Far away, in the Fire Nation, Azula perched at the side of the turtle-duck pond, her fingers dipped lazily in the cold and clear water. A few of the turtle-ducks eyed her warily, not sure what to make of her, while others simply floated a few feet away. She didn't really care either way; her mind was so preoccupied that she barely saw them.
She felt that itchy feeling under her skin, the same feeling she had when Ursa died and Zuko was burned by Kohaku. But as far as she knew, nothing warranted such a feeling. Everything was boring and normal here. Well, maybe not. Her thoughts went back to Kohaku, and how restless he'd been since his sixteenth birthday. She could guess what his problem was, since pretty much everyone within the Palace knew, but she didn't get why it mattered so much to him.
Or maybe she did, knowing what she knew. Maybe she could understand his desperation, since he was bound not to get what he wanted - at least, not in the way he wanted.
She missed Ty Lee, but also understood why she had left; sometimes you needed to follow your heart, and it was obvious that politics and nobility weren't in hers. Azula wondered what it would be like to be free like that, to be free of politics and glory and just be yourself, be whoever you wanted, and not who everyone else wanted you to be.
But then, unlike others, Azula knew her destiny. She knew it better than anyone else in the world. She knew who she was, and who she was meant to be. There was no changing it.
Sitting there beside the pond, her hand submerged in water, the itchy feeling still shivering under her skin, she allowed herself the one luxury of imagining - just this once - what it would be like if she were that lucky to be so free.
Zuko's first inkling that something had gone wrong was when he heard a flurry of footsteps travelling up and down the hallways of the ship, both above him and level with him. It dragged him from his meditations, though it would be easy to admit that they probably weren't helping, anyway. With some wariness, he blew out the candles and looked behind him, eyes on the staff that lay against the wall. While he would have bet that his men could handle a small child as a prisoner, he also doubted that they knew what to make of one that was also the last living airbender known to the world.
And, sure enough, when the door blew open and almost off its hinges, allowing a streak of yellow and orange to dart in, Zuko had to admit that, despite mild irritation, he really couldn't blame his men for failing.
As Aang dashed forward and grabbed onto his staff with a shout of glee, Zuko rose from his altar and slammed the door shut, startling the younger boy into realising what he had missed in his haste: that the room was, indeed, occupied.
Aang turned, holding his staff close to his body, as if expecting Zuko to attack him. Maybe he would have, if he wasn't so curious. He should have been angry. He should have been worried, or perhaps nervous, that the Avatar had escaped and was now alone with him in his room. It was obvious that the younger boy had some power that he should be wary of. And yet, despite this, all Zuko felt above anything and all was... curiosity.
This was the Avatar, the one figure of hope in the world. He had been missing for a century, and yet despite that seemed as cheerful as possible. Was it a lie? What did he have to be happy about? Was he aware of the fate of his people? Did he care?
Neither said a word. Aang's eyes, a mix between grey and brown, were right on Zuko's, boring into his gaze like he was desperate to read his thoughts. Zuko stood poised, not in a stance but not relaxed, just in case Aang wanted to try anything.
But all he said was, "Can you please let me go? Or at least tell me why I need to be here?"
Zuko blinked, startled by the questions. They were simple enough, but why was it important to know why he had to be here? He was captured; wasn't that enough? "I can't let you go," he said finally. "It's complicated. But I guess I do owe you a reason why you're here."
Even saying it, it sounded strange; since when did a prisoner have the right to know why he was a prisoner? The Avatar's existence was reason enough, and he really owed Aang nothing. And yet... he knew that he couldn't keep silent. He wouldn't. That was not something he could do. "I need you here. I need you to come back with me to the Fire Nation. You're the only thing keeping me from going home with my honour intact."
Aang lowered his arms, something flashing in his eyes. "What made you lose your honour to begin with?"
Zuko swallowed, his memory a traitor. For a moment, he felt a sick wave of fear, see his brother's grinning face, feel the hot flame burn against his face...
"Different things," he managed to say, hating how his voice caught a bit. "Don't you understand? Can't you just... go along with it?" He wanted to sigh, really. It was ridiculous, his question, and he knew it. Who would honestly accept their imprisonment with a shrug and a smile, no matter how tragic the imprisoner's story may be?
Aang's eyes narrowed. "No. I can't. I can't stay here. I need to be out in the world, to keep the balance. I'm sorry that things are bad for you, and I'd like to help you, but not as your prisoner." His hands tightened around his staff, his brows drawn closer.
Deep down, Zuko knew it would be unlikely, since nothing ever came to his life with ease. Everything he had, everything he was, came from fighting to get to it, even for the leftovers that everyone discarded. But he also knew that if he hadn't tried, he would have regretted it.
His palms itched, but he didn't move. Aang didn't move, either. They kept their eyes locked on each other, neither one willing to make the first move. Zuko sensed that - maybe - Aang was as reluctant to fight as he was. He didn't want this, really: he didn't want to have to capture an innocent - well, virtually innocent - person and drag them back home just so that he could be home again. It was too much like...
He never finished the thought. Aang broke his gaze and moved to the left, slipping by him so fast it was hard to follow. He veered towards the door, his hand out and reaching, but Zuko lunged after him, thrusting a fist forward on instinct and sending a small burst of fire towards the hand. Aang flinched and jerked it back, waving it downwards and summoning up a gust of wind to push him away from the door to escape any embers left in the air. Zuko leaned in after him, thrusting his other fist out with a cry. This burst was larger, but Aang threw his staff up and twirled it, extinguishing the flame with almost no effort.
With another shout, this one of rage, Zuko stepped forward and tried to grab the staff, his hands sparking. Aang yelped and teetered backward, his steps buoyed by gusts of light air that made his evasions effortless. With each grab for the staff, Aang managed to move away, but he was running out of places to move away to, since Zuko's chambers were still on the small side.
Within his breast, Zuko's heart hammered with panic. Why had he wasted his time with trying to talk the Avatar into staying? Why did he think that Aang would say yes, that he would understand the situation, that he would realise how important it all was? And now, the one means of victory, the one piece he needed to win the game, was fighting him - winning against him - and he was going to lose for sure, and then... and then...
And then, I'll be an exile forever...
His desperation fuelled his moves, made them quicker, but also sloppy. He tried too hard, his moves overpowered, the force weighing him down instead of keeping him quick. In no time, Aang had easily begun to guess his moves, and was able to deflect them with an ease that only made Zuko more frustrated and desperate. In his haste, he jumped up onto his futon, hoping to use it to find some kind of leverage against the Avatar.
It was a mistake.
In seconds, the futon was airbent from the ground to the ceiling, then to the wall - both times with Zuko on, then in, it. The impact knocked the breath from his lungs, and when he landed back onto the floor, he found that he couldn't breathe for a moment, his head swimming with pain and confusion. When he finally was able to, he gasped, raising his head slowly, and found that the Avatar was gone.
The futon began to smoke, and he lurched to his feet with a shout.
The ship was destroyed.
It took several moments of staring at it to accept this, but eventually Zuko did. He had tried his best, had tried to grab the Avatar, had tried to stop the Water Tribe siblings and take down the flying bison, but each attempt had brought him nothing. And now, his ship was covered in thick and heavy snow, snow that trapped them where they were, snow that would take days to clear off and allow days for the Avatar to get ahead of them.
Three of his men were frozen, another three trying to thaw them out. Zuko didn't notice, didn't care. His eyes were trained on the snow, seeing only his failure.
He had been so close. So close. He had had his chance, and it slipped - literally - from his grasp. If he had been more decisive, if he had found some way to just grab the Avatar instead of stupidly trying to reason with him like a weak little fool, like the naive little idiot that his family thought him to be, he wouldn't be staring at the snow. He would be in his room, before his altar, thanking all of the spirits for finally being kind to him, afterwards writing a letter home to his father to tell him the wonderful news...
"You'll have another chance, Nephew."
Zuko turned, looking over his shoulder at his uncle, who stood behind him, his eyes also on the mess, looking somewhat subdued but calm nonetheless. He laughed, a hollow and sour sound, realising with shame that it sounded more like a sob. "I doubt it," he snapped, turning back, his eyes losing focus. "I'm never that lucky."
"You were lucky enough to find the Avatar," Iroh answered, frustrating him. He didn't want to talk it out; he just wanted to brood in peace. "You were lucky enough to prove that a hundred years of searching were worth something. You proved that he lived, still, and that now -,"
"And now, we have to keep this to ourselves," Zuko answered, a shiver of cold fear passing through him suddenly. "If we don't, if others learn the Avatar is alive... I'll never catch him, ever. Someone else with better luck will."
Iroh was silent, and Zuko took that to mean that he was finally going to be left alone. That was, until Iroh said, "You cannot blame all misfortune on luck, Prince Zuko. Sometimes, there are reasons for it."
Zuko shut his eyes, trying to choke back the burning feeling. He didn't want there to be reasons for his suffering. He just wanted it to end.