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Choke On Your Own Ashes

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The palace in the caldera is on fire.

 

The skies are black and soot falls like snow, and the streets are empty as if the residents of the city have all gone to ground in the wake of war. It’s ironic, that the Fire Nation is on fire and they’ve done it to themselves this time.

 

Overhead the comet fades away until all any of them can see is the tail, a single bright line through the smoke.

 

Sokka feels like he’s going to be sick.

 

It’s wrong that it’s so quiet. There are no soldiers, no armies, and no one to give orders, so they walk the path up to the palace. The palace that is on fire.

 

Even Iroh looks worried and that’s dangerous.

 

When things are at their worst, Iroh is a solid rock of a man who has a proverb for everything and a kind word for everyone, and for him to be so still and so quiet is terrifying. Where’s Azula? Where’s Ozai? Where’s…

 

Where’s Zuko?

 

A hand curls around Sokka’s, and he squeezes without thinking. Katara walks up ahead with Aang, poised and ready for anything but Toph’s hung back with him. She never likes flying but the airship was terrible and terrifying, and she’s not hiding how shaken she is very well.

 

That’s also terrifying.

 

Something is wrong. Sokka can feel it in his guts, in the deepest part of him that came from the spirits, that something is very, very wrong.

 

The closer they get, the faster Iroh walks until he’s jogging, until he’s running , and pushing the massive doors of the palace open with a single push-pat of his hands. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that he’s not just their tea-drinking, proverb-telling, round uncle. He’s gone. This is the Dragon of the West, the Grandmaster of the White Lotus. 

 

There is no kindly Uncle Iroh here.

 

And a lot of that is fucking Zuko’s fault, Sokka thinks with no small amount of resentment, and squeezes Toph’s fingers still holding onto his. She’s ready and coiled as tight as the rest of them but it’s different.

 

Seeing her frightened is awful .

 

“It’s gonna be okay,” Sokka whispers, and she shakes her head hard.

 

No. No. No.

 

Maybe if stupid Zuko hadn’t screwed the pooch, they’d be holding it together. Maybe they would have already won. Maybe Aang wouldn’t still be afraid of fire because he had barely a week of training, maybe all their plans wouldn’t have fallen apart, maybe Sokka wouldn’t feel like he’s walking headfirst towards his death.

 

Maybe.

 

The palace is…empty.

 

Completely, desolately empty, except for the places where it looks like it got torn apart. Curtains are shredded to ribbons and scorch marks litter the tile. The floors are ripped as if someone bent the earth underneath, but that can’t be possible. Any servants with half a brain are long gone…

 

Or not.

 

There are the servants but none of them are moving. They’re all broken and motionless, and Sokka’s so fucking happy that Toph is blind. He wishes that he was fucking blind. They all might be better off.

 

“Oh... oh ,” Katara whispers in a wounded voice and tries not to see, and all Sokka can see is the back of her head but he still knows that she’s about to cry. 

 

Maybe they’ve all killed each other, like the leopard-seal that eats its own tail.

 

Maybe that’s the retribution brought to them for this horrible century of death and flame.

 

He came in ready to fight, but the horror has killed his sense for battle; Sokka feels off-kilter and disoriented, like the world’s at an angle. It’s not right.

 

Sokka doesn’t know where Iroh’s going, but the man walks like he’s on a mission, doing this weird deep breathing thing that still doesn’t keep all the flames inside his body. The farther towards the center they go, the more destruction they see until they’re all dodging rubble and bloodied smeared handprints rub along the walls, and Sokka is never touching anything ever again , as long as he lives…

 

There’s a noise.

 

He’s not the only one who hears it, a hysterical, keening wail that doesn’t seem to stop, that goes on and on with only tiny breaks for breath as if the person it comes from doesn’t know how to stop. It’s a horrible fucking sound and if Sokka hadn’t needed both his hands, he definitely would have covered his ears.

 

Iroh bolts towards the noise.

 

He doesn’t even bother opening doors, just slams through them like a komodo-rhino as though they weigh nothing, like they are nothing. The rest of them follow like that’s their only option, even Aang. Aang, the Avatar, who was supposed to be the linchpin of this plan but the Fire Lord never showed to lead his armies.

 

The center of the palace is the throne room, and it is carnage.

 

The floor is gashed and pitted and the throne is in pieces, and everything that can be on fire is on fire, and…

 

There’s the Fire Lord.

 

Katara leans over and proceeds to be impressively sick until she’s shaky and heaving.

 

The swords are still sticking out of him, twin dao, one in the man’s back and the other through the gut. Sokka doesn’t need to keep looking to know that he’s not getting up any time soon. 

 

There’s another hysterical cry and Sokka feels the floor drop out from under him when he sees where it came from.

 

There’s Scary Blue Fire, her body broken and twisted in ways it shouldn’t be, and curled around her is Zuko. Zuko, on the floor, his face buried in Azula’s hair, holding her so gently to him like she has enough life to appreciate it. Zuko, who’s only taking breaks from screaming to hiccup muffled cries into her armor, crying like he’s dying, like he’s broken too, like that’s all he knows how to do now.

 

Sokka has no love for him, and he’s got no clue what happened here or how, but he’d have to be a monster to watch that and feel nothing.

 

“Zuko.”

 

The soft, broken whisper comes from Iroh, and Sokka’s horror multiplies when he sees the old dragon’s eyes red and swimming with tears. And suddenly, then, he’s hoping for things to get better, because Uncle Iroh will be able to help, he’s always tried his best to help Zuko even when it didn’t pay off.

 

Things do not get better.

 

Zuko’s face when he sees his uncle is awful.

 

For a moment, Sokka fears that he might attack him, that he murdered both his sister and his father for the throne and that he’ll try to do the same to Iroh, because the only way something like this could happen is if someone lost their mind. Zuko does not attack, but Sokka almost wishes that he had.

 

Instead, he maneuvers Azula’s body into his lap and slumps over her (to shield her, to protect her, to fix her) and holds out bare and bloodied hands to the group of them.

 

Surrender.

 

Zuko doesn’t ever give up but he surrenders now, it’s clear and easy to tell that he won’t fight. Maybe he can’t fight.

 

“I’m done.” Zuko’s voice has always been a little raspy, but it’s full on hoarse, now. Hoarse and broken from crying, from screaming, and it makes him cough. Those coughs make his entire body shake.

 

Sokka wishes that he had never come here.

 

“Take me back, Uncle, please take me back, I don’t want to be here, I’m sorry, please just take me back. I give up, Uncle, I’m sorry. I give up, please, just take me back.”

 

Take him back?

 

Like...emotionally?

 

“Just take me back and leave me there.”

 

...definitely not emotionally .

 

Iroh takes three large, unsteady steps towards his nephew huddled by the broken throne with the broken princess and kneels down to face him. His heart’s written all over his face and his heart is broken .

 

“Take you back where, Zuko?” He asks so, so quietly, like his nephew is some frightened pgymy-puma he found hiding under his house. Zuko looks up at him, eyes huge and teary and frightened half out of his mind, and maybe the comparison is appropriate.

 

“My cell, please, under the keep,” he whispers, terrifyingly politely. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I won’t fight you, okay? I’m loyal , I promise. I won’t fight.”

 

What the fuck .

 

His thoughts are echoed by the look on everyone’s faces. 

 

Aang chokes on a sob and bolts out of the room; Katara follows.

 

Toph holds Sokka’s hand in small, shaking fingers.

 

Iroh looks like he wants to curl up and die but he maintains enough visage of calm to ask,

 

“And why were you in a cell underneath the keep?”

 

“Because I’m a traitor,” Zuko says with a disconcerting tilt of his head that mismatches with the way he’s still protectively curled around the dead body of his sister. Sokka stubbornly refuses to think about how long he may have been doing it. “I thought you knew. On the eclipse I tried to break you out, but you were already gone. Father caught me. He has a problem with traitors.” 

 

Zuko’s pupils are uneven.

 

“I’ll stay there, okay? I promise. Just…” Zuko stifles a shaking sob and tucks his head down like an awful, horrible show of respect. “Azula needs a medic. She’s...she’s hurt, okay? Her fire’s out. I know that she’s awful, but she’s all I’ve got. I have to take care of her.”

 

Iroh can’t take it anymore, leans forward, and grabs Zuko with both hands and crushes him to his chest. 

 

“I will take care of you both,” he promises, and holds the back of Zuko’s neck, gives a sharp pinch with his hand, and the prince goes limp and slack in his arms. Then, and only then, does Iroh let out the shaky, shuddering breath that he'd been holding. Gently, so gently, he shifts Azula out of his nephew’s grip to rest her body on the floor so that he can hold him properly, hoists him into his lap and rocks him like Zuko’s small and tiny and in need of protection.

 

There’s a sudden clatter and in an instant, Sokka’s hand is on his sword, but the noise turns out to be a young woman, sooty and frightened with burnt clothing.

 

She looks like palace staff.

 

“You work here, right?” Sokka asks.

 

The woman, still mostly a girl, gives a silent nod like she dares not break the quiet.

 

Iroh dares.

 

“Tell me what happened.”

 

It’s a fucking nightmare is what happened.

 

At some point between the plan existing and the plan falling apart, Ozai decided to crown himself King Of The World (or something), gave the Fire Nation to Azula just like she always wanted, and the princess had proceeded to lose her shit. Spectacularly. Simultaneously, Ozai had decided that both his daughter and the house staff were working against him, and proceeded to lose his shit. Spectacularly. This time by slaying the Fire Lord he’d just crowned and most of the palace staff.

 

This was apparently the morality breaking point, by which someone ran down to the dungeons, let Zuko out, and told him to go for it.

 

Which he did.

 

Spectacularly.

 

Worst. Plan. Ever .

 

In the coldest voice any of them have ever heard the gentlest firebender on the planet use, Iroh orders the girl make arrangements to move both Ozai and Azula’s bodies to the family catacombs as soon as possible, thank you, and stands, lifting Zuko up into his arms like he weighs nothing.

 

Iroh doesn’t look at any of them, even as Sokka trails after him for lack of something useful to do, and Sokka watches him kick open a door that leads into a room that’s only slightly damaged, watches him tuck his nephew into bed, swaddle blankets around him, and proceed to bury his face in his hands.

 

Sokka doesn’t know how to comfort him.

 

Maybe this is something that just has to hurt.

 

“How long I’ve spent,” he says quietly into his palms, “Thinking that my nephew had finally forsaken me. That I’d finally, truly lost him to Ozai’s ideals. And to think that I could have been so wrong, that in truth I had been the one to forsake him.” Sokka doesn’t think that’s quite true, that there was no way that he could have known , but he knows better than to say anything. “What have I done, to make him think he would ever need to surrender to me?”

 

That’s not a question that Sokka can answer. He doesn’t think that anybody can, but it’s Toph that speaks up, finally, for the first time since her feet hit land.

 

“People can...people can mess you up,” she says softly, “It’s pretty obvious that somebody messed with him. It’s not your fault.”

 

I should have known ,” Iroh hisses under his breath, sits up, cards a hand through Zuko’s mess of dark hair, “When I had heard nothing of him after the eclipse, I should have known. My brother has always liked showing off his winnings. I should have checked .”

 

“‘Should have’ is how we got here. It’s not where we’re going,” she replies.

 

Uncle Iroh goes very quiet and gently brushes his nephew’s bangs off his forehead. His fingers just barely touch the edges of the scar on his face. It’s a nasty thing. 

 

“How long he spent locked up without sunlight, thinking that he would never see anything else?” Iroh mumbles, “And I didn’t even check .”

 

Toph drags Sokka out of the room.

 

Iroh may have disliked his brother but he also knew him. He wouldn’t have hesitated to use all of Zuko’s weaknesses against him, just to see him hurt. Those weaknesses, in retrospect, definitely would have included Iroh himself. There’s a sort of ironic, divine cruelty in Zuko’s sudden freedom leading him to certain death, all on the whim of a frightened servant who for a moment grew a backbone.

 

It’s despicable .

 

And somehow, his nephew had managed.

 

Ozai should have been undefeatable for anyone who wasn’t the Avatar during the span of the comet, and yet Zuko had somehow managed with steel and sheer desperation. Iroh’s heart aches at the idea that Ozai has finally managed, just for a moment, to turn his too-kind, too-gentle, too-loyal son into the heir he had always wanted. Vicious and merciless were what he’d coveted in Azula , but just for a moment it would have been Zuko wearing that mantle, just long enough to slip his swords in through the cracks.

 

Zuko had been underestimated, and that’s always where he’s managed to surprise.

 

Zuko won’t sleep for long. Iroh had put him out quickly, but not carefully, for all of their sakes, and for Zuko’s peace of mind. It won’t hold for long, but he’s frightened of who’s going to be there when he wakes. They can’t stay here. Fire and blood can take the palace; Iroh doesn’t need it. All he needs is right here, and he’ll burn down anyone who tries to take him.

 

Dragons are predators, and dragons hoard . The thing that Iroh and Zuko have always had in common was that what they hoarded was people and not power.

 

Later, he’ll think about his country but right now, all he has that matters is right here.

 

Iroh breathes out a very deep breath, lets heat shimmer the air instead of flame. Strokes Zuko’s forehead, absently adjusts the blankets tucked around him. It’s then that Zuko gives a twitch of life, pressing himself into the comfort of touch before consciousness brings him back completely.

 

“You are safe here, Prince Zuko,” Iroh tells him gently, calmly, like there’s no other option but to come out of this safely. That tone of voice is how he kept the boy alive for three years and it works even now after all this, because when golden eyes flutter open, Zuko can finally see him with coherency. “No one is going to hurt you.”

 

He can see the instant that Zuko remembers and knows because his entire body flinches like he’s been hit, and his hands twist fretfully in the blankets. Stills completely, no longer seeking touch but accepting it like it’s something he can’t avoid.

 

“He killed her,” the boy whispers. The soft veil of denial that he’d been able to wear has been lifted and left nothing but sharp clarity in its wake. The denial was horrifying, but the truth is almost worse. “He killed her.”

 

Iroh doesn’t know what to tell him.

 

Zuko shakes his head.

 

“I don’t understand ,” he insists, pleading for an answer that Iroh can’t give. “She was— Uncle, she was his .”

 

And I wasn’t is what Zuko doesn’t say. He doesn’t have to.

 

“I don’t understand ,” Zuko insists, “How could he have—“ The boy’s losing control of his breathing, and Iroh doesn’t think twice before he’s clambering up onto the bed to sit next to him, cradling Zuko’s face in both of his hands.

 

“You need to breathe or you’ll pass out,” Iroh says firmly, “Your brain forgets but your body remembers. Let it do what it needs to do, in and out, that’s it.” Slowly, slowly, Zuko manages to catch his breath and sags. His head is a heavy, welcome weight in Iroh’s hands.

 

“Uncle, I’m so sorry ,” the words tumble out of him quickly, “I never meant to— I thought I was doing the right thing and I was wrong , and then I tried to fix it and I— I just—“ What Zuko doesn’t say has always been more telling than what he does, Iroh knows. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness because he doesn’t think he’ll get it. He doesn’t think he deserves it.

 

“Zuko,” Iroh interrupts him, “If you ever remember anything I’ve said, I need you to remember this.” 

 

Zuko freezes instantly, and Iroh marvels in horror at how even a gentle voice manages to frighten him out of his wits, now. He’s listening, though, as commanded. Iroh thinks, for a moment that sickens him all the way down to his bones, that he could ask Zuko to do anything right now and be obeyed.

 

“I forgive you,” he tells him softly, firmly, with more conviction than he’s ever felt anything. “You don’t think that you can ask for it, but you don’t have to. You’ve always had it.”

 

Zuko swallows hard .

 

“I... how ?” He asks. He looks so lost that it hurts, and Iroh can’t resist his own desperate need to remind himself that he’s in one piece by scooping Zuko into his arms and pulling him into his lap. Zuko goes, doesn’t fight him, doesn’t resist, but isn’t truly there with him until Iroh kisses his temple and tells him softly,

 

“It’s the job of every parent to forgive their children their missteps.”

 

That’s what breaks him in the end. Zuko’s whole body coils up tight and then snaps like a bowstring pulled past its bearing, and his hands clench hard in Iroh’s robes, and then he bursts into startled tears. They’re quieter this time but no less heart-rending and Iroh feels like he could start crying himself, all too easily, if he hadn’t known that he needed to keep himself together for the sake of his nephew.

 

He’ll cry later.

 

He’ll cry and scream and shout and rage and possibly burn something down. Maybe a lot of somethings, but he won’t do any of it where Zuko can see it. Violence begets violence, and his boy has experienced enough of it for a lifetime.

 

“What do I do ?” Zuko directs his question straight  into his uncle’s heart. Iroh squeezes him like that could ever be enough to hold him together.

 

“The only thing you need to do is rest and get better. I will take care of it.”

 

Neither of them will be able to stay here, Iroh knows. The palace can burn or stay empty or collapse into rubble for all he cares, but there’s too much blood and pain here to keep any happy memories, ancestral home or no. Iroh will find somewhere else for them to live. Maybe on a boat; Zuko always had enjoyed living on the ocean despite his less than ideal circumstances. Sun and salt water and a lack of responsibilities would be good for him.

 

Being Fire Lord was something that Iroh had been relieved, in a way, to give up. He’d expected it but hadn’t really wanted it and hadn’t felt the need to fight for it, not after Lu Ten. But there were only two options that their people would accept, and one of them is unacceptable .

 

If put on that throne in the state he’s in now, Zuko will die.

 

It’s not speculation; Iroh knows it like he knows exactly where the sun is in the sky: without looking or thinking or checking. He knows and he will not do that to him.

 

Iroh doesn’t want to be Fire Lord, but he’ll do what he has to do to keep the rat-vipers away from Zuko’s vulnerability and frayed nerves. A scared royal is a dangerous one. Iroh will need to adopt him, officially and by way of the Fire Sages. Iroh will have to find the Fire Sages, if they don’t manage to crawl out of the woodwork.

 

He has to talk to generals, Earth Kingdom officials, the Water Tribe chiefs. 

 

He has to handle funeral rites for his brother and his niece. He has to make sure that none of the children he walked in here with have been irreparably traumatized. He has to see about the staff that are left, deal with making reparations, making sure that this won’t send his people over the edge.

 

He needs to be crowned as soon as possible.

 

Maybe the boat idea was a good one after all.

 

“How would you feel about moving out of the caldera?” Iroh asks, just to feel him out.

 

Zuko tiredly mumbles something that sounds distinctly like fuck this place into Iroh’s chest, and there it is, decision made.

 

First thing tomorrow, if Zuko’s up for it, they’re taking a walk to the harbor and seeing about buying a boat. 

 

For now, though, he encourages Zuko to lay back down and tucks him back in so that, hopefully, he’ll probably stay there. He snuffs the lights, except for one that he leaves burning brightly by Zuko’s bedside.