They let Zuko out of his cell because the world was ending. The Fire Lord was defeated, the guards told him, even though the Fire Lord was here just this morning. Tall and strong, alive, gloating one more time on his way to burn the Earth Kingdom down.
That was yesterday, they told him. It wasn't the worst slip of time he'd had, and it didn’t make their words any more believable.
"How?" His voice was raspier than usual. They hadn’t brought him water when they came. One of the guards cringed like he expected to be lit on fire for this oversight, which told Zuko everything he needed to know about their expectations for him. They let him out anyway. This told him something else.
It was the Avatar, of course. Somewhere over in the Earth Kingdom, and reports were conflicted on whether Ozai was dead or a prisoner or something inexplicably worse, but he was definitely defeated.
His father had been defeated, and his fourteen-year-old sister was—was banishing everyone, was insane, she hadn't killed anyone (yet) but it wasn't for lack of trying. They'd abandoned a whole wing of the palace to her—
No one had given the order to set him free, Zuko realized. No one wanted him; they just needed him. This took him longer than it should have to understand, but the guards were speaking so fast and no one had really talked to him in weeks, and—and he stopped at the prison entrance, and didn’t hear anything for a while.
He hadn’t seen the sun in weeks, either.
"Your Highness?" one of the guards tried on for size. Tried again: "...Your Majesty?"
Fire Lord Ozai was defeated. Fire Lord Azula was insane. Fire Lord Zuko was crowned by sunset, the nation's fallback heir.