"The kind of redemption she offers is not for you!"
His uncle's voice momentarily broke through the spell his sister's words were weaving around him. Redemption? Honor? Since when had she ever cared about those? Since when did she care about him?
But then again…
"Why don't you let him decide, Uncle?"
That was right, that was reasonable…so why did her tone of voice bother him so much?
"It's his choice," she said, signaling to the guards to stand down…and they did.
Was she really giving the choice?
What was the catch?
She walked past him, following the Avatar.
Zuko stood there, paralyzed.
The world had gone silent. If Uncle Iroh said anything else, he didn't hear it. If the caves had started collapsing around him, he wouldn't have heard that.
In this strange, silent world, he turned and followed his sister.
When he caught up to her, she was facing off against the avatar and the water tribe girl.
Time suddenly seemed of the utmost essence, so he threw himself into the standoff—
What was he doing?
The two faces he had grown to hate most in the world were facing off…and he had put himself in a position where he would have to join one of them.
So he stood there, frozen, one hand extended toward each hated face. Fire welled up inside him, hot and angry, swirling directionlessly while he wavered.
His sister…Azula had always been awful…but…
She had promised him his honor.
The one thing he had ever wanted. The one thing that might let his father love his failure of a son.
Azula always lies.
No! Not always! She would tell the truth when it served her purposes. And he had no reason to believe she was lying now. She couldn't be.
The avatar…it had been his one goal in life to capture the avatar…and here he was, within his grasp!
The blood boiled in Zuko's veins as he remembered the times he'd come close—so damn close!—only to have the accursed avatar slip from his grasp like a slimefish.
He jerked toward the boy, fully ready to unleash his fire, blasting him into a well-earned oblivion—
A sudden movement caught his eyes.
The water tribe girl was staring at him with undisguised hurt in her eyes.
And, somewhere deep within Zuko, the balance shifted.
Azula always lies.
He spun on his heel, away from the avatar, away from is one chance of ever knowing his father's love.
His fireblast actually caught Azula slightly off guard, and several of her hairs were knocked lose as she dodged.
The word struck him like a knife.
He tried to attack her again, but only stumbled, unable to firebend.
Fortunately, his new allies had taken Azula's moment of distraction to attack in concert, giving him a moment's respite.
The waterbender's ice shielded him from Azula's lightning before the airbender knocked her away.
Zuko stumbled to his feet, trying desperately to force his mind and body to perform the moves he knew by heart.
Come on, Fire…don't desert me now…
A stream of fire leapt from his palm, hungrily leaping toward Azula.
"If I can't have the Avatar, then at least I will take the disloyal traitor!"
The word was still ringing around him when the world turned blue-white and disappeared.
That was the first thing he became aware of.
A terrible, burning pain was wrapped around his entire body like a malevolent cocoon.
It reminded him off those awful days, those burning days, while he gained his scar…
The memory of his father's face leapt out at him, and Zuko gasped and threw himself forward.
Hands caught him, and he desperately tried to shake them off.
No! Don't touch me! It hurts! No, father, please…
With another sharp intake of breath—why did he feel such a desperate need for oxygen?—he stopped moving and tried to see who the voice belonged to.
He blinked several times, trying to make the world come clear, and then rested his head on his hands with a suppressed groan when all that did was make him dizzy. What was wrong? Why was everything spinning? Where was he?
"What…?" he managed to croak—why was his throat so dry?
"It's all right," said the voice, soothingly. "You're going to be all right." There was a definite note of relief in the voice.
He parted his lips to speak again, but before he could try, the voice spoke again.
"Here, have some water."
Something wet touched his lips, and all other thought were forgotten in a moment of pure bliss.
Blessed water… he thought as the precious substance poured over his parched throat.
All too soon, it was taken away.
With a strangled cry, he reached blindly after it, only to have his hand caught gently.
"Give it a minute. How are you feeling?"
How was he…?
His questions returned with a vengeance.
"What—" he tried again, opening his eyes.
The out of focus world, coupled with a wave of vertigo, reminded him why had had them clenched shut.
He slammed the heels of his palms into his eyes, swallowing a moan.
"Here…" said the voice again, and something firmly pushed his hands away.
He tried to fight back, but then a wonderful cooling sensation washed over his eyes, and then deeper, deeper than he'd realized it hurt.
Head injury…? How…?
Then the coolness was gone, and he dared to open his eyes again.
The first thing he saw was her concerned face, staring down at him.
He jerked reflexively backwards.
The water tribe girl?
His roiling mind shouted that she was with the avatar, she was an enemy, he should attack!
But he didn't.
Some deeper instinct told him not to, even though he couldn't remember why.
Something he should remember.
"What's wrong?" she asked, confused.
Her face filled with understanding.
"Azula did hit you pretty hard."
He looked up her, horror filling his eyes.
She said something else, but he didn't hear it.
The world had gone silent again, and the darkness closed around him again.
When he awoke the second time, he remembered.
He lay there, staring at the sky, with absolutely no idea what to do.
Why? Why had he betrayed his nation, his lord, his own family? What did he gain? What had he lost?
Mai's face flashed before his eyes. His childhood crush would never love him now. His father? Zuko was worse than dead to him now. Even his sister might have accepted him if he'd only backed her up when she needed it most…
Remember this, Zuko.
Zuko clenched his eyes shut, not wanting to hear the words that rose from his memory.
No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are.
"I'm sorry, Mother…" he whispered.
There was a sound nearby.
It wasn't much, just a rustle, but it pulled him back into the present.
Where was he?
He opened his eyes again, but all he could determine was that he was somewhere with sky.
Then the rustling noise came closer, and he saw her again.
"Awake again? How are you feeling?"
"…awful," he admitted, without really meaning to.
It was true. Now that he was thinking about how his body felt, as opposed to his tortured mind, he realized how truly awful he felt. The burning of lightning had faded considerably, which was a definite improvement, but it was replaced with an indefinable ache and a chill that had settled into his bones.
Zuko shivered and coughed, suppressing a groan.
He was more than familiar with the feeling. After all, he'd only stopped feeling this way yesterday. Or was it the day before? He had no idea how long he'd been out.
There was a slight swishing noise, and then cool hands touched his forehead.
"I'm…not sure what's wrong with you," she said, puzzled.
At least whatever she was doing was helping clear away the remaining fuzz in his head.
"My uncle…he said it was…something to do with conflicting natures, or…acting out of character?"
Uncle Iroh's words didn't always make sense at the best of times, and trying to repeat, while in a fever, what he'd heard while in a fever, only made them that much more confusing.
Then his words caught up to him.
"My uncle! Uncle Iroh! Where is he?" He flailed a bit, trying to get up, but she pushed him back down.
"They…Azula got him, didn't she?"
The waterbender was silent for a moment, and then nodded.
"Yeah. The last we saw was the Dai Lee leading him away."
"Why didn't you go back for him?" Illogical anger burned in his veins. Why would they have? Wasn't Uncle their enemy?
"We tried. He told us to go on, and…" she bowed her head, not finishing the sentence.
Zuko lay back, covering his face with his hand.
Why did everything he did have to end so badly?
He shivered, unnatural cold wracking his body, and tried to gather the blanket more closely around himself.
"Stay here. Let me go get something."
Stay here? At that moment, Zuko didn't feel the strength to sit up, much less go anywhere.
But he opened his eyes again, taking the moment to try and finally figure out where he was.
Unfortunately, all the information he got was that this place, in addition to containing sky, also had earth, a small stream, a few trees, and a large flying bison. So it could have been any of a thousand places in either the Earth Kingdom or the Fire Nation—probably the former, though at this point, that was more a matter of distance than danger.
Katara stepped back, carrying a bowl of something steaming.
"I heated you up some soup. It should help you feel warmer."
She put the bowl down and came around beside him, lifting him into a sitting position on arms that were deceptively strong.
He automatically obeyed, drinking the hot liquid. If he weren't a firebender, to probably would have burned him, but as it was, it only filled him with a comforting warmth.
When he had drunk his fill, he relaxed a little, and Katara laid him gently back against the ground.
"I have to ask," said Katara as she tucked the blanket around his shoulders, "…why did you choose us?"
Exactly the question Zuko was having so much trouble answering himself.
Zuko, my love, listen to me.
No matter how things seem to change, never forget who you are.
Zuko closed his eyes in pain. What was he supposed to say? He had betrayed even her, forgetting his identity as prince of the fire nation for that one, crucial instant.
That's who you are, Zuko.
Zuko's eyes snapped open as a different memory rose up before him.
His mother smiled at him, telling him how proud she was, even when he had failed miserably.
That's who you are, Zuko. Someone who keeps fighting even though it's hard.
And suddenly, he knew.
"I finally remembered who I was."