It is said, when he was born, the fires of the throne rose high in victory, for the new heir, in a sign of health and good breeding and strong bending. He screamed long and loud, howled and howled toward the sky as Agni left across the horizon, towards the stars.
(It’s a sign, some whisper, his generation will wipe out the Water Tribes)
(He screamed toward the moon , they murmur, it’s a sign)
(The sun set on him, others scoff, it’s a sign)
(It’s a sign, a few claim, that Agni has abandoned him)
It is said, when he was born, his eyes were already gold, and his mother named him for the loyalty of the troops dying across the sea.
(What is not said: when he was born, a village was massacred halfway across the world)
(When he was born, he was coated in blood from his mother and from the heavy weight of death his family carries with them)
(When he was born, he was already steeped in bloodshed)
Long ago, there was fire, and from fire, the first true bender was made. From fire, all energy took shape, all life crystallized, and all of history was kept sacred and safe.
From fire, the first Avatar was made.
Fire has not forgotten this.
Ursa feeds her son one last time from her own body, in the privacy of her own chamber, knowing soon his teeth will show, sharp and innocently destroying. He will have a sibling soon, but she knows what she will birth. He is such a sweet, kind child, with power deep within. The universe has always demanded a balance, an equality. He is blessed, so the next will be cursed, unmarked lest it fester.
She is alone, as she draws in a breath and turns him, runs a finger down his small spine, then presses two fingers to her lips.
Very carefully, she touches the place where his vertebrae meet his neck, and lets the fire sprout.
(It’s a sign)
Her son screams, long and loud as he did when he was born, but he has thrown many a tantrum while with his mother. No guards come running.
When she takes her hand away, the burn is small against his spine. A small, wobbly circle with five rays splaying from the top, like a sun rising. Like a miniature handprint.
(It’s a sign)
Quietly, Ursa sings, and washes the burn with water. Quietly, she cries.
It is a necessary evil. It’s for the best.
General Iroh is known as the Dragon of the West. He breathes fire and tears through entire Earth Kingdom villages with little care for civilian casualties. He is there to deliver a divine, unjust punishment upon a people that have suffered for nothing.
No one can say for certain how many he himself has killed.
No one can count how many he and his battalion have massacred.
There is an old joke that has long since grown stale which is: If Sozin was not already dead by the time the Dragon rose, then he would have gotten burnt alive by the babe in a cradle.
He has a son, but was never married publicly. His son is rarely seen by any not in The Dragon’s Division, and the Division is a secretive group. Some say they are nearly identical, that a spirit gave itself to the Dragon and made him a son from fire and the corpses of his foes. Others say there is no resemblance, that he is a war orphan, from the homefront or from the Colonies. The last theories are usually accompanied by a glob of spit finding its way to the earth in disgust for the Earth Kingdom savages.
(Carefully unsaid theories: It was a whore, it was an Earth Kingdom child)
(To say such things is suicide, and neither are true)
(His son is a firebender)
It is said the Dragon is going to Ba Sing Se. He is going to tear their wall down and take their Capital for the Fire Nation. He is going to take down the largest fortress known. He is going to add more to his kill count, is going to decimate the leadership of their rival and take it for good.
(It’s a sign)
(The Dragon always wins)
The Dragon of the West rides East, and the Nation holds its breath.
Long ago, Agni rose over the Nation with rays steeped in the blood of the Air Nomads. Agni rose with the retreating tail of Sozin’s Comet, and spoke.
Spoke to who?
(No one knows)
(It’s a sign)
For those that heard it and trembled:
When next this time comes, you will not find me so allowing. When next the skies turn to blood, it will be heralded by a five-blessed twice-cursed child of my making, and the heavens will roar. When next you break the balance, the sparks-in-sky child of the bear will spread scaled wings and break you into new mosaics for me. It’s a sign.
And to the daughter of one lonely widow of twelve years with fire in her palms, Agni said:
The seven marked sun rises within you. Let the next be made with six. The hand binds the blessing of five.
The Wall falls.
For one, glorious moment, the product of over a year of toil, the Wall of Ba Sing Se comes down, and the Dragon has done the impossible yet again, worked a miracle between claws and sent fire raining down.
The Wall falls.
Ba Sing Se does not.
The Wall falls.
With it falls the forces attacking it.
Two children hide behind a tapestry as one prideful man digs a grave he is happy to grab the shovel for.
One of his children was born screaming at the moon, while the other challenged the sun. One is weak, with orange sputters of fire, and the other is strong, with sleek blue cutting through the air.
It would not be hard for him to give his eldest to the flames, or to the Dragon. Neither would accomplish what he wants, however.
He gives the elder to the fire instead.
Zuko’s mother visits him in the night, and her eyes glint in the candlelight inhumanly. She says that she’s done it all for him and makes requests and gives him a kiss on the forehead.
And then she rests her hand on a scar on his back, a close match for her own hand now, just a little too small. It will grow with him, stretch the skin until the size of the scar is equal to the one who put it there.
(She burned it into his back when he was too small to know)
(It’s for the best)
“You’ll break free, little one,” she murmurs, “All your scales and fire. You’ll be marvelous. Never forget that. Never forget who you are.”
She turns and leaves, candle steady in her hand. In the darkness, with her in a loose dress displaying her spine, he can see a six-rayed sun burned on her own neck, pale with age.
She leaves his room, and leaves him forever.
Firelord Ozai is crowned as the ashes of his father still smolder.
The Dragon comes back and says, with eyes haunted and mourning for a sister, for a son, for a father, that he has killed the last of what he was named for. He is given the appropriate awards and a pat on the back from a brother many years his junior who now gets to take all of the power.
“If it’s any condolence,” Ozai says, biting down on the last word with relish before Iroh can leave, in private audience with his Majesty, his brother , “You can have my eldest. It’s what Azulon wanted. It’s not like he’s of any use to me, regardless. It would be a true shame if he had to go the same way as your eldest before he could take my throne. His sister is a much better candidate, after all. Maybe you should spend some more time with your dear nephew.”
It is a twisted knife, blunt and disturbing and animalistic.
“Maybe you should spend more time with your son,” Iroh says, instead of the thousand and one curses and fireballs and lightning blasts he wants to hurl.
The Dragon died with Lu Ten.
(He is your flesh and blood, a piece of you)
(You have a son left to love)
(Where did you go, brother?)
(Why are you lost?)
There is a door at the end of the hallway, and it is guarded and wreathed in heavy fabric, and from within come murmured voices, and Zuko wants . He wants to be there, where they are winning the war one battle at a time.
He wants to be where they make their decisions, where they are fighting for the Nation bravely.
He wants. He craves.
So by Agni, he will have it.
There is a heavy table and men around it and they are speaking horrors into the air, unthinking. Men who have long since abandoned the front lines and play chess with breathing creatures.
(Fire is breath, breath is life, fire is life, nephew)
Fresh meat spilling new blood on foreign ground. The ruby red of Agni’s children glinting in their light, against the soil of the Earth Kingdom, far from the homeland.
Death for the sake of death, killing for the sake of killing, sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. The murder of their own willing soldiers, boxing them off and shipping them out to war, to glory, to honor, only to have it burn them alive and crush them to death.
The phantom of his mother’s hand on his back burns like ice.
Uncle has killed all of the dragons, but one crawls up his spine, slinks by his ear, and hisses. It lives inside his skin, breathes the air all Fire Nation citizens do, breathes the air all living creatures do, inhales and exhales and sings to burn it all down, to rage against the dying of the light and the corruption of Agni.
He stands, and he speaks.
(Did you hear? Did you hear?)
(The Prince has an Agni Kai!)
(Did you hear?)
(It’s a sign)
There is a ceremony to the act, to the baring of oneself of power and heart to Agni, and dealing in the sacred act of combat. The hair remains up, as a sign of honor and prestige to fellow firebenders, that their hair has remained unscorched and long, well cared for. The chest is either bared and the spine uncovered, or golden strips of fabric wrap the chest, both with golden armbands to symbolize the connection and binding to the sun that presides over the ritual.
There is a shawl, draped to hide until the battle begins and Agni passes judgement.
It is a cloudless day, as the sun rises to its highest point and both opponents allow their shawls to drop and feel Agni against their skin. The sunlight feels achingly hot against the handprint impressed on Zuko’s back.
(He screamed toward the moon)
(It’s a sign)
Something within him crumbles, in that singular moment.
Azula is in the crowd and she is smiling with lips painted red as he begs on his knees, forfeiting the match by all accounts of the ancient texts.
Uncle is in the crowd and he watches in horror as his brother does not stop his inexorable march forward, is not stopped by any of the Sages presiding over the match.
His mother is not there. She left. She is not here to see her son beseech his father and fail. There is only her handprint on his back.
His father is there.
(It’s a sign)
His father is there, and Zuko cranes his neck to look at him, head silhouetted by the noonday sun, a halo of Agni as he stares him down. It is so bright, his father’s face cast in shadows. Somehow, although the sky was clear mere minutes ago, a cloud rolls over the sun, blocking Agni from view and letting him see his father’s face.
It is not twisted in anger or sullen in sadness or bright with insanity. It is not what his mother looked like when she left him for good with a caress of her fingers over the place they once scorched, not what Uncle looked like coming back from the battlefield never to return, not what Azula looked like before she lit her hand in fire and threw it at a turtleduck.
It is blank. Uninterested. Bored.
“You will learn respect.”
His hand reaches out, almost gently cradling his jaw and keeping his head held, keeping their eyes meeting, smooth fingers flicking away the tears on his right cheek.
“And suffering will be your teacher.”
Bright, so bright, so beautiful. As bright as the halo that was on his head, as beautiful as autumn leaves. Cradled in his father’s right hand, descending, descending, falling like a star to the ground-
(It’s a sign)
(The sun set on him)
(Agni abandoned him)
Azula still smiles. Uncle looks away. Mother’s hand goes cold on his back. Father is pressing fire to his face and branding him.
(Now he screams toward the sun)
There is only pain.
The 41st Division dies.
For strategic reasons, of course.
The Firelord sends his deepest condolences for the loss of such brave men. It was an unforeseeable ambush.
He can’t move because of the pain. He can’t do much of anything. Tears slip from his eyes and spark new agonies running across his skin. He loses his sense of self in waves, distancing from his skin, from where each breath seems paralyzed in his lungs.
Bandages wrap over both of his eyes, and all he can see is darkness and the blank disinterest in his father’s eyes as he gifted his son with endless agony. He can’t see anything, and something more than just the bandages wrapped around it is wrong with his hearing in his left ear.
He sleeps, when he can.
It is anguish.
He’s awake. More awake than he’s felt since Agni forsook him.
He can’t move, but he can hear the door opening and closing, hear a chair being shoved back next to him.
“How dare you.” Uncle’s voice. “How dare you come here like you care a thing about your own flesh and blood.”
Oh. Azula? Or Father?
“Disappointing. I’d thought he would have passed by now.” His father’s voice. “Has he woken yet?”
Yes, Zuko wants to scream, I’m here, I’m alive, why do you speak like I am dead to you already?
“No. No he has not,” Uncle responds, “Because you pressed fire against his face and he burned alive, you sick, sick man.” The sound of the chair being pushed even further away, a fist thudding against the wood. “I am ashamed to call you brother.” Silence. “Have you nothing to say?”
A considering hum from his father. “How long do you intend to wait by the bedside of another child you know you’re going to lose? This is better for the Nation. Azula is a stronger heir than Zuko, it just saves the excuses.” A scoffing laugh, sending sharp pains through Zuko’s skull, “Cut your losses while you can, old m-”
There is a heavy thud, and father cuts off with a gasp of lost air. The sound of nails scrabbling against skin fills the air and then stops rather suddenly.
“I swear upon Agni, the spirits of my forefathers, and the broken wall of Ba Sing Se, if my nephew dies in your care, you will join him on the pyre.” Iroh hisses out his words, an angry snarl Zuko hasn’t ever heard him use before. “He will survive this, or you will not survive until the next dawn, Ozai .”
Ozai chuckles, but it’s strained and empty, thin and breathless. Devoid of life. “Very well, brother . He won’t die in my care, I will promise you that. I give my word , as Firelord.”
Slowly, there is a shuffle of feet, and the chair scrapes again. The door opens and closes, taking his father’s breath with it.
Zuko loses consciousness to the sound of Uncle humming.
(He thinks it was a dream)
(It must be)
(The other option claws his skin from his bones)
(It’s a sign)
It is a long while (or at least feels like one) before he can even begin to move. It has been five days, apparently, inestimably long. The physician is glad to know he is responsive but cannot remove the bandages except to change them, for fear of exacerbating the burn past its already horrific point. He is encouraged not to talk, either, as he’d inhaled a not inconsiderable amount of smoke from his flesh burning.
He does not try to blindly communicate what he’d heard Uncle and Father discussing. He can’t bring himself to, afraid of what he might find. Afraid of it being reality. Afraid of any of the shreds of truth.
He is kept bedridden for a week, unable to speak, unable to see. Uncle is there near-constantly. He reads aloud what he can, while Zuko is stuck, blind and mute, limbs stiff and uncooperative.
The week is horrid.
The next is worse.
“Oh, Zuzu…” Azula sighs, her saccharine sweet tone echoing like a stone thrown against a wall, “What a shame .”
Uncle had to leave, to attend to other matters. He promised to be back after two hours. The remaining hour looms on.
“Y’know, it’s less fun when you don’t talk back,” Azula speaks, theatrically, pointedly, and he can hear her exaggerated pout even though his hearing is shot on his left side, “To be honest I’m just surprised they didn’t put you down like a lame ferret-dog!” She hums consideringly. “I guess father really does care, doesn’t he, to give you such a good lesson.” She snickers. “I dare say, that’s better instruction than he gives on my firebending, Zuzu. How lucky .”
There is a long silence, and then a bored, put-upon sigh. “ Honestly, Zuzu,” Azula chides, “How worthless are you to surrender an Agni Kai against the Firelord? You didn’t even try to fight! You just whined and cried and begged and- and- boo-hoo, crybaby.” There is something in her tone, then. He can’t identify it. “Mom’s not here to protect you anymore. Mom left you.”
(Mom was never there to protect her. Mom left her too. That she does not say. She does not need to.)
The bed shifts with another body and out of habit his stiff limbs lock up and move closer to his body. She’s on his left side, where his hearing is messed up, and it makes his already screaming prey instincts freeze him in place. “Oh, relax . It’s not like I could do anything worse,” Azula mutters. Her fingers gently press over the white bandages layered heavily over his left side. She hums in consideration and starts petting it like it’s a fox-cat, this signal of his deformity, of his imperfections yet to be revealed.
(It’s a sign)
She reaches out to the side of his head, sharp nails digging under the pasted end of the bandage and pulling it loose. She runs it between her fingertips, lightly touching it, the scraping sound of her painted claws against the fabric echoing in his right ear.
Then, with the casual but completely focused care she gives to things that interest her, that she wants to destroy just to see what makes them stop working, she unravels his bandages.
He closes his eyes, waiting for the blow as she peels away his defenses, one layer at a time in even strokes. She takes away the last thick swathe of fabric and the light of the room comes searing through his eyelids.
For once, Azula says nothing. Absolutely nothing. She does not offer sympathy or dig her nails into his burnt, aching flesh. She does not do anything, just remains hovering over him, her body heat held over his torso, unmoving. She does not offer sympathy, they are far past the point of that having any use, but she does not try to make it worse either.
For a second, they are brother and sister again.
For a second, Zuko wants to open his eyes just so he can see her again, one more time, to wipe the memory of her smile from the stands as his left side was destroyed from his mind.
He does not.
He is afraid.
Afraid that she might still be smiling. As viciously as she looked knowing he was about to lose his battle against their father, or as emptily as she did every time their mother didn’t say she loved her.
Afraid that it will break this fragile moment between them. Break the silence that both of them use to marvel sickeningly at the sins of the father, the sins of the mother, and the sins of the children.
Afraid that it is too late for the two of them to ever reconcile what they lost the night their mother told him he would be marvelous.
Afraid that she will look at him with the same dispassionate expression his father did.
Eventually, she breaks out of the trance she held herself in, full of her half-guilty thoughts, and leaves him in a rush, the smack of flesh hitting wood, clumsily, and then the now-familiar sound of a bandage roll unraveling. The wrappings go on exactly as they were placed before, almost like she memorized where they went as she unwrapped his ruined self like a Fire Festival present.
She inhales deeply, then exhales with a sharp, mocking, empty laugh that she inflates with sadistic glee like it’s a balloon. She puts on a show for everything, and this is no different.
She shifts on the sickbed, sitting up straighter as if that will prove anything. “I’m going to miss you~” She sing-songs, poking a finger right where the bridge of his nose would be without the bandages in the way. He stiffens. Her giggles turn more sinister, deeper and less childish as she plays this brand new part in her menagerie he supposes is the adult, the same she had on during the Agni K-
Hair up, sharp armor, lips painted red with war. Playing dress-up with carnage.
He misses the girl that knew fire the same as he, small and innocent, not knowing enough of the world to lie meaningfully to it. He misses the one that didn’t have a cabinet within her full of masked personalities, the same as the opera mask that their mother had gotten for him. He misses the sister he had before their parents drew their battle lines and chose their children.
He supposes that sister died the same night Grandfather did. Died when her mother left without giving her a chance to prove herself.
He forces his vocal cords to cooperate just this once, through the smoke and ash, and makes a noise, tries to pour all of his regret for her into it, to burn it out of him like a disease, to give her the absolution she has never been allowed.
She hears it differently, the low broken sound of a question from a broken brother. Hears the fear for her as fear of her, hears so much and understands so little of this, his final goodbye to the sister he has lost to the father he just lost everything to.
And so she laughs again. To purge the image of what used to be her brother, afraid on the bed, skin burnt and bleeding and raw. To purge herself of poisonous sentiment. She is the monster. Love is for blessed children.
Father chose her. Mother never did. And now? No one is here to choose her brother.
“Haven’t you heard by now, Zuko?” Azula lilts, and abandons the nickname for once, too raw to use it for this, “You’re being banished.”
When he can walk across his room without falling, he is escorted to the throne room for his sentencing.
“You will be banished, Prince Zuko. Henceforth, if you step foot on Fire Nation soil, you will lose your life. You are stripped from the line of succession. Agni wills it to be so.”
It’s only the fact that he is so numb from blocking out the pain that he does not collapse right there. Azula always lies, but on this, she told the truth. On this, she was bitterly correct.
“I am not unmerciful. You may return to your former glory if- and only if- the Avatar is found and brought to me, alive.” Father watches him, head jerking up once the condition is revealed, like a well-trained komodo-rhino.
It is a fool’s errand. The Avatar has not been seen since the Air Nomads were defeated, in his great-grandfather’s reign. For all the world is concerned, the line of Avatar’s ended when one Element was annihilated with no survivors.
(It’s a sign)
It’s a chance.
“You have until Agni rises tomorrow to pack your belongings and leave your homeland. You have a week to leave our waters. Restore the honor you have lost for our Nation, Zuko. Do not fail me.”
It’s a chance.
(A fool’s errand)
It’s all he will ever get.
“Of course, Father,” Zuko responds, and bows as fully as he dares. The flames of the throne are far from him, but they scorch him through his bandages, reach into his mind and whisper, mingle with the dragon that came from him in the meeting until it fades back into his spine, turning it to iron.
By the time he steps out of the throne room, Uncle has acquired a ship and is contacting crew members to leave port by sundown.
He wants to come back here, with a certainty larger than himself, he wants to claim this as his home. This is his. It is where he belongs.
The Caldera belongs to him.
He refuses to be burnt anymore.
“You are despicable.”
“He is out of my care, now. Free to die however he pleases.”
“You have set a child adrift after mutilating him for life - your own flesh and blood - and yet you still talk of honor?”
“What I do is none of your concern. Enjoy your vacation, Iroh. I wish you well chasing after ghosts.”
Their crew is a mix-up mishmash of new recruits, survivors of Iroh’s old Division still in the area, and whoever else they could scrounge up with the necessary qualifications. It’s nothing even remotely approaching good, most of Iroh’s men have little to no naval experience, with their benefit being that they won’t betray him, surefire. They followed him into a massacre and back out without complaint. They will follow him on a boat with a hopefully low mortality rate.
They’re horribly understaffed, but they just have to make dock at a Colony. There are always going to be soldiers looking for work in the navy. Less chance of an Earthbender being on the sea and crushing your whole squad underneath a rock slab than in the field.
Zuko holes himself up in his rooms and remains, candles unlit, as his home disappears from view.
He can take off the bandages fully, but he has refused to and closed his eyes while someone (usually Iroh) applied the salve and the bandages fresh. His scar is an ugly, red and pink monstrosity covering his left side, reaching at his ear and covering his whole eye, cracked skin around the edges. He seems afraid to open his eyes. He seems afraid of what he might find when he does. He has been for the past week.
Iroh has seen his fear before, on soldiers that have lost a piece of what made them a human at the same time as a part of their physical form. He has seen them stare with haunted eyes and speak of the enemy as sub human, because that is the only way it can be quantified. The loss is too great to keep logic.
Zuko does not deserve mutilation for small disobediences. For speaking out for good men who did not deserve to die pointlessly.
For being a child.
It is enough to make Iroh wish he had not hesitated to give his brother the same courtesy he had their father in the first place.
Lu Ten was a child, too. Older than Zuko by half of the Prince’s lifetime, but a child nonetheless. The 41st were children, drafted into a war and sent away as blood sacrifice on distant stones, far from the funerals they deserve.
Some part of Zuko did die in the Agni Kai. A piece of him burned away on a makeshift pyre held in Ozai’s hand. Maybe it’s his innocence, maybe it’s his sense of self.
Something died. And Iroh couldn’t even bring himself to watch as it did.
“We go to the Western Air Temple,” Prince Zuko whispers, hoarse from smoke. The Lieutenant starts. He didn’t hear him come in.
The Prince has one hand braced against the wall, likely guiding him to where he needed to be. The left half of his face is entirely covered, a mess of bandages securing over his right side. All that can really be seen of him is his nose and mouth. Blind, like the figure of Justice in the Air Nomad culture.
How did he manage to sneak in, as blind as he is? It’s small wonder he managed to even find his quarters and open the door, weak and sightless. The door is shut behind the Prince, completely closed, and Lieutenant Jee hadn’t heard a thing.
“...What,” Jee finally gets out.
“This is my only chance to check for the Avatar there. We go to the Western Air Temple, Lieutenant.” The Prince still whispers, and it is so much older and rougher than it ever was before, but still so high and childish. So wrong to see this macabre ghost haunting his hallways with a face wrapped in white and the voice of smoke gusting over gravel.
Jee clears his throat. “Of course, Prince Zuko.” Jee is the military leader of this vessel, as he’s the highest ranking individual with naval experience under his belt. He had two brothers in the Dragon’s Division, and Iroh had met with him once at port while his brothers took their limited leave. Both had survived the Siege on Ba Sing Se, but had died in the following raids on the surviving, retreating forces of the 600 day siege by Earth Kingdom militias. Neither of his parents survived an Earth Kingdom raid on one of the Colonies when they went for a business trip. When Iroh called on him, he didn’t hesitate.
Now, actually looking at the reason for this fool’s errand, he almost wishes he did. A hunt for the Avatar, with two members of the royal family. The threat of death for the youngest of their number if they make a wrong turn into Fire Nation waters. Jee will likely never get to see his home again, unless he abandons this mission. It doesn’t matter that he has nothing to go back to, it’s the principle of the thing. Home will always mean something, even if the things that made it home left it long ago.
They both are still and silent, animals staring at each other over the rotting corpse of language and the knowledge of what wounds lay beneath the fabric that binds him blind. Then Zuko gives a short, slow nod. It’s deeper than it should be, for a member of the royal household to give to a Lieutenant, for something as small as following orders.
Jee glances back at the papers he was putting together as the moment extends into uncomfortable territory, letters dancing over the forms and applications. When he looks up seconds later, his door is still shut, and Prince Zuko is no longer there.
He unravels the bandages by touch the day before they dock at the Western Temple.
He brushes his hands over the assembled candles around the room until they are all in his periphery, contained by his smooth breaths in cages of control. His eyes are open beneath the cloth, and the fires around him burn softly, but all he sees is darkness.
Haltingly, he brings his hands to the binding of his bandages and begins to unwind.
Cotton gently falls as he takes them off by himself for the first time, feeling the ghost of his sister’s hands over his own. There is a looking glass in his quarters: he knows that by feel alone, and he sits before it as the candlelight begins to show through the thin fabric.
He closes his eyes as the last of it comes undone, and holds a hand to hover above the left side of his face. Even now, it radiates heat. Very, very carefully, he cracks open his right eye and squeezes it shut at the sudden light, almost unbearable. With barely a thought, an outrush of breath, all but one candle is snuffed clean.
He sees his hand, pale and wrapped in white cloth faintly stained with red and yellow, the sickly bodily colors of the Fire Nation, delivered by its leader to his son. They are some of the first colors he’s seen in weeks. They are the most beautiful things he has ever observed. His own clothing is plain black, swallowed into the void while the candlelight flickers.
He flexes his fingers just to watch the movements, to watch the swoop of fabric and muscle and bone, to watch the skin shift over his knuckles. To watch himself do anything after so long of absolutely nothing.
Slowly he raises his eyes. To the pale skin of his throat in his reflection, up and up, to the hand covering one side of his face, to the untouched half. It is the same as it was before. The same eye, the same nose, the same cheekbone, temple, lips. All the same. He is paler, and there are creases in his skin where the folds of the bandages dug, but he is the same. He is the same.
He looks up. His head had to be shaved, for the burn, and it is growing back a thin layer of stubble, with a phoenix plume of dark hair rising from the height of his skull like the bird it is named for, high in alarm and anger. His hand uncurls from the bandages and passes over the spiky layer of dark hair that’s blossoming from his skull, reaching back to run hands over the smooth length of tail. He doesn’t want it anymore, doesn’t want it on his skull, doesn’t want it with him. His hand shakes and shivers and all he can think is that he wants it gon e, Agni damnit .
(It’s a sign)
(It’s a symbol of our divine right)
It is horrifying.
His breath drags in, sharp.
There is a tingling up his spine and a brief burst of starburst white that reflects in his terrified eyes, in the mirror. The tail falls slack into his hand, burning and acrid where it was attached to his skull. A clean cut, matching the stubble he grows now.
(It’s a sign)
He dares to look himself in the eyes again, one hand holding the sign of royalty, still smoldering at the ends and held over his scalp, the other hovering over his deepest shame.
Very softly, he sets the bound hair on the floor before him, and takes his fingertips up to ghost over the intact, uninjured half of his face, features twisted slightly in an instinctual grimace of pain. As if ordered to, they smooth out, dollike and disturbing, and he finds he prefers the grimace of pain to the nothingness.
(It is blank. Uninterested. Bored.)
He smiles, gently, forces the expression on his face, and feels the tug of skin on his left side, uncomfortable and stiff. He’ll settle for the grimace, then.
Carefully, even as his skin crawls, he takes his hand and twists his palm to face forward, low candlelight reflecting off of his sun line. He slips it under his jaw, cradling it in a sick parody of care. It’s his right hand, not his father’s left, so his little finger brushes against the bone dry skin of his cheek, not his father’s thumb wiping away the tears he will soon evaporate from the other eye.
He removes the hand sharply, breath gasping into the air and causing the candlelight to jump wildly. It refuses to go out, follows his heavy inhales with matching flares, reacting to the reaction within him, the stirring in his skin that rises from his lungs, imbeds itself around his throat, reaches down to the base of his spine and begins to travel upward.
He is strong, he swears to himself. Strong enough for what must be done, what his instincts tell him. They crave the comfort of the Caldera, they crave the sun against his face, they crave the wind and the sea and the earth and the blaze and the spirit-deep touch of life.
He is not afraid of what he might find anymore, as he places the palm of his free hand above the candle to his side, feeling the heat lick up, feeling the warmth as his, forever and always.
It has always been his. This fire against his skin, the heat against his other palm, is no different.
He dares to look himself in the eye, golden and burning and he
Firelord Ozai gives a speech at noon. It will be marked as the most important speech of his reign in the history books, and the recollections spread by travelling bards and aspiring poets alike will be memorized by schoolchildren.
He stands before his throne, the palace halls and the throne room itself crowded with those desperate to hear and understand.
(I heard the Prince lost his Agni Kai)
(Unsaid: Who did he fight?)
(I heard the Prince is banished)
(I heard the Prince died)
(It’s a sign)
“Prince Zuko has shamed the names of his ancestors,” Ozai begins, voice booming and powerful, and the few in the crowd bold enough to speak in the Firelord’s presence quiet with a snap of the jaw, “He has been exiled on pain of death.”
No one speaks into the silence, but being in it is bathing in molten glass, hardening and shattering with every quick gasp of air. It is a painful silence as they consider what it means.
“He has been stripped of his position as heir. He remains a member of the Royal Family, but he will never take the throne.” Ozai smiles at that, and the fires at his feet reflect in his bared teeth, in the slight madness in his eyes.
Beside him, his daughter rises from the ground, in armor tailored for her, hair pulled into a high tail, lips painted crimson and eyelids dusted gold. She shares the same expression of crazed predator surrounded by flames of their own making. Only blessed children get love. This is love, in her father’s eyes, and it is hers .
“My daughter is now crown princess. She will be lord over your sons and daughters and grandchildren, and she will be written of in the tomes of history. Azula, Heir to the Dragon Throne.”
The lords at the front, well-trained in ceremony, bow immediately and repeat, chanting, and soon the crowd joins in.
Azula steps perfectly in front of the throne, smoothly falling to her knee before her father, head bowed in wordless submission. With her drop, blue flames spin out from her feet, dispersing into the fire and joining it, flickering to the orange of tradition.
The gong rings, and on cue, Azula reaches up and takes out the golden ornament marking her as royalty, smoothly and efficiently. Her hands do not shake as she presents it to her father. This is her due. This is her right. This is the love that Zuzu will never get. This is an act of respect, not of sentiment. This is how her father loves. This is how Azula will love.
The Firelord takes it from her hands, this supplication to him, and raises it high before casting it into the flame to melt. She will have no need for that any longer. She is no longer just royalty, after all. She is the Heir.
Gold finds its way back into her hair, placed by calloused hands, and she curses herself that she wants to lean into the touch. That is sentiment. That is what father had to burn out of Zuko, what he had to destroy.
Azula will not let it destroy her.
She rises as Heir, hair secured behind her in a high tail. The crowd cheers.
She smiles and walks proudly to her father’s side, and pretends it doesn’t feel empty.
Ozai smiles, an indulgent thing splitting his face in two as the crowd eventually quiets. “This is as the sun has willed it to be.” He speaks, and some of the Sages present stiffen at the addition to the ritual. They excused the additions at the beginning, as the ceremony had not started, but to invoke the Sun God while the old trappings of royalty still melt into the coals? Unthinkable. It does not stop Ozai.
“My son was weak, but my daughter is strong,” He continues, and next to him the new Heir tilits her chin at a somehow more superior angle, “She will carry on our mission and win this war. Agni wills it!”
The fire crackles.
“Agni has decided!”
The sparks spit.
“Almost a century ago, as our Nation reigned victorious over the Air Savages, Agni spoke to us.”
The smoke thickens.
“Now, Agni has spoken again, and Agni declares-”
The flames surrounding the throne of the Firelord rise, high and higher and higher still, and the crowd screams as they catch the hem of the Firelord’s robes, as it brushes the ceiling and hungers as it eats away at the throne.
Azula stumbles back, sharp confidence gone and replaced with terror and the instinct to fight. Fear is a tangible thing in this moment.
In the inferno, it is impossible to spot, but one could swear there is a burning candle.
A single candle, burning at the wick with an inhale-
(The flames rise and rise and rise)
and an exhale.
And then they are gone.
Embers and cold ash left where the sacred flames of Agni once blessed the Throne of the Firelord.
On the dais, before the scorched throne and the burnt hem of Ozai’s robes, in front of where the new heir cowers, there is a pale shape, with a five-rayed sun burnt into the very stones.
It is a pile of bandages, stained with an edge of red and yellow.
The handprint on his back burns cold for the third time, and then ceases to burn at all.
From within, his birthright rises to the surface like flames licking the ceiling, and he knows.
In the darkness, what is within takes wing, and he knows.
Iroh comes up to the deck, troubled. Zuko is not answering his door. He supposes it’s only natural. He has seen many soldiers seek the silence of an empty room to take the edge off of the pain. Zuko lost everything in a crowd of people, murmuring and gossiping. The mess hall Iroh had just left would only be cruel to bring him to.
He is brought out of his thoughts by nearly colliding with Lieutenant Jee.
Jee is stock still and staring at the prow, the ocean and distant islands filling up the view beyond the guardrails. Distant mountains rise, where the Western Air Temple resides. The view is beautiful from the top- it was one of his last spiritual stops before he finally settled down in the Caldera.
On the prow, there is a figure dancing. It is dancing, not bending, there is none of the traditional force of fire behind it, and yet it sprouts anyway, rises and guides and presses until it wreathes the figure like a second skin and bursts apart in a swarm of simulated moth-crickets.
Silhouetted by the setting sun, it is hard to pick out any defining features. All thought seems to cease as they climb onto the guard rails and do carelessly complex movements that are more similar to Ty Lee’s style than anyone else’s. Fire still follows them, chases them, dancing as they spin with grace that belongs more to wind than fire. Still, watching, he can almost see them as smoke.
Iroh finds himself stuck just as much as Lieutenant Jee, staring as the figure bends without form, only wild passion and consuming focus, with the predictably random flutters of the embers in the air, with the grace of smoke and the harsh, sinuous snap of steam, with the hard consistency of burning coals and the hungry yearning that flame will always chase freedom with. He barely notices when the mess hall crowd comes up the deck and watches with them, the whole deck of the ship covered in soldiers as they watch one of their number forgo everything truly known about bending.
The first rule of firebending is to control the fire. If you do not, the fire will control you, and you will burn. The fire will consume, will kill you and burn your bones if you give it space it needs to grow into wildfire and buck out of its leash.
Fire comes from within. Fire has not forgotten that.
The figure moves as if it is fire.
Zuko pauses once the sun has passed far below the horizon and Tui presses her rays sweetly against his spine, presses where what he has held back for so long rests against his vertebrae, and ushers it back home. Its flames never hurt. They don’t press against his skin and brand him and send him out to the world with cold cruelty.
He will never be branded again. Not while there is breath in his body left to bend with, left to immolate himself from within before he allows himself to be marked again. Not while he can kick and claw and bite and demolish.
He has been twice cursed, with a binding hand against his back and a burst of wildfire against his cheek. He will destroy everything, will burn the world to the ground and boil the seas to dust with himself in the epicenter, before another can use their own to disfigure him again.
He is proud of his curses, of their weight against his skin, of the way his left side knows flame and speaks it so much more fluently than his right, of the five fingers on his neck that each feel different, that guide him from coals to smoke. He is proud of them, but he hates them. He hates them the way a widow hates a wedding and an old man hates to watch children play.
Behind him, there is the rest of the crew, their inner flames bright in the mind’s eye, and they can see him now, he knows. Their eyes are finally allowed to adjust to the darkness, they can see his back.
They can see the lack of a phoenix plume.
The Agni Kai ring he has clasped over his left arm.
The loose top exposing the burnt handprint on his back that glows like banked embers.
The orange-red magma forming harsh shapes up his spine, like the coat of a great lizard.
(The Dragon always wins)
(Fire is life)
(The sun set on him)
(Did you hear?)
(Agni wills it)
(Didn’t you know?)
(You’ll b re
ak fre e, littl
It’s a sign.
and his top knot is gone, his claim to nobility erased.
Over his left eye, on the fractured edges of red, angry flesh, there are evenly spaced, nearly geometric cracks, pink and red and black and orange in a kaleidoscope mosaic of burning scales.
His eyes are golden, as they have always been, as bright as the flames he calls to dance and consume the air with him.
His left pupil is slit.
It is said, when he was abandoned, the fires of the throne disappeared, for the new heir, in a sign of Agni’s anger and the disapproval of their own element. He had been forced from the royal family, and so the flames that had burned for centuries perished.
(It’s a sign, some whisper, that a new age is coming)
(The gods give strange trials, they murmur, it’s a sign)
(The throne is doomed, others scoff, it’s a sign)
(It’s a sign, a few claim, that Agni has plans)
Distantly, within an iceberg, something begins to stir.