It was unbelievable.
In all of his thirteen years, he hadn't felt pain like this. Not even when, as her idea of a joke, Azula had thrust his hand into the cooking fire and held it there until he screamed at her to stop (and even then, she had only stopped because the cook was coming back).
Compared to the pain he was feeling now, he yearned for that pain to replace it. At least back then he could still think, still feel, still focus on anything else.
He wasn't sure of how long he lay, unfeeling to the world, wrapped in the blanket of bloodred agony. He wasn't sure if he made any sounds during this time, what kind of treatment he had had, or if anyone had stayed by his side during this time.
At times, he wasn't even sure of his name.
But Zuko was of strong stock, of strong ancestors, and was also the prince. He got the best care, the best treatment, and eventually, he did come around.
When he woke up the first time, his world was only outlined with that bloodred pain. He felt it all over, but he mostly felt it where it had centred: the left side of his head.
Slowly, with a shaking hand, Zuko reached up and touched his face. His fingertips met with something soft and thick. Bandages, he thought with a sudden wave of nausea.
Carefully, slowly, he opened his eyes.
And was met with pain and resistance. His right eye stayed open, but his left would not respond, and he was met with darkness. He felt himself shake harder. With tentative fingers, he reached up higher, and realised that his eye was covered as well.
No, he thought, his right eye stinging, his stomach clenching. No, nonono...
The sound of his retching and sobbing caught the attention of the attending healer, who quickly grabbed onto his slender shoulders and held up upright. The healer held a small, metal dish for him to vomit into, but it was only dry heaves and a bit of bile; he had nothing left inside of him to bring up.
Suddenly furious, Zuko shoved the healer away from him. "What's wrong with me?" he demanded, his voice cracking. "Why can't I see properly?"
The healer winced, then looked down. He said nothing, which added to Zuko's fury. He clenched his fists and got to his feet. "What's wrong with my eye?!" he shouted, sparks of flame erupting from his fists.
The healer looked up and didn't move, and a split second later, Zuko understood why. A wave of dizziness and nausea crashed into him, and he swayed, his hands going to his head. Gently, the healer eased him back onto the cot and lay him down.
To his shame, he felt his good eye overflow, and he gritted his teeth and shut it, turning away. He couldn't help it; he felt humiliated, and frustrated, and above all, he was confused, so very confused...
"You were badly burned, Prince Zuko," the healer finally said. He reached to the side table and, with practised hands, dipped a cloth into a small cup of water, wrung it out, and placed it on the prince's sweating brow. "The entire left side of your face was terribly injured."
Zuko kept his eye closed, not wanting to see the healer's face. It eased his sense of shame. "And?"
"And," the healer agreed, "it's needless to say that you will have a scar."
Zuko swallowed hard, but nodded. He would have been stupid to assume that such a fierce fire would leave him unscathed. "And my eye?" he prodded, his voice hoarse.
"Will heal, but it will be damaged."
Zuko shot up, his hands grabbing the font of the healer's robes furiously. "What do you mean, damaged?" he snapped. "Am I going to lose my sight?"
The healer paled. "No," he reassured him. "But it will be imperfect, and it will always be a struggle to focus from that eye."
Zuko let go of the man's robes, feeling dizzy and sick again, partnered with a sense of bewilderment. "I...I won't be able to firebend anymore, will I?"
"You will," the healer answered, helping Zuko lie down again, "but you must come to terms with the fact that it may be limited, and hindered by your weakened sight."
Zuko curled up on his side, his back to the healer. "Go away," he snapped.
The healer hesitated. "Do you need anything else from me, Prince?"
"No! Get out!"
The healer bowed, and made his exit. Zuko waited until he was sure he was alone, before he curled up into a tighter ball. He reached up to tangle his fingers into his hair, only to find bandage and skin meet them. He shivered; most of his hair had been burned away.
"Why, father," he murmured, ashamed of the sound of his voice: it was akin to a baby animal's mewl. "Why would you do this to me, your own son?"
His good eye burned, and he let the tears come.
Much later, Zuko had a visitor. After his mother had disappeared and Ozai was crowned the Fire Lord, his uncle became closer to him than anyone else in his family. It was Iroh that offered the most advice, and it was Iroh who helped him through the daily responsibilities of the day.
And it was Iroh who had tried to warn him of the dangers of speaking up during the war council.
Because he was well aware of this, Zuko was somewhat hesitant to see, much less speak, to his uncle. It was difficult to face Iroh, to be faced with a possible "I told you so" scenario, which would not only shame him further, but exacerbate the shame he already felt.
But Iroh surprised him. He sat down on the cot next to Zuko, who had his back to him, and placed a hand on the top of his head, on a spot that was now bald from the fire that had scorched him. The hand was warm, and he wanted to cry again, but didn't.
"You paid a terrible price, my nephew," Iroh said gently, his voice thick. Zuko stiffened, but said nothing, the words of protest and defence clogging up in his throat. Who was he kidding? Out of everyone, Iroh was the one that saw through him the most.
"What did the healer say?" his uncle continued. "Will you lose your eye?"
Zuko turned around slowly, still feeling woozy and lethargic from his ordeal and the medication they were giving him. He looked up at his uncle, expecting to see his own shame, or pity, reflected in those wise eyes, but instead, he saw sadness, a deep and fathomless sadness. As he got comfortable on his injured side, Iroh moved his hand away from his head, but placed it on his shoulder instead.
"No," Zuko said finally, in a whisper. "I won't lose my eye. But it might be damaged forever."
"You're lucky," Iroh answered, his eyes flashing beneath iron-grey brows. "He could have burned away the flesh from your bones. You know that."
Zuko felt a wave of fury and hurt rush up in him. He sat up and slapped Iroh's hand away. "How was I to know that my own father would attack me?" he shouted. "How was I to know that I would even had to face him? I was right, uncle!" And here, his eye stung, and his palms grew hot, but he didn't turn away. "I was right! It is wrong to use men that way! It is! I'm not wrong!"
Iroh sat, unmoving, not reacting, while Zuko shouted. Zuko struggled to maintain control of himself, and slowly, trembling and covered in sweat, he lay back down, shutting his eye. "I was right," he whispered.
"Yes," Iroh answered, his voice hard. He opened his eye again, and saw that Iroh was looking away. "Of course you were right, but that's not the point. The plan was set, and you countered one of your father's own hand-picked men, in a council of his own initiation. You were walking into a den of predators, and you were merely prey."
Zuko gritted his teeth, but said nothing. Iroh sighed, and suddenly, he looked ancient, right before Zuko's eyes.
"There is something else," Iroh continued, his eyes moving back to meet Zuko's gaze. "Something you must know."
He felt it then; that ominous, unearthly feeling that he had only experience once before, right before his mother disappeared and his grandfather was found dead. His entire world was going to change, and all that he knew would be swept from under his feet.
"Once you heal, you must leave," Iroh said finally. "Your father...my brother..." he sighed again, deeper this time. "The Fire Lord has decided that, because you spoke against him, you are not loyal to him, or to the Fire Nation. To prove yourself to him, you are to leave, and not return until you have completed a task he has set for you."
Zuko froze, his heart feeling like it was set in sudden ice. His eye widened, and his fists grabbed the thin sheet beneath him so tightly it smoked. Trembling, he murmured, "I have to go away?"
"As soon as you are able to walk without help," Iroh answered, "you are to set out."
"Set out," Zuko echoed, his voice small. Beneath his hands, the sheet continued to smoke. "Away."
And then, quite suddenly, the sheet was set ablaze. With a shout, Zuko sprang to his feet, grabbed the burning sheet, and threw it as hard as he could across the room. It barely missed his uncle before crashing into the washing station.
Zuko stood there, gasping for breath, his fists ignited. He turned to his uncle. "You mean I'm banished?" he demanded, his voice cracking on the last word. "My father has banished me?"
Iroh swallowed. While well aware and used to his nephew's rages, this was a fury that he had never seen; it was raw, physical, unthinking...and akin to his brother's.
But there was no reason to mince words. "Yes," Iroh admitted.
Zuko uttered another shout, reaching up with both hands, unthinking, in order to tug at hair that was no longer there. He yelped when his hot hands touched burned flesh, which seemed to further his rage, and he swung around, slamming his fists onto the wall. The plaster singed and cracked, and sported two new indentations the size of his fists, but it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. He could destroy the entire infirmary and it would never be enough.
Banished, he thought, for being right...for trying to do the right thing...for trying to prove that I knew how to think, how to plan! Banished!
He had no idea how long he stood that way, his fists on the wall, his head lowered, but when he felt Iroh's hand on his forearm, he knew it must have been a while. He slumped, suddenly feeling old, and submitted to Iroh putting him back on the cot.
There was a long, strained silence.
Then, softly, Zuko said, "Where am I to go?"
Iroh winced inwardly. "You are to look for the Avatar."
Zuko stared at him, unbelieving. "The Avatar," he echoed. "The very one that has been missing for decades?"
"The Fire Lord seems to think that he must be out there somewhere, an old man and rather learned, just waiting to spring out and get a jump-start on the Fire Nation," Iroh explained.
"But, that's impossible," Zuko managed to force out. His heart was racing, feeling squeezed within his breast, like someone was trying to make it burst. "No one has ever been able to find the Avatar. Not in almost a hundred years!"
Iroh turned to him, his eyes grave. "Zuko," he said softly but firmly. "You need to do this. Otherwise, you will never be able to come home."
Zuko felt his palms itch, but he fought it.
"I'm sure if you manage to find proof that the Avatar is long dead and has not been reincarnated once more, that it will be enough for my brother," Iroh reasoned. "And you will not be alone."
Zuko curled up tighter, shivering, but not from cold. "I feel alone," he admitted, his voice small.
Iroh reached over and placed his big hand on the top of Zuko's head once more. "You are not. I talked to the Fire Lord, and he has agreed that I am to come with you."
Zuko looked up, his heart leaping. "You are?"
Iroh smiled widely. "With my geographical knowledge and your thirst for life, there's no doubt in my mind that we will succeed in this mission, no matter the circumstances that have placed us within them."
Zuko closed his eyes. He felt incredibly tiny all of a sudden. Tiny, and hated. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as you are well. Your father has generously allowed us use of one of his ships. It's....a little older than those ships still in use of the navy, but it should do us just fine."
"I'm sure it will," Zuko answered flatly, his heart no where near the task he had just been forced into. He didn't think he could ever feel any kind of enthusiasm for this, knowing what it was tainted with.
Iroh knew that Zuko was fading into sleep again. He gently patted him on the head, stood up, and turned to leave.
He stopped and turned. Zuko's one eye, darkened with fatigue and narrowed with pain, was focused on him. "Will he ever see me? See me as his son, and not his burden?"
Iroh wished he knew what to say. He knew that saying what Zuko wanted to hear would be folly, but to crush his spirits would rob the young man of his will to live.
Finally, he said, "We can never know for sure unless we try, and try with fire in our hearts, and passion as our guide."
Zuko's eye wavered, but he nodded slowly. He looked very small, and very young in that moment.
"Rest now," Iroh said gently. "I will visit you when you wake up later."
Zuko turned on his other side and waited until the door clicked shut. Then he hunkered down, curled up, and closed his eye, surrendering to sleep and exhaustion.
Looking back, so many years later, on those agonising few days curled up and a slave to his own pain, he would remember the fury and the sadness he had felt in learning that his life had changed forever once more. Looking back, upon his throne, it was easy to see that alot of his pain was due to the one man he had only wanted to please.
It was much later in his life that the only way to please his father was to be in pain, or to cause it.
And he would have never known the truth if he hadn't of spoken against the madness within the war council.
It was unbelievable, how much could change in one moment. But if given the chance, Zuko would have done it again. And again.
The pain, the rage, the fury and confusion...and the mark of his determination to speak up against injustice, was what made him who he was.
The journey began for Zuko the moment he spoke up in the war council. While it cost him dearly, it set him on a path that would wind in spirals and circles throughout the world, including in and out of the Avatar's life. After three years of false hope, false leads, and constant forays into danger and boredom, Zuko finally found what he was forced to find, only to discovered that merely finding the Avatar would force dozens of forks to open up in his life's path.