So this is a short experimental piece. I'm aiming for limited dialogue and a fluid change in the point of view as well as some intense time skipping. I softened Ozai up a bit, at least in regards to his wife and children. He's still awful, just less awful to his family than in cannon. Hopefully, there will one day by a multi-chapter sequel, an actual story, to this one-shot. Enjoy!
Zuko was having a good day. Uncle Iroh had arrived this morning, and was going to stay at home for a month before he and Lu Ten left to the lead the army on another glorious conquest across the Earth Kingdom. He had spent some time with his mother, Azula was being less annoying than usual, and his firebending tutor had even complimented him on his breath control, which was especially gratifying because he had been practicing. All in all, it was a great day for the seven-year-old prince.
Or at least it was until he went to have tea with his family. It was a rare occasion that all of the royal family convened in any one place outside of formal events, but Fire Lord Azulon had demanded all of them attend in honor of Iroh and Lu Ten's safe return. Naturally, an emergency came up and he was unable to attend his own ordered event, but that didn't mean he didn't expect the rest of his family to do as he bid anyway.
Zuko was sitting next to his little sister, listening eagerly to Uncle Iroh as he regaled the table with the tale of how he got lost in the Great Divide with his second in command, a mad herbalist, and a volatile ostrich-horse when the earthbenders dressed as palace servants attacked.
Iroh had gone to sip his tea, paused before it reached his lips, sniffed it, and set it back down, giving the subtle hand signal the rest of the family was required to know: a quick clench of the fist on the table indicating poison. The earthbenders must have known what it meant as well, and realized they'd been caught, because immediately they acted. Sharp shards of rock flew threw the air, aimed for the vital organs of the sons of Azulon. Ozai, Iroh, Lu Ten, and even Ursa acted immediately, dodging deadly rocks and blasting merciless, searing flames at their attackers. Of the eight earthbenders, five were down and crispy before more desperate measures were taken.
Shards of rock went flying toward Zuko and Azula, both of whom had been frozen in shock until that point. Azula talked a big talk, and there was no question even now that she would be a powerful firebender when she was older, but she was only five and no one had ever dared to attack her before. Zuko saw rocky death hurtling toward them and acted before thinking could get in the way. He tackled Azula off her chair and on to the floor, covering her with his own body. The shards of rock sailed over his face, which was turned up to the ceiling, missing them by inches. Azula was squirming underneath him, but he refused to move while there was still danger. Ursa struck down the earthbender who had dared threaten her children with surprising ruthless violence and a snarl that would make a mother dragon proud.
There were only two attackers left, and they only had one more desperate gambit. With the strong movements and solid stance that characterized most earthbending, the assassins seized control of the marble in the ceiling. The Dragon of the West shot them down but not before lethal cracks had spread and fractured the rock. Shards and slabs rained down on the royal family in a plume of dust and grit with no living bender to control them.
Unnatural silence filled the room for a moment before the adults managed to unbury themselves. Ozai rose, red robes colored grey with dust, and felt the expected rage of being attacked by Earth peasants, relief at seeing Ursa sit up unharmed, her normally shiny hair dulled grey to match his robes, and brief disappointment when Iroh also rose uninjured. What a pity. Lu Ten was coughing so loudly on dust that Ozai almost didn't hear his wife's choked call. "Zuko! Azula!"
Ozai felt his eyes widen before he turned to the last place he'd seen his children. He had watched out of the corner of his eye when Zuko had saved Azula, and felt a fleeting flash of paternal pride. His son had courage, but he had expected no less from the line of Sozin. Where his children had once lain was now a pile of rubble. Without thinking, Ozai ran to the pile, pushing and pulling rock as quickly as possible. By now the room was flooded with guards and real servants, but he paid them no attention. All he saw was pointed rock; all he heard was his wife's desperate calls for her children as she threw herself down beside him and started digging.
There was eerie silence between her screaming until a soft, extremely muffled and desperate call of "Mom" shattered it. That was Azula's voice; somewhere in this pile his daughter was alive. He started digging faster.
"Azula! Can you hear me? Are you hurt?" Ursa called through rock. Iroh and Lu Ten had made there way over with servants and guards and everyone was helping to move the larger sections of marble. It was extremely undignified for the royal family to be on their knees in the dirt, but frankly, Ozai didn't give a damn.
"Mom! Something's wrong with Zuko! He's not moving and he won't talk to me!" Azula responded with tears in her voice. He wasn't sure what made his blood run cold, the news of his son's lack of response, or the emotion from his youngest. Azula was incredibly in control for a child and almost never cried. It was… disconcerting to hear her be so openly distressed. He felt something soft hit his nails scraping through the dirt and pushed more gently against the rubble. A pale and still hand seemed to glow against the dark marble still entombing the rest of the body.
Gently and slowly, Ozai removed the rest of that layer of rock, and took his unconscious son into his arms as his daughter crawled out from where she had been laying under him, shielded by her brothers body with not a scratch on her. She lunged for her mother, tears streaming down her face and Ursa crushed her into a hug, but her eyes were glued to her son's face. Scarlet blood slushed down snow-white cheeks from the mangled remains of Zuko's eyes. Ozai carried his son to a healer personally, stalking through the corridors with apoplectic grief. Torches and candles flared in his presence as his control slipped. The Earth Kingdom would pay dearly.
Zuko would never see again. The jagged piece of rock that had ripped across his face, right before a hit to the head knocked him out, had blinded him permanently. They managed to save his eyes, damaged as they were, they wouldn't have to be removed from his head and replaced with glass orbs, but no one could save his vision. The world was dark and scary and he had to relearn everything from how to maneuver down the halls to how to eat when he couldn't see what his chopsticks were aiming for. But he was a prince of the Fire Nation, and will and determination burned in his blood.
He snuck out at night, committing the corridors to memory, if only to avoid running into walls and embarrassing himself. That had happened a few times, as well as almost countless instances of running into people. He had mastered the corridors, but the problem with people was they moved, constantly altering the obstacle the hallways had become.He'd gotten better at listening for footsteps and avoiding people who were walking, but if they were just standing there, he had a problem. It probably wouldn't happen so often if he didn't make such a concentrated effort to slip away from the guard assigned to prevent that.
Guard Xin was a retired member of the Home Guard with eyes as sharp as a messenger hawk. He was a friend of Iroh's who was chosen to help Zuko because his youngest son had been blinded in a blasting jelly incident while serving in the Navy. According to Uncle Iroh, he had a lot of experience 'assisting young men with a difficult transition in life.'
Zuko honestly didn't think that made Guard Xin especially qualified to stop him from running into another priceless vase, but Uncle had referred to him as a young man and his ego was so continuously bruised recently that what seemed like the biggest compliment in the world to a seven-year-old was enough to keep his mouth shut. It wasn't enough, however, to stop him from trying to escape from Xin's ever presence. Since the attack, he'd wanted to spend long periods of time alone trying to catch his breath in a world determined to drown him in confusion and misery. He couldn't do that with Xin breathing down his neck.
Sneaking used to be a lot easier when he could see if he was being watched. Now, he'd make for one of the secret passage ways with as much speed and silence as possible after he heard something that could distract his keeper, something as simple as a plate being dropped or an argument between a pair of Imperial Firebenders was all he needed to slip away into shadows he could no longer see. Sometimes it worked but a lot of times a hand would close in on the collar of his tunic before he'd made it too far, tugging him back to a life of being handled.
His mother had gotten ridiculously protective since 'the incident.' Although he loved her, and enjoyed spending time with her in the past, her presence was quickly becoming suffocating. She didn't want him to do anything on his own and it grated on his seven-year-old pride. He started sneaking away from her too.
He had just rounded the corner away from his mother, who was chastising a maid for not setting everything in his room back exactly how it was left before cleaning, when he ran into his father, literally. At first, he didn't know it was his father and said a polite dismissal before trying to scurry away, vaguely noticing that the area where the candles and torches hung suddenly seemed warmer than a moment before, when his father's deep baritone called his name and made him freeze. Zuko had always been at least a little intimidated by his father. The man demanded respect with his presence alone, and could seem quite cold a lot of the time. Since 'the incident' Zuko had only heard his voice a handful of times in short interactions, and he was beginning to fear that his father was ashamed to have a cripple as a son.
"Your firebending practice will resume tomorrow, as will your other lessons. I expect you'll be working even harder now, considering the circumstances."
"Of course, Father," Zuko replied, bowing respectfully to where he thought his father's voice was coming from, and tried not to panic. How was he going to study history scrolls if he couldn't read? How was he going to learn firebending katas if he couldn't watch his instructor do them first? When his father didn't add anything more, Zuko took it as permission to leave, bowed again, and maneuvered down the corridor. He rushed into his room, and flopped onto his bed in a graceless heap, panicking about his studies. He didn't want to disappoint his father any further then he already had by losing his sight, and being unable to read certainly wasn't going to impress anyone.
He was breathing heavily with the force of his tumulus emotions, and at first didn't notice the way the room seemed to heat up and cool down in rhythm with his heaving gasps. After he started to calm down, his breathing becoming more even, he noticed the change, and instinctively turned his head in the direction of the heat source. He knew for a fact that a lit candle was always burning on the table on the left side of his bed now, although the light certainly wasn't for his benefit, not anymore. His mother had told him that over and over again so he wouldn't accidently knock it over and set himself on fire or something else mortally embarrassing.
Zuko took another deep breath, and felt the candle flair somewhere in his soul. He pictured the small flame in his minds eye, growing and shrinking. It was a moment of total awareness that he hadn't felt since he lost his vision. He took another breath, let it out, felt the candle respond, and smiled.
The next day, Zuko learned that firebending for blind kids was a lot of breathing exercises. When he'd suggested to his instructor that he work on the katas they started last time, the instructor nearly had a panic attack, said 'maybe next time' with absolutely no conviction, and suggested meditation instead. So Zuko went along with it, if only to spare the nervous instructor a heart attack, and tried to shove down his acute irritation at being babied.
After two hours of breathing, and it was ridiculous that there weren't even meditation candles to breathe with, Guard Xin led him to his history tutor. History for blind kids was a lot like history for everyone else, except the tutor read the scrolls out loud and made Zuko parrot them back, taxing his memory and his patience.
His calligraphy lesson was the worst. He couldn't see the paper, but overheard his instructor muttering about crooked characters and disgraceful brushwork. Zuko knew for a fact that he wasn't supposed to hear that, but he'd been hearing a lot more lately then he used to, so he pretended he didn't. His math lesson went better, but he was resining himself to a life of mental calculation.
It was late in the afternoon by the time Zuko made it back to his room and away from Guard Xin and his mother, both of whom had made plenty of appearances throughout the day. Another candle was burning brightly on his side table, and Zuko wasted no time in taking control of the flame again. What he'd been waiting to do all day. He regained that sense of knowing what the flame was doing, its size and shape, and felt a rush of relief he didn't know was coming. At least he could sense something more than sounds. If he got good at sensing flame, maybe he could convince his firbending instructor to start teaching him properly again.
Curiously, Zuko lifted his hand in a cup shape and breathed out, igniting a flame in his palm. He could feel the brush of heat against his hand, but he also felt it in that internal sense he was just starting to explore. He knew without seeing that it was small, so he sharpened his focus and put more power behind it, sensing the growth, and stopped before it got too big or out of his control. He split his focus between the candle and the flame in his hand, sensing the flicker of both, knowing about how far the candle was from his bed and how large the flame in his hand was.
Exploring his heat sense further, Zuko put out the fire in his hand with a quick clench of his palm and focused entirely on the candle. He hesitated for a moment, knowing that if he messed up he'd knock the candle over, but dismissed the hesitation. What kind of firebender feared a candle? Reaching his hand out, sensing the flame, Zuko took his thumb and forefinger, and pinched the wick, snuffing the candle out.
Zuko almost shouted for joy. He hadn't been able to reach for anything with that kind of accuracy in the four weeks since 'the incident.' It had been one long line of running into walls, knocking over pots of ink, and tripping over carpets. Being able to aim and touch something as delicate as a candlewick felt like a major success. Still holding the wick between two fingers, Zuko relit the candle, stood up and walked across the room. Exactly twelve paces from his bed was a wall, he'd counted, so he took eleven turned and focused on the fire, ready to do it again from a greater distance.
In the weeks that followed, Zuko put everything he had into developing his feel for fire. He could now locate every torch in every room and hallway in the palace easily. He could feel the heat they put off, even from across the room or down the corridor as if he was standing an inch from the fire itself. When someone walked by carrying a lantern or a candle, he knew it instantly, could feel the flame traveling down the hallway in the staccato rocking of walking. He was becoming less miserable with every small victory.
He wanted to push it further, find a more practical use for his ability, and he found it the first time he dodged Guard Xin's hand. Trying to sneak off again, Zuko was just about to turn a corner when he felt just the faintest whispering of heat coming from behind him, like an incredibly large, incredibly weak candle bearing down on him in rhythm to a man's footsteps. The hint of warmth went left and Zuko dodged right and for a second there was only a surprised intake of breath.
Now that Zuko was realizing what was going on, he focused his heat sense for all it was worth. For the first time, Zuko recognized how tall Guard Xin must be, for he felt the whisper of heat, nowhere near as hot as real flame, towering over him. Zuko continued to focus as Xin shook himself out of his shock and started reprimanding Zuko on escaping again, but Zuko wasn't paying attention to his words at all, too busy trying to establish the size and shape of the Guard he had never seen. When Guard Xin threw his arms up to emphasize his words, Zuko's face tilted up and followed the motion he could sense, and Xin's words cut off in surprise.
"Prince Zuko… can you see me?" he asked hesitantly after a moment of awkward silence and lowering his arms slowly, Zuko following the motion with the tilt of his head and attention.
"No," Zuko murmured distractedly, extending his sense down the hall, trying to find any other dim heat signatures. "Not like I used to." Zuko turned and walked away, and Xin didn't follow.
Prince Ozai was angry, which lately, wasn't an uncommon state for him. He'd barely seen his wife over the last month or so because she was busy chasing Zuko around. And he'd barely seen his son Zuko because he was avoiding him. Ursa had chastised him for it, saying he was going to create a rift in their 'father-son-relationship' but Ozai couldn't stand to look at the boy. Whenever he did, all he could see was his own failure to protect or avenge his family staring vacantly back at him. Those sightless golden eyes unnerved him, being the same eyes that looked back at him in the mirror; only his weren't scratched, scared and damaged.
Instead of comforting his son, which had never been one of Ozai's strong suits, he'd decided to exact vengeance against the dirt peasants who had dared attack his family and encourage Zuko to continue his studies. If a blind prince was useless, an uneducated prince was a complete waste of space, and that would benefit no one in the long run, least of all Zuko. What angered him the most was how very little progress he was making on his revenge front. All he'd managed to do was connect the assassins to some underground organization based out of Ba Sing Se. The information was useless considering Ozai's failure of a brother, General Iroh who had returned to the front about the same time Zuko had restarted his lessons, was only just now securing territory around the Earth Kingdom capital, and hasn't breached the Outer Wall at all.
So feeling uncharacteristically helpless, Ozai was avoiding his son. He knew for a fact Azula was as well. For a five year old, she was extremely proud, and she seemed uncomfortable with the gratitude and guilt getting saved by her brother had created in her. Ozai certainly wasn't going to encourage her to confront these feelings, and Ursa was too busy to make her. Instead, he'd focus on his revenge and maybe begin personally training Azula a bit. If an… accident were to occur on the battlefield and Ozai became first in line for the throne, Azula would become Crown Princess and heir to the throne, considering her brother's limitations. It would be unacceptable for his heir to fall to the wayside in light of his other heir's destruction at the hands of the dirt people. Azula would need to be strong, indomitable, and ruthless to protect herself from the lesser nations and their desperate gambits.
Ozai was just walking toward his study when he heard the quick tattoo of running footsteps; he stopped when he saw his son rounding the corner unattended. He was about to speak, announce himself so the boy wouldn't plow right into him again, when Zuko adjusted his course, sidestepping Ozai as if he could see him. His son didn't stop and bow to his father, so Ozai knew that Zuko didn't know who he was stepping around, but he did nod his head, so he definitely knew someone was there and the avoidance wasn't a fluke. "Zuko."
The boy nearly tripped in shock at his father's voice. He turned to Ozai, and his sightless eyes tilted towards his father's face, not quite making eye contact, before he bowed formally.
"How did you know to walk around me?" Ozai asked bluntly. Perhaps the boy had heard him breathing or the rustle of robes, he had stopped walking when Zuko entered the passage, so it wasn't footsteps that had alerted the boy.
"Firebending," he said as if that made any sense. The boy seemed to realize the failings of his explanation because he turned bright pink afterwards in embarrassment. "Er, I mean, uh, I can sense candles, and fire, and people are hot, not as hot as candles, but um, they put out heat, I think it might have something to do with the Inner Fire that Uncle likes to recite proverbs about, so, uh, I can sense people with firebending, like big, weak candles…"
Ozai raised his hand for silence and was pleasantly surprised when the boy stopped rambling, the tilt of his body and attention following the movement of the limb. Ozai enquired about his son's ability to tell people apart by sensing their Inner Fire. Zuko blinked a few times, as if the idea hadn't occurred to him.
"Well, I sort of just realized it with Guard Xin, so I haven't really had time to think about it." Zuko tilted his head inquisitively. "Although you're a lot hotter than Guard Xin, now that I think about it. Like brighter, but, uh, not normal bright like seeing, but bright like, uh, feeling." The boy seemed miserable trying to articulate something he didn't understand himself. Ozai decided to put him out of his misery.
"I want you to spend every free moment you have outside of lessons working on this heat sense of yours. If you can develop it to my satisfaction, I will personally start overseeing your firebending training." Ozai smirked when he saw the pure excitement bloom across his son's face. He knew for a fact that his son's firebending instruction had been reduced to remedial breathing exercises and meditation; Ursa would accept nothing else from the spineless Firebending Master hired to teach her son. Although, in the man's defense, Ursa could be terrifying when it came to her children, like a mother dragon.
Zuko agreed with another low bow and ran off again, presumably to work on his heat sense. Ozai smiled, perhaps his first heir wasn't as destroyed as initially thought.
Weeks turned to months, and Zuko put all his efforts into seeing with firebending. People reentered his world first, each person had their own Inner Fire, even nonbenders, and with practice he could distinguish one person's heat signature from another. His father was a pillar of heat and power, only eclipsed by the Fire Lord himself. His mother was soft warmth, like spring sunshine. His sister's Inner Fire was small, like her, but fierce and burned hotter then most, as if the power of a campfire had been compacted into a candle's flame.
After his accident, he didn't hear or sense Azula for a long time, and when he did, she didn't say much and certainly none of the teasing she used to revel in was there. However, as Zuko developed his heat sense further and started being able to activate more like a normal person, she seemed to regain her confidence. She was just as annoying and sharp as ever, but Zuko swore he could hear more affection in her voice then before he saved her, something neither of them brought up. On the plus side, being able to sense Inner Fire made it impossible for Azula to sneak up on him any more, something that clearly irritated her.
After people were brought back into his perception, food came next. Pieces of cooked meet were like embers presented on a plate before him, and rice was a pile of warmth to aim at. His chopsticks started striking true at his meals, something his etiquette teachers were extremely grateful for. If the food was served cold, like sliced fruit, Zuko would hover his hand over it briefly, heating it just enough to bring it into his perception.
Rooms draped in sunlight through an open window allowed the young prince to sense every piece of furniture warmed by Agni's rays. Large fireplaces could create a similar effect at night, but the prince didn't want to depend on external sources of heat. He was a firebender, he could create his own. At night he walked around like a living furnace, bringing everything around him into his perception by warming his surroundings. He could tell what was behind him as easily as what was in front of him, or to his sides.
The real challenge the prince was determined to conquer was reading. After a lot of anger, cursing, and scrolls burnt to ashes, Zuko managed to strike the delicate balance of warming what he was trying read without incinerating it. The parchment warmed faster than the ink, so Zuko felt the cold spots and determined their shape. Thus he regained the ability to read and could finally stop repeating the military triumphs of Sozin the Conqueror back to his history tutor, thank Agni for small miracles. His method for writing was the opposite of his one for reading. He warmed the ink before hand, and felt characters spring to life in his heat sense, his calligraphy regained it's beauty, and his calligraphy tutor started muttering to himself less.
When he reported his ability to read and write with firebending back to his father, and demonstrated the skill, Prince Ozai began to train his son and his daughter, who was proving herself to be a prodigy at her young age. Zuko had never learned as fast as he did under his father's tutelage. He suspected part of that was due to the fact that he was firebending constantly now to 'see.' It was all subtle bending and it all took rigorous control not to set his fruit or his scrolls on fire. He watched his fathers movements through his heat sense, felt the way true, burning heat bloomed from his fists and his feet and copied him. He could see the way heat left his father's center, the sea of chi and the warmest part of the body, to fill his usually cooler limbs with the same aggressive burn.
Azula had more raw power than him. It was hard to admit, but he was also more aware of it then anyone else was. He 'watched' the way that bright spot in her moved through her chi lines, warming every part of her in a way no one else's did. He consoled himself with the knowledge that he wasn't that much farther behind her, and they were both young, their power wasn't done developing yet. It also helped his ego that he had more control than her, which father had mentioned about as often as he mentioned that Azula was the more powerful of the two. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Zuko knew his father was trying to walk the thin line of creating competition between them without inciting a full out destructive rivalry.
Months turned to years. Ozai had dismissed Guard Xin when Zuko was eight and stopped running into things completely. It was around that same time that Ursa calmed down her constant overbearing worry, and Zuko started to seek her company again, only to relax with tea or the turtleducks, not to be coddled and protected. If Azula started to join them more than she did before 'the incident', that was her business.
By the time Zuko was ten, he could live just like any other ten year old. The cloud of irritation and depression was completely lifted. He could firebend just as well as any sighted kid, better than just about anyone his age, as was expected in Sozin's line. He could eat and read and he was working on sensing things with moonlight, as it was a dim reflection of sunlight. The results were very poor for that experiment, but he kept trying anyway. He was even learning to slip into the shadows again, as he did when he was a kid, the key being to walk toward the sensory deprivation.
Life was good, until Lu Ten died. Uncle Iroh was missing, the Siege on Ba Sing Se was broken, and the palace was in an uproar. In the midst of this, father had requested an audience with Fire Lord Azulon. The siblings answered history questions to demonstrate what they'd learned, and Zuko droned out the correct answer the way he did during those history lessons right after 'the incident,' when he had to recite scrolls and scrolls of information from memory. Zuko and Azula preformed before their grandfather, perfect mirrors of the same kata; if Azula's fireballs were larger or Zuko's movements more precise, no one seemed to notice. They finished with high kicks of flame and rejoined their parents. Zuko couldn't see his grandfather's face, but he was pretty sure Azulon was indifferent to the display; if the steady, almost board, crackle of flames around the throne was any indication.
Azulon sent Ursa, Zuko, and Azula out of the room, and Azula pulled her brother behind some curtains in the throne room instead of leaving. Zuko knew they were well hidden in the shadows, the heat from the throne was so muffled behind the curtains that Zuko considered putting out some heat of his own just to get a better read on his surroundings, but was distracted by his father and the Fire Lord.
He heard Azula's surprised intake of breath as their father made a bid for the throne. Zuko felt Azulon's anger before he started viciously tearing into Ozai. The fire around the throne sprung up with unimaginable power, heat spilt into the room, overwhelming Zuko's heat sense. He couldn't have run away if he wanted to, he couldn't sense anything but Azulon's raging flames. Instead, he fell back against the wall, putting his hand against stone to get some sort of bearing in the room.
"You would have me betray Iroh? After the loss of his only beloved son? No, I think Iroh has suffered enough, but your suffering has just begun! You, too, must learn the pain of losing your heir! If you wish to have any chance of ascending the throne, you will know that pain as well. Now, get out of my sight!" Azulon wasn't technically yelling but the power and strength of his voice was incontestable. Their father bowed low and left hurriedly. As the flames died down and a sense of his surroundings returned to Zuko, he made to copy his father, his sister right on his heels into one of the palace secret passageways.
The passage was completely dark, but Zuko produced enough heat to bring it into perspective while Azula brought a flame to life in her hand to light her way. They walked in heavy silence without a destination at first.
"So, which one of us is Dad's heir, technically?" Zuko asked eventually. It was a heavy question. Right after 'the incident' it was unspoken but understood that Azula was now Ozai's heir. Zuko couldn't read or do real firebending at the time, let alone fulfill the duties of a prince of the Fire Nation. But now he could. So, was he the heir again?
"It doesn't matter, dumdum. Dad's not killing either of us. It would put the royal line further in danger, Grandfather's stupid for suggesting it," Azula said with all of her usual confidence. Zuko, however, could hear a thin thread of unease under the bravado. He understood the hesitation. Dad wanted the throne more then anything, and Zuko was ashamed to say he wasn't sure if his father would be willing to go through his children to get it.
Ozai was struggling over the very same question of conscience. Could he do it? Kill one of his own children? He'd been training them both for years and the thought of having one disappear was… unpleasant. He imagined how devastated Ursa would be, his beautiful, sensitive wife. He knew she was weak, that she wouldn't see the logic in any decision he made that hurt one of her kids. He was loath to admit that some of that weakness may have been spilling over into himself. If he went through with it, which child would fall? Zuko was older, and in a normal situation would be the heir. But he was also crippled, would the people of the Fire Nation be willing to follow a cripple? Even one who had pushed the boundaries of firebending to turn his weakness into strength? A bright shining example that the dirt peasants and ice savages couldn't hope to dominate the will and strength of the Fire Nation? What if, instead of one of his children, he could kill someone else? Ozai smirked and went to go find Ursa. She would agree to any plan to save Zuko and Azula, even a treasonous one.
By the same time the next day, Azulon was burned, Ozai was Fire Lord, and both Zuko and Azula were safe. Ursa bowed before her husband, dressed in pristine white, with the rest of those assembled for the funeral and coronation, both of her children doing the same on her left. She was Fire Lady now, and a murderess, and she couldn't muster up an ounce of regret. Her children were safe, and she'd narrowly avoided being banished for her role as a king killer. After all, what Fire Lord could trust the woman who'd killed his predessessor? The one who held her children's loyalty in the palm of his hand. It helped that Ozai loved her.
Time passed, and Ursa watched her children grow. She watched Azula grow as a prodigious firebender, picking up katas with ease and performing them with skill and power. Zuko was always nipping at her heels, just a bit slower then his sister, but quick enough to force Azula to work harder to maintain her edge. Zuko worked as tirelessly to overcome that gap as he did to overcome his disability. She watched Zuko receive blushing gazes from Azula's friend Mai and watched her son blush in return whenever they would talk together. She watched Azula tease them both mercilessly over the development, and Ursa thought the whole thing was too adorable for words.
She watched her son play and study like a normal boy, and remembered a time when she was entrenched in the fear that she would never get to see him perform an advanced firebending kata, or play tag, or write letters by himself. Now his calligraphy was as good as an adults, he was undefeated in hide and seek because of his sense for Inner Fire, and Ozai was starting to hang lightning generation over both his children's heads if they practiced more.
Extra practice was what a thirteen-year-old Zuko was doing instead of attending a potentially damning war meeting. Zuko was working on his most recently learned set of firebending forms, hoping to bring them past his sister's level at their next training session with their father. As Fire Lord, Ozai couldn't train them as often as he used too, but he still made time every week, even if it was the only time he got to see his children.
Ursa watched as Iroh, who'd returned months after his father's funeral broken in spirit, made a request to continue the search for the Avatar. Ursa suspected the search was really going to be more of a retirement cruise, but she figured he'd earned it and Ozai was more then happy to grant the request and get his pathetic older brother out from under his feet. Ursa and Zuko saw Iroh off, wishing him safe and fruitful travels. Iroh made a comment about finding exotic tea, Zuko rolled unseeing eyes, and they both waited for the ship to disappear over the horizon. The ship was far out of Zuko's heat sense range by that point, but he took his mother's word for it.
Right before leaving, Iroh had recommended a Sword Master for Zuko, an old military acquaintance named Piandao. Zuko had disappeared to train for a few months while Azula was spending more time at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Zuko came back nearly a Master of dual dao blades, telling stories of how he had to prove to Master Piandao he could be taught without eyesight. He said it took a lot of focus to put out enough heat to warm the metal as it was flying for him, but he got the hang of it quickly enough not to get his head knocked off by a Master Swordsman. He said it was easier to sense the heat of his opponent to know where they were and how they were moving their arms and hands to predict where the blade was and listen for the whistle of disturbed air. Either way, he made it work and Ursa was proud of her son for over coming another obstacle.
Zuko and Mai begin a relationship at fourteen. Their fights, when they did pop up, were powerful examples of teen drama and angst. Ursa found them funny but was far too polite to laugh. Azula was not too polite to roll her eyes at her moody brother. Of course, neither sibling was pleased when Mai was dragged away against her will to the Earth Kingdom in light of her father's promotion to Governor of Omashu, just after Ty Lee had run away and joined the circus. Letters from Mai's mother indicated that the girl was so upset the only things that came out of her mouth were sighs or sarcasm. Ursa was still too polite to point out that that wasn't a huge difference from life in Caldera City. Ursa liked her son's girlfriend quite a bit, but she wasn't much of a conversationalist.
A few weeks before Mai's departure to the Earth Kingdom, reports started coming in about the reemergence of the long lost Avatar. General Iroh was in hot pursuit of him, as was recently promoted Commander Zhao. Ozai was so angry he was practically spitting fire, only in the privacy of their chambers, of course, a Fire Lord should never seem less than in control of himself. He was on the cusp of winning the war, and a twelve-year-old boy was putting it all at risk.
Ozai monitored the reports about the Avatar carefully, marveling at his brother's incompetence and the boy's evasive nature in equal measure. When Commander Zhao suggested a siege on the North Pole to simultaneously destroy one of the last strongholds against the Fire Nation and capture the Avatar, Fire Lord Ozai gave the man all the resources he needed, a promotion to Admiral, and a warning that if he fails, he better hope the Northern savages drown him.
At least in the chaos to come, the man managed to succeed in the last part. Reports coming in were confused and inconsistent, but several things were readily apparent. Iroh had betrayed their nation, the Avatar had escaped once more, and the Navy was in shambles. The only redeemable, if unbelievable, facts pulled out of the ruin were Zhao's death by a giant, water-made koi fish being controlled by the Avatar, and the death of the princess of the Northern Water Tribe, which sent their political structure to ruin, if only for a while. It was such a pathetically small consolation prize that Ozai chose not to think about it too much, just like he chose not to think of the idiot that claimed Princess Yue turned into the moon.
Ozai had to make a decision. He couldn't let Iroh run around as a traitor, giving away secrets, inspiring rebellions, and fighting against the Empire. He also couldn't risk the Avatar endangering his plans. If the Siege of the North had contained one lesson, it was the Avatar was too dangerous to leave alive. He had to die, and the sooner the better. Ozai felt a flare of inspiration.
Azula had been dropping hints for months that she wanted to enter the war actively, a chance to prove her considerable talents in a real life context. Ozai also knew that Zuko needed a chance to prove himself. He still hadn't decided on who his heir should be. The real sticking point always came down to Zuko's blindness. Would the people of the Fire Nation be able to put their faith in a damaged Fire Lord? Zuko needed to prove to his people that he was completely capable in a way that reading and a fancy firebending kata couldn't. He needed to take the field and he needed to accomplish something that would seriously benefit the Fire Nation. Ozai summoned both children to his throne room.
"Zhao is a failure, and your uncle is a traitor. I have an assignment for you two."