Full Summary: (Zutara) As the eclipse approaches, the aftershocks of the fall of Ba Sing Se reverberate throughout the world, changing mindsets and destinies.
Zuko is forced to confront his demons and examine the long-term impacts of his actions- now he must decide how to proceed. Iroh makes a bargain for his soul in an attempt to change someone's fate. Azula is about to discover that an alliance and a friendship are not always as easy to dominate and control as they seem. Aang's recovery forces the group to split as one party journeys to the Eastern Air Temple, while the other prepares for their attack on the Fire Nation during the eclipse. Katara lets her desire for revenge override her common sense, and she almost pays for it with her life.
Life's paths are infinite, and they wind about and intersect at random, giving second chances long after the traveler stops deserving them. Zuko's journey teaches him that who he is and what he can become are far more than he ever dreamed of.
A/N: Well, the interminable wait for Season Three has finally driven me to do it- I've given in to the insanity of writing my first Avatar fic. I've got unfinished HP fics (and likely their readers) glaring balefully at this, saying, "What are you doing! Go finish the story I was reading, you evil woman!" To them, I say: I am so, so sorry, but I haven't wanted to write anything at all for months now, so when an Avatar muse took root, I followed it happily.
"This is getting tiresome, don't you think? Just tell me where the Avatar is."
Katara glared at the occupant of the chair. "Like I'm going to do that," she snorted.
"I'd reconsider if I were you," came the soft reply. "This is the last time I'm going to ask you so nicely. Where are the rest of them? Where's the little Avatar?"
"He's dead," she said with a bitter laugh. "I came here to avenge that death. I don't know where the others are."
A hand waved from the chair and two burly men came forward with manacles and a length of chain. "He's not dead. The Fire Sages have confirmed that for me." The next words were as pleasant as if the two were friends. "Well, don't say I didn't try polite conversation. I guess some old-fashioned persuasion might be in order."
Braid flapping, Katara aimed a well-placed kick at one man and dodged the seeking hands of the other as she made a dash for the window, but she was propelled to the ground as the weight of a knee settled on her back. "I'm very creative," her assailant whispered in her ear. "I'm sure we'll find a method of loosening that tongue of yours."
Katara smiled grimly into the stone floor. "I'll die first," she whispered back.
"How does it feel to be welcomed home after all these years, brother?" Azula asked with a vicious smile. "Your charge of treason has been lifted. Father must have been rather pleased with you."
Zuko stood at the fireplace in his sister's sitting room, watching the flames and schooling his expression into one of implacable neutrality. "Father has not yet had time to speak with me," he replied evenly.
Azula gave a sharp laugh as she swept behind him to throw herself into a chair. "Really? That's terrible. When I go see him for our daily tea, I'll make sure to remind him," she said with a too-innocent smile as she studied him carefully.
Forcing his muscles to stay relaxed, Zuko turned to his sister, catching the predatory look in her eyes before she slipped on a mask of familial concern. "And that hair, Zuko," she said with a wave, "is rather… flattering. It makes you look more boyish. Slicing off your dragon tail must have made upkeep so much easier." She paused thoughtfully. "Unless, of course, it was to hide your shame," she added, her eyes flicking to his scar.
He shrugged. "It's hair, Azula," Zuko responded flatly, the corner of his mouth twitching slightly at her subtle barbs. Azula had mastered the courtly art of flattering insults and dagger-like compliments before she could write. "It's not the end of the world."
"Oh!" she gasped, tapping a finger against her cheek as if she had just remembered something important. "We nearly caught the Avatar, did I tell you?" The look in her eyes belied the sweet tone. "A shame he slipped through my fingers, but…" She trailed off, looking across the room with a malicious smile. "At least I have something to amuse me until he surfaces."
Zuko watched silently as Azula clenched her fists and sprang to her feet, the light of the flames sliding over her face and giving her a sinister quality that he privately thought was unnecessary. His sister was born sinister. "Taken up a hobby, have we?"
She turned her gaze from the far side of the room and gave him a distant smile. "Perfecting one, actually. Now, Zuko, I have things to do. Why don't you run off and be a good little prince."
Taking a calming breath, he nodded sharply. "As always, our visit was enlightening." Zuko looked at his sister out of the corner of his eye, but she was already disappearing into a door across the room. He sighed. Visiting his sister was like dancing with a snake- it required every ounce of self-control he had, yet he always seemed to leave with a little more of her poison coursing through his blood.
Zuko stared dully at the wall before sinking to his knees. Five days now- five days of no sleep, no rest from the constant torment of the memory of his uncle's accusing gaze sliding from Zuko's face.
The nightmares had only come once he'd returned to the Fire Nation palace. It was as if his demons had scouted ahead, allowing him time to breath easily and think himself safe before they tightened the noose around his neck. He'd woken with a scream and soaked in sweat the first night he was back in his old room, but he'd foolishly thought the dreams would pass. They did not.
Each night he drilled or read until his eyes sagged and his body screamed in exhaustion, but his mattress was no sanctuary. It offered only the nightmares that left him more exhausted than before he had lain down.
Lighting his meditation candles, Zuko studied the flames with detachment. The joy of fire no longer sang in his blood- it just bubbled in his stomach like a bad meal that wouldn't settle, and he acknowledged silently that he would surely succumb to madness soon if he didn't get some actual sleep. "If only I could," he sighed to the empty room. Meditation had become his only refuge, the one thing that allowed him a measure of calmness and let him relax enough for his body to gain some small amount of rest.
Arranging himself on his meditation mat, he closed his eyes and focused on feeling the flames of the candles before him. The measured breathing necessary for meditation came to him easily after so many years of perfecting this particular art.
In. Hold, two, three, four, five. Out.
Zuko tied his breathing to the five small flames, pulling their energy in on each inhale and returning it from his chi with each exhale.
In. Hold, two, three, four, five. Out.
He released his turmoil and concentrated on relaxing each muscle in turn, from his toes up to his face.
In. Hold, two, three, four, five. Out.
When his body had become relaxed and supple and his mind had quieted, Zuko thought, Who am I? What do I want?
Even the detached calm of a meditative state didn't provide a perfect window to his soul. The answers he searched for were elusive and cloaked in the shadows of self-doubt. No trance, no breathing, no set amount of time would mark this revelation, only true self-examination.
Who am I?
An early memory of his mother pulled him down through the empty darkness of his mind.
"Zuko, you will be a fine man someday. Your compassion is a mark of greatness."
He let the image wash over him, accepting it and examining it as objectively as possible. When it began to fade at the edges, he let it pass so that the next could swim up to replace it.
His sister toddled forward, just learning to walk, and tugged the hem of his tunic as he played with his toys.
"Zuzu, I too. I too!" When he handed her his wooden soldier, she smiled. "My Zuzu."
Uncle Iroh and Lu Ten admired him as he proudly showed off his first set of armor.
"You should be proud, Prince Zuko; you have earned the right to wear that armor through dedication and hard work. Those are very good traits to have."
His father studied him coldly.
"Prince Zuko, you have disgraced me, this family and yourself. You are banished from the royal family and the Fire Nation. Return without the Avatar upon pain of death."
Zuko stood at the stern of a ship with Uncle Iroh beside him and a heavy bandage covering his face.
"Time will help you better understand, Zuko. It may feel like the world is ending now, but things are not always as they seem."
He stood facing a huddled group of frightened women at the South Pole, his gut wrenching with elation and fear. Pulling the oldest of them forward threateningly, he held her as if he would make an example of her.
"Where is he? Where's the Avatar?"
Zhao faced him in the dimly-lit tent.
"You're nothing but a banished prince. No home, no throne, no honor."
He reined the stolen ostrich-horse around in front of his uncle.
"They're about to show us a little more kindness."
Jin sweetly pressed her lips to his own, sending a little electric shock singing around his mouth, and he returned the kiss -his first- without thinking.
He stared solemnly at the waterbender as she licked her lips nervously and raised a hand slowly to his scarred cheek.
"I don't know if it will work, but I could try."
He stumbled to his feet in the catacombs and saw his sister and the waterbender locked in battle. He ignited daggers in his hands and swung them out into whips so similar to the waterbender's favored move and lashed out, careful not to actually hit her body.
"I thought you had changed!"
The stench of charred flesh hung in the air as the waterbender clutched the Avatar's limp body and propelled them up and out of the cave. Even at a hundred paces, when her eyes caught his for the briefest moment, he could see the tears threatening to crash over her lashes and the anguished betrayal. When he blinked, the moment had passed, and he turned to face his now-unresisting uncle. The very same look was in his eyes as the waterbender's, and like her, he refused to hold Zuko's gaze.
"Well done, Zuko. Perhaps you're not a complete loss after all, brother."
He stood at the bow of the ship, his sister at his side, as the Fire Nation capital came into view.
"Beautiful, isn't it? Father will be delighted- I've conquered Ba Sing Se, gained the Dai Li's loyalty, captured our traitorous uncle and incapacitated the Avatar. Yes, he'll be pleased. Oh, and we can't forget you, can we? He's getting his son back, too."
His mother's face, pinched with worry, floated up again. She was wearing the same clothes as the last night he saw her, but she looked much older, careworn and prematurely aged.
"Never forget who you are, Zuko."
No image followed. No more voices floated through his mind, only a deafening silence that stretched interminably. Zuko opened his eyes and watched the candles' flames pulse gently. He thought about everything he had seen and a thousand more memories he had not.
I am Prince Zuko, rightful heir to the Fire Nation throne. I am Zuzu, a little boy that is afraid of the monster wearing the skin of my sister and afraid that the same bad blood courses through me. I am Li, a boy who's not afraid of a life of hard work and humble joys. I am the Blue Spirit, savior and thief. I am Junior, a sour, petty teenager.
I am good, compassionate and I defend those that need defending. I am bad, dishonest and capable of great cruelty to those that show me kindness. I am confused, afraid, and at conflict with myself and my warring desires. I covet the throne and the pleasures I think I am entitled to.
Zuko stood slowly, letting the blood flow back into his legs. He smiled as a feeling he had not known in weeks stole over him. Peace.
I am Zuko, and I am strong enough, determined enough, to finally choose my own path.
A/N: I am well aware that this prologue has no Zuko/Katara interaction whatsoever, but it was intentional. This story is a little more epic than I tend to write, so I've decided to let the prologue introduce several elements that weigh heavily in the fic: What Katara's reaction to Aang almost being killed would be, what the psychological impact of betraying Iroh would be on Zuko, and how the dynamics of Azula's relationship with her brother are likely far less cut and dried than they seem.
Do you like it? New fandom and all, so show me that you Avatar fans are as generous with the reviews as the HP fans. Next chapter up tomorrow!