Every year, the Fire Nation celebrated the Winter Solstice as the official start of winter. Even though the cold nights started weeks sooner, the official start was always on the one day that heralded the longest night. The streets were filled with fire and dancers, game stalls and happy people, from the moment the sun went down to the earliest hours of the morning when the sun finally peeked above the horizon.
Once Ozai became Firelord, the usual tradition of the Royal family starting the festivities in a ceremony of sorts ended. Ozai was a private Firelord, one who felt that his time – and thus that of his family's – was better spent within the walls of the capitol city. And even though Ozai gave his counselors the day off, he spent his own time deep within his chambers, expecting his family to do the same.
Azula, however, wasn't the sort to spend a day of celebration indoors. Every year, once Ozai was secured within his chambers, doing whatever he did, Azula dressed up as a commoner and escaped the confines of the Palace.
When they were younger, and still all together, Azula would sometimes invite Kohaku or Zuko along for the trip. When Kohaku declined, preferring to shadow Ozai or, when that failed, do his own withdrawing, Zuko would be the one to keep her company. And while Azula found Zuko rather skittish and laughable at the games and with other people, she also had to admit that he was still good company.
This year, Zuko was gone. He had been gone for three years, now. That first year, Azula pleaded with Kohaku to keep her company, to take his twin's place. And that first year, he did. But it was a disaster.
He was, to say the least, unbearable. He gloated at his winnings, comparing himself to his errant twin with cruel words and phrases that Azula felt was truly below a royal child. And when he played the games, he turned… violent.
He had been close to losing one of the dart games, when suddenly his eyes just blazed, and when he flung the dart forward, it was engulfed in flames. It hit the centre of the board in an explosion of fire, ruining the game, and, not to mention, the stall-owner's livelihood for the season.
Azula had been ashamed. Especially when Kohaku gloated that he had won, fair and square, and he had only destroyed the stall because the owner was cheating. Azula, who knew lies well, was even more ashamed of her oldest brother's lies.
Luckily, no one had ever guessed that they were Ozai's children. But Azula vowed never to ask Kohaku to go with her ever again – even if he asked.
But he didn't, not this year, and she could guess why. As Azula crept her way out of the Palace, she was also scowling. She didn't like the idea of Kohaku teaming up with Zhao, didn't like the idea of Zuko being target practise for their ambitions.
She didn't like it, but she also knew that she wouldn't tell Ozai what Kohaku was planning. After all, there was a chance that Zhao would deny Kohaku what he wanted.
But then, there was also the chance that he would say yes.
Azula was instantly distracted the moment she was upon the festival. For a wonderful, sweet moment, she was a fourteen-year-old girl again. A smile broke upon her face, and she forgot that she was wearing a peasant's clothes, forgot that she lacked privilege without her crown, and she just ran from stall to stall, eager to wash away her thoughts of politics and scandals from her mind with fireflakes and magic shows.
But when she walked past the dart game, her mouth full of the spicy flakes she loved, her thoughts were dragged from the happiness of the moment. Instead, they were put to sea, wondering where Zuko was at that moment, and wondering if he was celebrating the Solstice in any way that he could.
It would not occur to her until much later that she hadn't seen Kohaku for several days.
Zuko was, at that moment, chained to a pillar and awaiting his death.
It was bad enough that Zhao had not only caught on to his plan – his clever, well thought-out plan – but worse that the older man had beaten him to the punch. And even worse than that was that the very moment, that one, wonderful moment, in which he had finally seized the Avatar and was about to leave in victory, that Zhao took it upon himself to ruin everything.
And now, as those doors were blasted open by the strongest firebending that he had ever seen in his life, he found himself unable to look away from the waves of flames that surely meant his death.
It was a pity, a small part of him thought, the rest of his body numb, that he was finally brave and he was only seconds from his death. Such wasted bravery.
But the flames that crashed into him merely kissed him with a warm breath, blazing only when they reached his chains and turned them to ash. A strangled cry of disbelief caught in his throat, and he jerked away from the pillar lest the tall, shadowy figure with the glowing eyes change its mind and burn him to a crisp.
He ran. He ran away, as fast as he could, from that figure. From the Avatar. From any hopes of victory, or from any chance of defeating Zhao.
But he ran to save his own life.
The temple was crumbling beneath his feet as he ran, and he had to practically jump and leap from stone to crumbling stone in order to keep safe from the sudden gushing of lava that blossomed between the cracks. He barely felt like he was breathing, every ounce of concentration being used on where to put each foot.
His mind felt like it was wiped clean as he fled, because when he focused next, his feet were on solid steel, and he was seated beneath the deck of his travel ship, feeding the engine with blast after blast of fire from his hand, his other hand frantically working the controls to pull him from the lava-swallowed dock.
When he was sure that he was safe, his mind finally seemed to clear, and he was able to concentrate. His heart raced so fast within his breast that he felt as if he had run for hours instead of mere minutes. He was covered in a sheen of cold sweat, his whole body shaking, and when he sat down, he had to shut his eyes and just breathe for a moment.
When he opened them, he saw that night was falling. The island was far behind him now, a glowing beacon of fire and lava upon the quiet waters.
Zuko knew that Zhao would live. There wasn't a chance that he would die. Zuko's luck just wasn't that good.
He also knew that the Avatar would also live. Anyone who could control flames like that could survive a volcanic eruption, probably treating it more like a candle's flame.
As he moved to get the old tub of a shuttle boat to move faster, something caught his eye. He followed it, only spending a few seconds on it before looking away. It was another ship, he saw.
It was only when the details of that ship sunk in that he jerked back to the window, practically smushing his face to the glass in order to make sure that was he was wasn't just a smoke-filled illusion.
No. It was real. And it wasn't just a ship.
It was a royal barge, complete with golden accents and a pagoda for the chambers of it.
"No," Zuko murmured, his voice still strangled and choked from smoke inhalation. He didn't know how he knew for sure, but something within his blood and bones told him that he knew exactly who it was upon that Royal barge.
When his ship was pulled back onto his own pale imitation of a barge, and Iroh came to meet him in a flurry of worry and sharp reprimand, Zuko was still shaking with fear.
When Iroh asked him what scared him so badly, Zuko almost spoke of what he had seen within the Temple, but before he even could, his brother's name came out, first.
To his shame, he sounded barely older than twelve.
"Come," Iroh said, his voice gentle but firm. "We will clean you up, get you something to eat, and we will discuss this in private."
Zuko almost fell into a tantrum, wanting to snarl and snap that he didn't want tea and cookies, didn't want to be coddled. He wanted to pretend that he was merely angry and annoyed at the sight of his brother upon the very seas that were apart of his mission.
To his shame, instead of doing even a small imitation of that tantrum, he merely leaned against his uncle, eager and desperate for the comfort that was offered so freely.
Zuko pressed his hands to his forehead, leaning forward and shutting his eyes tight. The small chamber was now silent, save Iroh's occasional sipping of his tea.
He did this now, as a bluff more than anything else, as Zuko's words slowly sank into him.
Then he said, "You are certain of what you saw?"
Zuko nodded slowly, not bothering to look up. He tried to hide it, but Iroh could see that his youngest nephew was shaking.
"Interesting," Iroh said, his voice calm. "I was not aware that the Firelord could spare his heir during this time of uncertainty."
It was true. Undoubtedly, Ozai was following the less than stellar progress of his second-born son, reading report after report of Zuko's failures – especially the most recent failure, that of being right on the Avatar's trail, only to fall back and rescue Iroh from Earth Kingdom soldiers.
Only Ozai would see something like that as a failure. Especially since Iroh was certain that Kohaku would have left him to be executed in Ba Sing Se.
Iroh looked at his youngest nephew now with a deep affection that he hadn't felt in a long time. Without hesitation, if it came to it Iroh would fight tooth and nail to protect Zuko. Especially against Zuko's own twin.
He owed Zuko that little.
But now, there was this.
Gently, Iroh placed his hand upon Zuko's head. The younger man started a bit, then relaxed, one hand dropping from his face.
"There is nothing we can do right now, nephew," Iroh said gently, speaking only the truth. "Now, you must eat something, and get some sleep. We will figure out what to do next in the morning."
"This has to be a nightmare," was the hoarse reply. "It can't be real, Uncle. It has to be a nightmare…"
"I wish it, too," Iroh agreed. When Zuko looked up, his face was awash with grief, and wordlessly, Iroh pulled him into an embrace.
Kohaku practically strutted up the metal plank that connected the royal barge to Zhao's ship. He was flanked by two of his men, dressed in clothes appropriate for a Crown Prince upon the waters. He was unable to keep a smile from his face, especially when Zhao himself stumbled out from below decks to greet him, sketching a bow that was clearly distracted.
"Crown Prince Kohaku," Zhao gasped out, raising his head but not pulling up from his bow. "I was not expecting such an honour this soon!"
"Clearly," Kohaku answered icily. "Fortunately for you – or perhaps unfortunately, in some respects – I was able to set sail sooner than later." He raised his brows and looked around, viewing the engulfed island as if it were merely a rain shower. "Care to explain why one of the oldest temples in the entire Fire Nation is currently burning to ash?"
Zhao paled. "Of course, Prince." He hesitated, then seemed to remember his manners. "If you would care to come within my chambers, we can discuss the… situation over tea."
Kohaku's smile merely widened. He had to admit, some small part of him did feel sorry for the commander. It was clear that Zhao had probably walked into the situation certain that not only had he captured the Avatar, he had also captured the errant second prince, as well.
And despite the fact that Kohaku was rather frustrated that Zuko slipped through Zhao's fingers, he had expected no less when it came to the Avatar. It merely meant that it was up to Kohaku alone to solve each problem as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
His thoughts shadowed slightly when his last thought crossed his mind.
It would be best to finish it before his father discovered that he was gone.