would realize it and they most likely have by now.
Zuko looks down.
“Come on, Zuko, can you tell me what’s wrong?” Mai tries, even though she knows he can’t. “Can you give me anything here? I want to help.”
He points in the direction of the prison tower, and then shrugs.
“Ozai?” Mai guesses correctly. “You were having nightmares about Ozai?”
Shake of his head.
She gets it.
“So it was an ‘Ozai escaped’ night?”
A nod, and then an awkward, strained smile.
“I’ve got you, Zuko,” she whispers. “Come on, I think we should all go back to bed. Especially you, before the whole palace is on alert after Suki and Sokka realize you’ve disappeared.”
Mai extends a hand and Zuko reluctantly takes it. She makes an exaggerated show of flicking off the water to try to get him to laugh. It doesn’t work.
“Can you dry yourself off?” she asks, and he shakes his head.
He holds up his hands and some weak sparks form at his fingertips, but that’s it. And he’s shivering to the point of vibrating.
“Oh, Zuko,” Ty Lee says involuntarily. He wonders if the tears are becoming more noticeable.
“You’re gonna get sick.” Mai wraps her arms around him, without care for how wet her clothes now are, too. “We need to get you to a towel and a blanket. Like, now.”
He doesn’t respond at all, silent and still in his acquiescence.
Mai holds Zuko’s hand back to the palace. He is trembling so fucking hard, she absolutely cannot let him go until she sees him back safe with his partners in his room.
But they don’t make it that far before running into Sokka and Suki, boomerang and fans in hand, to neither Mai nor Ty Lee’s surprise.
Mai steps back as the two of them rush to their boyfriend and hold him together.
“Fuck, Zuko,” Sokka breathes out. “I thought I felt you move but then you were…then you were just gone and I didn’t know what happened…”
“We’ve been all over the palace already,” Suki follows. “We were just heading outside, thank the spirits you’re safe… Zuko, what happened? Are you okay?”
He shakes his head twice, acknowledging both questions.
“Okay,” Suki says quietly, not going to push Zuko. “Okay, babe, it’s alright. Let’s get back to bed and we’ll figure it out.”
Sokka and Suki break away and then Zuko looks to Mai. He looks to Mai and then to his partners, and they get what he’s trying to say.
“Yeah, we’ll come with you,” Mai tells them, and Zuko nods.
He’s holding himself and still shivering, and Sokka is quick to get him wrapped up in layers of towels and blankets at the same time once they reach his living quarters.
Also once they’re there, Mai explains everything she saw and managed to deduce, as it’s a safe assumption Zuko is not going to be able to say any of this for himself tonight.
No one is really sure if anyone has ever agreed with Aang’s choice regarding Ozai’s fate. Everyone has always, on the surface, respected it and Katara especially has never wanted to talk about it, but everyone doubts any of them ever supported what happened.
But Zuko has done his best to hide how much it hurt him, how it’s impacted him since.
He was supposed to be free.
He had truly believed he was going to be free.
“It’s okay, baby,” Sokka does his best to comfort Zuko. “You’re safe and we’re all safe and that motherfucker isn’t here right now, okay? He hasn’t escaped. And we would never let him touch you.”
“You’ve got two of the strongest warriors in the whole world sleeping in your bed,” Suki adds with a grin. “We have your back.”
“I’m sorry, two of the strongest warriors? Don’t you mean the two strongest warriors?” Sokka teases in hopes of getting a reaction out of Zuko. Just like with Mai, it’s to no avail.
“I stand corrected,” Suki plays along anyway. “You have the two strongest warriors in the entire world right in your own bed every night. And the next strongest just down the hall.”
Suki winks at Ty Lee, who smiles. Zuko remains motionless aside from his continued weeping, which is more pronounced now that they’re in private.
“Wait, so which one of us is first and which one of us is second?” Sokka pretends to sound serious, and he keeps looking at Zuko despite his question being for Suki.
Suki just presses one finger to the tip of Sokka’s nose and snickers. “Don’t worry about it, babe.”
“The point is,” Sokka turns to look Zuko directly in the eyes, “Ozai will not hurt you. And he won’t hurt us, either. We won’t let him. If he ever tried, we’d have him two against one. And let’s be real, with Suki here it’d feel more like five on one, and then you add me. I don’t know about you, love, but I like those odds.”
Zuko isn’t sure if he hates or appreciates Sokka’s implication that Zuko wouldn’t be able to fight Ozai with them. But he knows he would probably freeze, and of course Sokka knows him well enough to assume the same.
“And if it ever does come to that, there is nothing in the entire fucking world that could keep that bastard alive,” Suki says with a fierce bite.
Eventually they are able to lead Zuko to bed, and Mai and Ty Lee bid them all goodnight, and Zuko changes into dry clothes but is still too afraid to attempt bending so Sokka finds more blankets for them.
Sokka and Suki just keep repeating to Zuko how much they love him, and to focus on them being there now. Thankfully, Zuko is too exhausted to do anything else.
Every time they say those three words, he replies by tapping on their arms three times. And it works.
He cries himself to sleep. He doesn’t feel much better in the morning.
He was supposed to be free.
He is so thankful for all the love he has, so much love and support and comfort, but he isn’t free.
Maybe he never really will be.