“I could… heal that for you now, if you wanted.”
Katara’s voice is quiet when she says it, so quiet that Zuko doesn’t even realize she’s talking to him at first. Maybe that’s why his only response is a completely undignified, “Huh?”
Not exactly Fire Lordly, he thinks wryly. Then again, he’s only been the Fire Lord for a few hours, so he figures he can cut himself a break. And his chest still stings from taking the brunt of Azula’s lightning. Maybe that’s what Katara means?
But that doesn’t make any sense, because she’s been heading up his recovery ever since he went down. So he turns to look at her and finds that she’s staring not at his chest, still wrapped with bandages under his formal Fire Lord robes that make them itch incessantly, but his face.
Or more specifically, his scar.
“The water from the Spirit Oasis,” she clarifies, looking a little awkward but pushing on anyway, headstrong as ever. “Now that we have more time… We could go back. I could try.”
Zuko thinks about it for a minute. He really does. It’s been a long time since she brought up the idea, not since that disastrous day under Ba Sing Se, not since he’d realized that had they been quicker, had he agreed sooner, Aang would have been dead. And all future Avatars with him.
But now there’s no threat of using it up without access to more. Now that they’re not on a deadline, they could actually go back to the North Pole.
Of course, it’s not like the North Pole is a short trip. There’s plenty they both need to be doing. Katara wants to help the Southern Water Tribe get back on their feet and start trading with the other nations again. She’s going to be crucial in the negotiations no matter where she lends her efforts. And Zuko has a whole nation to look after now, one that he hasn’t been prepared to lead since he was 13, abruptly dumped back into his lap.
Still, it’s not that far. He’d traveled across the globe a dozen times over in his hunt for the Avatar. One more trip wouldn’t kill him.
But it’s a hard decision to make, even now. A year ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated. In those first few months after he was banished, he would have given anything for it. But he’s seen the depths of his father’s cruelty since then. He knows – logically, at least – that what he’d always thought of as a traitor’s mark didn’t mean he’d turned his back on his nation. He gets that, really.
But some days, he looks at his reflection and he just wants it gone.
He still hates it. He hates the way it distorts half of his face, narrowing his eye into a permanent half-scowl. He hates the way people looked at him when he was traveling, the way people still look at him sometimes, no matter what they think about where he got it from. He hates how it reminds him of being a scared little boy, looking up at someone who should have protected him, who should have loved him, and who only ever turned his back on him.
He hates that he knows that Fath- that Ozai is cruel, and that what he did was wrong, but it doesn’t stop him from believing what Ozai had always told him. Some days he feels that he can only ever look at his own face and see his failure branded into him, no matter how familiar of a sight it’s become.
“I… I don’t… know?” He winces after he says it. It doesn’t make any sense. Either he wants is gone or he doesn’t, right? Why can’t he make up his mind?
But Katara’s not looking at him in confusion. Somehow, even though he doesn’t quite get it himself, she gets it. “Okay,” she says, and then, “Well, think about it. The offer’s open anytime.”
Their attempts to heal a century of war mean they’ll have to reopen communication with the other nations. Zuko’s only had a few brief meetings with advisors in all the chaos so far, but at least one of them has mentioned reparations – albeit with a biting tone that suggested they should do no such thing. Reparations usually meant long, exhausting debates, and they usually meant travel. Within the next few months, it was likely both Katara and Zuko would find themselves back in the Northern Water Tribe again for these discussions. She was interested in reopening communication between the two sister tribes, after all.
So the decision gets postponed, if only for a short while. There’s a summit planned in the Northern Water Tribe in the near future. When they’re both there, he promises, he’ll have an answer for her.
Zuko tells himself a few months won’t make a difference and he’ll still have the option when they see each other again. He tries to forget how a few seconds had sealed the path off to him last time.
In the meantime, he just has to decide what he wants. It’ll be fine. Surely by then, he’ll have an answer.
It’s only a week after Ozai is defeated that Zuko calls a meeting of the War Council. While he’s already sent official orders to end the war and halt troop movement, there are still plenty of issues to sort out about how the troops will be getting back home and what they’re going to do with all of them, especially the troops and civilians alike who have been living in the colonies for decades. He knows that even as the Fire Lord, it’s going to be an uphill battle. The war was going on for a hundred years. While many people are sick of it, there are just as many if not more who aren’t going to give up as easily.
He needs to call the War Council to sort these issues out. He expects that he’ll get pushback from the vast majority of them. They’ve worked under his Fath- Ozai for years. As much as he’d like to just fire all of them, it’s not like he’s got a steady stream of replacements lined up, not yet at least. And it probably wouldn’t exactly inspire trust.
What he doesn’t expect is just how strange it feels to be seeing this room from the other side, to be seeing the Generals that take their places around the room once again. Uncle is here – he’s still a General, and Zuko is more than happy for his support in a room of unfriendly faces – but the others are a mix of passingly familiar people he remembers from years ago and complete strangers.
There is one face he does recognize with complete clarity. General Bujing meets his eyes from across the room, unflinching, and Zuko forces his stare to remain steady as well. He knows this man is ruthless, and he highly doubts he will be in agreement about ending the war. A man who is ready to sacrifice a bunch of new recruits isn’t likely to care much for peace. It’s going to be a long meeting.
Zuko’s predictions turn out to be correct when it’s been almost an hour and they’ve only managed to argue about the very concept of halting the war and little else. It’s only Uncle’s jovial nature, occasionally belied by a thinly veiled threat whenever one of the Generals steps out of line, that keeps Zuko from throwing his hands up and stomping off, but it’s a near miss. It’s about then when Zuko realizes that it’s not just Bujing he has to keep a careful eye on. Bujing isn’t the problem – he’s a symptom of the bigger issue that is the Fire Nation’s attitude towards war.
Every one of the men who have spoken against his plan to end the war are just repeating back the same rhetoric and propaganda that he’d believed for half of his life. It’s all “glory of the Fire Nation” this and “spread our superior element” that on repeat until Zuko is sick. The real problem is that every man at this meeting, and many more outside of it, had stood by and watched as the Fire Lord had burned half of his own son’s face off and they had said nothing. They had stood by and watched.
Abruptly he feels nauseous. He raises a hand to cut Bujing off while he’s blustering something about Earth Kingdom peasants, privately relishing in the offended look on his face. “Enough,” he says, tired but still finding the effort to lace the words with steel. No sense in sounding weak in his own war room. “While I appreciate your input,” he does not, “my mind will not be changed. The war will end. By the next meeting, I expect you to be willing to discuss more pressing issues. Meeting adjourned.”
The other Generals rise, probably too worried about the consequences to say anything about the abrupt dismissal to his face. As they start to file out of the hall, Zuko slumps back a little in his chair, rubbing at his forehead.
Uncle rests a hand on his arm. “You did well, Fire Lord Zuko.”
Zuko huffs. “Hardly,” he says, suppressing another frustrated sigh. “We didn’t discuss anything of merit.”
Uncle shrugs. “Perhaps not, but you proved that your convictions were firm and you did not cave to their pressure. I would count that as a win if I were you.”
It certainly doesn’t feel like much of one, but he tries to hold his tongue. He’s sick of arguments, he doesn’t want to have one with his Uncle too.
Someone clears their throat on his left side, just out of his reduced peripheral vision. He turns to acknowledge them and sees that one of the Generals remained in the room. He’s younger than most of the others were, and Zuko doesn’t remember him saying much in the meeting, though he does remember that he’d introduced himself as General Sozo. Now that Zuko’s attention is fixed on him, he looks a little anxious.
“Fire Lord Zuko, sir,” he says, his eyes darting about rather than resting on Zuko’s face. He’s not sure if the man’s just this jumpy or if he really thinks Zuko’s going to banish him for breathing wrong. Not that he’d have put that past Ozai.
General Sozo gives a bow that doesn’t seem mocking, in stark contrast to many of the ones Zuko had gotten in the last hour. “If you will permit me to say so, Fire Lord Zuko,” and Zuko really is still getting used to hearing something other than Prince or Jerkbender before his name, “I am glad that you are ending the war.”
“You- you are?” Zuko asks, trying to wrestle his surprise into something more manageable.
“Yes, I-“ Sozo hesitates, sighs, then starts again. “I am ashamed to say that I spent far too long convinced by the rhetoric of the war that we were in the right. But my mind has changed, since four years ago. When I saw what Fire Lord Ozai did, I… I was sickened. I realized that a leader who could harm his own son like that was not the leader the Fire Nation needed. But to speak out against Fire Lord Ozai would have been…”
It would have been suicide. Banishment would have been a kindness if a mere General had tried to stand against Ozai. It was far more likely he would have gotten a one-way ticket to the Boiling Rock.
As angry as he was, as he still is, about the men who had stood and watched and did nothing, Zuko knows that to do anything else would have been putting themselves at risk to defend a Prince who had already been branded a traitor. Even Uncle had not been able to stop the Agni Kai.
But Sozo isn’t finished. “Still, that does not excuse my silence. I have spent a long time on the wrong side of the war efforts. I hope that under your guidance, sir, that can change.” Sozo gives another deep bow, bows to Uncle as well, then makes his exit.
“See?” Uncle says, nudging him with his elbow. “What did I tell you? You’ve made quite the good impression on those willing to listen.”
“I… I suppose so.” It’s nice to know that there is at least one General in his war council who is on his side, who might actually have workable ideas about how to call back their armies and work towards peaceful relations with the other nations.
It’s harder, but still a little nice, to know that his Agni Kai hadn’t been watched with stony faces. That it had helped at least one person see what had been bubbling below the surface of the Fire Nation for a long time. It’s cold comfort now, he figures, but it gives him a little more hope about the Fire Nation’s ability to change.
“You know, when we cycle the old Generals out, I wonder if the new ones would object to holding these meetings in the garden or something instead. I hate this room.”
He’s kidding, of course. Mostly.
The thing Zuko will never get used to – that he really doesn’t want to get used to – is the way that people are afraid of him now.
He’s used to getting strange looks, to be sure. When you have a scar over half of your face, you learn to take everything from not-so-surreptitious glances to outright stares in stride. Of course, that was mostly when the people staring at him didn’t know why he was scarred in the first place. Half of them had thought him some Earth Kingdom kid caught up in the war, and the other half had probably just chalked it up to a training accident.
Some of them had taken one look and known. He remembers seeing it in their eyes. The way that even if they didn’t know one thing about him, they looked at the scar and instantly knew where it had come from. Something in their eyes had been haunted, understanding in a way that made his skin prickle and usually left him feeling defensive.
None of these stares really compare to the way everyone looks at him now. They tip-toe around him like he’s a rabid viper-rat. They avoid eye contact, and they scramble out of his way. He hates it, but it’s not like he can tell them to stop being afraid.
The worst of it comes one evening when one of the servants bringing dinner to his office spills the tea she’s pouring.
It happens in a matter of seconds. One servant goes left, the other spins to the right, and the minor collision leaves Zuko hissing at the sudden heat and dampness on the sleeve of his robes. He shakes the arm out, standing and taking a few steps away from his desk to keep the papers safe from the mess.
He looks up to see the woman outright cowering in the other’s arms. She looks completely terrified.
For a moment, Zuko almost looks behind him to see what she’s afraid of before he realizes it’s him. The idea that anyone could be so afraid of retribution for a simple mistake would almost be laughable if it didn’t make him feel sick. It’s not like she’s tried to assassinate him. Zuko’s dealt with more than his fair share of those too.
Right now, he’d almost rather take the assassin. Because the look she’s giving him as she waits for her punishment is heartbreaking.
She sees him looking back and drops to kneel, bowing her head so low it nearly touches the floor. “I beg your mercy, my lord,” she says, trembling, and all Zuko can do at first is take a stumbling step backwards. Because this… this is familiar.
For a second, he doesn’t see the servant woman. He sees himself, kowtowing to his father, so full of fear that he could hardly breathe. And for the first time he’s so blindingly angry at his father that he could scream. How could anyone see someone else in this position and want to hurt them? How could anyone use their power over another to make them this afraid over a simple mistake?
He doesn’t scream, of course. Because that would only frighten the woman further. He takes a second to breathe, to let his own misplaced fear and frustration fade. In a soft voice, he says, “Please, rise.”
She does, but she keeps looking at the ground. “It’s alright,” he says, and she jerks her gaze up in surprise, then immediately lets it fall again. “It was an accident,” he says, less because she doesn’t know that and more because she needs to hear it. “You aren’t in any trouble.”
The woman looks like she can’t find the words for a minute. Then finally she nods, gives a quiet “Thank you, my lord,” and beats a hasty retreat towards the door.
The other woman, the one who’d brought him food from the kitchens, looks back at him as she guides the first out of the room. She bows her head once, smiles softly, and then both of them are gone.
It’s less than a week later that someone else – a palace guard, this time – nearly collides with him as he rounds a corner. The woman scrambles backwards, and she bows low in apology, but there is no full kowtow, and though there is trepidation there is no paralyzing fear in her eyes when he tells her it’s fine and that he’s alright. When her shoulders relax, relief clear on his face, Zuko lets himself smile a little. It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.
It’s not often that he gets to spend time at the turtleduck pond anymore. As Fire Lord, he has so many responsibilities, all of which weigh heavy on his shoulders. Being able to slip away is an unfortunately rare occurrence now.
This is why he can’t quite fight off a sharp sting of annoyance when he hears someone approaching as he’s scattering bread into the pond. It figures that they’d find him here. He prepares himself to face some disgruntled adviser or harried assistant, but when he turns he sees only a young boy, no older than 10, walking up to the pond.
Zuko schools his features into something less angry and asks, “Can I help you with something?”
The boy’s shoulders are slumped, his gaze morose where it’s trained on the grass in front of him rather than looking at Zuko. “I’m supposed to be in the kitchens visiting my mom but I, uh. I got lost.”
That’s an understatement. The kitchens are halfway across the palace. A half-chuckle escapes Zuko despite his best efforts to contain it.
The boy balls his fists up at the indignity of being laughed at, and yes, Zuko remembers being 10 and feeling his face burn hot enough to singe the fur off a pygmy-puma whenever Azula teased him, so the reaction is no surprise. The kid’s gaze finally snaps to him, but it travels up to look at the crown in his hair and abruptly all of the anger falls away, replaced with dumbfounded surprise. “O-oh. Are you the Fire Lord?”
Zuko doesn’t laugh again, but it’s a near-miss. “I am. I can help you find your way back to the kitchens, but would you like to watch the turtleducks with me first?” He can’t help the suggestion. The boy’s quiet dejection, his embarrassment at his faux pas in front of the Fire Lord, isn’t as funny as it once seemed once he thinks of how Ozai would have responded to the same situation. Not that Ozai would have been caught dead watching turtleducks, of course. It had taken months for them to even return to the pond, and longer for them to accept Zuko’s presence.
He’s also learned that sometimes, when people shrink back from him in fear, reassurances do very little. Diverting their attention elsewhere tends to work wonders. He figures that if he put up with Uncle trying to do it to him for three straight years whenever he was ready to boil over, he’s allowed to copy the technique.
It’s almost comical how quickly the mood shifts. The boy hardly spares him a glance once he catches sight of the turtleducks though. He grins, taking a step closer. “Ooh, I’ve never seen turtleducks before! Can I- uh, that is, may I-”
Zuko sees that he’s looking at the bread in his hands and takes pity on him, tearing off a small chunk. “Of course.”
The boy leans forward to sprinkle a few crumbs in the water. As he does, his long sleeves slide backwards, revealing the tail end of what must be a decently sized burn scar. Zuko’s breath catches in his throat.
It’s clear that the burn is accidental, he realizes after a few seconds. There’s no purpose to the shape – it twines up in the pattern of uncontrolled flames, not out in the form of a five-fingered hand. It’s not uncommon for young firebenders to get scalded if they don’t learn proper control first, and not everyone can afford a teacher, nor can they afford the time that supervising firebending training requires. There’s a reason why he’d simply mumbled out “training accident” anytime someone had been rude enough to ask about his scar.
Still, it’s noticeable, an angry red mark that mars the boy’s pale skin. Some firebenders’ early burns fade, but Zuko doubts this one will. It looks like it healed over a while ago, and that it’s not likely to get much better than it already is.
“What’s your name?” he asks, watching surprise override the excitement of watching the turtleducks come up to peck at his bread offering.
“Aiko.” When he looks back at Zuko, he follows his gaze to his arm. Aiko must see something in the intensity of his stare, because he mumbles, haltingly, “I used to hate it, you know? All my friends had been able to control their firebending just fine, but I… But I don’t hate it that much anymore. After all, if the Fire Lord has a scar, one of the strongest benders in our nation, then… then it must not be so bad after all, right?”
Zuko could tell him that his scar is different – not that it matters, not that he wasn’t only ever one inattentive gaze from giving himself a similar scar in his youth when he’d hardly been able to control his flames. He could say that he’s far from the strongest bender. He doesn’t hold a candle to Ozai or Azula, wouldn’t even outmatch half of the Generals and Lieutenants in the army who he sees returning at the docks in larger and larger numbers every day.
He doesn’t say either of those things. Instead, he says, “Yeah. I guess not.”
When Zuko walks Aiko back to the kitchen, he’s surprised to find that the woman who starts berating Aiko for running off is the same woman who’d served his dinner the night he’d had tea spilled on him. She smiles at him in thanks, and this time he returns it.
It takes months, but Zuko visits Ozai.
He’s visited Azula more than a few times. It’s been… hard. The doctors are doing their best, but it’s slow going. Sometimes she spends the whole visit raging at him, snarling about how the crown should be hers and how he’s always been a weak excuse for a firebender. Other times she looks at him like she hardly knows him, completely silent. While the rage is expected, the silence is so much worse. But he keeps trying, because as much as he’d like to believe that his sister is simply evil, simply beyond help, he knows it’s not true. He knows Ozai got his claws in her just the same as he’d gotten them in him, and he hopes that someday she’ll come to see that too.
He expects visiting Ozai’s prison cell to be much worse. It’s not an unreasonable expectation. He can’t remember the last time he walked out of a conversation with Ozai and felt good about it. Their last discussion had ended with an attempted murder.
Well, he figures, that can’t exactly happen again this time. Not after Aang took his bending away.
It’s strange to look at his father and not see the all-powerful Fire Lord. Instead he just sees a man. A bitter, hateful man who manipulated everyone around him until there was no one left. A man who was defeated by a twelve year old child. A pacifist child. A man who, Zuko realizes for the first time, has no power over him anymore.
“Come to gloat?” Ozai goads, face twisted in a snarl. The effect is ruined by the hair that hangs limply in front of his face. It’s funny, Zuko can’t picture a time where he’s ever seen his father even slightly disheveled before now.
He doesn’t rise to the bait. “No. I’ve come to talk.”
“And what do I have to talk about with you, you sniveling coward?”
Zuko shrugs, because he expected this, he expected Ozai’s casual dismissal even now. It should sting, and it does a little, but not as much as he’d feared it would.
Here, as the Fire Lord looking down at his disgraced predecessor, Zuko finds that he doesn’t flinch back from the words. He’s not afraid of Ozai anymore.
They talk of little of importance. Ozai keeps trying to get in pointed jabs, growing more and more frustrated when Zuko hardly acknowledges them. It’s only when Zuko finally moves to leave that Ozai stands, stepping up to the bars of his cell to call after him.
“You think you can put on a crown and pretend you’re royalty? You are nothing, Zuko, you have been nothing ever since I left that scar on your face and you will never be anything while it’s still there.”
Zuko pauses, if only to hear him out. But rather than shaking him to his core like they might have before, he recognizes the words for what they are – the desperate gasps of a man who knows he’s beat and wants to take everyone else down with him. A dishonorable sparrowkeet of an opponent who won’t stop squawking taunts even after he is defeated.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. From where I’m standing, one of us is the Fire Lord, and one of us will spend the rest of his days in a prison cell. And I am done listening to you.”
He walks out of the prison, and all of the enraged shouting Ozai can muster isn’t enough to slow his steps.
The summit at the Northern Water Tribe goes about as well as expected. Zuko sits through an endlessly boring meeting about trading agreements and the equivalent exchange rates of grains and fish. He ignores more than one snide comment directed towards his people or him specifically. He makes reparation offers, lets his advisors and the representatives for the Northern Water Tribe debate them until they’re blue in the face, and steps in to correct a pointed remark about murdering savages from an especially eager Lieutenant who’d been at the siege of the North before it can derail the entire discussion. He attends a big feast full of begrudging tolerance from both nations and remembers Aang’s advice, given months ago, to avoid the sea prunes.
By the end of the first day, he feels a little better about their chances of establishing a peaceful relationship. It's not going to happen overnight, and it’s going to take a lot of work, but he thinks it just might be possible.
It was funny how much could change in just a few months.
The feast is just wrapping up when Katara manages to speak to him alone. He’d seen her at the earlier meetings, but they’d had more important things on their plate at the time. Now, they were free to catch each other up on the last half-year.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before she asked the question that had occupied the back of his mind since they’d last spoken. “So, did you… decide?” She doesn’t have to elaborate; Zuko knows exactly what she means.
And he’s had a lot of time to consider his answer. He thinks about General Sozo, who’d quickly become a trusted voice in his cabinet. He thinks about the servant woman – Reiko, he’s since learned – who had cowered back from him before but who now brings him tales of her son who works at the docks and sees all the soldiers reuniting with their families. He thinks about the way Aiko had smiled when he’d talked about his own scar, proud, not ashamed. He even thinks of his father, someone he never has to see again if he doesn’t want to, someone he no longer sees in his nightmares.
He doesn’t need to consider his answer any longer. He smiles softly and says, “Actually, I think I’m good as I am.”
Katara must understand what he means, because she smiles too, and they fade back into discussion of Sokka’s efforts to teach some of the Southern Water Tribe’s younger boys to swordfight and Uncle’s endless attempts to get Zuko to come visit his tea shop in Ba Sing Se until the light of Agni is replaced with the soft, pale moon.