Chapter One: Trial by Fire
Burning. Pure flaming agony. It felt as though he were being held in the palms of Agni himself. The sensation lasted for what seemed like hours. Maybe even days. Then it passed, and his body cooled immensely.
Still feeling phantom pain of the blistering heat, the young man sat up, blinking as he took in his surroundings. Drapes of rich red silk hung around the bed as sheets of equal quality clung to him, damp from sweat. He threw them off in a hurry and rolled onto is stomach. He rested for a moment, panting, before willing himself the strength to get out of bed.
The dark haired boy stumbled over to a mirror and gave a strangled gasped at the sight. The scar. It was still there, angrily stretching across the left side of his face and reaching back to his ear. He reached up to feel the burnt skin, but it wasn't roughened or scaley. It was smooth and unblemished. Just as that of the Fire Prince should be.
"This doesn't make any sense." he mumbled to himself. The boy paused for a moment, realizing how much younger his voice sounded than he was used to. He quickly shook it off in favor of more severe worries. "Just how far back did the Avatar send me? I'm in the palace... but I still have the scar?" He trailed a hand over it once more. "No.. It's more like... my spirit remains scared, despite my choice.. Or because of it." With a frustrated sigh, the boy thought back to that moment..
"Are you quite proud of yourself?" an aged man's voice asked in a biting tone.
Zuko, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, snapped his golden eyes open, shooting up from the bed he had been uncomfortably resting in. The young man dropped into a firebending stance.
"Uncle, is that you?" he asked, peering into the darkness. It was somehow doubtful that Iroh escaped his imprisonment, having allowed himself to be captured after the Waterbender escaped with the Avatar's body. But who else could it be? He lit the palm of one hand with a small fire, allowing him to see the intruder in his living quarters of the former Earth King's palace.
Standing across from him with a scornful gaze was a bearded man bedecked in Fire Nation robes of older times, similar to those the Fire Sages wore. The sleeves were folded across the man's chest. Golden eyes very much like the prince's own pierced through the boy. A topknot of white hair rested on his head, secured by an antique, even regal looking headpiece.
Zuko had seen this man before. Brief flashes of his neglected childhood studies came to mind. But even more recently than that, came the vivid images of an ethereal figure emerging from locked metal doors as the now deceased Zhao and his men unleashed streams of fire from their hands. The flames had been ripped from the multiple benders' control with woeful and frightening ease, then hurled back against them. The incurring blaze had incinerated the chains holding Zuko to a pillar. Tugging free and fleeing from the temple and Zhao's clutches, the Fire Prince had caught a glimpse of the figure willing molten lava into the sky to do his bidding. This man was...
"Avatar Roku." Zuko breathed out, astonished, as the flame in his hand extinguished from shock. He quickly reignited the makeshift candle, backing away a few steps. "But the Avatar is.."
"Dead. I'm aware." the previous bridge between the mortal and spirit realms confirmed darkly. "Not at all thanks to your poor choice in actions." he muttered with burning sarcasm. Roku shook his head with a disappointed glint in his eyes that reminded Zuko painfully of his uncle. "I had thought you would be the one to redeem the Fire Nation after three generations of warring Fire Lords.. Clearly I was mistaken in believing you would not follow Sozin's misguided ambitions."
Anger began to well up inside Zuko, overwhelming the confusion he felt. "You've no right to judge me, Avatar!" he snapped, the fire in his hand erupting further. "I did what I had to!"
Roku's eyes were alight with fire as he stared at the boy in front of him. His glowering expression then softened into a smoldering sorrow. "The saddest part is, I know even you yourself do not believe that."
Zuko scowled miserably, but did not protest the claim. He turned his scarred face away from the Avatar. "Why are you here? What do you want from me?" he asked with quiet sullenness.
"Yes, I suppose it is best to get straight to the point; I've no idea how much time is left for me. The Avatar's existence is coming to a very painful end. When Avatar Aang was killed," Roku paused for a moment, sighing deeply for the boy he had failed so grievously, "the reincarnation cycle was broken. Now the souls of all the verged Avatars will slowly wither into nothingness. I can already feel my spirit begin to erode.."
Something dark and painful twisting in his chest, Zuko ground out, "And why should that matter to me!? I have.. I have everything I've always wanted.." he finished in an almost desperate whisper. His furious gaze set upon the ever composed Roku. "What are you to me!?" he demanded.
The robed man gave him a considering look. "I suppose you can refer to me as the greater source of your inner turmoil. Or at least one of them."
"What?" There was that word again. Turmoil. Uncle Iroh had said the same thing when he attempted, and subsequently failed, to generate lightning.
"I am the reason you cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of people; even those whom your nation wars against. The blood flowing within your veins is a conflict of wills: Sozin's ambitions and my own desires for balance in the world." Roku explained, watching as the boy's eyes widened. He offered a nod. "Your lineage is directly connected to both myself and Fire Lord Sozin. He was your father's grandfather. I, Avatar Roku, am your mother's grandfather. That, of course, makes you my-"
"Great-grandson." Zuko finished in an stunned voice.
So that was it. After all this time, he finally knew what plagued him. Why he had bothered to stand up for that Earth Kingdom urchin, when he could have just walked away. Why he had felt such shame for his Fire Nation heritage after that ordeal of rescuing and being rescued by the Avatar. Why he cared. It was all because Zuko had something that was unheard for the Crown Prince to have. Something his royal ancestry should not allow.
Zuko had a conscience. And he hated that.
"Why are you telling me this? What difference could it make now?" Zuko asked. "Have you come here to make me feel even more guilty for what I've done?"
Roku slowly shook his head. "That would be petty for a dying dead man. Now that the Avatar cycle is broken, the Fire Nation has truly won. The balance of the world will forever remain distorted. A drastic measure must be taken in order to change this. Something I would have preferred to avoid."
The Prince held his silence, waiting for his ancestor to just get to the point.
"I have watched you for some time, Prince Zuko." Roku informed. "My hopes were that you would help Aang restore balance to the world. I even requested that Iroh take special care to guide you, when he was in the Spirit World."
"Uncle has been to the Spirit World?" he questioned in surprise.
"Yes. After the death of his son, Lu Ten, I contacted Iroh and informed him of your lineage and the... intended destiny I believed you would choose." The verged Avatar shook his head again. "I can see now that my presumptions were folly."
Tightening his free hand into a fist, Zuko decided to ignore that remark. "Watching me, you say? When was this?"
Roku actually grinned a bit. The type of grin given when one knew something another didn't. "Despite the glowing eyes, one does not become blind when entering the Avatar State. In my temple, I could clearly see that you were Fire Nation, but chose to release you from your bindings as well. Did that not strike you as odd?"
Zuko blinked a few times. That certainly had never occurred to him. He had just assumed he caught a lucky break for once. Of course, being a master firebender, Roku would have been more than capable of freeing only the Avatar's allies, and leaving the banished prince detained.
Zuko snorted at himself contemptuously. "I suppose you should get in the long line of people I've disappointed."
"Then you admit this is not your desired outcome?" Roku inquired.
Golden eyes narrowed at the ground. "No, I.. It's not suppose to be this way. This can't be my destiny.."
Roku paused. To even consider such a thing was usually an exceedingly dangerous gamble, but what was left to lose? Quietly and with great purpose, he said, "There is a way, to right the wrongs of the past and cleanse our homeland of its sins, restoring balance to the world and honor to the Fire Nation. Hope is not yet lost."
"But how? What could possibly be done now that the Avatar is dead? What hope remains?"
"To bend the fabric of space and time is an ancient ability of the Avatar, only evoked once every several millennia, in the most dire of situations. Using the bond we share as descendant and ancestor, I can cast you back in time to your childhood." Roku explained calmly.
"Bend... time?" Zuko echoed in amazement. "You can do that..? Wait, if that's possible, then why not go back yourself and prevent the war from happening to begin with?"
Roku shook his head. "The Avatar is forever bond to a single reality, a single time line, and cannot travel outside its boundaries. Only select individuals the Avatar trusts can be sent back through time."
"You can trust me even after all I've done?" Zuko questioned.
"I can feel that you have come to accept the struggle within you for what it is. The person you have become is ready to take destiny into his own hands, and decide his own fate." Roku said. "What is your destiny, Prince Zuko? What is the path that you will choose?"
He had chosen to help the Avatar restore balance. He had chosen a destiny free from his father's influence. He had chosen the flame.
Zuko continued looking on at his reflection before hurriedly opening every drawer in the room. He shuffled trough the clothes but fund no site of his target. The knife he had gotten from Uncle Iroh was nowhere to be seen. It was then that several things struck Zuko. Not only was his father not the Fire Lord, but his mother would be there in the Fire Nation. He would finally get to see her again..
He shook his head angrily. No, no more being selfish. He'd done enough of that. This wasn't about him and his needs. Restoring honor and balance. Those were his duties now. This was about doing everything in his power to help the Avatar master the four elements and defeat his father.
But wait, would his father even become Fire Lord? Why wouldn't he; wasn't Lu Ten still going to die? Or could Zuko save him? What effect would all of that have?
Zuko sighed tiredly. He needed to focus and organize his thoughts. He needed to plan. But he had to calm down first. The prince stood and placed his hands on his head.
"One hot-squat. Two hot-squats. Three hot-squats..." Getting his blood pumping, Zuko's mind began to race.
The ultimate goal was to help the Avatar restore balance. But how to go about it? Well.. First the Avatar must master all four elements if he is to have any chance of defeating the Fire Lord before the legendary comet arrived. That included Azulon; even ancient, he was a firebending prodigy. Given his behavior, travel pattern, and progressive fighting style, the current Avatar... Aang... had stuck with the traditional cycle. Air, Water, Earth, Fire.
His early travels in search of the Avatar, beginning only days after banishment, started at each of the long forgotten Air Temples. From the various paintings and illustrations of Sky Bison, and the elderly Air Nomad's tattoos that emulated them, Zuko was able to discern that the blue arrows were the mark of a master. Therefore, Aang was already a master airbender. It was a good thing too, because there wouldn't be anyone to learn from. Aang was a master of the first element. And it showed.
Zuko couldn't completely hold a bitter feeling at bay with the thought; both from the idiocy of his royal ancestor, and the fact that the Avatar was so naturally gifted. Aang was like Azula in that regard. Looking back on it now, Aang had never attacked full force with his airbending. It always happened to be just as good as he needed in order to defend himself. He held back in every encounter, because Zuko was not foolish enough to believe that he was a master of his own element, fire.
That was something he would have to change; both his lack of mastery in firebending, and Aang's utter lack of self-preservation.
"Twenty hot-squats. Twenty-one hot-squats..."
Attempting to disregard thoughts of being surrounded by prodigies, he turned his focus to the next element.
Water. The Avatar had traveled to the North Pole in order to seek a master to train him. He had been delayed by a number of things, not the least of which was Zuko himself. Evidently one had been found, given the ass kicking he received from the waterbending peasant... Katara. Although, Zuko had noticed very little improvement or increase in application of waterbending into the Avatar's fighting. Curious..
Ideally, Zuko could bring a master waterbender to teach Aang at the South Pole, where he had been... released... or whatever had happened to reveal that bright light. It was isolated and the Fire Nation never bothered with the people after they removed all of the waterbenders. With the obvious exception of Katara. How could they have missed her, he wondered. Zuko would have to look into that...
But where would he find a master waterbender willing to follow him, a Prince of the Fire Nation, anywhere? He supposed there would be a few imprisoned, but they were likely rusty from years of lacking practice. Aang needed a teacher who knew what they were doing. Figures water would give him the most trouble. He'd think more on it later.
"Forty-seven hot-squats. Forty-eight hot-squats. Forty-nine hot-squats. Fifty hot-squats..."
Earth, the third element. The Avatar's earthbending teacher did a pretty damn good job, from what Zuko had seen and heard. Despite it being the opposite element to which he was born, Aang had taken to it well enough to out-bend several Dai Li agents, as well as numerous Earth King guards. His progress in that element was excellent enough that Zuko was adamant about not making changes that would affect who taught Aang. It was likely that blind earthbender girl who taught the Avatar, given the time she joined their group and the time Aang began hurling rocks.
Gah, had he ever heard her name..? Wait! Just before that godforsaken trip across the ocean to Ba Sing Se, he heard some other refugees, real ones, complaining about a rich snob with a seeing eye lemur snatching up four tickets with one passport, even though their Avatar disguise didn't cut it (Zuko had cringed upon the sight of the imposters). Someone named Bei Fong and something about a flying boar. Even though it was the right number of passengers for the Avatar's group, it was a long shot, considering they hadn't boarded the ship; Zuko would have seen them. But then again, the Avatar had lost his bison.. It was all he had to go on, and that had always been enough to get somewhere.
Besides, how many blind girls with seeing eye lemurs could there be?
"Seventy... hot-squats. Seventy-one... hot-squats..."
Lastly, he considered the final element. Fire. It would take a true master of the bending discipline to teach the Avatar to harness the inner flame. Iroh was a favorable choice, even though Zuko didn't fully appreciate the crucial lessons before. But when it came down to it, Zuko intended to be Aang's firebending master. It was the least he owed him after putting the monk through so much.
And by the way he was out of breath when nearing the hundredth hot-squat, he had a long way to go.
"Ninety-five hot-squats.. Ninety-six... hot-squats.." Zuko gasped for breath as he attempted to go the full distance. "Ninety-seven... hot...squats..."
"What are you doing, Zuzu?" a young voice asked from behind him.
Zuko paused the exercise as a dark scowl planted itself on his face. He turned to face her. Standing in the doorway with her hand resting against the wooden frame was the young girl of nine years who had grown up to conquer Ba Sing Se and slay the Avatar.
"They're called hot-squats. You may not have heard of them since you're so busy shooting fireballs at anything that crawls on all fours." he growled. "Now go away!"
Azula's golden eyes widened, and Zuko could actually see a flash of hurt in them before her expression narrowed. "Dumdum." she spat angrily before turning and storming off.
Zuko stood there, blinking as he felt his chest tighten painfully. Was he actually feeling guilty for what he had said to Azula? Why would he? She certainly never felt remorse for a single lie to him. She was the one who... who...
What? What had she done? Watched on with glee as his monster of a father incinerated a good portion of his face? Lied to him about that same father welcoming him home? Shot their uncle in the chest with a bolt of fire, causing a potentially fatal injury? The Azula he encountered after three years of banishment had done those things. But the Azula he had just snapped at had done none of that. This Azula was still a child. An evil little brat who was far too obsessed with burning stuff at every opportunity. But a child none the less.
It was... wrong, to take out his anger on her, he knew that much. This time, he would man up, and be a big brother for once. Maybe all Azula needed was a little positive influence in her life. After all, she had the same blood in her veins as he did, didn't she? The same struggle to do the right thing was beneath the surface of the cruel little girl, waiting like a keg of blasting jelly to be lit by just the right dilemma.
And she was his sister, after all, and despite the evils she committed at one time, he still cared for Azula. Which is what lead him to race down the hall after her.
"Wait!" he called out, latching onto her wrist. She whirled and fixed him with an angry look.
"Let go of me, Zuko!" she ordered, trying to wrangle out of his grasp. It seemed unusually strong, or was that just her?
"I.." He swallowed his pride, finding the taste not as bitter as it had been when begging in the Earth Kingdom streets. "I'm.. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that." He released her wrist and ducked his head a bit.
Azula stared at him quizzically for a moment before huffing. "I wasn't going to tell Mom." That was the only time Zuko apologized for anything to her.
"I know. Well I didn't know for sure but... that's beside the point. Look, I'm sorry, it's just... I'm jealous." Zuko admitted. "You're a firebending prodigy. It all comes so easily to you.. You'll be a master in just a few years."
Azula was visibly stricken by the confession. She could always tell that her older brother resented her natural talent, but it was satisfying to hear. The young girl quickly schooled her features and crossed her arms, idly drumming her fingers. "Yes, well, I suppose that's all true." she said in a lofty tone.
Zuko snorted, somehow finding her impertinence more amusing than infuriating. Perhaps it was because he had grown more patient in his travels. He shook his head. "It is. I didn't want to admit it because I felt... inferior." Zuko breathed deeply, happy to finally be strong enough to admit this. "But no matter how much of a brat I am about it, and no matter what I say, I want you to know that I'm proud you're my little sister."
When her brother reached forward, Azula tensed out of reflex. Her first instinct was to drop into an attacking stance of the more advanced forms her father had been drilling her on. Before she could do anything, Zuko's arms wrapped around her gently. It was too soft to be a submission hold...
The raven haired girl blinked as she realized what he was doing. "Um, Zuko, you're hugging me." she said candidly over his shoulder, as if he was clearly unaware of the absurdity his action held. He was sweaty, Azula realized. "Eww!" she exclaimed, pushing away from him.
"Ah, sorry." he apologized. "You're a little more formal than that." He offered his hand. "So, what do you say we try to get along? No more fighting?"
Azula considered his hand, raising a dark brow. "A truce, Zuzu? Well I was rather enjoying our sectarian conflict, but if you insist." She grasped his hand and shook it, smirking a little. "I suppose you must have finally realized the advantages to having me as an ally. Perhaps you do pay attention to your lessons after all."
"Gee, thanks. I try." he muttered. "You can uncross your fingers, by the way." His eyes were narrowed but he was smiling just a bit triumphantly.
Azula giggled mischievously, revealing that she did indeed have her free hand's fingers crossed. "Huh, you really are learning." she commended. "Anyway, mom sent me to get you for breakfast, lazybones."
"I wasn't being lazy! You saw me exercising!"
"Saw it? I can still smell it." She upturned her delicate little nose for emphasis.
Zuko gave a mock growl. "Whatever." He turned and began walking back to his room, effectively ending the game in her favor. He paused before reaching his chambers and quietly said, "I meant it though, Azula. I don't want to fight with you anymore. You're my little sister, so I'll look after you even if you don't need me to."
"Well I don't." she responded shortly. She, too, paused before exiting the hallway. "But.. I suppose it is kind of nice of you to say." Azula said in an equally hushed tone to her brother. She then left.
Zuko closed the door and dressed into his royal leisure clothes of a red tunic with gray sleeves and pants, complete with boots. He did his dark hair up into a topknot. It took a few tries, as he wasn't used to it all that much anymore, but he got it. He looked at himself in the mirror and figured there was nothing out of place. Except the spirit scar, but Azula hadn't seen it, so who would?
He soon found himself treading the palace grounds a bit. Zuko looked left and right, here and there. It seemed foreign, despite the fact that he spent most of his life there. But he was careful not to waist too much time dawdling, and quickly made his way over to his family's private dining room. Just around the corner, a soft humming filtered the air and lightened his spirit. Zuko angrily wiped away the prickling moisture gathering in his eyes. Tears, even of joy, would be a weakness he could not afford.
With a steadying breath, Zuko entered the well furnished room. Azula was at the table, stabbing her food tiresomely with chopsticks. Sitting just to his sister's left was the woman who had birthed the two of them. His mother. Ursa was humming a soft tune as she read a scroll of some kind. She then paused and looked over at her daughter.
"You know, dear, I don't think that ostrich-horse egg ever did anything to you." the raven haired woman noted with a soft laugh.
Azula stared at her mother for a moment before going back to her rhythmic stabbing. This elicited a sigh from the woman. Ursa looked over to her son, noticing his arrival, and smiled brightly. "Good morning, sleepyhead." she greeted warmly, standing and opening her arms. "Come give your mother a hug." The young boy happily agreed, burying his head into her stomach as she crouched down to wrap her arms around him. From his position, Zuko could see a faint tremor course through Azula's eyebrows, but she didn't look up from her plate. "Mama's boy" she mouthed with a frown.
That struck Zuko. She was clearly resentful of the close relationship he and his mother had. But that didn't make sense. All Azula ever wanted was her father's favor, and even now she already had it in spades. He had not forgotten how completely callous Azula had been at their mother's disappearance, just months from now.
Zuko's eyes narrowed slightly as he was released from Ursa's embrace, taking a seat at the table where his plate was already set. He wasn't sure what had caused it all, but he was certain it had something to Azulon's order to have him slain for some ridiculous reason. His mother must have intervened somehow and saved his life at the cost of her own.
He had a lot of things to change while he waited for the Avatar to awaken. Azula's attitude toward her family and life in general. Keeping his mother safe. And, of course, not dying was a priority.
And just at that moment, the largest obstacle in his path walked into the room with a pompous stride and flourish, golden eyes scanning over everything in room with exact possessiveness. In walked Prince Ozai of the Fire Nation, the husband of Princess Ursa and father of Zuko and Azula. The man who had burned and banished his only son for talking out of turn.
"Good morning, family."