This was probably the most humiliation that he had had to deal with in a long time, but humiliation it was. He sat back in his chair, flanked by two of Zhao's soldiers, as the commander himself paced and ranted before him in a way that, to his shame, made him want to curl up and hide. Iroh, who was forced to stand some few feet away, tried to catch his eye, but Zuko ignored him.
"So," Zhao was saying, his voice thick with something that seemed like triumph and annoyance. "A twelve-year-old child managed to defeat you, your men, and your uncle, all by himself, without any help. That takes a special kind of idiocy, Prince Zuko." The title was said with a sneer, and Zuko lost his temper.
"Yes, I made a mistake, but now I know what I'm up against, and it won't happen again," he snapped, still unable to meet Zhao's eyes despite the tone of his voice.
"You're right, it won't happen again, because you're off this mission."
Zhao said it so plainly, so matter-of-fact, that it threw Zuko off. "Wait, you don't understand," he said slowly, "this was all just a misunderstanding. I've been hunting the Avatar for two years, and -,"
Zhao suddenly turned on him, flames bursting from his closed fists, and a sick jolt of fear slammed into Zuko's gut and made him shut his eyes and look away as the older man yelled at him. "And those two years were for nothing!" Zhao snarled. "If anything, they made you lazy, unable to do the one simple thing that your father commanded of you!"
Zuko sucked in a breath, inwardly dismayed by his visible cowardice, but he was unable to so much as open his eyes at that moment. The problem was simple: Zhao, in that moment, no only spoke the truth, but had the uncanny ability to sound so much like his brother that it paralysed him to his seat. While he knew better, he kept expecting Zhao to throw a punch at him, or burn him in some way, and even though the illogic of that was easy to see through, the emotion behind it was not.
"Zhao," Iroh's voice broke in through the tension, a calm sound in the chaos. Zuko ventured a look and saw his uncle now seated calmly in front of the tea table once more, though he had one guard positioned behind him. "Zuko is probably the only person in over a hundred years who has combated against the Avatar. You would be wise to listen to what he has to say. Who knows? There could be some insight in it."
Zuko was grateful, but Zhao wasn't. "Anything I need to learn, I can learn on my own," he snapped, not bothering to check his voice. Iroh looked at him mildly, but said nothing further; Zuko admired him that. He wondered what it was like to be able to face anger like that and not so much as flinch.
"Keep these two here until I return," the commander continued. "This mission is no longer yours, Prince Zuko. The Avatar is now mine. You've proven yourself far too immature to deal with this."
Zuko glared, a thousand words and furious epithets leaping to his lips, longing to spit them into that arrogant face, but he swallowed them. Instead, his hands smoked at his sides, shaking, even as Zhao smirked and turned his back to leave.
He was a coward, and knew it. With a sigh of frustrated disgust, he lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut. He kept them shut, even when Iroh walked over and placed a cup of tea in his hands, one hand lingering on his shoulder.
Zhao returned not long after that, looking smug and far calmer than before. "My search party is ready, which means that once we're on the water, you two are free to go – with my guards as your escort, of course."
Zuko glared at him. "Why? Afraid that we might be able to stop you?"
Zhao stopped right in front of him and laughed, right in his face. Zuko felt a hot lance of anger, one that instantly seemed to override any residual fear, but Zhao wasn't done. "You? Actually stop me? When you couldn't even stop a child? Impossible."
Zuko got to his feet, finally fed up, that anger giving him a kind of reckless confidence he hadn't felt in a long time. "Don't underestimate me," he answered tersely. "Even if you have a head start, even if you have your lackeys here to watch me, I will capture the Avatar before you."
Iroh got to his feet as well, apparently sensing trouble. "Prince Zuko," he broke in, but both Zhao and Zuko ignored him.
"You can't compete with me, little prince," Zhao sneered. "I'm an elite commander, one with hundreds of normal-sized warships at my command. You? You're just a banished prince, the stain on your father's name, the insignificant shadow of your older brother, one that finds you despicable. You have no home to go to, no friends or allies… your own family would spit on you if they could see you now."
"No!" The word came unbidden from Zuko's throat, sounding desperate – a sound he hated. "That's not true. I know that once I can prove myself to both my father and my brother, they'll welcome be back! That's why I need the Avatar! It's my right!"
"You lost that right when you let him slip from you incompetent fingers like the exile you are," Zhao replied, almost cheerfully. "And let's face reality, here: if anyone from your family wanted you back, they would have rescinded your exile long before now, with the Avatar in sight or not. The fact that they haven't just proves that you're nothing but a pathetic disgrace."
"That's not true," Zuko grated out, his desperation plain in his voice. It wasn't like that! It couldn't be like that! Deep down, somewhere, he knew that Ozai loved him; even if it was a small shred of love, it was still something!
"Not true? You have the scar to prove it."
It was like the final blow, like rubbing a handful of salt into an already infected wound. With a shout of dismay, Zuko lunged forward, his hands sparking with rage. "Maybe you'd like one to match!" he shouted, eyes on Zhao's, seeing the naked hatred and disgust there, and hating it – and Zhao – all the more because of it.
Zhao smiled thinly before replying, his voice soft and oily. "Am I to take that as a challenge, perhaps?"
Was he? Was it? He could back away now, back off and forget about it, apologise and wait until Zhao was gone before trying again, but…
But this is also a chance to finally prove that I didn't lose, but simply chose not to fight. This is a chance to finally prove that I'm not the weak coward that the whole world thinks I am. And… and… the Avatar… I can't let him take that from me, no matter what.
"Yes," he answered, offering a tiny smile of his own. "An Agni Kai. At sunset."
He would have bet that Zhao would laugh him off, or – worse yet – ignore him, but to his surprise, he simply leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Very well," he agreed, no longer wearing a smile. Indeed, his face was oddly blank. "It's a shame that neither your brother nor father is here to watch me humiliate you." He looked over at Iroh and added, offhandedly, "I suppose your uncle will do." He turned and walked out, as calm and as collected as ever before. Zuko glared after him, shaking from head to toe.
"Zuko," Iroh said softly, "have your forgotten what happened the last time you duelled?"
He shut his eyes, unclenching his hands and sighing deeply. "Like I could ever forget," he answered thinly.
Unknown to any of them, high atop a dormant volcano on Crescent Island within the Fire Nation, the eyes of Avatar Roku's statue, long prayed-to and met with silence, suddenly flared to life, the light so bright that it lit the entire dimly-lit room with its brilliance.
With a gasp of shock, Fire Sage Shyu leaned back, almost tripping over his own folded legs, before scrambling to his feet and telling the first Sage he saw, in a breathless voice, "Send a hawk to the Capitol, right to the Firelord. The Avatar has returned."
About an hour before sunset, a hawk was received wearing a black ribbon of importance. Bemused, the receiver of the hawk instantly made her way to the Palace, knowing better than to open the letter and be punished for her curiosity.
She would know what it meant soon enough.
Kohaku's voice echoed off the walls, his indignant obvious. He and Azula knelt before their father in a dimly-lit room, Ozai opting to keep the flames muted for this important announcement.
However, once the words left Ozai's lips, Kohaku was on his feet, his hands sparking. "The Avatar can't be alive! He's been dead for over a century! Whoever sent that missive is a liar, Father, and you have to punish them for lying to you!"
Ozai patiently waited until his son was done shouting before answering. "Calm yourself, Prince Kohaku," he answered. "The message is real; it comes from one of the Fire Sages on Crescent Island. Apparently their statue of Roku gave a sign that is only given when the Avatar is alive."
Kohaku spluttered, but Azula leaned forward, interested. "That's amazing," she breathed out. "Does it mean he's a really old man, older than Great-Grandfather was before he died?"
"I have no details," he replied, but his voice was softer with Azula – it usually was. "I only know as much as they do, and that is that the Avatar is, in fact, alive, and has made reappearance in the world."
"Does Zuko know?" Azula asked, sounding innocent, though Kohaku knew that the question was anything but.
"I assure you, I have no idea," Ozai said, soundly less warm.
"Knowing him, he probably doesn't," Kohaku spat, sitting back down on the floor in a huff. "He's too much of a fool to ever do anything right, let alone actually find what he's supposed to."
"What will you do, Father?" his sister asked.
"Nothing, for now," was the answer. "I need confirmation from more sources before I can decide to do anything – if at all. While I'm sure that the Fire Sages are accurate in their findings, I want confirmation from outside sources, first."
"That's shrewd," Kohaku snapped. "We should be sending search parties out right now, while the trail is still hot."
"What trail?" Azula shot back at him, facing him with a sour expression on her face. "That missive said nothing about a trail. We can't risk a cold trail if there isn't one in the first place, idiot."
Kohaku opened his mouth to snarl back, fed up with Azula's confidence that she knew better than him – always – but Ozai's voice broke between their bickering. "I stand by what I said. Both of you need to be prepared for confirmation of this, but keep it to yourselves for now. Rumours will be flying soon enough, and I wanted you to hear it from me, first. You're dismissed."
Azula shot to her feet instantly, bowing low to Ozai before turning to leave. Kohaku rose far slower, making sure his sister was gone before speaking once more. "You should send me after him, Father," he said, trying to keep the nervousness from his voice. "I would be able to capture him faster than Zuko ever could, and that way he would never come home."
Ozai blinked slowly, then said, "Is that what you're worried about? That your twin might possibly be coming home soon?"
Kohaku said nothing, which was admission enough.
"I assure you, Prince Kohaku, that it will take more than that to bring Zuko home," he went on easily. "You do not need to make this a project for yourself."
Kohaku opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. He nodded slowly, bowing low, before turning to follow his sister out.
Azula was waiting for him. She stood with her arms crossed, leaning against the wall. Her face was impassive. He started to walk past her, but her voice stopped him. "You're not fooling anyone, you know. Least of all Dad."
"I don't know what you're talking about," he answered, looking over his shoulder at her. She wasn't smiling or sneering or anything, which was odd for her – especially since he was lying.
"Yes, you do," she said calmly. "You're afraid that Zuko will prove himself worthy enough to come home. And so what if he does? Even if he does get his title back, he's second prince, a nobody."
"I know that."
"Then why are you so afraid of him?"
Kohaku whirled around on her, barking out a derisive laugh. "Me? Afraid of him? You're insane if you think that's true!"
Azula shrugged easily. "Then I'm insane, because we both know it's true."
"Whatever," he snarled, turning his back on her and storming away. He refused to even consider the possibility that he was afraid of his week, snivelling little excuse for a brother.
Azula stayed where she was. Her eyes were narrowed, her glare fixed on her eldest brother's retreating back.
"Zuko, do you remember what I told you a few weeks ago?"
Zuko sighed, keeping his eyes shut and trying to keep his thoughts on his chi. "You do realise that you're going to have to be more specific, right?" he answered thinly. "You've told me a lot of things, most of which I've forgotten."
"About your firebending," was the reply. "You need to focus on your basics. Don't force yourself to do something you're not familiar with just because it's flashy; use only what you're confident with."
"Right," Zuko answered softly, inwardly wondering if any of it would be enough. "Use the basics. Okay."
"You can do this," Iroh said gently, and Zuko raised his head and opened his eyes. His uncle was looking at him with a mix of fondness and fear. "You know it, and so do I. Keep that in mind." His eyes focussed on something behind Zuko, and he took that as a hunt. Slowly, he got to his feet, the ceremonial cloth dropping from his shoulders.
To his surprise, he wasn't shaking. He didn't feel confident, but he also wasn't afraid. He wondered if that meant anything at all.
Zhao rose to his feet, a tall and impressive figure. Zuko eyed him closely, noting that while Zhao was taller, he was also not much bigger than him when it came to muscle and frame. While Zhao was undoubtedly stronger, Zuko could – perhaps – make up for his lack with agility.
Again, he thought all of these things calmly. He was amazed, but he didn't question it.
"This won't take long," Zhao said, sounding almost cheerful. Both men moved into the starting stance, and at that, the gong was hit, and the fighting began.
Zuko bet on his agility. He wanted to get the first shot, no matter what. With a slow downward arc of his hand, he pushed all of his bending into that one move. The air shimmered, sparking with fire, the moves slow and deliberate. When Zhao started to come forward, Zuko lunged with a shout, reaching out his hand as if catching the flames, then throwing it before him and, in turn, throwing the flames forward.
Zhao, however, seemed to be on to his moves, and he was already moving out of the way before the flames left his hand. In frustration, he tried to catch him off-guard, but was once again evaded with ease. Basics aren't working, he thought acidly, yearning to be a better bender, wishing he had just an ounce of talent that his siblings had.
Sensing his hesitation, Zhao pushed forward and threw a volley of fire towards him. Somewhat distracted, Zuko only had mere seconds to evade it, and even then his right are got singed a little bit. A stab of panic hit his gut so hard he stumbled, forgetting that it wasn't Kohaku that he was facing, forgetting that he did, in fact, have the means and the right to win this fight.
The commander smirked, edging closer, apparently eager to close the distance between them. He fired three successive hits, one from each hand and one launched from a kick, and Zuko barely had the mind to avoid them. He staggered back, his mind desperately reaching for his fire, and as he fell, he launched two shots of his own with a shout. One was easily avoided, but the other clipped Zhao's leg, and soon Zuko wasn't the only one making his way to the ground.
However, while Zhao easily recovered, Zuko did not. He had landed on his back, while Zhao merely tripped to his knees, and even then only for a handful of seconds – not even enough for Zuko to get back to his feet.
He could hear Iroh shouting, but barely could hear it. His heart was thudding too loudly in his ears.
Zhao walked over to him, holding up a hand that was already ablaze. "Like I said," he said calmly, not even out of breath.
No. No. He couldn't let this happen. He couldn't face this kind of humiliation. It was bad enough being beaten and scarred by his own twin, worse that his father had taken Kohaku's side without even bothering to ask whether Zuko had fought back or not… But this? Fighting back and losing? For a cause he needed to win?
Zhao leaned forward to finish it, but in that moment, Zuko saw his chance. He pushed all of his weight to his legs, reaching out and kicking at Zhao – it didn't matter where he hit, as long as it hit – putting everything into that one chance blow. And it worked. His heels landed on Zhao's knees, and with a shout of shock, Zhao staggered backwards, the fire vanishing into the air.
This time, Zuko had the time to get to his feet. He jumped to them, his hands sparking, confidence warming his blood and heating his fire. Without even thinking about it, he used the most basic moves to keep Zhao off-balance, aiming fireball after fireball at his bare feet, watching with a small smile as the older man fought to not only keep his balance but to keep his feet from the flames.
With a final burst of fire, Zuko's last hit brought Zhao to the ground. He was hovering over the commander before he could even think of getting up, his fist held out and trained on Zhao's face. He didn't move, and no fire lit his fingers. He was hesitating, and both men knew it. He knew what he had to do… but could he?
Zhao seemed to think so. "Just get it over with!" he snarled.
The defiance in that voice, the underlying sneer, seemed to cut deep into Zuko, and with a shout, he flung his other first forward, a bright-white burst of fire crashing forward.
But it hit the ground, nothing more. Zhao would not have a scar that day.
Zuko lowered his arms and stepped back, glaring at the other man. He felt bitter relief, if he admitted it. He was glad he had won, but he also knew that he was even gladder that he didn't go through with it. Some small, sick part of him cheered him on for a moment – a split second – but he couldn't do it. He wouldn't. He was not that son of Ozai.
Zhao was laughing, the sound a horrible one. "You can't even do one simple thing!" he sneered. "Your father raised a coward!"
"Maybe," Zuko answered softly. "But you can bet I won't hold back the next time."
Iroh was suddenly at his side, startling him into looking away at the blazing hatred of Zhao's glare. His uncle was beaming, his smile like a soothing balm on his aches and burns. He placed a hand on Zuko's clammy shoulder, and together they started to walk away, their backs to Zuko.
Zhao, however, apparently wasn't done. He got to his feet in a single leap and, with a shout unlike any other, threw his foot out and unleashed a stream of unrestrained flame.
Zuko felt the heat of it against his back, but also knew that no matter what, he wouldn't be fast enough to avoid it. He didn't even move to try. He stood, his eyes squeezed shut, waiting... but then, it stopped. Iroh had stepped before him and simply grabbed onto the commander's outstretched foot, stopping both kick and fire from reaching his nephew. With an almost casual toss, he pushed Zhao aside and away. Zhao staggered back to the ground, and this time stayed there.
Zuko stood a few feet behind Iroh, shaking. It wasn't just the waning adrenaline that brought it on, but the fact that he had seen the attack coming, and had found himself frozen and immobile from it. He still had that instinct, that one flaw that made him just cower and take it instead of just fighting back. He hadn't realised it, hadn't realised how deeply it was ingrained in him, until that one single moment.
Iroh's expression was one of disgust, his gaze locked with Zhao's in what seemed like a silent argument. "You taunted my nephew about being a coward, just a moment ago. But perhaps you should look inward, Commander. Only cowards attack the victor's back out of bitterness and shame. In exile, my nephew shows a great deal more honour than you."
Zuko's shoulders relaxed suddenly, the fear slowly ebbing away from hearing this.
"Thank you for the tea," Iroh added, starting to turn away. "It was delicious."
Together, uncle and nephew turned their backs once more, this time granted leave without incident.
Once they were out of earshot, Zuko said softly, "Did you really mean it? What you said, back there?"
Iroh smiled, looking at him from the corner of his eye. "Of course. I told you – ginseng tea is my favourite."
Zuko frowned a little, but when he noticed the dancing light in his uncle's eyes, he relaxed. Together, they made their way back to the ship – and back to the seas.