Zuko swallowed, feeling the dry edges of his throat stick together. He couldn’t remember being this thirsty, not since the time he’d struck out on his own, away from Iroh. Azula knew how to deal with firebenders for sure, but she seemed pretty adept at making a waterbender just as miserable.
Zuko shifted his arms slightly, but with his hands chained and his body dehydrated, he could barely get any movement out of them. His mind was a blur, every time he tried to think of a way of escape, he came up empty. For all he could see, Azula had won.
One of the four guards assigned to watch him turned around at the sound of the chains moving. He narrowed his eyes at his prisoner, looking like was about to shout something, when suddenly the man’s face turned… well, a bit green. He raised his hand and wiped his forehead, which had started to sweat. Then he stumbled backwards, barely catching himself as he fell to the ground, out like a light. The other three barely had time to notice what was happening before they too fell victim to the same mysterious ailment.
Zuko held his breath. Was there some sort of poison in the air? Where was it coming from? Why hadn’t it affected him yet?
Before he could come to any conclusions, however, Zuko heard the dungeon door slowly creak open and a light set of footsteps began to descend. A familiar figure rounded the corner.
“Sokka!” Zuko exclaimed. Well, tried to exclaim, at any rate. He barely had a voice, and it came out as more of a hoarse whisper. Sokka shushed him anyway and walked up to the prison door, fumbling with a set of keys.
“How did you…?” Zuko asked in shock, staring at the four unconscious guards on the floor.
Sokka smirked, though not as much as he normally did when he was explaining how genius his plans were. “The thing is, Zuko, growing up in the Fire Nation, you don’t learn as much about the natural world as the people of the Water Tribe. It’s true, there are plants that make a great stink bomb. But there’s also the varieties that can knock you right out if you eat it. I snuck some into the guards’ lunch.”
“Not bad,” Zuko muttered.
“I snuck in to see Katara already,” whispered Sokka. “I wanted to try and spring her out, but the lock was complicated, and…” He stopped and looked at the ground. “And she insisted on me getting you out first.”
“What?” Zuko asked, blushing a bit. “Why?”
“Hey, don’t get any weird ideas. Your life’s in the most danger. If Azula kills Katara, she loses her bargaining chip with Aang. But if she kills you, she loses her only competition for the throne. Of course, if she kills Katara, I’ll kill you, but you know…” His sentence trailed off as he began working on the chains on Zuko’s wrists.
“Hey, you have any advice for, like, using firebending to keep your body warm?”
Zuko strained to look Sokka in the face, but the odd angle made it difficult. “What do you mean?”
“They’ve got Katara in something like that cooler we saw at the Boiling Rock. She seemed okay when I talked to her, but later, when I overheard her talking to the guard, she sounded really quiet and weak. Like she was just putting on a brave front for me.”
Sokka finally managed to release Zuko’s arms and began working on his legs next. His tone was a forced calm – he wanted nothing more than to be with his sister, helping her.
Zuko growled. “There’s a technique she knows, but if she didn’t start using it right away, it’s not going to work now. Her bending will be gone for at least few days even if you got her out of there right this minute.”
Sokka scowled as he freed Zuko’s left leg and went for the right. “Guess even knowing all your techniques doesn’t help her much if she doesn’t realize when to use them,” he said sharply. The last of the chains fell off and Zuko shakily got to his feet. He could feel the water beginning to circulate in his body, increasing his control. Sokka handed him a water skin, which he guzzled like a greedy child until there wasn’t a drop left in it.
“Come on,” he said, wiping his mouth. “Let’s go get her out.”
He started for the open prison door, but Sokka put out his hand to stop him. “No. You leave, and I’ll get her out. The only reason I came here first was because she insisted. If you go with me, it kinda defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”
He reached down on the floor and picked up something Zuko hadn’t noticed before. Some pile of fabric that he shoved into Zuko’s hands.
“Here. It’s an extra set of Water Tribe clothes. Katara thinks you’ll be able to sneak around the capital easier if everyone thinks you’re a representative from the South Pole.”
As Zuko stared at the gift, trying to concoct some other reason for why he should stay, Sokka turned and headed back up the stairs. The heavy prison door closed behind him, but didn’t lock. Standing alone in the silence, Zuko sighed and began changing. Maybe Sokka and Katara had a point. He had to find Azula’s weakness to defeat her, and he couldn’t do that from inside a dungeon. In fact, as he thought over exactly who might know Azula’s weaknesses, his best bet for success lay a long way from here.
Zuko crept up the stairs and slowly eased the door open. Azula had screwed up concentrating all his guards so close to him. Once outside the dungeon, sneaking out of the palace was quite literally child’s play, something he’d mastered long ago. If he’d actually stayed in his room every time Ozai told him to when he was younger, he might’ve died of boredom.
Outside it was already night. Right, Zuko thought. I should’ve guessed as much. I can’t move nearly this well during the day. Zuko continued to put as much distance between himself and the palace. He wasn’t running, wasn’t really sure he could run, but if he wanted to blend into the crowd, he couldn’t look like he was in a hurry. No one seemed to think anything of him in the Water Tribe attire, but then, not many people had a huge scar covering half their face either. He had to stay cautious.
Guilt ate away at Zuko as he kept moving. He couldn’t really run away like this, could he? He had a duty to protect his country.
Protect it how? another part of him wondered. Azula’s beaten me on every front.
“Hey, wait up!”
The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite believe it. Yet when he turned his head, there she was, hurrying in his direction.
Blast it, Katara, you’re going to blow my cover, Zuko thought. But, no, Katara was more clever than that. She stood next to Zuko, but looked in the opposite direction.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were someone I knew,” she said to a tall guy standing nearby.
“Quite all right,” the tall man muttered, and the crowd lost their interest in her, moving about their business. Katara winked at Zuko, as if to acknowledge that yes, she did realize how clever she was, and no, he didn’t have to break his act to tell her so.
Zuko rolled his eyes. He didn’t plan to have anyone come along with him, let alone her. Still, it felt good to have a friend by his side.
“Where’s everyone else?” he asked when they’d reached a more secluded area.
Katara’s muscles tensed. “Sokka… got captured,” she said.
Zuko expected her to elaborate, but when no more details came, he broke eye contact with her and went back to focusing on making his feet move without tripping over them. “It… seems like you’re feeling better,” he said when the silence had gone on longer than even he cared for it to. “Sokka said you sounded wiped out.”
“Huh? Sokka overheard that?” Katara groaned and massaged her forehead. “Oh, no. I was hamming it up for the guard so Azula would think everything was working. I didn’t mean for it to work on Sokka too.” Her face suddenly took on a fierce look of determination. “All right, you’d better have a plan to get your sorry self back on that throne before my brother has a mental breakdown. Where are we headed?”
Zuko scoffed. It wasn’t like it was his fault that Sokka had misunderstood. And anyway, Azula was probably going to notice sooner rather than later that Katara’s cell was empty.
“For now, somewhere safe,” he answered. It was the best response he could come up with. In truth, he had no clue where they should go right now, let alone how he would get himself back on the throne.
Do I even have any claim to the throne anymore? Zuko took a deep breath and tried not to think about the possibility. Strong mind, strong body, strong fire. But he had no fire. Even before Aang had switched their powers, the most he’d been able to make were a few sparks. What claim do I have that my father and Azula don’t?
Zuko shuddered. He had to get his fire back. It was the only solution — his only way to defeat Azula and the only way to win his people’s loyalty again.