“…it was cruel, and it was wrong! I see that now.”
There is an empty space inside where his fire usually burns, smothered now by the eclipse, but it gives him strength. He has never dared to speak to his father like this before. Out of love, duty, fear. But love was built on a lie, and duty has been superseded, and fear… well. Ozai has always scorned any weapon but firebending. The hilts of his swords are a solid weight in his hands.
“And what you’re doing with this war is wrong too. So I'm going to join the Avatar and I'm going to help him defeat you.”
His words echo around the silent bunker, audience frozen in a stunned tableau.
For once, he feels powerful. All the words and emotions that have been festering inside for years are now acknowledged and out he the open; he knows his path, and it is one that he chooses. He feels the release like a warmth spreading from his core.
Too late, he realises his mistake; the warmth is real. The eclipse is over.
Then his father is moving, face twisting in anger, sparks gathering as he circles his arms. A lance of white fire spears towards him, and there is no time to think. He reaches out, catching the energy on two fingers and drawing it in, down, up — the next step is ‘out’, but where to? His uncle taught him to redirect lightning harmlessly into clear sky, but they are underground, not even a window. A dark voice suggests that he return it back along the same path, see how his father deals with a face-full of — out!
His body completes the drilled sequence, lightning leaping from his upraised arm.
There is a deafening boom, and rock and dust cascades around him. Something hard hits his temple, and everything goes dark.
Zuko is lying on something hard – stone, the floor? – feeling decidedly battered and dizzy. There is a hand cradling the left side of his face; his mother’s calming perfume wraps around him and he leans into the pressure, faintly feeling the brush of a thumb tracing the edge of his scar.
“Back with us now, Prince Zuko?” He flinches away – the voice is wrongwrong, Father not Mother - but the hand only moves to tangle fingers in his hair, tugging sharply in warning. He opens his eyes to the familiar nightmare of his father leaning over him.
“I see that my worthless brother has managed to drill at least some level of competence through your thick skull, yet once again you prove to be your own worst enemy. However, just in case you thought to try another of his little tricks…”
The hand in his hair yanks him forward, the rough movement making his head spin and stomach churn. A cool band circles around his neck, closing with an ominously final click. His hands fly up to clutch the metal – collar, it’s a collar. Which means… with effort, he focuses his eyes on the matching shackles clasped around each of his wrists, finally noticing the same chill touch on his ankles.
“You don’t really think I wouldn’t have taken precautions, do you?”
His father is still speaking, his voice distant as though coming from a deep tunnel, yet every word sounds sharp and icy clear.
“This is our family we are talking about.”
He can feel his throat against the metal, the flutter of each gasping breath, his heartbeat pulsing a rapid counterpoint.
“If you had been sincere in your return I would have found some use for you. But I was hardly going to allow a traitor to just walk around the palace.”
Focus. He needs to know just what these bands are. And he does know, somewhere…
“My dearest brother’s accommodations should have been warning enough of that. I know you saw him.”
The sick chill in his core is all the clue he needs. Chi-suppression cuffs. The alloy a well-guarded secret, used only on the most powerful of firebending prisoners.
“Of course, I will have to have a conversation with Azula to determine her role in this. I shall be very disappointed if you have managed to corrupt her as well. After all my efforts…”
But no one else knows Uncle’s breath of fire. Which means that this collar was created specially… for him…
“But enough of them, you are the problem here. You have always been slow to learn, and I see now that my previous lesson was insufficient.”
He’d come here today planning to renounce his father and his ideals, declare that he stood in opposition. Yet some small part of him had still hoped that his father cared. Felt that it was a betrayal, however justified…
“This time, I will just have to keep repeating the message until it sinks in.”
He shivers, pinned in place by the cold light in his father’s eyes, unable to look away. He remembers the pain of the burn, the months it took to heal; he really doesn’t want to think about where this is going.
Then the bunker door opens and his father stands, breaking the tense bond. He nods at the messenger’s quiet words, then sends them off with a message of his own and turns back to look down at the son sprawled on the floor.
“That shall have to wait, however, it appears that I have a failed invasion force to dispose of. In the meantime, I suggest you contemplate all the ways you have disappointed me. When we next talk, I will expect a full account, and shall address each. And. Every. One.”
Rough hands grab his arms, breaking him out of his frozen stupor. He thrashes, twisting and struggling to get free. He doesn’t have his bending, but that shouldn’t matter; he has fought without it before. He is dizzy and bruised, but that shouldn’t matter; he has fought concussed before.
But the fire in his core is smothered, guttering, leaving his limbs weak and uncoordinated. And the iron will that has pushed him through so many past trials is crumbling and unmoored. Aching in his mind-heart-body-spirit it is all he can do to keep his legs under him as the guards drag him though the underground corridors. When they stop and toss him into a cell, the clang of the door closing sounds like his uncle’s disappointment.