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things lost in the fire

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The scar was on the wrong side.

It should not have bothered him so much. It really should not have bothered him as much as it did-considering everything else. But this was now the second time someone had not done their fucking research and he was pissed. In fact, Zuko was more pissed at the fact that they misplaced the scar on his face than he was that he was currently holding a wanted poster for himself.

Of course, it was not the first time Zuko had held a wanted poster for himself. After all, this was not the first time Zuko had been declared an enemy of the state. He knew this was coming the moment he left to join the Avatar. The poster itself was expected. He could imagine Azula gloating as it was officially declared that he was a traitor. Zuko knew this was coming. But he didn’t expect the scar to be on the wrong side.

“Un-fucking-believable.” Zuko muttered.

The gang just stared at him.

“Dead or alive,” Sokka said, “Your dad is an asshole.”

Zuko stared at him. “The scar is on the wrong side,” he said.

The group looked at him with confusion.

You dad wants you dead, and this is what you’re focusing on?

The topic of Zuko’s scar was not something they had ever discussed, save for one short conversation with Aang, to which the rest of the group desperately eavesdropped on. Judging from Zuko’s reaction when Aang brought it up, it was not something Zuko wanted to talk about.

Shortly after Zuko and Aang for back from their visit to the dragons, Aang was still having trouble with his fire bending. Their time with the dragons had shown Aang that fire was not something to be afraid of. But every time he looked at Zuko’s face another reality manifested itself. The scar was a burn mark. How was Aang supposed to see fire as life, when he was training with someone who had been so hurt by it? The more Aang got to know Zuko, the more it ate at him. Zuko was only sixteen. And the scar was old. It was big and it looked painful. Aang wasn’t sure he wanted to know how long Zuko had had the scar.

It looked old. Aang tried not to look at it too much. Frankly, before Zuko joined them, Aang hadn’t paid attention to it. Zuko’s scar was just something that made him look scarier as he tracked the group all over the world. But now that Zuko was part of the group, Aang realized two things. Firstly, Zuko’s scar did not make him look angrier, it made him look sadder. Once Zuko had joined the group, Aang became aware of the fact that Zuko’s anger-a hallmark of his personality- was just sadness and fear masquerading by a different name. Secondly, Zuko’s scar had come from a burn. Aang tried not to stare at Zuko’s scar too much, but occasionally he couldn’t help it. The scar was huge. Aang knew this- he saw the scar when Zuko was hunting them. But it took up half his face and extended towards his ear. Every time Aang looked at it he wondered if Zuko could even see out of that eye or if he could hear out of that ear. He hadn’t considered the possibility before, Zuko was a skilled fighter and he gave no indication that he could neither see nor hear from the left side of his face. But sometimes when the group was talking, Zuko would ask them to repeat stuff a couple times. Aang didn’t know if that was because Zuko couldn’t hear or because some of the stories they told were so outlandish that Zuko just needed to process what they were saying.

Burns were different from other scars though, there was almost always some sort of nerve damage involved. Once when Aang was a kid, he was helping Monk Gyatso make tea and had touched a too-hot tea pot. He remembered yelping at the sudden pain and watched the skin on his hand blister. The burn had healed quickly, and he was more careful when touching hot things after that. Gyatso had explained to him that burns were different than other types of wounds. Burns could cause nerve damage in a way other forms of injury couldn’t. Burning Katara during his first attempts at fire bending had reminded him of that. And now Zuko, and his scar, were a reminder of the danger of fire every time they sparred. Every time they sparred, Aang forced himself to remember the dragons and that fire was life. But then he would look at Zuko and the fear would rush back.

Who had hurt him? It had to have been one of his own people, another fire bender, and it had to have been a while ago. But Zuko was young, and Aang didn’t like to think about how young he had been when he got the scar.

Zuko knew Aang was starting at his scar. Zuko was used to it. He knew it was bad. His scar had been the target of pity during his time in the Earth Kingdom. His scar was just another point to tally up in the cruelty that was the Fire Nation.  Zuko’s scar made him into a martyr and he wasn’t sure how to feel about it. He hated the staring, but it was a constant fixture in his life. People would try and be inconspicuous about the staring, but Aang was not. Zuko knew Aang didn’t stare at the scar with any malice, it was driven by pure curiosity and Zuko couldn’t blame Aang for being curious. Hell, if the scar was on anyone else’s face Zuko probably would have stared too. The thing was, Aang’s staring was starting to get in the way of their practice. The minute Aang’s eyes landed on Zuko’s scar, Zuko could feel Aang start to hold back. If Aang was going to fight Ozai, then he needed to get over whatever this hold up was.

The first conversation happened when Zuko was kicking his ass when they were sparring one day. Aang knew it and despite the cries from the rest of the gang, who were watching from the sidelines, to kick Zuko’s ass, he couldn’t. He dodged Zuko’s attacks but never went on the offense.

“Okay, what is it?” exclaimed Zuko. He was getting frustrated now.

“Nothing” Aang mumbled. He glanced at Zuko, eyes landing on the scar.

Zuko sighed. “It’s the scar isn’t it?”

Aang was silent. The rest of the group sat there, ears burning to hear more. Zuko could feel everyone staring at it, with the exception of Toph. Zuko had never talked about the scar before. He’d never even acknowledged its existence in front of them.

Zuko swallowed. He didn’t want to have this conversation, but he knew Aang wasn’t going to be able to move past this on his own. Zuko was a bad liar and he knew it, but he also knew the truth wasn’t going to help Aang.

If my father did this to me at thirteen for speaking out of turn, what’s he going to do to you?

Zuko didn’t believe in using fear to motivate people. Not anymore.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” he said, voice thick with an emotion Aang couldn’t quite place, “but the scar was a training accident.”

Aang didn’t need Toph there to know that Zuko was lying.

“Must have been a pretty bad accident.” Aang replied.

Zuko flinched. So slightly Aang barely noticed it.

“It was,” Zuko finally replied. “But I healed.”

Aang nodded. He didn’t want to press anymore but he knew Zuko was lying and he knew Zuko was desperately trying to maintain his composure. He was doing a poor job. Zuko was as pale as a sheet and trembling slightly. When he talked, Aang could feel Zuko trying to keep his voice steady. He wasn’t going a great job.

“Accidents happen,” Zuko said lamely.

Aang knew that this was as much as he was going to get out of Zuko. It was written plain across his face that this was not a conversation he wanted to be having.

“Okay,” Aang replied. “Can we take a break?”

Zuko nodded. The topic of the scar didn’t come up again. After seeing Zuko’ face when Aang brought it up, Aang wasn’t sure he wanted to know anymore.

-

The only other time the scar had come up again was after the Sokka and Zuko’s field trip to the Boiling Rock. It had been Chit Sang, the newest member of their group and fugitive to bring it up.

It was a short conversation, but it had the equivalent of dousing the group’s already burning curiosity with gasoline.

Chit Sang had sat down next to Zuko at dinner one night. He looked at the scar.

“Are the rumors true?” he asked.

“Depends on what you heard,” Zuko responded, voice emotionless.

“Agni Kai,” Chit Sang replied.

The color drained from Zuko’s face. That was enough indication for Chit Sang to know that the rumors were true.

And then the weirdest thing happened. Chit Sang gave Zuko a pat on the back. It was meant to be affectionate, but Zuko flinched. His face went whiter, if it were even possible. He shot up and mumbled some lame excuse about needing to clean his dao blades.

The group looked at each other with confusion.

“What the hell just happened?” asked Toph. “And what’s an Agni Kai?”

Aang shifted. “So,” he began “Zuko’s scar wasn’t from a training accident was it?”

Chit Sang looked at the young boy with an expression akin to grief in his eyes. “That’s not my story to tell.”

Aang knew Zuko had been lying when he said it was a training accident. But spirits, he wished he wasn’t.

-

The scar didn’t come up again until they were on Ember Island. The day had started inconspicuous enough. Katara had announced that they were nearly out of food and they had decided to go into town to get supplies. They saw the poster on their way to the market.

Wanted dead or alive by Royal Decree of Fire Lord Ozai, Former Crown Prince Zuko.

Dead or alive. Zuko knew that was coming. Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt though. But, the fact that his father wanted him dead felt like a dull chest ache in comparison to the fact that his scar was on the wrong side. They had updated the photo used of him from the last time he was considered an enemy of the state, but somehow the scar was on the wrong side.

“Un-fucking-believable,” Zuko muttered.

The gang just stared at him.

“Dead or alive,” Sokka said, “Your dad is an asshole.”

Zuko stared at him. “The scar is on the wrong side,” he said.

The group looked at him with confusion.

“The scar is on the wrong side," Zuko said again, voice trembling. Anger flashed on his face and he tore the poster off the tree it was plastered on. He looked like he was about to be sick. 

He was shaking and no one knew what to say. The group had learned that any mention of the scar was enough to send him spiraling.

Katara reached to put a hand on his shoulder, to comfort him, and he flinched.

“Zuko,” She said, not knowing what to say.

He swallowed.  “I’m going back to the house now.”

They watched him walk away, crumbling the poster in his hand.

“We shouldn’t leave him alone,” Katara said.

“I’m not sure he wants to be around other people right now.” Sokka responded.

            “No. Katara’s right.” Toph said. “His heartbeat was all over the place. We should at least be near him in case he needs us.”

            -

Zuko felt like he was about to faint.

It was cruel and it was wrong. It was cruel and it was wrong. It was cruel and it was wrong.

He kept repeating those words to himself as he walked back towards the house. It may have been cruel and wrong, but Zuko knew his father would never see it as such. But Agni, as much as he told himself that no father should ever treat his son like that, that didn’t stop Zuko from reliving the memory. Knowing something is wrong doesn’t take away from the trauma it has caused you.

The fact that the poster had the scar on the wrong side was a personal fuck-you to Zuko.  Zuko looked at the poster again. He knew his father had seen it before it was posted around the Fire Nation. Any wanted poster gets a nod from the Fire Lord before it is hung up for the world to see. Zuko didn’t understand how his father had looked at that poster of him and not noticed that the mark he branded into his son’s face was on the wrong side. Zuko knew his father well enough to know that he wouldn’t approve a poster where such distinguishing facial characteristic was on the wrong side. Ozai was a lot of things, but he was not sloppy.

Maybe he didn’t care enough to look at the poster before it got sent out. Or maybe, Ozai didn’t actually remember which side of his son’s face he had burned off all those years ago. Zuko wasn’t sure what was worse. Ozai had know which side the scar was on. He had to remember. Right?

As much as he told himself that Ozai had to know which side of his face he had scarred, the memory of waking up on that ship after the Agni Kai drifted through his mind. After the Agni Kai, Zuko had passed out from the pain. One moment he was on the floor screaming and the next he was on a ship with his Uncle sleeping by his bedside. Ozai didn’t say goodbye. Ozai burnt off half of Zuko’s face and put him on a ship to who-knows-where before Zuko had even woke up.  Ozai didn’t see the damage he had caused until three years after the fact. Ozai wasn’t there to see how bad it was before the injury turned into a scar- the way the skin blistered and bled. Ozai wasn’t there to smell the scent of burnt flesh day after day. Ozai wasn’t there to hear the gasps the healers would make whenever it was time to change the bandages. Ozai wasn’t there for any of that.

And Zuko knew that even if he was, it wouldn’t have made a damn difference. When Zuko was home, Ozai acted like the scar wasn’t there. It was nice, in a way. Zuko had been stared at for the better part of three years. It was nice to have someone pretend that this defining mark didn’t exist. But it did. And the only person who ignored the scar was the person who gave it to him.

-

He arrived back at the house and stopped dead. He kept saying this house was from the times his family was happy, but were they actually happy? Maybe he was confusing happiness with having a mother. His father had always had a temper, his mother was always there as a buffer and to remind him that he was more than what Ozai’s words cut him down to.

 

Zuko wasn’t sure when he started sobbing, but seeing the house snapped him back to reality. He wanted to burn it to the ground. He knew the others were bound to follow him. He wanted to be alone.

 

Unfortunately, the only place Zuko knew the rest of the group wouldn’t step foot in was Ozai’s old bedroom. It had been abandoned for years, and even during those periods of use in Zuko’s youth, the room was a place for sleeping. It still felt haunted. The room was barren apart from the bed and a few other pieces of furniture. Ozai was never the type of father to surround himself with photos of his family.

 

Zuko closed the door, slumped down and started sobbing. He thought back to the war meeting a few weeks ago. He had been at Ozai’s right hand. Ozai had to just glance at his son to see the mark he had left. He had to have known. He had to.

Zuko pulled his knees up to his chest. As much as he wanted to believe that Ozai would remember what he had done, Zuko knew that to his father that Agni Kai was nothing more than a fleeting memory. The most horrific act of abuse Zuko had ever experienced was nothing more than an afterthought to his father.

It wasn’t fair. Zuko would have to live with it for the rest of his life. He would have to live with the stares. He would have to live with the nightmares. He would have to deal with the looks of absolute pity strangers would give him that made him feel two-inches tall.

He hated it so fucking much.

 

Zuko looked at the poster again and felt the rage boil inside him-so hot he thought it was going to consume him- and let out a blast of fire. The paper burnt to a crisp in front of him. But it wasn’t enough. He sprung to his feet and let out blast after blast.

Zuko didn’t want to fuel his fire through his rage anymore, but fuck it wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair. None of this was fair. A man burns his son in front of hundreds of people, and he gets to live his life free of consequences.

Zuko wanted the room to burn. He wants his father to burn with it.

-

In retrospect, whoever filled the Fire Lord’s vacation house with wooden and flammable furniture had made a horrible design error. 

Katara is the first one to smell something burning. She looks at the group with wide eyes.

“I think we should go check on him,” she said.

The group had followed Zuko home only to see him lock himself in his father’s old room. None of them had dared step inside of it in the days prior. But they knew Zuko well enough by this point to know that he wanted to be alone. They couldn’t force him to talk about anything, but they could be there in case he needed someone.

The site they see when they get to Ozai’s room breaks Sokka’s heart. Zuko had always been big bad and strong and seeing him like this-crumpled on the floor, sobbing hysterically, surrounded by flames- is horrible.

The room is on fire. It’s not too bad though. Two of the bed’s four posts are consumed by flames and the dresser is burning. Sokka looks at Katara and she gestures for Aang to help her put the fires out.

Suki stands in the doorway, unsure of what to do. Sokka isn’t sure himself. It’s Toph who makes the first move towards him.

She sits down next to the sobbing figure on the floor and gently grasps his hands.

“It’s okay.” She murmurs, stroking his hand and letting him cry.

It goes on like this for a few more minutes. Zuko is so out of it that he doesn’t even notice Katara and Aang put out the fires. They all sit around him. They’d hug time, but they know that sometimes he flinches, and they don’t want to make the situation worse.

It stops eventually. The crying does at least. After Zuko is done sobbing, he stays on the floor. His face is blank and Zuko feels hollow.

“Are you okay?” Suki finally asks, crouching down next to him.

Zuko wants to nod and to say he’s fine and apologize and just move on. He doesn’t want to talk about this. But they’re looking at him with such concern. Aang has tears of his own in his eyes just from watching Zuko’s outburst.

Zuko doesn’t know how to explain it. “The scar was on the wrong side.” He says, gesturing to the ashes that had once been his wanted poster. Like that explains it.

None of them understand.

“It’s just a printing error," Sokka says trying to resolve some of the tension.

But they don’t get it and how can Zuko expect them to? They don’t know the story behind it.

“The scar was on the wrong side.” He says again, this time with tears collecting in the corner of his eyes.

He hates himself for crying so much. He hates himself for letting his father’s abuse rule his emotions like this. He hates that he can’t talk about it without shutting down

“The scar was on the wrong side.” Zuko repeats again and again. He starts crying again.

And then he says the worst fucking thing.

“He burned off half my fucking face and he can’t even remember which side.”

And even though the room had just been on fire-it goes ice cold.

Zuko has retreated back into his semi-catatonic state with that last comment. His hand goes up to rest against his scar as he sobs again.

No one knows what to say to him. Zuko wouldn’t have heard it anyway, not with the memory of his father’s hand setting his face on fire playing over and over again in his head. Eventually, it’s enough to make him sleep. The sobs are replaced by the up and down of Zuko’s chest.

Toph is still sitting next to him. She’d been quietly stroking his hands through all of this.

“He’s asleep,” she says quietly.

And then “What the fuck?”

Normally, Katara would chastise her for being so vulgar. The fact that she doesn’t is a testament to how shaken they all are.

“Did I hear it right?” Sokka asks. “Did he say what I think he said?”

They’re quiet. The only thing to fill the silence is the sound of Zuko’s labored breathing.

“I always knew Ozai was a horrible person, but to do that? To your own son?” Katara says.

“We heard rumors of his cruelty on Kyoshi Island.” Suki whispered, there’s a tear dripping down her cheek. “I didn’t realize that it included his own family.”

No one sleeps that night, save for Zuko. Despite the exhaustion of his breakdown, his sleep is fitful. He cries out occasionally during the night. Sometimes it’s an “I’m sorry” or a “please don’t”, but a few heartbreaking times he calls out for his mom.

They don’t know what kind of memories had been brought to the surface that day, but it can’t be good.

Even Sokka, the meat and sarcasm guy, can’t bring himself to lighten the mood. They all slept in Ozai’s room, taking turns sitting next to Zuko in a desperate attempt to protect him from whatever demons were filling his nightmares. When Zuko finally does get up, he looks awful. He mumbles an apology and something about needing to bathe and then stumbles off.

He comes to breakfast though. Katara hands him a bowl with a small smile and he nods a quick thank you and then sits with them.

It’s quiet for a bit. They don’t want to bring it up if Zuko doesn’t want to talk about it. And Zuko doesn’t want to talk about it but considering everything he thinks he needs to give them an explanation.

Sokka is on his third serving when Zuko finally speaks. 

“It wasn’t a training accident.” His eyes are slightly glazed and rimmed red with exhaustion and his voice is hoarse.

No one says anything. Zuko takes a shaky breath and goes on.

“One day, I begged my Uncle to let me into a war meeting. He did on the condition that I needed  stay quiet. I didn’t listen. I spoke out of turn and disrespected one of the plans the general was presenting my father.” His voice chokes on the word ‘father’.

They wait for him to continue.

“My father said that it was an act of disrespect and ordered a dual or an Agni Kai. I accepted the challenge. The general was old and I thought I could take him. Except, when the day finally came, it wasn’t the general I had to fight.”

They knew what was coming next but that didn’t make it any easier to hear.

“It was my dad.” Zuko said quietly. “When I saw him, I dropped to my knees and begged for mercy.”

He wishes he could end the story here.

“And then came walked over to me and said, ‘You will learn respect and suffering will be your teacher.’ And then he lit my face on fire.”

Katara had tears in eyes and Suki and Aang looked like they were about to sob.

“Fuck.” Sokka whispered after a few minutes. “What did you say in that war meeting?”

It wasn’t appropriate to ask. There was nothing that could have possibly justified what Ozai did. But that didn’t stop Sokka’s curiosity.

What would trigger someone to do something that horrible?

Zuko looked bewildered. Out of all the questions he thought his friend may have had, this was not one of them. But he looked at Sokka and answered, nonetheless.

“They were planning on using a legion of new recruits as bait. I said that doing so was an act of betrayal. They were loyal to the Fire Nation; we couldn’t lead them to their deaths.” His voice is emotionless.

Shit. That makes it so much worse. Sokka feels the tears well up in his eyes. He doesn’t know how this story could possibly get worse.

“How…how old were you?” Toph asks.

She doesn’t want to know, but he’s so young now and the scar is so old.

“Thirteen.” He says flatly.

It got worse.

“He banished me after that. For being a coward and refusing to fight him. He told me that the only way I would be welcomed home was if I captured the Avatar.”

And worse.

“It’s ironic, in a way,” Zuko says. “I was trying to hunt you down, but you were also my only source of hope. The only chance I would get to go home.”

He’s met with silence. And then finally-

“That’s so fucked up,” Sokka says.

“I know that. Now,” Zuko replies.

And the insinuation that Zuko at one point thought his father was justified in his actions was the cherry on fucking top.

Sokka starts crying then. They all are. Except for Zuko, who at this point it out of tears. He quietly gets up and begins clearing the dishes. The others are too shaken to do it and Zuko doesn’t want to sit at this table stewing in the misery of the story for any longer.

-

He’s trying so hard to pretend everything is normal and Sokka is about to lose his mind. Zuko pulled himself together after breakfast. Sokka doesn’t know how. But after Zuko had finished cleaning up breakfast, he told Aang to meet him in the courtyard for training.

Aang looked like he was going to be sick. On one hand, at that moment at least, Aang would have jumped off a cliff if Zuko asked him to. On the other hand, after hearing that story, Aang wasn’t sure if he’d ever want to produce a flame again. And he really didn’t want to spar with Zuko right now. Not with everything so fresh in his mind.

But Aang concedes because he can’t bear to tell Zuko no today.

Training is such a disaster. Both of them are off their game and Aang can’t bear the idea of hurling fire near Zuko. And Zuko doesn’t push him. Neither of them is willing to go on the offensive. Zuko isn’t as hard a teacher as Toph is, but he’s not as nice as Katara. Finally, he puts Aang out of the misery of sparing and confines him to a day of hotsquats. Aang never thought he’d be so grateful to have to do hotsquats.

It’s driving Zuko crazy though. He hates himself for his outburst last night and hates himself for being so vulnerable and so open. He knows that these are his friends. He knows that they won’t hurt him. He knows it. He does.

But sometimes he can’t help but flinch when someone touches his shoulder as a gesture of affection. He hates himself for it.

With everything that’s happened in the last day, Zuko knows that his friends are slowly unpacking the behavior that he had passed off as just being quirky for what it is-trauma. They’re being so nice to him and he hates it. Even Toph is being nicer, her usual punches of affection are replaced by gentle pats and Katara is mothering him, making sure that he’s eating enough and keeps checking in to make sure he’s hydrated.

Zuko is going to lose his mind. It’s at dinner when he finally says something.

“So,” he starts “there is no way you guys can just forget the last 24 hours, right?”

Toph wants to punch him.

Katara just glares at him.

“Look,” he starts again. He’s not quite sure where he’s going with this, but he needs them to stop and for some semblance of normal to return, “it’s okay now. I’m okay now.”

He’s a terrible liar. Even if he could manage to tell a lie without stuttering over his words, the very fact that he spent most of the night curled up in a ball sobbing betrayed him.

Zuko saw that he was getting nowhere.

“You know, before I left to join you guys, I confronted him about it.”

The group seemed to perk up at that, encouraging Zuko to talk about it.

“Yeah on the day of the eclipse. I wanted to look him in the eyes before I left and let him know that I was leaving because I wanted to, not because he wanted me too.”

He sensed that they were starting to relax. This was good. This would be water under the bridge now and they’d stop looking at him like he was helpless.

“Yeah. I mean it felt pretty good to tell him off for it.”

The group nodded in encouragement.

“Well, I mean up until he shot lightening at me.”

They froze.

“What the fuck Zuko?”