Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's note: This is AU set during the first season, before "The Siege of the North." The genesis of this fic came about when I was listening to the soundtrack to "Wicked," in particular Glinda's song about how she "couldn't be happier" and how "Happy is what happens when all your dreams come true." It occurred to me that Zuko perhaps hadn't thought through what exactly was going to happen—and not happen—once he caught Aang and company and transported them back home, and that he might not be entirely prepared for the consequences. Warning: This fic is very dark, probably the darkest fic I've ever written, and the only one that I feel a little uncomfortable with. It contains character death and mutilation (though not graphically described). If those things bother you, probably this isn't the fic for you.
Thanks to LadyKate who betaed for me, even though this isn't her fandom.
Because getting your dreams,
It's strange but it seems
A little, well, complicated
There's a kind of a sort of cost
There's a couple of things get lost
There are bridges you cross
You didn't know you crossed
Until you crossed
And if that joy, that thrill
Doesn't thrill like you think it will,
Still with this perfect finale
The cheers and the ballyhoo
Who wouldn't be happier,
So, I couldn't be happier
Because 'happy' is what happens
When all your dreams come true
'Happy' is what happens
When your dreams come true….
—"Thank Goodness," Wicked
In Zuko's daydreams, capturing the Avatar had never been like this.
In his daydreams, the Avatar had been a mighty warrior, a formidable opponent at the height of his powers. Zuko had found him after a long and brilliantly executed search, and overcome him one on one, sometimes in a long and hard-fought battle, sometimes taking him by surprise; however it had been, he had always emerged triumphant and victorious with much honor gained, to the applause and acclaim of his loyal crew. He had transported the Avatar home and been met with cheering crowds on the docks, had ridden up the long processional way in triumph, and laid the bound and defeated foeman at the feet of his father proudly. Sometimes he delivered a long and impassioned speech on this occasion, telling all of his troubles and travails; sometimes it was a simple, "It's done, Father," as he knelt before the Fire Lord. The next part was always the same, however; Ozai had raised him to his feet, drawn him into a tight embrace, and told him, "Welcome home, my son and heir. I am so proud of you!" Even Azula had bowed before him, forced to realize at last that if Zuko could capture the Avatar, he was truly her superior in firebending. That was as far as he had ever dreamed. He had never thought any further than that—what for? Once he captured the Avatar, he could return home, and then he would live happily ever after.
In reality, the Avatar was a twelve-year-old kid named Aang who barely knew how to airbend. In reality, his crew were sullen and hostile, seeing their assignment to his boat and this wild goose chase as every bit as much of a humiliation as he did, hating him and resenting his orders; he could see it in their faces. In reality, if it hadn't been for his uncle who commanded the respect he lacked, it wasn't entirely impossible that he might have lost his life to an "accident" at sea before he even pulled out of port. The Avatar had not been found after a long and brilliantly executed search. He had been found on one of his uncle's periodic runs for more tea, through sheer dumb luck—as they were drawing near to shore to pull in, one of the sentries had spotted that huge flying bison, and they had seen the entire group curled up asleep on the beach. He had grabbed the whole group without so much as a blow being exchanged, even that weird animal of theirs.
I caught him. It's all going to come true. He'd held that thought in his heart nevertheless during the long journey home with Aang and Sokka and Katara locked in the prison hold. At last, it's all going to come true.
Uncle Iroh had taken him aside once or twice during that journey. "You know, Prince Zuko," he had told him seriously, "it's not too late to let them go…" Later, he would think he should have listened, but he hadn't. He had pushed his uncle away roughly.
"After all this trouble to capture them? Why on earth would I ever want to do something like that? No way!"
"Prince Zuko…." Iroh had looked at him steadily. "What do you think your father will do to them once you get back to the Fire Nation?"
"I don't care!" Zuko had shouted angrily. "I'm going home, Uncle. That's all that matters to me! Besides," he had added on an afterthought, "Father will listen to me, I know it. Once I show him that I've captured the Avatar—once I've proved my worth…." Iroh had simply looked at him, then turned away, shaking his head sadly.
The crowds at the docks had been just like his dream, although instead of cheering, they had simply looked on in silent curiosity as he had unloaded Aang and Katara and Sokka—caged, and with Aang's and Katara's hands bound behind their backs so that they could not bend. "Zuko!" Katara had shouted desperately. "What's going to happen to us!" He had ignored her. He had thought hazily that maybe after he had his throne back, perhaps maybe he and she could … something. Who wouldn't be impressed by the Fire Prince showing an interest in them? The thought of her seeing him resplendent in the glorious ceremonial robes of the heir to the throne gave him a strange thrill; he had found the idea occurring to him at odd moments throughout the long trip home.
There was no grand parade up the triumphal way—the parade would come after—just a mostly silent procession through the streets of the darkened Fire City. Iroh had ridden at his side, looking very grim. "What's wrong, uncle?" Zuko had asked. "You should be happy for me. Finally I'm home!" He had simply shaken his head and said nothing.
Before they had entered the palace, Iroh had pulled him aside. "This is the last chance, Prince Zuko. Do you really want to go through with this?"
"Quit now? Are you crazy?"
Iroh had sighed. "Very well, Zuko."
The meeting itself had been all he had imagined. It had almost been worth everything to see his sister Azula's utterly dumbfounded expression as he bowed before his father, indicating the cages containing Aang and his friends. In his dreams, his knees had not been shaking quite so much, and his mouth had not been dry, but he made the speech—a simple, "I've done it, Father. I've done as you commanded. I've captured the Avatar"—without choking, and then bowed, waiting for his father's verdict. And just as he had dreamed, his father had taken by the arms and raised him to his feet. "Well done, my son and heir. You have fulfilled the task I set you and redeemed your shame." No word about being proud of him, and no embrace, but it was close enough to Zuko's dreams that he had been transported; he had stood, dumbly savoring the moment, hoping it would last forever.
Until his father had pronounced his next words. Sentence on the Avatar: Blinding, amputation of hands and feet, and life imprisonment in the black cells beneath the palace. Sentence on Katara: Tongue cut out, to be sent to the fighting pits for firebending pupils to battle as part of their training on how to counter waterbenders. Sentence on Sokka: To be hanged in the Great Square the next day, body to be left there in perpetuity as a testament to the fate of all those—even the Avatar—who thought to defy the Fire Nation.
For a moment, he couldn't breathe. He had stared up at his father's face, set and implacable, at Azula, whose shock had turned to malicious pleasure, at Iroh, who had closed his eyes and lowered his head. I just wanted to capture them, was all he could think. I just wanted to go home, I never… He had turned to face Katara and Aang and Sokka, and the expressions they wore—shocked, hurt, maybe even betrayed—lodged themselves in his heart like a blade. Desperately he had swung back to his father.
"Father, please—don't do this, I—"
"Prince Zuko," the Fire Lord said harshly. "You have just this moment redeemed yourself in our eyes. I warn you—Do not be so quick to throw it away." His eyes had focused on the thick, ugly scarring around Zuko's left eye—the punishment he had incurred for speaking out the last time. "We were tolerant of your weakness once before. I can assure you, we will not be so tolerant a second time."
A second time. The expression on his father's face silenced Zuko more effectively than words—it was the same as he had worn at Zuko's Agni Kai, the same as when Zuko had flung himself before his father's feet, begging for mercy. His heart froze within him; he had lowered his head and turned away, too ashamed to watch as the guards came forward and took the Avatar and his friends away to await their punishment. Their shouts and outcries—"Zuko, are you going to let them do this to us? Zuko, help us, please!" Katara had shouted at him—burned hotter than fire.
His father had decreed that the sentences would be performed tomorrow, as the highlight of Zuko's triumphal parade. Zuko had gone straight to bed that night, crawling in and curling up under the covers. The thought that at least he had redeemed his shame—at least he had captured the Avatar—rang hollow in his mind. He had willed himself to sleep, hoping that maybe he would wake up the next day and find out that his father had changed his mind, or reversed his decision…
…only to be woken in the middle of the night by a rough shaking. "Open those pretty golden eyes, Zuzu! Don't you want to greet your own darling sister?"
Azula…. Zuko snapped awake quickly and scrambled back against the headboard, disoriented and unable to remember time or place. For a moment he thought that he was ten again. "A—Azula," he stammered. "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to come in my room without permission!"
Azula snapped a flare alight, and he saw her clearly, remembered that they were no longer children, that he was sixteen and she was fourteen. But her face was the same—it held the same, evil, gloating grin as it had that night so long ago, when she had woken him from sleep with the gleeful taunt, "Dad's going to kill you! Really, he is!"
"I came to offer you my personal congratulations, Zuzu," she taunted. "Congratulations on capturing the Avatar and redeeming your shame! Even though everyone's saying that you didn't really do it at all and it was really Uncle Iroh that deserves the credit."
"Uncle Iroh…? What…?" In his disoriented state, his mind couldn't make sense of what she was saying. "No, it was me. I captured…." He broke off, confused and uncertain.
Azula laughed. "And you think anyone really believes that? I must admit, that the idea that his royal tea-loving kookiness could take down the Avatar is hard for me to believe as well, except for the fact that as farfetched as that idea is, it's still less farfetched than the idea that little, pathetic Zuzu could do the same thing." She reached out and rapped him on the head with her knuckles in time with her words; he made a grab for her wrist, but she was too quick for him, as she always had been. "At least Uncle used to be a great general. You, on the other hand, are nothing but a screw-up and a failure. You have always been a screw-up and a failure, and you will always be a screw-up and a failure."
"No, I—" His thoughts were all disordered. He couldn't make sense of anything.
"Everyone's saying it," Azula said, turning her back to him and glancing back over her shoulder with a small smile. "All the nobles, the admirals, even Father. Father let you come back and restored your honor because he had given his word, but even he doesn't believe you actually did it, or that you're really worthy to be his heir again. He's just waiting for the next chance to exile you. He told me so himself."
"No…." Zuko's mind was faltering. "No, you're lying, you—"
"Everyone was talking about it at dinner tonight. Of course, poor Zuzu was sick in his room and missed the whole thing. All the admirals were taking bets on how long you'd last," she said, her smile widening into a grin. "Admiral Nicha has forty gold that Father will banish you again permanently by the end of the year. Of course, Admiral Zhao doesn't think that," she added, glancing back at him significantly. "Admiral Zhao thinks that Father's going to have you executed."
"You're sick, Azula! You're lying and you're sick!" Zuko insisted desperately.
She tipped her head and smiled. Those who did not know her would have thought it was a beautiful, angelic smile. It chilled Zuko to the bone. "I'm only trying to congratulate my special older brother," she said sweetly. "Anyway, you'd better get some sleep. You've got a big day coming up tomorrow, what with the parade and the maiming and the execution and all. I wonder if Father will let you do it yourself?" she asked innocently. As she saw his sick look, her smile grew wider. "Of course, if he were to offer you the chance and you were to tell him no, who knows what Father would think?" Her eyes were wide and ingenuous. "Pleasant dreams, Zuzu," she told him, reaching out to pat his scarred cheek insultingly; when he tried to dodge her, she added an even more humiliating tug on his topknot. "Just like old times, isn't it?"
After she left, Zuko rolled over onto his side, burying his head beneath the blanket. He never did get to sleep that night.
The servants had come to get him at dawn the next morning, to dress him in ceremonial regalia—though not the full regalia of the heir to the throne; his recoronation and confirmation as heir apparent would happen the day after that. In his dreams he had forgotten how cumbersome and constricting formal clothing was, and how long it took to put on. Zuko was sweating long before they had finished dressing him, and it felt as if iron bands were compressing his chest. By the time the flame ornament of the Royal Family was lowered into his topknot, he was wondering if he were going to pass out from the weight—that, or be sick. His guts were crawling. Cold sweat was running down his back as the servants led him down to the waiting palanquin.
The parade was exactly like his daydreams had been, with his litter carried high above the crowds on the shoulders of his bearers, soldiers and nobles marching before him—even Azula went before him, though she flashed a secret, taunting smile from her litter to his as she passed him to take her place in the procession—the processional way lined with cheering crowds. It was like his daydreams, but in his daydreams, he had never felt so ill. Aang, Katara and Sokka also preceded him, caged and bound; Sokka had the rope that would be his end strung around his neck, and Aang was lying on the floor as if dead. Katara turned to stare at him in all his finery as the cart passed him to take its place in the order; her blue eyes met his, like in his dreams, but in his dreams she had been impressed, wide-eyed, appreciative and admiring. Her look now spoke of begging, pleading for him to do something to save them.
Begging gets you nothing. He had learned that the hard way. He looked away.
This isn't going to happen, Zuko thought as the palanquin lurched under him, as the parade snaked its way down the processional boulevard. The cacophony of the crowd's cheers rang in his ears. Some miracle is going to happen, some catastrophe, some last-minute rescue, something. Something always happens with this group. Aang could always go into the Avatar state, he tried to reassure himself as they passed the two fire pillars at the entrance of the square. He had seen Aang in the Avatar state and it was nothing short of terrifying. He'll go into the Avatar state and he'll blow everyone away with airbending, or he'll call up an earth storm, or something to save them. As his litter was set down and he slowly followed his father up the steps of the high dais, with Azula at his side smirking, Zuko tried to hold onto that thought, tried to really make himself believe it. But when he watched Katara, Aang and Sokka being fastened into position down below—contrary to what Azula had said, Fire Lord Ozai did not suggest that Zuko perform the sentence himself, and Zuko supposed he should be grateful for small favors—he realized that wasn't going to happen. Someone, Admiral Zhao perhaps, had warned them; as Aang was carried limply from the cage, Azula whispered to Zuko, "They drugged him. Enough sleepflower to put down a war rhino. He probably won't even feel anything." Her voice made it clear she found that eventuality disappointing.
Sokka went first, a brave warrior to the end; standing tall and strong as the noose was tied to the scaffold. He stared, unafraid, up at the figure on the dais—Fire Lord Ozai; his blue eyes slid past Zuko as if the fire prince were unworthy of notice—and shouted a curse on Agni; then called down the wrath of Tui and La, the Moon and Ocean spirits, on the Fire Nation and its leaders. Then the lever was thrown and Zuko heard, or thought he heard, the snap of Sokka's neck breaking, ending his defiance. Katara was next. Her eyes held his, pleading, as she was bent over the block and the man with the firey blade stepped forward; she was seeing him in all his glory, robed and seated high in power as he had so often wished, but it was Zuko who could not meet her eyes. Her high, bubbling, wordless scream echoed in his ears, continued and continued to echo for long after she had been taken from the square. Last was Aang, and Azula hadn't been kidding about how much they had drugged him; he was as limp as if he were dead, and the guards manhandled him like a rag doll. He had to be tied into position, and hung from his bonds like a sack of rice. When the hot iron was applied and the smell of searing flesh filled the air, Aang grunted and twitched; that was all.
As what was left of the Avatar was carried away, insensible, Fire Lord Ozai rose to his feet and held up his hands. He raised the fires in the pits along the sides of the square, so that their garish light washed over the crowded, cheering square, and proclaimed, "As of this day, the threat the Avatar poses to the Fire Nation is ended. The might of the Fire Nation is unstoppable, and when Sozen's Comet returns, the rest of the world will see it too. We have achieved this triumph thanks to Prince Zuko, who tomorrow will be reconfirmed as my son and heir!" With a gesture, he had indicated that Zuko should rise and come forward. Zuko had done so, his legs trembling and stiff; the cheers of the crowd sounded like wild screaming. At his back, he could feel Azula's smirk like a knife. He had stood, dumbly, while his father praised his bravery and skill in hyperbolic and almost certainly meaningless terms and Sokka's body twisted slowly at the end of rope down below. It seemed like hours before he was finally permitted to sit back down.
Just to put the finishing touch on the day, when Zuko finally got back to the palace, before he could make his escape to his rooms and get out of his sweat-soaked ceremonial robes, he overheard one of the servants comment to another, "Hey, did you hear? General Iroh was supposed to be in the procession. Supposed to come after the royal bratling—since it was really his doing, they say, the capture of the Avatar."
"Really? Why wasn't he there?"
"Wouldn't have anything to do with it. Said the Fire Lord's sentence was wrong and dishonorable and there was no way he was going to participate."
"Wow, that Iroh—say what you will about him, but he's not afraid of anything."
Although tea was Iroh's preferred drink, his uncle was not immune to indulgence in sake; that night as soon as he could get away, Zuko broke into his uncle's private stash and abducted a bottle or five. He had never drunk sake before, and it made him cough and choke, but he downed them one after another, determined to drink enough to make himself pass out so that he wouldn't have to hear Katara's scream anymore, wouldn't dream of the Avatar lying limp and broken or of Sokka's brave end. So that he didn't have to hear the hollow words his father had spoken praising his bravery, or the gossip of the servants that it had all been Iroh's doing and he didn't really deserve to be back. Eventually he collapsed across his bed, sprawled half in, half out of his royal finery, to sink into a sodden darkness.
A gentle hand on his shoulder awakened him the next morning. "Prince Zuko," he heard his uncle's voice saying softly. "Prince Zuko, you need to wake up. The recoronation is in three hours and you have to start getting dressed."
Slowly and painfully, Zuko opened his eyes. The room swam into focus around him—the sun was horribly bright, searing his eyes painfully; his head was pounding, and when he tried to sit up, his guts rebelled and he almost threw up. "Uncle—I think I'm sick…."
"You're hung over, nephew," his uncle said quietly. "That's all." Zuko could barely make out his uncle's features against that bright light if he squinted; he couldn't read Iroh's expression. "If you wanted sake, you should have asked me for it. I would have given it to you."
"I'm sorry, Uncle," Zuko managed to reply, swamped afresh with guilt. "I—" Suddenly he broke off, swallowing hard. "I need to—"
Quickly, Iroh pulled Zuko to his feet and hauled him into the bathroom, holding him over the toilet. Zuko gripped the edge with his hands and threw up for what felt like an hour, shivering violently. Iroh gently put an arm around his nephew's shoulders, holding him and supporting him as he heaved. When it was over, Zuko rested his head on his arms, shaking, cold sweat running down his body.
"There, there," Iroh was murmuring kindly. "Is that better? Feeling better now?" No, Zuko wanted to tell him, he wasn't feeling better, and would never feel better again. Images haunted him, and the thought of having to endure the long and exhausting recoronation ceremony in his present state was unbearable.
"Uncle," he whispered, still trembling. He turned to look up at Iroh's wise face, dim and shadowed in the cold gray morning light.
"I'm here, nephew."
Zuko closed his eyes. "I feel bad," he whispered. "Can you help me?"
Iroh lowered his head. "No, nephew," he said. "I can't. Not this time." There was so much compassion in his uncle's voice that it almost brought tears to Zuko's eyes. Iroh gently squeezed his shoulder. "You need to get dressed, Prince Zuko," he told him. "Get dressed and get ready."
"Will you be there?"
"Yes," he promised him. "I'll be there."
The coronation ceremony was almost exactly as Zuko had seen it in his dreams. He was resplendent in the glorious red and black and gold silk vestments of the heir apparent, designed so as to resemble the flickering of fire. The most powerful nobles and greatest leaders of the Fire Nation were all present—there were many of the same people who had been present at his Agni Kai, come again to watch him reclaim his honor and birthright—and their gorgeous costuming shone like a sea of flames. Azula was there, kneeling on the dais below him; his return had demoted her from the status of heir apparent, and he thought she was not happy about it—although he never could be sure with Azula—but she was nevertheless on her best behavior; she glanced up at him as he ascended the steps past her, but her eyes were inscrutable and she did not smile. The Fire Priests stood above him, flanking Fire Lord Ozai, and he knelt before them to perform the rituals and speak the words they led him to say, demonstrating to the eyes of the entire Fire Nation that he was no longer banished, outcast, unworthy. That he had done the impossible. That he had captured the Avatar.
In his dreams, however, he had never imagined himself as so hung over that he could barely see straight. As he repeated the words the Fire Priests directed him to say, his voice sounded thin and strengthless in his ears. When the time came for him to light the succession flame, proving his firebending abilities in front of the entire court, he almost fumbled it; it took him three tries to get a flame strong enough to catch hold. He saw his father's mouth tighten with displeasure out of the corner of his eye, and he could almost hear the nobles whispering among themselves. Uncle Iroh was as good as his word; he was in the front row, watching, and the sympathy Zuko could see in his face helped a bit, but only a bit.
Fire Lord Ozai rose to his feet then, turning to address the court then, and he spoke words that Zuko had been longing to hear since the day of his firebending duel—longer, for as long as he could remember. He spoke words of pride and joy in his son; he said that Zuko had redeemed himself and accomplished the impossible. He praised Zuko to the stars, lauding his abilities in front of the assembled pride of the Fire Nation, proclaiming that Zuko had at last proven himself truly worthy to be the heir of fire, and that he would be so from that day forward. The words sounded sweet, very sweet—they would have been balm to Zuko's burned and scarred soul—only he could see the chilly gleam in his father's golden eyes as he spoke.
Father doesn't mean a word of that, he realized dully. He's just saying it because it's part of the ceremony. That's not what he really thinks at all. Everything seemed empty and hollow, and his heart filled with ashes. Zuko bowed his head, waiting for it to be over, to be over, to be over.
But even after the five-hour ceremony ended, and he rose from his knees with the Flame of the Heir Apparent shining in his topknot, Zuko still was not done. His father had arranged a great banquet, with Zuko taking pride of place in the high seat at Fire Lord Ozai's right hand. He sat there, feeling small and helpless in the shadow of his massive father, feeling uncomfortably exposed to the gaze of the entire royal court, feeling as if he were being offered up as a sacrifice. The food was excellent Fire Nation cuisine, but Zuko was so queasy—whether from remnants of the hangover, or from tension, he could not tell—that he could barely eat any of it, and what he did eat seemed oddly tasteless. His father didn't speak to him once beyond what was absolutely necessary the entire time, nor did he look at Zuko any more than he had to. Iroh was at the other end of the table, placed far from him; Zuko could not have felt more alone.
Throughout the banquet, people kept coming up to him and offering congratulations on his victory; people who had seen his humiliation years ago, people who were friends of the family, even people he barely knew. It seemed as if every single one of them said the same insincere stock phrases over and over again, about what a remarkable triumph it had been, how proud Ozai must be of his son, and how happy Zuko must be, how this must seem like a dream come true to him. Zuko had to make an attempt at a response, with his father sitting right there; he nodded, and repeated banal phrases, and forced himself to smile politely until he thought his teeth would crack. "Happy….? Yes, a dream fulfilled. Yes, it is a great triumph. Well, I never gave up hope. Well, it is a very great achievement—for the Fire Nation? Of course…." By the time the banquet was over and his father finally nodded at him to go, Zuko was so wrung out from trying to keep up the façade that he was actually physically sore; he felt as if every inch of his body had been beaten with clubs. As he dragged himself from the feasting hall, he caught the conversation of a group of nobles, still drinking at the table:
"You really think that snotnose kid managed to grab the Avatar?"
"Well, he certainly managed to grab all the credit for it, I'll tell you that much."
"With a veteran like Iroh around? No way. Iroh probably planned the whole thing right from the beginning, and that kid just stepped in and snatched the glory away. That's the way it looks to me."
"From what I hear he was just a no-good loser even before the old man banished him. His sister's the real one to watch in the family."
A month ago, Zuko would have stormed over there and challenged the entire group, taking them all on either one at a time or simultaneously. A month ago…when he was still a banished prince in disgrace, stuck on a tiny piece-of-crap boat with a crew of dregs and refuse fighting for his way home. A lot could change in a month. Now, as the Heir Apparent, who had been enthroned in honor in the heart of the Fire Nation capital, resplendent in the robes of his station with the Royal Flame shining from his topknot, Zuko turned and slunk from the hall.
When he finally got back to his room, sore and aching and wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep for a week, Azula was waiting for him. She was leaning up against the door, barring his way, her eyes gleaming.
"Azula…." Zuko jerked to a halt, surprise washing unpleasantly through his system. "What….what are you doing here?"
"I was concerned about you at dinner, brother dear," she said innocently. "You didn't seem to be quite the sparkly, cheerful self that I remembered. I wanted to make sure you were all right."
She smiled. Zuko took a wary step back. Azula had never been concerned about him a day in her life, and he saw no reason to believe that she had changed. He wasn't feeling up to fighting with her, and he knew from bitter, repeated experiences that she would only win anyway. The wild idea occurred to him of simply asking her to move.
"Azula, could you move?"
Azula's grin broadened. "Eventually."
"Azula, will you please move?" he tried again. "It—I'm tired," he fell back, "and I want to rest."
"Ah, poor little Zuzu," Azula taunted. "Did little Zuzu miss his naptime today?
"Azula, get out of the way!" His voice cracked, and he cursed himself, knowing that shouting at Azula would do no good at all, as it never had.
"I will," Azula said, putting her head on one side, "If you promise to tell your loving sister what's got you so down. Because I can tell you're down, big brother." She paused, seeming struck by a wild and wonderful idea. "Could it be," she asked, her eyes shining, "that you actually cared about the Avatar and his buddies?" She burst out laughing and clapped her hands delightedly. "That's it, isn't it? That's right! You're actually upset that that gang of peasant trash got what it deserved for standing in the way of Father and the Fire Nation!"
Zuko took another step backward, watching her uneasily. Azula had an ability to read people—well, an ability to read him—that Zuko had forgotten. "Mom always said you were sick," he mustered.
Azula laughed again. "Is that the best you can do, Zuzu? You didn't even bother to deny it." She calmed slightly, though her eyes were still bright with interest. "Why do you care, anyway? Do you feel you acted dishonorably?" She sneered the word, making it a mockery. "You always did have such strange ideas about honor. Well, maybe this will help: at the time you handed them over to Father, you had no honor anyway, so it wasn't really possible for you to behave dishonorably…."
"What would you know about honor?" Zuko snarled. "And I don't care. Get out of the way!"
"What would I know about honor?" Azula raised one eyebrow. "Well, I've never lost my honor, there is that. And of course you care—it's all over that ugly, messed-up face of yours, Zuzu. Though I'm sure I can't see why. They're just Water Tribe trash, barely worthy to exist in the same world as the sons and daughters of fire." She paused. "Father's going to kill them all in a few years anyway," she added carelessly, studying her long and polished nails. "He'll probably send me to do it, because he knows that I can get the job done. Especially after I tell him that you were concerned for those filthy peasants—and I will tell him," she added, cutting a grin in his direction.
Zuko stared at Azula, breathing hard. At that moment, all he could think of was Katara, the time he had captured her and tied her to a tree to get her to tell him where the Avatar was—how brave and defiant she had been, though she had been trapped between his men and a gang of cutthroat pirates after that waterbending scroll she had taken. He thought of Sokka, going to face his end with more dignity and nobility than most of the so-called "nobles" in the Fire Nation could have managed; of Aang, his courage and loyalty when Zuko had fought with him as the Blue Spirit. He carefully crushed back his anger—getting angry with Azula had always been and would always be a losing proposition for him. He drew a deep breath.
"Azula, will you please get out of the way? Please," he asked her in a low, perfectly level voice. If she didn't move this time, Zuko would leave and go spend the night on his uncle's couch. He was too tired and heartsick to stand there and take more of his sister's torment.
Azula looked him over, and her expression softened. "Answer me one thing, Zuko, and then I will." She moved a bit away from the door. The coy deceptiveness had gone from her features, leaving nothing but sympathetic sincerity behind. Zuko tensed. He knew that Azula was always at her most dangerous when she appeared most sincere. "Are you happy?"
"Are you happy?" She raised an eyebrow. "You've captured the Avatar, been restored to your throne and reclaimed your lost honor. This must be what you've been dreaming about since Father banished you. This is what you wanted, and now you've got what you wanted. Is it enough?" she asked quietly. "Are you happy?"
"Am I—" Zuko stared at her. "Of course!" he insisted. "You said it yourself—it's what I've been dreaming about for years! I couldn't be happier! That's practically the meaning of 'happy'—what happens when all your dreams come true…." Abruptly he ran out of steam and fell silent, thinking to himself numbly, Happy is what happens when all your dreams come true…. He swallowed hard, hoping Azula wouldn't see, knowing she would.
Azula smiled, a surprisingly genuine-looking smile. "That's all I wanted to know," she told him, and stepped away from the door. As she passed him, she gave him a pat on the scarred side of his face and another humiliating tug on his hair, and Zuko was so exhausted that he just stood there and let her. She turned and looked back over her shoulder. "Pleasant dreams, Zuzu," she said again, quietly, and then strutted off down the hallway, leaving Zuko to slink inside his room like a wounded animal crawling into its lair to die. The memory of Katara's scream followed him down into sleep.
The rest of it wasn't much better. Zuko came to realize that after a few months, though it was a year or two before it really sank in. He had wanted his life to get back to normal—had had a vague idea that once he had captured the Avatar, it would be as if everything were undone and his life would go back to the way it had been before his exile. It was difficult for him to acknowledge that that idea had been wrong. Too much had changed since he had been gone. Or perhaps nothing had, and it was only he who was different.
He was still scarred. He still bore the mark of his past shame on his face, for all to see, a constant reminder. It took him a while to realize that he had somehow been expecting that to change once he had captured the Avatar; even longer to come to grips with his pain and disappointment that it did not. Katara had healing ability, the pit masters had found; they were very pleased because it made her more valuable as a training fighter. He hadn't known that when he had captured her. But he didn't allow himself to think of that. There were a lot of things he didn't allow himself to think about.
Now that he was the Heir of Fire again, there was a parade of marriage partners before him, the daughters of prominent noblemen and women, many of whom had been Azula's contemporaries at the Fire Academy for Girls—sweet, poisonous, deadly women, with tongues like honey and eyes like flame. Zuko knew sooner or later his father would command him to take one or another of them in marriage, probably sooner than later. Azula, he observed peripherally, had to deal with no such parade of suitors, and understood perfectly well why: Azula didn't want to be bothered with them, and whatever Azula wanted, Azula always got. When it came time for her to marry, she would simply point to a man and say, "That one, Daddy," and the luckless man would become her husband for life—his. It was the only time Zuko had ever been glad to be her brother, so that he could be certain he would be spared that choosing. Anyway, it didn't matter. Zuko had come to understand his position well, and would take whichever of the poison blooms his father selected for him. They were all the same, and he didn't want any of them anyway. It was eyes like the ocean that he could not forget.
The ocean. That was another unpleasant surprise. He hadn't realized, during the years when he had been sailing the high ocean, searching fruitlessly for the Avatar, that he had been banished, disgraced, exiled—and free. Since nobody had believed he would find the Avatar, no one had cared where he went or what he did; he had been free to set his own course and pace, to choose his own direction of travel toward any port but home, to make his own decisions and conduct his own affairs. He had been the king of his little domain—a king in exile, but still a king. That was no longer the case, and now that his ship was gone and he was once more the Fire Prince, he saw clearly just how very much freedom he had had. As the Fire Prince, his life was tied to the court and court protocol; he was not his own master, but subservient to the intricate hierarchy of court relations, orbiting around the vast sun that was Fire Lord Ozai's favor. And Fire Prince he might once more be, but it was very clear to him right from the start that he did not have Fire Lord Ozai's favor and, likely, never would. In addition to which, though his transgression had been forgiven after a fashion, it had not been forgotten; his father expected him to toe a very short line.
His ship had been taken from him and replaced with a squadron; as the Fire Prince, he was entitled to an admiralty by right of birth. However, even here he was not his own master; Zhao, who had been promoted to Fleet Admiral, was the final authority for all naval matters. His word was law and Zuko was expected to abide by it. "But, I'm the heir," he had dared, once, to protest to his father after Zhao had countermanded his orders during the Siege of the Northern Water Tribe. "Zhao isn't Royal Family, and I thought—"
"You are the Heir. Now," his father had said chillingly, and Zuko had immediately fallen silent. "But Admiral Zhao has ten times your experience commanding marine battles, and he is Fleet Admiral. I expect you to obey him in all things just as you obey me. Son. You are not to challenge his orders, or to defy his authority. Ever." And that had been the end of that.
Adding to the humiliation and frustration of being sworn to obey a man who hated him was the fact that Azula had been given an entire battle line of ships for her very own, answerable to no one but Ozai himself, complete with a full complement of ground troops. While Zuko was packed off north under Zhao's close supervision to deal with mopping up the remnants of the defeated Northern Water Tribe, Azula had been sent to conduct the entire Eastern Earth Kingdom campaign singlehandedly, and was reportedly acquitting herself in her usual stellar fashion. Zuko had to hear about it whenever he dined with his father's court, which was whenever he was at home. There was open speculation at the royal court that Ozai had no confidence in Zuko's abilities, and was trying to build Azula into a strong enough position that she could hold the empire together herself when Zuko purportedly took the throne. Zuko told himself it didn't matter. He didn't care. He hated Azula anyway.
During the nights, he was still haunted by the sound of Katara's screams.
He had kept track of her and Aang—quietly, careful not to show any overt interest—throughout the years since his restoration to the throne. Aang was still in the dungeons under the palace, in one of the black cells, a solitary windowless metal-lined stone box six feet by six feet by six feet, barred with a heavy, reinforced iron door with a small slot at the base of it through which food was passed. About a year into his imprisonment, the guards had heard him screaming and shouting from behind the heavy door, begging to be let out, please, so that he could at least feel the sun again one last time before he died; they had ignored him of course, and eventually the screaming had given way to sobbing, which in turn had died to silence. The food passed into the cell continued to disappear each day, so the guards assumed he was still alive; other than that, no one could say, but it was generally believed that he had gone mad.
Sokka's bones still hung in the Fire Square, twisting slowly. Zuko passed them every time he rode up the processional way to the palace. Aang's glider had been taken to the palace and hung from the ceiling in the Great Hall, but Sokka had been allowed to "keep" his boomerang and machete; they had been nailed in pride of place to the gallows above his head. It was said that the skeleton and weapons would remain there until the Northern Water Tribe was completely finished; at that time, with both the Southern and the Northern tribes extinct, his bones and weaponry would be transferred to the Royal Fire Museum of New Ozai, an exhibit to all posterity of the vanquished folk of the Water Nation. But they never vanquished you, Zuko thought, gazing up at the bones. You showed more bravery at your death than…. He never could figure a way to finish that thought. Perhaps he was afraid to.
When Katara had first been assigned to the fighting pits, it had been expected that she would only survive a month or at most two—that was the life expectancy of most benders used for training. Instead, she had surprised everyone by showing a spirit, skill, and fury of almost unbelievable caliber. Her healing abilities helped some, but mostly she seemed to be driven by a cold rage and an utter refusal to lie down and die. Five years after she had been sent to the pits, she was still going strong. No other bender had ever made it that long, and only one—a blind earthbending girl—had come close. Zuko heard that the teachers and students in the pits had given Katara the soubriquet "the Widowmaker," meant literally, for she had racked up more killed and maimed than any other in the history of the fighting pits; to have survived a fight with the Widowmaker was a badge of honor. I did, Zuko thought distantly. Many times. But that had been years ago.
He had gone to watch her fight once, under the guise of reviewing the new crop of firebending students; he had watched from the royal box, high in the shadows, where she could not see him. The woman they brought into the arena bore little resemblance to the girl he had known so long ago. Her body was a mass of healed, half healed, and healing fire scars; one of those bright blue eyes was gone, and the remaining one was filled with a cold rage that gave him chills even at his distance. Now she moved with a catlike, deadly grace that reminded him of Azula, and when her wrists were unchained and her opponent was let into the water-filled ring, the display of bending prowess Katara unleashed was terrifying.
She's still beautiful, Zuko thought as she raised a mountain of ice behind her opponent, then smashed him backward with a wall of water, impaling him on it and thereby adding another notch to her tally; this one had lasted less than a minute. I don't know how it can be, but she's still beautiful. She hissed at the attendants who came in to drag her latest kill from the ring, laughing harshly as they struggled to melt him off the ice spikes; four firebenders were targeted on her, watching her closely, and even so the attendants were careful not to turn their backs on her even for a moment. She turned her back on them instead, the gaze of that single blue eye seeming to go unerringly up to the box where Zuko watched, supposedly hidden, and she had bared her teeth with a guttural snarl. Whether she had been able to tell he was there or not, Zuko had scrambled to his feet, and, staggering, made his way out of the box into the cool air outside the arena, where he had fallen to his knees, breathing hard. He had never found the courage to go back.
Zuko still dreamed now, at least, during the evenings and nights when he did not try to lull himself into stupor with sake—a remedy to which he found himself turning more frequently, it seemed, as the years went by. At first, his dreams had gone like this: as the Fire Prince (or sometimes the Fire Lord), he had gone to the dungeon where they were holding Aang and had commanded the gaolers to let the Avatar loose. He had done the same to the fighting pits where they were holding Katara. Of course the pit instructors and the gaolers both had agreed without question—was Zuko not the Fire Prince? Both Aang and Katara had been ecstatic and grateful to see him. He had conveyed them outside the city walls, then sat them both down and explained to them at great length why he had done what he had done, and that he had never meant for anyone to really get hurt, but that he had just wanted to go home. However, it was there that this dream began to fall apart, for they were supposed to give him their understanding at this point, and they did…or at least Aang did, crossing the stumps of his forearms on his chest and bowing till those empty eye sockets were hidden from view. But Katara said nothing, only hissed at him, and her single blue eye was cold with hate, and there was a space of empty air where Sokka should be. So after a while he had given up on trying to make that dream work.
Next, Zuko had dreamed this: that during his triumphal parade, as he had knelt on the high dais behind his father, and Aang, Katara and Sokka had been brought forth from their cages to meet the sentences his father had prepared for them, Zuko had gotten to his feet, and commanded, "Stop!" He dreamed that he had unleashed a storm of firebending, that his father, the fire priests, the guards had fallen before it, that he had severed the bonds that held the Avatar and his friends captive with a blast of flame. That he had descended the steps and taken them by the hands, and together they had run for the city gates, clearing the processional way of any obstacles with powerful bending moves. They had reached the gates….
….and this was where this dream started to fall apart, because always, waiting for them at the gates, he saw Azula, standing with her arms crossed, a cold smile on her lips, and malice in her eyes. Not even in his daydreams could Zuko ever believe that he could defeat Azula; she had pounded that lesson into his bones over and over again, so forcefully that he would remember it until the day he died. So in turn he had abandoned this dream as well.
His third dream was the best one, though; he had gone through it again and again, and there were no problems with it at all. In fact he had added to it and elaborated on it over the years, adding little touches and embellishments, so that each time it was different, but always good. It went like this: He dreamed that it was that day, so many years ago, when Uncle Iroh had made his tea run. He dreamed that as the ship drew near to the shore, his crewmen spotted the Avatar and his companions, asleep on the sand, but Zuko had ordered that they should be left alone. Sometimes the reason he gave was that the tides were too dangerous to try pulling the boat into shore; sometimes that they didn't have time or fuel to go after the Avatar at that moment, because they needed repairs. Sometimes the reason was, "Because I'm the captain. Are you disobeying me, soldier?" Sometimes the crewmen didn't see Aang and his friends at all; only Zuko saw, and that he successfully distracted the crewmen with commands, or false alarms, or a display of bending prowess, whatever came to mind. In any case, his ship passed Aang and his companions by, and left them to sleep peacefully on the sand.
Zuko dreamed that that night, as the boat docked in harbor or floated on the seas, he went down to the hold and silently took the cutter. Sometimes he told no one where he was going, but often he at least let Uncle Iroh know that he was leaving; he knew that Iroh wouldn't try to stop him, and he didn't want his uncle to worry. He always took his twin blades and the mask of the Blue Spirit, and slid the cutter down the gangplank in the wee hours of morning, unseen and unnoticed by any of his crew.
He navigated the cutter to land, usually as the first thread of dawn began to break along the horizon, landing it some distance away from the beach where he had seen Aang and the others; he scuttled it, or set it loose and adrift, so that the rest of his crew would have a difficult time figuring where he had gone and give him a larger headstart. Once he had done that, he tracked them patiently through the jungle wilderness, closing in steadily on their campsite. He always paused for a moment once he had found them, and simply listened to them talking; Katara was usually laughing at something, and often Aang and Sokka were teasing each other. After waiting for the right moment, he simply walked into the clearing and said something, usually, "Hi" unless he could think of something more witty.
They were almost always suspicious at first, to greater or lesser degrees depending on Zuko's mood at the time he was dreaming, but he was always able to win them over; he explained to them that he had given up the quest to capture the Avatar because he had come to the conclusion that he would never regain his throne that way, and that he had decided to join them. Katara usually was the first to be won over and frequently spoke up to defend him; sometimes it was Aang if Zuko felt like having Katara play a little hard-to-get. Sokka was often the last holdout; Zuko was able to win him over by a brilliant display of prowess with his twin blades, at which the Water Tribe warrior was naturally in awe. Zuko would offer to teach him, and Sokka would be eager to learn. He would also offer to be Aang's firebending teacher, and of course Aang would be excited and grateful to have such a prestigious instructor. The first day would end with them sharing a meal, sometimes one Zuko had cooked himself to show off his firebending skills but more often one that he and Katara had prepared together, him with his fire and her with her waterbending.
They traveled together and endured many dangers, dangers that gave Zuko frequent opportunities to show off his prowess with blade and flame. Often Katara would get into trouble at some point, and he would manage to pull off a thrilling rescue at the last moment, one of such bravery that she would clap her hands and smile and kiss him fiercely and he would know that he had won her heart. Their romance progressed as the journey progressed, and sometimes if he was very daring, he would take his courage in his hands and tell her how he had received his scar. (Sometimes she would have to woo him a little first.) Katara always wept when he told her the story of his Agni Kai, and declared that she thought he had been very heroic and done what he had to do; depending on how daring Zuko was feeling as he dreamt, he might ask her if she thought she could heal it; either that or she would simply offer to heal it for him. Her healing always worked perfectly. Sometimes Zuko thought that was the most wonderful part of this dream.
With him as Aang's firebending instructor, Aang of course became amazingly proficient in firebending in a very short time; often the Avatar ended up being able to show Zuko a few techniques too that he remembered from his infinite reincarnations so that Zuko improved his skills too (although not too many; Zuko always knew more than Aang did). In particular, Aang showed Zuko how to create Azula's blue flame, and how to summon the lightning that was her trademark. The end of the dream involved the four of them (sometimes five, if Zuko was feeling expansive and had Iroh join them at some point—when he did join them, Iroh was always very proud of Zuko and warmly approving of his relationship with Katara) returning to the Fire Nation to confront his father; an enraged Aang usually entered the Avatar state at some point and simply smashed their way into the city. Azula was there, but she fell to Aang in the Avatar state, or sometimes to the four of them together, if Zuko was feeling really farfetched that day; and then it would be time for Zuko to confront his father, one on one, in a new Agni Kai. This time he would use the tricks Aang had showed him to defend himself with, and in addition he had friends behind him to fight on his side if he fell. His father would bow before him and admit defeat, acknowledging that Zuko was a far greater firebender than he was, and Zuko would sternly send him into exile, never to return. With Azula dead and his father gone, Zuko would then be free to take his rightful place on the throne, with Katara by his side as Fire Lady. His first decree would be a gift to his wife: an ending of the war against the Water Tribe, and a cessation of all hostilities throughout the empire. And they all lived happily ever after.
That was his dream. And on the cold, dark days when he had to swallow his pride and bear Admiral Zhao's insults and humiliations tamely, the evenings when he had to suffer through court dinners and listen to his father praise his sister's latest success to the skies, as he sat listening to the sweet venomous tongue of the latest Fire Nation lady seeking his favor—or, more likely, his father's through him—or when he heard the court speculating about how his father would arrange to have him shunted to the side when Azula came back from the Earth Kingdom, Zuko would close his eyes. He would look away from the grim and bitter present, the cold and miserable future that stretched before him for as far as his eyes could see; he would find the daydream, and lose himself in it, surrounding himself with the friends he never had in life, wishing he would never have to come back. Then, at last, when he had shut out the world and was wandering the bright dream he had made for himself, he was finally almost happy.