Title: Airbender's Child
Disclaimer: I don't own anything in this story, in fact a lot of the dialogue will probably be cadged straight from the show itself, which means I own even less.
Summary: Zuko's father was always disappointed his son wasn't a good enough firebender. His mother was disappointed he was a firebender at all. AU.
Author's Notes: Those reading this prologue may recognise the setup of the Airbenders from my previous Avatar series, "Proposal", et al. That's because the situation with the Air Nomads was actually borrowed from this previously unposted bunny. I don't know how quickly this will go, certainly it will be scads slower than the last Avatar series I did. However, I wanted to toss the prologue out just to get things started.
This will be a series rewrite, Zutara (although that isn't my intended focus at this time), and I'm going to be giving you a lot of, "So the episode happened pretty much the same but there was an extra person there, just go with it," notes along the way. I'm really not feeling like an itemised redo of the whole series, because I've done it with single episodes in Buffy before, and it's just too big a project for me to wrap my head around.
I will now repeat, I honestly have no intention of doing this even one tenth as fast as I did the other series. So don't expect the next part any time at all soon.
There had been a few constants throughout Zuko's childhood. The first, was that his sisters were always better than him at anything that counted. The second, was that his uncle Iroh was the only adult that seemed to care for him, personally, rather than for what he was. The third was that both his parents only gave him any sort of approval or affection in front of an audience. What defined an audience was different for the two, but it remained a fact.
Prince Ozai, even before he ascended to the throne as Fire Lord, had always been publicly pleased with his son, as long as the boy was doing visibly better at his studies and bending than the other children his own age. Privately was another matter. In front of the family, he made sure to tell his son that the boy was inadequate because he was not a firebending prodigy like his sister. Better than average was not enough. He was supposed to be better than the average prodigy.
It never mattered when his sword instructors told his father that the young prince was a swordfighting prodigy, or that his history and calligraphy instructors declared him to have covered everything they had wished to teach him that year in the space of a few short months. All that mattered was that the boy's firebending, so important to the throne of the Fire Nation, fell below the level desired by his father.
Lady Ursa was another matter. She had taken command of her son at a young age, grooming him for a difficult task. She had terrified him as a very young child with tales of airbenders and how they had been massacred a hundred years before. It had been her insurance that he would never tell the secrets she told him to anyone.
She was an airbender.
A hundred years before, the Air Nomads had scattered, fleeing for their lives. The masters were lost, killed in the genocide. The temples were sacked and all that had been left were small, scattered pockets of untrained air benders, teaching themselves how to bend. Ursa was of the small community that hid amidst the Fire Nation's islands, born and raised to marry high in the Fire Nation elite and use that position to help hide and protect her people. She could misdirect orders, delay searches, send warnings to the other people of Air descent and find ways to protect them from the Fire Lord's searches and purges. The last had been a mere forty years before when a small community on the Earth Kingdom mainland had been incautious.
Ursa's first child by Ozai was reputed to have been stillborn, but she had managed to have the child spirited away before anyone realised the girl had been born an airbender. Zuko grew up knowing of his older sister, and knowing that he could never be as good a person as her, or as kind, gracious or skilled at anything, because he was a firebender, and thus his father's son. She was always kind to him in front of others, but once they were alone, the gloves would come off. He almost grew to hate those days she petted him and made much of him in front of Azula. It was a lie, and his younger sister hated him for taking away an affection that didn't exist from her.
Lady Ursa had often taken him with her, ostensibly to visit her family, but really it was to ensure that his father's indoctrination on the superiority of the element of fire had no chance to take hold against the words and history of horror told to the children of air. He learned there to control his flame to the point that he could create gusts of hot air.
He learned to bend it.
But he was a firebender, not an airbender, and there were things the other children could do that he could not. None of them knowing he was the Crown Prince, Zuko soon had a reputation among the air children as being Lee, the weakest, slowest, least-skilled bender of them all. They laughed at him, kept him from their games, and the only friend he ever found in the enclave was a single young sky bison heifer.
She had been born prematurely, was small for her age and wasn't expected to survive, so Zuko got the privilege of naming her. Against all odds, she thrived, and Zuko learned ways to sneak out of the palace to see his furry, only, friend who followed him back to the palace once she'd learnt to fly.
When Zuko was nine, his mother was forced to kill Fire Lord Azulon to keep the son she'd been grooming to be the next Fire Lord. She left him a letter, explaining everything, reminding him that it had not been done out of affection, but because there was a practical need for him to ascend the throne so as to help the Air Nomads regain their former glory.
For the next four years, he did what he could to fill the shoes of a woman skilled in political manoeuvring and in the trickery she'd needed to help her people. He was never as good as her, and the communications sent to him made sure that he knew that.
When he was thirteen, he talked his uncle into allowing him into the war room. It was a first step in gaining more responsibility, more access to the resources to help his mother's people. It was there he heard they were going to sacrifice a whole company for the sake of a victory that had no strategic significance whatsoever. He ignored his uncle's warning and spoke out against it.
His father demanded satisfaction for the disrespect his son had shown. Zuko agreed to the agni kai. When he saw his father striding out onto the floor, Zuko was trapped. To attack the Fire Lord was treason and worthy of banishment or even execution. To refuse the Fire Lord, especially on a matter of honour was a matter of treason as well. So he begged for mercy, much good it did him.
He was lying on his uncle's ship, which had just set off in search of the avatar, the only way he could ever return home, when the last letter from his mother arrived. The Nomads had been forced to flee their Fire Nation homes. She was disappointed in him. How could he jeopardise her and her people out of a desire to protect fire bending scum like himself? The banishment, she declared, was his own fault.
Heartbroken, and not wanting to be faced with hearing his uncle declare him a failure too, (something Zuko was sure was inevitable, since the man, no matter how compassionate he appeared, was a firebender) he crept off the ship at the next port, taking his swords and some advanced firebending technique scrolls with him. Outside of the small port city, he found his bison friend, Shuga, and hopped aboard her, hoping to find somewhere to live out his exile in peace.
He never knew his uncle searched for him for two years, desperately trying to find the boy he thought of as a second son. Even if he had known, he would still have preferred staying away, certain that he could only ever be a disappointment to everyone.
Over the years of his exile, he travelled, meeting people, learning tricks of firebending from itinerant performers who never used it to fight, and practicing his swordplay skills against anyone he could. Eventually, he and Shuga came to the Southern Air Temple.
This is where our story truly starts.