The manacles are too tight, cutting into his wrists, but he can't feel the pain anymore. All he feels is the overwhelming fear that everything they've done so far will be destroyed.
To his right, Katara is slumped against the pillar she was chained to. Some of her wounds are still bleeding, but the bending-suppressant they've given her seems to have made her drowsy. She is fighting it, but he knows that she's out of commission. The palace, his palace, looms in the distance behind her, glowing red in the light of the rising sun.
To his left is Sokka. Zuko's eyes are drawn to the large wound in his abdomen, still staining his tunic red. He's tied up, but it isn't necessary. If he's being brutally honest with himself, Sokka will die if he doesn’t get medical attention - Katara's attention.
And in front of him is Aang. His tiny frame is weighed down with heavy iron chains and laid across the ceremonial altar.
This is supposed to be a place of holiness, where sacrifices are made to Lord Agni.
This time, that sacrifice is going to be Aang.
The altar is stone, the knife being 'cleansed' (as though anything intended to be used to kill the kind, gentle Avatar could ever be clean) is metal, and Zuko finds himself wishing that Toph was with them. Immediately, he curses that line of thought. They’ve all been heavily dosed with bending suppressants, and it's good that Toph, at least, will survive this.
The crowd watching is silent. The people had been dragged out of their homes to watch this, and Zuko isn't sure who they're rooting for.
It had started three days ago. The New Ozai loyalists had gotten Sokka, then Katara. Luckily for them, Suki and Toph were too far South to be within range. Mai had warned Zuko of the trap, but he'd fallen into it anyway.
When Zuko wakes, he realizes that he can't bend. He's known, of course, that such substances exist, but he'd never thought that he'd be the victim to a bending-suppressant.
Then he sees Katara, and all thoughts of bending are pushed away.
She is bleeding everywhere from little cuts, and her face and arms are littered with bruises. Her clothing is tattered, but it's intact enough to reassure him that they hadn't tried -
He will not go down that road.
She stirs as he shakes her shoulder, and sits up.
"They took Sokka away," she says. "They took me when I first came here. They'll take you next."
"We're bait," he explains. "I hope Aang doesn't try to come get us."
They both know that the chances of that happening are next to none.
"What did they do to you?"
"Just hit me. A few kicks. No bending or anything. But Zuko, they had knives, and - such horrible things, I don't -"
Gently pulling her into a hug, he hopes that it doesn't come to that.
It seems like an eternity passes when Sokka is thrown in.
They push him onto his back, and Zuko's heart stops for a second.
There is LITERALLY A HOLE in Sokka's side.
Katara's hands cover her mouth, and she starts to sob.
"Heyy, Zuko, you made it to the party…" mumbles Sokka.
Zuko wants to yell , scold him for being so blasé about their situation, but he can't tear his eyes away from the maroon patch spreading across the blue tunic.
"Heh, my eyes are up here buddy," jokes Sokka. Then his eyes roll up into his head and he faints.
There's no way Sokka can survive this, not without healing. Zuko takes off his shirt and starts to rip it into strips, handing them to Katara. She bandages the wound as best as she can, and they both stare at it and pray.
Then it's Zuko's turn.
They take him to a room and tie him to a chair. A man strides in five minutes later, a calculated show of power. His face is covered, but it's clear that he's the current leader. Three other men are in the room, and he knows he can't take them without weapons or firebending.
They ask Zuko questions. Zuko says nothing. They insult him. Still, he remains silent. Finally, they give up their charade and do what they had been longing to do. There is murder in their eyes as they circle him. He is untied. A mockery of a fair fight.
One man has metal spikes adorning his fists. Another has a fire-whip, and the third holds a mean looking length of wood with rusted nails embedded in the head. The leader just settles into a bending stance, and the floor shoots up from behind him and slams into his back.
This is going to hurt.
Zuko is dragged back to the room where the others are. He is bleeding, and burned. He may have an infection from the spikes, and he wonders whether he will die before Sokka does. But he never gets an answer, because he feels a needle slide into his skin, and everything goes black.
When Zuko wakes up, he is chained to a pole, Sokka and Katara on either side of him. Aang is being prepared for sacrifice, and his people are watching.
The knife has been cleaned. Now, one man steps towards the crowd. Zuko can't see his face, but his grey hair looks orange in the light.
"People of the Fire Nation! Do you see? Do you see how weak this imposter is! 'Fire Lord Zuko', " and the sneer in his voice is clear, "is not fit to lead our Nation! He is too forgiving, too soft! We need to bring back the glory of our past! And, dear people, with the last Airbender dead, their ways will poison us no more! We have all seen how the Avatar whispers in the Fire Lord's ear, commanding compromise and forcing us to take the blame! Well, no more! Now we will have a Fire Avatar, and the glory of Sozin's reign can be upon us again!"
The crowd doesn't cheer, but there are murmurs. The man has made some points that Zuko knows have been circulating for a while now.
The man raises the knife, and Zuko starts to panic. Aang can't die! He can't!
In an effort to burn the suppressant away, he calls upon his inner fire, pushing it to his hands, through his veins, into his very heart.
The chanting has begun, and Zuko's heartbeat is terrifyingly fast. He has barely minutes left, and he should be concentrating, but the chant resonates in his mind.
May the Great Agni, Lord of Fire, accept this offering. May his blessings shine down upon us, his humble servants, with the greatest strength of the Sun. May he rule over us all as his will is carried out by the true Firelord-
Shocked gasps resonate through the crowd. The man had altered the sacrificial chant. Who knows how it might anger the spirits?
It certainly angers Zuko. He throws up his own prayer to Lord Agni, even as he tries to send fire through his bloodstream.
Please, don't let them die. I'll do whatever I can, I'll do whatever you ask of me, but please, let Aang and Sokka and Katara survive this.
The chant is winding up now.
-may the true Firelord, Agni incarnate himself, reign for a hundred years-
Zuko feels the drugs in his system starting to fade, but its not happening quickly enough. Agni incarnate?
Agni wouldn't wait for someone to save him if he was tortured, chained to a post, and about to watch his friends be publically executed.
Agni would burn them.
He can feel the effect of the drugs wearing off, just five more minutes and he can break through the chains -
And the chant ends. The knife in the man's hand is wreathed in flames, and he calls out to the crowd.
"See how weak your precious Firelord is! And now, we welcome the dawn of a New World Order!"
The knife plunges down.
The crowd is watching, and they decide that the Avatar is doomed. Some of them have met him, and they've all heard him speak. He is a good person, very kind, but now, unconscious and chained to the altar, it is very clear that he is just a child.
Their Firelord doesn't seem to be any better off. He is shirtless, and his torso is littered with scars, some still bleeding. More proof of his weakness, insists the man on the dais.
The people are beginning to agree. Zuko is soft. They know this. The story of how he was scarred and banished as a prince has gotten around. Some people admire that, but many find that kind of conscience in a ruler unwieldy. It can lead to dilemmas, moral ones, which can prevent them from doing what's best for the Nation.
But then the knife stabs down, and, despite themselves, many turn their heads.
And the world erupts into flames.
The flames wreathing the knife suddenly flare up, turning pure white. The blade melts away, and the man drops what is left of the hilt and cradles his charred hand to his chest.
The Fire Lord is aflame.
He is raised about ten feet in the air, and those close enough to see his face will later swear that his eyes were only flames. The fire surrounding him flares, then dies down a little, enough to make out that it is in the shape of a bird.
Minds are unwillingly cast back to when Fire Lord Ozai declared himself Phoenix King.
With flicks of his hand, his companions are freed from their chains. Almost gently, he places a hand against the waterbender's forehead. She wakes almost immediately, and stares in fright. He must say something, but it is too soft for the crowd to hear. Then the Avatar is freed, his chains are melted away, and whatever restraining sedatives he had been placed under are burnt away. He sits up, sees the phoenix flames behind the Fire Lord, and bows.
The Avatar turns to address the crowd. He is small, and battered, but his voice carries, and it sounds much older than it did when he gave his last speech in the capital, almost a year ago.
"It would seem," he says heavily, "that Lord Agni has something to say to you."
Then the phoenix seems to fix its eyes on every person. The Fire Lord is raised into the air again, arms spread wide, as though welcoming them, back arched. It is suddenly, undeniably clear that this is the work of the Spirits.
"My dear people."
Every word is echoed in a deeper, stranger voice that evokes a visceral reaction. The crowd gets to their knees in unison.
"All the elements are interconnected. The Avatar is the connection, is the bridge between your World and Mine. Renouncing the Avatar is akin to renouncing your deities. To renouncing Me."
A pause. Electricity crackles in the air.
"A ruler is only a ruler if their people believe them to be. If the people of the Fire Nation believe that Fire Lord Zuko is unfit to rule, then he is.
But keep this in mind. The Fire Lord opened his soul to Me. For the good of the world, he is willing to give up his life.
A ruler must protect his people with his life. And the people must protect their ruler with theirs.
So, people of the Fire Nation. Do you think he deserves to be Fire Lord?
He has decided to protect you. What will you decide?"
The phoenix dies down, and the Fire Lord drops lightly to the ground. However, before the whispering can begin, he rises to his feet and comes to the front of the dais. The phoenix still wraps him, but the otherworldy energy has dissipated. When he speaks, his voice is his own.
"People of the Fire Nation! I have heard your cries. Some of you believe that I care too much about the advice of the Avatar, of an Airbender. You may be right. I do care about the advice the Avatar gives. He is, after all, a wise and spiritual leader. However," and here the power starts to leak back into his voice, "he is also my friend. So are they," a hand wave to the siblings behind him.
The man who is still clutching his burnt arm to his chest is pulled forward by a thread of flame, and now the New Ozai supporters are starting to realize that they should leave. Even as they turn to run, the crowd presses in around them. Suddenly, they are trapped.
The Fire Lord speaks softly, venomously now.
"I think you were right. I am too soft and forgiving. But this is something I will not forgive!"
Lord Agni's voice booms behind the Fire Lord's own, and the man starts to scream.
His hands, where they are held by the flames, catch fire. The stench of burning flesh permeates the air. The Fire Lord watches calmly, and his friends watch from behind in horror.
The man is now a pile of ashes. The phoenix subsides, and the Fire Lord collapses. The crowd shuffles restlessly.
Fire Lord Zuko is soft. They know this.
And they are very, very, thankful.