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Holding this Breath

Chapter Text

The Air Temples were empty, like hollowed out husks. Zuko's own body weighed him down as they sailed through the icebergs, away from the clanging, deceptive, horrible Northern Air Temple, where people had flown, but none of them had been airbenders, where he had been forced to disguise himself just to get into the temple at all. The air in his room was freezing and drove through the bandage over his eye like needles, and the walls and the floor were worse than the ice. He tried not to wear the thick fur-lined robe his uncle had bought him at the last port, lest the man think he was grateful, but there in his own room, he thought it couldn't hurt. At least it was white instead of green, undyed, belonging to no nation. He could have it dyed Fire Nation red later.

He shivered and pulled it in tighter around himself. His breath rose in clouds in front of him. There used to be airbenders who could read a person's destiny in the clouds. His eyes drifted closed.

A deafening crunch filled the room, shaking the walls as the ship shuddered and screeched to a halt. Eyes snapping open, Zuko lurched off his futon and into the corridor. The ladder rungs froze the sweat on his palms and tore at his skin as he climbed and then scrambled out onto the deck. It was black out, with the moon and the stars barely letting him see his hands in front of him. He didn't have time to wonder how long he had been asleep. All around him, the crew rushed towards the gash opening the bow of his ship. It was frozen closed.

Zuko stared. The iceberg that had hit them was growing, spindly branches of ice reaching further and further down the length of the ship. Water Tribe boats closed in for the kill. "All hands to your battle stations," he shouted, but it didn't matter. The crew had already figured that out for themselves.

Uncle stood at the bow, melting the iceberg locking them in place. The Water Tribe warriors surged up the dry, rough ice and onto the ship, like dolphin-lions on a bait ball. Fire sizzled in the freezing air, and Zuko felt stupid and clumsy, and completely useless as he ducked down.

He leapt up and kicked, and the answering dull scream sent a rush of energy through him. He kicked again, and landed in a fighting stance, but as soon as his feet hit the ground, a puddle of meltwater on the deck sprang up and froze, pinning his feet to the deck. He brought his hands down to melt the ice, but a wave of water crashed into him, freezing him up to the neck.

"Zuko!" his uncle yelled. Zuko watched him scuttle down the deck as Zuko tried to twist his head to melt the ice with his breath of fire.

Suddenly, the Water Tribe warriors froze their own feet to the deck, and the iceberg around them melted away. The ship lurched, throwing his crew and his uncle into the water. Zuko screamed. The bandage came loose from his eye and fluttered down into the water. The ship sank back down.

There were gasps and shouts from below, in the water. Zuko swore he heard Uncle's voice.

Two other men from his crew stood frozen to the deck, and he couldn't close his eyes as the waterbenders melted the ice around them and dumped them unceremoniously into the North Pole sea. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move. They were heading his way.

The water splashed down, and he tried to lift his arms to fight, but they were shaking so hard, and his teeth were clanging together. Agony lanced through his half-healed burn every time he tried to breathe. Two of the warriors grabbed his arms. "Hey wait," the one who had melted the water muttered, spinning him around to look at his face. "This one's just a kid."

~*~

A Water Tribe man stood on either side of him as he huddled down on the neck in his robe and the thick blanket from his bed. He couldn't stop shivering, even after one of the waterbenders had pulled all he water out of his clothes and slippers.

The Water Tribe captain strode over and bent down to stick his face into his captive's, Uncle's diary under one arm. "So you're Prince Zuko."

Zuko bared his teeth at him, but the chattering ruined the effect, and he tucked himself down further into the blanket.

"Come on," the captain told the men. "We need to get him to the chief."

~*~

Zuko tried to push himself off the ground as the two Water Tribe guards held his arms. His feet swung wildly, fire sputtering in their wake.

"Shit," one of the guards shouted, while the other kicked his legs out from under him. "Somebody get rope."

One of the warriors that had attacked his ship looked up from freezing a patrol boat into its docking bay. "Won't he just burn through it?"

"You got any better ideas?" the other guard shot back as Zuko bucked in their arms. The first guard pinned his arms behind his back and forced him down to the ground. His legs buckled, and when one of the guards straightened them out and sat on them, he thrashed, but they were just so much bigger and stronger, and his knees ground against the ice.

"I found these instead," the warrior said, running back to them, cuffs and leg irons dangling from his hands. The metal closed around his wrists and ankles, burning with the cold against his skin.

"Come on," the captain barked, stepping forward to walk down the dock. "Let's get this over with."

The guards hoisted him up to follow. Zuko had no choice. He hung from their arms, weak and exhausted and completely trapped. The corridors that wound under his guards' feet twisted around and around, his head spinning. When the corridors opened into a small room draped with fur rugs and oversized cushions, the guards lowered him down to his knees.

"What on earth?" The man who had been sitting on one of the cushions and playing with bone tiles with a pretty white-haired girl exclaimed angrily, standing up.

"Chief Arnook," the captain said stiffly. "We're sorry to interrupt, but we found a Fire Nation Naval vessel in our waters. This boy was onboard." He held up Uncle's diary. "According to this, this kid's the Fire Nation Crown Prince."

"Yue." Arnook smiled for a moment at the white-haired girl. "I'm afraid I'll have to call short our game. Please, leave us."

"Yes, Father." She tried to smile at the chief and floated out of the room, back straight, glancing down at Zuko under her eyelashes. Zuko watched her, trying to imagine what was so bad that he had to send the princess out of the room.

As soon as she had crossed the threshold, one of the guards waterbended the door shut behind her. The chief eyed him coldly. "What was your ship doing in our waters?"

Zuko flinched, suddenly aware that all he had on was his sleep clothes, stiff with salt and streaked with coal smoke, his slippers black on the soles. The robe hung from the chains on his wrist. "Nothing!"

"You were on a Fire Nation military ship." Only sort of, Zuko wanted to say, and only because of Uncle's leftover connections. "In our waters. That's an act of war."

He swallowed, fighting to keep conscious. "Killing my uncle and my crew was an act of war." He blinked, and his eyes fluttered. He was so cold.

"Your uncle?" the chief asked sharply. Zuko's head jerked up. "The Dragon of the West was on that ship?"

"You killed him," Zuko spat. One of the guards cuffed him on the back of the head. His head snapped forward, and he let it hang.

Arnook stepped around behind him and started to circle him. "What were you doing with the Dragon of the West in these waters?"

"Nothing!" Zuko yelped, jerking at his wrists. His hand was trying to come up to the burn, half healed and sticky on his face.

The chief bent low, eyes narrowed. "Fire Nation princes do not sail into enemy territory for nothing!"

"I thought the Northern Water Tribe was neutral," he mumbled, instead telling him that all the waters he could sail into anymore were enemy waters. That he hoped the air Avatar had died, and maybe he could see signs of the new one born in the north, that he was only a prince of the Fire Nation because the sages said his father couldn't take that away.

Arnook snorted and touched the chains on Zuko's wrists. They rattled noisily. "Take him to one of the spare rooms and lock him in. We'll figure out what to do with him later. I'd like to get back to a game with my daughter."

~*~

The world wavered in and out. He hung from their arms, and when they bent the door to the room open, they carried him through and laid him down on a pile of blankets and furs. Zuko turned his head and bit down on the wrist closest to his head. "That little..." It was the last thing he heard.

~*~

"Hey kid." They were standing over him when he woke up. He was wrapped up in blankets, and there was a fire in the middle of the room. He could feel it in the back of his mind. Scrambling up, he pushed his way out of the blankets. The guard who had spoken caught him as he stumbled over the leg irons. "You know, you bit me."

Zuko bared his teeth.

"I hear in the Fire Nation, hair's really important," he said seriously, tugging Zuko's phoenix tail and pulling out a knife. Zuko jerked, but the man just gripped his hair tighter and brought the knife down. He fell over at the sudden release as the other guards snickered. The guard threw his hair down, and it tangled on the ice. "Think about that next time you try anything, kid. We're under orders not to hurt you, but that could change."

One of the other guards threw a fur hat down onto the blankets before following the others out of the room. "You should keep your head warm."

~*~

His head itched. The hair broke through the skin ans stood up in a black, bristly mat, and he didn't have a knife, or razor or anything to get rid of it. When he lay down, he could feel the hair pushing back. They brought him food, twice a day, and emptied his chamber pot, and each time it was a different guard. Until it was two guards, because he had stood behind the door and sprung for the guard as soon as he thought he was strong enough.

When they were outside, and he was alone, he lay on the pile of furs and blankets, closing his eyes against the blue-white ice. On the inside of his eyelids, he could see his uncle and the crew, tumbling into the water.

He could barely move in the chains. His hands and feet burned with cold from the moment the cuffs came down around his wrists. He let the fire flow down his arms and legs and out into the wall of the cell. It kept him warm.

The ice melted. Water ran down the wall like a fountain, carving its way slowly, slowly through the wall at the back of his cell. And then when they came in to feed him, they remade the wall before he could break through.

~*~

The ice door opened, and Zuko shot to his feet. The chains clinked. A man with long gray hair walked into the room and closed the door behind him. He put his hand on Zuko's shoulder, but Zuko flinched away. "I knew your uncle."

"Liar," Zuko rasped.

"I was a friend of his. We met after the siege of Ba Sing Se," the old man murmured. Zuko brought his hand back. His other hand followed, like one of those turtle-ducks on a string his mother got for him to play with when he was little. He thrust his hands forward, but the fireball died half formed when the old man grabbed his wrist. "I am a waterbending master. If you try to fight me, you won't win."

Zuko spat in his face.

He just held onto Zuko's arms. "Your uncle was a good man. I'm sorry he died."

"He was murdered." He tugged against the man's grip. "They threw everybody into the water. he didn't even get a chance to fight."

"Most people don't."

"They threw the people they'd captured into the water too," Zuko retorted. "That's murder."

The man dropped his hands. "And they left you alive."

"Yeah."

"I'm sorry." He walked over to the wall that Zuko had tried to melt his way through. "My name's Pakku. If you need something, talk to someone, ask your guards for me, and I'll come."

"Yeah, of course you will." Zuko hunched his shoulders and turned away from the room, and him.

"I hear you almost made it out," he said, trying to sound friendly, and Zuko wondered for a second if the man really had known Uncle They both had the same inability to take a hint.

"Go away," he sighed, hating the way it sounded like a question, like he was begging.

~*~

The next day, two of his guards picked him up by his arms and forced him to kneel. As their chief strode into the room, they pushed Zuko's head down.

"We received your father's reply."

Zuko didn't move.

Arnook continued. "He said you had been exiled, and that your ship is under your command and no one else's, that whatever you were doing in our waters, the Fire Nation had no part in. Is this true?"

Zuko tried to shrug, but the men holding his arms ruined it. "Yes."

"He said whatever we wanted to do with you was our business." He shot his captive a sympathetic look, and fury sank into Zuko's stomach. "He will not ransom you back."

Zuko closed his eyes. The hot tears that welled up refused to let themselves be forced down. He tried to lift his head, but the guards held it down. he tried to open his mouth to speak, but no air came out.

Arnook touched the guard's arm and the hand holding Zuko's head down slid away. "Since you're going to be with us for a long time-"

"Just say it." Zuko lifted his head and glared. "I'm stuck here forever."

The chief nodded. "Probably."

Ducking his head to the side, Zuko bit back a retort, tears running down his face and freezing as they fell.

"So, since you're going to be with us for a long time," Arnook began again. "It would be best if we didn't have to keep you locked up. If you cooperate..."

Zuko snorted and pressed his lips thin. "What do you want?"

"You're lucky." Arnook told him, patting his shoulder. "In the Water Tribe, we don't kill little boys for what their fathers have done. I only want you to show a little appreciation. It's a second chance. Whatever you did back home to get your father to disown you, it doesn't matter here. If you stop attacking your guards, if you try to fit in here a little, you might be able to make a life here. You could at least get out of those chains." Zuko's good eye narrowed, but the chief was already walking out. "Just think about it," he said with a smile.

Zuko pulled against the guards. "Don't count on it.

~*~

The guard set his dinner down on the floor while his companion threw something at Zuko.

He caught it. "What's this?" he snarled, shaking out the bundle that had landed in his arms. Underclothes, a shirt and trousers, along with fur-lined boots fell out of the heavy fur poncho they had been wrapped in.

The guard who had thrown it at him smiled. He had crooked teeth and a flattened nose, and it made him look like a frog-puppy. "We'll take your handcuffs off so you can put them on if you promise not to attack us."

His hands clenched, and he stared down at the filthy sleep clothing he had been wearing for weeks. It was all he could do not to attack the man with the handcuffs on. "I want a bath."

"Huh?"

"I want to take a bath," he repeated. "You do that here, right?"

"We aren't barbarians," the guard who had brought in Zuko's dinner shot back, scandalized.

Frog-puppy face stopped smiling. "We're not taking you down to the hot springs."

"Then you can bring a tub here," Zuko snapped, folding his hands one over the other, and wishing it looked more like folding his arms. "It's been weeks."

"Yeah, you kind of smell," Frog-puppy told him.

Zuko narrowed his eyes.

"Fine," the other guard said deliberately. "You promise not to attack us, you can have your bath."

~*~

They stayed in the room while he took his bath, and Zuko sank as low beneath the edge of the ceramic basin as he could. He blew a jet of hot air into the water and tried to not just revel in being warm for the first time since he had been captured. The air on every part of him that wasn't beneath the water stung like his skin was being sliced away. Soap bubbles trailed in the water away from him on the water, and he gazed at them. He was clean. He was warm. He didn't have any excuse for staying in the bath, except that the cold made his body hurt.

He slipped lower into the water and grabbed the towel. The guards bundled him into more towels and the furs. He started shivering, his teeth chattering together, and they put him on his bed and tucked the furs and blankets up around him while Frog-puppy and the other guard babbled about hot springs and pneumonia. And Zuko put his hands to his mouth and breathed heat out of his belly, and felt his body warm a little.

He cleared his throat and pulled one of the blankets over his lap as he sat up. "I'm fine. I want to get dressed."

His guards stared, and Zuko felt the urge to cringe, to hide under more blankets, wondering what they saw. He was still shaking and his hair stuck up, there were blisters on his wrists and ankles from the chains, and the scar on his face was half-healed, and some nights, he swore he could feel it growing, creeping across his face.

The other guard draped the undershirt around his shoulders and pushed his rubbery arms through the sleeves. "I don't need help!" Zuko yelped, yanking his arm away and tying the belt around the shirt with stiff fingers. He pulled the pants on, and then another pair with fur on the inside over those, and hoisted the parka over his head and climbed inside. It didn't feel like clothes. It felt like a costume.

Frog-puppy picked up the handcuffs and the leg irons. "You want to put these on yourself too?"

Glowering, Zuko held out his arms. Frog-puppy smoothed down the sleeve of his undershirt so that the cuffs fit over it and the freezing metal didn't touch his skin.

~*~

Zuko blinked awake as the shadow fell over him. The fire in the brazier near his bed had burned low, and the gloom made the indistinct form standing over him even more menacing. As he shot upright, the fire blazed high and bright, and the shadow resolved itself into a wizened old woman with a necklace of claws. "Hello, young firebender," she greeted him, unperturbed.

"Who are you?" he demanded. The leg irons tripped him up, and he fell back onto his nest of furs.

She beamed at him. "I'm Yugoda. Your guards tell me you have been behaving yourself better."

Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko watched his two new guards watching him. He gave her a sullen look.

"I'm surprised I woke you, with the morning getting on," she tried.

He glanced pointedly around the windowless cell.

"I'm here to look at your scar," she told him soothingly.

Zuko flinched and backed against the wall. "No!"

"Calm down." She put her hands in the air. A pool of water melted out of the ice and flowed up to her hands. "I'm not going to hurt you."

"Don't touch me." He held his hands in front of his face and tried to stand again, but he just managed to slam his head against the wall behind him.

"If this is your better behavior, how were you before?" she tittered. He drew back, the room, the fur, the ice, all of it closing in around him. The water in her hands came down onto his scar. "Most boys your age know how to act with a healer."

His good eye widened as the water made his half-healed burn scar stop aching. When the water left, and he brought his hand up to touch it, the stickiness was gone.

"Now isn't that better?" she asked, patting his shoulder.

Zuko wanted to scream. He wanted to shout at her that, no, he didn't want her to touch him. It wasn't better, that maybe if she had told him what she was and he hadn't thought she was there to gawk, maybe he would have said yes, but then she would realize he hadn't known, and the Water Tribe would suddenly learn that he really was as stupid as his crew and everybody back home always said he was.

She pulled a key out of her parka and held it up for him to look at. "I'm going to unlock the cuffs and look at your wrists. If you try to attack me, I'll stop, the guards will put the cuffs back on, and those blisters will begin to fester. I'm just trying to help."

"Fine," Zuko said airlessly. He sat very still, hunching her shoulders and looking away from her as she unlocked the cuffs and rolled up his sleeves. Some of the blisters that ringed his wrist were already festering and pus filled. All of them throbbed with every shift of the cuffs.

She brought the water to them, and when it started to glow, the light bounced off the ice walls. The blisters burst, and fluid and pus mingled with the water. Zuko's breath hissed around his teeth. "Shhh," she soothed as the blisters disappeared. When she let the water fall away and she rolled his sleeves down, the skin was unblemished, but when she snapped the cuffs back into place, he had to hold back tears.

The leg irons came off and she rolled up the legs of his pants, examining the blisters clustered on the bones of his ankle. "You poor thing," she whispered, and Zuko's teeth clenched. "It's alright, I told you I'm not going to hurt you."

The pus filled water sank into a small bottle she had brought with her, and she rolled down his pant legs. Zuko held his hand up when she grabbed the leg irons. "I want to stretch my legs."

One of the new guards sprang forward and knocked his hand down. "You don't get to do that."

Zuko's eyes snapped up to him, jaw set, ignoring Yugoda the healer in favor of the new variable he was suddenly aware of. "Oh yeah?"

The other guard smirked at him slyly. "You haven't earned it."

Zuko's fists clenched and his teeth bared, and the temperature of his cell rose high enough for a sheen of meltwater to glisten on the walls. How was he supposed to earn anything, he wanted to yell, when he wasn't allowed to do anything?

Yugoda flinched when she saw his expression, but as the guard closed the manacles around his ankles, she rubbed his shoulder. "It'll get better."

Zuko jerked away from her. "Get out."

"Hey, you don't get to order anybody around," the same guard who had told him he didn't get to stretch his legs reminded him with a smirk.

"Get out please." The words hissed through his clenched teeth, sharp, short and choked off. The other guard reached over and cuffed him on the back of the head.

"Tell your guards to send for me if you need anything, young firebender." Yugoda gave him one last attempt at a smile as she stood up.

As she walked to the door and waited for one of the guards to open it for her, Zuko pulled the folded brim of his hat lower and stared at the floor, one hand trailing after the other, dangling on the chain.

~*~

As soon as the ice door slid shut behind the healer and his guards, Zuko's head came up and he took a deep breath. His wrists and ankles were healed, his stomach was full, he was clean, he realized with a distant sort of anger that he probably felt as good as he ever was until he managed to get out of there. He put his hand on top of the chains holding his ankles together.

The heat fire poured into the metal until it glowed bright plum-cherry red, and Zuko swung it down against the ice. Hissing steam billowed up as the metal melted the ice and sank into it. The thick trousers protected his skin from the worst of it as the heat spread outward from his fire and then died in the meltwater. He held the chain taut and chopped his hand down onto the cold chain.

One link snapped. The chain broke, and Zuko blinked at it disbelievingly. "Yes, yes, yes!"

He held up his wrists and folded one hand over the chain. The stream of fire that enveloped the links warmed his face, an Zuko could feel the heat spread. He dropped down and let the chain slam against the ice floor, and rolled his head away to try to avoid the jets of sputtering, stinging steam. There were splinters of metal stuck deep in the blade of his hand and they hurt, and when he pulled the cooled chain taut, he gazed at it, perplexed, before squeezing his eyes closed, suddenly realizing he was an idiot. Of course. He couldn't chop this chain like he had with the other. He roared, and shot to his feet. One foot hit the meltwater, and he crashed back down to the floor. "No, no, nononono!"

He could still escape, he told himself. He could get the manacles off his wrists later. He could- There were pits in the ice from the chains. He remembered stairs on the way to his cell. A smile came onto his face, open mouthed with surprise. There could be a room below, a room without guards. He kicked and punched fireballs at the floor over those pockmarks, and the steam filled the room. Jumping into the pit he made, splashed into the tepid water. He felt the bottom give way as he hit it, and pulled his arms and legs in to brace himself.

When he landed, there was screaming. He looked up from the floor to see a girl standing next to him, drenched in water, her white hair translucent and plastered against her head. He recognized her. She was the chief's daughter. "You!" she gasped. "You're the Fire Prince! I saw you!"

"Please," he begged, scrambling to his feet. "Please shut up!"

"What are you going to do to m-" but he was already running for the door. "Guards!"

The guards burst into the room before Zuko even made it to the door. They must have heard her scream earlier.

~*~

Yugoda's water was still wrapped around his hand when Chief Arnook stepped into Zuko's cell. Zuko jerked back, and the healer grabbed his wrist. "Calm down, young firebender. We need to get those splinters out."

"What I want to know is where did you think you were going to go if you did manage to get out of the palace?" the chief asked, eyeing him coldly. "You don't have a boat, you don't have a crew, you don't have any supplies. You have no money, your father won't let you come home. Here at least you're warm and well fed, safe. It's not so bad here."

"You killed my crew," Zuko spat. "You killed my Uncle."

The chief opened his mouth to reply to that, and then sighed. "I'm sorry. Were you close? I suppose you must have been if he chose to go into exile with you."

Zuko swallowed, and didn't know how to say no, they weren't close. They had never been close, but Zuko didn't know what to do without him. It was his fault. It was his fault.

Yugoda bent the water she had been using down to the ground and let it freeze. "Try not to need me again so soon," she said with a smile. Zuko just shot her a dark, unhappy look.

"I'll make a bargain with you." Arnook said, putting his hands behind his back. "If you can behave yourself for a month, we will take those chains off. If you can behave yourself for another two, you can leave the room under guard."

"Thanks," Zuko muttered, swearing to himself that the next time he escaped, he would have a boat and supplies waiting for him, because the Water Tribe chief was right.

~*~

The Water Tribe princess came in the next morning. At least he thought it was the next morning; it was just after his guards brought breakfast. Her hair was dry, and she wore fresh robes, and Zuko couldn't help comparing her to Azula. She was pretty, and soft, and floated into the room on small steps, hands folded in front of her. "So you're the Fire Prince," she said, and he remembered what she had said the day before.

"What are you doing here?"

She brought her pretty blue eyes to bear on him, and he glowered back. "You gave me quite a scare when you dropped in on me. I thought we should be properly introduced. I'm Yue, Princess of the Northern Water Tribe."

"Zuko," he responded curtly, leaving off his title. She knew it already anyway.

"It's very nice to meet you, Prince Zuko."

He didn't reply, just sipped his soup. He supposed he should offer her some, but he just kept his head down.

"Is it really that bad here?" she asked.

Zuko couldn't stop looking at the floor, remade, and bent as smooth as the surface of the turtle-duck pond back home. His eyes fell on the shiny new manacles holding his hands and feet together. "Yes."

"That's good to know," she remarked. She walked over to the wall and stood next to him. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all," he said without expression as she sat down. The only thing she had in common with Azula was that neither of them could take a hint.

"It isn't often we get guests here." She didn't lean back against the wall. She kept her back straight.

"I'm not a guest," he mumbled. "I'm a prisoner."

She laughed softly, politely. "It isn't often we get anybody here."

"Yeah, well," Zuko shrugged. "Maybe if you didn't kill everybody who sailed into your waters, you'd have more company."

She blinked those huge blue eyes of hers, and then, very formally, put her arm stiffly on his shoulder. "My father told me about your uncle. I am sorry."

"Thank you," he said coldly.

"Anyway," she said, letting it roll off her. "I wanted to know if you wanted me to bring you anything to make you more comfortable."

"No."

"Are you sure?" she tried again, taking her hand away. "I could bring you paints, or ink, scrolls from the library, maybe games."

"Yeah?" he grumbled. "Who am I going to play games with?"

She looked at him until he looked back. "What about me?"

"I guess." He didn't see any way out of it. With a sudden attack of manners, he asked, "Would you like to eat something while you're here?"

She glanced down at his breakfast soup and wrinkled her nose. "I will see what I can do about getting you something better to eat."

~*~

He wasn't surprised when she showed up the next morning with his guards carrying in a Pai Sho board. "I figured you must be very bored," she began, pointing to the spot on the floor where she wanted them to set up the board. "I'm not very good, but..."

"I'm not very good either." He shuffled forward, carefully, trying not to fall.

She shook the bag with the tiles and poured half out for Zuko and kept half for herself. "I guess we'll be evenly matched then.

~*~

He counted time in the length of his hair. Every morning, he tried to gather it together, and finally, the morning he managed, he pulled a piece of string from his pants and wrapped his hair into a clumsy topknot. It came out twice during the day, and it was full of lumps and places where the hair was too short, but each time he tied it back up. It made him feel a little bit like he was still Fire Nation, like he could go home someday. It felt good, that comforting weight hanging just the way it was supposed to from the back of his head, like his phoenix tail, like this whole thin hadn't happened, and he was still on his ship, and Uncle and his crew were still alive, and it wasn't his fault they were all dead.

That evening, when the guards came in with his dinner, he recognized one of them. He supposed eventually,they just ran out of people and had to rotate the same ones back in.

"You're supposed to be trying to fit in here," the guard he recognized scolded hi irately. He waved Zuko forward, but Zuko didn't move.

"How am I supposed to fit in when I never get to leave this room?" His voice rose high and broke on the last word, and he wanted to curl up, humiliated.

"Putting your hair up in a topknot is definitely out," the other guard said. "Look, I'll be nice, remove the temptation, come over here."

"You are not cutting my hair," Zuko growled, backing up.

"Come on, kid." The guard advanced on him. "You have three weeks before they let you out of this room. Don't screw that up, come on."

Zuko fell into a fighting stance, his arms out and ready. "You are not cutting my hair," he repeated.

"Come on," the guard said again, and rushed Zuko.

Zuko darted out of the way and jabbed the heel of his hand just under the other guard's ribs. The man stumbled back, gasping as Zuko dove past him. The first guard grabbed Zuko's arm, and when the Fire Prince ducked into him to break the grip, the man looped his other arm around Zuko.

The guard he had recognized melted the floor under Zuko's feet. The guard holding him let him fall until the other guard froze the floor again, up to Zuko's chest, trapping his arms. He could feel his feet kicking against the empty air of the room below. He wondered if Yue was in there to see. He saw one of the men take out a knife and grab his hair. His neck stretched out and the knife sliced through, parting his hair from his head. Again.

"Hey," the guard with the knife said. "Go get the chains."

When the other guard had left the room and frozen the wall behind him, the guard with the knife put his knife away and wrapped his arms around Zuko's chest. The floor melted to slush around Zuko's body, and the guard hauled him up, out of the water.

Zuko brought his stiff, cold hand up to the ragged edges of his hair. There were tears running down his face, but he couldn't feel them.

"Oh kid," the guard murmured, petting what was left of Zuko's hair. "It's just your hair. It's going to be okay. It's just your hair."

Zuko's breath hitched, and the sobs coming out of his mouth ripped the air out of him. He didn't even have the strength to struggle away.

~*~

Zuko didn't eat dinner that night, or breakfast the next morning. He lay on his pile of furs and blankets in his chains, and moved as little as possible. When Yue came to play Pai Sho, his guards stopped her at the door and ordered her to leave.

It felt like the first day he had come, just after everyone on his ship had died, like the knife had opened up that wound when it cut his hair.

~*~

Yue came again the next day. "Hello, Prince Zuko," she began, attempting to sound cheerful, as the guards propped him up. "I brought you dried plum-cherries from the Earth Kingdom. You should eat something."

"I don't want to be here," he rasped.

"No one ever thought you did," she replied. "Master Pakku has been asking about you. The guards said you mentioned your uncle, Master Pakku mentioned they were friends, if you wanted to talk about your uncle with him, I could ask him to come."

"No."

"I can't just leave you alone," she said soothingly.

"Yes, you can." He hunched over and looped his arms around his knees.

"Come over here. Play a game with me," she pleaded. "I have dice, the Pai Sho tiles, you can pick."

"No thank you."

"Then we can have breakfast together." She knelt down next to him. "I can talk the guards into letting you sit with me in one of the upper rooms with a window."

"Why are you doing this?" He turned away from her and pressed his face to the ice wall.

She narrowed her eyes, bewildered. "Why wouldn't I?" He didn't look at her. "Maybe I just want to talk to you. I've never met anybody else who travelled south of the northern Earth Kingdom coast."

He nodded. It was always safest when he knew what they wanted. "You want me to tell you about home."

"Yes." She smiled at him, which made him nervous.

"I don't know if you could imagine it," he told her, distant anger pressing on his chest. "It's hot there. There's no ice or snow, except on the really high mountains, which spew fire. No one wears fur."

She leaned in eagerly, and Zuko felt like a monster.

"I don't want to talk about home." He let his head fall onto his folded arms. "I don't know what you want me to say."

He wondered what it would take to get her to leave him alone, or if it was even possible.

She leaned back, eyes wide. "Then can you tell me about what you saw on the way here?"

"I saw the Air Temples. The Avatar wasn't there." His voice was thin, tired, and he wanted to start crying again, but not in front of her.

"Was he supposed to be?" she asked. "I thought he was gone."

Zuko picked his head up. "It doesn't matter."

"I," she stopped. "I can ask my father if he will take the chains off, and not count this time. You've been really good so far."

"That's nice." He didn't look at her. "Don't bother."

~*~

When the guards came in to bring him his dinner, they brought the key to his manacles.

~*~

The door to his cell was open. The ice gaped wide like a wound in the wall. One of the guards tried to take his hand like a child, but he ducked to the side. His hair stood up all over his head like boarcupine quills, and his hat lay where he left it on his bed. If he was really good, they told him, someday, they would let him out alone.

"So where do you want to go?" one of the guards asked, sounding bored.

Zuko took a deep breath, sick, and lost, and more trapped than ever. I want to go home, he thought, but the guard just waited for him to answer. "I want to see the sun."

Chapter Text

The day the Avatar came to the Northern Water Tribe, Zuko stepped out of his room,cell, it was his cell, he had to remember that, and nodded to the guards on either side of the door.  They used to bend the ice door to his room closed until he melted it open again.

He just kept walking.  He just couldn’t think in there, when that stupid place was actually starting to feel like home, like he belonged, and should stay.

For a moment, he contemplated shining his armor, and just coming down to the banquet, if they would let him wear his armor or even tell him where to find it.

Ever since the rumors had begun to filter through the merchants and sailors, to the young warriors and other people who fet safe gossiping around him, he had made plans and contingencies, and plotted escapes, and stuffed his head full of sea charts and maps of the ever-shifting underwater ice and stone tunnels, and how to steer the little Water Tribe kayaks and manage their strange outrigger sailing ships, and...  And now that the Avatar was there, his mind was just empty, like a rubber ball someone stuck a nail into, flat and airless.

The ice halls twisted and bent outwards, and he walked out onto the palace steps.  He let his legs give way, while the Avatar toyed with the ice under Pakku’s disapproving eye.  The Avatar didn’t even glance at him, and Zuko tried to imagine how he looked, small and harmless in his Water Tribe blue parka and shorn hair, sitting on the steps and blinking in the sunlight.

He had the kayak tucked away in one of the inlets and vials of cotton-poppy juice frozen in the ice under the nest of blankets and furs on the floor of his room to keep the Avatar asleep for the journey.  He knew where he could steal a boat small enough to sail by himself, close enough that he could get there in the kayak.  He had the barrels of fresh water, dried fruit, and jerky stashed nearby.  And he had the route to the Avatar’s room memorized.  He was going to do this.  He was.  It was going to happen.

And the sick feeling in the bottom of his stomach meant nothing.

And he couldn’t think about what it meant that in two and a half years, his father hadn’t ransomed him, or dashed off a treaty with his captors, or even attacked, done anything.  And he couldn’t think about the couldn’t and shouldn’t and what-are-you-thinking-they-will-be-so-mad.  All he should be thinking about was melting through every wall the Northern Water Tribe had and running home.